Marxism in the 21st Century: Culture and Cultural Studies


The late Stuart Hall said cultural studies, within a Marxist tradition,  enables us “to understand culture – cultural discourse – the place and relationship of the ideological.”

In this podcast, which is part of our Marxism in the 21st Century series, Steve Edwards, Professor of History of Art at the Open University talks to Kieron Yates about Marxism and Culture.  They explore how Marxism can be seen as a profoundly aesthetic philosophy, with many of its central categories coming from thinking about art and aesthetics, the organisation of sensibility……


VOICE: STUART HALL:  It’s not that Marxism is not around but that the kind of conversation which Cultural Studies conducted with …   against some aspects of … around the questions… expanding a Marxist tradition of critical thinking… that is absent and that is a real weakness. I think important gains were made which enable us to understand culture… cultural discourse… the place and relationship of the ideological. So I think a lot of ground was covered… kind of  conceptual ground was covered which could go to enrich the position provided the basic conversation is re-engaged but if it’s not re-engaged then that interim period… you know … Cultural Studies lost its way and will find it again.


Kieron Yates: Hello and welcome to Pod Academy. You just heard the late Stuart Hall with an assessment of the status of Marxism in Cultural Studies he gave to the academic Sut Jhally in 2012.

In this edition of Pod Academy I speak to Steve Edwards – Professor of History of Art at the Open University – about the development of culture studies in Britain out of particular Marxist traditions and ask if more recently Marxism has been able to reassert the relevance. I began by asking what Marx and Engels themselves had to say about cultural phenomena.

Steve Edwards: Its  patchy to start with.  I think there are two things to say about that…   they were very educated men of there time, with very extensive literary tastes in the  high culture of particularly Europe… very well read. I don’t think that there is any point where they… there is no extensive development in the ideas of Marx and Engels. Marx did originally plan to write an aesthetic he never did so … he wrote poetry as a young man… Engels wrote some kind of … there are occasional pieces… largely on literature but I think beyond that what’s important about what they did is to recognise that in some senses Marxism is a profoundly aesthetic philosophy… that so many of its central categories come from thinking about art and aesthetics… the organisation of sensibility.  So the whole debate for instance on alienation on the alienation of labour … the debate about fetishism…the whole sense about a kind of future society which will overcome the divisions between mental and manual … that will heal the rifts of class; these are fundamentally aesthetic categories. So I think, more than just thinking about what they explicitly wrote about art or literature, what’s important is to think about how the discussions and thinking, particularly in German idealist philosophy, about art entered fundamentally into shaping their view of the world.


KY: Marx and Engels can be seen as part of a tradition of social criticism that was taking place in the Nineteeth century that encompassed thinkers and writers on aestheticism such as Ruskin, Carlyle, Arnold and Dickens. At times intensely conservative, romantic in sensibility and anti-modern, this aesthetic critique of capitalism also found a more progressive voice in William Morris.


SE:   There’s a separate trajectory there,  which is  there’s a kind of tradition of British social criticism that’s very centred on art in the 19th century. One might think about Ruskin, about Carlyle, about Dickens and Arnold. These are figures that fundamentally reject capitalism… they reject the new kind of modernity. By and large they are very conservative thinkers, very anti-democratic and in Ruskin and Carlyle… Carlyle in particular has some quite unpleasant aspects around questions of race and so forth in his thinking. One of the things you get fundamentally is this rejection of the new industrial society and the devastation and destruction of the older social relations in their conception. Ruskin that’s’ very centrally about work and art… probably the best way to characterize it is as romantic anti- capitalism… a kind of drawing on romantic sensibility and the romantic attitude to the developing new society, they developed a kind of critique of that society, of its industrialisation, of its ugliness, of its destruction of nature of the effects it was having on working people, on beauty… they found that society fundamentally ugly.


The big difference with Morris is that Morris came from a different political formation whilst sharing their aesthetic critique to capitalism. So Morris actually came out of liberalism and in particular a certain kind of anti-imperialist liberalism which made him very different from them. What Morris did is turn that tradition of romantic anti-capitalism into a kind of socialist form. So in many ways his writings on art much of what he did himself as a practicing craftsman designer and so forth is actually very much inspired by that Ruskinian sense of the aesthetics of labour… of a sense of craft and beauty and dedication to work…  but he shifted that fundamentally in a different political dimension… into an aspect of socialism. You know when he was reading Marx … he struggled with Capital… we know he read it and struggled though it he was also influenced by some aspects of anarchism… but the founding of the socialist league and for ten years that Morris was fundamentally active as a kind of organizer.  So there is a close penetration… a close inter-linkage in Morris’s thought between his socialism and an aesthetic critique of capitalism of a rejection of what its doing to both nature and to labour.


KY: Perhaps one of the absolute central figures in terms of the history of twentieth century Marxism is the Sardinian Antonio Gramsci. It’s his thinking on ideology and hegemony that has had the most significant bearing on Cultural Studies.


SE:  It’s important to remember first of all that The Prison Notebooks are only translated into English in ’71. One of the things that I think is really important about that work is the recognition that one has to think beyond the dimensions of economics and politics and to think about a political constitution around the struggle in popular culture itself and particularly about what he calls hegemony … the dominance of one social groups over another… to think about that as something that takes place inside various cultural forms but also principally for him the party.


The second dimension to that which I think is really important is that before Gramsci people thought about ideology as ideas… as a series of ideas that might be contested… that might adhere to one group or another… that were somehow in some opposition… that the ruling ideas were subjugating these kind of oppositional groups. What Gramsci begins to do is to develop the idea that rather than focusing on ideas one should actually pay attention to the institutions and agents of that hegemony. To think about how hegemony is produced in specific institutions and to think about a sociology of the intellectuals… who is that’s doing this work and to focus not so much on the ideas but on their production and on the sites of their production. So you get a shift with Gramsci to begin to look at the whole series of different forms… popular literature… an interest in detective stories… interest in language… different kinds of aspects of the history of the social development of Italy or whatever. So what you’re finding there is a focus particularly on the way that ideas come to be shaped and formed and that rather than seeing these as somehow ideas that generate instinctively out of particular classes he’s looking at the way those ideas can be contested, can be fought over and that are  a working class hegemony can be built.


KY:  In Britain Cultural Studies itself really came into being with the foundation of the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies in the early 1960’s. The centre was founded by Richard Hoggart who wanted the initiative to build on his work The Uses of Literacy which explored working class popular culture. Hoggart’s first appointee at the Birmingham school was the New Left’s Stuart Hall who would go on to be the Centre’s director.


SE:The first thing to say about Cultural Studies as it was formed in Birmingham, where it was called the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Stuides, is that Cultural studies isn’t the same as the study of culture there a re lots of disciplines that study culture – Literary Studies, Art History, Musicology, Anthropology and so forth… there’s a whole range of disciplinary bases for that. So I think the first thing to say is that Cultural Studies isn’t the same as the study of Culture. I think the key difference with the formation of Cultural Studies was the way in which a certain social history and literary studies made a shift into evaluating popular cultural form. So I think in terms of the formation of what goes on in Birmingham I think we need to see at least three strands.


The first is the shift that takes place after the Second World War with the increasing commodification of everyday life. So the first thing we need to see there is that the increasing impact of capitalism on aspects of life that previously hadn’t been drawn under that … or to a lesser extent had been drawn under the direct reproductive influence of capitalism. That involves… people talk about consumerism… that’s one way of describing this… but the generation also of popular entertainment… of mass entertainment, that’s already commodified and capitalised at the outset. So that’s the first aspect.


The second I think is what people have described as the shift within British Marxism to culturalist thinking… figures like the historian E P Thompson, Raymond Williams in literary criticsm… we have to say that they denied this term… they denied that they were culturalists … but nevertheless there is a shift in emphasis away from just thinking about class in terms of economics and politics to thinking about the ways class is a lived experience that takes place inside aspects of culture and cultural form. So that’s certainly the second aspect and many of those people who formed the centre came out of that trajectory slightly differently. Richard Hoggart who wrote The Uses of Literacy which was about class…. drawing on his own experience of growing up in working class Yorkshire… and the impact of popular culture on that community and class. Hoggart was always a slightly different figure… in many ways he was anti-Marxist… he was kind of a classic Labourite in many ways I think and he’s the founder of the centre. He employed Stuart Hall who took over when Hoggart didn’t come back from a secondment to UNESCO… and Hall is a very interesting figure who himself is a part of that shift in terms of the British Left… came to Britain on a Rhodes Scholarship from Jamaica and right from a right very early period is involved in the formations of the New Left. One of the things that’s really interesting about John Akomfrah‘s recent film of or two films in fact …it exists in two forms…. of Stuart Hall… is to see just how present he is in the media right from the 50’s… both as a commentator on culture but also as a commentator on black experience in Britain… that Hall is a very prominent figure in the shaping of the British Left in bringing together a kind of literary attention with Marxist theory and a black experience… and Hall is articulating those things right from the outset I think. So one of the things that tends to happen is that people tend to overly periodise this as though the attention to race comes somehow much further down the line. I think what we can say is that attention to race and ethnicity which begin with things like Policing the Crisis in terms of the Centre… of course there’s a lot of black activist work where there’s things going on elsewhere. But although that becomes much more prominent in the work of the centre from the mid-70’s, Hall is already, I think, from a much earlier point, dealing with those kind of issues … they rise and fall within his work.


So that’s a different kind of aspect of that work. But to go back to the question of Culturalism we see I think for instance in Raymond Williams’s work Culture and Society and then his book on printing The Long Revolution… that Williams is attending to the ways in which there’s a kind of long tradition of cultural criticism in Britain… I’m thinking of the book Culture and Society which I think is a really important book… it has many problems… but which is really attentive to that dimension of romantic anti-capitalism in the ninetieth century… to thinking about those oppositions to the emergent industrial capitalist society that take place in this long tradition of cultural critique… we’ve mentioned Ruskin, Carlyle, Arnold, Dickens… there’s a whole range of these figures that he studies and studies carefully in that book through to Morris and Marx.


So your beginning to get here in this configuration an attention to culture and ideology that’s the second dimension to what emerges there. The third again I think we’ve already touched on and that’s the work of translation that begins to take place in the New Left… through the New Left Review centrally. So it’s very important to remember and it’s somehow difficult for our generation to think back to this moment that The Grundrisse doesn’t appear in English until 1973… Marx’s Grundrisse…that a book like Lukács’s History and Class Consciousness appears in English in its full edition in first in ’71… Gramsci’s The Prison Notebooks appears in ’71… the debates that are published together in Aesthetics and Politics appear as late as ’77 and then you have work like Walter BenjaminLouis Althusser and slightly later Lefèvre being translated. So one of the things that’s happening there is there’s a breaking out of an attention simply to the British tradition and an opening out of Marxism to a much wider set of intellectual influences from Latin America… from Europe and so forth.


So you’re getting a third dimension there and I think one of the things that happens with the Birmingham Centre is that those three aspects are coming together in their work. It’s also directly applied to an intervention into the current situation… to thinking about what’s going on in their world then… to what’s shaping the political sense…. to use culture as a way of thinking and contesting the things of the moment. There’s a wonderful comment right at the end of an essay from 1981 by Stuart Hall called Notes on Deconstruting the Popular… He’s asking what is the popular…. what do we mean by popular culture and he says at the end of that essay that popular culture has to be a site for the struggle for hegemony… that’s what popular culture is for him. And he concludes this essay with just a couple of lines which I’ve always liked. He said: “(Popular culture) It’s one of the places where socialism might be constituted, that’s why popular culutre matters, otherwise, to tell the truth, I don’t give a dam about it.” And what I like about that is that someone like Hall has always been identified with this study of popular culture but what was really important about the work they were doing there is that it was first and foremost a political intervention… it was about thinking about the site of culture as a site of reproduction of hegemony… of dominance… and places where that dominance could be contested.


KY:  Stuart Hall left the Centre for Cultural Studies in 1979 to take up a post at the Open University. The move coincided with the birth of Thatcherism — a term coined by Hall himself – and the rise of neoliberalism. In the following years Cultural Studies shifted away from that direct political engagement to a more professional engagement with studying popular culture of its own sake. Here’s Hall himself describing that era.


SE: Cultural Studies had this long period when it tried to forget that it had a political edge or political dimesion. It went into a splurge of high theory… I’m not against theory… I don’t believe you can understand things without theoretical concepts. But Cultural Studies was never an enterprise to produce critical theory which it kind of became. Much more damaging than that… in its attempt to move away from economic reductionism it sort of forgot that there was an economy at all. So is it in a position… it’s not in a wonderful position to take that job of conjunctural analysis now on… though some people within Cultural Studies are, because they do understand that the cultural is constitutive of political crisis and a lot of other people don’t. So they’re potentially in a position to make a deeper analysis of the present conjuncture than a lot of traditional political scientists or economic theorists would… but they would have to recover lost ground …. they would have to go back to the political function of Cultural Studies… the political of dimension of Cultural Studies and they would have to go back and ask themselves, well, if the economy does not determine everything in the last instance, what is the roll of the economic in the reproduction of material and symbolic life. So they have to ask themselves economic questions. Now the funny thing is that…  historical circumstances impose themselves on how people think. I hear Cultural Studies people now talking about the Libor interest rate…talking the language of neoliberal economics…trying to understand how the neoliberal global capitalist economy works in ways which I haven’t heard Cultural Studies people talk about the economy for over twenty years. I think there’s a return to that… I don’t want to see a return to economic reductionism which I’ve never though explained anything very much… but as Gramsci always said: the economy can never be forgotten… it has to be taken into account. So Cultural Studies has to find a way, a language of re-integrating politics, culture and history as we were trying to do at the very beginning of the project.


KY:  So how is the work of the Birmingham School and the debates of the 1970’s and early 80’s being built upon by current Marxist thinkers? Here’s Steve Edwards again.


SE: I think there’s a whole series of ways in which those debates are being picked up. The first thing I’d want to say I think is that the debates of the 70’s and early 80’s are for me very unfinished. There’s a lot of work that we need to do… we need to go back to and think about what they were doing and the contradictions, the paradoxes, the problems in their work.  I think the way they interpreted Gramsci and Althusser was in many ways very problematic and that we need to go back and think through what was going on. The strength of the work that they were doing then as I said is that it had a very direct political impetus in negotiating what hegemony might be and how we might think about culture. Now I think one of the things that I think is going on immediately is there’s an engagement with our situation in a series of different ways. I think for instance in my own discipline which is Art History… it’s very noticeable that there’s a lot of young people engaged in that critique… in the critique of contemporary capitalism… in its bio-politics and so-forth. But it’s very centrally around contemporary art. So one of the things that’s happening there is that there’s a huge debate that’s taking place internationally… particularly in northern Europe… around issue of art, capitalism, gender and critique… so there’s a lot of work going on there. I know contemporary Cultural Studies less… my own engagement with it was in its central formation in that period… but what I see at the moment is a lot of theoretical impetus… a lot of studies of contemporary capitalism…. a lot of work of translation again going on.


So one of the key things that’s happened in recent times, that we can talk about in relation to this debate is the re-engagement with Gramsci…. so to think about the way that Gramsci was used in the 70’s which seemed to feed a certain kind of social democratic politics or Euro-communist politics, has been very heavily criticised in recent years: I’m thinking amongst other things about Peter Thomas’s recent book on Gramsci called The Gramscian Moment which reinstates the political and revolutionary dimensions to Gramsci’s thought… and I think is a really important book in terms of that. But not only that, there’s a whole series of books that have recently been published on Gramsici. So Gramsci’s again coming to the surface and probably as a slightly less culturalist figure and a slightly more political one… I don’t think there’s any harm in that… I think that contemporary cultural critique could do with again an injection of politics. So one of the things that’s going on is a recovery of a lot of those debates and a turning back to debates that were unfinished… to think again to think about a groundswell of debate from right the way across from America, into Latin America, into northern Europe and Britain. So I think again were seeing a… probably less co-ordinated work, probably more disparate and probably its yet to coalesce into anything but I think one of the things we should certainly recognise is a the intellectual level Marxism is resurgent at the moment…. it’s resurgent in Cultural Studies… it’s resurgent in literary theory… it’s resurgent in a whole series of disciplines, particularly philosophy… political economy… politics… international poliitics and so forth. So the re-emergence is uneven but it’s certainly going on.


KY:  At the beginning of this podcast we heard Steve Edwards describe Marxism as a profoundly aesthetic philosophy. At times it can seem as though Marxism only offers an anti-aesthetic critique but can it help claim aesthetics as a mobilising force within the politics of the Left?


SE:  It’s important to recognise that there are very different strands within Marxism… it might make some sense to talk about Marxisms. But there’s one aspect of Marxism  which is a very anti-aesthetic critique… which is to see aesthetics as a sort of false sublation… a sort of false totality… or false whole which creates a political illusion of immediacy… of spontaneity… of a kind of world without contradictions… and I’m thinking here of Eagleton’s Ideology of The Aesthetic… he’s only one person who has made that critique of what he terms aesthetic ideology. I think that’s one dimension to this but I think there’s another dimension I think which actually sees aesthetics in a very different sense about going back to a the original notion of aesthetics as the organisation of the senses and sensibility and to think about the ways in which… you know right from the outset Marx is engaged in those debates and that they’ve run right the way through Marxism. So I think that one of the problems is that there’s a way in which any serious Marxist politics has to be an involvement with those issues of affect and emotion and I think to some extent we’ve often relied overly on a rationalist argument… on a belief that somehow if you explain to people how it is that the scales will fall from their eyes and they will see the truth and not to understand the way in which… one of the things that capitalist ideology does really well is to mobilise emotion… mobilise affect. We have our own ways of doing that… they’ve always been in our movement and so I think there’s been a sort of sense in which that’s been a problem for us and we don’t conveniently talk about it but we have to confront those issues. I’ve brought with me a quotation from Dorothy Thompson on Chartism which I think is really significant … this is going back to the 1840’s. So Dorothy Thompson was a historian of Chartism who worked at Birmingham… was E P Thompson’s wife…. wrote some very substantial discussions of Chartism.


She wrote:

“In the towns and villages of Britain thousands of anonymous men and women organised the Chartist movement using traditional forms of processions, carnivals, theatrical performances, camp meetings, sermons and services to put the message across of the six points: flags, banners, caps of liberty, scarves, sashes and rosettes appeared on public occasions; slogans from the bible, from literature and earlier radical movements decorated the banners and placards they carried; hymns and songs were written and sung; poems were declaimed; every aspect of the religious and cultural life of the communities was brought into service to press home the Chartist message.”


It seems to me that that’s aesthetics… that that’s one of the dimensions that Marxism and culture has to be about. It’s an understanding of the way culture is lived and experienced and central to the way in which we understand ourselves and we understand our politics. We can talk about aesthetics in its high forms in relation to art and literature and music and so forth but we should also remember… remember with Gramsci and remember with the Chartists that this is also about lived experience and its about how we understand our world… how we contest the meanings that are imposed on us and how we define ourselves in opposition to capital.


Photo Mike Mozart

This podcast was made possible by a grant from the Amiel Melburn Trust, and is the first in a series of podcasts on Marxism in the 21st Century, funded by the trust.

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