The concept of association has its own history, which clearly informs the Marxian use of the term. With Rousseau the term “association” first enters the terminology of social philosophy; he uses the term to positively describe the linking between free and equal citizens. In the Second Discourse Rousseau speaks of “free association, which obliged none of its members,” (Rousseau 2002, 116) as a form of societal organization. In the Contrat Social it will be the contract itself that constitutes the association of a free society. In both cases association appears as self-determined connectivity of the members of a free and equal society.

With this tradition, the term association slowly gains specific connotations. They are linked to the idea of an emancipated society. After Rousseau, Claude Saint-Simon and Charles Fourier specified egalitarian forms of organization as “associations.” Saint-Simon reflected on associations as the form of organization of the classe productive, a professional organization for scientists, artists, and workers that should, in the end, reorganize society. Beyond social atomism, and beyond the market and the state, associations were considered as extrinsic systems of social organization which would not adequately represent the productive classes of society. The idea of an association of producers who would “work together and market their goods in common” (Beecher & Bienvenu 1971, 66) was the central idea of Fourier’s utopianism. Association, for Fourier, Saint-Simon, and their followers, stood for an alternative form of organization. Such associations were meant to connect with the separate field of social production directly, independently of market mediation.

In part related to the theoretical efforts of early socialists, so-called associations became the central element in the working class’s actual self-organization on the ground. Strikes during the French Revolution of 1830, for example, engendered a movement committed to the ideals of associationism. In 1848, Paris alone hosted around 300 of such associations with an approximate collective membership of some 50,000 people. The idea of common labor in self-organized associations, an idea that Charles Fourier had originally conceived for agricultural contexts, will become the leading slogan for urban craftsmen and the organizing industrial working-classes in the early and decisive years of struggle.

In this way, Marx, too, refers to these historical connotations in his use of the term “association,” famously so in the Communist Manifesto: “In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms,” Marx and Engels write, “we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.” (Marx & Engels 1976, 506). In The Poverty of Philosophy Marx writes: “The working class, in the course of its development, will substitute for the old civil society an association which will exclude classes and their antagonism, and there will be no more political power properly so-called…” (Marx 1976a, 182). It will do so by spreading the idea and political form of the self-organization of producers, beginning with every productive unit, as broadly as possible.

Marx and Engels emphasize in the Communist Manifesto that within the bourgeois order a relation between the laborers emerges as its immanent product, something that is already present in a latent form. “The advance of industry,” they write, somewhat teleologically, “whose involuntary promoter is the bourgeoisie, replaces the isolation of the labourers, due to competition, by the revolutionary combination, due to association.” (Marx & Engels 1976, 496). Time and again “association” describes a form of social organization which functions as means and end for the egalitarian organization of society. From The German Ideology and the Communist Manifesto to Capital (the “Verein freier Menschen” mentioned in the chapter on fetishism is presented to the English-speaking world as the “association of free men”, (see Marx 1976b, 171), this use of the term association can be found as a description of socialist politics and the working class’s self-organization, which transgresses the repressive and alienated organizational forms of state and capital.

Wherever Marx speaks about the organization of a future society, the term association is used to characterize the free and non-coercive form of social organization, through which goods are collectively produced and freely distributed. What Marx finds in the loose and voluntary structure of association is a representation of a collective potential of workers to communally manage the production and distribution of material wealth on both a small and large scale. That which is normally concealed by the socially necessary illusion generated by the commodity form, which is to say, labor, itself gains visibility and autonomy in and through associations.

When sketching outlines of a future society, Marx confronts the institutionalized spheres of state and capital with this self-organizing capacity of the material producers.

Association is a free form of coordination—it helps organize an intrinsic link between the social producers that might otherwise remain invisible. In and through associations the sphere of symbolic representation (the sphere of distribution, the state) is thus confronted with the hidden dynamic of production. In labor-struggles production articulates itself in a way that is normally excluded from an apparent logic of representation.

At least three layers that are crucial for any Marxian version of a future society are implied in the conception of association. First, the model of politics: associations help in articulating labor directly without separating the logics of material production from the sphere of politics (without separating, as in the terminology of Arendt or Habermas, work or labor from action or interaction, and thus, from politics). Second, the organization of social producers who, through the lens of the sphere of circulation, otherwise appear as isolated individuals, as mere owners of commodities. It is the method of free association that lays bare the inner connectivity of the various parts of social production. The particular dynamic and quality of labor associations is, in other words, to organize social elements that in the manifest structure of representation appear as isolated. Third, associations open up new dimensions of social life by re-arranging the conditions for social production. The satisfaction of social needs can directly be addressed in and through their collective articulation. By addressing the field of social production directly, associations help to imagine and produce new forms and conditions of social life. In other words, labor associations are means of poietic production which articulate the forces of a latent structure.

If you wish, you can call these three dynamics of associations (which sketch outlines of a Marxian version of a future society) aesthetic: they integrate muted elements of material practice (and thus, materiality) into the orders of representation, they form new meanings by bringing latent connections to the fore, and they open up new horizons of social practice. Politics can be beautiful.

Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies

Marxism is a funny sport: more than in any other philosophical tradition, Marxists can be judged and evaluated by the degree to which they are ‘good Marxists.’ This is not so much about the degree to which they succeed in presenting convincing paradigms of social and cultural theory, but rather about the degree to which they manage to stick to the original program, to integrate the key elements of the originally Marxian theory, and the implications they would have for political practice. How much of a Marxist program was the program of the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS)? How good a Marxist was a scholar like Hoggart or Hall (Hebdige, McRobbie, and Gilroy)? And, of course, when and for how long?

Founded in 1964 by Richard Hoggart, the Centre, although not really claiming to be Marxist, published important work on quotidian working-class culture, and, further developed by his more famous successor Stuart Hall, focused mainly on forms of cultural struggle, which classical Marxism had neglected for a long time. Differing greatly from classical Marxism, the strict analysis of political economy never mattered much in the CCCS. The starting point (clearly so in Hoggart’s 1957 work The Uses of Literacy and as in E.P. Thompson’s highly influential 1964 The Making of the English Working Class) was working class culture as a source and means of political articulation. This presupposed an extended understanding of culture and a shift away from the normative orientation in cultural theory, and it led to an understanding of culture which interpreted cultural struggles as dominant sources in the formation of political identities. In some ways the CCCS thus developed its own version of Western Marxism, successively moving into its own version of Post-Marxism and identity politics by continuously shifting away from the main parameters of classical Marxism’s understanding of political struggle (based on labor and economic struggles). Nonetheless, the representatives of the CCCS cultural-analytical program (first and foremost Stuart Hall himself, but also allied thinkers such as E.P. Thompson and Raymond Williams) were amongst the most visible intellectuals in Britain’s New Left (Stuart Hall being the first editor-in chief of the still powerful New Left Review), especially so during the dark age of Thatcherism.

The strongest link to maybe-not-so-classical Marxism but at least to canonical Marxist theory was the explicit reference to the work of Antonio Gramsci, whose concept of hegemony (devoid of its strategic roots in its Leninist fashion, as a merely analytical tool) probably became the most important concept in the political strategy of the CCCS’ version of cultural theory. Clearly, this was the way in which Stuart Hall had understood the centre’s program: “Rightly or wrongly, and especially in the 1970s, the Centre developed, or tried to develop, what I would call a Gramscian project.” (Hall 1990, 17). The understanding of Gramsci’s conception of hegemony quickly developed in non-Marxist directions. In the words of the centre’s specialist on Punk music, Dick Hebdige, hegemony was simply to be understood as the power to “exert ‘total social authority’ over other subordinate groups, not simply by coercion or by the direct imposition of ruling ideas, but by ‘winning and shaping consent …’.” (Hebdige 1979, 16). Both the concept of class and the idea that hegemony could be an aim of a party-oriented strategy had been replaced with some more general idea of cultural politics.

As a central – somewhat Marxist – point of reference, the concept of hegemony was allowed to stray from the classical doctrine and to enter the world of new struggles, new lines of conflict and, more terminologically, new social movements. Much as in the explicitly (and self-declared) post-Marxist theory of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, the focus on the cultural determination (and articulation) of social struggles allowed not only the diversification of the classical Marxist horizon, it also left behind for good the emphasis on political economy and class struggle.

In the research program of the CCCS this development is linked to the central lines of conflict that were to be analyzed within the field of (widely understood) popular culture: next to class conflicts, generational conflicts (specifically in the analysis of subculture or youth culture), racial conflicts, and, last but not least, gender conflicts, became central. Stuart Hall was sufficiently clear about this aspect of the CCCS’ program, too: “What we are talking about is the struggle for cultural hegemony, which is these days waged as much in popular culture as anywhere else.” (Hall 1993, 106). Much of the analysis of these dynamics in popular culture remained faithful to the critical analysis of hegemony and was thus still Marxist, if not in content, then at least in some structure. Undeniably, each of these overlapping fields of analysis produced valuable and deeply influential research, and each of these fields could later (simplistically) be identified with second-generation scholars who had specialized in these lines of conflict (as Paul Gilroy on race and the post-colonial condition, or Angela McRobbie on gender, fashion, and girls’ culture).

So much for the analyses and concrete cultural studies. If one looks into the history of the CCCS’ (and its representatives’) publications, one finds surprisingly few original attempts at genuine theory. For philosophers, certainly for theory-philic Marxists, this sounds like a disadvantage. The immense amount of literature that the centre’s representatives have produced was of a different kind: Cultural Studies meant analyses, inquiries into the field of lived cultural practice and not so much abstract theorizing, grand theory, or metaphysics. In this sense, typical theoretical publications which emerged from the context of the CCCS were handbooks, providing theoretical instruments for eclectic cultural analyses. They assembled key concepts and commented on recent contributions to cultural theory without any emphatic systematic interest of their own.

As a genuine and original theoretical program, however, a program that clearly determined the further development of any media-theoretical analysis, the CCCS produced an approach to audience research and the theory of media reception. Condensed in a short article by Stuart Hall, the CCCS presented a new vision of the active role of the audience in the production of cultural meaning. As much as any cultural object was encoded (first produced), it could be decoded (creatively appropriated). Reception finally appeared as an active process that could confront the institutional order of media production with deviance and subversion. Next to ‘dominant codes’ certain possible layers appeared where ‘oppositional codes’ could enter the sphere of mass culture. Thus, the program of the CCCS emphasized the creativity of audiences in making sense of their own world. Methodologically this ended the dominance of the Volksempfänger, which had been kept in place for too long by Marxist cultural pessimists.

Some “pessimism of the intellect”, however, to allude to Gramsci, could have been helpful for the Birmingham program, and, maybe, some sectarianism too. In 1990 already, at the beginning of the decline of any broader claims to leftist cultural hegemony, Stuart Hall stated (referring specifically to the situation in the US) that “‘cultural studies’ has become an umbrella for just about anything” (Hall 1990, 22). Its critical potential faded with the growth of its theoretical indeterminacy. No theoretical tradition is ever fully innocent concerning its legacy, and one may doubt if contemporary cultural studies are of much help in articulating the relevant political antagonisms of the present. Birmingham’s trail-blazing approach to popular culture became all-too popular. As an effect of these dialectics, the Birmingham centre was closed in 2002.