Reflections on post-Marxism: Laclau and Mouffe’s project of radical democracy in the 21st century

Matthew T Johnson (Editor), Stuart Sim (Editor), Mark Purcell, Ronaldo Munck, James Martin, Georges Van Den Abbeele, Paul Bowman, Andrew Rowcroft, Philip Goldstein, Philippe Fournier, Nico Carpentier, Mads Ejsing, Lars Tønder, Gulshan Khan, Andreas Ottemo, Stuart Sim, Richard Howson, Frank A. Stengel

Research output: Contribution to specialist publicationSpecial issue


To anyone on the left working in the academic world in the 1980s, the publication of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe’s Hegemony and socialist strategy: towards a radical democratic politics (1985) came as something of a bombshell. Attacks on Marxism as both theory and practice had been building up steadily for some time by then, and there was a recognisably post-Marxist slant to many of these – Jean Baudrillard’s The mirror of production ([1973] 1975), Jean-François Lyotard’s Libidinal economy ([1974] 1993), and Barry Hindess and Paul Q. Hirst’s Pre-capitalist modes of production (1975) and Mode of production and social formation (1977) all came out in the 1970s and all left their mark on the development of left-wing thought in the period – but it was Hegemony and socialist strategy that fully established post-Marxism as a theoretical position. As the authors announced in the Introduction to the book, setting an agenda for the post-Marxist cause in the process:But if our intellectual project in this book is post-Marxist, it is evidently also post-Marxist. It has been through the development of certain intuitions and discursive forms constituted within Marxism, and the inhibition or elimination of certain others, that we have constructed a concept of hegemony which, in our view, may be a useful instrument in the struggle for a radical, libertarian and plural democracy. (Laclau and Mouffe, 1985: 5)Critics quickly weighed in, with Normas Geras (1987: 43), for example, bad-temperedly dismissing the book as ‘ex-Marxist’, and asserting ‘that if there are good reasons for not being, or for ceasing to be, a Marxist, so-called post-Marxism isn’t one of them’.2 Undeterred, Laclau and Mouffe soon replied that theirs was a ‘post-Marxism without apologies’ (1987: 79–106), and it was a position they never backed down from.The tension that exists between being post-Marxist and post-Marxist has exercised critics ever since, and comes through in the articles in this issue, which collectively set out to assess the legacy left by Laclau and Mouffe’s critique of the Marxist project. It is a tension that informs their subsequent work too, as they strive to refine the positions and concepts outlined in Hegemony: that is, to flesh out what it would mean to construct a radical democratic politics, and thus move from Marxism to pluralism on the left. Marxism has always had a problem with dissent, and post-Marxist pluralism was designed to overcome this; the intention being to open up political debate on the left to include new social movements that did not conform to the Marxist template of how revolutions against capitalism were supposed to occur. Movements, too, that might have different, and even conflicting, goals to each other. Essentially, it was an attempt to appropriate identity politics for the left’s struggle against social injustice internationally.The seven articles in this issue offer a wide variety of approaches, and critiques, of Laclau and Mouffe’s post-Marxism from a political situation that has changed very dramatically since Hegemony first appeared. In the interim, the Soviet system has collapsed, right-wing ultra-nationalism and white supremacism are on the rise throughout the West, Brexit has created a serious rift in the EU (as has the migrant crisis), and the Trump presidency seems set on conducting deeply divisive trade wars with the rest of the world, while systematically pulling out of a string of international agreements such as the accord on climate change. In the midst of all this, the left is struggling to make its voice heard.Laclau and Mouffe open Hegemony by declaring boldly that, ‘Left-wing thought today stands at a crossroads. The “evident truths” of the past... have been seriously challenged by an avalanche of historical mutations which have riven the ground on which those truths were constituted’ (1985: 1). The crossroads look even more bewildering now, the mutations progressively more unpredictable, and the evident truths even less valid. But not all the authors in this issue are that pessimistic (although I will admit to being so as guest editor), and there is a genuine attempt overall to reassess Laclau and Mouffe’s post-Marxism in the light of where global politics now stands. The question lying behind the issue is: what role does post-Marxism have in a non-Marxist world? Is it just a case of keeping Marx’s ideas in circulation, if constantly under review, or is there a more positive impact that post-Marxism can have on the contemporary political scene?
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages179
Specialist publicationGlobal Discourse
PublisherBristol University Press
Publication statusPublished - 1 May 2019


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