The Spirit of Stuart Hall

Remembering the power of Stuart Hall’s being and thought.

Stuart Hall was eighty-two when he died last week, but he still had a lot to say. His enthusiastic engagement with “After Neoliberalism? The Kilburn Manifesto” was proof of that. 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 neoliberalism defied political gravity by using its own financial crisis as a way of entrenching its policies of dismantling the welfare state and decisively defeating organized labor? — was Hall at his finest.

“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 is that 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 humor.)

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: of feelings of awe and warmth in meeting him in Birmingham in the mid-1970s, 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 eighties that optimistically (but, as it turned out, briefly) convened all components and generations of the New Left in one organization; 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 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 Greater London Council. Stuart had an influence on the anti-racist policies and transformative multiculturalism of this radical government of London — finally abolished in spite of, or perhaps because of, its popularity by Thatcher.

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 we must try to carry inside us.

I think it was because 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 Hall’s immensely curious and demanding mind, allied with an expansively generous personality. These meant he desired constantly to reach out, to absorb and to synthesize 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 its 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, defining whole movements — like the movement supporting the 1984 miners’ strike – despite all their heterogeneity as “Old Left,” “Hard Left,” and so on. It seemed sometimes to project on to the rest of the Left the internal debates and habits of its parent organization, 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, used “economics as the method; while the object was to change the soul.”

For it was the political significance of cultural trends that he passionately cared about. 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 in politics.” All the while economic time and sociological time have, as he puts it “a longer durée.”

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 sixties and seventies and the processes of financialization of capital in the same decades), and the Right’s appropriation of these changes to a reactionary political agenda serving capitalist interests.

Once this analytic gap is understood, it becomes possible to recognize that we are amid a contested transition involving constant conflict between opposing alternative directions beyond the post-war settlement. A corollary of this is that the “there is no alternative” mantras of Thatcher and New Labour’s “son of Thatcher” (as Stuart put it in searing critique of Tony Blair), along with the associated accusations that  all those who oppose neoliberal 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 realize the emancipatory potentials of these struggles is where we need to carry with us the methods, personality, and analytic tools of Stuart Hall. In this way, as the poet Pablo 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.