Stuart Hall, Marxism without guarantees, and 'The hard road to renewal'.

Author:Worth, Owen
Position::Symposium: The legacy of Stuart Hall

The early days of 2014 saw the death of three giants of the left within just a few weeks of one another. In the passing away of Tony Benn, Bob Crow and Stuart Hall, who died on 14 March, 11 March and 10 February respectively, we saw the death of a politician, a unionist, and an intellectual of a brand of socialism that found its zenith in the 1980s as a wide opposition response against a Thatcherism that was seemingly on a relentless drive. Media reporting of the three men's deaths seemed to play up to this narrative, presenting their passing away as the symbolic end of this socialist challenge. Yet it is precisely this zeal for change that is sorely missed from the left, in terms of the need for socialist renewal at a wider level. The differences between the three are discernible both through their various interests and the contrasting visions they put forward at the time. (1) Indeed, these visions were to create divisions that were often presented as being responsible for the fragmentation of the British left in confronting Thatcherism in the 1980s.

This piece looks at the legacy of the first of the three to pass away, Stuart Hall, in terms of both his theoretical contribution to Marxism and his strategies for socialist renewal. It argues that despite the many critiques suggesting that Hall's engagement with post-modernism saw him break the link with materialism, he was consistent in his idea of 'determinism in the first instance', which he believed allowed Marxism to spread itself across its discursive limits without 'deserting its terrain' (Chen 1996: 320). The legacy of Marxism Today is far more debatable, in terms of its achievements. On one hand, the material on post-Fordism brought the question of industrial decline and the emergence of the knowledge economy into the forefront of debate on the left. On the other, the intellectual association of what became known as 'New Times', which emerged from the pages of Marxism Today, formed the intellectual basis for the reforms of the British Labour Party under Kinnock, Brown and Blair that were to gain electoral success at the cost of the traditional socialist principles embedded in the labour movement. However, I will suggest here that the spirit intended in the content of Marxism Today is precisely what is required in order to confront neoliberalism today. That is not to confuse that intention--to present a form of hegemonic alternative in contrast to Thatcherism--with the magazine's actual content, which, in the New Labour years and in light of Blairism failed to confront the development of neoliberalism in Britain and beyond. Nevertheless, I suggest that it is precisely the kind of hegemonic challenge required today for the left to regroup and emerge from its current malaise.

Marxism without guarantees

At the centre of Hall's understanding of politics was the idea that class struggle is forged on an open terrain, and is not solely determined through the economic conditions of production. This was a reflection of Hall's dissatisfaction with the mechanical forms of class reproduction that had plagued Marxism since the days of Lenin and Kautsky. Whilst Althusser went some way to move away from the idea of false consciousness that had been popular in previous orthodoxies through his unique form of structural Marxism, he remained overly functional in his response. Hall's own response was to turn to Gramsci and to the way dominant classes forge hegemonic relationships across society in order to maintain legitimacy. By doing so, he looked to widen the manner in which Marxism had dealt with aspects of social agency such as the nation, popular culture, forms of beliefs and religion, which had been neglected by the more traditional form of Marxism.

Theoretically speaking, Hall looked to provide a form of Marxism that was far more open in the manner in which it understood class dynamics and production. Whilst the conditions of capitalist production provide the wide basis for class structures to be shaped, they appear more fluid and complex in the manner in which they are forged and reproduced (Hall 1986). As a result, Hall posited that no 'guarantees' could be made, metaphorically speaking, as to how social practices are positioned, since forms of agency can shape them in different, contrasting and contradictory ways. In addition, rather than understanding social relations through the idea of determinism in the last instance, he advocated the idea of determinism in the first instance (Hall 1986: 43-44). The structuralism of Althusser retained the tradition, rife in Marxist thought, of holding that no matter how we understand the behaviour of social agency, it is ultimately determined or shaped by the forces of production in the last instance. For Hall, this determinism should be understood at the first point of contact and in the first instance, rather than as the final closure of analysis. In this manner, social classes are not understood as fixed entities with fixed characteristics, but as bodies that...

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