Stuart Hall, Marxism Today and the ruptures in Thatcherism’s early years

Like many in academia and on the left, I have been saddened by the death of Stuart Hall, one of the pioneers of what we now know as ‘cultural studies’. A good summary of the obituaries can be found here. I am still grappling with the beast which is known as the ARC grant application, but thought I’d post this section of an unpublished paper on how Stuart Hall and Marxism Today tried to understand, as well as challenge, Thatcherism in the period before 1982-83. I have posted another section of the past same unpublished paper (on the 1981 riots) beforehand here. It might leap around a bit, but hopefully it reads ok…


While the term ‘Thatcherism’ has become part of the language describing late British history, the original analysis from which the term emerged has been largely refuted. Stuart Hall and Martin Jacques first viewed ‘Thatcherism’ as a defining change in conservatism in the late 1970s before the Conservatives were elected in May 1979. Hall and Jacques, writing in the Communist Party of Great Britain’s theoretical journal Marxism Today, saw that the agenda put forward by Margaret Thatcher was the representation of a shift to the right that had been gathering momentum since the upturn in industrial militancy and cultural radicalism in the late 1960s. This shift to the right was as much an ideological shift as it was a response to the economic crisis conditions of the mid-to-late 1970s. While Hall’s work with the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies has been celebrated as an important contribution to the field of cultural studies, his work with Jacques for Marxism Today on Thatcherism is dismissed by many as reformism and a refutation of class politics or an outdated Marxist approach to a fundamental shift from post-war Keynesianism. However I would argue that, in practical terms, Hall and Jacques’ notion of an ideological alternative to Thatcherism, which had been developed on Marxism Today since 1979, was an important step for the left in Britain in the period between May 1979 and March 1982 (before the outbreak of the Falklands War), when the fixity of Margaret Thatcher’s rule was not assured as it was throughout the rest of the decade. The work of Hall and Jacques was maligned by many, on both the left and the right, but their analysis of Thatcherism was very insightful into the Conservatives were changing the political landscape, but had not yet reached their hegemonic height, which characterises the 1983 to 1987 period.

One of the most significant points that Hall and Jacques made concerning the Conservatives’ emphasis upon ‘law and order’ and the need for a strong state was that Thatcherism was unlike previous Conservative Governments and it required a different approach than, in the most recent case, the tactics that the left had utilised against Edward Heath’s 1970-74 Government.  This phenomenon of ‘Thatcherism’ was developed by Hall and Jacques in the pages of Marxism Today during the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s. Although Hall was not a CPGB member, but a close supporter, he became one of the most influential thinkers for the Communist Party, with significant impact on the Party’s approach to ‘race’ and cultural politics, eventually becoming a member of the journal’s editorial board. In January 1979, Marxism Today published Hall’s ‘The Great Moving Right Show’, which analysed the politics of Thatcherism, describing it as more than simply ‘the corresponding political bedfellow of a period of capitalist recession’,[1] but the result of a longer ideological shift away from the parameters of the post-war social democratic consensus. Thatcherism encompassed many themes of the right – ‘law and order, the need for social discipline and authority in the face of a conspiracy by the enemies of the state, the onset of social anarchy, the “enemy within”, the dilution of British stock by alien black elements’[2] – but found a greater reception for the repressive measures needed to deal with these concerns in the economic crisis of the late 1970s. This is what Jacques described as ‘the underlying crisis of hegemony’, in which Thatcher asserted a ‘popular and authoritarian rightism’ as the solution to ‘a more divided and polarised society’.[3] Written in the months following Thatcher’s electoral victory, Jacques outlined two main themes within Thatcherite ideology. The first was an emphasis on traditional laissez-faire economics – ‘the virtues of the market, competition, elitism, individual initiative, the iniquities of state intervention and bureaucracy’.[4] The other was using the right’s traditional theme of ‘law and order’ – ‘reacting against trade union militancy, national aspirations, permissiveness [and] women’s liberation’, replacing it with ‘an essentially regressive and conservative solution embracing such themes as authority, law and order, patriotism, national unity, the family and individual freedom’.[5]

Thatcherism was significantly different from previous Conservative Governments, seeing the issue of ‘law and order’ as central to revitalising the British nation, which involved the state confronting supposedly ‘subversive’ elements in British society. This emphasis upon the politics of confrontation, although usually portrayed by historians of Thatcher as a showdown between the ‘victorious’ government and the trade unions, can be seen in Thatcher’s first term, with the first major confrontation between the state and these so-called ‘subversive’ elements being the inner-city riots of 1981. As Trevor Carter, a member of the Communist Party’s National Race Relations Committee and ‘closely aligned’ to the reforming politics of Hall and Jacques,[6] wrote, Thatcher’s victory only compounded the upsurge in racism that had already begun in the mid-1970s, and a result, ‘the black community had a head-start of three years over the rest of the left in the battle against Thatcherism’.[7] Carter wrote in 1986, ‘it took Thatcher’s defeat of Labour to drive the left into its first serious examination of the identity and whereabouts of the working class and to accept that it was not only white and male’.[8] Hall and Jacques’ analysis of Thatcherism in Marxism Today was significant at this juncture, as a major contribution to the left’s self-examination, as well as an important understanding of how Thatcherism evolved into its popular incarnation in the mid-1980s.

The politics of confrontation that resulted in the 1981 riots and other watershed moments for the Conservatives, such as the breaking up of the 1984-85 Miners’ Strike, did actually not begin with Margaret Thatcher’s attainment of leadership of the Conservative Party. As Paul Gilroy and Joe Sim, formerly students of Hall at the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, noted in a 1985 article (published in the aftermath of the Miners’ Strike), there had been a view on the left of Thatcherism that ‘dates the arrival of authoritarianism and its new right forces in the Spring of 1979’.[9] While Thatcher was explicit in her ‘law and order’ agenda and her willingness to enter into confrontations with dissenters, as seen in her anti-union stance, the basis for this shift to the right that was attributed to Thatcherism had actually existed since the late 1960s and Thatcher could not have implemented any actions without sharing a considerable amount of consensus with the British population. The view that Britain was on the verge of collapse had existed since the industrial militancy and cultural radicalism of the late 1960s and had been exacerbated by the economic crisis of the mid-1970s. Thatcherism was a response to this anxiety about the collapse of British society and was now openly willing to challenge the elements that were seen as ‘threats’ to Britain’s economic recovery and the ‘British way of life’.

As Stuart Hall explained in an interview with the Merseyside socialist publication Big Flame, the issues of ‘law and order’ had been monopolised by the right and the left had to ‘grasp the importance of what they once dismissed as non-political issues’.[10] Hall and others, in the seminal 1978 work Policing the Crisis,[11] had demonstrated how the issues of crime and policing were utilised by the Government (and its opponents on the right) to present the appearance of practical measures being taken to combat the crises of the 1970s. As the economic crisis continued, the police were increasingly used to deal with ‘subversive’ elements of British society, dissatisfied with Labour’s ineffective policies. The perceived lack of initiative of the Labour Government on the economic crisis and the issues of law and order allowed the Conservatives to sway traditional Labour voters with the populist notions of a strong state to deal with the trade unions, crime, illegal immigrants and other ‘subversive’ elements. The appeal of Thatcherite populism was part of the reason why around a third of trade unionists voted for the Conservatives in the May 1979 General Election.[12] But these populist notions and the result of a more restrictive police presence were not merely creations of Thatcher herself. Gilroy and Sim acknowledged this, stating, ‘as far as law and order, policing and criminal justice matters are concerned, the Thatcher governments do not represent a decisive break with patterns in preceding years’.[13] The elements for a centralised and militarised police force had been present in the ‘fudged social democracy of the Wilson, Heath and Callaghan years’,[14] but under Thatcher, the repressive institutions of the state were different, as they were explicitly used against certain demonised parts of society and there was consent for this use amongst large sections of the British public.

For many historians nowadays, the relationship between Stuart Hall and the Communist Party of Great Britain may seem peculiar and it may seem odd why a left wing journal that averaged circulation numbers of between only 2,500 and 4,000 before the late 1970s[15] became the forum for some of the most significant writing on Thatcherism in the early years of her Prime Ministership. This analysis of Thatcherism and the emphasis upon ideology was part of a larger dynamic shift on the left that encompassed the Communist Party, of whom Jacques was an Executive Committee member and editor of Marxism Today. Jacques was a leading reformer within the CPGB, who was pushing that the Communist Party should have incorporated a wider political approach than focusing on industrial militancy and traditional class based politics. The push to reform the Party’s political strategy was encompassed in the redrafting of the CPGB programme, The British Road to Socialism, in 1977. The work by Hall and Jacques on ideology and the alternative approaches for a wider leftist movement were the basis of their analysis of Thatcherism, which led to a major ideological rethink for the left in the 1980s. The collapse of the CPGB, under the apparent ‘revisionist’ leadership, in 1991 has often been attributed to the reformism and defeatism of Jacques and other reformers in the Party, primarily through their writings in Marxism Today and New Times, and linked by several authors to the centralism of New Labour. The shifts in analysis by Hall and Jacques occurred in the 1980s as Thatcherism seemed pervasive meant that the original analysis in the late 1970s has been disregarded by many on both the right and the left.

By the late 1970s, the CPGB was in a severely weakened position. Despite having considerable influence in the trade union movement at the executive level during the previous decade of heightened industrial militancy, this had failed to produce any real political gains or stem its dramatically decreasing membership numbers. This decline in membership was exacerbated by the schisms that had formed within the Party after the introduction of the Social Contract between the Labour Government and the Trades Union Congress (TUC). This schism was defined between the reformers, influenced by Gramscism and Eurocommunism, who believed that the Party’s limited industrial approach had alienated potential allies within the new social movements and on the other side, the traditional industrial militants, who viewed the centrality of class politics and the emphasis upon Labour-Communist unity in the trade unions as essential to the creation of a socialist Britain. The 1977 edition of The British Road to Socialism promoted the strategy of the broad democratic alliance, which signified the official, yet highly disputed, idea that the struggle for socialism needed ‘not only… to be an association of class forces,… but of other important forces in society which emerge out of areas of oppression not always directly connected with the relations of production’.[16] The CPGB, ‘as the organised Marxist political party’, imbued itself as a vital organisation in mediating between the traditional labour movement and the other social forces to establish this alliance.[17]

The CPGB was plagued by internal divisions and declining membership during the late 1970s and early 1980s, but there were some within the Party that recognised the shift to the right that Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative leadership represented. The analysis of this by Stuart Hall and Martin Jacques in Marxism Today had a massive impact on the how the liberal-left viewed Thatcher as the Conservative Prime Minister, coining the phrase ‘Thatcherism’ in early 1979. While their analysis of the political changes under Thatcherism provided the left with an important theoretical framework, the political abilities of the CPGB in the early 1980s to counter the Thatcherite Government and its emphasis upon strong ‘law and order’ was almost non-existent.

Many others on the left, such as Bob Jessop, Kevin Bonnett, Simon Bromley and Tom Ling, Alex Callinicos and Peter Kennedy, have proposed that Hall and Jacques emphasis on the ideological hegemony of Thatcherism had promoted a notion of paralysis within the traditional left.[18] Critics on the left have traditionally taken issue with how ‘hegemonic’ Thatcherism actually was and more importantly, what actions could the left take to practically counter the Thatcherite Government.[19] In the mid-1980s, Jessop et al argued in New Left Review that while Thatcherism was ‘dominant politically and ideologically’, it had ‘not won the battle for hegemony’.[20] This was an important point for leftist critics as it allowed room for manoeuvre on the left to find an effective course of action as support for the traditional institutions of the labour movement declined. For Hall (and other reformers in Marxism Today) to suggest that the left needed to undergo serious re-evaluation of its strategies in the face of the decline of militant labourism, the critics saw the emphasis by Hall and Jacques on the ideological domination by Thatcherism ‘inhibit[ed] constructive strategic thinking’.[21] This emphasis upon the ideology of Thatcherism, rather than the class-based contradictions of the Conservative Government, was seen by many on the left as the failure of Hall’s (and Marxism Today’s) analysis, viewed by critics as part of the wider ‘revisionism’ undertaken by the Eurocommunists in the CPGB. In his critique of Hall, Brendan Evans has claimed that Hall’s attempts to ‘reconcile the social authoritarian and economic liberal strands in Thatcherism’, his analysis had ‘neglect[ed] the changing emphases of Thatcher’s policies at different stages’ of her Prime Ministership and ‘over-homogenises Thatcherism’.[22]  Evans’ critique of Hall and could well be applied to many leftist critics of Hall and Jacques (and the politics of Marxism Today). By viewing Marxism Today as the revisionist vehicle for the ideological development of New Labour and responsible only the ‘hokum of New Times’,[23] the innovative original analysis of Thatcherism is depicted only as the beginning of the rejection of class-based politics within the Communist Party. Alongside Eric Hobsbawm’s 1978 article ‘The Forward March of Labour Halted?’,[24] Hall’s ‘The Great Moving Right Show’ is dismissed as the conception point of New Labour and the obsession with the ‘modernisation’ of the left, although as Andrew Gamble has noted, Hall ‘delivered a passionate denunciation of New Labour…, refusing to recognise it as in any sense a legitimate exponent of the new politics which he had advocated in the 1980s’.[25]

The election of Margaret Thatcher as Conservative Prime Minister in May 1979 is a watershed moment in modern British history, but it must be acknowledged that the conditions for her electoral victory had existed long before 1979, as Thatcher capitalised on rightist ideas that had been expressed in various circles throughout the 1970s – by the Government, the right of the Conservative Party, other right-wing groupings and the mainstream media, especially the tabloids. What Thatcher did was to make the issue of ‘law and order’ to deal with alleged ‘subversives’ an explicit and central part of her political platform. However in the historiography of Thatcher’s time as Prime Minister, the analysis of ‘Thatcherism’ by Hall and Jacques is viewed through the lens of the decline of traditional labourism, which is considered redundant to many historians of Thatcher and derided by critics on the left for its contribution to the pessimism of modern socialist thought in Britain and the rise of New Labour. Any historical examination of the early Thatcher period needs to fully take into account the disillusionment of wide sectors of the British working class with the official labour movement institutions, which Hall and Jacques attempted to redress with their emphasis upon the ideological shift to the right that Margaret Thatcher represented.

[1] Stuart Hall, ‘The Great Moving Right Show’, Marxism Today (January 1979) 14

[2] S. Hall, ‘The Great Moving Right Show’, 16

[3] Martin Jacques, ‘Thatcherism – The Impasse Broken?’, Marxism Today (October 1979) 10; Italics are in the original text

[4] M. Jacques, ‘Thatcherism’, 10

[5] M. Jacques, ‘Thatcherism’, 10

[6] Geoff Andrews, Endgames and New Times: The Final Years of British Communism 1964-1991 (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 2004) 159

[7] Trevor Carter, Shattering Illusions: West Indians in British Politics (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1986) 115

[8] T. Carter, Shattering Illusions, 115

[9] Paul Gilroy & Joe Sim, ‘Law, Order and the State of the Left’, Capital & Class, 25 (Spring 1985) 16

[10] Interview with Stuart Hall, Big Flame (February 1979)

[11] See: S. Hall, et al., Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State and Law and Order (Houndmills: Macmillan, 1978)

[12] Eric Hobsbawm, ‘The Forward March of Labour Halted? – A Response’, Marxism Today (September 1979) 265

[13] P. Gilroy & J. Sim, ‘Law, Order and the State of the Left’, 18

[14] P. Gilroy & J. Sim, ‘Law, Order and the State of the Left’, 18

[15] Herbert Pimlott, ‘Write Out of the Margins: Accessibility, Editorship and House Style in Marxism Today, 1957-91’, Journalism Studies, 7/5 (2006) 785

[16] CPGB, The British Road to Socialism (London, 1977) 29

[17] CPGB, The British Road to Socialism, 34

[18] See: Bob Jessop, et al., ‘Thatcherism and the Politics of Hegemony: A Reply to Stuart Hall’, New Left Review, 153 (September/October 1985); Bob Jessop, et al., ‘Authoritarian Populism, Two Nations, and Thatcherism’, New Left Review, 147 (September/October 1984); Alex Callinicos, ‘The Politics of Marxism Today’, International Socialism, 2/29 (Summer 1985) 128-168; Peter Kennedy, ‘A Critique of Existing Theories of Thatcherism and a Contribution to a Marxist Theory of Capitalist Decay’, Critique, 26/1 (1998) 95-133

[19] More centrist-conservative historians have not distinguished between Hall’s analysis and others on the Marxist left. Anthony Seldon and  Daniel Collings have written that the left had difficulty in defining Thatcherism and to ‘Marxists’, including Hall, Thatcherism was simply, ‘the most nakedly pro-capitalist Conservative government since the war, deliberately emasculating organised labour and hounding the far left… resulting in a widening gap between rich and poor,… and the haves and the have-nots’. Seldon and Collings also mention a differing Labour left critique, by Kenneth Morgan and Andrew Gamble, but do not elaborate on their reductionist definition of the Marxist position. Eric J. Evans dismisses any Marxist critique as they ‘rarely think other than ideologically anyway’, who Evans has described as being ‘bamboozled’ and ‘antagonized’ by Thatcher, because she was ‘far more effective than the intellectual left at getting her message across’. A. Seldon & D. Collings, Britain Under Thatcher, 88-89; Eric J. Evans, Thatcher and Thatcherism (London: Routledge, 1997) 2; 120

[20] B. Jessop, et al., ‘Thatcherism and the Politics of Hegemony’, 97

[21] B. Jessop, et al., ‘Authoritarian Populism, Two Nations, and Thatcherism’, 60

[22] B. Evans, Thatcherism and British Politics 1975-1999, 216-217

[23] A. Sivanandan, ‘All that Melts Into Air is Solid: The Hokum of New Times’, Race & Class, 31/3, (1989) 1

[24] Eric Hobsbawm, ‘The Forward March of Labour Halted?’, Marxism Today (September 1978)

[25] Andrew Gamble, ‘New Labour and Old Debates’, in Gerry Hassan (ed), After Blair: Politics After the New Labour Decade (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 2007) 31

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