- Ernesto Laclau, post-Marxist critical theorist and significant figure in discourse analysis (along with his wife and collaborator Chantal Mouffe), died on April 13.
- An obituary by British historian and academic Robin Blackburn was posted on the Verso web site:
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.
Ernesto was recognised as leading thinker in Latin America but also as an intellectual star in the academic world, co-authoring Contingency, Hegemony and Universality with Slavoj Žižek and Judith Butler in 2008. He gave courses at a string of leading universities in Europe and the Americas, including North Western and the New School for Social Research. Ernesto became Emeritus professor at Essex in 2003, but the Centre he established continues its work.
- Blackburn also penned an article on Laclau that was published by The Guardian:
With collaborators including his wife, Chantal Mouffe, and the cultural theorist Stuart Hall, Laclau played a key role in reformulating Marxist theory in the light of the collapse of communism and failure of social democracy. His “post-Marxist” manifesto Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (1985), written with Mouffe, was translated into 30 languages, and sales ran into six figures. The book argued that the class conflict identified by Marx was being superseded by new forms of identity and social awareness. This worried some on the left, including Laclau’s friend Ralph Miliband, who feared that he had lost touch with the mundane reality of class division and conflict, but his criticisms of Marx and Marxism were always made in a constructive spirit.
Political populism was an enduring fascination for Laclau. His first book, Politics and Ideology in Marxist Theory (1977), offered a polite but devastating critique of the conventional discourse on Latin America at the time. This “dependency” approach tended to see the large landowners – latifundistas – as semi-feudal and pre-capitalist, while Laclau showed them to be part and parcel of Latin American capitalism which fostered enormous wealth and desperate poverty.
- Matthew Reisz wrote a remembrance for Times Higher Education:
Witnessing the impact of the Perónist movement in Argentina led Professor Laclau to a fascination with populism. He wrote a celebrated essay on the subject in the 1970s and then a full-length book, On Populist Reason (2005), looking at the rise of leftist politicians such as Hugo Chávez across much of Latin America. Both the current president of Argentina, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, and her late husband and predecessor Néstor Kirchner, are said to have been great admirers of his work.
- Ryan Brading wrote a more personal reflection on Laclau’s influence on his own research trajectory:
Laclau’s theory of populism has played a critical role in my research. Without his theoretical insights and captivating character, I could not have expanded my initial observations of populist practices to this level. Beside his theoretical legacy and rich intellectual input outside academia, Prof. Laclau also contributed to the training and development of students and researchers from different parts of the world – thanks to the IDA programme he founded. His death is a great loss.
- Laclau’s last book, The Rhetorical Foundations of Society, was published last week by Verso.