Political Theory Bookshelf: Hegemony and Socialist Strategy

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The emergence of new social and political identities, historical defeats for the Left, as well as the proliferation of struggles, have meant that the classical forms of analysis of and strategy for socialism have been put into question. It is in this context that Laclau and Mouffe, in their hugely influential Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, examine the workings of hegemony, contemporary social struggles, and their significance for democratic theory — and posit a complete rethinking of the theoretical and political frameworks for social change.

In their words,

The surpassing of a great intellectual tradition never takes place in the sudden form of a collapse, but in the way that river waters, having originated at a common source, spread in various directions and mingle with currently flowing down from other sources. This is how the discourses that constituted the field of classical Marxism may help to form the thinking of a new left: by bequeathing some of their concepts, transforming or abandoning others, and diluting themselves in that infinite intertextuality of emancipatory discourses in which the plurality of the social takes shape.

The brief excerpt below is drawn from the book's opening pages. 

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We will start by tracing the genealogy of the concept of "hegemony." It should be stressed that this will not be the genealogy of a concept endowed from the beginning with full positivity. In fact, using somewhat freely an expression of Foucault, we could say that our aim is to establish the "archaeology of a silence." The concept of hegemony did not emerge to define a new type of relation in its specific identity, but to fill a hiatus that had opened in the chain of historical necessity. "Hegemony" will allude to an absent totality, and to the diverse attempts at recomposition and rearticulation which, in overcoming this original absence, made it possible for struggles to be given a meaning and for historical forces to be endowed with full positivity. The contexts in which the concept appear will be those of a fault (in the geological sense), of a fissure that had to be filled up, of a contingency that had to be overcome. "Hegemony" will be not the majestic unfolding of an identity but the response to a crisis.

Even in its humble origins in Russian Social Democracy, where it is called upon to cover a limited area of political effects, the concept of "hegemony" already alludes to a kind of contingent intervention required by the crisis or collapse of what would have been a "normal" historical development. Later, with Leninism, it is a keystone in the new form of political calculation required by the contingent "concrete situations" in which the class struggle occurs in the age of imperialism. Finally, with Gramsci, the term acquires a new type of centrality that transcends its tactical or strategic uses: "hegemony" becomes the key concept in understanding the very unity existing in a concrete social formation. Each of these extensions of the term, however, was accompanied by an expansion of what we could provisionally call a "logic of the contingent." In its turn, this expression stemmed from the fracture, and withdrawal to the explanatory horizon of the social, of the category of "historical necessity" which had been the cornerstone of Second International Marxism. The alternatives within this advancing crisis — and the different responses to it, of which the theory of hegemony is but one — form the object of our study.

Let us avoid any temptation to go back to the "origins." Let us simply pierce a moment in time and try to detect the presence of that void which the logic of hegemony will attempt to fill. This arbitrary beginning, projected in a variety of directions, will offer us, if not the sense of a trajectory, at least the dimensions of a crisis. It is in the multiple, meandering reflections in the broken mirror of "historical necessity" that a new logic of the social begins to insinuate itself, one that will only manage to think itself by questioning the very literality of the terms it articulates.

In 1906 Rosa Luxemburg published The Mass Strike, the Political Party and the Trade Unions. A brief analysis of this text — which already presents all the ambiguities and critical areas important to our theme — will provide us with an initial point of reference. Rosa Luxemburg deals with a specific theme: the efficacy and significance of the mass strike as a political tool. But for her this implies consideration of two vital problems for the socialist cause: the unity of the working class and the path to revolution in Europe. Mass strike, the dominant form of struggle in the first Russian revolution, is dealt with in its specific mechanisms as well as in its possible projections for the workers’ struggle in Germany. The theses of Rosa Luxemburg are well known: while debate concerning the efficacy of the mass strike in Germany had centred almost exclusively on the political strike, the Russian experience had demonstrated an interaction and a mutual and constant enrichment between the political and economic dimensions of the mass strike. In the repressive context of the Tsarist State, no movement for partial demands could remain confined within itself: it was inevitably transformed into an example and symbol of resistance, thus fuelling and giving birth to other movements. These emerged at unpreconceived points and tended to expand and generalize in unforeseeable forms, so that they were beyond the capacity of regulation and organization of any political or trade-union leadership. This is the meaning of Luxemburg’s "spontaneism." The unity between the economic and the political struggle — that is to say, the very unity of the working class — is a consequence of this movement of feedback and interaction. But this movement in turn is nothing other than the process of revolution.

If we move from Russia to Germany, Rosa Luxemburg argues, the situation becomes very different. The dominant trend is the fragmentation among diverse categories of workers, between the different demands of various movements, between economic struggle and political struggle. "Only in the sultry air of the period of revolution can any partial little conflict between labour and capital grow into a general explosion. In Germany the most violent, most brutal collisions between the workers and the employers take place every day without the struggle over-leaping the bound of the individual factories . . . None of these cases . . . changes suddenly into a common class action. And when they grow into isolated mass strikes which have without question a political colouring, they do not bring about a general storm." This isolation and fragmentation is not a contingent event: it is a structural effect of the capitalist State, which is only overcome in a revolutionary atmosphere. "As a matter of fact the separation of the political and the economic struggle and the independence of each is nothing but an artificial product of the parliamentarian period, even if historically determined. On the one hand, in the peaceful, 'normal' course of bourgeois society the economic struggle is split into a multitude of individual struggles in every undertaking and dissolved in every branch of production. On the other hand, the political struggle is not directed by the masses themselves in a direct action, but in correspondence with the form of the bourgeois State, in a representative fashion, by the presence of legislative representation."

In these conditions and given that the revolutionary outbreaks in Russia could be explained by factors such as the comparative backwardness of the country, the absence of political liberties, or the poverty of the Russian proletariat — were not the perspectives for revolution in the West postponed sine die? Here Rosa Luxemburg’s response becomes hesitant and less convincing as it assumes a characteristic course: namely, an attempt to minimize the differences between the Russian and the German proletariat, showing the areas of poverty and the absence of organization in various sectors of the German working class, as well as the presence of inverse phenomena in the most advanced sectors of the Russian proletariat. But what of those pockets of backwardness in Germany? Were they not residual sectors which would be swept away by capitalist expansion? And in that case, what guaranteed the emergence of a revolutionary situation? The answer to our question — Rosa Luxemburg does not at any point formulate it in this text — comes to us abruptly and unequivocably a few pages later: "(The social democrats) must now and always hasten the development of things and endeavour to accelerate events. This they cannot do, however, by suddenly issuing the 'slogan' for a mass strike at random at any moment, but first and foremost, by making clear to the widest layers of the proletariat the inevitable advent of this revolutionary period, the inner social factors making for it and the political consequences of it." Thus, the "necessary laws of capitalist development" establish themselves as a guarantee for the future revolutionary situation in Germany. Everything is now clear: as there were no more bourgeois-democratic changes to be achieved in Germany (sic), the coming of a revolutionary situation could only be resolved in a socialist direction; the Russian proletariat — struggling against absolutism, but in a historical context dominated by the maturity of world capitalism which prevented it from stabilizing its own struggles in a bourgeois stage — was the vanguard of the European proletariat and pointed out to the German working class its own future. The problem of the differences between East and West, so important in the strategic debates of European socialism from Bernstein to Gramsci, was here resolved by being discarded.

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