Issue 2, 2018: Marx from the Margins

Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies

Johan Frederik Hartle

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.


Hall, Stuart. 1990. “The Emergence of Cultural Studies and the Crisis of the Humanities.” October 53: 11-23.

———. 1993. “What Is This ‘Black’ in Black Popular Culture?” Social Justice 20(1/2): 104-114.

Hebdige, Dick. 1979. Subculture: The Meaning of Style. London: Meuthen & Co. Ltd.


Johan Frederik Hartle

Johan F. Hartle is currently acting director at the Karlsruhe University of Arts and Design (HfG), where he teaches political aesthetics. His general field of research are Marxism, institutional theories of art and the aesthetic-political. Recent publications include Aesthetic Marx (London: 2017) and The Spell of Capital (Amsterdam 2017) both co-edited with Samir Gandesha.