Times change and people change. Their ideas change; develop, progress—and regress. There can be gradual change within a more or less stable intellectual framework. And there can also be sharper breaks, mutations of outlook in which one thing is renounced and another embraced. But each person has to take his leave or make her peace, as the case may be, in a way conformable to his or her own sense of dignity. We may cite the example of Eduard Bernstein, in the history of Marxist thought the first and the best-known so-called revisionist. Anyone at all familiar with his work will know that what he achieved—or perpetrated—was not truly a revision; it was a renunciation. The judgement is based not on any narrow or sectarian definition of what Marxism is but on the broadest, most inclusive definition possible. Bernstein challenged or set aside virtually every significant principle of Marxist thought. But he presented this as just a revision and it is not difficult to see why. For his political context and his audience were those of the German spd, an avowedly Marxist party, with a Marxist programme,
A first caution is needed here. No suggestion is intended that a person’s relation to his or her own ideas is a purely, or even primarily, instrumental one, consciously calculated for advantage. In general, at any rate, one is bound to assume sincerity. Other things can be at work, all the same, than just the internal exigencies of an intellectual process.
These remarks bear directly upon today. In the advanced capitalist world from the mid-1960s a generation of intellectuals was radicalized and won for Marxism. Many of them were disappointed in the hopes they formed—some of these wild but let that pass—and for a good while now we have been witnessing a procession of erstwhile Marxists, a sizeable portion of the generational current they shared in creating, in the business of finding their way ‘out’ and away. This exit is always presented, naturally, in the guise of an intellectual advance. Those of us unpersuaded of it cannot but remind its proponents of what they once knew but seem instantly to forget as they make their exit, namely, that the evolution of ideas has a social and material context. We cannot help wondering how far their recent trajectory may have been influenced by a range of factors which they themselves would doubtless prefer to overlook: the pressures upon them of age and professional status; the pressures of the political time and environment we have been passing through, not very congenial, in the West at least, to the sustenance of revolutionary ideas; and then the lure of intellectual fashion, a consideration not to be underrated by any means.
The life of the intellectual of the left is pulled by different forces. There is, on the one hand, a moral commitment of some sort, however formulated: to socialism, the end of exploitation, human liberation, a decent existence at last for everyone. But there is also, on the other hand, a certain self-image, as intellectual, and amongst its constituents, the desire for recognition, and so, perhaps, originality, and the hope or the sense of being in the very van, not just abreast of the latest theoretical development but one of its actual partisans and sponsors. The force of the former, the gravitational pull of moral commitment, is a variable one, as this same intellectual is well enough aware while she or he understands Marx. It is stronger when materially manifested, so to speak, visibly represented in and supported by a social movement—that of the exploited and the otherwise oppressed—particularly on the march, in active struggle. It is much weaker where this is absent; or in defeat or retreat. The bare commitment, and the ultimate historical objectives, can come here to seem rather abstract and remote, so distant from a particular personal destiny as to be hardly related to it at all. In the light of what is intellectually on offer at this moment, the theoretical
A second caution is now necessary. This is not the thesis of the inevitability of a growing political moderation and conservatism with age. There can be few socialists who were not once, at a point in youth or early adulthood, confronted by the patronizing wisdom of maturity and told in effect that their socialism was wholly appropriate to their years but otherwise misguided, as they would themselves eventually come to realize. At the time, all of us will have felt such counsel to be false and some of us now know that it was so. There is no inevitability about it. We are still socialists and have been able to learn too from those who sustained the idea to the very end. A couple of decades on, however, it is impossible not to acknowledge a certain truth in that cynical counsel, even if another than the one that was intended. For, casualties and departures there are. Once beyond the enthusiasm of their early years, with its follies, to be sure, but with a capacity also for energetic and disinterested solidarity, some will be carried away, more attentive now to other voices: so-called realism, resignation, or merely candid self-interest.
A couple of decades on, from the late 1960s. To be a Marxist then was, in a manner of speaking, the thing, or if not the thing, certainly something. But it did carry a commitment and this has become more difficult with the times. In such a situation, straightforward renegacy—if I may risk this expression—is always possible, of course. One can reject Marxism for some old and standard alternative: Christianity, liberalism or what have you. But there are reasons why a more disguised route may well be taken. One of them is self-protection against the idea of a volte-face, since people do not generally like to admit having turned around. Another is the bond a person already has with a given audience or milieu and the reluctance to sever it completely; or, put rather more concretely, an awareness of the great intellectual and moral authority Marxism continues to enjoy, notwithstanding its many enemies and critics. And a third is the consideration, already mentioned, of wishing to be an up-to-the-minute thinker. These reasons have nothing to do with a will to deceive. They concern the sources of respect and of self-respect; that which one has and that which one wants. Again, everyone must settle accounts in a way compatible with their own pride and dignity.
With these observations as a backdrop I want to discuss Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe’s Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics—which styles itself ‘post-Marxist’.
This is not because I consider the book to be theoretically worthwhile in any substantive respect. I do not. Indeed, it is a product of the very advanced