Ernesto Laclau (1935-2014): An Appreciation

By Slater, David | Soundings, Winter 2014 | Go to article overview

Ernesto Laclau (1935-2014): An Appreciation


Slater, David, Soundings


I first met Ernesto in the spring of 1976, when we invited him to give two presentations at the Centre for Latin American Research and Documentation (CEDLA) in the University of Amsterdam. The first was an analysis of the political structure of Argentina and the second a discussion of a new theoretical approach to populism. We knew immediately that we were in the presence of a rising star, and both presentations provoked much debate and lasting stimulus. We became friends, and that friendship and interconnection endured.

Ernesto had an exceptional ability to theorise across disciplinary boundaries, and his landmark interventions provided a source of inspiration across many domains of knowledge. He was a highly original thinker and a brilliant academic: he was also a man of warmth and generosity, and will be sorely missed.

In this appreciation of Ernesto's work I want to concentrate on four interlinked themes. These do not by any means exhaust the range or depth of his intellectual contribution, but hopefully they will provide some signposts that can act as an introduction to some crucial aspects of Ernesto's work. Those four themes are: (a) a reframing of Marxist thought; (b) the specificity of the political; (c) the significance of the new social movements; and (d) connecting the popular with the democratic. Wherever possible I shall endeavour to give examples of the intermingling of the political and the intellectual in his work, as it developed in a period of just under forty years.

Towards a reframing of Marxist thought

One of the key questions to permeate all of Ernesto's writing concerns the place of Marxism in contemporary social and political theory. Indeed, for some well-known academics of a rather traditionalist Marxist orientation, Ernesto exemplified a reprehensible, or at least sadly disappointing, exit from the primary pathways of Marxist thinking. Nowhere was this more evident than in the exchange between Norman Geras and Laclau and Chantal Mouffe that occurred in the late 1980s, which reflected a growing gap--perhaps chasm--between an approach which reasserted the ostensibly fundamental truths of Marxism and a newer perspective that sought out a more open analytical terrain where new concepts could be introduced without abandoning Marxism as a whole. (1)

It is instructive to note here that in one or two of his earlier interventions Ernesto could take a more apparently orthodox approach. For example, in his critical evaluation of Andre Gunder Frank's position on development and underdevelopment, Ernesto emphasised the centrality of production, and concluded--with a quote from Marx--that the science of modern economy 'only begins when the theoretical analysis passes from the process of circulation to the process of production'. (2)

Ernesto lucidly explained his theoretical take on Marxism in an interview with the US journal Strategies in 1988 (subsequently published in 1990 as 'Building a New Left', in New Reflections on the Revolution of Our Time (NRRT)). When questioned about his post-Marxism, Ernesto replies that he does not agree that there is a radical discontinuity in his intellectual evolution. For example, the idea of politics as hegemony and articulation is something that had always accompanied his political trajectory. He notes that when he went to Buenos Aires in 1984 with Chantal Mouffe, Chantal was surprised to see in his major articles of twenty years earlier in Lucha Obrera, that 'socialist struggle was already spoken about as the struggle of the working class for the hegemonisation of democratic tasks' (NRRT, p178). But Ernesto had never been a 'total' Marxist, someone who sought in Marxism a 'homeland'; rather, as he states in a related interview, going beyond Marxist categories does not involve either a 'rejection' or an 'abandonment', but instead a 'gradual rupture from the totalizing character of Marxist discourses'. More generally, he argues that 'any intellectual tradition worthy of respect can never believe it has reached a definitive settlement of accounts' (NRRT, p203). …

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