The spirit of Stuart Hall

Remembering the power of being and thought of one of the most inspiring theorists of the postwar left, Stuart Hall.

Hilary Wainwright
19 February 2014

Thanks go to the original publisher, Jacobin, a magazine of culture and polemic, for permission to repost this tribute.

Stuart Hall was a notably young 82 when he died last week; his enthusiastic engagement with 'After Neo-Liberalism: the Kilburn Manifesto' demonstrated that he had a lot still to say. Red Pepper caught him in full flow when we went to interview him and his co-authors, Doreen Massey and Mike Rustin, in the build up to the manifesto's launch at the end of last year.

His answer to our first question – how had neo-liberalism defied political gravity by using the financial crisis - neo-liberalism's crisis - as a way of entrenching its policies of dismantling the welfare state and decisively defeating organised labour? - contained all the elements of the particular intellectual methods and perspectives that he consistently brought to bear on the problems of the day.

“It is a rather complicated question,” he answered, “ because it means unpacking some of the ways in which we’re accustomed to think about the economy in relation to other aspects of society. Aspects which people might have expected to fall into line as a consequence of the crisis haven’t done that at all. So we have to ask ourselves, what is the relation between the economy and politics? What is the effect of ideology on politics? And what is the relation of all those things to how people live their lives every day?”

He goes on, indicating the work he knew still needed to be done, including by him: “ We haven’t resolved the question, but at the heart of it, it’s not just that it hasn’t worked as might have been expected in this instance. We have something to learn here.”

Recognition of complexity, insistence on inter-relations, above all of economy and culture and politics, and always, the test of understanding and connecting to people's lived experience. The sharp recognition of the central and unresolved question and the resolve to learn and, in his insistent application of Gramsci, 'to turn our thoughts violently towards the present as it is. ' ('whistling in the wind is an occupational hazard not unknown on the British left', he said with typical humour.) 

Like many others, I hoped to pursue this learning in some collaboration or dialogue with Stuart. Right to the end, he continued to inspire and to encourage. I'm happy to have had that late encounter and so sad that it was to be the last.

I did not know Stuart well. My memories of the few occasions I met him are vivid though: feelings of awe and warmth in meeting him in Birmingham in the mid 70's, while visiting Catherine Hall, a fellow socialist feminist and a great source of strength and sanity in the women’s movements at that time; seeing him at Socialist Society meetings in the 80's that optimistically but as it turned out briefly, convened all components and generations of the new left in one organisation; bumping into him climbing the stairs in Anthony Barnett's attic flat to discuss Charter 88 – the campaign for constitutional reform provoked by Thatcher's use of Britain’s unwritten codes of power as instruments of authoritarian rule. I'd borrowed the Covent Garden flat from Anthony because of its proximity to County Hall where I worked for Ken Livingstone's GLC. Stuart had an influence on the anti-racist policies and transformative, multiculturalism of this radical government of London – finally abolished in spite of – or because of - its popularity, by Mrs T.

After spending several evenings this week immersed in inspiring tributes to Stuart , I've been pondering on what it was that was distinctively special about Stuart – all the tributes confirm one's instinct that we have lost someone with a special spirit that in following Pablo Neruda's wonderful poem, 'so many different lives ' we must try to 'carry inside us':

( “ For as long as we carry the harvest of his dreams,

And his work moves the lives of others,

for as long as we ourselves live,

Holding memories in common, a man lives.” )

My conclusion is this: his thinking and spirit took us all to levels of imagination beyond our own routine capacities and habitual horizons. It enabled him and when inspired by him, us, to steer clear of the “narcissism of small differences” which constantly cuts short our reach. This inspirational and encouraging capacity of his had at least two sources.

First was his immensely curious and demanding mind, allied with an expansively generous personality. These meant he desired constantly to reach out, to absorb and to synthesise a wide range of what might seem to others to be conflicting positions. And to do so, not through compromise, but through a combination of critical sifting and creative recombination; above all through arguing in a way that always opened debate rather than seeking to 'win', defeat 'opponents' and close down debate.

For example in his tentative analysis of what was described as 'new times', he points to the ambivalence of the term and the ambiguity of the discourse while nevertheless urging it's usefulness as a way to “stimulate the left to open a debate about how society is changing and to offer new descriptions and analyses of the social conditions it seeks to transcend and transform”.  By contrast, Marxism Today the journal for which he wrote, sometimes tended to close debate down, defining whole movements – like the movement supporting the 1984 miners’ strike – in spite of all their heterogenity as 'old left' , 'hard left' etc. It seemed sometimes to project on to the rest of the left the internal debates, and habits, of it's parent organisation, the British Communist Party.

Second, and related, Stuart's ability to inspire new leaps of political thought came from the substance of his work: the focus on the cultural in the material and the material efficacy of the cultural. Following his intellectual guide, Antonio Gramsci, he spurned the mechanical binaries typical of orthodox marxism, between 'subjective' and 'objective', 'culture' and 'economics'. With the tools of cultural materialism, he was able to generate potent political insights into a new Right which in Thatcher's words uses, “Economics as the method; while the object was to change the soul”(Thatcher's emphasis).

For it was the political significance of cultural trends that he cared about passionately. This constant, almost instinctive, political engagement was another source of his special spirit. He brought to this collective search for the political significance of underlying cultural and material change a strategic grasp of the nature of history, of its differing temporalities: the glacial pace of cultural change in contrast to the punctual time of politics, in which regimes come and go, elections have their cycles and 'a week is a long time'.

While economic time and sociological time have, as he puts it, 'a longer duree'. This sensitivity to the uneven pace of different levels of change enabled him to open a vital analytic gap between the deeper tendencies of cultural and economic change, (which, I would suggest, have their roots in both the rebellions of the 60's and 70's and the processes of financialisation of capital in the same decades), and the Right's appropriation of these changes to a reactionary political agenda serving particular class interests.

Once this analytic gap is understood it becomes possible to recognise that we are in the midst of a contested transition involving constant conflict between opposing alternative directions beyond the post-war settlement.

A corollary of this is that the 'one way' 'there is no alternative' mantras of Thatcher and New Labour's 'son of Thatcher' (as Stuart put it in his searing critique of Tony Blair) along with the associated accusations that all those who oppose neo-liberal modernity are 'dinosaurs' stuck in the mud of the past, make no sense.

Instead we are in a complex struggle at many different levels between alternative directions and conflicting dynamics of 'the new'. And to identify and realise the emancipatory potentials of these struggles is where we need, following the poetic sentiment of Neruda, to carry with us the methods, personality and analytic tools of Stuart Hall. In this way, as Neruda puts it “ we will have ceased to be separated by death” and through all those he inspired, his learning and his searching will continue.

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