Stuart Hall in perspective

Issue: 142

Alex Callinicos

Stuart Hall’s death removes from the scene one of the most influential Marxists in Britain of the past 50 years. To describe him thus is immediately to invite controversy. Among admirers, he seems to be chiefly remembered in two ways. First, as one of the founding figures of the intellectual discipline of cultural studies, particularly during the time he ran the celebrated Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) at Birmingham University between 1968 and 1979. Secondly, and in more recent years, as a writer who moved from his own experience as a Jamaican living but never entirely at home in Britain to thematise the problem of being “black British” and more generally to explore the political and cultural implications of the hybrid identities created by empire and its aftermath.1

For his critics among what used to be called the “hard left”, a very different Hall emerges. At the height of his influence during the 1980s he was, together with Eric Hobsbawm, in the intellectual vanguard of the attempt by the Eurocommunist monthly Marxism Today to marginalise those trying to defeat Margaret Thatcher’s government using the methods of class struggle and to rally support behind Neil Kinnock’s project of moving the Labour Party to the right. Hall’s own contribution was less openly Labourist than Hobsbawm’s. He developed a celebrated analysis of Thatcherism as “authoritarian populism”, “an exceptional form of the capitalist state”, and deployed all his intelligence and eloquence to demolishing the hard left within the Labour Party (a formidable force in the heyday of Tony Benn at the end of the 1970s).2 It was in this guise that Hall figured in this journal, for example, in a lengthy critique of Marxism Today that I wrote in the immediate aftermath of the defeat of the Great Miners’ Strike of 1984-5. There I taxed Hall for what his own favoured Marxist Antonio Gramsci called “ideologism”—privileging “conjunctural” short-term variations in the ideological and political superstructures over “organic” movements in the forces and relations of production.3

Marxism Today enjoyed great notoriety during the intense political conflicts in British society in the early and mid-1980s. But by the end of the decade it had drifted into an embarrassingly crass celebration of the “New Times” of globalised multicultural hyperconsumerist capitalism that displayed the worst of postmodernism. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the dissolution of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), Marxism Today closed, its mission accomplished, only—risibly—to revive itself for a one-off issue denouncing Tony Blair’s government, like a sorcerer’s apprentice revolted by the results of his own handiwork. Even then, while criticising Blair for continuing Thatcher’s project, Hall still found in him: “a genuine humanity which one would have been unwise to put any money on in Mrs Thatcher”.4 The people of Iraq would beg to differ.

This sorry history invites the conclusion that Hall didn’t have much to do with Marxism. This is in effect the argument that Colin Sparks, a longstanding contributor to this journal, makes in a careful and scholarly study of the relationship of Hall and the CCCS to Marxism. Sparks traces Hall’s development from the late 1950s onwards, when, as one of the founders of the New Left that emerged after the crisis the CPGB suffered in 1956 under the impact of Nikita Krushchev’s denunciation of Stalin and the Soviet suppression of the Hungarian Revolution, Hall helped to set up Universities and Left Review while a student at Oxford and was the first editor of New Left Review. Sparks argues that, “at this early stage in his career, Hall identified Marxism as an obsolete and reductivist system of thought. It was necessary to go beyond these limitations in order to understand contemporary culture”.5 The later embrace of Marxism by Hall and the CCCS was a passing affair, which focused on the work of Louis Althusser, much in vogue in the late 1960s and early 1970s. This encouraged a preoccupation with ideology that soon collapsed under the weight of its own contradictions. The escape route was offered by Ernesto Laclau, who, particularly in his work with Chantal Mouffe, sought to liberate Gramsci’s theory of hegemony from its author’s unfortunate commitment to “classism” and to integrate it into poststructuralist philosophy of language.6

One of the great strengths of Sparks’s interpretation of Hall’s development is the stress it lays on the continuities it stresses between Hall’s writing in the late 1950s and his enthusiasm for “New Times” 30 years later:

Certainly, the language and some of the issues of relevance have changed in three decades, but the central concern with the impact of increasing wealth, changing patterns of work, increased leisure, the centrality of consumption, fragmentation of the social structure, the problematisation of old identities and the fragmentary and transitory nature of their replacements, are [sic] common to the thinking of both periods.7

So, as in Evelyn Waugh’s novel Decline and Fall, our hero finds himself in the same place at the end of his story as he was at the beginning. This is a view Hall himself encouraged, for example in this reminiscence of his own Oxford days: “I remember going to a meeting and opening a discussion with members of the Communist Party, arguing against the reductionist version of the Marxist theory of class. This must have been in 1954, and I seem to have been arguing the same thing ever since”.8 More broadly, Hall underlined his continuing identification with the politics of the “first New Left” of the late 1950s and early 1960s, writing in 1989: “The ‘third space’ [between Stalinism and social democracy] which the ‘first’ New Left defined and tried to prise open still seems to me the only hope for the renewal of the democratic and socialist project in our new and bewildering times”.9

But what Sparks’s interpretation misses are the depth and originality of Hall’s engagement with Marxism in the 1970s and 1980s. This was no dilettantish toying with Althusser. It’s true that, unlike most contributors to this journal as well as his fellow founder of the first New Left Edward Thompson, but like, for example, Perry Anderson, Terry Eagleton, and myself, Hall took Althusser seriously as a worthwhile interlocutor, though not one to be followed slavishly. Thus he wrote during the 1970s a series of texts notable for their detailed readings of, for example, Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte and the 1857 Introduction to the Grundrisse that seek to establish their distance from the then hugely influential Althusserian interpretation of Marxism.10 Hall’s key reference point was provided by Gramsci. As he recalled, “Gramsci is where I stopped in the headlong rush into structuralism and theoreticism. At a certain point I stumbled over Gramsci, and I said, ‘Here and no further!’”11 (“Structuralism” and “theoreticism” are, in this context, code words for Althusser). Like many at the time, Hall was particularly interested in the relationship between discourse and ideology, but the main theoretical influence here wasn’t so much the structural linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure that was so important for structuralism and poststructuralism as the materialist philosophy of language developed by Mikhail Bakhtin and his collaborators in post-revolutionary Russia.12

What Hall took from Gramsci negatively was a theoretical justification for rejecting economic reductionism. Having taken this stance early on, he stuck to it for the rest of his career, declaring on the occasion of his 80th birthday in 2012 in terms very similar to those he used in the 1970s:

I got involved in cultural studies because I didn’t think life was purely economically determined. I took all this up as an argument with economic determinism. I lived my life as an argument with Marxism, and with neoliberalism. Their point is that, in the last instance, economy will determine it. But when is the last instance? If you’re analysing the present conjuncture, you can’t start and end at the economy. It is necessary, but insufficient.13

This position did not imply the rejection of any form of economic determination (as opposed to determinism). Althusserian Marxism began to disintegrate in the second half of the 1970s as former followers such as Barry Hindess and Paul Hirst replaced Althusser’s formula of “economic determination in the last instance” with a conception of the social as a plurality of interacting practices not too distant from mainstream sociological approaches stemming from Max Weber. Hall took his stand against these developments, even occasionally endorsing “the base-superstructure topography” as “a defining conceptual threshold and boundary limit for Marxism (without which it becomes another thing, another kind of theory—a theory of the absolute autonomy of everything from everything else)”.14 He resisted the drift into poststructuralism, criticising Hindess and Hirst for dissolving the real into discourse.15 This position doesn’t seem to have changed during the storms of the 1980s. Thus Hall would stress the difference between Michel Foucault’s philosophical views and “’the realist philosophical position I myself adopt”.16 Interviewed in 1985 about postmodernism, he dismisses the idea of a “postmodern condition” that represents a radical break with social modernity and aesthetic Modernism as “another version of that historical amnesia characteristic of America culture—the tyranny of the new” and more broadly takes his distance from the philosophical positions taken by then fashionable figures such as Jean Baudrillard, Foucault, and Laclau and Mouffe.17

What, then, did Hall take more positively from Gramsci? This is most strongly on show in an essay, “The Problem of Ideology—Marxism without Guarantees”, first published in 1983 for the centenary of Marx’s death. Here Hall, like Gramsci before him, takes as his cue the famous passage in the 1859 Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy referring to “the legal, political, religious, artistic or philosophic—in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict [between the forces and relations of production] and fight it out”.18 Often commentators contrast the conception of ideology implied here as a “positive” one, without any connotation that these ideas represent a form of “false consciousness”, with the more “negative” treatment found, for example, in Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism in Capital, according to which social relations take the mystified form of relations between things.19 What is very impressive is how Hall advances essentially a positive conception of ideology as “the practical as well as the theoretical knowledges that enable people to ‘figure out’ society and within whose categories and discourses we ‘live out’ and ‘experience’ our objective positioning in social relations”, but simultaneously and very skilfully integrates the key idea of the theory of commodity fetishism, namely that “the categories of market exchange obscure and mystify our understanding of the capitalist process” by presenting one aspect of that process as if it were the whole.20

Ideology is understood here, following Gramsci, as primarily the means through which classes or fractions of classes constitute themselves as collective subjects in the course of social and political struggles.21 He argues that this view of ideology is incompatible with both the vulgar Marxist “image of great, immovable class battalions heaving their ascribed ideological luggage about the field of struggle, with their ideological number plates on their backs, as [Nikos] Poulantzas once put it” and the poststructuralist “infinity of subtle variations through which the elements of a discourse appear spontaneously to combine and recombine with each other, without material constraints of any kind other than provided by the discursive operations themselves”.22 Once again Hall is engaging in a delicate balancing act. He invokes Laclau to reject the idea, which he associates with Georg Lukács in History and Class Consciousness, that particular ideas can be “ascribed” to particular classes. But Hall is careful to differentiate his position from any suggestion of the autonomy of ideology:

Certainly, it is not necessarily a form of vulgar materialism to say that, though we cannot ascribe ideas to class position in certain fixed combinations, ideas do arise from and may reflect the material conditions in which social groups and classes exist. In that sense—ie historically—there may well be certain tendential alignments—between, say, those who stand in a “corner shop” relation to the processes of modern capitalist development, and the fact that they may be predisposed to imagine that the whole advanced economy of capitalism can be conceptualised in this “corner shop” way. I think this is what Marx meant in the Eighteenth Brumaire when he said that it was not necessary for people actually to make their living as members of the old petty bourgeoisie for them to be attracted to petty bourgeois ideas. Nevertheless, there was, he suggested, some relationship, or tendency, between the objective position of that class fraction, and the limits and horizons of thought to which they would be “spontaneously” attracted. This was a judgement about the “characteristic forms of thought” appropriate as an ideal type to certain positions in the social structure. It was definitely not a simple equation in actual historical reality between class position and ideas. The point about “tendential historical relations” is that there is nothing inevitable, necessary or fixed forever about them. The tendential lines of forces define only the givenness of the historical terrain.23

Sometimes Hall falls off the high wire. Thus he endorses Laclau’s claim that the different elements of an ideology are neutral between differing class interests. Laclau’s favourite example is that of the nation, which, he argues, can be used by both left and right. This argument is a very dangerous one, since any conception of the nation implies the existence of a community that transcends class antagonism.24 It also implies a conception of ideology as the infinite variation of meanings that Laclau has indeed taken much further in his later writings but that, as we have seen, Hall is concerned to reject. Elsewhere he expresses a more critical attitude towards this position, for example declaring: “I disagree with the Laclau position that all discursive articulations are possible, but I do want to hear the argument [about the nation] gone through”.25 This doesn’t take away from the merits of Hall’s development of Gramsci’s conception of ideology. It is most fully on display in Policing the Crisis, a collective CCCS work published in 1978 that uses the case of a moral panic over mugging under the Heath government in the early 1970s to unravel the different dimensions of crisis—economic, political, ideological—afflicting British capitalism and to trace the moves preparing for the distinctive mix of economic liberalism and traditional Tory invocations of family, nation and state that was to characterise Thatcherism. This book is particularly interesting because the final chapter, on “The Politics of ‘Mugging’”, surely written mainly by Hall, contains the closest he came to a discussion of revolutionary strategy, exploring the then current idea that wageless black youth could act as a political vanguard.26

So why did such promising ideas become attached to the Marxism Today project? It’s not terribly profitable to hunt for theoretical original sin, but it is striking how innocent Hall’s writings are of Marxist political economy (Policing the Crisis is, once again, an exception here). He himself sometimes acknowledged this weakness; it may have had something to do with the reception of Gramsci in English. The celebrated 1971 Selections from the Prison Notebooks edited by Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith has many virtues, but it focuses on Gramsci’s political and philosophical writings. The importance of Marx’s critique of political economy to Gramsci only begins fully to emerge in the Further Selections published in 1995 and in the as yet incomplete translation of the Quaderni.27 But without the orientation provided by an understanding of what Gramsci called the “organic” tendencies and contradictions of the capitalist mode of production political analysis is liable to collapse into ideologism. Such an understanding might have immunised Hall to the absurdities of Marxism Today’s cult of “New Times”, which completely missed the emergence during the 1980s of the financialised capitalism that has haltered the development of the world economy to surges of euphoria and panic on the financial markets.28 In its absence, and given his earlier “New Left” views on culture and class, it was easy for Hall to drift into fellow-travelling with the Eurocommunist wing of the CPGB. This is particularly so because his theoretical explorations of Marxism were carried out without any organised connection with British working class life—from which Hall may well have felt alienated because of his own black, Jamaican identity.29

After the 2008 crash Hall sought to update the approach he developed in the 1970s and 1980s, describing the Conservative-Liberal coalition as, rather improbably, “arguably the best prepared, most wide-ranging, radical and ambitious of the three regimes that since the 1970s have been maturing the neoliberal project”.30 He showed no interest in critically revisiting his original theory of “authoritarian populism”, even though the heads of his “three regimes” have proved remarkably vulnerable to traditional parliamentary rebellions—Thatcher removed by a cabinet coup, Blair forced into retirement by the anger provoked among Labour MPs by his support for Israel’s 2006 Lebanon war, David Cameron running scared in the face of his Europhobic backbenchers. From the Great Miners’ Strike of 1984-5 to the pensions struggle of 2011 it has been the trade union bureaucracy, not the repressive powers of the state, that has contained social resistance to neoliberalism. Finding a way round this obstacle is one of the biggest conundrums facing the contemporary anticapitalist left, as Ralph Darlington discusses elsewhere in this journal. We are unlikely to find much to help us in Hall, whose practical orientation didn’t shift much from the political habits he fell into during the 1970s and 1980s.31 But this doesn’t mean we have nothing to learn from him theoretically.


1: See the very interesting quasi-autobiographical interview in Hall, 1996f. This appears in Morley and Chen, 1996, a valuable collection of articles by, interviews with and commentary on Hall, see Hall, 1996b, 1996c and 1996d. While I recognise the importance of Hall’s work on race, culture and identity, it is not my focus here.

2: Hall, 1979, p15.

3: Callinicos, 1985; see also Callinicos, 1983a.

4: Hall, 1998, p14. Older readers will remember the CPGB as the most important organisation of the Marxist left in Britain between the 1920s and 1980s-not to be confused with the producers of a contemporary far-left scandal sheet.

5: Sparks, 1996, p78. On the early New Left see Blackledge, 2006.

6: Laclau, 1977, and Laclau and Mouffe, 1985.

7: Sparks, 1996, p98.

8: Hall, 1996f, p492.

9: Hall, 2010, p196. See the more detailed account of the outlook of the first New Left (so called to distinguish it from New Left Review after Perry Anderson took over as editor in 1962 and took it in a much more theoretical and cosmopolitan direction) in Hall, 2010, pp185-88.

10: Respectively Hall, 1977b and 2003.

11: Hall, 1988, p69.

12: See the retrospective discussion in Hall, 1996e.

13: Williams, 2012.

14: Hall 1977b, p59. See also Hall 1977a. It is, however, more usual for Hall to reject the metaphor altogether.

15: For example, Hall, 1978. This text is also interesting because Hall, though influenced by Althusser’s famous essay on ideology (Althusser, 1970), takes his distance from Althusser’s attempt to make Jacques Lacan’s interpretation of psychoanalysis the basis of a theory of subjectivity. As he later put it, “I don’t think we can replace economic determinism by a psychoanalytic reductionism”-Hall, 1988, p68.

16: Hall, 1988, p58.

17: Hall, 1996a, p133,

18: Marx, 1975, p426.

19: See, for example, Larrain, 1979.

20: Hall, 1983, pp60, 73. Maybe I’m particularly impressed by Hall’s achievement here because at much the same time I was making the big mistake of counterposing the theory of commodity fetishism to the “positive” conception of ideology: Callinicos, 1983b, chapter 5. Elsewhere, however, Hall offers a much more caricatural view of the Marxist theory of ideology: see Hall, 1988, criticised in Larrain, 1996.

21: I develop a very similar account of ideology in Callinicos, 2004, chapters 4 and 5.

22: Hall, 1983, p79.

23: Hall, 1983, pp80-81.

24: Hall, 1983, pp77-78, drawing on Laclau, 1977, chapter 3. For a brief critique, see Callinicos, 2004, pp252-254. The approach implicit in Laclau’s argument here is most fully developed in Laclau, 2005.

25: Hall, 1988, p66.

26: Hall, Critcher, Jefferson, Clarke and Roberts, 1978.

27: See Krätke, 2011, for an excellent study of Gramsci’s economic writings.

28: Whatever the limitations of my own take on the conjuncture of the late 1980s, it was alert to the developing dynamic of financial boom and bust: see Callinicos, 1989, chapter 5.

29: I’m grateful to Colin Sparks for this suggestion, and for his bracing comments on an earlier draft. Thanks also to Tom Hickey for suggesting this article and for his own comments.

30: Hall, 2012, p22.

31: For Hall’s last political intervention, see Hall, Massey, and Rustin, 2013.


Althusser, Louis, 1970, “Ideology and the Ideological State Apparatuses”, in Louis Althusser, Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays (NLB).

Blackledge, Paul, 2006, “The New Left’s Renewal of Marxism”, International Socialism 112 (autumn),

Callinicos, Alex, 1983a, “The Despair of the Reformist”, Socialist Review (June),

Callinicos, Alex, 1983b, Marxism and Philosophy (Clarendon).

Callinicos, Alex, 1985, “The Politics of Marxism Today”, International Socialism 29 (summer),

Callinicos, Alex, 1989, Against Postmodernism (Polity).

Callinicos, Alex, 2004 (1987), Making History: Agency, Structure, and Change in Social Theory (Brill).

Hall, Stuart, 1977a, “Rethinking the ‘Base and Superstructure’ Metaphor”, in Jon Bloomfield (ed), The Communist University of London: Papers on Class, Hegemony and Party (Lawrence and Wishart).

Hall, Stuart, 1977b, “The ‘Political’ and the ‘Economic’ in Marx’s Theory of Classes”, in Alan Hunt (ed), Class and Class Structure (Lawrence and Wishart).

Hall, Stuart, 1978, “Some Problems with the Ideology/Subject Couplet”, Ideology and Consciousness, number 3.

Hall, Stuart, 1979, “The Great Moving Right Show”, Marxism Today (January).

Hall, Stuart, 1983, “The Problem of Ideology—Marxism without Guarantees”, in Betty Matthews (ed), Marx: 100 Years On (Lawrence and Wishart).

Hall, Stuart, 1988, “The Toad in the Garden: Thatcherism among the Theorists”, in Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg (eds), Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture (University of Illinois Press).

Hall, Stuart, 1996a [1986], “On Postmodernism and Articulation: An Interview with Stuart Hall”, in Morley, David, and Kuan-Hsing Chen (eds), Stuart Hall: Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies (Routledge).

Hall, Stuart, 1996b [1986], “Gramsci’s Relevance for the Study of Race and Ethnicity”, in Morley, David, and Kuan-Hsing Chen (eds), Stuart Hall: Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies (Routledge).

Hall, Stuart, 1996c [1988], “The Meaning of New Times”, in Morley, David, and Kuan-Hsing Chen, (eds), Stuart Hall: Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies (Routledge).

Hall, Stuart, 1996d [1992], “Cultural Studies and Its Theoretical Legacies”, in Morley, David, and Kuan-Hsing Chen, (eds), Stuart Hall: Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies (Routledge).

Hall, Stuart, 1996e [1993], “For Allon White: Metaphors of Transformation”, in Morley, David, and Kuan-Hsing Chen (eds), Stuart Hall: Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies (Routledge).

Hall, Stuart, 1996f, “The Formation of a Diasporic Intellectual”, in Morley, David, and Kuan-Hsing Chen (eds), Stuart Hall: Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies (Routledge).

Hall, Stuart, 1998, “The Great Moving Nowhere Show”, Marxism Today (November/December),

Hall, Stuart, 2003 [1974], “Marx’s Notes on Method: A ‘Reading’ of the ‘1857 Introduction’”, Cultural Studies, Volume 17, Number 2.

Hall, Stuart, 2010 [1989], “Life and Times of the First New Left”, New Left Review 61,

Hall, Stuart, 2012, “The Neoliberal Revolution”, in Jonathan Rutherford and Sally Davison, (eds), The Neoliberal Crisis (Lawrence and Wishart).

Hall, Stuart, Chas Critcher, Tony Jefferson, John Clarke, and Brian Roberts, 1978, Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State, and Law and Order (Palgrave Macmillan).

Hall, Stuart, and Martin Jacques (eds), 1983, The Politics of Thatcherism (Lawrence & Wishart).

Hall, Stuart, Doreen Massey, and Michael Rustin, 2013, “After Neoliberalism? The Kilburn Manifesto”, Soundings,

Krätke, Michael, 2011, “Antonio Gramsci’s Contribution to a Critical Economics”, Historical Materialism, volume 19, number 3.

Laclau, Ernesto, 1977, Politics and Ideology in Marxist Theory: Capitalism-Fascism-Populism (Verso).

Laclau, Ernesto, 2005, On Populist Reason (Verso).

Laclau, Ernesto, and Chantal Mouffe, 1985, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics (Verso).

Larrain, Jorge, 1979, The Concept of Ideology (Hutchinson).

Larrain, Jorge, 1996, “Stuart Hall and the Marxist Concept of Ideology”, in Morley, David, and Kuan-Hsing Chen (eds), Stuart Hall: Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies (Routledge).

Marx, Karl, 1975 [1859], “A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy”, in Early Writings (Penguin),

Morley, David, and Kuan-Hsing Chen, (eds), Stuart Hall: Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies (Routledge).

Sparks, Colin, 1996, “Stuart Hall, Cultural Studies, and Marxism”, in Morley, David, and Kuan-Hsing Chen (eds), Stuart Hall: Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies (Routledge).

Williams, Zoe, 2012, “The Saturday Interview: Stuart Hall”, Guardian (11 February),