Gramsci, Laclau, Mouffe (and Bhaskar)

Howie Chodos howie at
Wed Mar 8 23:28:23 MST 1995

Regarding their recent exchange, I think it is helpful to to try to get at
the core difference between Goldstein and Schwartz. As I see it, it turns on
whether all Marxists (including those on this list, presumably) are tarred
with the brush of bearing some responsibility for the crimes of
totalitarianism committed under the banner of Marxism.

I think that there is a sense in which we are, and a sense in which we are
not. We are in the sense that it is incumbent on us to explain what went
wrong. To the extent that we admit that there is no clear answer to this
question at this point in time (i.e, no one has a really good idea of to
avoid it in the future), at the very least we have to be open to the
possibility that there is something very wrong with certain foundational
Marxist formulations. This would seem to me to preclude the kinds of
arguments Schwartz brings to the defense of the tradition.

To lay claim to the positive aspects of the Marxist tradition is to be able
to decisively separate what is positive from what is negative, and to
demonstrate that the good bits can be realised in practice without
automatically also entailing the bad bits. The fact that many hundreds of
thousands of people were ready to give their lives for the cause of
socialism can have no bearing on this discussion. The fact that socialist
theoreticians wanted to inspire something better than what actually came
about is also pretty well irrelevant. This is the kind of situation where
the intentions of the perpetrators are not the issue, but where it is very
important to understand how we get from having these intentions (which we
all share) to producing the kind of real results that really happened.

The sense in which we are not responsible is that we did not commit the
actual acts which stand condemned before us.

The upshot is that the content of the proposed solution matters. The way in
which we characterise the mistakes made under the banner of the Marxist
tradition has an effect on the kinds of solutions that appear feasible as
alternatives. I argued in an earlier post that Laclau and Mouffe commit what
Bhaskar calls the epistemic fallacy. They collapse all of reality into
discourse. In the process of trying to purge their understanding of identity
of "essentialism" they also abandon any notion of the material determination
of interests.

In this regard it seems to me that Goldstein commits some of the same
mistakes. If I understood him correctly he endorses the idea drawn from
Laclau and Mouffe that it is the "indeterminacy of value and identity which
explains hegemony". This would seem to me to imply an unsustainably
contradictory usage of the term hegemony. It can only be an indeterminacy
for the subaltern groups who are, so to speak, hegemonized, and not for the
dominant, hegemonic ones. Despite their willingness to bend when the winds
of popular organizing blow strongly enough, dominant groups are motivated by
the defense of their material interests. Otherwise what is the point of

We therefore need a notion of interests which allows for their material
determination but which avoids determinism. I think that it can be shown
that all forms of class primacy entail determinism in this sense. If this is
right then there are problems very close to the core ideas that have
traditionally been held by very many Marxists.

Howie Chodos

> Justin Schwartz wrote, commenting on Goldstein:
>Insofar as I understand Goldstein's point it is this. Because totalitarian
>communism has discredited Marxism in all its varieties, i.e., caused
>general rejection of Marxist ideas, it doesn't matter what the actual
>views of any real Marxist figures might have been: they are all tarred
>with the same brush, whatever they may have said, thought, or striggled
>for, and even if they opposed totalitarian impulses with every fiber of
>their being or gave their lives to stop such tendencies. No matter: Stalin
>has refuted Marxism. We therefore need not trouble ourselves with details.
>What is important is critiquing an idealized version of Stalinoid Marxism
>on postmodern grounds. As legitimation for this project we may refer to
>nonMarxist or anti-Marxist political scientists who do likewise, although
>they may not be postmodernists.
>Is this an accurate reading of Goldstein's views? If so, these views are
>groundless. Marxism in its various varieties needs to be understood to be
>criticized in a serious way. Saying Stalin! Stalin! won't do. While (as I
>said in my last post) there are lots of good reasons not to be a Marxist,
>Goldstein hasn't persuaded me that L&M have identified any of them.
>--Justin Schwartz
>On Wed, 8 Mar 1995, Philip Goldstein wrote:
>> 	Justin Schwartz praises Norman Geras' attack on Laclau and Mouffe
>> on the following grounds: "They attack a caricature of Marxism qua
>> economic determinism and narrow class reductionism which none of the
>> theorists they actually discuss in fact holds." This criticism of L & M,
>> similar to Kellner and Best's criticism in their book on postmodern
>> theory, complains that L&M's account of Marx and Marxists from Marx
>> through Lenin to Gramsci is reductive, narrow, fails to see their genius,
>> continuiing truths, universal validity, etc. I find the criticism wrong
>> headed. In Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, they are not so much
>> analyzing the thought and beliefs of particular Marxists; they are
>> tracing the development of ideas which they consider incompatible on
>> postmodern grounds -- socio-economic determination by class position and
>> indeterminacy of value and identify which explains hegemony. Such studies
>> of Marxism's development or reception are commonplace among political
>> scientists, many of whose textbooks on communism present similar accounts
>> of how communism developed out of Marx's thought. L & M's account has the
>> aim and the virtue of telling us how Marxism can overcome the quagmire
>> into which Soviet communism led it --e.g., how Marxism can overcome its
>> totalitarian impulses and recover a democratic ethos. To argue, as Geras
>> and others do, that L & G neglect the subtlety and the grandeur of great
>> Marxist thinkers beg the point: Totalitarian communism has widely
>> discredited Marxist thought and even the most brilliant Marxists are
>> implicated in its discrediting. You don't overcome the legacy of Soviet
>> or totalitarian communism by claiming that Marx or some Marxists were
>> much smarter than their followers thought. The conservative answer is
>> Marxism is good in theory but terrible in practice.
>> Philip Goldstein

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