“Cultural Marxism” According to Stuart Hall c. 1983

Last post on Stuart Hall – at least for now. In his 1983 lecture series Hall traces what is at once an intellectual history of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at Birmingham, a (provisional) history of the development of cultural studies as a discipline, and a history of his own intellectual tradition.


Hall’s lineage runs like this: F. R. Leavis(!), Richard Hoggart, Raymond Williams (in conversation with E.P. Thompson), Claude Lévi-Strauss (drawing from Ferdinand de Saussure and Émile Durkheim), Louis Althusser (building on Lacan’s account of subject formation), Antonio Gramsci (with a side glance at Nicos Poulantzas), and perhaps (by extension, and certainly for us, now) Hall himself. Marx and Engle provide the ground base over which this tradition develops. There’s a page or so on Foucault in the midst of a longer treatment of Althusser’s account of the subject, and a glancing reference to Walter Benjamin. That’s basically it.




The most obvious thing to notice about this tradition is that it is entirely male. Hall was not, in 1983, unaware of women writers and intellectuals – he had been married to the feminist historian Catherine Hall since 1964 – or of feminist theory.  At one point he suggests, for example, that “the question of reproduction [of the social relations of production] has been assigned to the Marxist (male) pole, and the question of subjectivity has been assigned to the psychoanalytic (feminist) pole” (135). But at this stage of his career he did not regard women or feminist thought as a determining influence on his own intellectual formation.  (For an illuminating account of history of Stuart Hall’s initial resistance and eventual recognition of feminism, and of its place at the Centre, see Escosteguy).


Reading Hall and the intellectual tradition he traces got me thinking about “cultural marxism,” a term that has had a somewhat eventful history on the right over the last forty years or so, and that has recently returned to prominence in the conspiracy theories of the alt-Right and the memos of Trump officials.


As a term, “cultural marxism” is actually quite apt for Hall and the intellectual tradition he assembles. The culmination of that tradition is an analysis of the full domain of culture in terms of domination, hegemony, and struggle. At various points over the last thirty years, the term has on occasion been used to refer to Hall, Hoggart, and the Birmingham school more generally. Yet when the right warns of cultural marxism today, this is not the tradition or school they are talking about. Why not?
I’m afraid the obvious answer is also the right one: not enough Jews.


In its dominant version, the right-wing genealogy locates the origin of cultural marxism at the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt, Germany. In this genealogy, members of the Frankfurt School – Jewish academics like Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, and Herbert Marcuse – fled to the US with the rise of Hitler, bringing with them their analysis of mass culture and their plot to dethrone white, Christian, capitalist, colonial Western culture.


It’s rather surprising to me that “cultural marxism” has come to be so closely associated with these particular thinkers, this specific genealogy. In graduate school, I spent quite a bit of time reading and discussing Adorno, Habermas, and other members of the Frankfurt School, partly because many of my friends and interlocutors were in intellectual history and political theory working on the history of German philosophy, phenomenology, and existentialism.


But even as I was studying Frankfurt school thinkers, it was evident that its members were far from the dominant strain in the study and theory of culture. For Adorno, at least, some of this had to do with the arduousness of his prose.


But the bigger reason, I think, is that he and other members of the Frankfurt school never had an encounter with structuralist linguistics.  Unlike left theorists in France, they continued to speak in the idiom of German idealism and Hegelian dialectics. They lacked a holistic account of signification, and thus an account of how culture functioned as a system of signs.  Structuralism was inherently well-suited to the study of literary texts and other linguistic artifacts, which made for easy entry into literature departments.  As I examined in a previous post, Hall uses the analytical toolkit of structuralism to reveal the contingencies of our racial vocabularies, and along with many others he worked to adapt it to the full range of popular media (photography, film, TV, clothing, etc.) as well.   It’s this structuralist legacy that is of particular interest to me.  The aim of my new book, Cyberformalism, is to rebuild the structuralist toolkit – and especially its account of the linguistic sign – so that it can account for language’s combinatory capacities as well as its meaningful elements.


While members of the Frankfurt school are certainly an important part of the intellectual history of the new left and of the present moment, their lack of the structuralist toolkit as well as their reliance on an earlier philosophical idiom limited their influence – on the study of culture, in college classrooms, and in left political movements.


When the right tells a monogenetic story of cultural Marxism that leads back to a cabal of German Jews, they are doing bad intellectual history.  (It’s hard to credit anything said by Jordan Peterson, but at least he diverges from the ersatz story by accusing Derrida of infecting  “humanities types.”)  Much of this can doubtless be chalked up to unabashed anti-Semitism. But I suppose that the need for a simple story matters too – simple in the sense of originating in a single school, in the plot of an ethnically homogeneous people… who just happen to be Jewish.  It’s much easier than acknowledging, as Jeet Heer observes, that “Anti-racism, feminism, and the gay rights movement all have roots that well precede the Frankfurt School and owe far more to the activism of women, people of color, and LGBT individuals than to any German theorist.”  For the alt-right, it has the added feature of denying women, people of color, and LGBT individuals the capacity to pursue their own political interests without serving as the unwitting puppets of a group of Jewish men who have been dead for half a century.


Hall’s assembled intellectual history, despite being all-male, lacks the simplicity and homogeneity of the right-wing’s monogenetic tradition.  It includes Oxford professors born into the British working class; a traditionalist literary critic; French linguists, sociologists, and anthropologists; an Algerian-born French Marxist; an imprisoned Italian Marxist journalist; and, in Hall, a Jamaican-born cultural theorist of African, British, Portuguese Jewish, and Indian descent.  It’s not clear that those on the right who blame the current troubles of the US on the influence of cultural marxism are capable of taking account of this sort of heterogeneity.  But it is obvious enough why they don’t have any interest in doing so.


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