Stuart Hall on Gramsci – does it help us to understand the current period?

Mark Winter looks back at Stuart Hall’s article Gramsci and Us, first published in 1988, and finds a piece that we can usefully use to understand the current period

Gramsci_1922

First things first: Stuart Hall is a tremendous writer. Second: he wrote this prescient, intelligent and polished piece in 1988, but was not heard at the time by the far left. And third, it may just give us a helpful nudge as we seek to understand the current period.

Hall sets out to apply Gramsci to a pivotal period in British history, when the Left was grappling with the shockwaves of Thatcherism. He sets out to understand how Thatcher changed everyday “common sense” through ‘authoritarian populism’. So how does the left deal with the new moment? He uses Gramsci to examine the rise of neoliberalism, to see what is specific, and what is different.

The ‘proletarian moment’

For Hall, the question that arises from the Prison Notebooks is: when is the ‘proletarian moment’? Hall argues that in the 1920s the ‘proletarian moment’ very nearly happened — “if only the managers and politicians would get out of the way, [the] proletarians could run the world, take over the factories, seize the whole machinery of society, materially transform it and manage it.”

He reminds us that Gramsci had to contend with right wing forces in his own political lifetime, but that these were forces of the extreme right, most notably Mussolini’s blackshirts. But the working class was defeated then, and defeats have followed since. Some, but not all, of the Left has since concluded that the moment is unlikely to return in the same form, especially in Western Europe: “Gramsci had to confront the turning back, the failure, of that moment: the fact that such a moment, having passed, would never return in its old form … History shifts gears. The terrain changes. You are in a new moment.”

This defeat of the left led to the hegemony or control of the right. Gramsci had to face the reality that the Right — tragically, European fascism in his case — took control of that defeat. He argues that this was a historic reversal of the revolutionary project, “when all the reference points, the predictions, have been shot to bits. The political universe, as you have come to inhabit it, collapses.”

He goes on to argue that Gramsci gives us the means with which to ask the right kinds of questions about politics by “directing our attention unswervingly to what is specific and different about this moment. It’s a lesson which the Left in Britain has yet to learn. It still feels more ‘left-wing’ to say the old ruling-class politics goes on in the same old way.”

The Thatcher project

Hall argues that British Conservatism partially adapted to a changed world – the world of neo-liberal and monetarist revolutions:

Thatcherism has reconstructed Conservatism and the Conservative Party. The hard-faced, utilitarian, petty-bourgeois businessmen are now in charge, not the grouse-shooting, hunting and fishing classes. And yet, though those transformations are changing the political terrain of struggle before our very eyes, we think the differences don’t have any real effect on anything. It still feels more ‘left-wing’ to say the old ruling-class politics goes on in the same old way.

For Hall, Thatcherism represented “regressive modernization”. That is, a contradictory mix of old-school Victorian values (some possibly invented) and hard-nosed business principles. Thatcher always aimed for a long historical occupancy of power. The project was to transform the state in order to restructure society: “to decentre, to reverse political culture— the historic compromise between labour and capital from 1945”.

Popular authority

Hall turns his focus to the contest for popular authority: “the ideas of the people who simply, in ordinary everyday life, have to calculate how to survive, how to look after those who are closest to them”. He argues that Thatcher knew she had to construct an image of what modernity would be like. In Gramsci’s terms, Thatcherism aimed for a reversal in ordinary “common sense” — ideas which are taken for granted, but which serve the individual rather than the collective. For Hall, Thatcher achieved ‘authoritarian populism’ — “Thatcherism simultaneously ‘above’ (in the state) and ‘below’ (out there with the people)”. This is Gramsci’s hegemony or authority.

What is specific and different about this moment? We tend to think that the Right is not only always with us, but it is always exactly the same. It’s not.

What is politics?

Hall argues that one of the most important things that Gramsci has done for us is to give us a “profoundly expanded conception of what politics itself is like, and thus also of power and authority”.

Where do crises erupt? According to Hall, for Gramsci, these occur:

not only in the political domain and the traditional areas of industrial and economic life, not simply in the class struggle, in the old sense; but in a wide series of polemics, debates about fundamental sexual, moral and intellectual questions, in a crisis in the relations of political representation and the parties — on a whole range of issues which do not necessarily, in the first instance, appear to be articulated with politics, in the narrow sense, at all. That is what Gramsci calls the crisis of authority, which is nothing but the crisis of hegemony or general crisis of the state. We are exactly in that moment. We have been shaping up to such a ‘crisis of authority’ in English social life and culture since the mid 1960s.

And what is class struggle?

In the 1960s, the crisis of English society was signalled in a number of debates and struggles around new points of antagonism, which appeared at first to be far removed from the traditional heartland of British politics. The Left often waited patiently for the old rhythms of the class struggle to be resumed, when in fact it was the forms of ‘the class struggle’ itself which were being transformed. We can only understand this diversification of social struggles in the light of Gramsci’s insistence that, in modern societies, hegemony must be constructed, contested and won on many different sites, as the structures of the modern state and society complexify and the points of social antagonism proliferate.

True, Hall’s detractors at the time would have argued that the debate came from the frame of Eurocommunism, and the piece was published in Marxism Today. They might have pointed out that Hall focuses on ideology in his work at the expense of political economy. And we could make the same points today. But I still can’t help but be impressed by how he frames his argument, and how his questions are such a close echo of those we are posing now.

So don’t take my word for it – check the piece for yourself. And then decide what is specific, and what is different, about things now compared with back then.

There are 3 comments

  1. Brian Parkin

    Interesting, entertaining, provocative and wrong. I spoke with Hall at a symposium at univ of Leeds in 1984- at the height of the miners strike. I suggested that his comment ‘if only the managers and politicians would get out of the way’ was a wishful thinking and selectively reformist reading of Gramsci- ie if ‘they’ only chose ‘to get out of the way’ then a revolution would not be necessary. To which he suggested that in the event of bourgeios hegemony breaking down, the legitimacy for capital hanging on to power (domination) would have evapourated along with much of the state apparatus. In the absence of any new clothes the emperor would be forced to abdicate. I think now as I thought then that this was fatuous. But Hall did force the left to re-examine many aspects of ideology and the state with more circumspection and I think that his erudition as a scholar was hi-jacked by the more craven advocates of Eurocommunism which went on to take even greater liberties with the writings of Gramsci. He was a nice bloke, very humorous and accessible, but for all that, a good man fallen among thieves. And a word of warning: the ‘Prison Notebooks’ are written in Aesopean code to deliberately mislead the prison authorities. We should not be similarly mislead.

  2. RayB

    As Brian Parkin points out, Hall doesn’t offer any insight into how, in practice, hegemony can be influenced. At no point in Thatcher’s mission was this a done deal. Neoliberalism was a response to the crisis in capitalism and not simply a reshaping of “common sense” ideas in the form of “authoritarian populism”. The emphasis of Hall and those he influenced on the cultural changes associated with Thatcherism is as much a problem the left now faces as any alleged crisis among revolutionaries over strategy.

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