Stuart Hall, Thatcherism and Marxism Today.
Stuart Hall Revival?
Stuart Hall, Thatcherism, Marxism Today, Yesterday, and Tomorrow.
“What matters is some sense of continuity through transformation – of political allegiances which won’t go away, of bedrock reference points – which does allow us to say something about the present conjuncture.”
Stuart Hall. Out of Apathy. Voices of the New Left Thirty Years on. Oxford University Socialist Discussion Group. Verso. 1989.
Amongst all the debates that have come out of the latest splits on the British left perhaps some of the most important have been about looking again at the 1970s and 1980s left. Feminism and party forms have been to the fore. But more recently people, notably Jules Alford, Richard Seymour and the International Socialist Network, have begun to think about the way the left responded to the rise, and consolidation, of Thatcherism, and economic liberalism, during the same period. Today we tend to think of free-market policies as the fixed agenda of nearly all governments across the world, and in Britain, they seem the horizon of both the liberal-Conservative Coalition and Ed Miliband’s Labour leadership. But the 1980s saw heated debates about whether the Thatcher governments introduced something new into British politics, and if liberalism was a rational strategy for the country’s economy.
Stuart Hall argued in The Great Moving Right Show (1978) that ‘Thatcherism’ was able to use the “language of ‘the people’, unified behind a reforming drive to turn the turn the tide of ‘creeping collectivism, banish Keynesian illusions from the state apparatus and renovate the power bloc…” It “brings into existence a new ‘historic bloc’ between certain sections of the dominant and dominated classes.” It was a “rich mix”, combining long-standing ‘organic’ Tory themes, “nation, family, duty, authority, standards, and traditionalism “with” a revived neoliberalism – self-interest, competitive individualism anti-statism.” (1)
Hall used a number of Gramscian terms to conceptualise this shift. He made Thatcherism a response to an enduring “organic crisis” of ‘corporatism’ (institutionalised state, employer and union bargaining). The ideas he listed above formed a contradictory brew that made up a “national-popular” response to problems in the “decisive nucleus” of the economy. These varied ideas were put together in apparent coherence. They were underpinned by financial stringency (‘monetarism’) and plans to reduce union rights. In summary, for Hall, Thatcher offered a “regressive modernisation” to solve the country’s many problems, starting with the Decline of Britain. Or, in plainer language, it offered a programme to re-establish traditional authority, and to get the economy moving.
‘Thatcherism’, Hall argued, had enough appeal to win mass support. By feeding off the deep crisis of ‘Labour Socialism’ and the party’s relations with the trade unions, it helped bring about a “new balance of class forces”. Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister in 1979 and led Conservative electoral victories up until her 1990 resignation. The notion that these triumphs were unavoidable was (and is) hotly contested, not least by Hall himself who argued for some fundamental changes in the left if it was to replace Thatcherism.
The changes to the left that Hall backed remain a sensitive political area. Hall and the principal journal he was published in Marxism Today, were involved in a political fight that ended with the break up of the Communist Party of Great Britain. As its editor has modestly put it, “the Bennites, CP Stalinists the Trotskyist groups and conservative forces were on the one side and MT, the Eurocommunists, the soft Left and the Kinnockites were on the other.” Michael Ruston put this more bluntly. The Marxism Today side had a “recurrent and negative emphasis on the fundamentalism, dogmatism and general backwardness of the orthodox left. It is as if the left were largely to blame for the catastrophe of Thatcherism, and as if its unthinking conservatism now constituted the main obstacle to the emergence of an alternative.” Stuart Hall launched into the “distinctive and peculiar political style” of the Hard Left. One can be assured that those attacked gave as good as they got. (2)
Martin Jacques’ troops have long wandered off to new pastures. But there are plenty of ‘conservatives’ and backward elements around on the left who remember this political atmosphere vividly enough to reject Hall’s writings out of hand. There is a suspicion, not completely unjustified, that he was a harbinger of New Labour. If that charge does not exactly stick – both Jacques and Hall were quick to criticise Labour in power for failure to redistribute and its ‘managerialism’ – then he is seen as part of the turn to “discourse theory” and the rejection of the link between class politics and socialism.
This, it will be argued here, is ill judged in some important respects. Hall offered some important ways of looking at the rise of Thatcherism. They – and criticisms of them – deserve looking at in their own merits. What could be better, at a time when the People’s Assembly is being held, to think again about the ‘People’ and ‘Populism’?
In many people’s minds there is the memory that Hall and his Marxism Today colleagues, ended up concentrating on defeating Thatcher and electing an alternative, come what may. But Hall did not join up with New Labour or even the broadest tents of the Third Way. Hall never ignored class or (see above) equality. What he did was to detach his idea of the left from the principle of class as the principal source of political agency. Hall became part of a ‘socialist’ trend that promotes “social regulation from the left”, rooted in civil society. This area includes class amongst a ‘rich mixture’ of other social forces, or ‘social movements’ as they were once known. His views bear close comparison with the stand most clearly defended by what in France is called the “deuxième gauche”. This is a decentralising, left, hostile to Statist socialism (which we would call Fabian, in France they dub Jacobin), and supportive of grass-roots autonomy and experimentation – on paper. In practice, as a result of these ideas (like Hall’s) lack of political effectiveness, this Second Left has become marginalised in France. (3)
Stuart Hall began his attempt to define the “character and significance” of Thatcherism by looking at the messages and images the leader of the Conservative Party and her team projected. “Between 1975 and 1979 an effective ideological crusade was waged by the radical right. This was not a simple ‘Vote for Mrs Thatcher’ propaganda campaign. It was an attempt to penetrate to some of the core, root social ideas in the population. They seized on the notion of freedom. They marked it off from equality. They contrasted it against a dim and dingy statism which they chained to the idea of social democracy in power.” (4)
Hall’s most famous concept was “authoritarian populism”. This bundled together the Conservatives’ ability to win support with a hard-line on law and order, race with the construction of a ‘we’, the people, against ‘social democratic’ ‘statism’ (the quotation marks are always necessary). “Its radicalism connects with radical-popular sentiment; but it effectively turns them round, absorbs and neutralises their popular thrust, and create, in the place of a popular rupture, a populist unity.” How was it able to succeed? There is a “contradiction within the very heart of Labourism, with its deep parliamentary constitutionalism, its conception of the state as a natural instrument for reform, its inexplicable belief that Labour governments can both ‘represent working-class interests and manage capitalism without something giving, and, above all, its fear and suspicion of popular democratic politics in any form.” (5)
In the debates that followed Hall’s original articles he was accused of ‘ideologism’. That is, he relied on an account of struggles over culture and ideas. The ‘rich mix’ of free-market theories, ‘common sense’ values (thrift, self-reliance), fears, ‘moral panics’ (traced out in the joint work, Policing the Crisis 1978), appeared to critics, to have won a victory in the public’s mind. It gave, as Jessop, Bonnett, Bromley and Long, observed, a “unified” picture of Thatcherism. (6) To put it simply, Hall never offered any serious analysis of the diversity of British public opinion. He could be said to have ignored the fragile nature of Thatcher’s electoral majorities, and exaggerated her “hegemonic appeal”. At the same time authoritarian populisms, for all its “mystifying” tendencies, might indicate trends within state, notably a re-organisation of power to stress its co receive and centralised power. Jessop et.al. Made the point that the post-war ‘Keynesian’ state had not been “social democratic”, that is an instrument of social justice, egalitarian (if paternalistic) re-distribution.
Jessop et.al also pointed to the instability of the “power bloc” that supported Thatcher. They noted that manufacturing industry (not surprisingly) was unsure about the government’s polices. They asked, “Can Thatcher consolidate a ‘two nations strategy based on the ‘sunrise industries and the South-east while the rest of British capital, especially manufacturing industry, experiences continued decline?” (Ibid)
But if it was “an alliance of disparate forces” (from non–Thatcherite One Nation Tories to people at large) was it true, in retrospect that the Thatcher governments held a “contradictory programme”? Ralph Miliband alleged in 1985 that they’re was no reason to think that there was “any great ideological and political shift to ‘Thatcherism’.” Bill Schwarz observed, “The degree to which Thatcher has attracted popular support and swung the ideological conjuncture to the Right is the crux of the matter.” Schwartz indicated convincingly against Miliband, that there was good evidence that majority public sentiment had embraced right wing ideas in the late 1970s, and two election victories (1979, 1983) indicated a capacity for “winning hearts and minds”. This was more widely acknowledged. In the same year Jessop and his colleagues were already saying that “The Conservative Party has convinced much of the privileged core that its material interests as both workers and consumers are best secured through policies of popular capitalism, at present this includes ownership of the home, shares and pensions, and it may come to embrace a degree of private entitlement to education and health service.”(7)
Not everybody focused on the issues raised by Jessop and his colleagues. To Alex Callinicos, Hall believed that Thatcherism had created a “new form of class rule”. This was, he asserted, based on a concept of the “exceptional state” taken from Nicos Poulantzas, which referred to “a certain class of capitalist states which emerge when the existing form of bourgeois rule cracks as a result of internal conflicts and popular resistance. Among Poulantzas ‘exceptional states’ are fascism and military dictatorship.” (8)
Callinicos appeared to suggest that Hall believed that Thatcherism was fundamentally undemocratic. This is perhaps a useful insight into the wilder claims of the movement known as Charter 88. But Callinicos was just plain wrong to make this point against the early analysis of Thatcherism. Hall drew on Poulantzas’ later concern about ‘authoritarian statism’ in Western representative democracies, and the repressive response to 1970s class conflicts in Europe (no doubt fresh in Hall’s mind, such as the anti-union ‘private armies’ of that period). Hall himself described his own use of Poulantzas, developing the concept of “authoritarian statism” to encompass the way the free-market right disguised itself as “anti-statist”. “Authoritarian populism’ brought to light the way in which this Right won consent for its ideas. Andrew Gamble’s idea of the ‘Strong state and the free economy’ best summarised the combination. (9)
Hall remains open to a number of other more or less serious challenges. The strongest remains perhaps the very concept of ‘populism’ itself. The Thatcher-led Conservative party operated within a political culture that has no rooted concept of the ‘people’ in the first place. That is the articulation by political forces of the ‘British’ that can be wedded to a governing power bloc, or fought and wrenched away by an oppositional force. In the United Kingdom there is no ‘dialectic’ between the People and Classes, as Ernesto Laclau put it (when he was still thinking in near-Marxist terms). (10)
Thatcher’s ‘populism’ was built from a series of interpellations that addressed, and could be recognised, by people through their individual experiences, not as a People. We moan about the particular jobsworth, not the State. A larger figure, constructed politically, is almost always in opposition to an enemy Populism in this land do, naturally, or not, exist. One shape can be seen in UKIP’s recent success: a ‘people’ against other ‘foreign’ ‘people’. But is this tied to the power bloc? The evidence is that such creations melt at the first sign of becoming serious allegiances.
John Saville alleged that Hall overplayed the coherence and economic success of Thatcher. Her government’s main ideas were privatisation and curbing the trade unions. By the end of the 1980s Marxism Today was held to celebrate consumerism and an expanding market. “They have mistaken a consumer boom, financed by politically motivated cuts in direct taxation, together with the very high growth of the money supply in the public sector, and the rapid expansion of credit facilities in the private sector, for a turn-around in the continued decline of the British economy.” (11)
These, as we know from the more recent banking crises, indicate what would become deep-seated difficulties within Western capitalism. Yet Hall had pointed out an important shift. Clearly Thatcher altered something. It is hard to deny that when in power Thatcher acted on her broad principles. They prevailed, and lasted. The “public” realm began to be colonised by private interests and, initially by denationalisations, the parasitical intrusion of private companies into public services. The question, posed by Jessop et.al. whether the “organisational and relational bases for collectivism and democratic policies” have been eroded is settled. They have been. New Labour famously embraced choice and markets, undermining the heart of what Hall called the ‘social democratic’ post-War state-settlement.
The Great Crisis of Socialism.
Re-reading the debates about Thatcherism it is hard to find any reference to the fact that while Thatcher consolidated her UK rule France had elected (in 1981) a Socialist President, François Mitterrand, and a de facto Union of the Left government, of Socialists and Communists. The French Socialist Prime Minister Pierre Mauroy tried policies close to the British left’s Alternative Economic Strategy (higher public spending, nationalisations, social reform). The Socialists’ goal, in their 1981 Manifesto, the Projet Socialiste, was a “rupture” with capitalism. Why, we might have asked, had there been a Great Moving Left Show in France, and what happened to it?
This shift did not last. The ‘retreat of social democracy’ in France was soon to come, and was part of a Europe-wide “great crisis of socialism” in the 1980s. This did not result in the rise of a continental full-blown ‘Thatcherism’. The French government faced with market resistance, abandoned most of its radical socialist policies (though not some labour legislation and decentralisation). This change began with fiscal austerity in 1982, and then tight wage restraint. The Communists quit the Cabinet, and proceeded to shrink and (at the top) fragment. In 1985 the goal of a rupture with capitalism was formally dropped.
This turn to the right, though not from a position of such initial radicalism, was not confined to the Hexagone. The Swedish Wage Earners’ Funds, the Meidner Plan, which promised a transfer of enterprise assets to employees, were cast aside and forgotten. More broadly, as Donald Sassoon noted, “Social democrats had, by and large, lost faith in traditional social democracy.” At the same time Eurocommunism as a serious – mass – political project collapsed, from Italy to Spain, well before Official Communism fell in 1991.” (12) An obvious question is: how did markets become ‘popular’ across Europe without Thatcherism? How did they worm their way into the affections of, at least, social democratic and socialist party leaderships? How was even residual hostility to capitalism curbed, shelved, or even discarded?
The victory of the pro-market left was not just ‘modernisation’ carried out by sharp suited political professionals. There was a move, amongst a section of the post-68 European far-left, movementiste left, green left, and, above all, Communist left (the saddest case being, the Italian Communist Party) towards social democracy, or even, as the radical French left calls it, the centre ground, to “social liberalism”. Market friendly left parties that accept neo-liberal globalisation but propose to redistribute the profits of the super-rich and regulate finance are about as radical as mainstream politics get today.
The evolution of Marxism Today looks very different in this light. The development of what was, perhaps misleadingly called, British Eurocommunism, into a ‘socialism of regulation’, corresponded to these changes. Ralph Miliband had famously called this the “new revisionism’. This rejected (Hall is cited) “class politics”, pointed to the decline in the number of industrial manual workers (socialism’s ‘natural’ constituency) denounced “statism’ and ‘state administered socialism’ and left socialism, as…what? We have compared to Hall’s views to those of France’s Second Left. But this is to forget a brief radical spurge, something like a middle-aged return to the radicalism of Olivier Assayas’ film Après Mai, but without the serious intent and wisdom of youth.
Apparently bold and path breaking the New Times Manifesto of 1989 makes painful reading today. It begins reasonably. Stuart Hall and Marxism Today placed the explanation of Thatcher’s success within a wider context. It would form one of the bases of what they would call the “project” of New Times, a ground on which to understand the changing world of “diversity, differentiation, fragmentation” of post-Fordism, that “Thatcherism has sought to appropriate” “ ideologically (‘socialism is dead’, ‘the market determines everything’) materially (giving it shape, a Thatcherite inflexion through policy and practice) and culturally (the attempt to promulgate a new entrepreneurial culture.” (13)
Stuart Hall had embraced the ideas of the Socialist Society that socialism could be brought about “in and against the state”. But this adherence soon withered in the epoch of New Times. For in this climate, of structural disintegration, here is a “proliferation of the sites of antagonism and resistance, and the appearance of new subjects, new social movements, new collective identities – an enlarged sphere for the operation of polities, and new constituencies for change. But these are not easy to organise into any single and cohesive collective political will. The proliferation of new sites of social antagonism makes the prospect of constructing a unified counter-hegemonic force as the agency of progressive change, if anything, harder rather than easier.” (14)
In other words, nothing is certain in left politics any more and there is a lot that is new around. These insights, and the rest of the combination of post-Fordism, Post-Modernism and other themes, were criticised at the time (we have already cited Mike Rustin’s analysis). Some would say – adopting Ernest Renan’s remark about modern Christianity – they lived off the perfume of faith, but not the substance (ils vivent du parfum d’un vase vide).
Perhaps most significantly Hall and Jacques ignored any of the experiences of the 1980s left. There is nothing about the fight inside the Labour Party for democratic accountability, nothing – or at least nothing complimentary – about the left’s battles for local democracy, feminist and social movement agendas, and indeed no mention of the actual – union and social movement – resistances to Thatcherism outlined in the rival Socialist Society pamphlet, Negotiating the Rapids (1989). No doubt that is because they reeked of the “peculiar political style” of the Hard Left.
This dismissal, summed by Eric Hobsbawm’s view of the anybody on the 1980s left who rejected his opinions on the halting of the forward march of Labour as “sectarian” reflected the agenda increasingly adopted by Marxism Today (15). That is, the election of a non-Thatcher government took priority, and that independent initiatives by the left (hostile to the Neil Kinnock leadership of the time) were extremely unwelcome. Richard Hefferman and Mike Marqusee’s Defeat from the Jaws of Victory (1992) gives details of how leftists inside the Labour Party were made equally unwelcome, and outlines the transformation of erstwhile grass-roots democrats of the Labour Co-ordinating Committee into the careerist allies of Marxism Today’s “new subjects”. It is not a happy read.
Nobody can blame Hall for New Labour. If in not other respect he remained consistent to the New Left suspicion of power. After a time when it looked as if the former Marxism Today people has gone so far to the right that they were prepared to contemplate a coalition with the ‘little Caesars of social democracy’ (the party that is, which merged with the Liberals), he stood aside. He criticised it forcefully in 1998 as the ‘great moving nowhere show’. Hall’s well-judged sneers at Cool Britannia Tony Blair’s “corporatist and managerialist style”, his debts to Thatcher (post, and not against), disappeared, nevertheless, almost without trace. (16) This only highlights his colleagues’ failed efforts to find counter-Thatcher ‘popular democratic interpellations’, or “new constituencies for change” and the irrelevance of the whole gamut of radical democratic strands that made up the dying embers of Marxism Today’s last expressions of left-wing faith.
Ralph Miliband stated with great clarity the case against the ‘new revisionist’ approach that formed the bedrock of the New Times approach. “..The ‘primacy; of organised labour in struggle arises from the fact that no other group, movement or fore in capitalist society is remotely capable of mounting as effective and formidable a challenge to the existing structures of power and privilege as it is in the power of organised labour to mount.” (17)
That should be obvious to anybody attending the People’s Assembly.
During the hey-day of Hall’s writing on Thatcher and Marxism Today it was not.
Oh I add that Liberalism: The Kilburn Manifesto (authored by Stuart Hall, Doreen Massey and Michael Rustin) is now on-line. The first section begins, “The neoliberal order itself needs to be called into question, and radical alternatives to its foundational assumptions put forward for discussion. Our analysis suggests that this is a moment for changing the terms of debate, reformulating positions, taking the longer view, making a leap.”
Pages 48 – 49 The Hard Road to Renewal. Stuart Hall. Verso 1988.
The Last Word. Martin Jacques. Marxism Today Final Issue. December 1991 – January 1992. The Politics of Post-Fordism: or, The Trouble with ‘new Times’. Michael Rustin. New Left Review. First series No 175. 1989. Page 241. Hall Op cit.
This ‘regulatory’ left supports civil society and social movements as the principal source of political initiative, and tries to regulate and bring into line with progressive policies the market. It “se défie du principe d’autorité. Sans nier le rôle de l’Etat, elle fait confiance à la decentralisation et aux initiatives du terrain: elle plaide pour une réhabilitation de la socitété civile et pour son introduction dans le jeu politique. Elle est sensible aux revendications des minorities, et des groupes opprimés, les femmes, les colonises, les immigrés. Elle croit à l’autonomie des collectivités de base, à l’éxpérimentation.”(Page 135) Les Gauches Françaises. 1762 – 2912. Histoire, politique et imaginaire. Jacques Julliard. Flammarion. 2012. Like Hall it is particularly hostile to the paternalism of the state-centred left. “passer par de l’État producteur à l’État regulateur, de l’État tutélaire à l’État vigie, de l’État pussaince, à l’État acteur.” As Michel Rocard put it, Page 372. Les Socialistes Français et le Pouvoir. Alain Bergounioux, Gérard Grunberg. Hachette. 2005. For this current’s own evolution from the New Left to a ‘modernising’ position see the classic: La Deuxième gauche. H, Harmon P. Rotman. Éditions Ramsay. 1982. As such these ideas were put very partially into practice by Michel Rocard as French Socialist Prime Minister (1988 – 1991). Rocard introduced an equivalent (long overdue) of universal social security. But the very ‘sectional’ divisions his Second Left believed could be negotiated away through encouraging a vibrant civil society came to haunt him. He was unable to stifle strikes in the public sector that received more sympathy from his Socialist comrades than he did.
Page 14. The Battle for Socialist Ideas in the 1980s. Stuart Hall. Socialist Register. 1982. “It was at the “level of images that the Conservatives Party secured victory through the 1980s. Imagery as opposed to policy is what he feels best characterises ‘Thatcherism’ and its political success.” Page 98. Stuart Hall. James Procter. Routledge. 2004
The Great Moving Right Show. The Little Caesars of Social Democracy. Pages 49 65. The Hard Road to Renewal. Stuart Hall. Verso. 1988. Articles originally published in 1978 and 1981.
Authoritarian Populism, Two Nations and Thatcherism. Bob Jessop, Kevin Bonnett, Simon Bromley and Tom Ling. New Left Review First series. No 147. 1984.
The New Revisionism In Britain. Ralph Miliband. New Left Review First Series. No 150. 1985. The Thatcher Years, Bill Schwarz. Socialist Register. 1987. Popular Capitalism, Flexible Accumulation and Left Strategy. Bob Jessop, Kevin Bonnett, Simon Bromly, Tom Ling. New Left Review. First series. No 165. 1987.
The Politics of Marxism Today. Alex Callinicos. 2: 29. International Socialism. 1985.
See: Etatisme autoritaire et totalitarisme In: L’État, le Pouvoir Le Socialisme. Nicos Poulantzas. PUF 1981. Nicos Poulantzas. Bob Jessop. Macmillan. 1985. Authoritarian Populism. A Reply. Stuart Hall. New Left Review. First series. No 151. 1985.
Towards a Theory of Populism. In: Politics and Ideology in Marxist Theory. Ernesto Laclau. Verso. 1979.
Marxism Today. An Anatomy. John Saville. Socialist Register. 1990.
The Retreat of Social Democracy. John Callaghan. Manchester University Press. 2000. In France, “Ansi le gouvernement de la gauche a été amené à prendre en charge les mutations du capitalisme.” “la modernisation des structures économiques toucha tous les domains, les enterprises nationalisées furent désormais soumises à la rentabilité, les marchés financiers libéralisés, le droit du travail assoupli par le negotiation, le protection sociale mieux gérée, la promotion de l’entrepreneur de l’enterprise assurée” Pages 330 – 331. Les Socialistes Français et le Pouvoir. Alain Bergounioux, Gérard Grunberg. Hachette. 2005. Page 733. One Hundred Years of Socialism. The West European Left in the Twentieth Century. Donald Sassoon. Fontana Press. 1997.
Page 15. Introduction. New Times. The Changing Face of Politics in the 1990s. Edited Stuart Hall and Martin Jacques. Lawrence & Wishart, 1990 (1989).
Op cit. Hall & Jacques. Page 17.
Interesting Times. A twentieth century life. Eric Hobsbawm. Abacus. 2002.
The Great Moving Nowhere Show. Stuart Hall. Marxism Today, Back for one special issue. 1998.
The New Revisionism. Ibid.
Written by Andrew Coates
June 21, 2013 at 12:08 pm
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