Lukács would be the condensation of everything that is deemed politically regressive about the social theory of “the rationalist ‘dictatorship’ of Enlightenment” (Ernesto Laclau New Reflections on the Revolution of Our Time), of just about everything that the new social logic of postmodern culture brings into crisis. In this context – which is theoretically and politically hostile to the concept of totality – Laclau and Mouffe’s recasting of the Gramscian concept of hegemony is designed to avoid the Lukácsian conception of society as an “expressive totality”. For Lukács, a single principle is “expressed” in all social phenomena, so that every aspect of the social formation is integrated into a closed system that connects the forces and social relations of production to politics and the juridical apparatus, cultural forms and class-consciousness. By contrast, Laclau and Mouffe insist that the social field is an incomplete totality consisting of a multitude of transitory hegemonic “epicentres” and characterised by a plurality of competing discourses. The proliferation of democratic forms of struggle by the new social movements is thereby integrated into a pluralistic conception of the social field that emphasises the negativity and dispersion underlying all social identities. “Radical and plural democracy,” Laclau and Mouffe contend, represents a translation of socialist strategy into the detotalising paradigm of postmodern culture.
For Lukács, the objective of a new conception of praxis is to establish the dialectical unity of theory and practice, so as to demonstrate that the proletariat, as the operator of a transparent praxis, is the identical subject-object of the historical process. The subject of history is therefore the creator of the contents of the social totality, and to the extent that this subject attains self-reflexivity, it is also the conscious generator of social forms. This enables Lukács to emphasise the revolutionary character of class conscious as coextensive with revolutionary action. Laclau and Mouffe’s concept of discursive practice has the same effect – with this difference, that Laclau and Mouffe deny that discursive practices can become wholly transparent to social agents (Ernesto Laclau, Chantal Mouffe Hegemony and Socialist Strategy Towards a Radical Democratic Politics). By reinscribing the concept of praxis within a deconstruction of Marxism, Laclau and Mouffe theorise a new concept of discursive practice that “must pierce the entire material density of the multifarious institutions” upon which it operates, since it has as its objective a decisive break with the material/mental dichotomy. “Rejection of the thought/reality dichotomy,” they propose, “must go together with a re-thinking and interpenetration of the categories which have up until now been considered exclusive of one another”.
Critically, this means a fusion of the hitherto distinct categories of (subjective) discourse and (objective) structure in the concept of “hegemonic articulation”. This theoretical intervention is simultaneously a decisive political advance, because it now becomes clear that, for instance, “the equivalence constituted through communist enumeration [of the alliance partners within a bid for political hegemony] is not the discursive expression of a real movement constituted outside of discourse; on the contrary, this enumerative discourse is a real force which contributes to the moulding and constitution of social relations”. In other words, the opposition between theory and practice, discursive practice and structural conditions, is resolved by the new theory of hegemonic articulation. The operator of these discursive practices – the new agent of social transformation – is at once the instigator of social relations and the formulator of discourses on the social.
The most significant difference between Lukács and Laclau and Mouffe is their respective evaluations of Hegelian dialectics. Where, for Lukács, a return to dialectical philosophy held out the prospect of a renewal of Marxian social theory, for Laclau and Mouffe it is “dialectical necessity” that constitutes the major obstacle to a radical postmodern politics. Laclau and Mouffe’s fundamental objection to dialectics is to the substitution of a logically necessary sequence for the contingency of the historical process. They applaud the dialectical dissolution of fixity but deplore the supposed inversion of contingency into necessity and the imposition of a teleology of reconciliation. Hegel’s work, therefore, “appears as located in a watershed between two epochs” and is evaluated as “ambiguous” rather than simply pernicious. On the one hand, Laclau and Mouffe reject the Hegelian notion that “history and society … have a rational and intelligible structure”. This is regarded as an Enlightenment conception fundamentally incompatible with the postmodern emphasis on contingency, finitude and historicity. On the other hand, however, “this synthesis contains all the seeds of its own dissolution, as the rationality of history can only be affirmed at the price of introducing contradiction into the field of reason”. Once the impossibility of including contradiction within rationality is asserted, it then becomes clear that the “logical” transitions between historical “stages” are secured contingently:
It is precisely here that Hegel’s modernity lies: for him, identity is never positive and closed in itself but is constituted as transition, relation, difference. If, however, Hegel’s logical relations become contingent transitions, the connections between them cannot be fixed as moments of an underlying or sutured totality. This means that they are articulations.
This is not a rejection of Hegel but a re-interpretation. Interpreted in this light, Hegel’s “logical” relations are the language games that frame social practices – rather than formally rational structures deducible a priori – and their “transitions” are only the contingent connections created by political articulations. In opposition to the logically necessary sequence of closed totalities, Laclau and Mouffe insist on a historically contingent series of open discursive formations. Resolutely contesting the category of the totality, Laclau and Mouffe declare that:
The incomplete character of every totality leads us to abandon, as a terrain of analysis, the premise of “society” as a sutured and self-defined totality. “Society” is not a valid object of discourse.
So where Lukács once declared that “the category of the totality is the bearer of the principle of revolution in science”, Laclau and Mouffe now announce, by contrast, that totality is an illusion because “‘society’ as a unitary and intelligible object which grounds its own partial processes is an impossibility”. Where Hegel was, there deconstruction shall be – or so it would seem.