Why should we rethink the socialist project today? In Hegemony and Socialist Strategy we pointed out some of the reasons. As participating actors in the history of our time, if we are actually to assume an interventionist role and not to do so blindly, we must attempt to wrest as much light as possible from the struggles in which we participate and from the changes which are taking place before our eyes. Thus, it is again necessary to temper ‘the arms of critique’. The historical reality whereof the socialist project is reformulated today is very different from the one of only a few decades ago, and we will carry out our obligations as socialists and intellectuals only if we are fully conscious of the changes and persist in the effort of extracting all their consequences at the level of theory. The ‘obstinate rigour’ that Leonardo proposed as a rule for intellectual work should be the only guideline in this task; and it leaves no space for complacent sleights of hand that seek only to safeguard an obsolete orthodoxy.

Since we have referred in our book to the most important of these historical transformations, we need do no more here than enumerate them: structural transformations of capitalism that have led to the decline of the classical working class in the post-industrial countries; the increasingly profound penetration of capitalist relations of production in areas of social life, whose dislocatory effects—concurrent with those deriving from the forms of bureaucratization which have characterized the Welfare State—have generated new forms of social protest; the emergence of mass mobilizations in Third World countries which do not follow the classical pattern of class struggle; the crisis and discrediting of the model of society put into effect in the countries of so-called ‘actually existing socialism’, including the exposure of new forms of domination established in the name of the dictatorship of the proletariat.

There is no room here for disappointment. The fact that any reformulation of socialism has to start today from a more diversified, complex and contradictory horizon of experiences than that of fifty years ago—not to mention 1914, 1871 or 1848—is a challenge to the imagination and to political creativity. Hopelessness in this matter is only proper to those who, to borrow a phrase from J. B. Priestley, have lived for years in a fools’ paradise and then abruptly move on to invent a fools’ hell for themselves. We are living, on the contrary, one of the most exhilarating moments of the twentieth century: a moment in which new generations, without the prejudices of the past, without theories presenting themselves as ‘absolute truths’ of History, are constructing new emancipatory discourses, more human, diversified and democratic. The eschatological and epistemological ambitions are more modest, but the liberating aspirations are wider and deeper.

In our opinion, to rethink socialism in these new conditions compels us to undertake two steps. The first is to accept, in all their radical novelty, the transformations of the world in which we live—that is to say, neither to ignore them nor to distort them in order to make them compatible with outdated schemas so that we may continue inhabiting forms of thought which repeat the old formulae. The second is to start from this full insertion in the present—in its struggles, its challenges, its dangers—to interrogate the past: to search within it for the genealogy of the present situation; to recognize within it the presence—at first marginal and blurred—of problems that are ours; and, consequently, to establish with that past a dialogue which is organized around continuities and discontinuities, identifications and ruptures. It is in this way, by making the past a transient and contingent reality rather than an absolute origin, that a tradition is given form.

In our book we attempted to make a contribution to this task, which today starts from different traditions and in different latitudes. In almost all cases we have received an important intellectual stimulus from our reviewers. Slavoj Zizek, for example, has enriched our theory of social antagonisms, pointing out its relevance for various aspects of Lacanian theory.footnote1 Andrew Ross has indicated the specificity of our line of argument in relation to several attempts in the United States to address similar problems, and has located it within the general framework of the debate about post-modernity.footnote2 Alistair Davidson has characterized the new Marxist intellectual climate of which our book is part.footnote3 Stanley Aronowitz has made some interesting and friendly criticisms from the standpoint of the intellectual tradition of the American Left.footnote4 Phillip Derbyshire has very correctly underlined the theoretical place of our text in the dissolution of essentialism, both political and philosophical.footnote5 David Forgacs has posed a set of important questions about the political implications of our book, which we hope to answer in future works.footnote6

However, there have also been attacks coming—as was to be expected—from the fading epigones of Marxist orthodoxy. In this article we will answer the criticisms of one member of this tradition: Norman Geras.footnote7 The reason for our choice is that Geras—in an extremely unusual gesture for this type of literature—has done his homework: he has gone through our text thoroughly and has presented an exhaustive argument in reply. His merits, however, end there. Geras’s essay is well rooted in the literary genre to which it belongs: the pamphlet of denunciation. His opinion about our book is unambiguous: it is ‘profligate’, ‘dissolute’, ‘fatuous’, ‘without regard for normal considerations of logic, of evidence, or of due proportion’; it is ‘shame-faced idealism’, an ‘intellectual vacuum’, ‘obscurantism’, ‘lacking all sense of reasonable constraint’, ‘lacking a proper sense of either measure or modesty’; it indulges in ‘elaborate theoretical sophistries’, in ‘manipulating concepts’ and in ‘tendentious quotations’. After all this, he devotes forty pages (one third of the May–June 1987 issue of New Left Review) to a detailed analysis of such a worthless work. Furthermore, despite the fact that Geras does not know us personally, he is absolutely definite about the psychological motivations that led us to write the book—‘the pressure . . . of age and professional status’; ‘the pressures of the political time . . . not very congenial, in the West at least, to the sustenance of revolutionary ideas’; ‘the lure of intellectual fashion’; ‘so-called realism, resignation or merely candid self-interest’, etc.—conceding, however, that such perverse motivations are perhaps not ‘consciously calculated for advantage’. (Thank you, Geras.) It is, of course, up to the reader to decide what to think about an author who opens an intellectual discussion by using such language and such an avalanche of ad hominem arguments. For our part, we will only say that we are not prepared to enter into a game of invective and counter-invective; we will therefore declare from the start that we do not know the psychological motivations behind Geras’s inspiration to write what he does and that, not being his psychiatrists, we are quite uninterested in them. However, Geras also makes a series of substantive—though not substantial—criticisms of our book, and it is to these aspects of his piece that we shall refer. We shall first consider his critique of our theoretical approach and then move on to his points concerning the history of Marxism and the political issues that our book addresses. Let us start with the central category of our analysis: the concept of discourse.

The number of absurdities and incoherences that Geras has accumulated concerning this point is such that it is simply impossible to use his critical account as the framework for our reply. We will therefore briefly outline our conception of the social space as discursive, and then confront this statement with Geras’s criticisms.