Hogsbjerg on Hall, 'Selected Writings on Marxism'

Author: 
Stuart Hall
Reviewer: 
Christian Hogsbjerg

Stuart Hall. Selected Writings on Marxism. Edited, introduced, and with commentary by Gregor McLennan. Stuart Hall: Selected Writings Series. Durham: Duke University Press, 2021. 376 pp. $29.95 (e-book), ISBN 978-1-4780-0215-4; $29.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-4780-0034-1; $109.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4780-0027-3.

Reviewed by Christian Hogsbjerg (University of Brighton ) Published on H-Socialisms (April, 2022) Commissioned by Gary Roth (Rutgers University - Newark)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=56594

Stuart Hall on Marxism

In what was clearly an editorial labor of love for Gregor McLennan, a former student and colleague of the late black Jamaican sociologist Stuart Hall (1932-2014), we at last have a volume solely dedicated to enabling greater and deeper understanding of Hall’s profound intellectual engagement with Marxist theory during the 1970s and 1980s. This matters because during the 1970s in particular, Hall—as a founding figure of not only the British New Left but also the emerging academic discipline of cultural studies—was one of the most eloquent thought leaders in Britain guiding an intellectual renaissance and interest in Marxist ideas in the aftermath of the rebellions of 1968. As McLennan notes, Hall’s theoretical readings of Karl Marx from this period “exhibit a clear intent on Hall’s part to defend Marx, to embody commitment to his ideas,” albeit as a “critical” and “revisionist” “neo-Marxist” (pp. 3, 10).

The first part of Selected Writings on Marxism reproduces some of Hall’s most crucial and sustained theoretical readings (“Marx’s Notes on Method: A ‘Reading’ of the 1857 Introduction,” “Rethinking the ‘Base and Superstructure’ Metaphor,” “The ‘Political’ and the ‘Economic’ in Marx’s Theory of Classes,” “The Problem of Ideology: Marxism without Guarantees”). These detailed essays are valuable in their own right, revealing as they do not just Hall as an erudite and cultured reader of classical Marxist theory but also the breadth of his reading and the depth of the seriousness with which he attempted to develop theory in a creative and original fashion in relation to the superstructural questions of ideology and culture. The influence of Louis Althusser’s For Marx (1965, French original) and structuralist Marxism on Hall (as on many others in the 1970s) was apparent in this shift from thinking about the relations between base and superstructure to a focus on what Althusser called “the particular essences of the specific elements of the superstructure” alone, particularly with respect to ideology.[1]

Indeed, Marxist critics of Hall, such as Bob Jessop and Alex Callinicos, accused him of what Antonio Gramsci—another and even more fundamental influence on Hall than Althusser—called "ideologism," focusing on the detailed internal composition of the ideological and political superstructure at the expense of deeper and more fundamental shifts in the forces and relations of production. Hall’s analysis of Margaret Thatcher’s authoritarian populism, for example, was accused of failing to examine in detail the material basis for her political success in the divisive economic policies of her government and the development of financialized capitalism during the 1980s. Hall defended himself by noting that “I have repeated ad nauseam Gramsci’s argument about hegemony being impossible to conceptualize or achieve without ‘the decisive nucleus of economic activity,’” though his failure to develop such an integrated total analysis of Thatcherism meant he was always vulnerable to this line of critique (p. 288).

The second part of the volume extracts key texts relating to Marxist theory from Hall’s more famous writings on culture, including those written while director of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham, with extracts from the co-edited with Tony Jefferson Resistance through Rituals: Youth Subcultures in Post-war Britain (1975) and Policing the Crisis: Muggings, the State, and Law and Order (1978), as well as a later fascinating piece, “Variants of Liberalism,” from a piece he wrote for Open University students. Hall’s discussion of the writings of figures like Darcus Howe, Alrick Cambridge, and Selma James in “Black Crime, Black Proletariat” in Policing the Crisis reveals the seriousness with which Hall took contemporary strategic political debates within the British radical Left, aiming to help clarify the theoretical grounds and foundations on which they were taking place and where possible looking for points of synthesis and sublation.

The third part of the volume includes an important series of shorter essays that show how Hall situated himself in relation to wider (and often highly polemical) debates on the Left about the state, historical philosophy, and the rise of Thatcherism, and to other theorists like Nicos Poulantzas, E. P. Thompson, and Bob Jessop, revealing his own generous commitment to the tradition of critical dialogue. This final section concludes with two pieces from the 1990s, “When Was ‘The Post-Colonial’? Thinking at the Limit” and “The Centrality of Culture,” both of which relate to two enduring themes of Hall’s life and work, as a colonial subject who was himself always centrally concerned with a political project centered around cultural questions, but also that show him grappling with the collapse of Stalinism and the rise of postmodernism and postcolonialism. Both pieces show continuities with Hall’s early writings during the 1950s, before his major engagement with Marxist theory, where he is happy to defend the relevance of social class as opposed to what was then fashionable in terms of contemporary theory, but is now once again as in the 1950s reluctant to suggest that the concrete realities of class might be in any way of central or determining importance. As he put it in 1996, “discourses of the ‘post’ have emerged, and been (often silently) articulated against the practical, political, historical and theoretical effects of the collapse of a certain kind of economistic, teleological and, in the end, reductionist Marxism,” a shift he himself in part embraced, engaging with Michel Foucault and calling for “alternative ways of thinking questions about the economic relations and their effects, as the ‘conditions of existence’ of other practices, inserting them in a ‘de-centered’ or dislocated way into our explanatory paradigms” (p. 312).

At his most “Marxist,” in 1977, Hall had himself declared that “when we leave the terrain of ‘determinations’, we desert, not just this or that stage in Marx’s thought, but his whole problematic” (p. 70). Hall’s de-centering of class during the 1990s in the words of McLennan seems to “mark a transition in his personal and political odyssey, from neo-Marxism to post-Marxism” (p. 344). To be fair to Hall, as McLennan notes, when global capitalism again went into crisis in 2008, Hall found Marxism once again a useful compass for him to navigate with as he raged against the economic inequalities of neoliberalism. McLennan quotes Hall conceding in his last interview—in an apparent act of at least partial self-criticism—that in terms of cultural studies, in recent decades “we drifted off into the cultural institutions and discourses and discursive analyses etc., as if the economy didn’t exist” (p. 349). Overall, as Marxism regains its intellectual appeal for a new generation emerging amid the multiple crises and catastrophes of late capitalism, this meticulously edited volume is a timely and welcome addition to the excellent and developing Stuart Hall: Selected Writings series, overseen by Catherine Hall and Bill Schwarz.

Note

[1]. Louis Althusser, For Marx (London: Penguin, 1969), 114.

Citation: Christian Hogsbjerg. Review of Hall, Stuart, Selected Writings on Marxism. H-Socialisms, H-Net Reviews. April, 2022. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=56594

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