Revolutionary Subjectivity in Post-Marxist Thought by Oliver Harrison with Reply by Mark Devenney

PDF Versions: Reply by Mark Devenney.

Revolutionary Subjectivity in Post-Marxist Thought: The Case of Laclau and Badiou

Oliver Harrison


Since Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe’s publication of Hegemony and Socialist Strategy in 1985, the term post-Marxism has been understood in at least two senses. First, using Laclau’s and Mouffe’s terminology, in a post-Marxist sense it refers to the view that the development of Marx’s work was built on principles that were always wrong; either in terms of his notion of ‘subjectivity and classes’, his historical predictions regarding capitalist development, or his notion of a communist society (Laclau and Mouffe 2001: 4). In a second – post-Marxist – sense, however, it accepts that the process of going beyond Marx cannot be one of straight-forward abandonment but, rather, must involve working through him – and the Marxist tradition. This distinction between different forms of post-Marxism was reiterated by Tormey and Townshend (2006). For them, it is possible to identify ‘strong’ and ‘weak’ forms of post-Marxism. The former denotes those who ‘wished to be seen or perceived as working within the Marxian problematic’, whereas the latter refers to those more self-consciously antagonistic to the Marxist project (Tormey and Townshend 2006: 4). More recently, Göran Therborn (2009: 165) referred to post-Marxism ‘in an open sense, referring to writers with an explicitly Marxist background’, whose ‘work has gone beyond Marxist problematics and who do not publicly claim a continuing Marxist commitment’. Neo-Marxism, interestingly, is distinguished from post-Marxism only on the basis that ‘an explicit commitment’ to Marxism remains.

What seems clear is that the term post-Marxism is not as straightforward as it might appear. Furthermore, as Tormey and Townshend (2006: 1) point out, far from being a ‘badge of self-identification’, the term is frequently used in a derogatory way to describe the work of others. At the heart of the problem, perhaps, is the extent to which post-Marxism conclusively leaves Marx behind. After all, one could argue that any attempt at going beyond Marx is always in the same instance a process that involves going back to him (Tormey and Townshend 2006: 11). The purpose of this article is to demonstrate this ambiguity with particular reference to the theories of revolutionary subjectivity articulated by Ernesto Laclau and Alain Badiou. Drawing on Marx’s own theory of revolutionary subjectivity as an analytical framework, I consider the extent to which Laclau’s and Badiou’s theory can be considered post-Marxist. I argue that, although both Laclau’s and Badiou’s theories of revolutionary subjectivity break decisively with Marx, they do so by drawing on the insights of two thinkers who were both indebted to Marx and who sought explicitly to remain Marxist: Antonio Gramsci and Mao Tse-tung respectively. This continuing fidelity to Gramsci and Mao confounds the decisiveness of Laclau’s and Badiou’s break from Marx. After outlining the conditions I associate with Marx’s own theory, as well as then mapping Laclau’s and Badiou’s against these conditions, I conclude by suggesting – in line with the post-Marxism of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri – that one condition of Marx’s theory remains an important tool for considering the question of revolutionary subjectivity today.

The centrality of productive labour

Marx and Engels regarded the emergence of the capitalist mode of production as a progressive development in the evolution of productive activity (Marx and Engels 1993: 70). With the transition from the ‘formal subsumption’ to the ‘real subsumption’ of labour to capital, the labour process was radically transformed (Marx 1990: 1021, 1035). While the formal subsumption of labour to capital involved the extraction of absolute surplus value, the period inaugurated by real subsumption involved an increase in the working day’s intensity – one that was achieved through a radical restructuring of the division of labour. This process found its classical form in the application of large-scale industry.

Through machines, capital found a means to overcome the physical limitations of human labour and dissolve the unity of its collective struggle. However, far from diminishing class antagonism, this process merely displaced it to a different level, with the struggle over the length of the working day being supplanted by the struggle over its relative intensity. Crucially, according to Marx this process had significant effects on the composition and subjectivity of the working class. Although the strategic employment of machinery was instrumental in disciplining the ‘refractory hand of labour’, in the long run this only increased the socialisation of labour and, in so doing, brought with it new forms of highly productive and co-operative subjectivity (see Marx 1976: 455-491). While Marx certainly criticised this process in its capitalist guise (Marx 1990: 486), ultimately he believed that capital brought with it both the objective and subjective conditions for its eventual supersession.

The objective tendency of capitalist production

Marx believed that capitalist development would be plagued by persistent crises. With a rise in the ‘organic composition of capital’, he predicted an increased concentration and centralisation of social wealth, a swelling in the ranks of the industrial reserve army of labour and, ultimately, a long-term tendency for the rate of profit to fall (Marx 1990: 777-789). For Marx, it was in and through capitalist crises that a template could be established to identify means by which to overcome the instability of capital. The increased socialization, centralization, and concentration of capital brought glimpses of an alternative form of society which Marx believed would convince the working class of the necessity of social revolution. What capital’s objective tendencies revealed overall, then, was the fact that, far from being the most ‘rational’ form of society, capitalism was in fact a highly contradictory system that, when fully matured, only blocked the further development and realisation of social needs and consciousness (Callinicos 1995: 159).

As an objective tendency, then, capitalist development would work ‘towards its own dissolution as the form dominating production’ (Marx 1993: 700). However, social revolution required more than objective conditions alone. As Peter Hallward (2009) explains, ‘what is most fundamental in Marx is not the “inevitable” or involuntary process whereby capitalism might dig its own grave, but rather the way in which it prepares the ground upon which the determined diggers might appear’ (Hallward 2009: 18). Communist revolution, in other words, required the development of ‘the greatest productive power’ of all: ‘the revolutionary class itself’ (Marx 1976: 211).

The subjective tendency of capitalist development

Although the objective contradictions of capitalist development revealed the ‘revolutionary, subversive side’ to the working class’ increasing misery (c.f. Marx 1976: 178), revolutionary subjectivity was unlikely to develop out of pauperism or social destitution alone (Clarke 1993: 171; Draper 1979: 55). The real effects of the ‘general law’ of capitalist development lay in the shared experience that this situation induced. With the progressive development of the division of labour, capital creates a subjectivity that is collectivized, highly concentrated, and whose interests and conditions of life become more and more ‘equalized’ (Marx and Engels 1993: 75). In this sense, by virtue of its very existence, the working class was already a ‘class against capital’ (Marx 1976: 211). Yet, through its increased strength in numbers, improved means of communication to co-ordinate its struggle, and the ‘political and general education’ provided by the bourgeoisie themselves, Marx believed that the working class could transform itself from being a ‘class against capital’ to a revolutionary ‘class-for-itself’.

While the most immediate form of working class struggle was conducted through the trades unions, Marx believed that this organisational form had to extend the scope of its influence, enlisting ‘the non-society men into their ranks’, and thus convincing society at large that their interests were not narrow and secular, but broad and inclusive to all the ‘downtrodden millions’ (Marx 1992b: 92). The problem, however, was how to theorize this revolutionary transformation for, as Lebowitz (2003: 179) explains, in the ordinary run of things, one has to accept that capitalism produces the sort of workers that it needs, and the working class subjectivity that it encourages is anything but revolutionary.

Marx’s answer was that the working class had to develop its own revolutionary political party, one that ‘unites and concentrates its forces’, which is not ‘separate’ from, but works alongside, the various workers’ organisations already established. Although Marx believed this party would be guided by an advanced theory, this theory had to link dialectically to the actual movements of the class struggle (Marx and Engels 1993: 80; Marx 1992b: 99; Marx 1975: 182). Crucially, Marx believed that the working class must ultimately educate itself gradually and independently with the assistance of the communist party (Marx and Engels 1993: 330; Blackburn 1976: 23). In sum, for Marx, it was through the educative process of class struggle that the working class could become revolutionary. In line with capital’s objective development, then, the subjective development of the working class emerges (Lebowitz 2003: 180).

The necessity of political power and the establishment of a classless society

For Marx and Engels the only lasting way the working class could sustain its revolutionary subjectivization was through raising itself ‘to the position of ruling class, to win the battle of democracy’ (Marx and Engels 1993b: 86). As a vital element in this process the conquest and retention of political power was, in itself, an educative experience (Lebowitz 2003: 193). What Marx famously called the ‘revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat’, was to be a very particular form of state power – one that governed the transition from capitalist society to communist society (Marx 1992b: 355). Using the Paris Commune as his model, Marx stipulated that, although it would principally be a working class government, it would also be the ‘true representative of all the healthy elements of French society’ (Marx 1993a: 209, 212, 216). This latter aspect was crucial, highlighting the fact that Marx was well aware of the necessity of tactical alliances in the quest for political power, particularly among elements of the peasantry and petty bourgeoisie (Draper 1979: 358; Callinicos 1995: 165).

The ‘true secret’ of the commune was, not only that it provided the space for the working class to continue its revolutionary transformation but, also, that it served as a means of consolidating its power for the tasks that lay ahead in the future (Marx 1993: 212). The dictatorship of the proletariat, then, although instrumental to the goals of revolutionary subjectivity, does not in any way effect its dissolution. This point, Marx and Engels (1993: 87) argued, could only occur with the establishment of a communist society capable of liberating the socially cooperative powers of labour so as to provide for the needs of all. Only then, they argued, would class antagonism dissipate (Marx 1992a: 426).

Alongside the three conditions outlined above, Marx’s theory of revolutionary subjectivity reveals two recurrent themes. First, revolutionary subjectivity emerges through the educative process of class struggle. Capitalist development might bring the conditions necessary for the emergence of this subjectivity, but these conditions require an additional subjective supplement. Secondly, Marx and Engels were well aware that, although the industrial proletariat was expected to be the vanguard of workers’ struggles, these workers – and the party that guided them – would have to be tactically astute, particularly with regard to revolutionary alliances. These two themes would be taken up most significantly in the work of Antonio Gramsci and Mao Tse-tung. In expounding the notion of ‘hegemony’, Gramsci considers strongly the issue of tactical alliances, arguing that, central to a Marxist theory of revolutionary subjectivity, is the construction of a ‘national-popular collective will’ which moves beyond the ‘economic corporate’ interests of the working class to integrate the interests of other social groups into a united ‘social bloc’ (Gramsci 1999: 329, 353, 406, 152). Mao, on the other hand, continually emphasizes the importance of political practice, especially in relation to the development of intellectuals, the role of the communist party, and the more generic search for ‘knowledge’ and ‘truth’ (Tse-Tung 1965). By now comparing Laclau’s and Badiou’s theories of revolutionary subjectivity to that of Marx, I will trace the legacies of Gramsci and Mao in post-Marxist thought.

Hegemony, populism, and ‘the people’

The starting point to Laclau’s (2005) theory of revolutionary subjectivity is the emergence of what he calls a basic ‘social demand’. This demand, Laclau argues, is an attempt to articulate something that is deemed absent from a particular social order. If this demand is dealt with – and thus remains merely at the level of a ‘request’ – then ‘that is the end of the matter’. In a situation where this demand is not met, however, then the possibility arises that other – equally unmet – demands might start to link themselves together (Laclau 2005: 73) creating an ‘internal frontier’: a division of the social space into two antagonistic camps, one consisting of the emergent ‘chain’ of unmet demands, and the other, a social order that is unwilling or unable to settle them (Laclau 2005: 74). Hence, what were once isolated and quite particular ‘democratic’ demands can now develop into ‘popular’ collective ones.

This movement from democratic to popular demands depends entirely on how they become articulated. Building on a distinction established in his earlier work with Chantal Mouffe (2001), what Laclau calls a ‘logic of difference’ describes a strategy whereby each demand asserts only their own particularity and, in consequence, remain isolated from one another. In this case, the formation of an internal frontier does not occur, and in consequence, neither can the emergence of a collective revolutionary subjectivity (Laclau 2005: 78). Laclau is adamant that the pure particularism often associated with ‘identity politics’ is a ‘self-defeating exercise’ that ‘can only lead to a political blind alley’ (Laclau 1996: 26, 48). What is needed, Laclau claims, is a strategy that employs the alternative ‘logic of equivalence’, in which each demand becomes equivalent to one another, with at least one demand dissolving its own particularity and becoming the universal inscription for all the others (Laclau 1996: 81).

Crucially, for Laclau, there is no underlying demand that is a priori more significant or universal than any other. The extent to which one demand might become universal is entirely contingent, dependent on its own hegemonic construction.[1] It is at this point that the influence of Gramsci’s notion of hegemony emerges. For Laclau, revolutionary subjectivity must be constructed out of various – at times disparate – elements. This is a process that rejects an emphasis on one particular social demand, unless, as stated above, this emphasis is hegemonically constructed. Of resonance, here, is Gramsci’s reiteration of the need to create a tactical ‘social bloc’ that transcends particularism and seeks the possibility of universality. Yet, there is clearly a significant difference between Gramsci’s and Laclau’s starting point, and this difference allows us to understand Laclau’s rejection of the first condition of Marx’s own theory. For Laclau, revolutionary subjectivity is not defined in any a priori manner, let alone through the prism of productive activity. Although he accepts that class may have been a dominant presence in emancipatory political movements in the past, the contrasting conditions of the present mean that it is no longer (Laclau 2000a: 206; Laclau 2000b: 299, 300).

Putting contemporary trends aside, for Laclau, the problem with Marx’s theory is two-fold. First, his philosophy of history forced him to privilege a priori one particular (class) identity as the embodiment of revolutionary subjectivity. Although the question of class alliance was indeed present in Marx’s work, the historical significance he ascribed to productive activity meant that Marx’s revolutionary subject was always-already the working class. Perhaps more importantly, however, the problems with Marx’s theory in fact ran deeper than this, due to his acceptance of the very notion of ‘the subject’ as a self-contained, fully transparent entity. In Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, Laclau and Mouffe had accepted that the privileged political status of the working class should not be rejected outright, but that concern should lie in rejecting the ontological category of ‘the subject’ itself (Laclau and Mouffe 2001: 181).

When considering the conditions necessary for the emergence of revolutionary subjectivity, Laclau shares with Marx the idea that a crisis in an established social structure is a basic pre-requisite (Laclau 2005: 85). In an earlier work, however, Laclau (1990) explicitly distanced his own understanding of structural crisis from Marx’s. Drawing on Lacanian theory, Laclau employed the notion of ‘dislocation’ to refer to the idea that, at base, every social structure is deficient, in some respect. Due to this ‘gap’ within the structure, Laclau argues that the emergence of revolutionary subjectivity must always be conceived as an attempt by rival hegemonic political forces to contend its closure (Laclau 1990: 41, 44). Thus, whereas, for Marx, structural crises can be explained logically through reference to the internal contradictions of the structure, for Laclau, dislocations follow no such dialectical logic. According to Laclau, it would do so only if that structure was fully ‘sutured’ in the first place. Dislocation, in other words ‘is not a necessary moment in the self-transformation of the structure’ (Laclau 1990: 46, 47). The consequence of Laclau’s notion of ‘dislocation’ is that he breaks with the second condition of Marx’s theory of revolutionary subjectivity. Revolutionary subjectivity, for Laclau, does not emerge entirely immanently from the structure which it aims to revolutionize.

The final aspect to Laclau’s theory of revolutionary subjectivity concerns the mechanism required in order to link successfully an equivalential ‘chain’ together. As stated above, the construction of revolutionary subjectivity is dependent on one particular demand ‘splitting’ itself into becoming a ‘signifier of a wider universality’ (Laclau 2005: 95). In the same instance, however, the particularity of the other demands must also split, and this is because they too must put aside their own particularity and rally around the universal demand that comes to constitute the unity of the chain. For Laclau, the unity of this equivalential chain – and hence the possibility of revolutionary subjectivity – depends on the production of what he calls ‘empty signifiers’.

Empty signifiers unify an equivalential chain by signifying what is commonly held to be deficient in a particular social order. A useful example of what Laclau has in mind here is the common populist reference to ‘the people’. Since Roman times the question has always pertained to whether ‘the people’ refers to the whole of the political community or rather the disenfranchised ‘part’ (Canovan 2005: 12, 15). Laclau takes this ‘stubborn ambiguity’ between the ‘populace’ and the ‘plebs’ a little further, and argues that the distinctiveness of populist discourse is the claim by the latter to be the only ‘legitimate’ form of the former: ‘a partiality which wants to function as the totality of the community’ (Laclau 2005: 81). In this sense ‘the people’ does not refer to the totality of an existing community, but is rather the signifier (or name) that attempts to articulate the deficiency within the community itself. What is equally significant with regard to Laclau’s claim that revolutionary subjectivity is never inscribed a priori, however, is the fact that revolutionary subjectivity is only ever constituted through the very process of naming itself. Revolutionary subjectivity, in other words, does not exist prior to the name it is given, whether this be ‘the people’ or any other particular signifier (Laclau 2005: 103, 108).

For Laclau, revolutionary subjectivity is thus always the outcome of the hegemonic construction of a ‘people’ (Laclau 2005: 239). Interestingly, however, Laclau accepts that a signifier such as ‘the people’ can be articulated in a number of different ways, none of which are constricted by any necessary or underlying ground. There is, in other words, nothing intrinsically progressive about appeals to ‘the people’; history has repeatedly proven this signifier’s political elasticity. Due to its Gramscian heritage, then, Laclau’s theory of revolutionary subjectivity is highly attuned to means by which particular signifiers can become attached to – or dislodged from – a particular discursive framework. This reminds us, again, that Laclau’s revolutionary subject is only ever the outcome of a protracted hegemonic struggle.

We have seen that Laclau’s theory breaks with Marx’s first two conditions of revolutionary subjectivity. To understand how it breaks from the third, we must return to his notion of empty signifiers, the primary function of which, it would appear, is to unify an equivalential chain. At base, however, their significance lies much deeper. Put simply, the ultimate significance of empty signifiers is that they deny the very possibility of achieving a resolutive form of the social. Although there is nothing in Laclau’s theory that rejects the strategic necessity of seizing political power, the idea that ‘society’ could ever be a fully constituted totality – now or in the future – renders the third condition of Marx’s theory nothing less than a totalitarian fantasy. What Laclau does accept, however, is the aspiration for totality, or, as he puts it, totality understood as a ‘horizon and not a ground’ (Laclau 2005: 71). It is this aspiration that lies behind repeated acts of identification on the part of the subject, and hence, ensures the vitality of both the continued emergence of different forms of ‘the people’, and in consequence, democracy itself (Laclau 2005: 170).

Event, truth, and the faithful subject

Badiou’s theory of revolutionary subjectivity hinges on his notion of ‘the event’. According to him, every event is a reactivation – within a particular ‘situation’ – of something that was ‘counted’ either not properly or perhaps not at all. The event itself is highly mysterious in the sense that it cannot be explained merely on that basis of its ‘localization’ within a particular situation. What the event brings is something completely unforeseen and exceptionally novel. In this sense, it is the event – understood as a highly indiscernible structural crisis – that can be said to revolutionize a situation. Understood as a ‘kind of flashing supplement that happens to a situation’, the event leaves behind a ‘trace’. In order properly to understand the event’s significance, ‘someone’ has to engage in a series of ‘inquiries’ (Badiou 2002: 72).

It is at this point that Mao’s emphasis on political practice becomes clear. Unless ‘someone’ wagers on the possibility that an event has indeed occurred, from within the situation ‘it will always remain doubtful whether there has been an event or not’ (Badiou 2005: 207). Significantly, then, before an event, every situation is composed merely of ‘individuals’, not subjects. The transformation of the former into the latter only occurs through a sustained engagement with the consequences – or ‘truth’ – of an event itself (Badiou 2002: 40; Badiou 1999: 108). Badiou’s subject, then, ‘is absolutely non-existent in the situation before the event’ (Badiou 2002: 43)[2]. In consequence, and in contradistinction to the first condition of Marx’s theory, the ‘faithful’ – revolutionary – subject is not defined by anything other than the truth that it decides to investigate. While it might be true that the working class does not ‘exist’ as the revolutionary subject until it becomes conscious of itself as the subject-object of history (c.f. Lukács 1971), the working class was always-already the historical candidate to take up this task due to the fact that Marx defined revolutionary subjectivity through the prism of productive activity. In a similar way to Laclau’s ‘people’, faithful subjectivity is not the work of a predisposed ‘hero’, but rather a complex and highly contingent set of procedures. Any philosophical narrative (i.e. historical materialism) that suggests otherwise was precisely that which the events of May ’68 and the Chinese Cultural Revolution (CCR) ended up extinguishing (Badiou 2010: 55).

Like Marx and Laclau, then, Badiou’s theory of revolutionary subjectivity hinges on the occurrence of some form of structural or objective crisis. In the same instance, this crisis is not enough, in-itself, to guarantee the emergence of revolutionary subjectivity. Yet, just as there were discrepancies between Laclau’s theory and the second condition of Marx’s, there is a major difference in the way Badiou conceives of this crisis. We have seen that, for Marx, revolutionary subjectivity emerges subjectively alongside objective tendencies. For Laclau and Badiou, however, revolutionary subjectivity emerges alongside objective anomalies: ‘dislocations’ or ‘events’ that fundamentally disrupt any historical narrative that purports to understand why, and indeed predict when, they might occur. The consequences of this reveal the distance between Badiou’s theory of revolutionary subjectivity and Marx’s second condition. In a similar way to Laclau, then, due to the fact that revolutionary subjectivity is only ever the possible consequence of a highly unpredictable crisis, in Badiou’s schema this subjectivity only ever emerges partially immanently to the system which it aims to revolutionize. Hence, whilst Badiou’s theory accepts that there is some kind of immanence at work, it does so only to the extent to which it enables revolutionary subjectivity to become a possibility (Badiou 2002: 16).

The final step in Badiou’s theory of revolutionary subjectivity – the work of a faithful subject – is for the ‘truth’ of an event to be ‘forced’, and ultimately, ‘normalized’ (Badiou 2005: 342). What Badiou calls ‘the law of the subject’ involves the establishment of its own ‘subject language’; one that traverses the encyclopaedic knowledge of a situation, supplanting it with that which was revealed to be excluded. Due to the undecidable nature of the event, the subject sustains itself through a radical commitment – a ‘confidence’ or ‘belief’ that inquiries will not be conducted in vain. What Badiou (2002: 48) calls the ‘subjective principle’, then, is, as Bosteels (2005: 581, 584) has argued, the principle aspect of Badiou’s aforementioned fidelity to Mao and, in particular, his ‘materialist theory of knowledge’ (see Tse-tung 1965: 303). Alongside Mao’s emphasis on the primacy of political practice being the sole criterion of truth, what Badiou quite clearly retains in this respect is the Maoist emphasis on ‘faith’ – not necessarily in ‘serving the masses’, but in the more generic sense of ‘serving the truth’.

Understanding the precise relationship between truth and the subject is critical for Badiou’s theory, not only in revealing his continued reliance on the thought of Mao, but also in distinguishing his theory of revolutionary subjectivity from Marx’s third condition. While one might claim that the link between Laclau’s and Badiou’s post-Marxism is their shared rejection of Marx’s philosophy of history, due to Badiou’s insistence on the possibility of universal truths, might there not remain a lingering form of dogmatism such as that which some have traditionally associated with the former? After all, as Peter Hallward (2003: 36) has noted, Badiou’s politics has always been one in which a ‘disciplined purification prevails over a politics of alliance and negotiation’.

Badiou deals with this problem through establishing what he calls a ‘typology of fidelities’. In contrast to the ‘deviations’ associated with ‘spontaneous’ and ‘dogmatic’ fidelities, Badiou’s ‘generic fidelity’ is one that basically does this job properly – seeking to separate those aspects of the situation which are positively connected to the event from those which are not. For Badiou, in other words, there is no one form of truth procedure, just as there is no one particular form of post-evental subjectivity. By recognising this, Badiou avoids the excesses of a totalising notion of truth, one that might potentially involve a ‘total destruction or reorganisation of absolutely every multiple in the situation’ (Badiou 2005: 237).

All of this reveals the extent to which Badiou breaks with the third condition of Marx’s theory. This condition stipulated that, with the conquest of political power, the eventual abolition of private property would destroy the heart of capitalist society and, in so doing, would involve a complete reorganisation of the social space. What we see from the above, however, is the extent to which Badiou believes this should in fact be avoided. Badiou (2002) reiterates this point by establishing what he calls a second ‘ethic of truths’. One of Badiou’s claims regarding a truth procedure is that it must necessarily traverse the existing knowledge and language of a situation. Only this way can the true novelty of an event be established. The danger here, however, is that the emergent ‘subject language’ might attempt to re-arrange all the elements of an existing situated knowledge (Badiou 2002: 83). If this occurred, he claims, the truth procedure would not just reorganise the distortions associated with the language/knowledge of an existing situation, but in fact revolutionize everything on the ‘absolute authority of truthful nomination’. In a remarkably similar way to Laclau, then, Badiou believes that every situation will always be built on some form of exclusion and hence, in his terms, there will always be something to every truth that will, and must, remain ‘unnameable’. By consequence, any revolutionary change such as that stipulated by the third condition to Marx’s theory would only ever end in ‘disaster’. Hence, Badiou’s second ethic of truth appears to involve an explicit denial that there can ever be an imposition of one totalised truth and, in as much, he moves decisively beyond the third condition of Marx’s theory of revolutionary subjectivity.


Laclau’s and Badiou’s theory of revolutionary subjectivity clearly breaks with all three conditions of Marx and, in this sense, their work has to be characterized as operating in some form of CCR post-Marxist terrain. Interestingly, although Laclau has been perfectly willing to characterize his work as such, Badiou has argued that post-Marxism leads to a politics resigned to the continued dominance of capitalist society (Badiou 2002: 114). This aside, Badiou’s theory of revolutionary subjectivity clearly exceeds the confines associated with the account of Marx. The claim of this chapter, however, has been that both Laclau’s and Badiou’s post-Marxism hinges, paradoxically, on the continued inspiration drawn from a particular Marxist thinker. For Laclau it is Gramsci’s theory of hegemony – pushed to what he sees as its logical conclusions – that necessitated his break from Marx. Freed from its underlying class bias, Laclau (2005) today regards the ‘hegemonic construction of a people’ as the fundamental task in radical politics. For Badiou, in a similar way, it is the lessons learnt from the two major sequences of the ‘communist hypothesis’ that have necessitated the move beyond Marx (Badiou 2010). Citing the failures of the CCR in particular, Badiou continues to display ‘fidelity’ to Mao through his insistence that revolutionary subjectivity today involves a sustained commitment to a truth procedure generated by an ‘event’, and belief that this commitment must be one that continually unfolds the revolutionary consequences of that truth in practice within a particular situation. Hence, although Laclau and Badiou break all three conditions to Marx’s theory of revolutionary subjectivity and can, therefore, rightly be called post-Marxists, their continued reliance on Gramsci and Mao is enough to retain a link – however distinct – to the theory from which their mature work has tried so hard to distance itself.

The unifying principle of Laclau’s and Badiou’s post-Marxism is their shared hostility to Marx’s philosophy of history. Because of this, perhaps the main strength of their work lies in their shared emphasis on contingency of revolutionary subjectivity itself. In consequence, each theory is highly attentive to theorising not only the emergence of revolutionary subjectivity, but also its potential for deviation or inconsistency. Strengths aside, however, both theories have their weaknesses. Laclau’s insistence that ‘class’ is just another species of identity politics restricts the true importance of the category and, as Slavoj Žižek has claimed, raises questions as to whether some demands are intrinsically more able than others to become hegemonic in the first place (Žižek 2000: 320). Additionally, changes in class stratification do not necessarily signal the ‘demise of class itself’ (Thoburn 2007: 87). When considering Badiou’s theory, his weaknesses are reflected in the strengths of Laclau’s. Although Badiou’s theory seeks to explain how ‘miracles can happen’, it lacks an understanding of how different forms of ‘faithful’ fidelity might in fact converge. In other words, Badiou has no theory of hegemony. Also, due to his insistence that revolutionary politics must abstain from conventional political processes, many have questioned the effectiveness of his own particular brand of political action (Hallward 2003: 283; Hewlett 2007: 56).

The reason that Marx defined revolutionary subjectivity through the prism of productive labour was because he believed that this development held the key for understanding how – through an analysis of tendencies in the present – a post-capitalist society could become a possibility. Laclau’s and Badiou’s rejection of this condition limits their ability to do this. Yet, not all post-Marxists go this far. Although explicitly stating the need to go ‘beyond’ Marx, because of their retention of the first condition to Marx’s theory, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri continue to offer a materialist analysis of the viability of a post-capitalist society and, from that, an attempt to understand how that society might function.[3] While there might be some danger associated with their more speculative dispositions, Hardt and Negri continually seek new and innovative means of conceiving social production. This, it seems to me, remains the strongest and most valuable legacy of Marx. It is one that we certainly should not be quick to abandon.


[1]This is not to say, however, that in principle all demands are equally able to do this. Due to the ‘unevenness of the social’ and the fact that every structure is composed of ‘sedimented’ relations and social identities, every conjuncture must be analysed on its own very particular basis. See Laclau (1990: 34, 35).

[2]At this point, it is important to note that in his Logic of Worlds (2009), Badiou would supplement the ‘faithful’ subject with two other ‘subjective figures’. As a consequence, whereas one could claim that the actions of the faithful subject certainly corresponds to what we understand to be revolutionary subjectivity – i.e. because it connects itself to the consequences of a radical and unforeseen break in a situation – the actions of the other two subjective figures deviate substantially from this model. I do not have space here to discuss these figures, but this move by Badiou is significant because, as in Laclau, it proves his continual interest in theorizing, not just the emergence of revolutionary subjectivity, but also its propensity for deviation and inconsistency.


Badiou, A. (1999), Manifesto for Philosophy. New York: SUNY.

Badiou, A. (2002), Ethics. London: Verso.

Badiou, A. (2005), Being and Event. London and New York: Continuum.

Badiou, A. (2009), Logic of Worlds. London and New York: Continuum.

Badiou, A. (2010), The Communist Hypothesis. London: Verso.

Blackburn, R. (1976), ‘Marxism: theory of proletarian revolution’, New Left Review, 97, 3-35.

Bosteels, B. (2005), ‘Post Maoism: Badiou and politics’, Positions. 13, 575-634.

Callinicos, A. (1995), The Revolutionary Ideas of Karl Marx. London: Bookmarks.

Canovan, M. (2005), The People. London: Polity Press.

Clarke, S. (1993), Marx’s Theory of Crisis. Basingstoke: Palgrave.

Draper, H. (1979), Karl Marx’s theory of Revolution; Volume 2. New York and London: Monthly Review Press.

Gramsci, A (1999), Selections on the Prison Notebooks. London: ElecBooks.

Hallward: (2003), Badiou: A Subject to Truth. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press.

Hallward: (2009), ‘The will of the people: notes towards a dialectical voluntarism’, Radical Philosophy, 155, 17-29.

Hewlett, N. (2007), Badiou, Balibar, Rancière: Rethinking Emancipation. London and New York: Continuum.

Laclau, E. (1990), New Reflections on the Revolution of Our Time. London: Verso.

Laclau, E. (1996), Emancipations. London: Verso, pp. 20-35.

Laclau, E. (2000a), ‘Structure, history and the political’, in J. Butler, E. Laclau and S. Žižek (eds), Contingency, Hegemony, Universality. London: Verso, pp. 182-213.

Laclau, E. (2000b), ‘Constructing universality’, in J. Butler, E. Laclau and S. Žižek (eds), Contingency, Hegemony, Universality. London: Verso, pp. 281-308.

Laclau, E. (2005), On Populist Reason. London: Verso.

Laclau, E., and Mouffe, C. (2001), Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics, 2nd Edition. London: Verso.

Lebowitz, M. (2003), Beyond Capital: Marx’s Political Economy of the Working Class. Basingstoke: Macmillan.

Lukács, G. (1971), History and Class Consciousness. London: Merlin Press.

Marx, K. and Engels, F. (1975), Collected Works, volume 3. London: Laurence and Wishart.

Marx, K. and Engels, F. (1976), Collected Works, volume 16. London: Laurence and Wishart.

Marx, K. (1990), Capital, volume 1. London: Penguin Books.

Marx, K. (1992a), Early Writings. London: Penguin Books.

Marx, K (1992b), The First International and After. London: Penguin Classics.

Marx, K. (1993), Grundrisse. London: Penguin Books.

Marx, K., and Engels, F. (1993), The Revolutions of 1848: Political Writings: Volume 1. London: Penguin Classics.

Therborn, G. (2009), From Marxism to post-Marxism?. London and New York: Verso Books.

Thoburn, N. (2007), ‘Patterns of production; cultural studies after hegemony’, Theory, Culture and Society, 24, (3), 79-94.

Tormey, S., and Townshend, J. (2006), Key Thinkers from Critical Theory to Post-Marxism. London and California: Sage Publications.

Tse-Tung, M. (1965), Selected Works, volume 3. Peking: Foreign Languages Press.

Žižek , S. (2000), ‘Holding the place’, in J. Butler, E. Laclau and S. Žižek (eds),Contingency, Hegemony, Universality. London: Verso, pp. 308-329.

A Reply to Revolutionary Subjectivity in Post-Marxist Thought:The Case of Laclau and Badiou by Oliver Harrison

Mark Devenney[1]

Harrison’s article explores the continuing relevance of Marx and Marxism to so called post-Marxist theorists, notably Laclau and Badiou, and with particular reference to their accounts of revolutionary subjectivity. I have no quibble with his account of the key elements of Marx’s account of revolutionary subjectivity – the centrality of productive labour to the subjective realisation of revolutionary consciousness, and how, for Marx, this is tied to objective tendencies immanent to the development of capitalism. Harrison goes on to demonstrate that both Laclau and Badiou reject the central components of this account: they do not believe that there are objective tendencies immanent to capitalist development which necessitate a particular form of revolutionary subjectivity; they do not think that history has a subject, and they refuse the idea that society can be considered as an immanent totality. Despite this, Harrison demonstrates that both authors draw upon the Marxist tradition in their accounts of political subjectivity – Laclau on Gramsci and Badiou on Mao.

Harrison’s article marks an important intervention insisting on not rejecting Marx, but on reading again and again Marx’s legacies, in light of critique. Indeed Marx haunts the present, undermining its self-certainty in a variety of different forms. These are not spectres to be exorcised, but legacies which have an affectivity in the present. However, this work of remembrance, of working through, was not adequately performed by those scholars influenced by Laclau’s work in particular. In this sense Laclau’s acolytes have for the most part accepted his critique of Marx, without rereading Marx in light of this critique. Harrison’s focus on revolutionary subjectivity offers one route through this legacy. He is right to insist upon the continued relevance of both Marx and Gramsci to Laclau’s account, while marking the distance that Laclau takes from these accounts especially in relation to the idea that the proletariat has either a privileged or a necessary relation to progressive politics. I want to say a little more about this account, in relation to two key moments in Laclau’s work – totality and equivalence.

Harrison notes that whilst Laclau rejects the idea that society could ever be a fully constituted totality, now or in the future, he nonetheless accepts the ‘aspiration for totality’ – totality understood as a horizon rather than as a ground. Why though should we accept this so called aspiration for totality? On Laclau’s account it is precisely this lack (in both the subject and the object, society) which drives repeated acts of identification on the part of the subject. If however this ideal of a self-constituting totality was always a fantasy, if it is in part a fantasy generated by the theoretical presumptions of both structuralism and a certain version of Hegelian idealism, why should the ghost of structure return in the guise of a desire which forever eludes our grasp? This assumption, so central to post-Marxist accounts of subjectivity, allows ill thought out concepts of subjectivity to re-enter through the back door, despite the awareness of their limitations. The more interesting question would require an exploration of how a subjectivity reconciled to its own decentring could engage in a revolutionary politics which refuses, a priori, the aspiration for totality.

A second aspect of Laclau’s account noted by Harrison also requires rethinking. Laclau insists that a counter hegemonic subjectivity is built through chains of equivalence, and that these equivalential chains are secured through the emergence of empty signifiers. This account is again all too familiar, and is now taken for granted by most post-Marxist scholars. What is never noted is that it was Marx who first used the term equivalence in relation to the money form. Money in fact functions as the perfect empty signifier: rendered wholly independent of any physical form, money allows for the exchange of equivalents in a manner which renders obsolete the peculiarities of the production processes required for the consumption of commodities. This fetishism of the commodity is central to any understanding of both the hegemony of capital today, and the sundering of the particularities which may have resisted the logics which go with the money form in its digitalised instantiation. Marx, however, always returns to a universal which this universal equivalent ultimately presents, even if unsuccessfully. The labour theory of value requires that we accept that abstract labour is ultimately at the sources of all equivalent value. Leaving aside for a moment the limits of Marx’s account, what this brief discussion indicates is the tendency of post Marxist accounts to focus on forms of equivalence which require articulation by a political subject, as opposed to more abstract logics, such as those of capital, which seem to operate anonymously behind the backs of subjects, so to speak.

If Laclau’s account of the subject is limited in part by its unrequited reliance upon the very forms of structuralism it rejects, what of Badiou? Harrison rightly notes that Badiou does not consider the subject only in terms of failed acts of subjectification. Instead, Badiou’s subjective truths relate to different truth procedures, with their own particular logics, as well as to the surprise associated with the emergence of a subject when demonstrating fidelity to an event. Moreover, Badiou acknowledges the dangers associated with a politics of truth which cannot come to terms with the unnameable of the situation –  that which finally prevents any situation from being at one with itself. The rejection of dogmatic fidelities here echoes Laclau’s critique of the totalitarian possibilities of a politics of truth. Badiou though relies too heavily on this account of the event, and thus of an account of political subjectivity which seems miraculous in relation to an existent situation. If politics is reserved for those moments when the very principle structuring a political order is put in to question, then politics becomes a rare event, dissociated from the daily struggles to change the worlds in which millions live.

It is here that Harrison makes his intervention, arguing that both Laclau and Badiou go too far in rejecting Marx’s account of social production. He suggests that a better path to follow might be that of Hardt and Negri, in particular their account of immaterial labour which maintains a focus on the politics of reproduction while outlining the possibility of a post-capitalist politics. However, these comments are all too quick and do not take us much further than the conclusion that Laclau too quickly dismisses – class –, while Badiou has no account of hegemony which might ground political interventions. The real question concerns the transformation in the production and reproduction of human life in the past three decades, through the financialisation of everyday life, and how this relates to the gradual evisceration of social democratic politics so obvious today. Here we may well begin with Marx and his account of equivalence. However, that would require another article.

[1] Principal Lecturer in Politics and Philosophy in the School of Humanities. Email: