I have to preface this article with a confession: Although I have lived in England and in Jamaica for most of my life so far, I had never heard of Stuart Hall, who recently died at the age of 82. He taught at my alma mater, Oxford University, a few years after I graduated. And I realize that Hall had actually lived in England much longer than I have, arriving there in the year of my birth, at the age of nineteen. I was preoccupied with other things than politics in 1980s Britain (including making money, and moving permanently to Jamaica). British politics was a mere backdrop for me, and perhaps I had moved on a little from my youthful radicalism (although, looking back on it, I may well have been influenced by Hall’s thought, without knowing him, from the late 1960s to the 1970s)…
OK, confession over. A colleague shared this revealing article, written by esteemed academics at the Centre for Caribbean Thought, and I am sharing it with you below. I hope that you find it of interest, as I did. It begs the question, though: What is the state of “multiculturalism” in Britain today?
There have been many tributes to the Jamaican-born thinker Stuart Hall. We at the Centre for Caribbean Thought remember the 2004 conference “Culture, Politics, Race and Diaspora: The Thought of Stuart Hall,” where with mesmerizing eloquence Hall addressed ideas about thinking, activism, the Caribbean Diaspora , politics and the complex relationships between culture, race, class and power. When we invited Hall in 2003 and informed him that his work would be the subject of a “Caribbean Reasonings Conference” his initial response, typical of his character was that he had not written much on the Caribbean; that his work was not of the kind like that of Lamming, or CLR James. Yet in a lecture delivered at the 50th anniversary of the University of West Indies, Hall had noted that the 1998 event occurred at the same time as the 50th anniversary of the docking of the SS Empire Windrush in the UK. That landing began a new history of post-war Caribbean migration to the UK.
Hall arrived in the UK as a Rhodes Scholar in 1951. His life was a Caribbean life away, a diasporic life in which the new meanings of home were constructed while retaining echoes of the former home. How could one forget the 1991 seven-part documentary series which he narrated, “Redemption Song,” that deeply explored the past and present of the Caribbean? Hall was a Caribbean intellectual, one who was part and parcel of the post war Afro- Caribbean migration experience. That he did not return “home” like others – George Lamming, or Sylvia Wynter ( who returned for a while ) and others did not mean that he was not Caribbean . What it meant was that the Caribbean was now working through a different geographical and cultural location. He himself noted: “The fate of the Caribbean people living in the UK, the USA or Canada is no more ‘external’ to Caribbean history than the Empire was ‘external’ to the so called domestic history of Britain.”
Living at the heart of the British colonial empire in its dying days and on the cusp of regional political independence was both a formidable intellectual and political challenge for Hall. These challenges remained with him for a long time and as he said in an interview in 2012, “I am not quite English.” Hall’s preoccupation with Diaspora and race emerged out of this conundrum which he navigated. There is profound connection between Hall’s life and his writings and thinking about Diaspora and race for as he once said in a debate with a conservative political figure in London,“You cannot have at the back of your head what I have in mine. You once owned me on a plantation.”
When Hall became involved in British left politics it was at a moment when orthodox Marxism was reeling from the exposures and revelations of the brutalities of Stalinism. If in 1956 another Caribbean figure, Aimé Césaire resigned from the French Communist Party, stating that not only the bodies murdered by Stalin were an eloquent testimony to the negative practices of orthodox communism but that the colonial and race problems required new and different readings of how societies were constituted, Hall along with others in 1960 founded the “New Left Review” as one attempt to construct a new left politics. This desire to construct a different left politics which was not a distant cousin of orthodox Marxism (what he would call in 1986 in an article on ideology, “Marxism without guarantees”) was critical to Hall’s intellectual and political life. Indeed his work as the central founder of the field of “Cultural Studies” at Birmingham University was not so much about a study of the popular but more about thinking around the relationships between power and culture. It was to understand culture as a complex phenomenon which was always contested; but importantly he believed that one could not think politically without grappling with the yeast of culture. It was this understanding which made it possible for him to coin the term “ Thatcherism” as a hegemonic cluster of ideas, which were not just political but deeply rooted in the cultural and social history of Britain.
Hall’s political thinking in recent years was to grapple with the ideas inaugurated by Thatcher and others and what he called a year ago the “neo-liberal revolution.” He reminds us that Thatcher once said, “The object is to change the soul.” In grappling with this new ideological configuration, Hall posited two sets of ideas amongst many which might be in part legacies for us today. The first is the notion of contingency. The idea that social and political life is not fixed, that there is no formal closure and therefore there is fluidity in what seems fixed and frozen. It is an important idea because it always means that in the darkest of times there are always “points of light.” The second is one which he took from the Italian political thinker, Antonio Gramsci – the idea of “common sense.” His challenge to us was that we should understand how common sense gets formed. In an article written by himself and Alan O‘Shea in December 2013 , he argued that the “assumption that everyone is obviously going to agree with what is being proposed is in fact a means of securing that agreement.” He also noted that the idea that “we all share common sense values … It is a powerful legitimation strategy.”
That months before his death Hall and others worked on the “Kilburn Manifesto’” a document about the possibilities of renewing the left in Britain, is indicative of a force field of determination. But perhaps even more so it was indicative of his deep desire to confront the world as we know it and challenge its assumptions. In London, Hall’s contribution to visual culture is well known, particularly his work with the group of Black Photographers and the establishment of Rivington Place. Hall had that rare gift of discerning the contours of the world in which we live. With unmatched generosity he worked across generations. He was open to the future and to the possibilities of a different world as he practiced a form of engaged listening and dialogue . For those of us at the Centre for Caribbean Thought he is a seminal figure and thinker of the 20th century.
Brian Meeks, Professor of Social and Political Change, Director Sir Arthur Lewis Institute of , The University of the West Indies, Mona
Anthony Bogues, Lyn Crost Professor of Social Sciences and Critical Theory , Professor of Africana Studies, Director, Center for the Study of Slavery & Justice, Brown University
Rupert Lewis, Professor Emeritus of Political Thought, The University of the West Indies, Mona
Short biography of Stuart Hall: Stuart Hall was born in Kingston, Jamaica in 1932. The UK “Guardian” notes: ”His father, Herman, was the first non-white person to hold a senior position – chief accountant – with United Fruit in Jamaica. Jessie, his formidable mother, had white forebears and identified with the ethos of an imaginary, distant Britain.” Educated at Jamaica College, he won a Rhodes Scholarship to study at Oxford University and moved to the UK in 1951, just after the migration of Jamaicans on the “Windrush.” He studied English at Merton College, and began doctoral studies on the work of Henry James. He was drawn towards Marxism and quickly became involved in the establishment of the New Left, after the Soviet repression of the Hungarian revolution in 1956 and other dramatic global events. In 1957 he founded the “Universities and Left Review,” and subsequently became founding editor of the “New Left Review.” Moving to London and abandoning his studies, he became a supply teacher in Brixton and in 1961, a lecturer in film and media at Chelsea College, London University. He became increasingly involved in cultural activities and co-authored “Popular Arts,” with Paddy Whannel. In 1964 he married historian Catherine Barrett. He moved to Birmingham as the first research fellow at the new Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, Birmingham University, founded by Richard Hoggart. The “Guardian” notes that during this period Hall “shifted the terms of debate on the media, deviancy, race, politics, Marxism and critical theory.” In 1979 he became Professor of Sociology at the Open University (OU), which had opened just eight years earlier during Harold Wilson’s Labour Party administration in an effort to make higher education (through distance learning) much more widely available to those who would not qualify for a traditional university education. He stayed there until 1998, later becoming emeritus professor. His move to OU coincided with Margaret Thatcher’s election victory; in “The Politics of Thatcherism” (1983) he pointed out that her political beliefs reflected an authentic popular British ethos. From 1997 to 2000 he served on the Runnymede Commission on the Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain. Leaving academia, he collaborated with many young artists and film-makers, focusing on black expression and the immigrant experience. He helped secure funding for Rivington Place in east London, dedicated to public education in multicultural issues. A history of his life and work produced by film-maker John Akomfrah, ”The Unfinished Conversation” (2012), and a widely distributed film, “The Stuart Hall Project” (2013) brought Hall to the attention of a new generation. In 2005 Hall was made a fellow of the British Academy. His published work (all collaborative volumes) includes: “Resistance Through Rituals” (1975); “Culture, Media, Language” (1980); “Politics and Ideology” (1986); “The Hard Road to Renewal” (1988); “New Times” (1989); “Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies” (1996); and “Different: A Historical Context: Contemporary Photographers and Black Identity” (2001).