‘The Rhetorical Foundations of Society’ reviewed by Derek Wall

The Rhetorical Foundations of Society

Verso, London and New York, 2014. 229pp., £16.99 / $26.95 pb
ISBN 9781781681701

Reviewed by Derek Wall

About the reviewer

Derek Wall teaches political economy at Goldsmiths College, London. A former International …


Ernesto Laclau the Argentine political theorist who died in 2014 is associated closely with the term `post-Marxism’. Inspired by Gramsci he placed politics at the heart of radical social change and defined the political in relation to discourse. He is associated, correctly or otherwise with a retreat from Marxism and a turn to language within the social sciences. Laclau might be seen by detractors as a thinker who helped lead a retreat from class politics and revolution towards a post-structuralist accommodation with liberalism. Equally he can be seen as providing a sophisticated alternative to a positivist and deterministic version of Marxism that blunted rather than advanced resistance and struggle. Both enthusiasts for and critics of Laclau’s work will find The Rhetorical Foundations of Society a demanding but fertile text.

The book title is ironic, an anti-foundationalist thinker identifying a foundation upon which society is built through language, points to the contradictions inherent in Laclau’s work. Nonetheless this is a clearly written and attractive account of his work. I had hoped that would be a book summarizing his work, however it is a collection of mostly previously published essays edited together. Nonetheless while this leads to some repetition, it is a satisfactory read. Laclau from his early days as a political activist to his last years has been a critic of a certain sort of Marxism, perhaps most associated with the period between Marx’s death in 1883 and the Bolshevik revolution in 1917. A series of very diverse figure, Marxist and non Marxist, from Lenin, Mao and Althusser to Foucault, Derrida and Lyotard can be seen as rejecting this classical Marxism. Gramsci might be seen as providing a bridge between Marxist and post-Marxist alternatives to this classical Marxism, or Althusser might be seen as equally pivotal.

‘Classical’ Marxism took Marx’s work in a deterministic direction, arguing that a scientific socialism indicated that the conditions necessary for the creation of a communist society would be generated. History, mimicking Hegel’s account, inevitably moved through a series of stages towards communism, understood as the termination of class conflict, the creation of a transparent society and perhaps the end of history. To create a communist project through premature action would lead only to disaster and disillusionment. This account reflected an apparent absence of politics in Marx’s own work, as well as interpreting his work through positivist and Hegelian perspectives. At its crudest it suggested that capitalism would fall and communism would be created through social laws that shaped working class struggle.

Gramsci saw Lenin’s politics as the revolt against Das Kapital. Gramsci described the Communist Party in his Prison Notebooks as the `modern Prince’. He argued that classical Marxism should be rejected and suggest this was just what Lenin and the other Bolsheviks had achieved. A communist politics was necessary to create a communist society, the party acted like Machiavelli’s Prince strategizing to win power rather than assuming that its struggles would bear fruit because of predetermined economic and social change.

Laclau’s best known book, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (co-authored with his intellectual and personal partner Chantal Mouffe), drew strongly on Gramsci’s concept of politics. Rather than politics being a secondary factor, perhaps part of a superstructure, it became autonomous and central to the revolutionary project. Instead of assuming that the revolutionary agent was exclusively the working class, Gramsci argued that hegemony could only be established by winning support from additional social groups. Hegemony had to be built by communists. Laclau and Mouffe argued that such construction involved creating political support for revolutionary change out of contingent groups, rejecting the notion that the any agent was exclusively necessary in the project.

Laclau can also be seen as a product of Althusser’s assault on classical and especially Hegelian forms of Marxism. In works such as For Marx the French philosopher argued that any essentialist or deterministic reading of Marx’s work was essentialist, unscientific and inconsistent with materialism. Hegelianism imported into Marx’s work a spiritual theme, materialist Marxism in contrast sought to intervene in a specific and largely contingent context. Althusser revolutionised Marxism and challenging the remnants of a positivist and Hegelian approach, but Althusser’s career was destroyed by mental illness and the contradictions he identified in his own work.

Hegemony for Laclau is about creating a ‘people’. Such creation involves language. A discourse must be developed that is rhetorically persuasive enough to link together otherwise disparate social groups. For Laclau the contents of political identity are ultimately empty; meaning is projected, apparently, on to such identity by participants. Laclau moves from a deterministic Marxism that apparently rejects politics, to a focus on politics in the creation of hegemony and views the creation of hegemony as a largely linguistic task.

The Belgium born literary theorist Paul de Man, an associate of Derrida who promoted deconstruction, is referenced by Laclau as a vital influence. This surprised me at first because of de Man’s association with the far right. De Man left Europe to work as an academic in the USA. After his death, it was discovered that he had writing hundreds of columns for a Second World War time newspaper published by collaborationists. Some of the articles were explicitly anti-Semitic. Paul de Man’s uncle had moved from a faith in classical Marxism to disillusionment and eventual cooperation with the Nazi rules of Belgium. De Man’s work has been conceptualised by critics as an attempt to legitimate his collaboration with the far right. De Man argued that language was slippery and that meaning was never explicit. Deconstruction suggests that meaning is always deferred and if so perhaps the meaning of de Man’s action can be deferred too or rendered obscure.

De Man is the equivalent of Heidegger, a thinker implicated in evil while at the same time articulating an often obscure set of ideas. Laclau, though, notes that De Man was a sophisticated explorer of language who helps understand how a discourse and a people can be brought together for political change. Laclau focuses upon de Man’s examination of three rhetorical tropes or devices metaphor, metonymy and catachresis. Metaphor is when you say something is a thing it is not, to paraphrase The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night time. Metonymy refers to where a concept is replaced by the name of an attribute or closely associated concept. Catachresis is where a word is misused. All three terms are similar involving a form of association and substitution. The man becomes a fox (metaphor), the financial sector of London becomes The City, to decimate is mistranslated into to devastate. The construction of a people involves such translations too.

Perhaps the best left defence of de Man comes from Christopher Norris (1988) who argues that while his personal political conduct was indefensible, de Man’s later academic work in The Resistance to Theory is of value. Paul de Man argues that resistance to theory is twofold. Deconstruction and other theoretical approaches to literature are fiercely rejected by humanists who wish words to be transparent. This is a naïve wish because words are rarely self-evident. Resistance to theory also refers to the fact that words are resistant to theoretical systems, they can never be quite captured but to use a simile are slippery like wet and wriggling fish. The turn to language in the social sciences, whether inspired by Derrida, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, de Man or others has been seen by many critics as destroying the possibility of progressive political change. We move from a classical Marxism based on wider Enlightenment perspectives that suggests that while often violent and contradictory a movement towards human liberation is inevitable to the view that meaning is always difficult and to define progress let alone achieve it is probably impossible. Norris argues that, in fact, far from closing the door on positive social change, de Man focus on the fact that unless we are open to the ambiguous nature of language change is impossible.

I think this is a useful way of looking at Laclau’s project in The Rhetorical Foundations of Society. Politics is necessary and has a discursive element, greater attention to rhetoric contributes to a better understanding of how to achieve hegemony. Laclau is indeed both rhetorically persuasive, at least to me, and clear in his opening pages to this book. He notes that his thoughts in this present century were shaped by his experience as a Marxist political activist in Argentina in the 1960s. The right were in power but were challenged by a growing opposition. Yet while the working class were increasingly strong and organised, resistance could not rest upon them alone. Marxist theory, even post Lenin, continued (with exceptions such as Mao) to focus on the working class as `the people’ However wider alliances were necessary.

The effects of Laclau and indeed Mouffe’s work appear radically different in different contexts. While not actively involved in the conflict, their work helped define the split that destroyed the Communist Party of Great Britain and the rise of Blairism. Euro communists around the magazine Marxism Today argued against the then current politics of the Communist Party, Labour Party left, in opposition to ‘traditionalists’. They reflected notions of hegemony, `new times’, and the focus upon new social movements. The British left has over decades become weaker and shifted in many cases to the right. Blair’s project can be seen as shaped partly by this new conception of left politics. The effects of an intellectual milieu that Laclau contributed to, have in the UK been largely destructive. This is not, however, to defend opponents as having a viable and dynamic political project.

In Latin America, however a renewed left politics has grown both at a state level with Left parties electing radical governments across the continent and social movements creating change. Laclau can be seen as contributing to the left populism of Chavez, the transmission of revolution politics by the working class but in association with greens, indigenous, liberation theologians, etc. This has not been a uniformly successful project, but Laclau has been close to Latin American left leaders such as Argentine President Christina Kirchner. It is clear that Laclau’s work has been articulated in different ways with different effects.

as an unsophisticated but politically active reader I think that Laclau and Mouffe have contributed to a necessary critique of a certain kind of Marxism that was deterministic and insufficient. Yet their work which seems to move ever deeper into language risks a reductionism. Change is overdetermined by economics, politics, culture, and a series of factors come into play, words are never enough. We need to be sensitive to language, but there is a danger that we are drowned by it. As the left in some European countries seems to be on the move, there is value in Laclau’s work, it has been strongly praised by one of the leader of the new Spanish left party Podemas. However there is a risk that Laclau’s work is used to bewitch us rather than to help us to build hegemony and win power for change. The knowledge that words are slippery can remove the ground for challenging established and destructive power, yet it is wrong to argue that there is ever transparent meaning, essences or places firm enough to stand on without the threat of movement. This is ultimately a provocative, sophisticated and detailed text that all of us who wish to see revolutionary social change should read and ponder.

19 December 2014


  • Norris Christopher 1988 Paul de Man: Deconstruction and the Critique of Aesthetic Ideology (London: Routledge).

One comment

  1. Thanks for this review. Having encountered Laclau’s work on the page and in person at few times in the late 1980s, it seemed to me then and now that his work was motivated by a persistent anti-Marxist strain that created a straw target in conventional or traditional types of Marxism. Not just post-Marxist, then, but also anti-Marxist, energised by a dogmatic resistance to the effects and dynamics of class struggle. I very much doubt Gramsci would have been impressed by the appropriation of his work. One sign of difference was Laclau’s emphasis both on ‘the political’ as such and on the micro-political, an empahsis which goes along with an over-developed sense of the significance of particular rhetorical turns as ideologemes, rather than as symptoms of the sociality of language. The interest in post-structuralism was part of what might be thought of as a more widespread kind of linguistic and / or semiotic essentialism. I’d like to read more about Green politics in Latin and South America: suggestions?

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