Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe’s Hegemony and Socialist Strategy footnote1 and Norman Geras’s lengthy review article (‘Post-Marxism’, nlr 163) raise issues which are at the heart of the ongoing debate on the stature and prospects of contemporary Marxist theory. Laclau and Mouffe’s major thesis is that the core of all Marxist theory is based on a necessitarian, deterministic logic which emphasizes iron laws, a strict succession of stages, the inevitability of the proletarian revolution, and so on. This logic reduces complexity and leads to an essentialist view of the social and to a closed, monistic type of theoretical discourse. All attempts from Marx onwards to soften Marxism’s deterministic core by stressing indeterminacy, complexity, the importance of agency, the relative autonomy of the political etc. are simply ad hoc additions to a theoretical edifice which, in its foundations, remains irretrievably monistic. In other terms, when Marxists, past and present, try to avoid determinism, they unavoidably fall into the trap of ‘dualism’ or eclecticism. Therefore a deterministic closure of electicism/dualism is the grim dilemma of all Marxist theory.

For Geras, what Laclau and Mouffe see as the core of Marxism is simply a caricature, a systematic distortion of a theoretical tradition which, in the works of its most successful representatives, has managed to avoid reductionism and monistic closure without resorting to eclecticism or empiricism. Whether one looks at Marx’s work or at the writings of Luxemburg, Lenin and Gramsci, one finds an emphasis on the fundamental importance of structural determinations emanating from the economy, these determinations operating not as an all-encompassing monistic cause leading to total closure, but as a framework both enabling and setting limits to what is possible at the level of politics and culture. Moreover, at the level of the whole social formation, the idea of primacy of one type of structure over other structures, or to use Althusser’s expression, the idea of a hierarchy of causalities of uneven weight is neither monistic nor eclectic. It is only Laclau and Mouffe’s conceptual manicheism which presents us with the ‘determinism/electicism’ pseudodilemma.

This paper will attempt to develop three related arguments: (a) One can defend the Marxist paradigm against the idea of monistic closure not only by reference to the empirical work of specific authors, but also, or rather more appropriately, by looking at the logical status and mode of construction of certain fundamental Marxist concepts, such as the mode of production. (b) The authors of Hegemony and Socialist Strategy replace the one-sided necessitarian logic that one sees in dogmatic Marxism with an equally unacceptable one-sided contingency logic, and that whenever they try to mitigate their one-sidedness they are led to dualism/eclecticism. (c) Contrary to Geras’s position, there is a type of reductionism which is inherent in all Marxist discourse—although this reductionism is not as incapacitating as Laclau and Mouffe imply.

First of all, however, I would like very briefly to comment on some preliminary remarks in Geras’s article which might create a certain confusion for the reader. At the beginning of his article Geras attempts, in a general way, to explain the recent trend of Marxists breaking with Marxism in terms of such considerations as ‘pressures of age and professional status’, ‘the lure of intellectual fashion’, ‘the desire for recognition and originality’, the wish to be an ‘up-to-the-minute thinker’, etc. Although he is careful not to link these remarks with the position adopted by Laclau and Mouffe, given that they immediately precede Geras’s criticism of Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, it is easy for the reader to assume that they are directly addressed to its authors. Two points are therefore in order. First, having followed quite closely Laclau and Mouffe’s intellectual trajectory as well as their principled involvement in politics, I would like to emphasize at the outset that Geras’s ‘sociology of knowledge’ remarks by no means apply to them. Second, and most important, what is really crucial in the context of a debate such as this is less to ascertain the reasons, conscious or unconscious, behind an author’s break with Marxism and more to establish the cognitive validity or non-validity of what he or she has to say.

Moving now to my first main argument, I think that in order to deal with the issue of whether or not Marxism leads to a closed discourse, one has to start by distinguishing as clearly as possible a substantive theory from a conceptual framework—the latter, rather than providing a set of empirically verifiable and knowledge-producing statements on some specific issue, simply ‘maps out the problem area and thus prepares the ground for its empirical investigation’. footnote2 This distinction between conceptual framework and substantive theory corresponds more or less to Althusser’s distinction between Generalities II and Generalities III: Generalities II consist of conceptual tools which, when applied to ‘raw’ theoretical material (Gen. I), lead eventually to the production of full-blown substantive theories (Gen. III). footnote3

Now, it seems to me that the issue of whether or not core Marxism is fundamentally a closed or an open system can only be settled in a satisfactory manner at the level of Generalities II. For given that, as Geras argues, in the Marxist tradition one finds both open and closed substantive theories (on the development of capitalism for instance), the problem is to ascertain whether it is the open or closed ones which are more congruent with the basic conceptual tools of the Marxist discourse. Contrary to Laclau and Mouffe’s position, I will argue that if one looks carefully at these conceptual tools, and particularly if one compares them with equivalent non-Marxist cases, one will have to conclude that it is the closed rather than the open substantive discourses (Gen. III) which do violence to Marxism’s fundamental conceptual apparatus (Gen. II).

In fact Marxism, more than any other paradigm in the social sciences, can suggest very fruitful ways of studying social formations from the point of view of both agency and institutional structure, both as a configuration of collective actors struggling over the control of scarce resources, and as a systemic whole whose institutionalized parts or ‘subsystems’ can be more or less compatible or incompatible with each other. As David Lockwood pointed out long ago, Marxism combines a system and a social integration view of social formations. footnote4 It encourages, without resorting to dualism, the examination of incompatibilities between systemic parts or institutional ensembles (e.g. between forces and relations of production) as well as the ways in which such incompatibilities lead or fail to lead to the development of class consciousness and class conflict. To use, as much as it is possible, Laclau and Mouffe’s terminology, Marxism can help the student to raise questions about the impact of articulatory practices, struggles, antagonisms on subject positions as well as the reverse: that is, to raise questions about how subject positions (or roles, in non-Marxist sociology) cluster into larger institutional wholes, these wholes both shaping and setting limits to subjects’ practices. In a nutshell Marxism allows the serious and systematic study of both the practice → subject position and subject position → practice relationship.