Ernesto Laclau’s Politics and Ideology in Marxist Theory contains four interconnected, but relatively self-contained essays.footnote1 Two of these had already been published, indeed had been quite influential. Laclau’s critique of Gunder Frank’s theory of underdevelopment, and especially of his definition of capitalism in market rather than production terms, has for several years now been a standard reference in sociology of development, and has contributed considerably to the current emphasis on ‘mode of production’ analysis in studies of third-world countries.footnote2 His intervention in the well-known Poulantzas-Miliband debate on the capitalist state not only clarified some of the misunderstandings arising out of this controversy, but provided a penetrating critique of some aspects of Althusserian Marxism at a time when the French philosopher’s sway over left intellectuals in the English-speaking countries was very considerable.footnote3 Since both these essays are quite well known and have been widely discussed, I shall focus my analysis on the two lengthy unpublished chapters which actually constitute the bulk of the book. In these, Laclau does not limit himself to criticizing theories put forward by others. He tries, on the basis of Althusser’s concept of ideological interpellations, first to provide the elements for a reformulation of the Marxist theory of ideology; secondly, to build a general theory of populism applicable not only to populist movements in third-world countries, but also to European fascism.

Laclau starts with a critique of Poulantzas’s theory of ideology, as developed in his book Fascism and Dictatorship.footnote4 Although he sees Poulantzas’s work as a great advance over purely descriptive, empiricist analyses of fascism, since it offers a variety of theoretical insights into the complex contradictions which led to the rise of Hitler’s and Mussolini’s régimes, he criticizes Poulantzas for not giving an adequate account of the ideological crisis which constitutes the keystone for an adequate explanation of these developments. According to Laclau, this failure is principally due to the fact that Poulantzas seeks in too reductionist a manner to establish necessary links between discrete ideological elements and specific social classes. Thus for Poulantzas during the competitive phase of capitalism, Marxism-Leninism is the ideology of the working class and liberalism that of the bourgeoisie. Poulantzas is quite aware, of course, that in actual historical situations specific class ideologies are an amalgam of ideological elements; that, for example, the dominant bourgeois ideology contains within its discourse both working-class and petty-bourgeois ideological themes. But this realization does not prevent him from the unwarranted assumption that, within a specific ideological discourse, it is always possible to identify the class basis of each specific ideological element, both during the formative growth of this discourse and in its eventual transformation.

Laclau does not agree that liberalism should necessarily be attributed to the bourgeoise, since the same ideology was and is still being used by feudal landlords in the Latin American context. Nor does he see militarism as an essentially feudal ideological element, seeing that it has played a central role in the ideologies both of the bourgeoisie and of third-world anti-imperialist movements. In other words, for Laclau there are no such things as paradigmatic or pure ideologies with determinate class connotations. Ideological themes such as nationalism or democracy are in themselves neutral, and not the monopoly of any one class. They can be articulated with the ideological discourse of a variety of contradictory interests. It is, therefore, only by looking at the overall structure of an ideology, i.e. at the way in which it combines its constituent elements, that its class connotations can be established.

Laclau begins his own analysis of ideological discourses by adopting Althusser’s concept of interpellation: according to the latter, the factor common to all ideologies is the portrayal of individuals (which, in reality, are mere ‘bearers of structures’) as autonomous subjects. This inversion, by which the determinate is falsely presented as the determinant, takes place through a process of ‘hailing’ or ‘interpellating’ individuals as subjects. ‘If, therefore, the basic function of all ideology is to constitute individuals as subjects, and if through interpellation individuals live their conditions of existence as if they were the autonomous principle of the latter . . . it is clear that the unity of the distinct aspects of an ideological system is given by the specific interpellation which forms the axis and organizing principle of all ideology.’footnote5 On the basis of the above, Laclau makes a fundamental distinction between class and popular interpellations. Class interpellations, in so far as they address individuals as class subjects, arise out of contradictions related to a specific mode of production, whereas popular/democratic interpellations (hailing or addressing agents as ‘people’) are related to the people/‘power-bloc’ contradiction—a contradiction which becomes intelligible if one focuses on the political and ideological relations of domination.

So what is the relationship of these two types of ideological interpellations with the contradictions to which they correspond? Popular-democratic interpellations do not have a determinate class content; they are an abstract—or rather neutral—ideological raw material, which can be fitted into the ideological discourses of a variety of classes. This precisely is why popular interpellations are the ‘domain of ideological struggle par excellence’:footnote6 the ideological battleground in which antagonistic classes try to appropriate popular beliefs and use them for the promotion of their own interests. It is the strategy of the dominant classes to articulate popular interpellations into their class discourse in such a way that antagonistic interests are neutralized and presented as mere differences. Whenever they succeed in this, they achieve ideological hegemony—since a hegemonic ideology does not imply the uniform imposition of the Weltanschauung of the ruling class on the rest of the population, but the presentation of different views of the world in such a way that their antagonistic contradictions are either hidden or neutralized. If the dominated classes, on the other hand, manage to disarticulate popular-democratic elements from the discourse of the ruling class, and succeed in articulating them antagonistically into their own discourse, then they present a serious challenge to the hegemonic position of the power bloc.

In this way, ‘class’ and ‘people’ are both constituent elements of ideological discourses. Class contradictions are related to popular contradictions through articulation, not by reduction. But although popular contradictions cannot be reduced to class contradictions, the latter do determine the articulating principle of that discourse. In other words, the people/power-bloc contradiction, although relatively autonomous, is determined in the last instance by class contradictions and class struggles. This priority of class struggle over popular-democratic struggle is obvious, according to Laclau, ‘since the latter takes place only at the ideological and political level (the “people” do not, obviously, exist at the level of production relations).’footnote7 Clearly, therefore, the major mechanism which transforms ideologies is the class struggle, as classes fight over the articulation/disarticulation of popular-democratic elements.

This conceptualization provides the basis for an analysis of European fascism, as well as for a more general theory of populism. Starting with the latter, for Laclau the most essential characteristic of populism is its antagonistic articulation of popular-democratic interpellations: ‘Our thesis is that populism consists in the presentation of popular-democratic interpellations as a synthetic-antagonistic complex with respect to the dominant ideology.footnote8 In an ideological crisis of the hegemonic class (expressed as a failure to ‘neutralize’ popular-democratic interpellations, or as a failure of ‘transformist’ policies), the possibility exists for an antagonistic articulation of popular-democratic elements by either the dominated classes or class fractions of the fragmented power bloc. In the former case, the working classes may, for instance, articulate popular interpellations into their discourse so as to achieve the ‘maximum fusion of popular-democratic ideology and socialist ideology’.footnote9 In the latter case, fractions of the dominant classes seek mass support by the antagonistic use of popular-democratic interpellations, in order to restructure the power bloc to their own advantage.