A Radical Democrat: Ernesto Laclau, 1933-2014

Ernesto LaclauWell-known leftist political theorist Ernesto Laclau, an Argentinian who made his home in the United Kingdom and with his partner Chantal Mouffe was the leading proponent of the Essex School of discourse analysis and his ideas of “radical democracy,” has died at the age of 78. According to the Argentinian news agency Télam, Laclau suffered a heart attack on April 13 while in the Spanish city of Seville to give a lecture.

“He was the author of landmark studies of Marxist theory and of populism as a political category and social movement,” sociologist Robin Blackburn wrote in a personal obituary. “In his highly original essays and books he demonstrated the far reaching implications of the thought of Antonio Gramsci, probed the assumptions of Marxism and illuminated the modern history of Latin America, rejecting simplistic schemas linked to notions of dependency and populism.”

Political scientist Juan Manuel Abal Medina called Laclau “one of the leading political thinkers of our time,” adding that the theorist’s writings, like New Reflection on the Revolution of our Time and Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, “are required reading in all universities the world.” Abal Medina is a former cabinet chief in Argentina’s Cristina Fernández de Kirchner administration; Laclau had long been a public defender of the various Kirchner regimes. Another politician, Secretary of State for Culture Jorge Coscia, said Laclau “masterfully combined academic rigor with a deep political commitment to noble causes such as equality and freedom.”

Laclau studied history at the Universidad Nacional de Buenos Aires in the early 1960s and made a name for himself as a Marxist thinker and social movement leader (although he insisted he was never a “dogmatic” Marxist). He left the political ferment of his homeland in 1969 for academic refuge at Oxford, where Eric Hobsbawm supported his entrance.

He earned a Ph.D. at the University of Essex, the institution where he would teach and research for more than 35 years beginning in 1973. From 1990 to 1997 he directed Essex’s Centre for Theoretical Studies in the Humanities and Social Sciences, and he established the school’s Ideology and Discourse Analysis Research Programme. After assuming an emeritus role at Essex in 2008, he took posts at two U.S. universities, Northwestern and the SUNY Buffalo.

In 1985 he and Mouffe — personal as well as professional partners — published their defining work, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy. While that book cemented their reputations, Laclau continued to produce influential works, such as New Reflections on the Revolution of Our Time; 2008’s Contingency, Hegemony, Universality (with Judith Butler and Slavoj Zizek); Emancipation(s) and On Populist Reason. His newest book, The Rhetorical Foundations of Society is expected to come out in a few weeks.

As Blackburn wrote:

Ernesto and Chantal used the work of Antonio Gramsci to reject what they saw as the reductionism and teleology of much Marxist theory. Though sometimes calling himself a ‘post-Marxist’ and an advocate of ‘radical democracy’, Ernesto insisted that he remained a radical anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist. His criticisms of Marx and Marxism were made in a constructive spirit, and without a hint of rancour.

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