Ernesto Laclau, 1935-2014

A leading Argentine political theorist and advocate of “radical democracy”, long based at the University of Essex, has died

May 1, 2014

Ernesto Laclau was born on 6 October 1935 and studied history at the University of Buenos Aires, graduating in 1964. His initial political experiences, he once told an interviewer, were “in the student movements and in the political struggles of the 1960s in Argentina. At that moment, these were the years immediately after the Cuban Revolution, when there was a radicalisation 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 [and later] part of the leadership of the Socialist Party of the National Left, which was very active in Argentina in the 1960s.”

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.

After a series of academic positions in Argentina, Professor Laclau was helped by Eric Hobsbawm to secure a scholarship from St Antony’s College, Oxford, for graduate research on economic and social history (1969-72). He then moved to the University of Essex, latterly as professor of political theory (until he became emeritus in 2008), and became the founding director of the Centre for Theoretical Studies in the Humanities and the Social Sciences (1990-97). He also took on a number of visiting appointments at institutions including Northwestern University.

In 1985, Professor Laclau and his Belgian wife Chantal Mouffe published the highly acclaimed and influential Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics, where they argued for an engagement with mainstream electoral politics which drew in the mass of the electorate and was dedicated to real improvements in living standards. In Contingency, Hegemony, Universality: Contemporary Dialogues on the Left (2008), he shared a platform with Judith Butler and Slavoj Žižek. His latest book, The Rhetorical Foundations of Society, is due to come out later this month.

Professor Laclau died of a heart attack while at a conference in Seville on 13 April.

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