GRADUATE CONFERENCE and
‘It was - about - twenty years ago today’ that I bought a copy of Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, significantly subtitled Towards a Radical Democratic Politics. Excuse the indulgence, but this is how it happened. I was living in South Africa during some of the darkest days of apartheid rule – the government had just declared a national state of emergency, the then President of the Republic Mr P. W. Botha had just failed to ‘Cross the Rubicon’ (as it was then dubbed) and embark on a course of political reform, political conflict and violence in the country’s black townships was beginning to spiral out of control – and I was speaking to a political comrade – now a Professor of Economics at the University of Witwatersrand, but then primarily a Marxist-Leninist activist in the ANC. We were talking books when he said: ‘Have you seen that Laclau and Mouffe have published a new book called Hegemony and Socialist Strategy? If you want a book that provides a decisive argument for the primacy of politics, get it immediately!’ The next day I duly forked out my R32 – a lot of money those days - for the book at Logan’s Student bookshop in Pietermaritzburg, and began reading it … And of course I’m still reading and thinking about that book today! Indeed, I have just been asked by Professor John Scott of the Sociology Department to contribute a piece on Hegemony and Socialist Strategy for his collection of 50 leading social theorists, and I have been revisiting some of the arguments set out in the ‘Green Bible’ - although I see now that it has turned from Green to Red.
Ernesto and Chantal’s work was very familiar to those of us living in South Africa during the 1970s and 1980s. The essays and articles in Politics and Ideology in Marxist Theory and Gramsci and Marxist Theory, inspired by and yet critical of Louis Althusser, were hotly debated both in the Department of Politics at the University of Natal, and amongst those of us who were actively involved in the anti-apartheid struggle. The relative autonomy of the capitalist state, ideological elements without a necessary class belonging, organic crisis and hegemonic projects, the ‘Miliband-Poulantzas-Laclau’ debates, were discussed with feverish intent. But nothing was to compare with the debates sparked off by Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: now we were debating the merits and demerits of post-Marxism, socialist demands as internal to the project for radical democracy, the binary relationship between contingency and necessity, logics of equivalence and difference, social antagonism, exotic figures like Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Jacques Lacan, and much else besides. Indeed, it was precisely to find out more about this intoxicating book that I enrolled in Ernesto’s Masters Scheme at Essex in October 1987, and the rest – at least for my life! – is history.
When we read Hegemony and Socialist Strategy in South Africa during the 1980s, grappling with a host of new concepts and theoretical currents – psychoanalysis, post-structuralism, post-analytical philosophy - the main theses of the text spoke directly to the political situation there, and we intuitively saw its relevance. The book helped to elucidate the conjuncture in at least 3 ways. The signifier ‘apartheid’ had begun to float, unmoored from its previously fixed and relatively stabilised discourse of domination: the National Party was trying desperately to deny ‘apartheid’, replacing it instead with talk of ‘Total Strategy’, of a ‘New Deal’ built around the reform of the apartheid state. The opposition forces, by contrast, were resolute in their conviction that the proposed reforms were nothing more than a form of passive revolution from above: they insisted on constructing their discourses of resistance as ‘anti-apartheid’, as linking a broad set of forces against the signifier of ‘apartheid oppression’. Secondly, the popular forces organised around the United Democratic Front were seeking to link together a diverse set of demands and identities through a logic of equivalence in which the apartheid state was constructed as its ‘constitutive other’. The idea of hegemony as a metonymical displacement from one set of struggles to another was critical in understanding such a practice. Finally, the advocacy of a project for radical and plural democracy, consisting of the displacement of the values of equality and liberty into wider and wider social spheres, in which socialist demands were understood as an integral, though internal, element of the democratic revolution, helped to reconfigure the increasingly polarised debate between so-called Workerists and Populists about the appropriate strategy, character and goals of the anti-apartheid struggle. Deconstructing the essentialist terms and concepts of that debate – the a priori ontological centrality of the working class, the notion that populism was completely complicit with capitalist oppression, and so on - while furnishing an alternative vision built around radical democracy, was helpful in thinking about the articulation of different forces and so-called stages with their own intrinsic political tasks.
If I were asked to choose some words and phrases to describe Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, I would choose the following: ‘intense’, ‘obstinately and relentlessly rigorous’, ‘politically engaged and committed’, ‘path-breaking, ambitious and controversial’. One has only to think of the countless responses to this text, both positive and negative, in order to gauge its immense impact not only amongst those on the Marxist Left, and across the progressive spectrum, but amongst academics of all hues in Departments of Politics, Sociology, Philosophy, Gender Studies, History and Cultural Studies. Alongside the wild ravings and accusations of Norman Geras, Alex Callinicos, and Peter Osborne, stand the careful, sensitive evaluations and appropriations of Fred Dallmayr, Stuart Hall, Stanley Aronowitz, Slavoj Zizek - at least in his earlier work - Simon Critchley, Judith Butler, David Campbell, Linda Zerilli, Michele Barrett, to name but a few, not to mention those that are integral to what has become the Essex School of Discourse Theory.
There is no doubt in my mind that Hegemony and Socialist Strategy is a great book. It will be read, analysed, discussed and written about for many years and decades to come. The book drew together numerous philosophical strands and currents – post-structuralism, post-analytical philosophy – together with psychoanalysis and structural linguistics – and articulated them within a Marxist framework, to announce a startlingly novel approach to political analysis, normative evaluation and political advocacy. Not only has it formed the basis for Ernesto and Chantal’s subsequent forays into political theory and political philosophy, but it has laid the basis for very many Doctoral theses within and beyond the Ideology and Discourse Analysis Programme here at Essex and elsewhere.
It is clear that the conjuncture in which Hegemony and Socialist Strategy was written differs considerably from our current situation. Then the context was shaped by the emergence and consolidation of the New Right in Britain and the United States, the decline of the working class as the universal agent of emancipation, the rise of ‘new social movements’, and the consequent need to reformulate the socialist project by articulating a plurality of demands and subjectivities within a project for radical democracy. Today, it is marked by a Global War on Terrorism, the resurgence of Neo-Conservatism in the United States, the lasting legacy of neo-liberal political settlements in the UK, USA and elsewhere, and the rise of an anti-capitalist movement that claims to operate on a global, rather than national, stage. This evening’s session provides an opportunity for us to reflect back on Hegemony, to examine the intervening period between its publication and our present situation, and to think about the future trajectories of theorising and practical political engagement that emerge from it.
— David Howarth