Stuart Hall: Selected Political Writings

Book review

It’s hard to imagine a better time for the arrival of this book. Political uncertainty and reactionary posturing are a defining feature of recent months. The care and thoughtfulness carried in its pages are very welcome, the sense of context and sharpness of insight feel invaluable. This collection of Stuart Hall’s political writings is the second book to be published in a new series of volumes that gather together his works. Following the previous collection of lectures on the cultural studies project, this book brings together a range of pieces on the politics of the last sixty years. As the editors point out, Hall’s writing was always political, but here we find him exercising his prodigious analytical skills on explictly political questions and issues. The result is something to behold. A book that scans across time telling stories that are likely to matter whenever the book is read.

By gathering together these pieces in one place this volume shows just how eager and unremitting Hall was in tackling the changing political dynamics of the time. Unafraid and unreserved in his analysis, the writing is full-on in it’s speaking of truth to power. The style varies over time, but the sparkle and urgency remain throughout. As well as being described as a cultural theorist, Hall is often seen to be a public intellectual. Here we see these characteristics mixing together in a volatile but controlled cocktail. The potency of the voice and its immersion in political debates and dialogue is striking — it is perhaps so striking because it is so unusual in its tenor and almost unique in its power. In this regard this collection is a call to engage as well as a guide in how to question our pressing political concerns. It demands involvement. It demands thoughtful and considered interaction — without the need to pacify our critical edges. Hall’s edge was certainly never dulled, not by time or by what might have appeared to be a potentially futile and harsh political landscape.

Of course, the political characters inevitably date the essays — the glossary of the key protagonists at the back of the book is testament to this. In some cases we encounter the spectres of a world that now seems quite distant, none existent even. The cast of characters may have changed but often the analysis still stands, untroubled by the passing of time. The tone and ambition still resonates, as often do the arguments and theoretical targets. The changing scenery does all the more to point to the enduring problems that Hall shines his gaze upon. The ideas carry the reader along even when the details are of a different time. The endurance of the ideas seems to be located in Hall’s perpetual interest in understanding what was unfolding, not just in what had happened. An intellectual on the move, looking for connections, linkages and emerging issues as well as sparring with events.

The themes pop out of the essays, forcing reflection. We have the middle-class fear of redistribution in 1957, along with tensions over state regulation. This then gets revisited in 1984, in a piece that foreshadows his later writings on neoliberalism, when Hall notes a changing attitude to the state amongst the left. There is the observation that early-to-mid 1950s political apathy was based in bewilderment rather than disinterest. In 1966 we find Hall talking about the emergence of a rapid political arena based around a more immediate or ‘instant politics’. There are discussions of Thatcherism and changing conservativim, Tony Blair and New Labour’s incompatible ‘hyrbidisation’ of activity and neoliberalism, rising market forces in hospitals and education, through to nationalism, racism and authoritarianism. The ongoing gravity of empire and the myths that facilitate it, also, of course, draws his attention. He explores the conditions that afford the emergence of a radical right in the 1970s, along with its association with populism and an ability to convince people that their own problems align with those in power. All very relevant. And all discussed with an eye on contradictions, tensions and struggle — ‘the ideological terrain of struggle’, as he puts it in his 1982 essay ‘The Empire Strikes Back’.

Readers will almost certainly see direct parallels in the discussion of crises in the Labour movement or in the cultural shifts underpinning political endings and the rise of ‘new times’ — the flaws of a collection of ‘post’ concepts Hall subtley exposes here. He does something similar in 1990 by exploring the various phases of the notion of a ‘new left’, tracing its incarnations back to 1956. He approaches neoliberalism in the same cautious but directed way, both using the concept whilst showing its limits. The discussions of neoliberalism in the later essays, a concept that Hall again uses cautiously, speak most obviously and closely to the details of our current times. Perhaps these chapters give us a sense of a political rationality that is further mutating or that may be passing away with recent developments and what looks like a different sort of interventionism.

This collection of articles provides us with a number of historical insights into the genesis of our current conditions. It documents and discusses the pathways to our political present. It does more than this though. It provides us with insights, conceptual ideas and analyses that tell us something of what is happening now, a message from the past about our present and about the power dynamics and cultural forces that we live within. It also gives us a guide to thoughtful yet critical political thinking and how we might go about forging something more collective . It’s a book that continually poses questions, many of which still matter a great deal today.