Stuart Hall – a theorist for Black Lives Matter

As anti-racist struggles mount world wide, Don Flynn considers the legacy of a pioneer

Stuart Hall’s life intersected with the emerging Black Lives Matter movement for just a few months before his death in February 2014. The mass protests triggered by the jury acquittal of the murderer of the black teenager, Trayvon Martin, in Sanford, Florida, came at a moment when the death of one 17-year-old African-American male could reach out from its particular context and become representative of numerous acts of racism across the Western world.

Hall didn’t have time to make this enigmatic fact of representation – how one injustice could stand for many injustices – the subject of specific analysis, but anyone wishing to do so would find all the clues of what he would have said in the two volumes of his Essential Essays. At a moment when BLM has been renewed and further internationalised in significance by the police murder of George Floyd, activists within the anti-racist movement will be amply rewarded by turning to its pages.

The foundations for the Cultural Studies analysis in which Hall’s work was grounded were mapped out in the separate works of Richard Hoggart and Raymond Williams in the 1950s and 60s. The key to the approach was seeing culture, not as the product of intellectual processes emanating from the privileged elite, but as something which actively involved ‘the masses’. It included the ways in which working class people expressed their feelings about the world, the language and the values they shared within their communities, and the moral categories used to judge themselves and others. It was active and constantly renewing itself as it was forced to grapple with the changing exigencies of life and times.

As a realm of social activity so centrally concerned with the production of meaning, Hall and his associates pitted the idea of culture against the notion of false consciousness which was wielded by supposedly orthodox Marxist currents. But because subaltern social groups had to be seen as active in the creation of the social order in which they lived, this did not mean that they were acquiescing to a capitalist world order in any simple sense. Lines of resistance to the dominance of capital stood out markedly in the stands taken against exploitation and the cultural values which raised individualist above communal solidarity.

Base and superstructure

The Cultural Studies insistence that class interests were embodied within sets of cultural values made this a site of conflict at least as important as the more traditional Marxian concern with economic struggle in the realm of work. Though it seemed a reversal of the proposition that the economic base of society determined the character of the social infrastructure, Hall claimed a legacy in the canon of Marx’s own work for the view that culture had to be accorded a degree of autonomy in the way it acted with and on the capitalist mode of production.

Hall’s response to the charge of such a fundamental revisionism is argued in his 1977 essay, Rethinking the Base and Superstructure Metaphor, republished in Volume 1. He sets out his own, extensive reading of Marx and points to the evidence that the author of Capital and the Grundrisse had worked with a more complex understanding of the structuring of power relations within capitalism in which the ‘relative autonomy’ of the different segments produced an ‘over-determination’ of social phenomena, which gave distinct places to the forces of politics, culture and economics in forging a particular moment in time.

A constant dialogue with the respective contributions on these issues, dealing with the contributions of the Italian Marxist, Antonio Gramsci, and the structuralists who stood with Louis Althusser, as well as others less well known to non-academic readers, is a feature of Hall’s most theoretical work and is present in many of these essays. Though sometimes daunting, it helps to understand that his purpose was the eminently practical one of forging the intellectual tools that might help us to understand the contemporary problems which activists on the Left are having to face up to. At this point the analysis of race and racism becomes a central feature of Hall’s work.

His background – to use his own description – as an immigrant from Jamaica following the route of the Windrush generation, is sufficiently well known not to require any detailed comment in this short article. It is sufficient to say that it bestowed on his intellectual work the privileged position of the ‘outsider’ – a close observer operating with a splendid degree of detachment from the thing under observation.

The specificity of racism

At this point we see that in looking at an issue like racism, he insisted that generalities that grounded the problem in essentialist binaries of the ‘white versus black’ kind be avoided. The essay Race, Articulation, and Societies Structured in Dominance (from Volume 1) links his theoretical approach to what develops into an incisive deconstruction of the beast. His commitment to concrete analysis of concrete problems produces a resistance to sweeping generalisations of the kind that link contemporary racism to historical precedents like the transatlantic slave trade or colonialism. “Britain’s imperial hegemony”, he argues, “… alone cannot explain either the form and function which racism assumed, in the period of popular imperialism at the height of imperialist rivalry towards the end of the nineteenth century, or the very different forms of indigenous racism […] which has been an emergent feature of the contact between black and white workers in the conditions of post-war migration.”

The second volume of essays contains more that goes deep into the heart of this approach. To explain why the labour of black people is so strongly associated with the most rigorous forms of exploitation, he asks us to move away from simplistic notions of a racist form of capital that is more vindictive to people of colour and to consider instead the way in which specific forms of labour are over-determined by (among other things) cultural factors which belong to (for example) pre-capitalist formations. In these instances, “… capital can preserve, adapt to its fundamental trajectory, and harness and exploit these particularistic qualities of labour power, building them into its regimes.”

How much of this is relevant to the formation of new anti-racist struggles of the Black Lives Matter type? In this short space it has not been possible to say enough about the ways in which Hall implicates the State as an active, configuring element in the politics and culture of society. The Leninist aphorism of the State as the executive committee of the ruling class, making politics a tool for the subjugation of subaltern classes scarcely indistinguishable from police repression, is displaced in Hall’s analysis by a conception which sees it as another field of struggle between opposing class interests.

The iconic work of the Cultural Studies current spelt out some of what this meant in its consideration of policing strategies directed against black youth in Britain. The study, Policing the Crisis, first published in 1978, looked at a moment when the first generation of British-born young blacks was reaching adulthood, with this coming at a time when the fact of Britain’s decline in the world was becoming patently obvious. A scapegoat was sought, and this was provided by the mainstream media. It set about structuring perceptions of street crime, perceived to be on the upswing, and nurtured a moral panic around the figure of the ‘mugger’. Little could be comprehended as to how this could acquire so much political salience without understanding how the working class was so centrally implicated in this development, actively participating as it contributed its own ‘social knowledge’ of what was going on in its neighbourhoods to a discourse that demonised black youth.

The presentation of the elements in British society that entrenched the image of feral black youth in the popular imagination was rooted in rigorous approach to analysis that is available to us today. Its instance on concrete analysis, wariness of abstract generalisations, openness to finding multiple causes of events – bringing culture, politics, and economics into alignment with one another – is with us today and available to use.

High among the phenomena which require the sort of scrutiny that Hall provided is that of structural racism. With black and minority ethnic people being assaulted on the streets by police officers, over-represented in prison populations, excluded from schools and disadvantaged in labour markets, and the perennial victims of immigration policies which produced scandals arising from the hostile environment, we need to know from whence came this evil and what are the social forces that sustain it in political institutions which are supposed to guarantee our rights and liberties. Knowing this would equip us better with the political and cultural resources that will allow each and every incident of racism to be countered and dismantled.

Hall’s intellectual work, and his participation in many of the projects which anti-racism generated during his lifetime, has helped mark out the terrain on which newer struggles will have to be fought. Activists in the Black Lives Matter movement will do well to consider his legacy and take it forward.

Essential Essays Volume 1: Foundations of Cultural Studies
Essential Essays Volume 2: Identity and Diaspora

by Stuart Hall
Duke University: Vol. 1, £23.99; Vol. 2, £21.99


  1. The life and work of Stuart Hall raises too many issues for a short comment, both in his academic work and his poitical contribution. As he was my MA supervisor at the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at Birmingham University (1970-73) the local difficulties he faced come first to mind. As Tariq Ali said in his obituary of Stuart, these were not all due to the politics of the university: the Centre was a deeply unpleasant place to work in. Nevertheless, it is not an accident that both he and Richard Hoggart, founder of the Centre had to leave to get professorships. Academia is often a place red in tooth and claw, but while the Centre drove me to abandon any idea of an academic career, I am happy to place on record that the only reason I did not quit was Stuart himself. One reason for his enduring reputation is that engaging with him was an
    unfailingly constructive experience.

    But there were two aspects to Stuart’s public life, the academic and the political. The academic record is of high achievement and speaks for itself. How many black intellectuals have been President of the British Sociological Association and Fellow of the British Academy? But politically the record is one of failure. The New Left did not succeed. I studied with him in part because I had read the Mayday Manifesto of 1966, which he co-authored with Raymond Williams and E P Thompson – Thompson also taught me. But the political record in an era of right wing advance is poor, and in part because the active core never learnt from their failures. I read Stuart’s political writing and it is undeniable that from the Mayday Manifesto to the Kilburn Manifesto which appeared shortly before his death, the message is one that could only appeal to a highly educated and politically impotent cadre.

    For the BLM and British political life, there is a question to be answered in Stuart’s very visibility years after his death. Stuart Hall is rightly recognised as a leading black intellectual and opinion former. Who has replaced him? Given that we are now seven decades on for the Windrush moment, why are racist movements still creating waves, and where are the voices demanding attention that Stuart and some of his compatriots outside the world of literature who emerged in mid – twentieth century represented? CLR James is one obvious example. The giants of the past have not been replaced

    Trevor Fisher

  2. Wonderful article and comment below it by Trevor Fisher. The new left has always been an inspiration and lives informs so many other struggles. It may not have ‘won’ – what form of socialism did? But it influenced us in many ways as Don’s article demonstrates.

  3. Gita is right that the New Left influence was significant, and I read the 1966 Mayday Manifesto taking it seriously – so seriously that I studied with Thompson and Hall, two of the three authors. But we cannot ignore the outcome which was a cul de sac. In terms of mainstream politics there was no influence and the lack of any viable discussion forum after the collapse of Marxism Today is a critical problem.

    Chartist should be putting its limited resources to networking across the anti Brexit movement to address what is going to be a difficult year in 2021 – the Starmer leadership under the influence of Blue Labour is trying to triangulate on a Blairite basis to win the Tory voter. Its a dead end. Labour’s focus should be Scotland, where the SNP went from anti Europe in 1975 to pro Europe in 2016 to destroy Labour. Honour the New left by all means But please do not avoid their failures. Trevor

    Trevor Fisher

  4. I’m not sure if the point of returning to Hall’s work has anything to do with ‘honouring the New Left’. By any standard its heyday in the 1960s and after was enormously productive in generating the ideas that challenged the orthodox versions of Marxism that were coming from Communist parties subservient to the Moscow line. The close scrutiny it gave to cultural issues was an important influence on feminism and other social movements that were grasping for the dialectics of human liberation.

    What it didn’t do was come up with a programme for the organisation of the working class in its struggles against capitalism. In many ways the mode of its critical approach was demobilising, emphasising as it the the fragmentary nature of critical experience which couldn’t be overcome by merely shouting slogans. But, among all the New Left thinkers, Hall remains one of the most interesting because his work continually went back to the practice of politics ‘at street level’. His work is a template for how we might do better in engaging in life at that level.

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