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Stuart Hall: Stalinist in theory and Blairite in politics

I suppose those who make their living out of teaching Cultural Studies have to mourn the demise of Stuart Hall. However, the airbrushing of Hall’s unpleasant politics in his obituaries cannot be allowed to pass without some attempt at correcting the historical record. Here are my thoughts which come from someone who – in more than one period of his life – was on the opposite side of the barricades to this high priest of philosophical confusion.

Stuart Hall joined the CPGB (British Stalinist party) after the Russian army crushed the 1956 Hungarian revolution and remained a member through the 1968 suppression of the Prague Spring, the breaking of the 1970 Gdansk strikes, the 1979 invasion of Afghanistan, the 1981 Polish military coup and was still there when this shameful outfit finally dissolved itself in 1991 because the Soviet Union had imploded. During these three decades, he never took any public stand against the Russian occupation of Eastern Europe or the vicious repression of workers’ struggles by the Stalinist system. Silence = complicity.

In the various fawning obituaries of Hall, he has been described as a great ‘Marxist’ thinker. Yet, if you read his publications, there is no evidence that he ever seriously studied Marx’s writings. The only references in them are to:-
* The CPGB’s bowdlerised version of The German Ideology which carefully removed all of the passages where Marx and Engels gleefully mock the 1840s equivalents of Hall;
* The chapter on commodity fetishism in Capital Volume 1 which Hall bizarrely mistook for a theory of ideology;
* The most famous quotes from The Communist Manifesto; 18th Brumaire and The Civil War in France which every CPGB member was supposed to know.

As far as I can make out, Hall never read the rest of Capital, Grundrisse, Theories of Surplus Value or any of Marx’s wonderful journalistic articles. I have taught undergraduate students who’ve read more of Marx’s writings than Hall ever did!

Instead of Marx, Hall devoted himself to promoting Louis Althusser’s remix of Stalin’s socio-linguistics in the English-speaking world. During the late-1970s and early-1980s, his disciples were the most sectarian of any group on the English Left which – given our long history of Protestant sectarianism – is saying something. If you still need to understand why Hall’s obsession with Althusser was elitist and reactionary, please read Edward Thompson’s and Simon Clarke’s excellent articles which demolish the idiocies of this Stalinist philosophy.

Since then, we’ve had two generations of academic leftists brought up on Hall who have wasted their energies on the spawn of Althusser: Foucault; Derrida; Deleuze & Guattari; Badiou; Zizek and so on. In this fifth year of the Great Recession, they have nothing sensible to say because they lack the basic theoretical knowledge to refute the propagandists of neo-liberalism. For, as Stalin and Hall argued, Marx’s critique of political economy was only for ‘textualists and Talmudists’ …

In 1978, Hall and his BCCCS colleagues published Policing the Crisis which claimed that the rise of neo-liberalism was an entirely ideological offensive by the Tory party. Amazingly, this book never discussed Hayek, Mises, Friedman or any of the other bourgeois economists who Thatcher and her allies were loudly proclaiming as their gurus at the time. Then as now, refusing to study value theory was a big mistake. Even worse, Hall’s book splenetically denounced all English Situationists as ‘terrorists’ which – given how many of their ideas he’d stolen for the BCCCS’ work on youth subcultures – was most ungrateful. A year later, Dick Hebdige proved himself a diligent pupil of Hall when he published a book on the punk movement which never mentioned that its founders were English Situationists. Stalin would have been proud of both of them!

In the early-1980s, Hall rose to prominence as the intellectual maestro of the Eurocommunist faction of the CPGB which controlled the party’s misnamed theoretical journal: Marxism Today. In issue after issue, he and his associates denounced the Labour Left’s struggles against the Thatcher monster as extremist and deranged. We just didn’t understand that the English proletariat was irredeemably racist, sexist and homophobic. It was Thatcher who knew how to appeal to these reactionary impulses – and our attempts to mobilise the working class in all of its diversity against her oppressive regime were doomed to failure. At first, Hall’s faction of the CPGB kept the Althusserian faith by analysing Tory rule solely as a ideological project. After a few years, even they eventually realised that neo-liberalism might have something to do with the despised discipline of political economy. However, instead of reading some value theory, Hall’s faction now proclaimed Thatcher’s regime as the future in the present. Neo-liberalism was the New Times to come which – most conveniently for them – meant that the Labour Left’s resistance to Tory hegemony was futile. Delighted that the local franchise of the Cold War enemy had switched sides in the class struggle, the right-wing press enthusiastically promoted the new party line of (anti-)Marxism Today. They knew that they could rely on the Althusserians to purge the ‘Trotskyist wreckers’ who threatened the bourgeoisie’s wealth and privileges.

In the late-1980s, I was told by a member of Hall’s faction of the CPGB that they were very pleased that Thatcher had defeated the miners’ strike and crushed the local government Left because the Labour party would now be forced to adopt their centrist political programme. Within a decade, this prognosis was realised when Blair was elected prime minister on a manifesto which assured the bankers that New Labour had no intention of breaking with Thatcher’s neo-liberal settlement. In the early reforming years of this administration, Hall made not one word of complaint about its failure to repeal anti-trade union laws, its attacks on welfare claimants and various other dubious policies. However, when New Labour eventually got old and discredited, he suddenly reappeared as a critic of the neo-liberal government which his faction of the CPGB had helped into power! Of course, we should always welcome someone who recants their past errors. Yet, Hall was still incapable of providing any intelligent analysis of the failings of neo-liberalism because this would have required the one thing that he’d always refused to do: studying Marx’s critique of political economy.

If there is one lesson to be learnt from this sad tale of political failure and theoretical chicanery, we must not make the same mistake as Hall and his disciples. Comrades – let us become Marxists who’ve read some Marx!

Within this MySpace version of the electronic agora, cybernetic communism was mainstream and unexceptional. What had once been a revolutionary dream was now an enjoyable part of everyday life.