Selected Writings on Marxism 
by Stuart Hall, edited by Gregor McLennan.
Duke, 380 pp., £25.99, April 2021, 978 1 4780 0034 1
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Selected Writings on Race and Difference 
by Stuart Hall, edited by Paul Gilroy and Ruth Wilson Gilmore.
Duke, 472 pp., £27.99, April 2021, 978 1 4780 1166 8
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In​ 1989, Stuart Hall and Martin Jacques published an anthology of articles from Marxism Today, the magazine of the Communist Party of Great Britain, which Jacques edited. ‘The world has changed,’ they wrote in the introduction to New Times: The Changing Face of Politics in the 1990s. ‘Britain and other advanced capitalist societies’ were ‘increasingly characterised by diversity, differentiation and fragmentation, rather than homogeneity, standardisation and the economies and organisations of scale which characterised modern mass society’. This was the ‘epochal’ shift from Fordism to post-Fordism, the late capitalist discovery that you can squeeze even more profit from a production line by outsourcing it to wherever it’s cheapest and breaking it into little bits. But the left in Britain had ‘lost touch with change and the world outside itself’, and was fighting new battles ‘on old ground … on the basis of an old analysis’. ‘It was akin to deploying the cavalry against the tanks.’

It’s my bad luck that, being the age I am, the Hall I knew first was the New Times one. How disrespectful, I remember thinking, all that wafting around in language, talking about ‘deploying the cavalry’ when mounted police, equipped with riot shields and truncheons, had only recently been sent out to fight the striking miners and then the striking printers. Or ‘cultural racism’, to which Hall refers in his own chapter in the book, given that the other sort of racism – the sort that kills people – had recently shown itself yet again in Brixton, with the shooting of Cherry Groce, and in Broadwater Farm in Tottenham, with the death of Cynthia Jarrett. Hall had written about the miners and about the 1985 riots in his previous book, The Hard Road to Renewal (1988) and he wasn’t wrong that big changes were afoot in the late 1980s, early 1990s. So why was he writing like he’d forgotten the terrible things that had just happened? What was he missing about the world as it really was?

New Times wasn’t just a book, it was also a political ‘project’, with a manifesto written by members of the CPGB’s self-consciously forward-looking Eurocommunist wing. ‘The malaise of the left is that the old is dying but the new cannot yet be born,’ the book ended, quoting from the New Times manifesto. ‘We are searching for a new political language. We can imagine it resounding in our ears … The elements of a new sense of purpose are emerging like fragments of a conversation between people stumbling to learn a foreign language.’ This adapts what Gramsci wrote about the interregnum in the Prison Notebooks: ‘The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.’ When I see that quote, I always wonder whether it could be me that’s the morbid symptom. Did the authors of the New Times manifesto, I wonder, ever worry that it might be them?

‘New Times is a fraud, a counterfeit, a humbug,’ the director of the Institute of Race Relations, Ambavalaner Sivanandan, began his essay ‘All That Melts into Air Is Solid’, published in 1990 in Race and Class, the institute’s house journal, ‘dedicated to those friends with whom, out of a different loyalty, I must now openly disagree.’* He was wrong, I think, to impute that Hall and his comrades were writing in bad faith, but otherwise, bang on then and bang on now. The world had changed, because that is what the world does, but the really big changes had barely started. Developments in digital technology, for example, had done for the printers at Wapping – the beginning of the long end of what is now called ‘legacy media’ – but it was apparent even then that a great deal more was going to change.

Flexibility, differentiation, diversification, all these gaseous New Times ‘moods’ and ‘currents’: what were they really? What was happening, Sivanandan recognised, was a revolution in ‘productive forces’ as big as that of the 18th and 19th centuries, leading nowhere good for workers but rather to the ‘emancipation’ of capital itself: ‘Capital no longer needs living labour as before, not in the same numbers, in the same place, at the same time; Labour can no longer organise on that basis, it has lost its economic clout.’ It’s not that the workers get any less exploited, more that ‘the centre of gravity of that exploitation has shifted … to peripheral workers, home workers, ad hoc workers,’ not to mention the ‘greater immiseration and exploitation’ of ‘the massed-up workers of the Third World’.

‘There was no attempt on the part of Marxism Today to rethink society from the ground up in terms of Marxist analysis – no attempt to rethink Marxism itself,’ Sivanandan argued. A ‘left intelligentsia eviscerated of class’ was livened up by ‘new social forces such as women, blacks, gays (and soon, greens)’ and ‘a Labour Party thrashing around for a showing in the polls’. Not having tried to make an ‘economic analysis’, the New Timesers had no chance of understanding the thing they had named. They just stood around chattering about ‘the politics of consumption, desire, pleasure … choices, all sorts of choices’; ‘philosophy, linguistics, semiotics, psychoanalysis, poststructuralism, deconstruction’; ‘the market, sexuality, style, pleasure’. It was ‘a politics of this and that’.

‘Can a socialism of the 21st century revive, or even survive, which is wholly cut off from the landscapes of popular pleasures?’ Hall had asked in one of the pieces that most irritated Sivanandan. ‘Are we thinking dialectically enough?’ ‘Are we thinking socialist enough?’ Siva replied. ‘And what, in any case, is this dialectic about materialism which is not itself materialist?’ Well, one answer to that might be to read another of Hall’s Marxism Today essays, published a year before the New Times project began: ‘When the left talks about crisis, all we see is capitalism disintegrating, and us marching in and taking over … [But] there is no law of history which can predict what must inevitably be the outcome of a political struggle … History is not waiting in the wings to catch up your mistakes into another inevitable success. You lose because you lose because you lose.’

‘Gramsci and Us’, reprinted in The Hard Road to Renewal, is the best single introduction to what Hall saw as his ‘profoundly expanded conception’ of what Marxist politics in late modernity had to do. ‘We cannot, after Gramsci, go back to the notion of mistaking electoral politics, or party politics in a narrow sense, or even the occupancy of state power, as constituting the ground of modern politics itself … Especially in societies of our kind, the sites on which power is constituted will be enormously varied.’

Why do so many people seem to consent to their own capitalist exploitation? Certainly, for both Hall and Gramsci, police with truncheons form part of the answer, but not the whole of it, given that we live in a world, as Hall put it, in which one can be just as ‘committed’ a revolutionary as Marx or Lenin, but ‘every now and then – Saturday mornings, perhaps, just before the demonstration – we go to Sainsbury’s and we’re just a tiny bit of a Thatcherite subject.’ People are complicated, contradictory, conflicted. The worlds they make around them are complicated too.

Where, even, is politics these days, ‘as the structures of the modern state and society complexify and the points of social antagonism proliferate’? With the media, had been one of Hall’s answers since the 1970s, when he and his students at the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies noticed a new word – ‘mugging’ – turning up in the newspapers to denote unexceptional acts of street violence, with unprecedentedly ‘vicious’ criminal sentences for those convicted, especially when they were black youth. And so, too, with the police, and the courts, and schools and churches and social services, as explored in Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State, and Law and Order (1978), written in collaboration with Chas Critcher, Tony Jefferson, John Clarke and Brian Roberts, but with its great and terrifying sweeps of synthesis – not to mention their calm, dry, paddingly Socratic delivery – commonly assumed to be the work mainly of Hall. Everywhere the ‘moral and intellectual leadership’ of the state is on display.

Hall was conscious of the dangers of filleting Gramsci’s writings and applying them to 1980s Britain, ‘as we have for so long abused Marx, like an Old Testament prophet’. But he did believe that ‘we must “think” our problems in a Gramscian way … by directing our attention unswervingly to what is specific and different about this moment.’ As a young socialist organiser in Turin, Gramsci had enthusiastically supported the Bolshevik Revolution. After 1926, imprisoned by the fascists, he turned his attention to figuring out why the revolutions that almost happened across Europe in the 1910s and 1920s had failed. ‘When a conjuncture unrolls,’ Hall wrote, ‘there is no “going back”. History shifts gears. The terrain changes. You are in a new moment. You have to attend, “violently”, with all the “pessimism of the intellect” at your command, to the “discipline of the conjuncture”.’

A ‘war of position’ was what Gramsci called the work of the modern revolutionary party: trench warfare as opposed to charging at the enemy, and yet a total war that might drag on for years and years. The revolutionary could be imagined as a guerrilla crawling through the ‘fortifications’ of civil society, searching for ideological weak spots that might allow an ‘articulation’ of the most apparently incompatible ‘forces’ and ‘interests’ into a single hegemonic movement or ‘historic bloc’. Except that the trenches keep shifting and branching, as do all the forces and interests. A comrade might nip into Sainsbury’s for a sandwich, and the next you hear of him, he’s a commentator on the Daily Telegraph. Another forms a splinter group that opposes Sainsbury’s in principle, and anathematises you and your faction for not joining them. You, in the meantime, have noticed that your local Sainsbury’s car park is one of the few places people ever seem to talk to others offline … ‘Given that that is what people are really like … can we find forms of organisation, forms of identity, forms of allegiance, social conceptions, which can both connect with popular life and, in the same moment, transform and renovate it?’ is one way Hall puts his basic question. What are the ‘political forms’ through which a ‘new cultural order’ might be constructed, out of what Gramsci called ‘this multiplicity of dispersed wills, these heterogeneous aims’?

Hall’s language, in this piece and in others, quickly gets terribly technical, but it serves its designated purpose: to identify, dismantle and reconfigure the moving parts of what Hall called ‘Thatcherism’, a very precise and particular formation that somehow got backward-looking social authoritarianism – flags, truncheons, handbags, cornershop economics – and the dead-eyed market libertarianism of Hayek and Friedman working together in a way that lots of people seemed to like so much they were willing to vote for it and let it take them where it would.

Given that ‘socialism will not be delivered to us through the trapdoor of history,’ given that ‘there is no law that will really make socialism come true,’ it was of the first importance to figure out the workings of this hegemonic ‘common sense’ that Hall saw as binding together the millions who voted for Thatcher throughout the 1980s, because she stood up to the unions, because she sank the Belgrano and won the Falklands War, because she let you buy your council house. ‘How do we make sense of an ideology which is not coherent, which speaks now, in one ear, with the voice of freewheeling, utilitarian market-man, and in the other ear, with the voice of respectable, bourgeois, patriarchal man? How do these two repertoires operate together?’ ‘Regressive modernisation’ was one phrase Hall used to encapsulate it. ‘Authoritarian populism’ was another.

‘We are all perplexed by the contradictory nature of Thatcherism,’ Hall notes. The perplexity, however, arises only because of what he calls ‘the illusion of the intellectual – that ideology must be coherent’, whereas a really successful ideology works by binding all sorts of contradictory things together: ‘It does not reflect, it constructs a “unity” out of difference.’ It calls to hopes, fears, prejudice, ambitions, and gradually, more and more people hear something that seems to speak to them, and form a new, unified entity, ‘the British people’. Thatcherism is ‘addressed to our collective fantasies, to Britain as an imagined community, to the social imaginary. Mrs Thatcher has totally dominated that idiom, while the left forlornly tries to drag the conversation round to “our policies”. This is a momentous historical project.’

Hall first used the term ‘Thatcherism’ in ‘The Great Moving Right Show’, the first essay he wrote for Marxism Today, in January 1979. What was it about, this ‘swing to the right’ – the panic about law and order, about race and immigration, about the unions ‘holding the nation up to ransom’, about the ‘welfare scavenger’, ‘the over-taxed individual, enervated by welfare coddling, his initiative sapped by handouts from the state’, or the ‘young unmarried mothers’ Keith Joseph had fretted about in 1974, threatening ‘the balance of our population, our human stock’?

‘Neither Keynesianism nor monetarism win votes in the electoral marketplace,’ Hall went on. But Thatcherism had ‘found a powerful means of popularising the principles of monetarist philosophy’, through ‘a particularly rich mix’ of ‘resonant traditional themes – nation, family, duty, authority, standards, self-reliance’ – that deeply touched ‘popular elements in the traditional philosophies and practical ideologies of the dominated classes’. The traditional philosophies and practical ideologies of the dominated classes, hitherto, had usually turned on some sort of ‘contradiction between popular interests and the power bloc’ – the sort of contradiction you might expect to turn into a ‘radical-popular’ rebellion. But Thatcherism somehow got people to identify the welfare state as the enemy, and thus the enemy’s enemy became their friend. An alliance was forged between ‘certain sections of the dominant and dominated classes’. ‘To make Britain “great” once more’ was one key strand in that alliance. ‘She was what the country needed at the time,’ as my old dad is still saying to this day. And so, ‘in the place of a popular rupture, a populist unity.’

Labour, meanwhile, had brought its failure on itself: this is what Hall calls the central ‘contradiction within social democracy’, ‘the principal key to the whole rightward shift’. Labour keeps telling people they have to vote for it, as the ‘natural governor’ of Britain, ‘the political wing of the British people’, as Keir Starmer put it at this year’s Labour Party Conference, in a deliberate echo of Tony Blair. But then, out comes the nanny state to tell people off for claiming benefits and/or daring to go on strike. Belts must be tightened, ‘in the interests of the nation’, which somehow look much like the interests of capital. And Labour also tends to other sorts of authoritarianism, particularly the sort middle-class professionals enjoy imposing on their inferiors. ‘It has refused like the plague the mobilisation of democratic power at the popular level … Nothing so rattles the equanimity of Labour leaders as the spectacle of the popular classes on the move under their own steam.’ The radical right has only to capitalise on ‘this fatal hesitancy, this deep weakness in Labour socialism’.

‘I think I understand what constitutes Thatcherism as not simply a worthy opponent of the left,’ Hall wrote, ‘but in some deeper way its nemesis, the force that is capable in this historical moment of unhinging it from below.’ And yet, no one in Labour seemed to get it (‘When Thatcherism becomes a “wasm”, everyone will wonder what all the fuss was about,’ Gordon Brown was still quipping in the LRB in 1989). The Leninists to the left of Labour, meanwhile, were looking at history as a ‘series of repeats’ – crisis, general strike, Winter Palace, here we come – although history suggests that the ‘sharpening of contradictions’ that accompanies economic crisis just as often leads to ‘settlements and solutions’ that favour the right. As Gramsci, writing from his prison cell, was aware. The infallible Lenin had a far more sophisticated view of events in Russia in 1917: ‘a unique historical situation’, he called it, in which ‘absolutely dissimilar currents, absolutely heterogeneous class interests, absolutely contrary political and social strivings’ merged ‘in a strikingly “harmonious” manner’. He attended, in other words, to the ‘discipline of the conjuncture’. It unrolled, he acted, and there could be no going back.

‘Mugging, the State, Law and Order’: the defining lines of the conjuncture Hall saw as leading to Thatcherism are laid out right there, in the subtitle of Policing the Crisis (1978), one of the best books about Britain in the 1970s, and all the more remarkable for having been written in the middle of events. Item one, ‘a frightening new strain of crime’, which had actually been documented as common in the streets of London since the 1860s. Item two, the state becoming a byword for failure, falling living standards, rising prices. Item three, the sense that ‘the British way of life’ was ‘coming apart at the seams’. It scarcely matters, the book argues, which panic you look at first – permissiveness, immigrants, law and order, inflation – because each is the tip of the iceberg of all the others, as Hall reported Lord Hailsham saying at the time. This is so because all these panics have a common panic hidden inside them: ‘the direct interpellation of the race issue’.

Policing the Crisis isn’t just one of the best books written about Britain in the 1970s. It is Britain in the 1970s, in its every word and page. The quotes from newspaper reports, royal commissions, readers’ letters, political speeches. The sociological citations, starting out with Jock Young and Stanley Cohen, moving on to Marx, Althusser, Poulantzas and Gramsci. ‘Quote marks’ round words, when ‘concepts’ may be ‘novel’. Italics – lots of them – when something is important and the teachers want to make sure you’re getting it down. There had been a Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at Birmingham University since Richard Hoggart set it up in 1964, but cultural studies proper only really started after Hall took over as director a few years later: ‘What is the discipline? We didn’t have one. In a way we had to construct it. Not because we had huge ambitions to be cultural theorists, but because we had to teach the next seminar. What are you going to do?’ The centre, with Policing the Crisis its apotheosis, was ‘at the very forefront of theoretical work because … it is the job of the organic intellectual to know more than the traditional intellectuals do: really know.’ They also had ‘the responsibility of transmitting these ideas, that knowledge, through the intellectual function, to those who do not belong, professionally, in the intellectual class’.

The book lays it out like a chess game, or the bit in a Greek tragedy when the chorus comes on to fill you in. The economic position of Britain had been deteriorating since the 1960s, as you would expect if you had made yourself fat as an imperial power but were now watching your empire ebb away. The postwar social democratic consensus was collapsing too, in a ‘managed dissensus’ to begin with – teenagers, consumerism, hippies, Vietnam – and then in a less controlled fashion, as crystallised with evil genius by Enoch Powell in 1968: ‘We must be mad, literally mad, as a nation to be permitting the annual inflow of some fifty thousand dependants … It is like watching a nation busily engaged in heaping up its own funeral pyre.’ ‘As the floodgates of social dissent opened,’ Hall and his colleagues wrote, ‘race – not for the last time – becomes a salient theme: one capable of carrying intense but subterranean public emotions forward on a wave of reaction.’

The oil shock hit in 1973, with unemployment and inflation already rising, and the miners first began an overtime ban, then went on strike. ‘Holding the nation to ransom,’ Ted Heath called it, in what the Policing the Crisis authors see as an early experiment in media scapegoating. Heath called the ‘Who governs Britain?’ general election, and lost. Harold Wilson’s Labour government then pushed the unions into a policy of supposedly voluntary wage restraint with the Social Contract, while continuing to let unemployment rise and living standards fall. People were ‘once again bemused and confused by the spectacle of being led into poverty and unemployment by [their] own side … A more unstable political “resolution” can hardly be imagined.’

Then came ‘1975, the climacteric … the moment of reversal’. It was obvious that Britain’s economy was in a mess, managed by a government that could do little beyond ‘silently praying’ for the sort of ‘favourable investment conditions’ that might keep its neighbours from selling all their pounds. ‘Britain in the 1970s is a country for whose crisis there are no viable capitalist solutions left, and where, as yet, there is no political base for an alternative socialist strategy. It is a nation locked in a deadly stalemate: a state of unstoppable capitalist decline.’ Whose fault was it? ‘Crises must have their causes. The causes cannot be structural, public, rational, since they arise in the best, the most civilised, the most peaceful and tolerant, society on earth. So they must be secret, subversive, irrational, a plot. Plots must be smoked out. Stronger measures need to be taken.’ The stalemate filled with rumours, conspiracy theories: drugs, communists, the IRA, the Angry Brigade, Peter Hain. ‘The demons proliferate … The enemy is lurking everywhere. He – or increasingly she – is behind everything … Nevertheless, in its varying and protean forms, official society – the state, the political leadership, the opinion leaders, the media, the guardians of order – glimpses, fitfully at first, then more and more clearly, the shape of the enemy.’ In this conjuncture, ‘the state comes to provide just that sense of direction which the public feels society has lost. The anxieties of the many are orchestrated with the need for control of the few … That is the social, the ideological content of social reaction in the 1970s. It is also the moment of mugging.’

Race, according to Policing the Crisis, came in the 1970s ‘to provide the objective correlative of crisis, the arena in which complex fears, tensions and anxieties … can be most conveniently and explicitly projected’. It was ‘the prism through which British people are called upon to “live through”, to understand, and then to deal with crisis conditions,’ Hall said in a lecture from 1978. ‘In a book some of us wrote in the mid-1970s,’ he reminisced in the 1980s, ‘when Thatcherism was still only a gleam in Sir Keith Joseph’s eye, we argued that race was deeply and intimately entwined with every single facet of the gathering social crisis.’ It was an argument that had ‘immeasurably strengthened’ over the intervening years.

It’squite difficult to square the force and precision of Policing the Crisis, ‘The Great Moving Right Show’ and ‘Gramsci and Us’ with the wishy-washy Hall of New Times. Hall started writing for Marxism Today in 1979, just after he’d left Birmingham to become a professor of sociology at the Open University. Jacques had rung him up after being bowled over by Policing the Crisis. Would Hall like to take his argument and run with it? Two years earlier, Marxism Today had become the home of the CPGB’s Gramsci-admiring Eurocommunist faction, after a split with the more pro-Soviet tankies, who got the Morning Star. Hall was not and never had been a member of the Communist Party, but he liked Jacques and had been studying Gramsci, as we know. And he was missing, perhaps, the CCCS and its collective way of working. He seems always to have preferred workshopping ideas with others. The Hard Road to Renewal is the only book he published in his lifetime with just his name on the spine.

He was never a member of the Labour Party either. He had a lifelong suspicion of Labour, since his Oxford days, when he had been repelled by the ‘peculiarly off-putting … combination of puritanism, Fabian self-righteousness and … unconscious commitment to the protocols of Oxford’s England’ at the Labour Club. ‘Well, they like to be in power and that’s where power is and they’re drawn to it,’ he said to Colin MacCabe in 2007 of New Labour, about which he wrote an acute and caustic essay, ‘The Great Moving Nowhere Show’, in 1998. ‘But in a kind of sense you can’t spend your life nay-saying, resisting. You’ve got to get in and see what you can do with it. I say that from the position of somebody who spent their life nay-saying … It’s a difficult space to hold. A difficult space to live.’

In 1988, Hall started writing about a ‘shift’ he had noticed in ‘black cultural politics’ between two different phases. There was an older one, in which ‘the term “black” was coined as a way of referencing the common experience of racism and marginalisation … among groups with, in fact, very different histories, traditions and ethnic identities’ – political blackness, ‘black’ meaning African-Caribbean and also Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Sri Lankan, as was common on the British left in the 1970s and 1980s. And there was a newer one, which recognised ‘that we all speak from a particular place, out of a particular history, out of a particular experience … and our ethnic identities are crucial to our subjective sense of who we are.’ ‘New Ethnicities’ was delivered to a conference about the New Black British Cinema at the ICA. It both inspired and was inspired by the experimental jouissance, as Hall saw it, of films such as Sankofa’s The Passion of Remembrance, Black Audio Film Collective’s Handsworth Songs, even Stephen Frears’s My Beautiful Laundrette, from a script by Hanif Kureishi. ‘Once you enter the politics of the end of the essential black subject, you are plunged headlong into the maelstrom of ‘a continuously contingent, unguaranteed political argument and debate,’ Hall wrote, ‘disturbing to … many of our settled political habits’ – all of which he considered good things. But he also recognised that the New Ethnicities position would cause ‘certain profound difficulties of political organisation’, might cause hurt and anger among old friends of different loyalties, even ‘threaten the collapse of an entire political world’.

‘The Big Waffle’, Sivanandan called Hall’s attempts to engage with feminism in particular – the great turn among 1980s intellectuals to gendered subject formation, gender as a discourse, the gendered gaze. ‘I just feel I know something after that moment that I didn’t know before, that I now have to work with,’ Hall said about his discovery of Lacanian psychoanalysis. At the same time he recognised the gain was also a loss: ‘I’ll never use it again,’ he said, with reference to the trusty old deviance-theory concept of socialisation. ‘That’s what I mean by interruption: the term falls out of the bottom … I have to live with the tension of the two vocabularies, of the two unsettled objects of analysis, and try to read the one through the other.’ Few spaces are as difficult, uncomfortable, painful, as the interregnum, whether you’re the one trying to hold it together or the one who’s trying to prise the sides apart.

Paul Gilroy – one of Hall’s many illustrious former students – suspects it was frustration with New Labour, and what it did to left politics, that led Hall in the 1990s to spend more and more time working on ‘less depressing’ Black Arts projects – ‘institution building’, as Gilroy says, shepherding the development of Black Arts charities and the building of David Adjaye’s Rivington Place, the first permanent public space in England ‘dedicated to diversity in the visual arts’. But he was horrified, too, by the way cultural studies as an academic discipline had developed, especially in the US. It had ‘escaped’ its political moorings, he felt, to become ‘a kind of balloon. A pumped-up critical-theory balloon’: ‘I really cannot read another cultural studies analysis of Madonna or The Sopranos.’

He made one final attempt to intervene in British politics in 2013, with the Kilburn Manifesto, put together with his old comrades Doreen Massey and Michael Rustin. ‘The Labour Party,’ he wrote with Alan O’Shea, ‘may be busy developing alternative policies, but there’s no sign that it is breaking with the neoliberal framing of debates … Rather, it is nervously responding to polls which frame their questions within this neoliberal agenda.’ And he worked on his memoirs, composed over twenty years of conversation with Bill Schwarz, a friend and colleague, and published in 2017, three years after his death, as Familiar Strangers: A Life between Two Islands. ‘In his last years illness took its toll,’ Schwarz writes in his preface. ‘He missed being active in the world. Yet as his body faltered his intellectual restlessness did not.’

‘After more than fifty years, although I feel at home enough in England … I still feel in some profound way not-at-home,’ Hall says, in this stiff, sad, beautiful book. ‘When I return to Jamaica … I also feel homeless there … Nevertheless, I identify emotionally with Jamaica at a depth of intimacy which England can never match.’ He often relived one journey in particular, ‘along precipice-sided potholed roads up into the mountains; then beginning the descent on the other side down towards the north coast, with the aquamarine ocean … The wind has a balmy softness in the early morning before the sun sets fire to everything. The body unfolds from inside as the day warms up.’ He never ‘really stopped feeling cold’ in Britain, he says, or longing for Jamaican cooking. ‘These smells and tastes bring back an entire life which, for me in London, is no longer mine.’

If you know Hall mainly through his work on British politics, you may be surprised by how profoundly between two islands he always felt himself to be: ‘I think the form of belonging known now as black British … makes perfect sense for younger generations born in Britain, but of Caribbean descent and background. But I cannot own it. I am of a different generation.’ His parents were both ‘loyal, middle-class, brown colonials’ – ‘coloured’ was the accepted term, though ‘mixed race would have been more accurate.’ His father was an accountant with United Fruit, his mother ‘a highly competent person’ whose ‘tragedy’ was that, after marriage, she was too well-off to need to work outside the home. ‘Improbably’, she felt herself to be the mistress of a grand estate, ideally in England, and would use no face cream but Nivea and wash herself only with Yardley’s soap; she built a tennis court so she could throw tennis parties, with iced lemonade in a ‘gross colonial simulacrum… triumphantly produced by “the maid”’. Even as a boy, Hall found it mortifying, the double standards and ‘cringing display’. He felt that he was an outsider, partly because he had darker skin than others in his family: ‘Where did you get that coolie baby from?’ his sister was said to have asked when she saw him in his crib.

It went without saying – as so many things did in this ‘profound nexus of silence, evasion and disavowal’ – that Hall was not allowed to fraternise with servants, or with ‘that other, darker Jamaica of the multitude’. And so, it was exactly to that Jamaica that he was drawn. Between the end of his schooldays at the upper-subaltern Jamaica College and travelling to Oxford, Hall worked in an experimental school with children ‘from the socially lower colour and family backgrounds’ and absolutely loved it. He fell in love, ‘truly’, with someone he met there, and ‘I think that was the moment when I knew that what I really wanted to be was a teacher.’ At around the same time, his sister, Pat, started dating a black medical student from another island, ‘and my mother simply put a stop to it.’ Pat broke down, was hospitalised and given shock treatment, ‘from which, in truth … she has made only a tentative recovery’. Hall’s relationship with the person he’d met continued, long distance, after he moved to Oxford, until his mother ‘intervened from afar’. ‘I knew instinctively that, had I returned to the close proximity and enveloping embrace of my family, I would have been emotionally destroyed.’

It was on a tourist stop-off with his mother in London, on the way to Oxford for the first time, that Hall saw ‘a stream of black people spilling out into the London afternoon … my first encounter with an advance guard of what became black Caribbean, postwar, post-Windrush migration. One world intruded on another … Everything looked different.’

What I thought I had left behind as an unresolved dilemma – the difficulties my family background had bequeathed to me of neither wanting any identification with my own social stratum, nor being able to feel present in my own homeland, conscious of the chasm that separated me from the multitude – had turned up to meet me on the other side of the Atlantic. This made me feel like I was travelling forwards towards the past!

‘I somehow knew that what I had seen changed everything,’ Hall said, revisiting the experience of this ‘little time bomb’. ‘It was as if the “real” Caribbean which at home had remained beyond my reach had come to meet me in, of all places, England … It altered the possibilities I possessed for understanding who I was and what I might become.’ Later yet, as a grand old man of the Caribbean diaspora, giving a talk at an exhibition of Windrush photos, ‘I found myself in tears.’

Hall was only nineteen when he arrived in Oxford. His politics at that time were ‘principally anti-imperialist’, and although he had read Marx and Lenin at school, he considered Marxism ‘far too mechanical and reductive’. ‘In any event, I was troubled by the failure of orthodox Marxism to deal adequately with either Third World issues of race and ethnicity, and questions of racism, or with literature and culture.’ Then came 1956, ‘a conjuncture, not just a year, bounded on the one side by the suppression of the Hungarian Revolution by Soviet tanks and on the other by the British and French invasion of the Suez Canal Zone’ – events within days of each other that ‘unmasked the underlying violence and aggression latent in the two systems that dominated political life at the time’. Hall attended his first ever mass political demonstration, in Trafalgar Square, complete with mounted police; his graduate thesis, on Henry James, was never finished. With friends he founded the Universities and Left Review, which in 1960 merged with the New Reasoner, then run by Dorothy and E.P. Thompson, to become the New Left Review, of which Hall became the founding editor. He moved to London and got a job as a teacher in a secondary modern school in Stockwell and spent the next years rushing between that, the NLR offices in Soho and Notting Hill, where he worked with tenants’ groups after the racist attacks of the 1950s.

Hall's ambition​ had been to become a poet. He did some literary writing: a creole version of King Lear, a Henry James-Isaac Babel hybrid and an epic a bit like Lord Jim, but was unable ‘to find my own voice’. ‘I didn’t really get the deep structures of Englishness … its reservations, ironies and ambiguities, its silences and evasions. I didn’t understand how the place hung together, to use a favourite Henry James phrase, as a “scene”.’ He realised he couldn’t be a scholar of English either, for much the same reasons: ‘I couldn’t seem to get hold of the intricate resonances “Bath” or “the parsonage” stirred in the English imaginary … I was excluded from sharing a habitus … a fantasy of the nation … a state of grace.’ To be in England was, he realised, to become ‘a practical reader of England, of Englishness’, its ‘unquiet graves and ghosts that wouldn’t lie down to rest’. ‘I arrived at the imperial centre at the moment of the onset of its decline, the beginning of its sunset years, the last days of empire … Life was like conducting a permanent native ethnography.’

Debates about culture were becoming increasingly central to the New Left, what with Hoggart’s Uses of Literacy (1957) and the work of Raymond Williams, who gave Hall two chapters of Culture and Society to read while it was still in draft. It was Hoggart who headhunted Hall to come to the CCCS in Birmingham in 1964 as his assistant, but it was Williams and E.P. Thompson, Hall says, who were his ‘fathers’: Williams ‘a wonderful thinker, with a huge range of things going on in his head’; Thompson more fiery, with ‘a particular view of me which was not what I was’, and who later made it clear he hated cultural studies and couldn’t see the point of Policing the Crisis, ‘partly due to the analytical weight we gave to race’.

It was obvious that any journey Hall might make ‘from a critical reading of literature to an expansive conception of politics’ would have to take a ‘diversion’ via the Caribbean: ‘This was the moment when I … studiously made my way to the Rhodes House Library in order to immerse myself in the history of slavery and the making of the New World … This journey took me to an understanding of culture as the signifying dimension of human practice … [and] … really marks for me the origins of cultural studies.’ He later called this the ‘Bahian moment’ for cultural studies, the moment the Long Revolution first came into contact with ‘the cultural formation of the post-colonial nation’. It was, he realised, as much a live issue as an academic one: ‘urgent’, in fact, ‘as I thought about the prospects for the new black diaspora in Britain. I wanted to find out, in other words, how the black British diaspora would have to construct its negotiated relationship to the colonising culture at home, which had – by an unanticipated turn of fate – also become, literally, our new home.’

In 1962, on one of the CND Aldermaston marches, he met Catherine Barrett, the 17-year-old daughter of a Baptist minister, born in Kettering: the couple married in 1964 and set up house together, in Birmingham and later in London. On holiday in Jamaica in 1988, they stumbled on another Kettering, on the north coast of the island, with a Baptist chapel in the middle of it, founded by British missionaries at the time of Abolition in the 1830s in the hope of converting newly freed slaves. Catherine, a historian, began researching the deep relationships between colony and metropole, Britain and the Caribbean: the Legacies of British Slavery database she founded at UCL was the main source for David Olusoga’s documentary Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners (2015). ‘It is simply a fact of our life that Catherine knows more about the history of Jamaica than I do,’ Hall said, ‘and has helped me to understand better the history of my own native land.’

In 2012, John Akomfrah, previously of the Black Audio Film Collective, exhibited The Unfinished Conversation, a three-screen installation with a montage of moments from Hall’s radio and TV appearances since the 1960s, later cut into a single-screen version, The Stuart Hall Project (2013). A late-night OU television talk about ageing. Desert Island Discs with Sue Lawley, choosing Miles Davis’s ‘I Waited for You’. Redemption Song, his wonderful Caribbean travelogue from the early 1990s. Giving the side-eye on a panel show from Birmingham in 1968, a few days after the Powell speech, when the (white) chair describes him as ‘a splendid fellow’, ‘highly intelligent’, ‘far too intelligent’, in fact. Akomfrah, who arrived in Britain from Ghana as a little boy in the early 1960s, first got to know of Hall from those same OU television programmes: ‘I’d been out late and I shouldn’t have been, it was eleven-something, and this black guy comes on television talking about, I don’t know, class or equality or one of these big themes.’ Hall’s appearances on TV had ‘immeasurable impact’, Akomfrah continued, on the lives of ‘post-migrant kids growing up in the 1970s’ who didn’t want to be ‘athletes or singers or dancers’: ‘He really did seem to say a life of the mind was a possibility, a compelling possibility.’ Akomfrah finally met Hall in person in the 1980s, after ringing him up to ask for feedback on the rushes of Handsworth Songs. In 1987, when Salman Rushdie described the film in the Guardian as ‘no good’, Hall rushed to its defence. ‘With deep gratitude and respect,’ the dedication says at the end of The Stuart Hall Project.

You may well imagine me, putting together the bit about Policing the Crisis in particular: Hall’s text in voiceover with pictures of Brexit, Johnson, Truss, the Bank of England, Black Lives Matter … Starmer, flags, ‘God Save the King’ at Labour Party Conference, with Hall’s warnings to Neil Kinnock in the 1980s about ‘the narrowness of Labour’s intellectual support, the poverty of its ideas generally, its inability to connect with the vast range of ideas simmering and bubbling among, especially, radical young people today’. But I’m not a political scientist, or a producer of arty television programmes; and anyway, Hall made clear that we must direct ‘our attention unswervingly to what is specific and different about this moment’, think about our problems ‘not as you’d like them to be, not as you think they were ten years ago, not as they’re written about in sacred texts, but as they really are’.

On the ‘terrible defeat’ of the miners, Hall wrote that ‘politically it was not, as Arthur Scargill represented it, a class-versus-class showdown because, far from ‘the class’ being united, it was deeply divided. The political task was not to fight a united heroic battle but to unify the miners, in order to unify the class, in order to unify a wider social bloc.’ Of course the miners’ leaders were right to see that Thatcher wanted to break the unions, of course it was the unions’ job to break Thatcher, but there was ‘no automatic button’ by which to make that happen. ‘The strike was dominated, and ultimately defeated, precisely by the splits and divisions which our ritualistic commitment to the formulae of “class politics” prevented us from understanding and addressing.’ To avoid that painful reality ‘is not to build on an understanding of, but to be transfixed by, the past’.

Kinnock’s Labour Party, meanwhile, might have supported the miners by beginning the discussion we’re still waiting to have forty years later, ‘in part, around the question of the future of energy’, but really about who should pay for the great economic transition now decades under way, ‘while microchips eat people’s jobs, word processors themselves show secretaries the way to the local dole office and miners are forced to base their claims to a decent life on the strategy of mining pits until the sea begins to seep through the pit floor’. Is the ‘cost’ in ‘human and social terms’ to be borne ‘by the sectors of society who are most vulnerable to technological change, who are then simply thrown on the scrapheap of history’? ‘We know what Thatcherism’s answer is on this question … What is the left’s?’ What made the miners’ defeat ‘doubly unbearable’, as Hall said, was ‘the solidarity it displayed, the gigantic levels of support it engendered, the unparalleled involvement of the women in the mining communities, the feminist presence in the strike’. The striking miners themselves, in other words, were ‘instinctually with the politics of the new’, but were trapped by their leaders’ conservatism ‘in the categories and strategies of the past’.

‘Don’t worry about Mrs Thatcher,’ Hall concluded his Gramsci essay in 1987. ‘She will retire to Dulwich,’ and then will come ‘lots more third, fourth and fifth-generation Thatcherites … waiting to take her place’. Do worry about the Labour Party, ‘in its softly-softly, don’t-rock-the-boat, hoping-the-election-polls-will-go-up way’. Its ‘bureaucratic conception’ of politics hasn’t the first clue ‘how people become empowered by doing something: first about their immediate troubles; then, the power expands their political capacities and ambitions, so that they begin to think again about what it might be like to rule the world.’ Without such ‘a deepening of democratic life’, Labour, Hall thought, was finished. ‘The ordinary British people won’t vote for it.’ The 1997 landslide proved him wrong. What people got from New Labour is a different question, and what the current Labour leadership thinks it’s aiming for a different question again.

So maybe it really was me that was the morbid symptom all along? Because of the conjuncture I grew up in, the Hall I first came across was the Hall-in-a-bit-of-a-bad-patch of New Times. Hall in despair about politics but trying not to be, Hall contributing out of loyalty to a project he didn’t quite believe in. But ‘one has to remember Brecht’s adage that you should always begin from the bad side, not from the good side,’ as he put it in a 1983 piece, recently rediscovered by the journal Salvage. And as for Labour, as Hall wrote once, ‘actually [it] has in front of it only the choice between becoming historically irrelevant or beginning to sketch out an entirely new form of civilisation.’ It’s how far I guess, they try to push that ‘in front of’. And whether the energy expended in the pushing leaves any over for much else.

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