Review of Stuart Hall: ‘Familiar Stranger’ and ‘Selected Political Writings’

Review: Stuart Hall with Bill Schwarz, Stuart Hall: Familiar Stranger; Sally Davison, David Featherstone and Bill Schwarz (eds) Stuart Hall: Selected Political Writings

 Tony Jefferson


This is a review of two books, one Stuart Hall’s memoir, the other an edited volume of some of his most significant political writings. The former offers a psychosocial portrait of Hall, from Jamaica’s brown middle class, feeling alienated from the cultural norms and beliefs of his thoroughly colonised family of origin and coming to identify with Jamaica’s black masses and the post-colonial. Crucial to the transition was re-locating to England via a scholarship to Oxford. Despite ongoing disenchantment, this move enabled a new, liberating vantage point for understanding himself, namely, that of the diasporic intellectual. The memoir ends with Hall frenetically engaged politically with the new left and CND, which is where Selected Political Writings begins. Covering key moments and events in a changing political scene over more than fifty years, the essays, conjunctural analyses written contemporaneously, show remarkable consistency in political outlook and analytical approach.


Alienation, conjunctural, diasporic, Gramsci, post-colonial, psychosocial


Stuart Hall: Familiar Stranger

Stuart Hall with Bill Schwarz

London: Allen Lane, 2017



Stuart Hall: Selected Political Writings

Sally Davison, David Featherstone and Bill Schwarz (eds.)

London: Lawrence and Wishart, 2017


Two books, one subject: Stuart Hall. One a memoir, the other some of his more overtly political writings covering a span of over 50 years. Books, whole journals and articles with Stuart Hall as their subject matter are now numerous, and growing; with more in the pipeline. It is all but a cottage industry. Such public recognition is given to few intellectuals, especially in decidedly anti-intellectual Britain. Some of what appears in the memoir will be known through the many interviews he gave in his lifetime, and much will be familiar to those who knew him well; but what makes the memoir a fascinating and novel read is Hall’s sustained attempt to understand himself as a psychosocial subject, both during his upbringing in Jamaica and his early years living and working in Britain: ‘my identity was formed as much by what my circumstances had made me as by the often unrecognized or unconscious struggle against my conditions of formation’.(22) Many of the articles from Selected Political Writings will also be familiar to many (although perhaps not his very early writings from the 50s and 60s), especially the hugely influential ‘The Great Moving Right Show’, which immortalised Margaret Thatcher as the founder of a new political order: Thatcherism. However, read together, they demonstrate a remarkable consistency over time in political outlook, analytical skill and rhetorical flair.

Hall’s story, in brief, is one of dealing with the psychic costs of being caught between ‘the two Jamaicas’ – the ‘brown middle class’ of his family origin and ‘the poorer, darker multitude…the mass of Jamaica’s black people’ (25) – to neither of which he felt he belonged and, later in England, of having to deal with his shattered illusions and the subsequent ‘process of protracted disenchantment’(149). Troubled as a child and disenchanted as an adult, he eventually found ‘an alternative route to what could not be transcended’, (22) namely, political activity, theoretical debating, speechmaking, writing and teaching: a lifelong engagement with political and cultural questions from a hugely productive vantage point, that of the diasporic intellectual.

The memoir ends with Hall in his early thirties, having recently met and married Catherine and about to start work at the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies under Richard Hoggart. It is thus a sort of slightly extended coming of age memoir, though Hall himself , who ’never wanted to write a memoir’, saw it is an attempt to connect ‘“a life” and “ideas”’ (10). Born into his aspirational middle class family, when lightness of skin colour mattered to getting on, being the darkest of his siblings was not propitious. However, it was his mother’s fierce determination to imitate the colonial lifestyle of the wealthy white elite when the first stirrings of the anti-colonial struggle were already underway that was crucial to Hall’s early sense of alienation from the norms of his upbringing. Her haughtiness around their servants made Hall uncomfortable; but it was her refusal to countenance his sister Pat’s marriage to a ‘too black’ medical student that tragically contributed to Pat’s subsequent breakdown that proved almost unbearably painful. With an apolitical father, too passive to be a source of positive identification – Hall mentions his father being ‘patronized by the men he drank with at his cricket club’ (27) as his reason for refusing to join – it was actively disidentifying with his mother and her version of the good life, that forged Hall’s incipient political identity; his siding with the poor, unemployed,  oppressed masses. This emerging identification took many forms in his teenage years: occasional preaching about poverty and oppression in Revivalist meetings as a member of a Christian youth group; hanging out in the backyard reserved for the family’s servants; preferring girl friends from the wrong side of the tracks; and exploring, illicitly, the pleasures of black ghetto life.

If family life, framed historically by the emergent struggle for independence, provided the alienating experiences, Hall’s time at secondary school, albeit an elite, Anglo-centric colonial institution, offered spaces, especially in the informal curriculum, for him to begin discovering some of the ideas that would help him begin to make sense of his alienation: a library copy of the Communist Manifesto introduced him to Marxism; an optional contemporary history A-level paper to ‘the rise of fascism, the causes of the Second World War, Lenin and the Russian Revolution, the scourge of Communism and the origins of the Cold War’(114-115); the suspension of Michael Manley (a future Prime Minister and radical leader of Third World politics) for, apparently, challenging too strongly a history teacher’s ‘outrageous colonialist interpretation…propelled …anti-imperialist politics…into the…classroom’ (111). His one time ambition to be a psychoanalyst led to him reading Freud and psychoanalysis; his ambition to be a poet and a novelist led him, first, to some of the traditional classics of English literature, and, later, modern poetry, like  Eliot’s The Waste Land. This latter text opened up the whole world of modernism, which, in time, and shorn of its western associations, was to provide another route to thinking about what became Hall’s abiding concern, the historical present, and, of course, a more cultural way of thinking about politics that was to lead to the ‘invention’ of cultural studies. These ambitions and associated reading programmes demonstrate the early appearance of two of Hall’s defining characteristics: high seriousness (behind his, usually smiling, laid-back manner) and huge intellectual stamina.

The chapter on ‘Race and its Disavowal’ (95-106) in Jamaica and the need for the decolonization process to break the silence, provides a masterly hinge between the colonial and the post-colonial phases of his life. Simultaneously historical, theoretical and personal, it demonstrates perfectly the difference between a conventional memoir and Hall’s attempt to narrate his life through the ideas that helped him make sense of his ‘objective’ socio-historical location and his ‘subjective’ emotional attachments, and thus free him from his fate.

He left school a fledgling anti-colonialist, in receipt of two scholarships, and, accompanied by his mother, set sail for England and Oxford University; though not before a short spell teaching bright, poorer children in an experimental rural school helped cement his disengagement from his family and gave him the desire to be a teacher. In London, before term began, he encountered West Indian immigrants, an encounter that ‘mesmerized’ him since it subverted all his existing understandings of the colonial order. Here, in the metropole, the careful colour-related social distinctions among the colonised simply evaporated. This ‘altered the possibilities…for understanding who I was and who I might become’; it was a first intimation of his ‘unworked through commitment to what later came to be called a diasporic conception of the world’ (173). At Oxford came the realisation that, despite his obvious ability (he secured the prize for the best first year undergraduate), he lacked the requisite English ‘structure of feeling’ to become ‘a first rate scholar of English literature’ as an Oxbridge academic – though this was not something he was planning or wished for. This dislocation from the deep structure of Englishness, combined with his ambivalent relationship to his Jamaicanness, also disabled his ‘desire to write creatively’ (209). Rather, to understand better what he could not inhabit naturally, he ‘observed everything’, like a permanent ethnographer. ‘This strengthened [his]…critical as against [his]…creative instincts, a shift which is difficult to undo’ (209). This is a far more convincing account of his move from creative to critical writing than his early assessment that he lacked the talent to be a poet or novelist: it is a also a move for which the political Left will be forever grateful (though I, for one, would love to get a sight of his ‘only decent poem…a short, well-disguised, unsent love letter’ and his narrative poem, ‘the creole version of King Lear in the Jamaican nation-language’ (209)).

Despite his realisation that literary scholarship was not for him, he nonetheless started a PhD on Henry James. Introduced to American literature by US friends, he intended to work on American realism. Advised against it by potential supervisors, his settling for ‘the international themes in James’s novels’ (215) became, somewhat serendipitously, an inspired choice; for James, like Hall, was caught between two worlds: ‘a diasporic novelist’ (219). James ‘understood the complexity of cultural translation’, something that enabled Hall ‘to witness elements of [his]…own life’, albeit ‘organized…in a different register’ (216). Hall also ‘identified with James’s ambition to be “someone on whom nothing is lost”’ (219). Some might call this the point where the critical, ethnographic imagination meets the creative, literary one.

What followed, as Hall ‘moved from the strictly literary interests [he]…had brought to Oxford into wider concerns with Caribbean culture, society and politics’ (220), was a a grappling with the idea of modernity in relation to the Caribbean, embracing literary criticism but not its elitist attitude to mass culture, a growing engagement with popular culture (especially film and jazz music), a first ‘systematic reading about Caribbean culture’ (225), a continued reading of Marx and ‘a more active involvement in British politics’ (225). After 1956, the year of the invasion of Hungary, Suez and ‘Khrushchev’s condemnation of Stalin’ (227), up until the move to Birmingham, politics took over his life: co-founding and editing Universities and Left Review then   New Left Review; creating New Left Clubs; ‘travelling the country, week after week, night after night, speaking at CND meetings’ ((229); following the anti-colonial struggles; and writing pamphlets and articles. All this, of course accompanied by endless debating and more reading. All these various activities contributed to expanding Hall’s notion of what constitutes the political and, subsequently, ‘in a different social domain, to the founding project of Cultural Studies’ (229). Though lonely and frenetically busy, he had found ‘a space in which to think, a place on which to stand’(174): a diasporic third space, neither that of the colonized or the colonizer, which finally ‘liberated [him] from the burden of the past’(231).

Threaded through the narrative and constantly shadowing his time in England is the question of whether or not to return to Jamaica. At the very moment of Jamaican independence, when many of his peers were returning to become influential players in the decolonization process, Hall decided to stay, to marry and take the  Birmingham job: ‘My decision not to return to Jamaica was made in the 1960s’ (134). However, he also says that the decision ‘had probably already been taken years before, though [he]…didn’t know it’(134). The reason? Observing his sister’s illness, he had known then, with ‘startling clarity’ that any return to the ‘enveloping embrace of [his]…family’(134) would have been emotional suicide. When the matter is returned to later int he book, it is accompanied by a rumination on the comparative impress of psychic versus social factors in such decision-making. We might say, now, that his decision to stay in England was overdetermined: the psychic cost of return and the availability of a diasporic discourse both pointed in the same direction – away from Jamaica.

It would not be right to end without mentioning Bill Schwarz’s input. Originally conceived more than 20 years ago as a short dialogue outlining Hall’s intellectual trajectory, it grew to a manuscript of ‘over 300,000 words’(xiv) at the time of Hall’s death in 2014. Schwarz was then faced with a massive editing job and then, after discussing with the publishers, recasting everything ‘as a first-person narrative’(xv). The fact that it reads so smoothly is a testimony to Schwarz’s labour and his ability to ventriloquize Hall: ‘Some parts are verbatim, while many others have been constructed from fragments’(xv).

Schwarz is also one of the three editors of Hall’s Selected Political Writings. There are seven essays on ‘The New Left and after’, eleven on ‘Thatcherism’ and three on ‘NeoLiberalism’, which are book ended by a concise contextualising ‘Introduction’ by the editors and an unfussily succinct ‘Afterword’ overviewing ‘Stuart Hall as a political intellectual’ by Michael Rustin. 54 years separate the first and last essay; but you would hardly know it. The themes are those thrown up by the changing political scene: changes in political parties (like post-war changes in the Conservative party, the birth of Thatcherism, the crisis of Labourism, the formation of a new social democratic bloc, New Labour); broader shifts (e.g. in class relations, political commitment, the New Left, racism, the growth of authoritarianism, new times, neoliberalism); and dramatic events (like the Cuban crisis). But the continuity in approach is remarkable. Commenting in his memoir on his ‘first properly political essay’ [the first essay in Selected Political Writings entitled ‘The new Conservatism and the old’, written in the aftermath of Suez and published in 1957 in the very first issue of ULR] Hall has this to say:

It reads like an earlier, practical incarnation of my 1979 intervention, ‘The Great Moving Right Show’. I’m thinking particularly of the critique of the Left; of the invocation of the political salience of the popular; and of the centrality of displacement and disequilibrium. So if not an incarnation, then a kind of anticipation in intellectual sensibility of what was to come in my theorisations, much later, of Thatcherism. The severity of the ripostes I received on each occasion, from the Left, was sharp’ (237)

This ‘intellectual sensibility’ is hard to put one’s finger on but it probably owes something to Hall’s lifelong love of Henry James: ‘someone on whom nothing is lost’. What always strikes me about Hall’s approach is this ability to capture an extraordinary level of detail (a product of his voracious reading habits), but without resting content with that. Rather (and here his formidable grasp of diverse theoretical traditions comes into play), he is able to provide a reading that, going behind the ‘facts’, is able to show what is taking place behind all our backs.

‘Behind all our backs’ is, of course, a reference to Marx, and is deliberately used here. A long time ago I read that Gareth Stedman Jones preceded each piece of new writing by re-reading Marx’s The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, for inspiration. I tried it for a while. Whether or not it improved my writing, I was alway amazed at how it was possible to hold onto the level of detail of the revolutionary years 1848-51, which ended in December 1851 with Bonaparte’s coup d’etat, and to also discern the underlying shifts in class relations that made sense of the surface movements – and all written just after it happened (Dec 1851 – March 1852) in a style replete with coruscating putdowns. It also used to put me in mind of Hall’s writings: the grasp of detail together with underlying shifts and patterns; and the ability to see all this almost as it was happening (and throw in jocular asides). Most of the articles in Political Writings were responses to what was happening then, not written with the historian’s benefit of distance and hindsight.

What The Eighteenth Brumaire and Hall’s political writings also share is that they are all examples of conjunctural analyses. Although Hall’s writings covered a huge spectrum including theoretical exegesis and cultural analysis of all sorts, it is, I think, in conjunctural analysis where his particular genius lay. If his relationship with Marx was sometimes ambivalent, especially as the journey through all the ‘posts’ wore on, (although he remained a great admirer of The Eighteenth Brumaire), he had a passion for Gramsci, whose contribution in terms of hegemony made conjunctural analysis mandatory: one could only understand the state of play of the ruling bloc’s hegemony (and its absence) through a proper attention to the specificity of the political: ‘to address ourselves “violently” towards the present as it is’(174). (I suspect that if Hall had had a regret in life, it would have been that he never found time to write his long-proposed book on  Gramsci.) ‘The great moving right show’ grew out of the work, in Policing the Crisis, attempting to understand the failure of the social democratic project and the growing authoritarianism (explored in Selected Political Writings through different vectors in ‘Racism and Reaction’ and ‘!970: Birth of the law and order society’). It took Hall’s conjunctural antennae to conclude that Thatcherism was not a temporary rightward shift or ‘a simple expression of the economic crisis’(173) as many on the Left thought at the time, but a fundamentally new response to a crisis of hegemony presaged by the upheavals of 1968. History would appear to have confirmed the prescience of that reading, made ‘as it was happening’(11)

The ability to see what others could not had many origins. One would be a quite exceptional mind. The memoir reveals his capacity to win scholarships and prizes; but, those of us privileged to witness him in intellectual action close up in his prime would probably concur that he was invariably the smartest guy in the room. To that should be added the variety of reading he undertook in his journey freeing himself from ‘mental slavery’: literature and literary criticism, Caribbean history, political and economic theory, Labour history, cultural studies, sociology, psychoanalysis. Add to this the ‘double consciousness’ of a diasporic intellectual and one can begin to see the origins of an expanded view of the political and impatience with reductive thought of any kind. For example, having said, in his memoir, how productive he found it ‘to think in terms of a diaspora’, he immediately goes on to say that ‘the concept of diaspora can surely be used for exactly the opposite end: not to confront but to disguise, evade or repress these sorts of inner emotional dynamics and the resulting traumas involved’(171) – a way of thinking that was both typical and anathema to many on the Left, though one that cannot but expand the field of vision: what he became capable of seeing. However, there is one further element, namely, his commitment to collective work. From the collective editorial enterprise that was Universities and Left Review, through the group working practices of the CCCS at Birmingham and the team writing practices of the Open University, Hall promoted and embraced collaborating with others in shared projects. Although this was partly a political commitment, it was also a recognition, not obvious to many it would seem, that drawing on many minds leads to greater insight than reliance on any one mind, however exceptional. As he himself put it the Introduction to Policing the Crisis, ‘If it is a poor effort, it would have been poorer had it been written by a single hand’ (3). Although no ordinary member of any collective he was part of and usually first among equals, he was wise enough to know that even the least among equals had something to offer – and to be able to learn from him or her. It was this quality perhaps above all that made him the extraordinary teacher he was: charismatic and inspirational, undoubtedly; but also able to hear what somebody was struggling to articulate and, without putting that person down, gently help him or her towards another, more complex, understanding.

Making sense of the present in all its manifold complexity is the task to which Stuart Hall devoted his public life. Doing so entailed a journey from literature to politics, from Jamaica to England, from troubled colonial boyhood to a pre-eminent postcolonial manhood. The route also entailed ’inventing’ a whole new trans-discipline: cultural studies. Propelling everything was the attempt to understand his own formation: his alienation; his disenchantment. A happier child might have become the poet or the novelist that he had wanted to be. Instead, he became Britain’s go to critical, black intellectual on anything and everything from film, television and the media to riots, race and policing, and much else besides. Although we can no longer know precisely what Hall would have made of the present, confusing conjuncture, the publication of these two books do provide an approach and a way of thinking that, hopefully, will inspire a new generation of thinking activists.


Tony Jefferson was a postgraduate student at the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies from 1972-1977. He collaborated with Stuart Hall on the books Resistance Through Rituals (1976/2006) and Policing the Crisis (1978/2013) His subsequent research has embraced policing and race and crime, and, from a psychosocial perspective, masculinity, fear of crime and racial violence. His work with Wendy Hollway, in Doing Qualitative Research Differently (2000/2013), introduced a new psychoanalytically-inspired, psychosocial interviewing method, Free Association Narrative Interviewing (FANI), and his book with David Gadd, Psychosocial Criminology (2007), offered a similar approach to criminology.