The Jamaican born left wing intellectual, cultural theorist and gifted orator Stuart Hall could be a contentious figure on the left.
His polemical interventions, written with great flourish and panache, made him one of the most discussed socialist writers in the 1970s and 1980s.
Hall saw the importance of placing popular culture under the same sort of scrutiny as the traditional high arts. He was central to the development of cultural studies in the 1960s—then closely aligned with Marxism.
He coedited the book Resistance Through Rituals which explored how alienated working class youth in post-war Britain “won space” through a limited form of cultural expression.
For Hall cultural studies was always a means to discuss politics—to investigate how the ruling class won ideological consent.
He disowned the apolitical postmodern version currently found on international campuses.
Hall was a regular face on 1970s television, challenging with forensic precision the prevalent stereotyping of black people.
Policing the Crisis exposed the moral panic around “mugging” and its association with young black males.
It showed how these panics reinforced state control when faced with an economic crisis.
He developed ideas on how the mass media could construct representations of reality that are entirely ideologically shaped.
His work was influential and is a key component of media studies teaching today. His inclusive redefining of Britishness in this period gave theoretical weight to multiculturalism.
However, in the 1980s he used his formidable intellect to bolster a retreat by left reformism.
He wrote in Marxism Today, the magazine of the rightward moving right faction of the Communist Party.
Hall was the first to coin the term Thatcherism, seeing the rise of Margaret Thatcher as a response to the organic crisis of British capitalism.
He argued that she appealed over the heads of the Labour Party to its working class supporters.
The result was an “authoritarian populism”—an exceptional form of capitalist state that was in the same family as fascism.
The utterly pessimistic political consequence of this theory was to argue for an extension of the Communist Party’s popular front politics.
Marxism Today wanted to achieve “the broadest possible set of alliances against Thatcherism, involving in the initial instance, possibly quite modest objectives”.
Hall wanted to distance his analysis from economic determinism. But, in a misreading of Italian revolutionary Antonio Gramsci, he placed too much stress on ideology at the expense of class.
It was a counsel of despair that advocated a break with class politics. Labour leaders Neil Kinnock and Tony Blair would exploit this flawed analysis that we were now living in “New Times” to move further right.
Hall became increasingly enthusiastic for identity politics after the collapse of the Soviet Union after 1989.
His preoccupation with perception lapsed into vague, oblique essays that struggled to engage with voguish post-structuralism while rejecting its more excessive manifestations.
However this preoccupation did lead him to embrace British black artists, and independent filmmakers, for whom he was a source of inspiration.
In later years, he returned to making pointed intellectual interventions with attacks on neoliberalism and New Labour.
Hall was never a socialist of our stripe. But there is no denying his productive insights into British imperial pretensions and his sustained anti-racism.