Gramsci, left populism and class struggle

Issue: 166

Rob Jackson

Few figures from the history of Marxism appear so frequently in the press and in public debate as Antonio Gramsci.1 For example, in December 2019 the New York Times used Gramsci’s oft-quoted phrase “the old is dying and the new cannot be born” in an op-ed to characterise the state of affairs at the end of the decade.2 Similarly, the author Salman Rushdie, when asked by Prospect magazine for his favourite quotation, recalled Gramsci’s use of the phrase: “Pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will”.3 On the British left, there is no shortage of allusions to Gramscian terms such as “hegemony” and “common sense” in political commentary.4 Recently, the New Statesman even hailed Gramsci as “the Marxist thinker for our times”.5

Less sympathetic voices in the Financial Times have invoked similar vocabulary to caricature recent left projects, such as Corbynism, as relics from the 1970s.6 More bizarrely, some alt-right groups claim that their ideas are inspired by Gramsci.7 These views echo a longer tradition of a “Gramscianism of the Right” in France.8 However, as the philosopher Michel Foucault once observed, Gramsci is a thinker who is “more often cited than actually known”.9

Born in 1891, Antonio Gramsci was one of the most creative Marxist thinkers of the 20th century. He was a committed militant, who played a leading role in the struggles of the Italian working class during and after the First World War. First as a journalist and then as a party leader, Gramsci helped to organise the Turin workers’ movement, particularly during the “two red years” of 1919-1920.10

Gramsci was in the leadership of the group that split from the Italian Socialist Party (PSI) to found the Communist Party of Italy (PCd’I) in 1921.11 After the failure of the post-war revolutionary wave, the rise of fascism forced Gramsci into exile from 1922. First in Moscow and then in Vienna, Gramsci helped from a distance to re-orient the fledgling Italian Communist party towards the political formula of the united front.12 In 1924, Gramsci was elected to the Chamber of Deputies—the Italian parliament. Parliamentary immunity made it possible for him to return to Italy to take up his seat. Nevertheless, in 1926, Mussolini’s fascist regime arrested and imprisoned Gramsci as it consolidated its grip on power. The aim of the fascists was to “stop this brain from working for twenty years”, but Gramsci was not idle in prison.13 He produced 2,848 pages of writings, revitalising the Marxist tradition through the political experiences of war, struggle and fascism in the early 20th century. Gramsci’s prison notebooks, along with his letters and pre-prison writings, have had an astonishing cultural and political impact, influencing a wide range of intellectual fields and inspiring political parties and social movements.14

Many contemporary references to Gramsci’s ideas bear little more than a superficial connection to the reality of his life and politics. This, however, is nothing new. In the eight decades since his death, there have been numerous reconstructions of Gramsci’s thought: the Stalinised “Leninist” reading, the liberal “idealist” version and portrayals of Gramsci as a precursor of post-modernism, among many others.15 Searching the catalogue of a UK research library reveals that 135 books have been published with the word Gramsci in the title in the last 10 years. However, this is just the tip of a growing iceberg. The Gramsci Foundation in Rome has compiled an international bibliography of works on Gramsci that contained nearly 21,600 entries at the last count.16 These “images of Gramsci” vary dramatically in their level of engagement with his deeds and writings.17 They include some highly productive, although often one-sided, applications of Gramsci’s thought.18 Despite this, his efforts to conceive a strategy for confronting the workings of bourgeois power in the 20th century, and to outline the problems of creating a new socialist society, remain an unparalleled resource for activists today. In what follows, I will sketch some of the tools that Gramsci provides for doing this. Then, I will discuss the work of the influential contemporary political theorist Chantal Mouffe, whose work mobilises Gramscian concepts. As a trenchant critic of neoliberalism, Mouffe intervenes consistently against reheated Blairism and the advocates of technocratic government.19 However, I will argue that Mouffe fetters her project to extend and radicalise democracy by diverging from Gramsci’s politics of socialism from below.

The Gramscian toolbox

Gramsci’s writings generate a wealth of concepts for understanding bourgeois power in modern societies, and the strategy necessary for overthrowing it. The most famous of these concepts is his notion of hegemony, which he uses to explain the “extended” (or “integral”) conception of the state that emerges in the 19th and 20th centuries.20 The category of hegemony illustrates the increasingly complex relationship between politics and economics in these societies, and thus the different ways in which social forces achieve and maintain political power. For Gramsci, the hegemonic project of the dominant group in modern society is stabilised not simply by the coercive force of armed bodies, such as the police and the army, but also through the creation of consent for the established order among the general population. In other words, the exercise of power through the institutions of “political society” (the “governmental-coercive apparatus”) is complemented by the role of the “so-called private institutions” of “civil society” (the church, the media, schools, trade unions, and so on). For Gramsci, these elements of civil society, while riven with class struggles at all levels (economic, political, ideological and so on), ultimately help the ruling group to reproduce their hegemonic order through an educative function. Thus, the ruling class is able to rule, not only through physical force, but also by creating consent to their leadership.21

Gramsci elaborates on these ideas by contrasting the Russian Revolution of 1917 (in the “East”) with upheavals in Europe (the “West”) after the First World War. While the defeat of the Tsarist regime in Russia involved toppling a state in which civil society was “primordial and gelatinous”, Gramsci says, “in the West, there was a proper relation between state and civil society, and when the state trembled a sturdy structure of civil society was at once revealed”.22 He uses a military metaphor to distinguish between the rapid “war of manoeuvre” that was able to breach the “outer ditch” of the Tsarist state in Russia, and the longer duration of a “war of position” required to overcome the more “powerful system of fortresses and earthworks”—the set of institutions of civil society—in the Western European capitalist states.23 For Gramsci, these defensive “earthworks” of civil society were able to reinforce bourgeois power during a period in which it was shaken by revolutionary crisis.

While Gramsci reflects on the changing nature of political struggle at ­different moments in history and its relation to strategy and tactics, he warns against reducing these two levels, of force and consent, “to something trivial and banal, to nothing but two forms of ‘immediacy’ which succeed each other mechanically in time”.24 Guido Liguori makes the point that “the complexity of the role of the (‘integral’) state lies in the fact that it holds force and consent together in a dialectical nexus, one of ‘unity-distinction’”.25 Failing to heed this fact, later interpreters of Gramsci’s thought tended to dissolve this dialectical relationship, with unfortunate consequences.

A particular example of this was the strategy of Eurocommunism in the 1970s, which refashioned Gramsci’s ideas to align with the immediate aims of European Communist parties.26 In Italy, the PCI drew on Gramsci’s authority as a founder of the PCd’I to justify its disastrous policy of the “historic compromise”, which put it in an alliance with the liberal-conservative Christian Democrat government implementing cuts and controls on wages. The “Eurocommunist” reading of Gramsci stressed the consensual moment of hegemony at the expense of its coercive aspect.27 This led it to conclude that Gramsci’s ideas point towards a “non-rapid transition to socialism”: a gradualist parliamentary road to power.28 However, even in prison, Gramsci did not diminish the importance of the decisive moment of force in the overthrow of bourgeois democracy. Thus, Gramsci argued to his fellow inmates that:

Violent conquest of power [by the proletariat] necessitates the creation by the party of an organisation of a military type, pervasively implanted within every branch of the bourgeois state apparatus, and capable of wounding and inflicting heavy blows on it at the decisive moment of struggle.29

This report of his views is borne out by his wider account of class struggles in the Prison Notebooks.30 As Liguori argues, “the tendency to make Gramsci a theorist of democracy (as a political principle different from and, for some, alternative to socialism), thus an author not committed to the struggle against the rule of the commodity form, but rather to the supersession or negation of this struggle, has no basis in Gramsci’s writings”.31

While relatively unknown in the English-speaking world until the 1960s, Gramsci’s thought became an increasingly influential reference point for ­different currents on the left.32 For example, the literary critic Raymond Williams popularised Gramsci’s concept of “hegemony”, interpreted as the collection of practices taken for granted in a particular society.33 Influenced by Williams, the cultural theorist Stuart Hall took up Gramscian concepts to think about the prospects for the “New Left” in Britain during the 1970s. Hall would later develop Gramsci’s reflections into an explanation of the setbacks for the left during the downturn and the rise of Thatcherism.34 For Hall, Gramsci was an important Marxist thinker because he had theorised a moment of ­revolutionary defeat for the working class. Thus, Hall took up concepts that Gramsci had ­developed during the rise of fascism and applied them to what he called Thatcher’s “regressive modernism”.35

Gramsci’s analysis of the strategy needed to end bourgeois hegemony also involves a positive moment: creating a new order, a proletarian hegemony. His concern is not only with contesting the existing hegemony of the dominant groups, but also with the means by which the subaltern groups—those who are marginalised and without power in the existing hegemonic order—can emerge from their subordinate position. This means constructing an alternative hegemonic project of their own. For Gramsci, this is not an arbitrary adventure by external actors appealing to the proletariat and the subaltern groups, but the “catharsis” of these groups themselves emerging from passivity to become actors, constructors of a new historical epoch.36

To sustain and organise this “cathartic passage” requires the creation of a proletarian hegemony, an apparatus embodying the collective will of these groups, the forging of a “modern prince”.37 The “modern prince” is Gramsci’s experimental formulation of revolutionary organisation, which transforms the dramatic figure of “the prince” from Niccolò Machiavelli’s book of the same name.38 Gramsci’s writings on this topic provide insight into the relation between “leaders and led” across history, from antiquity to modern capitalism. He shows how the formation of political leadership among the subaltern groups—the subordinated classes in each epoch who are disunited and struggling against the ruling class for self-expression and autonomy—has been disrupted systematically by the fragmented nature of their activity. This explains the apparent “spontaneity” of subaltern revolts, which Gramsci scrutinised for every trace of independent initiative.39 Gramsci investigates the interactions of power, representation and marginalisation in these different epochs, in order to understand both the forms of domination of the subaltern groups by the ruling class and how the subaltern groups can organise and assert their autonomy.40

By studying the concrete workings of hegemony in a multitude of historical situations and places, Gramsci develops a rich analysis of the role of intellectuals in the exercise of leadership.41 For Gramsci, intellectuals function in a more constructive, organisational sense than conventionally understood. He argues that each social group needs to create its own “organic intellectuals”.42 These intellectuals are linked intimately to the group’s class project, helping to give that class “homogeneity and consciousness of their own function”.43 Thus, proletarian organic intellectuals are not “pure orators”, but active “in practical life, as constructor, organiser, ‘permanently active persuader’”.44

By contrast, Gramsci also identifies “traditional intellectuals”—those who seem “to represent an historical continuity uninterrupted even by the most complicated and radical changes in political and social forms”.45 Traditional intellectuals see themselves standing above class conflict, bound together by a caste-like sense of their autonomy from the dominant group.46 However, for Gramsci, these intellectuals play an important role for hegemonic projects both by digging the “earthworks” of civil society and by being general figures of prestige and cultural authority.47

For the subaltern groups to express their own coherent perspective, they must produce their own intellectuals. The modern prince must promote what Gramsci calls “an intellectual and moral reform” that is tied to a programme of economic reforms.48 For Gramsci, this simultaneous process of social ­transformation and transformation of consciousness begins from existing popular culture. He argues that each layer of society has a “common sense”.49 This is a mixture of beliefs, constantly in flux, which is midway between folklore and philosophy, economics, and science. Kate Crehan defines common sense as “the term Gramsci uses for all those heterogeneous beliefs people arrive at not through critical reflection, but encounter as already existing, self-evident truths”.50 While often taking a ­conservative character, “common sense” also contains within it elements of “good sense”.51 According to Gramsci, “good sense” is the “healthy nucleus” of “common sense”.52 This “good sense” must be organised and made coherent if the subaltern groups are to found a new culture, and eventually a “new civilization”, based on proletarian hegemony.53

In the Prison Notebooks, the capacity of Marxism to create a new conception of the world is rooted in Gramsci’s “philosophy of praxis”.54 Here, Gramsci redefines philosophy as an integral part of the realisation of proletarian hegemony: “Everything is political, even philosophy or philosophies…and the only ‘philosophy’ is history in action, that is, life itself.”55 This interrelationship (a “reciprocal translatability”) between politics and philosophy refers to the role that the “philosophy of praxis” plays in bringing a critical capacity to “common sense”, making the elements of “good sense” more coherent, and raising the capacity of the proletariat and the subaltern groups to act.

With this conception of the “philosophy of praxis”, Gramsci addressed twin pitfalls that hampered existing forms of Marxist thought. On the one hand, the “economism” of many in the communist movement continued a gradualist view of historical evolution that had been prevalent in the Second International. Gramsci explains this deficiency as an “overestimation of mechanical causes” in historical analysis.56 For example, Gramsci criticises Nikolai Bukharin’s schematic presentation of historical materialism.57 Gramsci takes issue with Bukharin’s approach, which dismissed erroneous views without demonstrating the historical conditions from which they emerged. Gramsci saw a danger of “diluting” Marxism’s critical power, leading to it becoming a “dogmatic system of eternal and absolute truths”.58

On the other hand, Gramsci also attacks attempts to “liquidate” Marxism through “ideologism”, “an exaggeration of the voluntarist and individual element” in history.59 This inclination obscures the fact that Marxism emerged through political conflict with other ideologies, and must proceed via “the real conquest of the historical world”.60 For Gramsci, these tendencies are two sides of the same coin, and should be combatted as such. The ongoing renewal of Marxism as a self-critical “philosophy of praxis” and its battle with ­competing ideologies are both components of the practical struggle for proletarian hegemony.

For Gramsci, the ruling class is not passive in the face of this struggle for emancipation. It continually seeks to disrupt the organisational efforts of the subaltern groups, preventing their progress towards “catharsis”. Gramsci develops the concept of “passive revolution” to illustrate how the ruling class periodically renews its hegemonic project “from above” through a process of “revolution-restoration”.61 This involves both incorporating some popular demands for change, while absorbing the nascent leadership of this rebellion in a “molecular” and individual way.62 This disarms the initiatives of the subaltern groups and disaggregates their attempts to form an alternative hegemony.

Using this framework, Gramsci analyses various phases in history, such as the period of Italian unification and the emergence of fascism under Mussolini. Understanding the character of fascism was a topic that concerned Gramsci above all. He sought to explain the conditions that made possible its rise, as well as the internal contradictions and weaknesses that could hasten its fall. Gramsci’s studies of the nature of intellectuals and of different types of leadership (including his studies of “Caesarism” and “Bonapartism”) were all oriented towards this goal.63

What relevance do Gramsci’s concepts have for situations that are characterised neither by mass workers’ struggles, nor by fascist dictatorship? The tools above, which Gramsci develops to analyse both these phenomena, revolutionary upsurges and fascist reaction, provide keys to a much wider strategic analysis. Returning to Gramsci’s ideas can help both to understand and to intervene in a variety of situations. For example, his comparative analyses of different historical moments (from the unification of Italy to fascism) allow a re-assessment of the nature of “populist” leaders and movements. There are, of course, many ways to attempt this. Having surveyed some of the key concepts developed by Gramsci, I will now examine Chantal Mouffe’s appeal to Gramsci’s ideas to address the present “populist moment”.

Left populism

Facing the global rise of right-wing political forces, from Trump to Bolsonaro to Orbán and beyond, much mainstream analysis misuses the term “populism” to lump these figures together with “corresponding” ones on the left.64 Seizing upon this confusion, the prize-fighters of neoliberalism characterise those who challenge the orthodoxy of political centrism and free-market economics as irrational. They vilify as “populist” the efforts to oppose austerity from the left. Recent movements around Corbyn, Bernie Sanders and the “gilets jaunes” are seen as appealing to unruly, short-sighted and dangerous passions. Meanwhile, some groups, such as Spanish political party Podemos, have reclaimed this term, embracing “left populism” as a positive label to describe their own political project.65

The political theorist Chantal Mouffe is one of the most influential theorists of this strategy. Refusing the neoliberal model of democracy, she emphasises the ­progressive and egalitarian potential of the “populist moment”. In her recent book, For a Left Populism, Mouffe gives a clear and accessible introduction to her thought.66 She builds on her earlier work, including Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, which she wrote with Ernesto Laclau.67 Mouffe argues for the realignment of political conflict between “the people” and “the oligarchy”,68 with the aim of uniting different struggles against oppression and exploitation. Seeking to overcome what she sees as the twin failures of Marxism and social democracy to live up to the challenges of the post-1968 era, she argues that the left has been limited by defining social agents through their position in the social relations of production. Laclau and Mouffe label this position “class essentialism”. They think that the privileging of class by traditional forms of left politics makes it impossible for them to confront adequately the forms of domination associated with race, gender, sexuality, and issues relating to the environment.

While crude reductions of political identities to class interests no doubt exist on the left, Laclau and Mouffe tar all of Marxism with the same brush. In the 1980s and 90s, this resonated with a wider downgrading of class analysis common among intellectual movements.69 Combining concepts derived from Gramsci with elements of post-structuralist thought, Laclau and Mouffe’s strategy involves “redefining the socialist project in terms of a ‘radicalisation of democracy’”.70 Mouffe’s current project of “left populism” builds on this ­framework, aiming to carve out “agonistic” spaces that reject the hegemony of the present neoliberal order, while retaining, and extending, liberal-democratic values.71 It is a fallacy, she argues, to believe that liberal democracy can only exist alongside capitalism. Therefore, “left populism” involves creating an alternative to the present hegemonic formation that challenges the capitalist mode of production, while retaining the “constitutive principles of the liberal state—division of power, universal suffrage, multi-party systems and civil rights”.72

Mouffe’s vision of a liberated society is some distance from the “anti-politics” that was prevalent in the anti-capitalist movement of the early 2000s. Mouffe is a sharp critic of the rejection of representation that she finds in autonomist thinkers such as Michael Hardt and Toni Negri.73 For Mouffe, emancipation does not involve the elimination of the political institutions of liberal democracy and the liberal state, but instead their “profound transformation”.74 While social movements “from below” have a role to play in Mouffe’s strategy, her objective is “the creation of a popular majority to come to power and establish a progressive hegemony”.75

In earlier incarnations of her work, Mouffe viewed the transformation of existing socialist or social-democratic parties as a possible vehicle for this project. Now, she believes that an opportunity has opened up for a “new type of politics”. She sees the “populist moment” as a crisis of the “post-political” consensus, in which Third-Way projects such as Blairism were able to thrive.76 For Mouffe, the rise of right-wing populism is a reaction to the neoliberal dogma: “there is no alternative”. The failure of left parties to mobilise popular resistance to neoliberalism has allowed the right to channel the passions inflamed by a lack of real choice, which it articulates through xenophobic and nationalist discourses. As a progressive, democratic and egalitarian response to centrists and the right, Mouffe argues for the revitalisation of democracy through the return of “the political”—managing pluralism through an “agonistic” debate between adversaries. To explain this strategy, Mouffe draws on conservative jurist Carl Schmitt’s critique of liberalism.77 Schmitt argued that liberalism’s universal idea of “humanity” contradicts its pretensions to democratic equality. By assuming that “we” share universal values with others, liberal thought presupposes an unproblematic rational convergence of interests between different groups. For Schmitt, overlooking the pluralistic character of reality leads either to “our” downfall or to labelling adversaries as “outside of humanity”. Thus, he argues, “concepts such as ‘human being’ contain the possibility of the deepest inequality”.78 Liberal principles depoliticise “the political”, which, for Schmitt, is the recognition of a frontier between the “friend” and the “enemy”.79 Since “the political” is necessary for democracy in Schmitt’s conception, “liberalism destroys democracy and democracy liberalism”.80

Mouffe takes up and modifies Schmitt’s notion of “the political” to argue that democracy requires the recognition of an “adversary”, a “they”.81 Only by doing so, she argues, is it possible to construct “the people”, the “we”, and “to subvert the tendency for liberal discourse towards abstract universalism”.82 For Mouffe, it is not possible to overcome the antagonisms involved in democracy. For this reason, Mouffe rejects what she calls the “myth of communism”, which she understands to imply a “blueprint” for a “final destination”, and the creation of a “transparent and reconciled society”.83 (Although, this definition of communism might surprise Gramsci, not to mention Marx and Engels.)84 From the poverty of “post-political” neoliberal democracy, Mouffe’s left populism advocates reclaiming a pluralist liberal-democratic model of politics.


Mouffe underpins this project with an understanding of the construction of political identities that she developed with Laclau.85 Laclau and Mouffe’s political theory is usually labelled “post-Marxism”, a term they adopted to describe “the process of re-appropriation of an intellectual tradition, as well as the process of going beyond it”.86 The variant of Marxism that Laclau and Mouffe sought to go beyond was that of Louis Althusser, an influential thinker associated with the French Communist Party.87 Mouffe characterises the rise of interest in Gramsci in the 1970s as superseding “the reign of ‘althusserianism’” in Marxist theory.88 Marxism is often seen as treating ideologies as if they were mechanically caused by the economic positions of social agents—for example, as workers or capitalists. This is known as economic determinism. Althusser dealt with this accusation by rejecting the idea that simple internal ­contradictions (for instance, the contradiction between labour and capital) propel history. He developed a complex account of multiple layers—the ­economic, the political and the ideological—that “over-determine” changes in social structure. In his early writings, Laclau inherited this conception of the “relative autonomy” of the political, which, for Althusser, was determined by the economy in the final instance.89 One of Laclau’s innovations in the 1970s, developed later with Mouffe, was to radicalise this autonomy. As Panagiotis Sotiris points out, “we are not talking simply about relative autonomy, as it had already been suggested by Althusser or Nicos Poulantzas, but a stronger form of ­autonomisation. Class relations affected the form but not necessarily the content of ideology and political practice”.90 Laclau’s early theory of populism attempted to “solve” the problem of determinism in classical Marxism.91 Separating the moment of political initiative—the process of constituting political demands—from “the material dynamics contributing to it”, Laclau moved from Althusser’s conception of “over-determination” to a “logic of signification”.92

In Laclau and Mouffe’s later theory, they employ a theory of “discourses” to explain class as a product of non-class contents.93 Rejecting the Marxist ­analogy of base and superstructure, Laclau and Mouffe replace Gramsci’s notion of “superstructures” with the concept of “articulations”.94 In particular, Laclau and Mouffe argue that “class interests” do not constitute political “articulations”, claiming instead that “politico-hegemonic articulations retroactively create the interests they claim to represent.”95 While ­acknowledging that political demands have a basis in material entities, they claim that the constitution of specific demands as political is separate from its material determinations.96 Social space is conceived as a field of conflict between competing hegemonic practices. This view emphasises the historical contingency of efforts by social agents to create a social order—an ­“articulation” or linkage of “discursive positions”—through these practices. These temporary social orders fix the meaning of social institutions, but are always vulnerable to contestation by other “articulations”.97 Social agents, such as “the people”, are not unified and homogeneous entities, but are constituted through the intersection of different “discourses”.

In order to privilege this “moment of political articulation”, Laclau and Mouffe draw on and repurpose Gramsci’s category of hegemony and his much-discussed “extension of the concept of the state”.98 Gramsci expanded the conventional understanding of the state to include the role played by “civil society” in maintaining the hegemony of the dominant social group.99 For Laclau and Mouffe, this “expansive hegemony” involves unifying a series of demands from different groups, “those of the working class with those of the new movements [against oppression and environmental destruction] in order to construct a ‘common will’”.100

However, it is not enough simply to add these demands together. For Laclau and Mouffe, these multiple heterogeneous demands find a political significance only when they identify the powerful “oligarchy” as the source of their discontent. This is what they refer to as the “articulation” of multiple demands in a “chain of equivalence”.101 This constitution of the “people” in opposition to the establishment does not reduce these groups to a uniform “mass”, where “all differentiation disappears to create a totally homogenous group”.102 Rather, each demand retains its particularity while it points “through equivalential links, to the totality of the other demands”.103 According to Laclau and Mouffe, building a “chain of equivalence” between democratic struggles would allow the left to tackle issues not only of “redistribution”, but also of “recognition”.104

Sotiris argues that through the “discursive” transformation of Gramsci’s notion of hegemony it “is delinked from class projects and strategies and is presented as a more general modality of politics. It is a ‘political type of relation, a form’”.105 This de-coupling from class is required only if one agrees with Laclau and Mouffe that class analysis must be a form of “essentialism” that subordinates the heterogeneous demands of oppressed groups to a homogeneous group consciousness. However, Gramsci’s Marxism shows that this doesn’t have to be the case.106 He provides a class analysis that neither assumes an “a priori” coherence to the consciousness of the working class, nor dissolves the construction of a “collective will” into a contingent process separate to the social relations of exploitation under capitalism.107

As Héctor Puente Sierra notes, there are similarities between Laclau and Mouffe’s efforts to generalise particular struggles into a radical challenge to the system and Gramsci’s political formula of the united front.108 However, Laclau and Mouffe’s expansion of the “discursive” aspects of Gramsci’s concept of hegemony—which involves committing to a limit on the possibility of social objectivity—detaches the theory of hegemony from the explanatory power of Gramsci’s theory of critical economics.109 This flattens Gramsci’s analysis of the historical development of the relations between exploitation and oppression under different modes of production into a generic process of “chains of equivalence”.

Effacing the distinction between bourgeois and proletarian hegemony, Laclau and Mouffe pass over Gramsci’s rich analysis of the interactions between the economic power of the working class and its political organisation. This effectively forecloses on the possibility of overthrowing capitalism. The construction of a proletarian hegemony, as Gramsci pointed out in 1920, requires the working class to “give substance to their political power with economic power”.110 Despite the developments in his thought in his prison writings, as Anderson points out, Gramsci still saw proletarian hegemony as “anchored in production”.111 Thus, when Gramsci discusses the constituent components of Marxism—economics, politics and philosophy—the unitary centre of economics is “value, alias the relationship between the worker and the industrial productive forces”.112 From a Gramscian perspective, Laclau and Mouffe’s warnings about the dangers of “productivism” are one-sided, unless they pay equally vigorous attention to the twin pitfall of “ideologism”, the “exaggeration of the voluntarist and individual element” in historical-political analysis.113

The most trenchant critics of Laclau and Mouffe, Norman Geras and Ellen Meiksins Wood, have constructed extended critiques of their “post-Marxism”. For Wood, Laclau and Mouffe’s position relies on misattributing to Marx a crude technological determinism which conceives history as a “neutral process” of the development of the productive forces.114 In this view, the proletariat becomes a mechanical reflex of this process of development. However, Marx does not regard the proletariat’s aim as the mere appropriation of “neutral” forces of production. As Capital amply demonstrates, there is also a struggle over class exploitation that pervades the economic sphere.115 Wood notes, “it is precisely because material production is organised in class-distorted ways that ‘economic’ relations are also relations of power, conflict and struggle which play themselves out in other social domains and in the arena of politics”.116

Geras argues that Laclau and Mouffe’s ideas are based on an impoverished reading of Marxism, undervaluing, for example, Rosa Luxemburg’s treatment of the problem of unifying the heterogeneity of the working class in The Mass Strike.117 Underlying this tendency, for Geras, was an Althusserian legacy of conceiving all diverse deficiencies as variants of a single theoretical failure, namely “essentialism”.118

Wood characterises Laclau and Mouffe’s “post-Marxist” strategy as a variant of a new “True” Socialism, drawing parallels with an intellectual current in the workers’ movement criticised by Marx and Engels in The Communist Manifesto. According to Marx and Engels, the “True” Socialists had lost sight of real human beings in their pursuit of universal ideas of “Man”. These thinkers supplanted the real historical basis of social struggles with conceptual struggles and the power of philosophical concepts. In the context of defensive struggles and a class in retreat during the 1980s, Wood argued that Marx and Engels’s diagnosis was reminiscent of the conceptual “retreat from class” seen in “post-Marxism”.119

Mouffe, Gramsci and socialism “from below”

One of the strengths of Mouffe’s challenge to neoliberal orthodoxy is that it exposes the internal incoherence at the heart of the system. Neoliberalism’s claim to a universal status—“there is no alternative”—is patently in crisis. Its vision of itself, based on universal individual rights and abstract notions of global citizenship, is colliding with the reality that the regimes of the “extreme centre” have presided over the rampant growth of inequality and the hollowing out of democratic institutions.120 Mouffe seeks to provide an alternative to the failures of “Third Way” politics, as well as to the limits of “horizontalist” strategies. Her contribution is to assert categorically that a left politics must draw a line and establish its adversary. Reclaiming the idea of popular resistance is an important blow against the technocratic future ­envisioned by elites that try to render invisible the social demands of the exploited and the oppressed.

Against the current of some contemporary “critical” thinkers, who see a ­necessary connection between popular passions and reactionary politics, Mouffe’s rejection of their aloof disdain for working class voters attracted to supporting right-wing populist parties is welcome. She aims to recognise the “democratic nucleus at the origin of many of their demands”.121 Mouffe’s calls for a “radical” transformation of relations of power in society are likely to resonate with many who are striving for genuine progressive change in the 21st century. However, her strategy for challenging the existing hegemony of our rulers is problematic.

Mouffe’s criticisms of “post-political” democracy aim for a return to a liberal-democratic model. This entails a commitment to the ethical and political values of liberal democracy. Defining democracy “in formal terms not related to the substance of class power”, Mouffe does not thematise the entanglement between liberal democracy and bourgeois hegemony, which as Wood points out, serves “to mystify and legitimate the relations of class ­domination and exploitation”.122 While Mouffe’s work provokes searching questions for contemporary Marxist theory—for example, about the values and forms of democracy that might be created through the institutions of a new (proletarian) hegemony—her blanket rejection of Marxist alternatives (characterised in the extreme form of the entirely self-reconciled society) narrows the coordinates of emancipation within a liberal horizon.

Another issue with Mouffe’s approach to emancipation is that it seems to be restricted to the representation of demands. As Sotiris points out, emancipatory politics in both Laclau and Mouffe appears as a type of political project “attempting simply to represent these demands by translating them into a populist political project”.123 Of course, this could also include “translating” the most regressive elements of popular passions into electoral demands. Furthermore, as Slavoj Žižek points out, Laclau and Mouffe’s basic category of the “social demand” assumes a set-up in which “a subject is addressing a demand to an Other presupposed to be able to meet it”.124 For Žižek, it is not enough simply to demand “something from those in power”, it is necessary to overthrow them.125 Thus, he argues that a revolutionary strategy has to look beyond the “horizon of demands”.

Mouffe’s deployment of Gramscian themes is useful insofar as she seeks to confront the failures of radicalism in the 21st century and to rethink the language of radical transformation to revive its political effectiveness. However, by ­obscuring the distinction between bourgeois and proletarian hegemony in Gramsci’s writings, she also creates the potential to provide “radical” cover to the co-option of progressive movements—Syriza being an obvious recent example.

Indeed, continuing the tendency of “Eurocommunist” interpretations, Mouffe conflates Gramsci’s position with a “radical reformist perspective”.126 Her recent work has some continuities with the project that she developed in the late 1970s, a strategy for democratic socialism that “avoids both the perils of Stalinism and of social democracy”.127 While Mouffe shares these antipathies with many on the “extra-parliamentary left”, her tendency to focus on electoralism is accompanied by a hostility to wider anti-capitalist forces on what she calls the “extreme left”. This is a position that underestimates the resources of revolt from below, and restricts subaltern struggles to an unfavourable terrain.

Mouffe’s adoption of Hall’s idea of “learning the lessons of Thatcherism” is also problematic, in that it overlooks the very different processes by which the left and right struggle and organise.128 Historically, bourgeois hegemony has been able to secure the transformation of “common sense” before it seized state power. While Thatcherites could lay the foundations of a new set of values and vision of society through a top-down process before they achieved government, it is not possible for the left to replicate this strategy.129 As we have seen, Gramsci’s vision of socialism involves a “cathartic process” through which subaltern groups might emerge from passivity to become the architects of a new epoch.130 This involves a type of radical cultural transformation that cannot be created “from above”. This, as Davidson notes, would be to conflate bourgeois and proletarian hegemony, “as if the process of a ‘passive revolution’ were simply mirror-reversed in the socialist project”.131 Constructing a hegemonic project “from below” involves a process of political activity and organisation through which the “philosophy of praxis” and “good sense” undertake an “intellectual and moral reform” in order to overcome the conservative inertia of existing “common sense”.132 As Sotiris points out, the framework of populism developed by Laclau and Mouffe sees “effective populist movements as the result of crucial semantic shifts and articulation of new discourses, rather than as forms of organising or programme elaboration”.133 In other words, the primary focus of the “populist left” tends towards adopting better marketing and “electoral communication strategies” for its slogans. A similar awareness of the power of discourse is visible in the approach of many recent social movements, including Extinction Rebellion, #MeToo, Black Lives Matter, and others. It is not to detract from the urgency of the concrete demands of these movements to suggest that they are also significant for building the capacity among ever-wider layers of the oppressed and the exploited to take collective action in their own interests.

All applications of Gramsci’s thought, as Davidson has pointed out, are ­necessarily extensions that take his ideas and use them in contexts and for purposes that are not identical to the original place and purpose for which they were elaborated.134 Much ink has been spilt, not least by Anderson, on ­determining the permissible limits within which such an activity can still legitimately claim some fidelity to a Gramscian framework. Despite these diverse “uses and abuses” of Gramsci’s ideas, his “philosophy of praxis” continues to illuminate the self-emancipatory project of the exploited and the oppressed. Throughout his life, Gramsci sought to organise the capacity of subaltern groups to experiment with new forms of governing themselves. His Prison Notebooks continue to provide socialists with a rich set of resources to engage with contemporary movements and face the task of overthrowing capitalism in the 21st century.

Rob Jackson teaches politics in Manchester and is co-editor of the collection Revisiting Gramsci’s Notebooks (Brill, 2019).


1 I would like to thank Adrian Budd, Alex Callinicos, Joseph Choonara, Marieke Mueller and Camilla Royle for their comments and suggestions on drafts of this article.

2 Cohen, 2019. In this passage, Gramsci discusses the “crisis of authority” of the ruling class: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear”—Gramsci, 1971 (hereafter SPN), pp275-6. I also reference the critical edition of Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks, Gramsci, 1975, giving the international standard of notebook number (Q), number of note (§), ie Q 3, § 34.

3 Rushdie, 2018. The quote, “Pessimism of the intelligence, optimism of the will”, originates with the French novelist Romain Rolland. Gramsci adopted it as a motto, printing it on the masthead of his newspaper New Order. It is a recurring theme in his writings, see Gramsci, 2011, vol1 (hereafter PN1), p172, Q 1, § 63; PN3, p73, Q 6, § 86.

4 See, for example, Barnett, 2017, Williams, 2017, Bale, 2019, Scothorne, 2019.

5 Eaton, 2018.

6 Rachman, 2019.

7 Schaeffer, 2017.

8 Alain de Benoist is a leading figure in the French Nouvelle Droite’s “gramscisme de droite”, which seeks to use “cultural warfare” to advance a new right-wing “common sense”.

9 Quoted in Buttigieg, 2011, pxix.

10 See Trudell, 2007, for an account of these struggles, in which factory councils mobilised over half a million workers in general strikes in Turin alone, bringing Italy to the brink of revolution.

11 This split was a bungled affair. It was conducted following the failure of the PSI’s “maximalist” leadership during the revolutionary moment of 1919-1920. The “maximalists” combined verbal radicalism with a hesitance in action. At that time, Gramsci allied with the ultra-left faction led by Amadeo Bordiga, who were characterised by their intransigent “abstentionist” position in elections. See Williams, 1975, and Spriano, 1975.

12 A recent study by Del Roio, 2017, uses the issue of the united front to argue for the continuity between Gramsci’s pre-prison political activity and his later prison writings.

13 SPN, pxviii.

14 By the time of his release from prison in 1935, Gramsci’s health had been broken. He died in a clinic in Rome in April 1937. For an overview of Gramsci’s life, see Fiori, 1990. The letters in Gramsci, 2014, reviewed in Jackson, 2016, give a picture of his pre-prison activity, particularly as a delegate to the Third International in Moscow in the 1920s.

15 After the Second World War, the Italian Communist Party (PCI) used its authority to present the figure of Gramsci according to its varying political needs. A new preface in Anderson, 2017a, explains the theoretical controversy in the 1970s between liberal interpreters of Gramsci, such as Norberto Bobbio, and the defenders of the PCI.

16 The Gramsci Foundation’s Gramsci bibliography, [Date accessed 20 January 2020].

17 Thomas, 2010, provides a critical account of Anderson, 2017a, and Althusser/Balibar, 1970. Thomas argues that they are “representative of more general ‘images of Gramsci’ in both the Marxist and wider intellectual culture” (pxix).

18 Davidson, 2008, analyses these readings of Gramsci—for instance, Edward Said’s use of the spatial aspects of Gramsci’s thought to theorise the relationship between culture and imperialism. See Budd, 2007, for the use of Gramsci’s thought in International Relations.

19 Mouffe, 2005, regards the Third Way’s vision of democratic consensus, “beyond left and right”, as a form of “post-politics”, advocating a return to the partisan character of “the political”.

20 On Gramsci’s conception of the “integral” or “extended” state, see Liguori, 2016, pp1-25. Thomas argues that Anderson, by taking Gramsci’s notes out of the context of their chronological development, misrepresents this concept of the “integral” state and fails “to grasp the true novelty of Gramsci’s state theory”—Thomas, 2010, p94; see also, pp41-83.

21 Liguori expresses something of the complexity of Gramsci’s position: “The state is not only an instrument (of a class) but also a site (of the struggle for hegemony) and a process (of the unification of the ruling classes)”—Liguori, 2016, p18.

22 SPN, p238, Q 7, § 16.

23 SPN, p238, Q 7, § 16. Egan, 2016, studies Gramsci’s use of this military metaphor.

24 SPN, p170, Q 13, § 14.

25 Liguori, 2016, p4.

26 In Carrillo, 1977, the then Secretary of the Spanish Communist Party justifies the Eurocommunist perspective. See Harman, 1977c, for a review.

27 See Harman, 1977a, 1977b, 1977c, 1983, 2007.

28 See Hobsbawm, 1977, for an interview with Giorgio Napolitano, a leading figure in the PCI in the 1970s. Simon, 1982, is the most common account of Gramsci in this tradition in English.

29 Anderson, 2017a, p158. Anderson republishes Athos Lisa’s report of Gramsci’s lectures to his fellow inmates, highlighting that Gramsci maintained this view in prison.

30 For example, Gramsci’s notes every manifestation of the “spirit of cleavage” among the subaltern groups, a notion derived from revolutionary syndicalist Georges Sorel. This rupture with the bourgeois world is necessary for the development of the subaltern groups’ genuine autonomy, a new type of power. See, SPN, p52, Q 25, § 5; p126, Q 13, § 1.

31 Liguori, 2016, p127.

32 Forgacs, 1989, details the reception of Gramsci’s writings in Britain up to the 1980s. Liguori, 2016, chapter 12, provides a history of the contested concept of hegemony in Italy.

33 Williams, 1977, uses this understanding to analyse the relationship between politics and culture. He explains “hegemony” as “not only the conscious system of ideas and beliefs, but the whole lived social process as practically organised by specific and dominant meanings and values”—Williams, 1977, p109.

34 Hall, 1988, hoped to renew the left in the face of Thatcher’s “authoritarian populism”. For the debate over this concept, see Jessop, Bonnet, Bromley, Ling, 1984, and 1985, and Hall, 1985. More recently, Anderson, 2017b, criticises Hall for overlooking Thatcherism’s “re-assertion of the nation’s position in the world”—pp90-92. For Anderson, Hall’s writings lack discussion of the coercive episodes that helped consolidate Thatcherism: the Miners’ Strike and the Falklands War. Hall is a significant influence on Mouffe’s “left populist” project—Mouffe, 2019, p35.

35 See Davidson, 2008, p72; Hall, 1988, p164.

36 Gramsci adopts the term “catharsis” from the aesthetic theory of neo-idealist philosopher Benedetto Croce. Developed through Gramsci’s literary analysis of Dante’s Inferno, “catharsis” becomes, in turn, a key concept in his political thought. Gramsci uses it “to signal the transition of an emergent social group from a subaltern economic-corporative phase to its self-constitution as a genuine class capable of exercising social and political hegemony”—Thomas, 2010, p294.

37 Thus, Gramsci says, “the modern prince, the myth-prince, cannot be a real person, a concrete individual. It can only be an organism, a complex element of society in which a collective will […] begins to take concrete form”—SPN, p129, Q 13, § 1.

38 See Thomas, 2013, 2018, for studies explaining that the “modern prince”, as a “complex element of society”, is not simply a code-word for a conventional political party, but also a part of an expansive cultural or civilizational process to create an alternative to capitalist modernity.

39 Unfortunately, the widely available English anthologies of his work, such as SPN, do not contain many of Gramsci’s notes on the subaltern groups. This has been a major source of misunderstanding of this concept.

40 SPN, p52, Q 25, § 5. Gramsci’s concept of subalternity becomes increasingly important in his prison notebooks. He uses it to analyse “the ways in which relations of class, race, gender, religion, nationalism, and colonialism interact with conditions of subordination”—Green, 2011, p394.

41 For Gramsci, the French Revolution of 1789 and the role of the Jacobin club within it are a paradigm of bourgeois hegemony. They become important points of reference for him when examining other historical instances such as the “Risorgimento”, the process of Italian unification. He sees such instances as comparing unfavourably with the French experience. See SPN, pp77-82, Q 19, § 24.

42 See SPN, pp5-10, Q 12, § 1, § 3.

43 SPN, p5, Q 12, § 1.

44 SPN, p10, Q 12, § 3. Translation modified following Thomas, 2010.

45 SPN, p7, Q 12, § 1.

46 The prime example of this category was Croce, who Gramsci regarded as “a kind of lay pope and an extremely efficient instrument of hegemony”—SPN, p56, fn5.

47 Traditional intellectuals help to give a universal aspect to the power of the ruling group.

48 See PN3, pp248-249, Q 8, § 21.

49 See Liguori, 2016, pp85-119. Gramsci’s understanding of “common sense” is not limited to the realm of ideas, but also rooted in a group’s passions, embodied beliefs and cultural practices.

50 Crehan, 2016, px.

51 Confusingly, Gramsci’s term “good sense” corresponds to something like the conventional meaning of common sense in English, namely, of a practical wisdom or judgement.

52 SPN, p328, Q 11, § 12. Gramsci’s conception of “contradictory consciousness” explains the conflict between the subaltern’s “verbal” consciousness, restricting her to a passive condition, and a critical understanding that is implicit in her activity, allowing for a “practical transformation of the real world”—SPN, p333, Q 11, § 12.

53 PN2, p164, Q4 § 24; SPN, p399, Q16, § 9.

54 While often regarded simply as a code-word for Marxism, Thomas argues that the “philosophy of praxis” represents something more substantial for Gramsci: “a refoundation of Marxism that simultaneously has the potential to renew ‘from head to toe the whole way of conceiving of philosophy itself’”—Thomas 2010, pxxiv. See also Green, 2011, who warns against overusing the thesis that Gramsci employs code-words due to censorship.

55 SPN, pp356-357, Q 7, § 35.

56 SPN, p178, Q 13, § 17.

57 Bukharin, 2011 [1926]. Bukharin was a leading figure in the Communist International at the time.

58 SPN, p407, Q 11, § 62. On these points, see, Thomas, 2010, pp250-259.

59 SPN, p178, Q 13, § 17. It is notable, as we will see later, that criticism of this tendency disappears in both Eurocommunist and post-Marxist readings of Gramsci’s thought.

60 SPN, p399, Q 16, § 9. Thus, Gramsci took great pains to confront, theoretically and practically, the neo-idealist philosophy of Benedetto Croce, who had formulated his own “intellectual and moral reform” as a route out of Marxism. For Thomas, Gramsci’s criticism of Croce is “combatting one of the earliest and most sophisticated proponents of a ‘post-Marxism’”—Thomas, 2010, p261.

61 PN3, p252, Q 8, § 25.

62 PN3, p257, Q 8, § 36.

63 Gramsci analyses “Caesarism and Bonapartism” as types of leadership that emerge in “a situation in which the forces in conflict balance each other in a catastrophic manner”—SPN, p219, Q 13, § 27. Gramsci builds on Marx’s concept of “Bonapartism” in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, in which Marx argues that “the class struggle […] created circumstances and relations that made it possible for a grotesque mediocrity to play a hero’s part”—Marx/Engels, 1985, p57.

64 Mudde and Kaltwasser, 2017, introduces the burgeoning field of “populism studies”.

65 Mouffe and Errejón, 2016.

66 Mouffe, 2019.

67 Laclau and Mouffe, 2014, develops a philosophical perspective committed to “radical negativity”, the ineradicable nature of antagonism in society. While sharing this joint framework, the concrete projects that Laclau and Mouffe derived from this are arguably distinct. Laclau pursues a more sustained debate with the Marxist tradition about the possibility of constructing society as a totality (see Wenman, 2003), while Mouffe’s commitment to a radical pluralism brings her into closer proximity with liberal-democratic theory. Mouffe’s model of democratic politics aims to provide institutions that “permit conflict to take on an ‘agonistic’ form, where the opponents are not enemies but adversaries among whom exists a conflictual consensus”—Mouffe, 2013, pxii.

68 The “people” does not refer to the general population, but a constructed subject that sets itself against the establishment.

69 Although, Mouffe, 2019, suggests that “the situation now is the opposite of the one we criticised 30 years ago, and that it is ‘working class’ demands that are now neglected’”—Mouffe, 2019, p59.

70 Mouffe, 2019, p2. Laclau and Mouffe draw on Jacques Derrida to replace Marxism’s supposed reliance on structural determination with the ideas of contingency and undecidability. Their attentiveness to language and meaning derives from Derrida’s “deconstructive” approach, Michel Foucault’s “discourse” theory and Ludwig Wittgenstein’s late philosophy of “language-games”.

71 Mouffe’s “agonistic” approach to democracy tries to reconcile antagonism with pluralism by answering the question, “how can a democratic order acknowledge and manage the existence of conflicts that do not have a rational solution?”—Mouffe, 2019, pp90-93.

72 Mouffe, 2019, pp48-51, draws on Bobbio’s reconciliation of liberal democracy and democratic socialism. See Bobbio, 2005.

73 Hardt and Negri, 2001, 2005, advance a strategy of “desertion and exodus” of representative institutions. Although, Mouffe 2019, p53, notes that Hardt and Negri, 2017, p288, advocates a modified strategy of “taking power differently”.

74 Mouffe, 2019, p47.

75 Mouffe, 2019, p50. While, for Mouffe, the form of this hegemony depends on “contexts and national traditions”, in practice, her separation of the Gramscian strategy of “becoming state” from the “seizure of state power” makes it reliant on acquiring power electorally—Mouffe, 2019, p47. See also Laclau and Mouffe, 2014, p59.

76 Mouffe, 2005.

77 Schmitt was a radical conservative who, after initially defending the Weimar republic, supported Hitler and the Nazis in 1933.

78 Schmitt, 2007, pxxii.

79 Schmitt, 2007, pp27-37.

80 Schmitt, 2007, p69n.

81 Mouffe replaces Schmitt’s “enemy” with the “adversary”, prefiguring her project to supersede “antagonism” with “agonism”, using “Schmitt against Schmitt” to defend liberal democracy against its self-destruction—Mouffe, 1999, p52n.

82 Mouffe, 2019, p15.

83 Mouffe, 2019, p3, p50. See also, Mouffe, 2013, pxi.

84 In contrast to the “utopian” socialism of Fourier and Saint-Simon that pre-dated their own, Marx and Engels were always careful not to engage in arbitrary conjecture about communist society, or, as Marx puts it, “writing recipes for the cook-shops of the future”—Marx, 1978, p99.

85 Laclau and Mouffe, 2014. See also Mouffe, 2019, pp87-93.

86 Laclau and Mouffe, 2014, pix.

87 On Althusser’s Marxism, see Callinicos, 1976. See also Elliott, 2007.

88 Mouffe, 1979, p1. See also Thomas, 2010, p11.

89 See Althusser, 2005.

90 Sotiris, 2019, p5.

91 Laclau, 1977. See Laclau, 2018, for his theory’s final formulation.

92 Sotiris, 2019, p12.

93 Laclau and Mouffe extend the everyday meaning of “discourse” beyond speech and writing, arguing that “speech and writing are themselves but internal components of discursive totalities”—Laclau and Mouffe, 1987, p82.

94 In the process of the creation of meaning, an articulation, derived from the psychoanalytical ideas of Jacques Lacan, is “any practice establishing a relation among elements such that their identity is modified as a result of the articulatory practice. The structured totality resulting from the articulatory practice, we will call discourse.”—Laclau and Mouffe, 2014, p105.

95 Laclau and Mouffe, 2014, pxi.

96 Laclau and Mouffe refute accusations of crude idealism and relativism, arguing that they do not deny the existence of material entities beneath these discursive articulations. However, their equation of the social world with the discursive world places a limit on the objectivity of society. See, Laclau and Mouffe, 1987; Sotiris, 2019, p9.

97 Laclau and Mouffe, 2014, pxi.

98 Laclau and Mouffe, 2014, px. See also Liguori, 2016, pp1-25; PN3, pp74-75, Q 6, § 75.

99 See Buci-Glucksmann, 1980.

100 Mouffe, 2019, p2. According to Mouffe, while this does not mean that they “privilege the demands of the new movements at the expense of those of the working class”, it does involve denying any “a priori centrality” to proletarian struggle—Mouffe, 2019, p3.

101 Mouffe, 2019, pp62-64.

102 Mouffe, 2019, p62.

103 Mouffe, 2019, p63.

104 Laclau and Mouffe, 2014, pxviii. Underlying their position is a structural analysis of the category of equivalence, in which “the identity of the object is split: on the one hand, it maintains its own ‘literal’ sense; on the other, it symbolizes the contextual position for which it is a substitutable element”—Laclau and Mouffe, 2014, p63.

105 Sotiris, 2019, p9.

106 Laclau and Mouffe, 2014, p60, partially accepts this argument, but argues for a fundamental “ambiguity” in Gramsci’s thought around the “status of the working class”.

107 Gramsci’s toolbox of concepts above, including “common sense”, “good sense” and the “philosophy of praxis”, enables him to explain the development of class-consciousness without relying on an idealised or metaphysical notion of an “a priori” consciousness preceding the collective experiences of the subaltern groups.

108 See also Puente Sierra, 2018, p22.

109 Despite criticising “economism”, Gramsci operates with a sophisticated critical economics. See Krätke, 2011.

110 Gramsci, 1977, p306.

111 Anderson, 2017a, p24.

112 SPN, p402, Q 7, § 18.

113 SPN, p178, Q 13, § 17. Like Laclau and Mouffe, Simon, 1982, refers to Gramsci’s criticism of “economism”, while ignoring the twin danger of “ideologism”—SPN, p178, Q 13, § 17.

114 Wood, 1986, p55.

115 See Marx, 1978, chapter 10.

116 Wood, 1986, p59.

117 Geras, 1987. Laclau and Mouffe, 1987, respond to Geras, acknowledging that Luxemburg does not conform to their general criticism of Marxism—of failing to make equivalential links between struggles. However, Laclau and Mouffe argue that Luxemburg places a “rigid limit on the expansive logic of equivalences”—Laclau and Mouffe, 2014, pp63-64. It seems that some account of Gramsci’s framework of “contradictory consciousness” is lacking in this encounter. For a recent reassessment, arguing that Geras was moving towards his own “post-Marxism”, see Townshend, 2017.

118 Geras, 1987, p47. See also Geras, 1988.

119 See chapter 4 of Wood, 1986. See also Callinicos, 2004, pp252-254.

120 Ali, 2015.

121 Mouffe, 2019, p22.

122 Wood, 1986, p68.

123 Sotiris, 2019, p21.

124 Žižek, 2006, p558.

125 Žižek, 2006, p558.

126 Mouffe, 2019, p46.

127 Mouffe, 1979, p15.

128 Mouffe is drawing on Hall’s argument that the left must “learn from Thatcher’s strategy”—Hall, 1988, p271. Hall used Gramsci’s concept of “passive revolution”, explained above, to show how the ruling class was capable of carrying through a process of social transformation “from above” to consolidate its rule.

129 For Hall, Thatcherism took power not only by forming a government, but also through creating a new “common sense” in society. This meant assembling an alliance of forces, an “historic bloc”, united around key positions and values: endorsing de-regulation and the free-market, promoting ideas of law and order, attacking Keynesianism and the welfare state, etc. These values were a synthesis of “organic Toryism” – themes such as tradition, duty and order – with “revived neoliberalism” – “self-interest, competitive individualism, anti-statism”—Hall, 1988, p48.

130 SPN, p367, Q 10.II, § 6.i.

131 Davidson, 2008, p78. The earliest formulation of Mouffe’s project argues that a “possible” Eurocommunism would need to invert “passive revolution”, a strategy of the ruling class, by developing an “anti-passive revolution” for the left—Mouffe, 1979, p15.

132 SPN, pp395-396, Q 16, § 9.

133 Sotiris, 2019, p14.

134 Davidson, 2008.


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