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The urgent legacy of Stuart Hall

Hall's ideas and example are crucial for understanding, and for changing, the twenty-first century world, writes Jeremy Gilbert

February 17, 2014
12 min read

The sad loss of Stuart Hall has provoked an entirely appropriate and deserved series of tributes and reminiscences: from those who knew him a little, from those who knew him intimately, and from those whose lives were touched or transformed by his work without necessarily meeting him at all. Thankfully, few if any of these tributes have succumbed to the temptation to declare ‘the end of an era’. My intention here is to insist that no such declaration could be made, except insofar as the death of such a loved and exemplary person can only ever provoke a terrible sense of loss. The work of mourning and commemorating Stuart will carry on for months and years to come. But his legacy remains a dynamic body of ideas, methods and practices which constitute an invaluable resource for critical thought and radical politics, addressing themes which have become, if anything, more urgent than ever as the twenty-first century gets underway.

From his earliest writings in New Left Review, at the start of the 1960s, Stuart tried to persuade the left to pay serious attention to the cultural and social changes that were altering the political dynamics in Britain and the wider world, recognising that phenomena such as the spread of consumerism and commercial youth culture were not short-term blips which could be ignored, or bourgeois deviations which could be simply condemned: they were significant transformations of the terrain on which politics is conducted.

This sounds obvious to us now. Today, even the most die-hard Trotskyist accepts that phenomena such as social media might have changed the way we do politics just a little. But right up until the end of the twentieth century, Stuart and those who had learned from him were still being condemned by many on the left for suggesting that some of these changes might be permanent, and might need to be understood, and might have implications for the successful conduct of radical politics.

Even worse, many of those who did accept the importance of such shifts showed an even more catastrophic failure of vision, simply embracing the neoliberal world view. From the perspective of Blair and his followers, there was only one possible way to respond to globalisation, the rise of digital technologies, and the fragmentation of ‘traditional’ cultural identities: by accepting the inevitable marketisation of every social domain and welcoming the ongoing privatisation of much of the welfare state. Stuart’s argument, inspired above all by Gramsci and Marx, influenced by other New Left thinkers such as Raymond Williams, was always that the Left should instead try to find those ‘emergent’ tendencies in contemporary culture which carried within them at least the potential for a democratisation of social relations and for resistance to various forms of subordination.

This approach could hardly be more relevant today. As I write, a debate is taking place around the Labour Party policy review and the party’s attempts to develop a new strategy and identity. On the one hand, the starting point for the entire debate is the generalised rejection of New Labour neoliberalism. On the other hand, advocates of a socially-conservative, communitarian, localist alternative have largely set the terms for the debate, demonstrating a widespread inability to see any progressive potential at all in current cultural trends, shaped as they are by the emergence of new communications technologies and by historically unprecedented levels of global mobility and migration.

The weakness of this position is most clearly demonstrated by the horrendous failure of the ‘centre-left’ to develop a progressive response to an utterly predictable wave of anxiety around immigration, in the face of recession and austerity, since 2008. Indeed, the most consistent position taken by figures close to the Labour leadership since 2010 has been to try to have their progressive cake and eat it, by arguing against the free movement of labour on the grounds that it only serves the interests of employers by raising the level of competition in the labour market.

We can all understand the strategic and ethical reasons why some have taken this stance. They want to win an election in order to defend what remains of the welfare state for all of us; and it is obviously true, on a certain level, that immigration happens more because employers want cheap labour rather than because some benevolent force wants to give us the gift of diversity. But I don’t think this is a strategy than can work for the left, and more importantly it should never have been necessary.

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Anybody familiar with Stuart’s work on Thatcherism, and on the emergence of the New Right in the 1970s should have been wholly unsurprised by this rise in anti-immigrant sentiment, and sceptical about any claims for its implicit progressive potential, understanding that it never serves the long-term ends of the left to pander to the types of sentiment being expressed by UKIP. Stuart’s approach would encourage us instead to look to those many elements of contemporary culture (not just media output, sport and the arts, but everyday life as it is lived up and down the country) which could provide resources for a genuinely popular cosmopolitanism with which to challenge the new xenophobia.

Labour leaders have historically been wary of actively promoting cultural diversity during periods of economic difficulty. But the Greater London Council’s multicultural policies in the early 1980s – on which Hall was one of a number of important influences – are an example of a successful exception to this rule. Today it would surely be easy enough, if only our leaders showed the courage, to cut through the provable lies about immigrants and welfare claimants, to tap into the ‘vernacular cosmopolitanism’ ( to use Homi Bhabha’s phrase) which characterised popular attitudes to the Olympics, which has seen black British music enjoy arguably unprecedented success in the charts, and which is the natural norm for a people who travel and communicate with the rest of the world far more than did previous generations. Of course the GLC was popular and successful because it linked campaigns against racism with the vigorous pursuit of social justice; can we really imagine social and political progress occurring in the UK until the Labour leadership is willing to do the same, making the very simple point that it is corporate greed and not immigrant welfare-fraud which is the main source of British poverty in 2014?

Stuart’s main analytic lesson when it comes to understanding issues of race, gender and class was that it was always crucial to understand their interconnections and mutual imbrication. Rather than imagining that ethnicity, class, gender or sexuality can ever operate as singular categories defining a person’s identity or a political movement, the crucial thing was to understand the ways in which they all affected and modified each other. At the same time, like the rest of the New Left, he remained committed to a democratic and democratising vision of what the public sphere could be, which was quite at odds with the marketising project of New Labour.

Right now, as we see the rusty old machinery of liberal democracy completely unable to get a grip on finance capital, or on the demands of the public and protestors alike for a higher level of participation in the decisions that affect them, or even on its own security services, this vision is more relevant than ever. Today, the dogmatism of the ‘old’ left against which Hall always fought – indifferent to feminism and questions of sexuality, unable to address cultural and ethnic differences – is more widely condemned than ever (although one wonders what Stuart would have had to say to those who have only recently resigned from the Socialist Workers Party, with much self-righteous fanfare, for reasons seemingly similar to his own rejections of them decades earlier). For Stuart, it was always the case that the complexity of real power relations demanded a pluralistic, broad-based, non-sectarian politics which could combine utopian aspiration with strategic pragmatism.

This approach was central to all of Stuart’s thinking, which at its most basic and its most abstract might be understood as an attempt to understand all social phenomena (including personal experience) in terms of their irreducible complexity. Although he had little personal interest in ‘postmodernism’ he was frequently called upon to comment upon its rise in the 1980s, and his attentiveness to the complexity of social formations and to the potency of new, emergent tendencies enabled him to chart the arrival of the super-complex work of global postmodernity with enormous precision and insight. Along with his colleagues on the magazine Marxism Today, Hall argued for the need for the socialist and labour movements to adapt themselves to this new terrain and to seek out new opportunities there.

Those critics on the left who mistook this for an advocacy of neoliberalism were simply unable to grasp the complexity of the situation which Hall was describing: as far as they were concerned, if you agreed with Thatcher that Britain’s industrial base had probably changed for good, then you must agree with her about everything else. It remains a tragedy, from which the British left has not recovered, that so few on the left were prepared to listen to Hall and his colleagues when they had the chance. Their enemies were listening closely, however, and much of New Labour’s strategic success can be attributed to the lessons they learned about how to read the times, while distancing themselves from all of Hall’s political commitments.

Hall wrote brilliantly about the fragile, fractured, but also precious legacy of the European Enlightenment, whose language of rights and reason would be used both to legitimate slavery and to provide the language for resisting it, and his understanding of contemporary events was always coloured by a profound grasp of recent and distant history. It is arguably this dimension of his thought which is most lacking from radical culture in the UK today. Ironically, it was the abstract ideas and theoretical terminologies which he helped to popularise in the 70s and 80s which turned out to be the easiest elements of his work to propagate, in the increasingly competitive and socially-disconnected worlds of university departments, art galleries and learned journals in the 1990s and subsequently (and I write as someone who makes a living as a professional cultural theorist). By contrast, his commitment to truly collaborative and interdisciplinary work, to the difficult task of simply ‘getting the analysis right’ in our understanding of the multi-faceted nature of contemporary culture and politics, has often proven much more difficult to sustain.

At the same time, young activists now often seem to know almost nothing about even recent political history, through no fault of their own. The decline and weakness of the institutions of left culture has produced a situation in which projects such as Red Pepper often look like isolated islands of sanity, when what we need them to be is nodes in dense and extensive networks of influence. Of course, they are often that as well, and perhaps more so now than 10-15 years ago, at the high moment of New Labour’s neoliberal triumph. But the commercialising assault on the university has made it almost impossible to secure resources, funding, or just to find the time to make possible the kind of research which might help to fill these gaps in public knowledge, either of the past or of the present.

As Hall’s great student, Lawrence Grossberg, notes, this is a kind of work which can only really be done collectively, collaboratively, deploying a range of knowledges and specialisms that no one person can possess. Anyone can fill book after book with their own thoughts and those of a few other, more famous sources. It takes a concerted effort, and a real shared grasp of history, really to get to grips with any given historic conjuncture. The research and the experimental, egalitarian, open-ended pedagogy which Hall and his colleagues pioneered at the University of Birmingham in the 1970s would be extremely difficult to conduct in the target-driven world of the contemporary academy.

Famous for his courtesy and generosity to all he met, Hall always refused to adopt the pose of the intellectual superstar, or ever to seek membership of elite institutions, always seeking to use his influence to enable collective projects for learning, teaching and political progress and prosper. His status by the 1990s was such that he could easily have moved to one of the grand seats of learning, but he remained loyal to the Open University (an early and hugely successful experiment in open-access education) and its notoriously gruelling processes of collective course-production.

In all of this, Stuart’s example remains more relevant than ever. In the age of the internet, open-access publishing and the Massive Open Online Course we are beginning to get a glimpse of the possibilities for new forms of participatory learning and knowledge-production in the 21st century. But the marketisation and bureaucratisation of the academy, and the general attacks on the welfare state – all of which Hall fought against for so long – have weakened the capacity of the university as an institution really to fulfil that promise. I suspect that to learn from Stuart’s example and apply its lessons in future will require a willingness to engage in similar experiments outside, at the borders of, and inside the academy, all at the same time, for many years to come. For as long as that work continues, his ideas and his example will remain a resource which is crucial for understanding, and for changing, the twenty-first century world.

Jeremy Gilbert teaches at the University of East London. See www.jeremygilbert.org

You can read more tributes to Stuart Hall on the Lawrence and Wishart website

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
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