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Sharp Mind, Sharp Pen—Stuart Hall in Retrospect

When Stuart Hall died in 2014, the British (and international) Left lost one of its better thinkers and writers. His understanding of post-World War Two British economics and culture had been part of the ongoing conversation about those subjects since the early 1960s when he helped found and edit the earliest versions of the English language journal that ultimately became the New Left Review. As the title of the journal suggests, this also meant that Hall was also an early member of what would become known as the New Left; an international movement of the Left that evolved in response to the nature of Stalinism and the various failings of other forms of the Left in the world (especially the western world.)

The specificity of my locating Hall as a mostly British writer is not meant to diminish his place in the international Left. After all, a leftist analysis is essentially impossible without an internationalist perspective. I make that distinction primarily because it was Hall’s awareness developed as a non-white British resident that informed his international view. It is crucial to his understanding of imperialism, racism, and even class. Like many other New Leftists, it was his search for a Marxist methodology that expanded Marxism beyond its Eurocentric origins that differentiated Halls’ inquiries from the traditional Marxisms of the time. One could argue that his particular experience as a Black man in Britain further informed his perspective in a manner not possible for his Caucasian comrades.51m4IyIDUfL._SX317_BO1,204,203,200_

Recently, Duke University Press published a collection of Hall’s work. Titled Selected Political Writings, the text includes essays spanning the years 1957 up until Hall’s death. The topics include a discussion on the nature of class in a consumer society created by monopoly capitalism, a history of the early British New Left, a look at racism and its relationship to colonialism, and essays on Thatcherism and New Labour, among other topics. The entire collection ends with a 2011 discussion of neoliberal capitalism. When considered in its entirety, the reality as explained by Hall is somewhat grim, unless one is either a speculator in land, a monopoly capitalist or a royal. While I found his essays on racism and culture to be the most interesting, it is his writing on Thatcherism, New Labour (which Hall correctly categorizes as Thatcherism’s adjunct) and neoliberal capitalism which provide the reader with his unfortunate yet realistic vision of the existing present and potential future.

Putting on his soothsayer’s hat, Hall correctly describes the current political dynamic in most western nations in his 1966 essay titled “Political Commitment” wherein he discusses what he calls “the privatization of politics.” What he means by this statement is simple: public issues become private ones. The example he uses is the Conservative Party’s (Tories) ongoing attack on Britain’s National Health Service. The health care infrastructure was established, explains Hall, as the result of public agitation and can be considered one of the Labour Party’s most radical measures. Despite its inherently radical nature, however, the Tories had no choice but to accept its existence in order to get elected. However, once they were in power, the attacks on the National Health Service began in earnest. Those of us who have been arguing for single payer in the United States can certainly identify with Hall’s description of the nature of those attacks when he writes: “The demand is thus shaped up not in terms of a general enhancement and development of community provision…but in a series of structurally disconnected grouses. Among the public, the stories of inefficiency multiply. In the service discontent with conditions of work increases. But the political opportunity to weld these two sets of pressure together in such a way as to create a mandate for radical expansion in the country is fatally missed.” Instead, writes Hall, Labour Party politicians respond to the individual attacks on the health insurance defensively, as if there were something wrong with the principle of health care for all. By doing so (and by replicating this political timidity when it comes to other issues) Labour not only weakened its support, it became something different altogether. Obviously, the same can be said for the Democratic Party in the United States and the Socialist and Social Democratic parties in Europe.

Stuart Hall’s pen is sharp and well-informed. One does not have to agree with everything he writes to acknowledge this truth. This collection of Hall’s political writings is simultaneously a history, a series of lessons, and a preview of our current situation. It serves as a delightful indication of why he was so widely read when he was alive. His work covers a time span that saw a new Left develop, become weakened for a number of reasons—including its adherents being co-opted into the liberal side of modern monopoly capitalism—and fail in its hopeful mission. Despite the potentially pessimistic perspective these essays discuss, the lessons they provide are well worth the time and consideration.

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Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. His latest offering is a pamphlet titled Capitalism: Is the Problem.  He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.

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