Ernest0 Laclau was, by all accounts, a decent, gentle man and a path-breaking scholar on the Left.
I first became aware of Laclau in terms of his participation in the famous “modes of production” debate in the 1970s (I was working on my senior thesis at the time, on modes of production in Peruvian history). Later, of course, Laclau shifted his attention to the theory of hegemony, radical democracy, and new social movements (in work with his wife Chantal Mouffe) and then finally to populism.
I met Laclau only a couple of times, most recently at the Rethinking Marxism 2006 conference, where he spoke in a plenary session (along with Ella Shohat and Antonio Callari) on “Imperialism and the Fantasies of Democracy.” He was a member of the international Advisory Board for Rethinking Marxism from its inception.
This is from an interview conducted in 1998:
Ernesto, what were your first political experiences?
Laclau: Well, my first political experiences were in Argentina. In fact, I only went to Europe in 1969. So, my first approach to Marxism, to socialism, took place both in the student movements and in the political struggles of the 1960′s in Argentina. At that moment, these were the years immediately after the Cuban Revolution, when there was a radicalization of the student movement all over Latin America, and I was very active in it. I was a student representative to the Central Council of the University of Buenos Aires, president of the Center of the Student Union of Philosophy. And later on, I joined various left-wing movements in Argentina. Especially, I was part of the leadership of the Socialist Party of the National Left which was very active in Argentina in the 1960′s. In terms of intellectual influences, I must say that I was never a dogmatic Marxist. I always tried to, even in those early days, to mix Marxism with something else. And a major influence at some point became Gramsci and Althusser, who, each of them in a different way, tried to recast Marxism in terms which approached more, the central issues of
One of the themes of your early work that’s been quite influential, perhaps, primarily in Latin America, but also more widely, is your analysis of populism. How does that entail a revision of Marxist theory of the time?
Laclau: Well, let me say in the first place, that my interest in populism arose out of the experience of the Peronist movement in Argentina. The 1960′s have been a period in Argentina of rapid radicalization and disintegration of the state apparatuses controlled by an oligarchy which had run the country since 1955. Now, it was perfectly clear, in that context, that when more and more popular demands coalesce around certain political poles, that this process of mass mobilization and mass ideological formation could not be conceived simply in class terms. So, the question of what we call the popular democratic, or national popular interpolation, became central in my preoccupation. Now, in terms of what you were asking me, about in what way this put into question some of the categories of Marxism, I would say that it did so in the sense that popular identities were never conceived as being organized around a class core, but on the contrary, were widely open. They could move in different ideological directions, and they could give a place to movements whose ideological characteristics were not determined from the beginning. So, it put into question in that sense, some of the tenets of classical Marxism.