Out of the dust of idols -a tribute by Aijaz Ahmad (on Sivanandan)

By Aijaz Ahmad – contrubution to ‘A World to Win: essays in honour of A. Sivanandan’ (Race & Class July 1999)

As long ago as 1976, A. Sivanandan was to write, in words of extraordinary prescience:

“Within ten years Britain will have solved its ‘black problem’ – but ‘solved’ in the sense of having diverted revolutionary aspiration into nationalist achievement, reduced militancy to rhetoric, put protest to profit and, above all, kept a black underclass from bringing to the struggles of the white workers political dimensions peculiar to its own historic battle against capital. All these have been achieved in some considerable measure in the past decade and a half – and the process has already thrown up the class of collaborators so essential to a solution of the next stage of the problem: the political control of a rebellious ‘second generation’.”

It is at least arguable that his classic essay, ‘All that melts into air is solid: the hokum of New Times’, is an enraged reflection, in much broader frame, upon the fulfilment of that dark prophecy which he had offered some fourteen years earlier. How much water had flowed under Westminster Bridge in the interim, and with what devastating effect, was well indicated in the fact that Stuart Hall, who had penned a brief and guarded introduction to A Different Hunger, would now be one of the principal contributors to, indeed, a shaper of, that special issue of Marxism Today (October 1988) which Sivanandan quite correctly regarded as a defining moment in the taming of the British new Left, or at least a substantial portion of it. Rereading that seminal essay is instructive today, almost a decade later, as what Hall and his colleagues had called ‘New Times’ – which was even then, as Sivanandan put it, Thatcherism in drag’ – is now parading under the guise of New Labour, while Martin Jacques makes pathetic little attempts to distance himself from what he still so obviously desires.

I shall return to the text of that essay at some length presently. Some things need to be said straightaway, however. The sharp anger, which gives to the essay its special passion and precision, is there precisely because what was at stake was not some harmless little disagreement, of an academic nature, over this policy or that. Rather, the dispute was over the future of the British Left to the extent that the politics of that Left had very immediate repercussions for everyone who lived within the Isles, white or black, old native or new immigrant. But, then, the dispute was also over the modalities of, precisely, what Sivanandan had earlier called ‘political control of a rebellious “second generation” of black youth, even as the new racism – shifting more fully, in Sivanandan’s eloquent phrase, from ‘racism in the service of racism’ to ‘racism in the service of capital’ – opened up the schools and universities for the formation of a new kind of black British meritocracy. In this context of racism’s determination to create a ‘class of collaborators’, it mattered a very great deal what this ‘second generation’ of black British, entering schools and universities in the late “70s and ’80s, heard from those older members of the British Left who were of Asian and Caribbean origin, and who had become in their own way illustrious and authoritative. It mattered a very great deal, in other words, what the role of the dominant black intellectuals – ‘black’ in the British sense of ‘from the former colonies’ – would be. They could try to show this youth the way back into those ‘communities of resistance’ that were comprised of a vast underclass living in and fighting from within the inner cities, and from which much of this ‘second generation’ was drawn. Alternatively, they could collaborate in a situation where the majority of this black youth was left behind to languish in those inner cities, while a meritocracy of what DuBois might have called ‘the talented tenth’ was led out of those communities, never to return, and, instead, to integrate itself into a new petty-bourgeois intelligentsia, self-absorbed and upwardly mobile, evading questions of class and colour in the name of an integral subjectivity, whose devotion to consumerism would now be glorified a ‘politics of pleasure’. The role of intellectuals like Stuart Hall, Paul Gilroy and Homi Bhabha, and, more generally, of the principal figures in what was soon to be called ‘postcolonial theory’, came up for contentious discussion in this particular context. Hall mattered the most, in a way, thanks to his immensely authoritative presence for the British Left in general as well as an authoritative, virtually iconic status for black youth aspiring for their place in the academic sun. What he said thus mattered, twice over. And because Sivanandan’s latter essay was engaged with this whole range, it still offers -without intending to quite do so – a devastating critique of what we now know as ‘post colonial theory’. Most of the thematics of that theory, and most of what has been wrong with it, are all here.

To all that I shall return in some detail. Let me begin, though, with a different question: what was the moment of 1976, in Britain and elsewhere, when Sivanandan made his prediction? He had placed the argument within the story of the changing patterns of immigration in the post-second world war period and the impact of that immigration on the British economy, society and state policy. He divides this story essentially into three phases that can be summarised as follows.

In the phase of acute labour shortages immediately after the war, Britain was to import much labour from elsewhere in Europe as well as from the former and existing colonies. In that initial phase, levels of immigration were controlled not so much by the state, through strict categories and quotas, as by the market itself by adjusting supply to demand, in which unskilled and semi-skilled labour from the colonies ended up in the lowest paid jobs and the most decrepit housing. This labour market was fully streamlined by the end of the 1950s and the immigrant communities, burdened with economic deprivation as much as with effects of spiralling racialism, were ready to explode, as became clear in 1958. For the state, then, ‘the first step was to slow down immigration, thin out the black presence, the second to manage racism’. In the second phase, inaugurated by the Commonwealth Immigration Act of 1962, immigration was, in effect, restricted largely to professionals and the highly skilled: ‘Over 75 per cent of the vouchers issued in the first half of 1966 alone went to such personnel.4 By the end of the 1960s, thus a two-pronged policy was in place.

On the one hand, rights were increasingly abridged for all classes of non-European immigrants, while those immigrant communities were internally much more sharply divided between a majority consigned to the lowest paid, non-growth sectors and a minority consisting of techno-managerial personnel ready to join the lower rungs of state employment and the private professions. On the other hand, there arose an elaborate state machinery ‘to manage racism’ by addressing, first of all, the grievances of the relatively well-to-do blacks and that, too, more in the social arena than in the economic.  This ‘race relations’ side of the state was where the first openings were made for the black functionaries that mediated the relations between the British state and the immigrant communities. What was the consequence? Sivanandan’s comment on the achievements of the Community Relations Commission, established in 1968, is eloquent the Commission took up the black cause and killed it. With the help of its ‘black’ staff and its ‘black’ experts, with the help of an old colonial elite and through the creation of a new one, it financed assisted and helped to set up black self-help groups, youth clubs, supplementary schools, cultural centres, homes and hostels. It defined and ordained black studies; it investigated black curricula; it gave a name and a habitation to black rhetoric… It has taught the white power structure to accept the blacks and it has taught the blacks to accept the white power structure… what has been achieved in half a decade is the incorporation of a whole generation of West Indian militants. The Asians had already settled into the cultural- pluralist set-up ordained for them by the state as far back as a decade ago… Only in regard to the Asian working class was there any trouble… The strategy of the state in relation to the Asians had been to turn cultural antagonism into cultural pluralism — in relation to the West Indians, to turn political antagonism into political pluralism.

Sivanandan is here speaking specifically of the British experience and the shifts that occurred within that experience virtually year by year, shifts that must have remained largely imperceptible to most people at any given moment but were cumulatively so substantial that he was able to measure them in terms of a decade and even half decade. For one such as myself, more knowledgeable about the black experience in the United States than the immigrant experience in Britain, all this has nevertheless a familiar ring, and even the phrases resonate. There, too,during roughly the same years, the oppositional energies of the original Civil Rights Movement and the ghetto uprisings were eventually killed through state patronage and the money that flowed in ‘with the help of its “black” staff and its “black” experts’ who then put the state in a position from which ‘it defined and ordained black studies; it investigated black curricula; it gave a name and a habitation to black rhetoric’. This trend had become altogether clear by 1976, when Sivanandan penned those words about Britain, and a ‘habitation’ was found for this rhetoric eventually not just in little neighbourhood centres or inner-city schools but in the whole system of universities, research institutes and avant garde journals, to the extent that now, in the late 1990s. Harvard serves as the most influential and lucrative of such habitations, as other famous universities – Columbia, Chicago, Princeton, Cornell -look at their senior, more powerful partner with envy. 

In other words, the US, too, was home, during the decade of 1965-75 let us say, to that same unbridgeable social gulf between the ghettoised black militant and the middle-class white demonstrator that had prevented the coming together of the black agitations and rebellions with the predominantly white anti-war mobilisations. The two streams of ‘60s radicalism in the US had remained in their own time separate and unequal and, if the extremities of black nationalist rhetoric prevented that potential consolidation from one side, the very class character and anarchistic culturalism of most of the white militancy did the job of dividing and bifurcating from the other side. The state was able, at length, to sift out the more recalcitrant elements in both camps and destroyed virtually all of them; the less recalcitrant on both sides of that militancy, black as well as white, the anti-war academic radicals as well as the beneficiaries of the black rebellions, were, however, pacified through incorporation, thus putting ‘protest to profit.’

Two things happened in tandem. One was the transformation of the education system and, more broadly, the structure of training, employment and production in the ideological sphere as a whole. The more militant demands were abandoned, such as the demand for open admissions in all colleges — i.e., the demand that any youth from minority communities and low-income families who had completed high school be admitted to college and be provided the financial and educational supports to adequately equip herself for educational success and employment opportunity. As the emphasis shifted from confrontations over inner-city schools and undergraduate colleges in the state university system to more tenured positions and graduate admissions for the talented 1 per cent, the upper crust of the black intelligentsia was increasingly absorbed, with very handsome rewards, in the graduate departments of the elite universities, from where its representatives preached a US version of the postmodern ‘New Times’ – for example, the cultural politics of Difference’, in Cornel West’s significant phrase. The era of confrontational politics was already drawing to a close by the time of Nixon’s incumbency and re-election in 1972. By the time the Carter presidency got going in 1976, the consolidation of a new type of black petty bourgeoisie meant that the politics of putting ‘protest to profit’ could now have full play.

For, what had also been happening was that even partial implementation of such reforms as curriculum revision and affirmative action – in education, employment, a range of business practices such as credit availability, contracts and rents – had brought an unprecedented number of black students into the educational mainstream. It had turned the study of black history, literature and culture, and generally the business of educating this enlarged black student population, into a much wider area of employment, research and publication; greatly expanded opportunities for black businesses catering to new categories of taste and demand arising out of this new social mobility for selected strata within the black population; and facilitated comparatively greater integration of black and white businesses and elites.

Meanwhile, starting especially from the ‘60s, there was a dramatic demographic shift as the US began importing petty-bourgeois entrepreneurs and techno-managerial strata much more from the Third World, notably Asia and the Middle East, than from Europe. Cumulatively, then, these changes led to rapid expansion and transformation in the character of both the black and Asian bourgeois fractions in the United States. Already perceptible by the late 1970s, such shifts have by now altered the whole landscape of class relations and cultural claims. With a formidable proportion of high-flying professionals and businessmen, Indian immigrants and settlers in the United States are estimated to be, on average, the most affluent of the ‘ethnic’ communities there.

This is fully reflected in the very formation of the postcolonial intelligentsia which is largely a US enterprise and in which intellectuals of Indian origin who are located in elite US universities have a controlling share. The African-American bourgeoisie, which used to be comprised mainly of such petty-bourgeois strata as clerks, porters, petty shopkeepers and lower-rung civil servants until after the second world war, now boasts a prosperous and relatively widespread social base in which, according to Manning Marable, ‘By the mid-1990s, one in six black households earned incomes that exceeded $50,000 annually.’

Marable was to identify three specific consequences of such a radical class transformation. First, there arose, to some of the highest offices in the land, some very influential African-Americans who were nevertheless highly conservative: he cites the cases of general Colin Powell commerce secretary Ronald Brown and Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas. Second, Marable notes the dramatic shift from popular militancy to pure electoralism; on the radical side of recent black politics, he cites the case of Jesse Jackson who preferred to disband his own very sizeable and growing ‘rainbow coalition’ rather than risk a break with leading lights of the Democratic Party. Third, he equally emphasises the rise of a large number of a novel kind of black neoconservative theorist and elected official on both sides of the electoral divide, among the Democrats as well as Republicans, who was very largely unresponsive to the black constituency which had put him there and responsive mostly to the right-wing white consensus which was keeping him there. For the first time in the history of US blacks, there has arisen a whole stratum of black political professionals who garner all the advantages of becoming the spokesmen of a sizeable and potentially rebellious minority without accepting any of the obligations or restrictions arising from that role, except the inverse obligation of keeping that minority disorganised and deliverable as a vote bank. 

Marable is, by and large, silent on the issue of the ‘Young Conservatives’ among the upper crust of the black and immigrant academic intelligentsia, but that same tendency to combine great distance from the politics of the working classes with various rhetorics of radicalism, along with an easy acceptance of the market as the final arbiter of merit and the social good, which Sivanandan has noted about the dominant figures in the present generation of black academics in Britain, was equally evident in the case of their US counterparts. I might add that if a certain number of intellectuals of Asian origin, Indian as well as Arab, have played a leading role in this campaign to ‘reduce militancy to rhetoric’ and thus to bridge the gap between Asian and black academic elites, some intellectuals of Caribbean origin, located primarily in Britain, have consolidated a transatlantic alliance of these rhetorics. This, too, has been, in its own way, a project to forge a novel kind of Black Atlantic. 


These dramatic shifts have not been restricted to either the academic field or the Anglo-Saxon world. The reversal of trends that Sivanandan noted in 1976 in the politics of immigrant communities was part of a much wider and deeper reversal, and the academic fraction has been astonishingly docile in following trends that were set elsewhere, all claims of intellectual independence notwithstanding. New Times, for example, proved to be a mere caesura – something of a connecting link in the campaign of legitimation – between Thatcherism and ‘New Labour’. I have analysed elsewhere, in very great detail, that reversal in the fortunes of the revolutionary and anti-imperialist forces around the world. Suffice it to say here that, as we look back on post-war history the mid-1970s now appear to be the years when imperialism regained the decisive initiative after having been on the defensive for roughly a quarter of a century. It was perhaps the majesty and heroism of the Vietnamese revolution that made it difficult for us at that time to assess the magnitude of the shift in the global balance of forces. With the benefit of hindsight, though, one can now see that the defeat in Chile was perhaps the more substantial sign of the times.

Now, when the memory of those revolutionary years has begun to recede, it has become much more fashionable, even on the Left, to credit the financial and technological superiority of imperialist capital – the Right would call it civilisational superiority as the real cause of those defeats. There is no gainsaying the fact that, throughout this period imperialism has had immensely greater productive resources at its disposal than its adversaries could even dream of having, and that its ability to sustain a fully fledged technological revolution, not only during the long wave of prosperity during 1945-70 but also during the period of relative stagnation thereafter, attests to that material superiority. The reversal was, in any case, far more comprehensive and of a qualitatively different kind, in which the political played at least as substantial a role as the economic, and what happened in the domain of cultural theory was structurally connected with that whole complexity How, then, did the world, not just Britain or the United States, look in 1976? Let me summarise.

There was, first, the erosion of the post-revolutionary regimes – in three quite distinct ways. Within the Soviet Union, the number of people with more than a secondary education rose from twelve million in 1960 to forty million in 1985; standards of comfort and consumption rose dramatically during the Khrushchev era and then slowly but steadily under Brezhnev as well. However, the refusal of the regime to create a democratic polity in keeping with these rising educational standards and cultural aspirations meant a quantum increase in levels of mass disaffection, while the political decision violently to suppress the movements for socialist democracy in East Germany, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland and elsewhere meant a loss of popular faith in the ability of these regimes to reform themselves. This was the internal dynamic which, combined with unremitting imperialist pressure from the outside and the domestic Soviet failure to make a full transition from extensive to intensive industrialisation, meant that there was no longer much popular consent to accept standards of living that were demonstrably lower than in the advanced capitalist countries. That much had happened by 1976. When the Soviet regime did respond, in the shape of the Gorbachev reforms, initially presented as the second coming of Bukharin and Khrushchev and the Prague Spring, the reforms were belated, confused,

incompetent, ad hoc and directionless. It was not at all clear whether the new regime aimed to create a reformed and more democratic socialism, as was claimed, or we were witnessing the rise of a new bourgeoisie, in the exact sense of the term, from among the state bureaucrats and their shady cohorts (in the already extensive black market, for example), as in fact happened. By 1988, when New Times were announced, the decomposition of the Soviet Union both as territorial state and as social system was fairly far advanced. It was a good time in Britain to break with the ‘Stalinists’ and start bridging the gap between Thatcherism and the Labour Party. 

In a second set of post-revolutionary societies – the small countries where great revolutions had taken place, from Cuba to Vietnam to Mozambique the sheer scale of imperialist aggression, military as well as economic, invasion as well as internal subversion, meant that any material foundations upon which something resembling a socialist society could be built were systematically destroyed. In China, meanwhile, the post-Maoist regime was already in power and was to launch, by 1978, full-scale ‘reforms’ to restore and vastly expand the capitalist system. It was only in the wake of this particular outcome of the political struggle inside China that the new technologies and financial resources of the imperialist system became so attractive to a Chinese ruling class which increasingly looked like a new, vastly more powerful Guomindang. No wonder that postmodernism has now become quite the rage among the university elite there, far beyond Hong Kong and quite aside from Taiwan, even as the new capitalist ‘reforms’ have already generated a ‘floating population’ of 80 million (expected to soon reach 200 million) who were, until recently, peasants and workers but are now a massive reserve army of the unemployed which is makingpossible the super-exploitation of the employed working class. If the theoretical prestige of Althusserianism in corners of western Europe had been connected with the passing prestige of the Chinese cultural revolution in the ’60s and ’70s, the sharp decline of it a decade or so later was equally closely connected with the passing of modish Maoism in Paris and the elimination of the Gang of Four within China itself. Timehad come for a new   concoction of liberalism, pragmatism and post-modernism.

Elsewhere in Asia and Africa, what I have called ‘the nationalism of the national bourgeoisie’ was already exhausted and/or defeated by the mid-1970s. The murder of Lumumba in the Congo, the coups against Nkrumah in Ghana and against Soekarno in Indonesia, the rise of Sadat and Infitah (‘Open Door’) in Egypt, the descent of the Algerian FLN into corrupt and authoritarian developmentalism, the Declaration of Emergency in India — these were among the key episodes in the defeat and disorganisation of radical nationalism in Asia and Africa between the early years of post-war decolonisation and the mid-1970s. The more reactionary nationalisms that had been kept at bay in most instances but now began to replace those radical and usually secular nationalisms, were, more of than not, based on the savage identities of race and religion, e.g., Sinhala-Buddhist majoritarianism in Sri Lanka, Hindu majoritarianism in India, the proto-fascist Islamisms of Afghanistan, Iran, Algeria, Sudan and elsewhere. It is difficult to recall now that Irag and Sudan had mass communist parties during the 1950s, or that in 1948 the British Foreign Office was receiving secret diplomatic mail from its functionaries stationed in Tehran, saying that Tudeh need make no revolution because it was poised to take power constitutionally. The ‘postcolonial theory’ that arose on the ruins of that world, merely as an adjunct of Parisian high fashion, offers no account of that whole complex history of struggles and defeats in the very postcolonial period of which it claims to be the theory. Indeed, it methodically suppresses memories of that kind and dismisses them as myths of progress, rationalist nostalgia, etc. The requisite adjustments were made nonetheless: from Third Worldist nationalism to postmodernist rejection of all nationalism, tout court; from secular nationalism to celebrations of Khomeinism to a liberal suspicion of all ‘isms’; from anti-imperialism to a play of Differences, and so on.

The theory itself arose, in any case, not within the imperialised world but in the imperial centres – not in the former colonies but in the colonising ones – among intellectuals of Third World origin whose entire experience and world view were framed by these epochal shifts, including class shifts within the immigrant communities, as they were experienced and understood within those centres. This issue will come up later. Let me return, though, to the equally important matter of the shifts that were occurring within these centres. In addition to the |tendencies already discussed with reference to Britain and the United States, we should also note some other shifts of great importance.


There was, first, the termination of revolutionary hopes. The Portuguese revolution was Europe which still held out the promise of revolutionary transformation within a colonising country, and the defeat of that revolution meant that revolutionary hopes were terminated in the region as a whole. Second, the collapse of the Common Programme in France and the later defeat of the PCI in the 1976 elections then signalled a definitive defeat of Eurocommunism as well, in which some of those who later drafted the New Times manifesto had invested great hopes. Third, there was an equally great crisis of social democracy itself; Mitterrand, who had so cynically used the Common Programme for his own purposes and in whom so many of the former rebels of Paris had invested equally strong hopes, was to emerge as Reagan’s closest ally in Europe, alongside Margaret Thatcher. The twin crises of Eurocommunism and of western European social democracy were perhaps best symbolised in the fact that the Italian socialists, to whom Berlinguer had offered his ‘historic compromise’, were to come to power under Craxi, who surely matched, often exceeded, the corruptions of the Christian Democrats. Fourth, the labour movement as such faced a series of defeats throughout Europe, symbolised most graphically in the defeat of the miners’ strike in Britain. 

Finally, there were the multiple and even contradictory consequences of the onset, from the early 1970s, of relative stagnation throughout the advanced capitalist world. The offensives of capital against labour in the core countries became far more brutal than had been the case during the preceding decades, as the employment expectations, wage rates and social expenditures that had been associated with the welfare state came under fierce attack. As declining levels of industrial accumulation were compensated for by radical redistribution of income from the poor to the rich, even Keynesianism was no more. The demise of Eurocommunism and the disarray in social democratic ranks surely paved the way for the success of those Thatcherite-Reaganite offensives but, at a deeper structural level, the full-scale retreat of the two principal tendencies in the western European labour movement was itself a consequence of the end of social democratic illusions; Eurocommunism and the ‘historic compromise’ it offered had actually been a latter-day Keynesianism. Under the pressure of this brutal capitalist offensive, fissures between the different layers of the working people and the immigrant communities widened, with their own novel effects on the radicalism of the intelligentsia, so that radicalism came to be identified almost exclusively with rhetoric, with rhetoric, in the classical sense of the art of persuasion; lectures in the classroom and books issued from university presses came to replace the political pamphlet and the kind of political activity of which the pamphlet had sought to be an adjunct. Perhaps for the first time since the advent of working-class politics, a whole intellectual fraction arose which made for itself the largest radical, even revolutionary, claims but which had no affiliation, past or present with political parties, trade unions, mass strikes, working-class neighbourhoods, or insurgent struggles of the poor outside the academic arena. In a parallel move, most of the humanist intellectuals who had been previously associated with what Sivanandan has called ‘communities of resistance’ left the risky arena of confrontational politics and retired to academic enclaves to expound on theories of hegemony, etc. Culturalism, and the inflation of the cultural sphere as the primary arena of struggle, was the direct product of this curious mixture of retirement and employment. 

This, too, was structurally related to the kind of divisions capital itself had introduced within college and university systems. Faced with long term stagnation, capital could no longer adequately finance the whole range of higher education needs as it had promised during the decades of prosperity. The same stagnation required, however, that capital continue with the technological renovation of its own means of production and communication, which, nevertheless, could not be financed without withdrawing resources from the humanities and social sciences and concentrating them on science and technology. This, in turn, required the reorganisation of the impoverished sectors as such, both to contain protest and to sustain the requisite level of instruction and reproduction. So, the field of higher education in the humanities and social sciences was drastically revamped. As conditions of work deteriorated for the majority of the personnel employed in these areas, there also arose an elite at the apex of this personnel whose rewards were greater than anything the humanist intelligentsia had ever known

While unemployment among fresh Ph.Ds expanded to unprecedented proportions and class sizes increased constantly for the less famous, even as promotions became more difficult for them, fellowships, lecture fees and other perks soared for the very narrow stratum at the top. The acquiescence of the majority was thus gained cheaply: the famous were given inordinate powers to determine who would or would not get the jobs, the promotions, the lecture fees, the opportunities to publish in periodicals and publishing projects supervised by the famous, while those opportunities, in turn, determined the opportunity for jobs and promotions and lecture fees for the lower strata within higher education. Conformity and herd-like clubbiness were the systemic expressions of a much deeper fear of being left behind, even as this new conformism’s own claims of political radicalism kept getting taller. Within this academic atmosphere, then, it was only among those who did not command such powers and did not pursue such an exaggerated sense of being special that any meaningful and enduring relation with actual communities of resistance could be found.

The larger shifts in the world, of course, affected everyone, but the restructuring of humanistic disciplines in the university that I have summarised above was much more possible and visible in the United States where the phenomenon of the radical academic superstar was born, thanks to the sheer size of the money. And this kind of superstar was much more remote from the world of the working class there, since the US had neither a social democratic party like the British Labour Party nor a welfare state in the European sense. Ever since McCarthyism destroyed the old Left, and the political movements of the 1960s were partly crushed and partly co-opted, academic radicalism usually had a much more individualistic and clubby character there even than in Britain. And the case of Marxism Today was special even inside Britain. Born of a break within British communism, it was still on its way to discovering the virtues of individualism and consumerism, thought of itself as an intervention in mass much a hybrid, transitional phenomenon. Hence the peculiarity that the New Times ideology that Sivanandan analysed in 1990 with such superb effect was, in one substantial sense, a specifically British phenomenon and yet, at its ideological core, it contained much that was to become integral to postcolonial theory as it stabilised itself on both sides of the Atlantic. Indeed, Stuart Hall himself was to keep shifting until he emerged, late in his career, a self-professed ‘postcolonial.’


What was the nature of Sivanandan’s criticism and argument? First, he accurately pinpointed that which was specifically British about it. ‘In France and Italy’, he said, ‘the Eurocommunists were parties in their own electoral right, but in Britain Marxism Today, having broken with the “Stalinists”, had no comparable base.’ In essence, then, the NewTimes prognosis was an attempt by a narrow but influential group to serve as something of a think-tank and help modernise the Labour Party in the image of Thatcherism itself, as it turned out. In a classic formulation, Sivanandan was able to get to the heart of the matter in a way that would apply to much more than the immediate object of his criticism. ‘New Times’, he said, ‘was born in the throes of political pragmatism under the sign of cultural theory bereft of economic reasoning.

Part of the pragmatism was that an ideology born out of a whole series of defeats that the working classes and revolutionary movements had faced, nationally and globally, refused to see itself as such and presented itself, instead, as a politics of pure pleasure, a happy awakening from the false consciousness of Old Times. Its ‘economic reasoning’ was based largely on the buzz words of a new kind of technological determinism (post-Fordism, flexible production, information technology, globalisation, decline of the nation state, decline of classes, rise of consumerism and life-style, and the rest); determinism in the specific sense that everything that happens in society and politics seems here to be determined by certain technological changes in certain branches of industry in certain regions of the world. And, since specific technological changes were the point of origin, this ‘reasoning’ could preoccupy itself with explaining the ‘conjuncture’ produced by flexible production, etc., dispensing with any need to give a historical account of the class struggles, revolutionary movements, imperialist wars and counter-offensives, grounds won and lost, over a whole century around the globe, which had been central in producing this ‘conjuncture’, flexible production notwithstanding. 

The working classes as key agents of historical change were dissolved twice over. It is not that they had been defeated through unremitting warfare spanning the whole century and the entire globe; the case was made out that they had been calmly dispersed by ‘flexible decentralized production’, class belonging giving way happily to life-style consumption. But then, as Sivanandan was to point out, this ‘economic’ explanation appeared alongside another quite different account without being organically connected with it, in which semiotics seemed to be the science of choice and which served to shift ‘the language of politics more over to the cultural side’, so that the search for ‘meaning’, rather than the desire for liberation from infinite toil and exploitation, was said to be at the heart of working-class consciousness, for the simple reason that the ‘symbolic’ rather than the ‘real’ was the very stuff of consciousness all consciousness, consciousness of everything. If the ‘economic’ could be traced to technological change rather than to the struggle of classes, the culturalist side of the argument referred itself to a very special kind of revolutionary history: the cultural revolutions of the ’60s, 1968 itself’ and the ‘theoretical revolutions of the ’60s and ‘70s – semiotics, structuralism, poststructuralism’.

Why had the two explanations, the ‘economic’ and the social-cultural, remained parallel without any causal connection? The point that Sivanandan emphasised most was that Stuart Hall was so wary of ‘economic determinism’ that he was unwilling to draw the really radical conclusions that flowed logically from his own economic argument, namely that (a) the shift to the ‘social-cultural’ had itself been determined by the changes in the ‘economic’ and (b) that ‘the terrain of battle’ had moved ‘from the economic to the political, from the base to the superstructure’, thanks precisely to the specificities of ‘post-Fordist technologies and processes of production. The point is well taken, but I would probably want to disagree with a part of it. Sivanandan shares, in my view, far too much of Hall’s ‘economic’ explanation, while disagreeing with him very fundamentally on some other counts: (1) Hall’s refusal to draw conclusions for his ‘social-cultural’ argument from his own ‘economic’ one; (2) Hall’s endorsement of what would become the stock themes of post-Marxism and his absurd celebrations of shopping, consumerism, etc.; (3) the extremity and even elitism of Hall’s politics of the semiotic and the symbolic; (4) Hall’s prescription, in effect, that

Labour could recover lost ground only by taking all the steps of Thatcherism and more; and, finally, in consequence of the whole structure of this argument, (5) the disappearance from it of that one-third of Britain – the immigrant, the poorest of the poor whites – who should have been, as Sivanandan points out, ‘socialism’s first constituency.’

Much of this criticism of Hall is wholly impeccable and I shall return to those points presently. But two disagreements with Sivanandan I should also register, precisely at the point where he seems largely to agree with Hall. The more substantive has to do with the ‘economic’ itself. The methodological flaw seems to be that there is, on the one hand, an attempt to offer an account of the present ‘conjuncture’ in the history of capitalism as such – an account which can now only be a global account and must therefore base itself on the structures of very uneven development on the global scale, in which the story of ‘flexible production’ in some areas can only be told in conjunction with the inflexibility of all the rest. And there is, on the other hand, without any proper transition from one level of analysis to another, an immediate preoccupation with British politics in the moment of Thatcherism. At the global level of this analysis, the news of ‘the emancipation of Capital from Labour’ is, in my view, greatly exaggerated. Let me put it this way:

India is not pre-capitalist but capitalist; most of the labour processes here are not post-Fordist but pre-Fordist; most of the profits here are made not through the deployment of dead labour but through super-exploitation of the living. As for the British end of things, the analysis is more plausible but the political conclusions that are drawn do not follow immediately, because the analysis occludes that very large part of the story which is itself neither techno-economic nor merely British. I will again put it telegraphically: the coming of the welfare state across western Europe – classical social democracy, reformed capitalism – had a lot to do with the palpable threat of working-class revolutions in the very centres of European capital; at a later stage, capital’s offensives for the liquidation or at least contraction of that type of state and civil society in that same region had just as much to do with the termination of that threat. Technological change facilitates, but it does not determine. The economic is surely the base, but the actual balance of force among contending classes and class forces, in any given ‘conjuncture’, is determined not merely by the economic but politically and historically.

Which brings me to my second point about Sivanandan’s objection to Hall’s argument, i.e., his view that Hall’s ‘economic’ argument (‘Brilliant, clear, to the point, exhaustive’, Sivanandan calls it, without irony I think) could have yielded very radical conclusions and much more substantive premises for his own social-cultural analysis but that hedoes not draw those conclusions because he is too wary of ‘economic determinism’. Now, that fear of ‘determinism’ may well be why Hall did not attempt to establish a causal relation between his ‘economic’ argument and the ‘social-cultural’ one. My own sense is that the exercise would have proved futile in any case. What Hall was refusing in that argument was not ‘economic determinism’ even in the last instance. going farther than Althusser, but any primacy of the ‘real’ itself, some what in the wake of Baudrillard’s ‘hyper-real’, etc. He could not possibly refer to real majorities, contemptuously, as ‘so-called real majorities’, nor speak so comfortably of ‘symbolic majorities’ as being primary for electoral processes, if he did not so radically question the primacy of the real’. The fundamental preoccupation here is not with the political economy of flexible production but with mediatic fabrication of the Society of the Spectacle. So radical a primacy of the semiotic can simply not be derived from an ‘economic’ explanation in any recognisable sense of that term. And that ‘one-third’ of British society which Sivanandan identified as the ‘first constituency of socialism’ tended to get very much out of focus because the focus here was more on the symbolic aura of things than on the real relations among persons.

The two strands of Hall’s argument remained causally and structurally separate because they belonged to two irreconcilable strands in Hall’s own intellectual frame. One of these strands belonged more to his own past as an activist within the ‘immigrant’ communities, a Marxist very much like Eric Hobsbawm, a cultural materialist in the mould of Raymond Williams – a past that, much to his credit, he has not been willing entirely to forego, as so many of his colleagues have. But, then, there was this later strand, derived from ‘the theoretical revolutions of the ’60s and ’70s – semiotics, structuralism, poststructuralism’, which made it difficult to make the journey back to that one-third of Britain which should have been socialism’s ‘first constituency’. Much of Hall’s later work is shaped by this unresolved tension.  

That I would have some reservation about Sivanandan’s assessment of the role of the ‘economic’ in that particular argument is a minor matter. And rehashing that earlier argument over Thatcherism and Labour’s transformation would now be of largely archival interest, even though Sivanandan had wonderfully trenchant things to say about it, and even though today’s New Labour has a curious kinship with yesterday’s New Times. What is of great, continuing significance about that argument is that it focuses our attention so vividly on the fact that cultural theory as it came to be refitted with ‘the theoretical revolutions of the ‘60s and 70s semiotics, structuralism, poststructuralism’ has served, in the hands even of some of the best of its practitioners, to press the political agenda of the academic Left in the direction of political pragmatism and, eventually, towards the neoliberal Right as it gets reborn in the shape of Blair’s New Labour in Britain and the Clintonite Democrats in the US. In the British context, and in the hands of the more forthright authors like Hall, the connection has been clearer, at least in the past, because there was still the intention to intervene in the conduct of actual politics, and one could not simply mystify one’s positions if one was also trying to speak programmatically. In other contexts and in other hands, where even that sense of responsibility is lacking (and it is lacking, in most cases, owing to the lack of any programmatical political involvement), that same connection has been more mystified. It is very hard to see, in either case, what there is in the post-Marxist, postmodernist, postcolonialist theories – in postivism generally – that could be systematically distinguished from very ordinary and very familiar kinds of liberalism and pragmatism, all the radicalism of the rhetoric notwithstanding.

In this larger context, then, what was distinctive about Sivanandan’s argument was that it addressed a large number of issues that were by no means restricted to Hall or even Marxism Today but are still with us, so that we shall do well to listen to those words yet again. On the broader issue of what have come to be known as the ‘new social movements’, for example, Sivanandan’s summary position, with its delicate balance of involved solidarity and critical interrogation, continues to have the same relevance that it did about a decade ago:

What is so profoundly socialist about these new social forces is that they raise issues about the quality of life (human worth, dignity genuine equality, the enlargement of the self) by virtue of their experiences as women, blacks, gays, etc, which the working-class movement has not just lost sight of but turned its face against. But if these issues are fought in terms of the specific, particular oppressions of women qua women, blacks qua blacks and so on, without being opened out to and informed by other oppressions, they lose their claim to that universality which was their particular contribution to socialism in the first place. And they, further, fall into the error of a new sectarianism…which pulls rank, this time, on the basis not of belief but of suffering. It is not enough to ask what it is that the new social forces bring to the socialist movement without also asking what it is within these movements that could be corrupting of socialism.

It is not clear how each social force, constituted by a specific form of oppression or social ill (the gay movement, the environmentalists), is to be ‘opened out’ to other such forces (transitory, issue-by-issue, day-by day coalitions? some more durable form of collectivity?), but what is remarkable is this conception of the struggle for socialism as a broadchurch (a ‘universality’) in which there are no privileged sufferers or natural leaders, and in which every struggle over the quality of life objectively contributes to the struggle for socialism, even though many of the actual participants in those struggles may not consciously think so. The democratisation of the culture of resistance that this vision associates with the plurality of transforming agents can be fruitfully contrasted with the argument of the New Timers that widening networks of consumption, life-style choices and shopping signify the deeply democratising spirit of popular culture and of capitalism itself. This issue of consumption reconceived as liberation comes up a bit later in Sivanandan’s own argument

‘have we become so bewitched’, asks Stuart Hall, ‘by who, in the short run, reaps the profits from these transactions and missed the deep democratisation of culture which is also a part of their hidden agenda? Can a socialism of the twenty-first century revive, or even survive, which is wholly cut off from the landscapes of popular pleasures?’ 

And Sivanandan retorts:

“Should we become so bewitched by ‘the deep democratisation of culture’ that we miss out on those who reap the profits from *these transactions’? How do you gauge democratisation – by its spread or the spread of effective choice – and how deep is it that it deprives a third of the population of such choice?… In an age of ‘designer capitalism’, as Robin Murray terms it, who ‘shapes’ our lifestyles? Who still sells us the ideas that sell us the things that we buy? Who lays out for us ‘the landscapes of popular pleasures”? 

One would have thought that it was the gratification gained through consumption that could be associated with the immediate moment and therefore the ‘short run’, whereas ‘profits’ were intrinsically a part of the more enduring structures of the expanded reproduction of capital itself. And it is hard to see how ‘deep democratisation’ is actually part of the ‘agenda’, ‘hidden’ or not, of the profiteers, as Hall claims. He reverses the real logic of the short and the long run and credits the profiteers with a nobler ‘agenda’ – which can only mean ‘conscious pursuit- than could plausibly be the case. Nor is it clear what ‘democratisation’ in Hall’s view actually means. Ordinarily, ‘democratisation’ would be associated with equality, but not only is one-third of the population simply barred from effective demand in the market-regulated consumption within Britain itself, as Sivanandan points out, but access to consumption is hierarchically structured for all the rest as well. Some get Cadillacs, others make do with shampoos and ice creams. Marx once said that the formal equality of individuals in liberal doctrine reflects the fact that the exchange of commodities in the market is organised in a language of equivalence. It is probably this kind of ‘equivalence’ that Hall here mistakes for ‘deep democratisation. In all these emphases, and in assigning such higher ends to these ‘transactions’ in the market, Hall merely repeats one of the stock ideological claims of capitalist liberalism: that the market itself is the real agent and guarantor of ‘deep democratisation’.

Marx had once thought that no “landscape of popular pleasures could actually be organised in any authentic sense until labouring humanity, the popular masses, regained control over the means and processes of production, whereas those who were alienated in the very process of their productive activity would, for the most part, enjoy even their leisure in ways that were deeply alienating. Now it transpires that lack of control over one’s own labour, including the products of that labour, can be overcome through ‘product choice’ for the purpose of consumption; the era of class struggle is said to be over, since the individual is now free to choose from a variety of goods and services. And so we return to the ‘individual’, the abstract universal of all liberal thought, as the supreme good and as the primary locus of all pleasure all resistance, all freedom. From here, then, there is a very short step to the ideology of ‘the personal is political.’

Sivanandan’s treatment of this theme is subtle and complex, so I will not try to summarise it. Two emphases can be recalled, however. One is that, as he put it, By personalising power, the “personal is the political” personalises the enemy.’ Taken to its logical consequence, this personalising of the enemy leads to a condition of permanent civil war in which every individual is pitted against a series of shifting individuals along lines of colour, gender, sexual preference, in an infinite number of personalised antagonisms, so that the structural basis of oppressions disappears from sight and the building of solidarities across these lines of personal antagonisms becomes impossible. By the same token moreover, liberation, too, becomes personalised and voluntaristic. Since it captures a particular moment in black politics so very vividly, and because it nevertheless makes a much larger, much more fundamental statement, the following needs to be recalled in full:

“The ‘personal is political’ has also had the effect of shifting the gravitational pull of black struggle from the community to the individual at a time when black was already breaking up into ethnics. It gave the individual an out not to take part in issues that affected the community: immigration raids, deportations, deaths in custody, racial violence…There was now another venue for politics: oneself… If, in addition, you ‘came out’ black, by wearing dreadlocks say, then you could be making several statements… Equally, you could make a statement, by just being ethnic, against Englishness, for instance; by being gay, against heterosexism; by being a woman, against male domination.. the individuals who could leave the black community to its problems and mind their own were those who were not directly affected by them: the emerging black middle class of functionaries and intellectuals… The flight of the intellectual, however, is not confined to the black community- that is a particular type of flight: new raw, immediately noticeable… It is part of a larger, smoother more sophisticated flight of Left intellectuals from class – a flight that was already intimated in the philosophical excursions of theoretical Marxism and the politics of Eurocommunism but found objective justification in ‘post-Fordism’. “

This is an extraordinary passage. It condenses several overlapping moments in the evolution of what eventually came to be called ‘identity politics. The moment of the multiplication of identities, in two quite different ways: the same individual could be black against white, woman against man, lesbian against ordained heterosexuality, even African against Arab, and so on; and multiplication also in the sense that every kind of oppression produced its own unique kind of sufferer, and the sufferer was fundamentally accountable only to those who shared in that identity; each identity produced, in other words, its own kind of free masonry. And the moment of fracture: the fracture of a black identity into numerous ethnic identities: it was no longer sufficient that you were collectively designated ‘black’ in a society permeated with white racism, nor that you were all immigrants from the various. colonies of the same colonising power; what mattered most now was that the Grenadian was not a Sri Lankan, a Sri Lankan not an Indian, an Indian not a ‘Paki’, a Gujarati not a Kashmiri and so on; all the units falling out of this fracture were then locked with each other in a deadly embrace of either pure competition or, at best, collaborative competition. The moment of a malleable subjectivity, in which one’s politics was related fundamentally not to collectives and solidarities but to one’s own interiority which was then free to express itself in public in terms of one’s own choosing: dashiki, jeans, dreadlocks, business suits, shaved head; all the stigmata of dress codes to make oneself believe that the self was free because it could be remade, over and over again, in a spectacular politics of appearances. Finally, the moment of double-faced narcissism: one picked up a collective identity from a shopping list of identities, white, black, gay, woman, what have you; but the life-style version of the ‘personal is political’ meant that the main business of even this shared identity was not that of mutual responsibility but of self-fashioning; you needed a socially recognisable identity so that you could be self-identical in your own unique way, and being gay, for instance, was fundamentally a self-expression.

But then, towards the end of the passage, there are three other emphases. One is that this kind of flight from collectivity into self fashioning was a privilege of a very special kind, available only to the emerging middle-class black functionaries and intellectuals; this emphasis actually takes us back to the essay of 1976 with which I began this piece and which was focused on the black experience in Britain. Here, in this riposte to New Times, the issues are wider. So, a distinction is immediately made: the black intellectual is not the only one given to such flights but is only more noticeable because, as a black person making this decision in the midst of a white society, the decision produces a different kind of raw pain, visibility and solitude. In the larger scheme of things this is part of a larger…flight…of Left intellectuals from class’ that remains, in the case of white intellectuals, ‘smoother’ because it is performed with the confidence that one is in one’s own inherited world and merely shifting from one location to another, as one might change one’s postal address. If Eurocommunism had paved the way for a ‘historic compromise’ between historically antithetical positions, the ideology of ‘flexible production’ was now to facilitate flexible and shifting political locations for individuals whose identities, too, had become fluid. That is so because: ‘From then saying “farewell to the working class” to electing themselves the new agents of change in New Times was but a short and logical step.’

That final step has been crucial, not just in the personal biographies of the New Times ideologues but in the making of collective narcissism of the academic Left much more generally, on both sides of the Atlantic. If the working classes and communities had only been left behind but left in their own way intact, the intellectual could always be asked, wherever he/she landed after the flight’, just what his/her relationship now was with that which was left behind but which was still very much there. In order to pre-empt even the possibility of such interrogation, it was necessary to invent a whole sophisticated theory of the disappearance of classes and communities as stable, identifiable, unmelting entities; the flight of the intellectual could make him or her free only if the world itself was now represented as pure flux. As it turned out, that ‘farewell to the working class’ was not a leave-taking on the eve of one’s own departure but something of a funeral oration after which the ancestor could be buried so that one was then free to become the head of household.

Out of such jubilant orations was postcolonial theory at length born. Little did Sivanandan know in 1990 how quickly, in the hands of an immigrant elite, New Times would become simply Postcolonial and declare itself a timeless Sublime.