Bad Answers to a Good Question (I): Stuart Hall.

The Good Question is, of course, “What is the problem with the western Left, and what should it do to resolve the problem?”. Stuart Hall’s book Thatcherism and the Crisis of the Left: The Hard Road to Renewal is an answer to this question. It isn’t a good answer, but firstly it’s a good position from which to have asked the question, and secondly it’s interesting to see that someone as astute, informed and motivated as Hall is unable to answer it effectively.

Hall was a Marxist cultural commentator, a formidably astute figure in the tradition of Raymond Williams, emerging from the cabal of leftists who formed the New Left Review in the aftermath of the 1956 splits in the British Communist Party. However, amid all these, and despite Hall’s resolute Oxbridge tone and slightly pedantic, astringent style, one tends to forget one other thing — he was a West Indian from Jamaica, and highly conscious of his blackness and of the forced inferior status of blacks in the United Kingdom versus whites. Hence his class consciousness was always related to his racial identity — which helps to explain what happened.

The book covers the period 1978-1988, basically the period during which the British Labour Party suppressed its left wing and, with it, all pretense at socialism, during which the British Labour Party also lost power (never to regain it as a party of labour) and during which the British Conservative Party rose from near-collapse to near-complete hegemony. It was also the period during which the British left outside the Labour Party threw away whatever chances they might have had of developing some access to power and even of a substantive understanding of what was going on. So this is the background, and one would expect — and Hall claims — that the book is a response to this.

Where it starts out is the collapsing situation of the Labour Party under Callaghan and Healey, who first proclaimed the death of Keynesianism and the necessity of wage cuts and the crushing of trade unions, which led ultimately to the collapse of Labour at the polls in 1979 and the victory of Thatcher’s Conservatives. Hall recognises that this is happening, and recognises what is coming, but at the time he had absolutely no answer except to point out the situation; he couldn’t see any way of improving Labour, and was scathing about both its behaviour and its potential to change itself, and yet couldn’t see any alternative to it which could fight the Conservatives.

On the other hand, Hall initially underestimated the scale of the ideological transformation which was to come — having lived all his life in a society which was fundamentally leftist he did not understand what it would mean for the character of that society to be forcibly shifted rightward — although by 1980 he was recognising that this was happening, in “The Great Moving Right Show”, he didn’t understand that the transformation was likely not to be a minor or temporary one, but would change the circumstances within which the left would operate, and very much for the worse.

After Thatcher’s victory and once the Conservatives had been able to place right-wing ideas at the forefront of public consciousness, couched in the terms of a challenge to orthodoxy, Hall was able to find a couple of events in public affairs which concerned, and seemed in part to console, him.

He proclaimed his enthusiastic support for the striking miners and shipworkers of Gdansk as a heroic struggle against the statism which he identified in Stalinism and also opposed in the Labour Party. On the surface this made a certain sense since the miners and shipworkers were engaged in a struggle against an oppressive, undemocratic and foreign-supported government. On the other hand, they were engaged in a struggle whose aim was ultimately the restoration of capitalist relations of production — they were fighting for the right to be exploited by bosses (without properly understanding, in most cases, that this exploitation would entail shutting down many of the mines and most of the shipyards which were kept afloat by the socialist system they were opposing). In other words Hall was fighting for capitalism in the name of fighting for democracy, and was also fighting for the system which he claimed to oppose in Thatcherism. He was endorsing the new Cold War precisely at the time when the Euro-American right was using the new Cold War as a bogey to distract the public as they pushed through right-wing changes to constitution and society.

However, one cannot say that Hall was simply a Thatcherite agent, for he also opposed the Falklands war, jeering at the government which was sending armed forces to fight for British interests in the South Atlantic. He was not jeering on the grounds that the Falklanders deserved to be deprived of their citizenship and forced to live under a quasi-fascist dictatorship, or that the Argentinean claim to the Falklands was so strong that it obliged him to support that dictatorship. He was jeering on the grounds that this was an “old-fashioned ” action, that a “modern” government would have done things differently (Hall naturally did not specify what else could have been done, since the choice was between surrender or resistance). He also jeers strenuously at the Labour Party for being so old-fashioned as to support the government in their attempt to resist an aggressor and further the interests of Britain.

This raises interesting questions about the realism of Hall’s frequent declarations of his own “realism” in the context of his leftism, and how committed he actually was to the latter rather than to the former. The questions were to some extent answered after 1983, when, in despite of the unpopularity of the actual policies of the Conservative Government and the manifest failure of their claims to superior competence, the Labour Party was once again defeated, and very thoroughly.

There were various reasons cited by the Labour left for the defeat. One was the split of the “Social Democrats”, the extreme right of the Labour Party, and their well-funded and successful campaign to divide the Labour vote. One was the internecine fighting in the Labour Party after its 1979 defeat, which saw the left under Benn routed and instead a compromise candidate, Foot, installed as a thoroughly unsuitable and weak leader with the real power in the hands of the right-wing and thoroughly discredited Healey, the architect of the 1979 disaster. This led to a severe disjunct between the rank and file and the leadership, and to a very weak message getting across with very little support from the Labour Party’s central office which was under the control of the right and wished to ensure that when Foot was discredited, the left did not regain any power of influence.

These are very important factors, and could in themselves have been decisive (although they are not to be seen as excuses for the left in the Labour Party and the country generally to rest on their laurels; the left had been repeatedly defeated over the past decade and the Labour Party also faced very serious challenges outside these issues).

On the other hand, the right in the Labour Party argued that the problem was simply the Labour left, which was forcing Labour to adopt absurd policies like democracy, opposition to armed aggression and wealth redistribution and which was merely a Trojan Horse for a vast Russian conspiracy seeking to take over the country through the Trotskyite entryists — in effect, the right in the Labour Party was repeating Tory Party propaganda as depicted in the tabloid newspapers and more decorously in the Tory broadsheets. Instead of recognising that this was important propaganda, however mendacious, which had to be countered by intelligent responses, the Labour right pretended to swallow it whole because it served as a stick with which to beat the left.

But Hall does not see things that way. Instead, his position is in part that the left is indeed the problem. In a sense this is fair, for since Hall was on the left it was reasonable for him to seek to put the left’s house in order. Basing his ideas on a reading of Gramsci, he defined Thatcherism as “authoritarian populism”, which seems fair. However, this also had the effect of reducing Thatcherism not to the expression of plutocratic interests exploiting the prejudices of the petit-bourgeoisie and exporting those prejudices into the working class, but rather of erasing the plutocratic interests in favour of the propaganda which they made use of. In other words, although the authoritarianism was certainly there (insofar as Hall acknowledged this, however, he focussed predominantly on its impact on black Britons in a “law and order state”) he felt that the problem was the marketing tools which it employed.

Acknowledging this, then, he declared that Labour, largely because it was beholden to old-fashioned statist Fabianism and hostage to the “fundamentalist left”, was failing to market itself properly. It needed to modernise, and above all to recognise that there had been a fundamental shift in the working class which old-fashioned leftists had not identified. At first, wisely, Hall did not say what this fundamental shift consisted of.

Instead, he pointed out that, with the exception of the Greater London Council which he valorised beyond anything else, the Labour left was too old-fashioned to grapple with the new forces in society. By these forces he meant campaigns for gay rights, women’s rights and black people’s rights, which, he said, the left was wholly failing to address, being trapped in a white-straight-patriarchal complex. Later, to this he added the fact that wealthy pop singers were undertaking campaigns to increase economic aid to third world countries, which he noted as yet another seismic shift in British society. This latter point indicates the emptiness at the core of Hall’s analysis.

Of course gays, women and blacks deserved to be liberated, and of course they deserved to be represented, and their liberation and representation was a part of the left’s broader campaign for the liberation and democratisation of society. This had been the case since the eighteenth century in the case of women and blacks, although gays had been largely ignored until the 1960s (which gives some credence to Hall’s claims about the conservatism of the left, though this shouldn’t be taken too far).

But the point is that while the left must support the interests of gays, women and blacks, gays, women and blacks do not have to support the left. They need to be given a reason to support the left. What the left needs to do is to integrate the interests of gays, women and blacks into the broader project for the liberation of society and to persuade gays, women and blacks that one common struggle is ultimately to their advantage — otherwise, any political body, however reactionary, would be able to gain the momentary support of gays, women and blacks (themselves anything but homogeneous groupings anyway) by throwing them a conspicuous bone — even if it later turned out to be a rubber bone. Hall didn’t recognise this, instead simply praising the doomed GLC, shut down a year after he offered his praise, for its stances.

In fact, though there were obvious reasons for Hall’s stance, not least his own skin colour, an important issue was also the need to portray the left in the Labour Party as old and outmoded and therefore to be removed. Hall, together with his Communist colleague Martin Jacques and Eric Hobsbawm, became one of the leading lights of the “renewal” movement in the Labour Party which had hitched its star to Neil Kinnock and to denouncing the Labour left (shifting to the centre much as the Eurocommunists were doing in parallel with the Russian Bolsheviks abandoning what little remained of their principles under Chernenko and Gorbachev).

Eventually, in 1985, Hall said what he meant by modernisation. One was to address the new technologies being applied in the workplace which would adapt to them rather than challenge the way they were used to undermine the interests of workers. One was to accept globalisation (in the sense of capitalism using the globe as a tool against the working class in a particular area, and financialisation as a tool against any leftist government) as a necessary part of the modern world rather than challenging it. One was to repudiate statist socialism in the form of Eastern Europe, China, Cuba and so on. The last was to accept that the right wing was correct in calling for the downscaling of spending on welfare, and that the “welfare state” was no longer possible.

In other words, Hall was calling for complete surrender to neoliberal capitalism and its values, disguising this as the renewal of the left.

The problem came for Hall in 1987 when his thesis that what was wrong with the Labour Party was predominantly its weak propaganda, its inappropriately extreme leftism and its lack of modernity was tested under a leader whose entire focus was on making propaganda and attacking the left, and who was wedded to the idea that the Labour Party needed to be modernised (artfully not saying precisely what that meant, but it was strongly hinted that it meant accepting the Thatcherist view of society). Labour lost decisively; evidently, faced with Labour and Conservative Thatcherites, the electorate chose Conservative ones. Either Hall would have to acknowledge that his theses were wrong, or would have to explain how his thesis had not been falsified given this obvious test, or he would have to expose himself as a political charlatan.

The last was his decision; he went on calling for “modernised” surrender to plutocratic financialised capitalism and an abandonment of socialist principles, and denouncing what he called the “hard left”, namely those who, like Tony Benn and Derek Hatton, criticised such surrender and attempted to pursue other paths. In the end, Hall paved the way for the utter destruction of Labour as a leftist organisation, which eventually took place under Blair. Manifestly, if Hall had understood the questions in the first place, his answers showed that he was not only unrealistic, but that he seemed not to realise how unrealistic he was. Unless, that is, he had been diverted from his goals by other factors, such as a desire to get jolly nice lunches with right-wing editors, jolly good opportunities to air his reactionary views in Marxism Today and the New Statesman, and a jolly sense of his own importance and rectitude, even if this was justified by nothing in heaven or earth.

 

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