Stuart Hall was born in Kingston, Jamaica in 1932. He later recalled: "We were part Scottish, part African, part Portuguese-Jew." His father, Herman Hall, was the first non-white person to hold a senior position – chief accountant – with United Fruit Company in the country. He was educated at Jamaica College and after he won a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford University he moved to England in 1951.
While studying English at Merton College he developed radical political views. Hall found he was in a small minority: "In the 1950s universities were not, as they later became, centres of revolutionary activity. A minority of privileged left-wing students, debating consumer capitalism and the embourgeoisement of working-class culture amidst the 'dreaming spires', may seem, in retrospect, a pretty marginal political phenomenon... I began not as somebody formed but as somebody troubled... I thought I might find the real me in Oxford. Civil rights made me accept being a black intellectual."
Hall considered himself as a Marxist but as an opponent of the policies of Joseph Stalin he did not join the Communist Party. Instead he became a member of what became known as the New Left. His political views were based on his reading of history: "Britain is not homogenous; it was never a society without conflict. The English fought tooth and nail over everything we know of as English political virtues – rule of law, free speech, the franchise."
Hall became a member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND). Other members included J. B. Priestley, Bertrand Russell, E. P. Thompson, Fenner Brockway, Frank Allaun, Donald Soper, Vera Brittain, Sydney Silverman, James Cameron, Jennie Lee, Victor Gollancz, Konni Zilliacus, Richard Acland, Frank Cousins, A. J. P. Taylor, Canon John Collins and Michael Foot. At one CND march from Aldermaston to London, Hall met his future wife, Catherine Barrett. They had two children, Becky and Jess.
In 1957 Hall joined with E. P. Thompson, Raphael Samuel, Raymond Williams, Ralph Miliband and John Saville to launch two radical journals, The New Reasoner and the New Left Review, where he was the founding editor. Hall also worked as a supply teacher in Brixton and in 1961, he became a lecturer in film and media at Chelsea College. He published his first book, The Popular Arts, co-authored with Paddy Whannel, in 1964. This resulted in him being invited by Richard Hoggart to join the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) at the University of Birmingham.
In 1968 Hall became director of the CCCS unit. Over the next few years he wrote several books including Situating Marx: Evaluations and Departures (1972), Encoding and Decoding in the Television Discourse (1973), Reading of Marx's 1857 Introduction to the Grundrise (1973) and Policing the Crisis (1978). As the Guardian pointed out: "The foundations of cultural studies lay in an insistence on taking popular, low-status cultural forms seriously and tracing the interweaving threads of culture, power and politics. Its interdisciplinary perspectives drew on literary theory, linguistics and cultural anthropology in order to analyse subjects as diverse as youth sub-cultures, popular media and gendered and ethnic identities... Hall was always among the first to identify key questions of the age, and routinely sceptical about easy answers. A spellbinding orator and a teacher of enormous influence, he never indulged in academic point-scoring. Hall's political imagination combined vitality and subtlety; in the field of ideas he was tough, ready to combat positions he believed to be politically dangerous. Yet he was unfailingly courteous, generous towards students, activists, artists and visitors from across the globe, many of whom came to love him."
Hall argued that Britain experienced a real revolution in the 1960s: "Remember 1968, when everyone said that nothing changed, that nobody won state power. It’s true. The students didn’t win. But since then life has been profoundly transformed. Ideas of communitarianism, ideas of the collective, of feminism, of being gay, were all transformed by the impact of a revolution that did not succeed… So I don’t believe in judging the historical significance of events in terms of our usually faulty judgment of where they may end up.”
In 1979 Hall was appointed as professor of sociology at the Open University. The university's current Vice-Chancellor, Martin Bean, has pointed out that he was a great success: "Stuart was one of the intellectual founders of cultural studies, publishing many influential books and shaping the conversations of the time. It was a privilege to have Stuart at the heart of The Open University – touching and influencing so many lives through his courses and tutoring. He was a committed and influential public intellectual of the new left, who embodied the spirit of what the OU has always stood for: openness, accessibility, a champion for social justice and of the power of education to bring positive change in peoples' lives."
It was Hall who first used the term "Thatcherism" in an article that appeared in Marxism Today in January 1979, to describe the political influence of Margaret Thatcher. As The Daily Telegraph pointed out: "The Conservative leader had been patronised by many on the Left as little more than a shrill housewife. Hall was one of the first to acknowledge that Britain was entering a new era of politics. He characterised the phenomenon of Thatcherism as something more significant and more insidious than the personal style of one politician... To Hall, Thatcherism’s popularity originated in errors on the Left. Socialists, he argued, had failed to recognise the disillusionment of many working class people with the bureaucratic state, while British trade unions, although industrially strong, had not offered any alternative vision.... Hall called for the Left to fight the cultural battle against Thatcherism by an engagement with new social movements such as multiculturalism, environmentalism and gay rights."
The editor, Martin Jacques, pointed out that this was the beginning of a long-term relationship. "For the next decade, it felt as if we lived in each other's pockets. The way in which Stuart wrote was fascinating. Some, like Eric Hobsbawm, the other Marxism Today great, produced a perfect text first time out. Stuart's first draft, in contrast, would arrive in an extremely incoherent and rambling form, as if trying to clear his throat. Over the next 10 days, one draft would follow another, in quick succession, like a game of ping-pong. His was a restless, inventive intellect, always pushing the envelope, at his best when working in some form of collaboration with others. His end result was always worth savouring, his articles hugely influential."
Other books by Hall include The Hard Road to Renewal (1988), Resistance Through Rituals (1989), Modernity and Its Future (1992), The Formation of Modernity (1992), Questions of Cultural Identity (1996), Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices (1997) and Visual Cultural (1999). Professor Henry Louis Gates of Harvard University called him "Black Britain's leading theorist of black Britain."
Hall retired from the Open University in 1997 and became a member of the Commission on the Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain, that had been established by the Runnymede Trust. He remained active in politics and was a leading critic of Tony Blair and attacked him for occupying the “terrain defined by Thatcherism”. He later described Blair as "the greatest Tory since Margaret Thatcher” and argued that even though the leadership of the Conservative Party were “divided, exhausted and demoralised,” it was still “their arguments, their philosophy, their priorities, that are defining the agenda on which new Labour thinks and speaks”.
His friend, Martin Jacques, points out: "Tragically, Stuart's ill health slowly but remorselessly curtailed and undermined his ferocious energy. For the last 20 years or so, he was a semi-invalid. But his mind remained as alert and involved as ever. The response to his death has served to demonstrate how much his work has influenced so many people in so many different ways: cultural studies, race and ethnicity, politics, the arts, the media, academe. Little has been left untouched by his intellectual power and insight. Stuart's extraordinary impact was not because he happened to be black and from Jamaica. It was because he was black and from Jamaica. It took an outsider, a black Jamaican, to help us understand and make sense of Britain's continuing decline. He was in so many ways well ahead of his time. It is difficult to think of anyone else that has offered such a powerful insight into what has been happening to us over the past 70 years."
Stuart Hall died on 10th February, 2014.