A Starting Point for Politics

A Starting Point for Politics

The radical life and times of Stuart Hall.


In the late 1980s and early ’90s, defending intellectuals often seemed to entail idealizing them out of existence. People at that time argued over the proposition that the public intellectual was becoming an extinct species. According to Russell Jacoby’s The Last Intellectuals, which appeared in 1987, these thinkers were bohemian independents who had won their large public following without asking anything from institutions of power. They lived without any visible means of support, and even more miraculously remained uncompromisingly oppositional to the culture that revered them.1

Where were these figures? They were nowhere to be seen—and not because they had retreated into the academy, but because they never existed. Like most “golden age” and “dying breed” stories, Jacoby’s was a blatant idealization, and as such it invited a compensatory skepticism.2

Intellectuals have economic needs and institutional affiliations; like everyone else, they live in real social contexts and make compromises accordingly. Hadn’t X and Y married wealthy spouses? Wasn’t the immense authority that Y once supposedly enjoyed really a knack for attracting publicity? Shouldn’t there be a different criterion for determining who is and isn’t an intellectual—perhaps one premised not on celebrity or mythic independence, but on how these thinkers actually lived?3

In Absent Minds (2006), the historian Stefan Collini demolished this myth of disappearing intellectuals. Instead, he celebrated those institutions, like the little magazine, that sustained critical-oppositional life. Likewise, thinkers like Michel Foucault and Paul Bové argued that we needed to move intellectuals out of the limelight; they sought instead to recognize the kind of intellectual work, especially activism, that happened in the shadows. According to this school of thought, many of the intellectual achievements that were significant to society in general would likely never be rewarded by public acclaim or even public visibility. In other words, public intellectuals hadn’t disappeared; some were celebrities, many were not, but what determined their value to society—what in fact made them intellectuals—was that they could be found sitting at the kitchen table arguing over the latest little-magazine submission or plotting a local campaign or direct action.4

At the time, I thought this was the better theory, and I still do. But I also thought that intellectuals should be trying, like Foucault, to relate our specialized knowledge to things in general. We could not just become activists focused on particular struggles or editors striving to help little magazines make ends meet. We also had a different kind of role to play: thinking hard, as Foucault did, about how best to understand the ways power worked in our time. Foucault, like Sartre and Sontag and Said, was an intellectual, even at some points despite himself. He helped us understand the world in newly critical and imaginative ways. He offered us new lines of reasoning while also engaging in activism and political position-taking. Why, then, is there so much discomfort with using the term “intellectual” as an honorific?5

* * *6

Stuart Hall, who died in 2014, never denied that there was honor in being called an intellectual. Though he was a person of extreme modesty and directed a considerable amount of his energy toward political activism, he admitted on occasion that he himself would probably count as one. But when Hall talked about the intellectual, he didn’t focus on the intellec­tual as a kind of person. Rather, he preferred to talk about the peculiar work intellectuals did.7

Hall described that work as turning other people into intellectuals. This involved working, as he saw it, “on two fronts at one and the same time. On the one hand, we had to be at the very forefront of intellectual theoretical work,” which is to say “to know deeply and profoundly.” On the other hand, it also meant “transmitting those ideas…to those who do not belong, professionally, in the intellectual class.” The radical possibilities of intellectual work could be found in the ways it produced new intellectuals.8

For the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, whom Hall often cited on the subject, this is what made you an intellectual: not visibility or publicity, but being functional. The intellectual’s work could be functional to the existing order, which made him or her “traditional,” in Gramsci’s definition, or it could be functional, as Gramsci and Hall preferred, to an emerging collectivity, and thus count as the work of “organic” intellectuals. What Hall aspired to do throughout much of his life was this latter kind of work. He hoped that his intellectual work would not only be functional to a rising body of political actors but that he would, in particular, create more “organic” intellectuals out of working-class and so-called nontraditional students. He saw his work as an intellectual as a kind of activism that gave politically useful tools of analysis to individuals who were on the disadvantaged end of the playing field.9

Hall made a career out of this ambition. In the late 1960s, he became the head of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at Birmingham University, which had recently been established by the sociologist and working-class intellectual Richard Hoggart, and he directed the center for about a decade, overseeing what were arguably its most productive and revolutionary years.10

But despite Hall’s unique understanding of the intellectual enterprise, in the end he believed that he had never quite achieved his goal. “We never produced organic intellectuals (would that we had) at the Centre,” he observed later in life. “We never connected with that rising historic movement.”11

This was a tough self-judgment. Maybe Hall was setting the bar too high? In the postwar years, was a rising historic movement of the working class really out there waiting for a connection? Hall’s lifework, much of which will be on display in a series of publications initiated here by Duke University Press, suggests a more appropriate standard of judgment. Perhaps the anticipated intersection with the working class did not happen in the end, but Hall’s own life and work came to embody a model of the intellectual that even he had not yet learned to appreciate: not quite organic, but grounded.12

* * *13

Hall was born in Jamaica in 1932 and grew up in a middle-class family. Often troubled by his family’s standard of “respectability,” he was drawn at an early age to Jamaica’s growing independence movement. His interest in imperialism from the standpoint of its victims accompanied him when, having won a Rhodes scholarship, he left in 1951 to study at Oxford.14

In England, Hall quickly fell in with a group of young people who felt estranged from the great Cold War rivalry between the communist East and the liberal West and hoped to imagine a new kind of left politics. Their eagerness to establish this alternative left became urgent in 1956, when both Western and Soviet imperialism seemed to strike almost simultaneously, with Soviet tanks rolling into Budapest and British, French, and Israeli forces invading Egypt after Gamal Abdel Nasser closed the Suez Canal.15

Hall and his comrades were among the many demonstrators who took to the streets to protest both military interventions. It was the starting point for a new politics, as anticolonial as it was anti-Stalinist. Shortly after that, Hall abandoned Oxford and his thesis on Henry James and plunged into activism.16

Along with Charles Taylor, Raphael Samuel, and Gabriel Pearson, he founded the Universities and Left Review, and in 1960 he became the first editor of its successor, the New Left Review. Together with the historian E.P. Thompson and the literary critic Raymond Williams, Hall became one of the key figures of the emerging British New Left. To support himself, he took up part-time teaching, and in 1964, he joined the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies.17

The founding vision of the Centre was that everyday life has a politics, and a politics that matters, even in such seemingly trivial moments as watching TV or clothes shopping or going to the pub, and Hall did some of his most important work at the center. He co-authored Resistance Through Rituals in 1975, which examined how youth subcultures made sense of class subordination, as well as Policing the Crisis (1978), which exposed how the right instigated moral panics over crime. Characteristically, both books were collaborations. Hall also came up with his influential analysis of Thatcherism as an authoritarian form of populism. During these years, he did not try to produce grand theoretical monuments that would gather acolytes and resound for generations. Instead, he devoted his best energies to dealing with the challenges of the day. This often meant he directed much of his energy to working with students and colleagues at the Birmingham center.18

Controversial from the outset, the center proved vulnerable as an institution. It was unloved by traditionalists in literary studies, suspect in the eyes of mainstream sociologists, and politically troubling (too much culture, not enough capitalism) to many Labour and Communist Party members. The ruling class didn’t like it either, and the Birmingham center was finally restructured out of existence in 2002.19

Hall’s legacy in the field of cultural studies, however, persisted. Though the center was shut down, cultural studies continues to thrive as an umbrella for investigations into the politics of everyday life. Books in the field got—and still get—a lot more attention than, say, books in my own discipline of literary criticism. Critics of Hall, who have tended to describe him as insufficiently anticapitalist, perhaps savor the field’s marketing success as a telltale irony. I leave them to it. The sustainability of cultural studies as a publishing enterprise provides a down-to-earth example of what Hall set out to do: to spread critical thinking as far and wide as possible.20

* * *21

In many ways, Hall’s biography is the story of the rise and success of cultural studies and, more generally, the left’s “cultural turn” as it moved away from Marxism. “The history of Cultural Studies and the terms in which it is presented here,” Hall writes in the preface to Cultural Studies 1983, which collects a lecture series he gave at the University of Illinois, “overlap in part with my own biography.”22

Always eager to redirect attention toward others and away from himself, Hall pretty much ignores the personal and institutional history of cultural studies in these lectures. (Those seeking to know more about the rest of Hall’s life can look forward to David Scott’s forthcoming biography.) Instead, Hall focuses on the ideas of cultural studies and on its task as a form of activism. The context that made the ideas of cultural studies necessary centered on a political question that arose after World War II. “What happened,” as Hall puts it, “to the working class under conditions of economic affluence?”23

This was a rephrasing of an older question: Why had the working class—whose self-making a century earlier was traced in E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class—failed to realize these hopes in the 20th century by becoming revolutionary? In posing it again, Hall presents cultural studies as first and foremost a political project and only secondarily an academic one. The sudden prominence of working-class intellectuals like Richard Hoggart, who had brought Hall to Birmingham to run the center, and Raymond Williams, who had also gotten his start in adult education, made it seem plausible to eye a very sizable prize: winning over the working class and its official vehicle, the Labour Party, to the New Left’s radical and anti-imperialist agenda. Culture itself was never the point; it was a necessary detour leading back to an old-fashioned politics of popular empowerment.24

* * *25

One striking feature of these lectures is that, although cultural studies came to be associated with multiculturalism, culture in the specific sense of cultural diversity came relatively late to those working in the field. It is only rarely, and toward the end of the book, that Hall addresses the complexities of racial identity as he himself lived it in Jamaica as a child and in England as an adult.26

Looking back to when Hall delivered the lectures, the summer of 1983 can be clearly seen as a moment when the academic left was gently ushering Marxism out in order to make room for identity politics. Reading the proceedings of the University of Illinois conference that followed Hall’s lectures—and that was published in 1988 as Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture—one can clearly get this impression. You can discern some of the tensions between Marxism and identity politics that were playing out in those years, when Hall turns his attention to his New Left contemporaries, in particular Hoggart, Williams, and Thompson. Hall pays his debts to all three, but he also renegotiates their relations. Thompson’s humanism comes off as a bit too hostile, in Hall’s eyes, to the interest in race and gender that was rising in Birmingham and elsewhere. The chapter on Williams is called “Culturalism,” a title that advertises Hall’s mixed feelings about the growing emphasis on the study of culture that he himself had encouraged. Hall approved of how Williams used culture to free the left from a more economistic Marxism. But he also worried that this came at the cost of writing a story without a villain: By paying too much attention to culture and not enough to the political and economic structures that constrained it, Williams’s work left out “any sense of domination and struggle.”27

Hall, in particular, spends a lot of time in his 1983 lecture wrestling with the so-called “base and superstructure” problem, the notion (to be crude where crudeness is unpardonable) that all ideas and value systems are determined by economics. Hall’s position on this problem is an activist’s. The left’s dismissal of cultural expressions that do not serve the cause of equality as false consciousness is embarrassing, he suggests—or, worse, counterproductive: “I wonder how it is that all the people I know are absolutely convinced that they are not in false consciousness, but can tell at the drop of a hat that everybody else is.” From a pragmatic perspective, it should be assumed that all worldviews have some truth in them. This is the premise of his analysis of Thatcherism, which was careful not just to wag a finger at the working-class sentiments that helped enable the Iron Lady’s rise. It is also why he believed it was so critical to understand them. Thatcherism was not only authoritarian populism; it was a creative right-wing adaptation of the narratives working-class people told themselves about the decline of industrial labor in the late 1970s. Rather than caricature them, the left had to learn from working people—especially when what they’re saying isn’t politically correct. Again, culture could help lead the way to power.28

* * *29

Although Gramsci appears only toward the end of these lectures, he is clearly the book’s hero. One suspects that Hall has delayed his appearance because, as an activist-theorist in the same vein as Hall, Gramsci believed that before outlining the tactics and theory of political action, one must first explain the conditions that determine whether these ideas will succeed. For Gramsci, the willingness to consider the possibility of the left eventually seizing power doesn’t come from an optimism of the will (which was not even Gramsci’s phrase); it comes from a “soft” but politically empowering position that the left takes toward the state.30

In Gramsci’s view, the state isn’t simply a coercive instrument of the ruling class, but also a site on which ruling-class policies can be contested and crucial concessions won. Hall agrees: It is bad politics to think of the welfare state as “really just a ruse of the capitalist class” when “millions of people struggled for it, struggled to win from the State what was owed them, and continue to engage in political struggles to enlarge that aspect of the State.” Cultural studies isn’t famous for its attention to the state, but that is where Hall finally points it: “What sense can be made of these struggles if we talk about welfare as if it were just a clever way in which the capitalist class continues to exploit workers?”31

Inspired by Gramsci, Hall also believes that the left must make use of liberal institutions and ideas in order to redirect them to its own purposes. The language of human rights, for example, may be a source of impatience for the left, yet it “cannot belong only to the bourgeoisie.” The recent grassroots and media triumphs of the Black Lives Matter and BDS campaigns prove Hall’s point. Owing a great deal to their shared investment in the vocabulary of human rights, these movements are not inventing the political and cultural terms of opposition but rather coopting those contemporary (and often liberal) norms that already exist. By doing so, they can practically help improve lives, which according to Hall should be the first standard on which such movements should be assessed. As Hall insists, what any political vocabulary means for us now can and should be measured by what its absence means elsewhere: “For many of the oppressed and subordinated populations in our world, the rule of law would be an important and real advance.” His unfashionable insistence that politics must be measured by how it improves life even in incremental ways also comes from Gramsci, who “develops concepts that represent substantial achievements and advances.”32

* * *33

Cultural Studies 1983 was preceded by an earlier volume that gathered contributions to another cultural-studies conference from 1990. At that conference, Hall was asked from the floor why he used the phrase “theoretical gains.” Didn’t the term appeal to a narrative of progress that had since been discredited? In response, Hall conceded that there was a narrative of progress “smuggled into” his lecture. The idea may have crept into his talk unconsciously, but in fact he accepted it as a self-conscious position. There were such things as “gains” in the realm of theory, because there were also gains in the practical realm of politics. Progress was real, even if it came in more incremental forms. If it were not, progressives would have to find another name to call themselves.34

In our own moment of social and political crisis, there have been reasons to wonder if Hall’s insistence on progress was not optimistic. But his unembarrassed progressivism makes perfect sense in light of his model of the intellectual. The intellectual need not be a celebrity; what confers the status is how his or her work is grounded in the ongoing fate of an embattled community, whether or not that community fully recognizes the work’s value.35

One of the unpleasant effects of giving up on the possibility of progressive change is that intellectuals begin to celebrate themselves, and be celebrated by their fans, as if they were permanent exiles, eternal outsiders called upon to be critical of every status quo, past, passing, and to come. In some ways, this was the idealized view of the intellectual batted around in the 1990s: an independent social critic who did not have any commitments other than to reason itself.36

A social category so pure and idealized will be both immensely irritating and fatally ineffective. All intellectuals will appear tainted as soon as one pauses to examine how they put bread on their table, with whom they play golf, and how they fund their projects. No critic can be truly independent of his or her society, and in pretending that one can, we set ourselves up for disillusionment.37

Hall had little patience with this wised-up disillusionment or with the fantasy of intellectual independence that made it inevitable. In his view, the honor of intellectuals did not reside in their exile or distance from the imperfect world in which they lived. Membership in a community was the starting point for any kind of substantive intellectual and political work. The disempowered may not yet have organized themselves; they may not have yet become what they could be and deserved to be. But in Hall’s eyes, they were a community nonetheless—­solid enough that intellectuals could attach themselves to it and solid enough even that the progress that these two groups might achieve together could be empirically recorded.38

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