A giant of the New Left passes

Cultural theorist Stuart Hall exemplified the strengths and faults of post-’50s neo-Marxism

February 17, 2014 9:00AM ET

Anyone trying to write a novel about the intellectual left in Britain, literary critic Terry Eagleton once suggested, would be more or less forced to reinvent the character of Stuart Hall. Thinking back on Hall’s life after his passing, on Feb. 10 at 82 years old, you can see Eagleton’s point. Widely considered the godfather of British multiculturalism, Hall was also the first editor of New Left Review, the most rigorous and refined left-wing journal in the English-speaking world. 

Stuart Hall in 1996.
Donald Maclellan/Getty Images

He was the longtime director of the Birmingham Center for Contemporary Cultural Studies, the flagship institution of cultural studies in the world until Birmingham’s administrators in their wisdom closed it down in 2002. And he was the man who gave to Thatcherism its name and its most quoted label, “authoritarian populism.” Hall was there at the birth of the New Left in the late 1950s, when Marxist intellectuals split with the older guard over Soviet communism, and he played a major part in pretty much everything that happened on the left scene from the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament through the student and anti-war movements onward. The aspiring novelist might shadow Hall through those years, attending to nothing but his busy schedule of engagements, writings, friendships and shared projects and still be pretty sure she was not missing much that was really important. 

There is, however, one problem with this plan. Novels about intellectuals tend to be satirical, and it’s hard to imagine Hall as a target for satire. What’s a satirist to do with someone who was so willing to mock himself? He was kind and generous and supportive to the young. He did not pontificate or take himself too seriously. He listened carefully to what other people said. His most characteristic writings are collaborations, dialogues, interviews. Commitment to serious political change was the center of his life, yet his tone was rarely indignant; he was miraculously lacking in self-righteousness. His self-deprecation set a standard for other would-be self-deprecators.

“I sometimes feel,” he once said, “like the spirit of the past resurrected ... After all, didn’t cultural studies emerge somewhere at that moment when I first met Raymond Williams or in the glance I exchanged with Richard Hoggart? In that moment, cultural studies was born. It emerged full grown from my head!” If the general reader would tolerate a protagonist like Hall, prospects for the left may be brighter than they seem. 

Hall himself tended to be upbeat about the left’s prospects. This is probably the one thing his critics on the left could not forgive: Was he too naive to see what we are up against? Didn’t he realize what capitalism was?

“I am not interested in capitalism as such,” he told Lynne Segal and Peter Osborne in 1997. “I am interested in why capitalism was like that in the 1960s — or is like this in the 1990s.” One might say he thought in situations rather than generalities or that he preferred to take on antagonists his side had a better chance against.  

The birth of the New Left

As he told it, the story of the New Left began during a few early November days in 1956 when British, French and Israeli forces responded to Gamal Abdel Nasser’s closing of the Suez Canal by bombing Cairo and invading Egypt while, almost simultaneously, Soviet tanks were rolling into Budapest to quell the Hungarian uprising. Hall was one of the many demonstrators who took to the streets in protest against both military interventions. For the protesters, democracy was not just a stick with which to beat Soviet totalitarianism. It had to be applied as well to the self-designated “free world” and how it treated its Others, whether abroad or at home. Many on the old left agreed, but not everyone walked away from the Communist Party, as Jean-Paul Sartre did. Neither Stalinism nor Western imperialism was a signature issue for the working-class movement; its enemy was capitalism. For better or worse, imperialism and racism were easier to imagine making headway against.     

Critical tools developed to deal with Henry James were suddenly turned toward television, pop music fandom, hairstyles, tattoos, shopping.

Born in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1932 and raised amid lively talk of an independence that was still withheld, Hall arrived at Oxford in 1951 bearing a personal interest in imperialism from the standpoint of its victims. The Cold War was not his war. He and the New Left were thus ready for each other. In 1956, as Fidel Castro landed in Cuba and Martin Luther King Jr. led the Montgomery bus boycott, he abandoned Oxford and his thesis on Henry James and plunged into activism and, to support himself, part-time teaching in working-class neighborhoods of London. Climbing the social ladder was clearly not his goal. Of course, that is what he eventually did, and without ever stepping outside institutions that the world saw as marginal. In a sense, it is also what he helped others do. The great postwar wave of migration from the Caribbean and other colonies brought to the U.K. many kindred spirits. Like Hall, they were a natural constituency for an anti-imperialist politics. Like him, they mixed a critical angle on British society with an effort to make a place for themselves in that society. His analysis of, say, the stigmatizing of young black men as muggers was a blow struck in their struggle for recognition. 

And there were real, if always inadequate, results. Speaking up for people of color and, increasingly, for women and sexual minorities, the New Left unleashed political energies that had lain dormant; it brought into being new political subjects. Little by little, those subjects would find some outlet in democratic reforms, would get some recognition in the university.

Cultural studies, the most visible fruit of Hall’s efforts, began by trying to understand the British working class and, in particular, why so many Labor voters shifted their allegiance to Margaret Thatcher, thereby voting, it seemed, against their economic interests. Efforts to answer this question led to popular attitudes toward race, gender and sexuality. Investigations of race, gender and sexuality led from politics in the narrow sense (Consent? Resistance?) to identity formation generally. Critical tools developed to deal with Henry James were suddenly turned toward television, pop music fandom, hairstyles, tattoos, shopping. Students (and their teachers) learned to treat unofficial and alternative identities as mysterious, complex, ambiguous, deserving of all the respect we are in the habit of according to literary characters.

“Of course,” Hall wrote in his analysis of Thatcherism, “the preoccupation with consumption and style may appear trivial — though more so to men ... But the fact is that greater and greater numbers of people (men and women) — with however little money — play the game of using things to signify who they are.” In the domain of culture, in those everyday acts and places where people signify who they are, the New Left arguably had a measurable impact. There was not enough change in the amount of money people could do their signifying with, but for women, people of color and sexual minorities, cultural gains translated into real, legal, material gains. And everyone benefited when it became common sense that the same person could be a victim in one role but a victimizer in another.

Loosened identities

A novel about the left that took its outlines from Hall would, of course, have to focus on Britain, the adopted country to which he devoted a lifetime of critique infused with and informed by love. But it would also have to make considerable room for the Jamaican backstory. Like many intellectuals of color, Hall put his autobiography to work for him as a writer and as one of the most charismatic lecturers of his generation. He said he realized he was black only when he arrived in England. But he also said his upwardly mobile mother frowned on his dark skin and discouraged him from bringing home certain of his classmates. By relativizing his identity (How black was he? How middle-class?), he helped his audiences loosen up their own identities, and we were grateful for it. You would leave the auditorium convinced that, as Hall said, there are no short answers to the question “Where are you from?” When someone these days waits for the longer answer or has the patience to give one, it’s another sign that the times have changed. 

Even if you add them all up, these signs don’t compose a happy ending to the novel of Hall’s career. Francis Mulhern, who was quite acerbic about cultural studies and its tolerance for “the secret pleasures of everyday capitalism,” strikes a more fitting balance between Hall’s accomplishments — on the one hand, the prejudices that he helped beat back that are no longer able to tyrannize, and on the other, all the struggles Hall was still involved in down to the final days of this extraordinary life on the left: “What time is it? No Longer, yes, and still Not Yet.”  

Bruce Robbins is Old Dominion Foundation Professor of the Humanities at Columbia University.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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