The following was delivered as a talk at a roundtable on June 30, 2021, organized by the Stuart Hall Foundation and Duke University Press, to mark the publication by Duke of Gregor McLennan’s “Stuart Hall: Selected Writings on Marxism.” The event was moderated by Catherine Hall and also featured Brett St Louis and Angela McRobbie as well as Gregor McLennan.
Gregor McLennan describes Stuart Hall as a mediator. Hall “can best be appreciated,” he says, “as a peerless dialectical mediator… He mediated within Marxism—structuralism/ culturalism; economism/ideologism; class/ nonclass social forces—and he mediated between Marxism and various non- and post-Marxist discourses and movements” (14). This seems to me spot on, like all the commentary in this brilliantly edited volume. But I want to put a slightly different spin on the idea of mediation. I want to tug it gently in the direction of a concept that may seem played-out, or closer to formulaic flattery than to serious analysis. I mean Gramsci’s concept of the organic intellectual.
The obvious objection to describing Stuart Hall as an organic intellectual, aside from Hall’s own repudiation of the idea, is that what Gramsci had in mind was intellectuals thrown up by the working class and helping to organize both the class’s consciousness and the activities of the political party that represented it. It’s in this sense, I assume, that Stuart Hall says, speaking with his signature modesty about his work at the Birmingham Center: “we were organic intellectuals without any organic point of reference” (13). Organic point of reference meaning, I assume, chiefly class. The premise that we would have to accept, in order to make the concept of the organic intellectual work under such different circumstances, is that what defines the concept—relationship with and accountability to a political constituency– can be stretched beyond the working class so as to cover the diverse social collectivities that composed the New Left. In other words, the “non- and post-Marxist discourses and movements” that McLennan sees Hall as mediating between. No assumption of a shared class—though it might indeed be there.
Mediation, in the case of the collectivities that animated these discourses and movements, was obviously a challenge. The idea of serving them as an organic intellectual is an even greater challenge: it would entail trying to discover or impose a political unity on collectivities that didn’t just happen to be diverse; for many of them, diversity or difference was arguably a principle of self-definition. This is a bigger job than trying to bring together the “class fractions” that were potential components of a unified working class. In the context of race, gender, and sexuality, the very idea of political unity can no longer be taken for granted. As Hall says in the “post-colonial” essay: “Isn’t the ubiquitous, the soul-searing lesson of our times the fact that the political binaries do not (do not any longer? Did they ever?) either stabilize the field of political antagonism in any permanent way or render it transparently intelligible?” (295). It’s the challenge posed by the multiplicity of the post-60s movements: if political antagonism can’t be defined in binary terms, do you still have political antagonism?
My point here is not to give my blessing to the idea of Stuart Hall as the godfather of multiculturalism but to be more precise both about the multiplicity of multiculturalism and about the singularity of Hall’s Marxism, which is after all what we are gathered here to discuss. On the one hand, multiplicity or difference was not the exclusive defining principle of the 60s movements—it was certainly not the defining principle of the anti-war, anti-imperialist, and environmental movements, for example. And as comes out in this collection, even the movements associated with race, gender, and sexuality were not committed in an absolutist way to identity, subjectivity, or culture. Which means that when Hall expressed his impatience with those who would like to replace an economic reductionism with an exclusive or overriding concern with identity, subjectivity, or culture, as he does in these writings, he knew he had an audience.
Where was he trying to take that audience? That’s the point on which the concept of the organic intellectual adds something to the concept of mediation. Mediation suggests that he might have been asking everyone just to compromise a little in the interest of peace and tranquility, asking them to listen to everyone else, to play nice. That’s not quite right. As McLennan says, what he means by a “mediator” corresponds to what Bruno Latour means by it. It’s not merely an “intermediary,” who takes the social and its problem fields as given– let’s say, takes identities as given. True mediators “reconstitute the very concerns being addressed; in effect, they propose and co-produce a new ‘social’ in and through their acts of problematization and the network effects they trigger” (342). In this sense, Latour says, mediators are “game-changers” (342). In this sense, one might also say—though Latour would not—that the work of mediation Stuart Hall did was the work of the Gramscian organic intellectual. It was doing something to the players and the identities, helping to create a collective self-consciousness, reconstituting them in order to prepare them to take power.
For Gramsci, the organic intellectual was defined by a “capacity to be an organizer of society in general, including all its complex organism of services, right up to the state organism, because of the need to create the conditions most favorable to the expansion of their own class.” The function to which it aspired, in other words, was “organizing social hegemony and state domination.” The phrase “state domination” is not sloppy or accidental. Gramsci’s abstract description of the working class is “any group that is developing toward dominance.” The phrase “any group” may have been there only to avoid censorship, but it also leaves the door open for us to shift the notion of the organic intellectual from class to the 60s constituencies, including class but not restricting ourselves to it. The problem is that most if not all of the 60s constituencies did not see themselves as “developing toward dominance.” Dominance was what they suffered from, not what they were seeking. That’s where Hall’s Marxism comes in.
The incredible seriousness with which Hall reads Marx’s texts, impressive as it is to be reminded of, is not the main point here. For better or worse, the Marxism does not come in in the form of an insistence that the other constituencies should follow the lead of the working class. It does not come in as an insistence on “economic determination in the last instance,” though there are certainly places in this volume where that’s what Hall seems to assert, and perhaps rightly. It comes in as the simple if mainly unarticulated proposition that there must be a coalition, that the eventual goal of the coalition is to take power, and that in order for this to happen no one could rest content with their own identity, their own subjectivity, their own experience. There would have to be some reconstituting.
When Hall defends “theory” against E.P. Thompson and in particular against Thompson’s invocation of historical “experience,” I can’t help feeling that behind Thompson’s reliance on “experience” Hall sees all the present-day social collectivities that are putting a great deal of weight on their experience. If so, then “theory” would stand in for the necessary coerciveness, or if you prefer merely the impoliteness, not of Marxism as such, but of Marxism as the reminder that the goal of the project, however delayed, is taking power, something that can only be imagined as the eventual result of a successful coalition of collectivities that have no single antagonist and no pre-given form of unity. Bowing down to the sacredness of anyone’s experience is inconsistent with the project of “developing toward dominance.”
The project of “developing toward dominance” also makes sense, retrospectively, of Hall’s trademark concern with the state. The prospect of successfully taking over the state was of course never close enough to make the articulating of that goal seem like anything other than a bad joke. But as a long-term goal, the putting together of a coalition that would be capable of governing, and capable of governing differently, seems a better guide to Hall’s career than, say, his concern for culture, which has frequently sucked all the oxygen out of the discussions of his work. About the state, there was no established Marxist orthodoxy in the name of which Hall could be dismissed as a shameless revisionist. There was controversy, as McLennan points out, and he contributed meaningfully to it. There was also controversy, maybe even more of it, on the other side of his mediating efforts. The philosopher who was most consistently affirmed by the “new social movements” was Foucault, who as McLennan reminds us refused to trace “power… back to any single organizing instance, such as ‘the State’” (269). Whether you think of Foucault’s anti-statism as sinister and neoliberal or as “anarcho-libertarianism” (which might also be a bit sinister), there is no doubt that it was utterly alien to the project of “developing toward domination.” Which means that, in effect, Hall was fighting Foucault for the soul of the movement.
As this volume brings out, it was in wrestling with Nikos Poulantzas’s theorizing of the state (especially what Poulantzas called “authoritarian statism”) that Stuart Hall came up with the alternative formula “authoritarian populism.” He was clearly fascinated by “authoritarian populism.” If there was some sort of excess in that fascination, beyond his epoch-making insight into Thatcherism’s extraordinary political success, the obvious reason would be, from this perspective, that like Gramsci he thought the left could learn from the right’s capacity to bring popular feeling into a new ruling coalition, riding it into state power. So yes, the idea of taking state power and governing might have seemed to him grandiose, ruled out for the moment both because it was too far from the immediate goals and concerns of the “new social movements” and because of the weakness of the organized working class, which was not at a revolutionary moment, to say the least. But I don’t think he was ever not informed by that idea. And under present circumstances—the circumstances that force us to meet via zoom—I can’t help adding that even at non-revolutionary moments, there is nothing reprehensibly reformist or revisionist about saying that we need the state to take on certain functions that private individuals and local collectivities cannot take on for themselves. One does not need the world-historical incompetence of Donald Trump and the hundreds of thousands of unnecessary deaths that resulted from it to bring that home.
It’s not just in the US that you have to factor in the importance of the state to the antiwar movement, which was obliged to come to some understanding of military violence, and the importance of the state as an interlocutor for the civil rights movement and the women’s movement, which were trying to get their constituencies protected by legislation. Do we really think this was a mistake? If not, then the fury over culture and culturalism fades into the background. There are more pressing things to talk about.
It’s possible that this is shameless special pleading for my own generation. What Stuart Hall called “generational consciousness” is obviously not the sole prerogative of youth. My own personal experience of the 60s was pitifully thin, and I may well be unconsciously trying to make up for its thinness now, too many decades later. At the same time, I’m consciously trying to balance Stuart Hall’s powerful and uncompromising commitment to the present conjuncture, to what could be done and had to be done here and now, with his commitment to the historical long term, which is a signature move of Marx and of Marxism. For Hall, it mattered that patriarchy, racism, and military violence all have non-capitalist sources and pre-capitalist as well as capitalist trajectories.
It’s that long term, as well as the generational short term, that permitted him, and permits us, to entertain the unfashionable idea of “progress”—an idea the “new social movements” have been reluctant to acknowledge. Stuart Hall ends the piece on Edward Thompson by focusing on “the complex moment of ‘1968—a contradictory inheritance which has to be neither simply revived nor simply denigrated but reckoned with” (280). As usual, I think he was too modest here: he was not merely reckoning with that inheritance, but reconstituting it, teaching the movements of 1968 a Gramscian lesson, getting the generation to acknowledge what he called, in a significant phrase, “theoretical gains.” I think it’s fair to say that not all the gains were purely theoretical.