Australian Journal of Cultural Studies
Vol. 1 No. 2, December 1983

Marxist cultural politics: in search of "the popular"

Tony Bennett

What was popular yesterday is not today, for the people today, are not what they were yesterday (Brecht, 1974: 51).

Moreover, Brecht warned, it is precisely because Marxists so 'emphatically need the concept popular' that they must be cautious in their handling of it (p.49). Its history can in no way be overlooked, for the 'history of the many deceptions which have been practised with this concept of the people is a long and complicated one--a history of class struggles'(ibid.). In order to use the concept of the popular productively, Brecht goes on, it is necessary to oppose the 'ahistorical, static, undevelopmental stamp' it has assumed (p.50) particularly in those 'so-called poetical forms' which 'endow the people with unchanging characteristics, hallowed traditions, art forms, habits and customs, religiosity, hereditary enemies, invincible power and so on'(p.49). Finally, he concludes, in relation to the tasks of literature, it is not enough for it to be popular; 'there is also the process of becoming popular'(p.53), of keeping step with the changing practices and constitution of 'the people'.

Bearing these remarks of Brecht's in mind--directed, it is important to remember, as much against left-wing as against right-wing romanticisations of 'the people'--my purpose in this paper is to review some of the available Marxist constructions of 'the people' and 'the popular' with a view to critically interrogating the forms of cultural politics they have formed a part of and, to some degree, helped to produce. Not merely or even mainly for reasons of abstract theoretical interest, however: the topic is of the utmost and most urgent political significance. Although we might, in 1983, the centenary of Marx's death, congratulate ourselves on the continued health and vigour of Marxist theory, it is also true to say that the prospect of significant socialist advances within, let alone transformations of, advanced capitalist states has never seemed less imminent. We've been living, over the past decade, through another of those 'terminal crises of capitalism', albeit a seemingly interminable one with not a chink of a 'revolutionary rupture' discernible at the end of the tunnel. The recession has been as deep--indeed, in some respects and in some sectors of international capitalism, deeper than that of the 1930s, and as long-lasting. Yet the most discernible political effects of the crisis have been not a drift but a gallop to the right--Thatcherism in Britain, Reaganism in America and, until recently, Fraserism in Australia (now, like France and Italy, an encouraging exception to the general trend). Further, in view of Thatcher's victory (and there's no disguising that that's what it was) in the June election, it would seem that, at least in Britain, our possible futures are limited to either the continued domination of the radical right or to a slow but steady trickle to the newly constructed middle ground of the Social Democratic/Liberal Alliance.

For the left, the prospects are bleak indeed. Communist groups, except for periodic surges of influence in the spheres of extra parliamentary action they are themselves able to constitute (usually local and restricted in scope, except for the People's March for Jobs), seem destined to remain an insignificant force within the field of electoral politics. As for the Labour Party, the patterns of alliance which have sustained it as a viable electoral force are visibly crumbling. Even more depressing, given Neil Kinnock's election to the position of party leader (not that the other candidates were more attractive), the Labour party--in looking once again to a man from 'the valleys' (as if the last two hadn't done damage enough!)--seems destined not to see the writing on the wall; it's more than possible that it might shunt itself into a historical cul-de-sac in resting on the laurels of its support in the traditional, but now ravaged, never-to be-resurrected working class communities built up around the old (and now virtually dead) staple industries.

Nor are there any signs that a Phoenix might emerge from the ashes, at least not for some time to come. The most, the very most that's likely to be on offer in the vision of Labourism likely to prevail in the short to medium term future is a return to the past, to the days of the Welfare State, conjured up, in retrospect, as the veritable image of a socialist utopia. There can be no question, at the moment, given the prevailing balance of forces and the leadership likely to be forthcoming from the Labour Party, of putting on the historical agenda socialist goals which go beyond the retrieval of that which has already been lost (although the need to do so is pressing) for there is no social or political force capable of embodying, let alone implementing, a broader vision. There is a danger, under these circumstances, that socialism--if it allows itself to be so hemmed in by opposing ideological forces that it restricts itself to undertaking a rearguard action, struggling to reverse the flow of history (and we all know how 'old-fashioned' that can be made to appear) rather than to advance it--will be unable to function as a positive image of the future capable of mobilising 'the people'. This is an entirely new set of conditions for ideological struggle whose effects have yet to be seriously calculated. If there was ever a time for a radical stock taking, that time is now.

The struggle for 'the popular'

All of this is as clear a testimony as one could want that economic crises do not entail any necessary political effects. The ascendancy of the right is due in no small measure to its commanding prese in the sphere of ideology, controlling the terms in which, thro the shaping of experience and consciousness, economic developments gain an effectivity within the political sphere. Whilst it cannot m~ the left in terms of the sophistication of its theoretical understanding of ideology and ideological processes, the right has proved more adept at manipulating those processes practically, shaping them to its own advantage. Absolutely critical in this respect has been right's control over and command of definitions of 'the popular', its ability to define who 'the people' are and to construct the terms on which they can be mobilized. In this, the struggle for a national-popular, the right in Britain has won--I don't mean forever, certainly for the moment--and won hands down. No amount of a renaissance in Marxist theory can disguise or compensate for fact that socialism is unpopular, not just with the electorate in general but with vast sections of the working classes. The composition of the vote in the June election makes this clear: apart from being abandoned by vast masses of the non-commercial middle classes--a traditionally solid part of the Labour vote--the Labour party its share of the vote of skilled workers whittled away from 44% 1979 to 32% (38% voting Tory), whilst only managing to retain 44% of the vote of semi- and unskilled manual workers, and this from the most solid of all bases of the Labour vote (1).

Nor is socialism, at least in the form presented to the British electorate, any longer the automatic rallying point for the struggle of other oppressed groups and strata--women, youth and blacks, for example. Not even for the unemployed: less than half of those registered as unemployed voted for Labour. This is not to say that socialism has been displaced by a rival centre of articulation--there is no other ideology or set of beliefs which has taken its place, or which one can imagine doing so--but simply that such groups have, to a degree, ceased to rally or even to be 'rallyable' to socialism, preferring to go their own way or, more alarmingly, to opt out of the political process altogether: nearly half of the unemployed aged between 18 and 22 didn't vote in the June election. Summarising her analysis of the composition of the Labour vote, Doreen Massey concludes that 'Labour has not established itself as the party of any sectors of society which are based in the growth parts of economy,' prophesying that it 'could become increasingly the party of more marginal, less skilled and more oppressed groups' (Massey, 1983:17). More than one Marxist, faced with these developments has had cause to speculate whether, as an ideology capable mobilising a broad alliance of popular forces, socialism might not have had its day.

The urgency of the situation has been nowhere so clearly or so forcibly argued as in a series of articles in Marxism Today and New Socialist in which Stuart Hall has cajoled and entreated the left to mend its ways, warning of the glacial times ahead if it fails to do so (2). Written prior to and in the aftermath of the Falklands Crisis, and in the run-up to the June election, these articles repeatedly stress the qualitatively new departure which Thatcherism represents in British politics, the respects in which it has entirely transformed the political-ideological terrain and the need for radically new strategies to be developed if 'the moving right show' is ta be halted let alone sent packing. Hall is emphatic on the reasons for Thatcherism's ascendancy. 'Mrs Thatcher', he writes, 'has won the battle for hearts and minds', and has done so by creating 'a new kind of popular common sense, in which the market, the private, possessive, competitive "man" (sic) are the only ways to measure the future' (Hall, 1983:9-10). Above all, Hall stresses the global character of the initiative represented by Thatcherism:

It means to promulgate not just a new set of policies but a new ethic, to construct a new form of 'commonsense'. It has a model for every feature and aspect of social relationships: it has a 'philosophy' as well as a programme. This hegemonic character to its intervention is something profoundly new, in terms of the radical breaks which it is prepared to make with the whole inherited baggage of assumptions and attitudes (Hall, 1980:26).

Equally important, Hall argues that Thatcherism cannot be assessed solely in terms of its own positive achievements; the destruction it has wrought in relation to socialism--in its current and available forms--has also to be reckoned with. Not only has it penetrated the heartland of Labour's support electorally; it has centrally confronted socialist ideology, breaking it down into its constituent elements and re-articulating them, making them unpopular--not just superficially, but deeply and organically so--by stitching them into a chain of negative associations: The second prong of the strategy is to disconnect, in the popular mind, the word 'public' from an association with anything that is good or positive, and to harness it instead to a chain of negative associations, which automatically connect it with everything that is nasty, brutish, squalid and bureaucratic: and to exalt, in its place, the private market as the sole criterion of The Good Life (Hall, 1983:10).

If Thatcherism has thus been able to construct 'the people' in a relationship of opposition toward socialism, and to recruit popular support for this construction, this is in good measure, Hall argues, because it has been able to work on real contradictions in popular experience; because, ultimately, socialism--again in its current and available form (a social-democratic statism)--has been deeply anti popular. He also argues that, whatever its virtues in other respects, the corporate culture of the traditional working class which has constituted Labour's most secure base and determined its rhetorical ethos is essentially non-hegemonic, incapable of assuming a national-popular leadership because incapable of accommodating the interests of groups or classes organized around different cultural values, and notoriously inhospitable to women in its 'familial and masculinist assumptions' (Hall, 1980:27). All this means that there can be 'no simple "going back", no return to base 1' (Hall, 1980:27). It is rather necessary, Hall argues, to recognize, first, that the structure of the working class is in the process of being decisively and lastingly altered with the consequence that, in the sphere of class relations, the critical task 'is ultimately the politics of constructing the unity of a class --and in a recognisably present and modern, not simply historical, form' (Hall, 1982:19). But even this would not be nearly enough:

But the unity of the class--even if it could be brought about--could not in and of itself be nearly sufficient. For ... the intervention of the radical Right is a global one. It has effectively condensed under its slogans and banners a variety of real antagonisms which do not have an immediate class character; and it seeks to neutralize a whole number of deep social struggles which have a fundamentally democratic character and are deeply defined and over-determined by class relations, but which are not reducible to them. Unless, in the course of resistance to Thatcherism, we can constitute a pole of popular struggle, which increasingly wins over into an effective alliance the constituencies which are the key subjects of these other forms of struggle, the struggle against Thatcherism will lack precisely that popular character, capable of challenging the hegemonic offensive which it represents. But the left has little real knowledge of, or indeed much stomach for, the hard politics of constructing, not merely temporary 'associations' of an opportunistic kind, but real and durable historical alliances, or of building up a genuinely popular democratic social force. For such alliances, if they are not mere window dressing, will re quire the profound transformation of all the forces which are pull ed together in this way (Hall, 1980:28).

It is for these reasons, then, that to pose today the problems of 'the people' and 'the popular' is by no means to engage in idle theoretical rumination. Nor are the problems definitional ones, as if who 'the people' are and what 'the popular' is could be specified abstractly, held in place as valid for all time. They are, above all, practical problems: the key issue is that of making 'the people'-- of determining where and how a multiplicity of struggles may be grouped into a broadly based popular alliance--who, moreover, may not be recognisably the same or stand in the same place as 'the people' stood yesterday. As Hall has argued elsewhere:

'The people' are not always back there, where they have always been, their culture untouched, their liberties and their instincts intact, still struggling on against the Norman yoke or whatever: as if, if only we can 'discover' them and bring them back on stage, they will always stand up in the right, appointed place and be counted. The capacity to constitute classes and individuals as a popular force--that is the nature of political and cultural struggle; to make the divided classes and the separated peoples--divided and separated by culture as much as by other factors--into a popular-democratic cultural force (Hall, 1981:239).

To pose the problem of 'the people', however, is also to pose the problem of the nation as the imaginary (but nonetheless real) site on which the struggle for the production and unification of 'the people' takes place. It is thus no accident that the problem of the nation, from being one of the most neglected areas in Marxist debate ('The theory of nationalism represents Marxism's greatest historical failure,' Tom Nairn argued back in 1975)(p.3), should recently have come to occupy the forefront of attention, both theoretically and politically (3). This shift is nowhere more clearly traceable than in the work of Poulantzas. For the Poulantzas of Fascism and Dictatorship, nationalism is paradigmatically bourgeois and is thus, as Ernesto Laclau has observed 'not susceptible to transformation in a socialist direction' (Laclau, 1977:97). For the Poulantzas of State Power-Socialism, by contrast 'only a national transition to socialism is possible'(Poulantzas, 1978:i 18). More locally, if also more directly, nothing has thrust the nation so prominently to the forefront of political concern in Britain as the Falklands Crisis, a testimony to the ability of the Tory Party to reap a late and unexpected political harvest from the seeds of the deeply conservative nationalism sown in the hey-day of British imperialism.

There has also been an increasing realization that, if the nation is the site of the struggle for the construction of 'the people', the past--or the forms in which it is represented--supplies one of the chief means by which that struggle is conducted. In one of the most cogent and urgently argued immediate responses to the Falklands Crisis, Robert Gray thus insisted that the 'association of national identity with the Right is ...a product of history, not a law of nature,' and went on to argue that the 'project of re-defining the essential interests of the nation around the working class could pro vide a missing centre for the political programme of the Left'(Gray, 1982:23 and 27). Nor has his clarion-call gone unheeded: Eric Hobsbawm and Christopher Hill have both entered the lists, reviewing those aspects and periods of British history--the 17th century Revolution, Wilke's campaigns in defence of liberty, the struggle for reform in the early 19th century--when patriotism was articulated to progressive popular causes (see Hobsbawm, 1983, and Hill, 1983). The fervour with which the struggle for the past has thus been joined calls to mind Benjamin's remarks concerning the organization of a 'properly historical' sense of history:

To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it 'the way it really was' (Ranke). It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger ... The danger affects both the content of the tradition and its receivers. The same threat hangs over both: that of becoming a tool of the ruling classes ... Only that historian will have the gift of fanning the spark of hope in the past who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious (Benjamin, 1970:257).

Whilst this orientation is to be welcomed, such attempts to 'rescue the nation for the left' are nonetheless fraught with difficulties. There is no simple discursive trick by means of which 'people' and 'nation' can be slid over to the left purely by conjoining the two as terms within a progressive discourse. Patrick Wright alludes to these difficulties in his probing discussion of the underbelly of issues implicated in the 'public outcry'--orchestrated by the popular press --which greeted Michael Foot's alleged desecration of the solemnities of Remembrance Day in 1981 (he wore what was variously described as a donkey-jacket or a duffle-coat when laying his wreath at the Cenotaph). The occasion, and its representation, was, Wright argues, a reminder that there is 'no neutral ground' on which left and right wing articulations of history and tradition, of the nation's past and its present, 'might achieve visibility in order to compete' (Wright, forthcoming: 44). The struggle for the nation--for the representation of its past in the name of which its present and possible future trajectories might be constructed--is unequally structured in the sense that it takes place on a domain that is organized, structured-in-dominance, by the privileged weight that is always already given to right-wing articulations of the nation's past and its present through the operation of state institutions and state rituals. The past is, Wright reminds us, not just a set of contesting representations. Rather, it achieves its fullest expression as 'an established public institution, with all the historical materiality which that last word implies;' it is a product of the 'public sphere' in Habermas's sense (4).

Furthermore, socialist constructions of the relations between people and nation are discursively more complex, more tricky, than those of the right. This is because ultimately, as Poulantzas argues, the nation is the site of a struggle for unity, for the discursive production of a 'we'. As Wright remarks:

The 'nation' forms the primary perspective of the 'national past', which postulates a collective subject: it presents the 'nation' as the place and state in which 'we' live. In this sense the 'national past' can be thought of as a controlling attribute of citizenship: something that at a generalized level enables citizens to find a unity (as contemporary racism shows all too clearly out groups are produced in this process) between themselves and to override unresolved socio-political contradictions and differences. It occupies the public stage as 'ours', not just the possession and right of a few (p.50).

The problem which faces would-be socialist articulations of the relations between 'people' and 'nation' is that they must first construct a disunity before they can construct a unity--a unity which can, in any case, only be anticipatory; in order to mobilize 'the people' against the ruling bloc, such articulations must construct 'the people' against prevailing forms of the nation and its representations in order that they might be made to stand for the nation in its ideal future form. They must thus construct not simply an inclusive 'we', but a 'we' constructed in a relationship of antagonism towards a 'them'. The right has no need of such subtle dialectics. It simply constructs a unity, organizes an inclusiveness--a people which is 'for itself' rather than against a 'them'--and interprets those who will not conform to its requirements as, in one way or another, recalcitrant subjects who, ultimately, do not deserve to belong to that from which they have voluntarily excluded themselves. In short, as Laclau has argued, socialist-democratic interpellations of 'the people' require the discursive production of relations of antagonism, whereas the right needs merely to organize we/them relations as relations of difference--or to construct 'the people' against an external foe, one unity versus another, rather than as a unity within a disunity (Laclau, 1980).

A more particular reason for Wright's apprehensions concerning the possibilities of 'a socialist articulation of history capable of negotiating the past on any but the most disastrous terms' consists in his estimation of the re-organization of the relations between past and present effected by Thatcherism. In Britain, the discourse of the nation embodied in the public sphere--in the organization of the National Heritage, for example--has, Wright argues, typically constituted history as a gradualist, cumulative, continuous and, above all, finished process:

Historical development is here conceived as a cumulative process which has delivered the nation into the present as its manifest accomplishment. Both celebratory and complacent, it produces a sense that 'we ' are the achievement of history and that while the past is thus present as our right it is also something that our narcissism will encourage us to visit, exhibit, write up and discuss (Wright, forthcoming: 51).

By contrast, Wright argues, the principle which organizes Thatcherist discourse--commensurate with its task of accomplishing a historic break, of inaugurating a new history rather than completing an old one--is that of discontinuity, with the past being cast in the mould of 'a junkyard cluttered with antiquated apparatuses which persist in the present either as pathetic relics or as more demonic engines of social inertia and stress' (p.54) (trade unions, for example, along with the 'wets') from which 'we' (the royal, Thatcherist 'we') are struggling to break free. In this respect, any mere renewal of traditional Labourist versions of the past--the nostalgic recollection of earlier struggles--fatally ignores the ways in which the struggle for the past has been radically reconstituted:

That this way of gesturing with past resonances works is not in doubt: it works to the extent that it provides some sense of coherence and identity, a vocabulary and some sort of public pro file for those already embarked on the forward march. But there is surely now overwhelming evidence to suggest that the labour movement is only achieving this focus of its faithful by alienating an increasingly large number of people for whom all this reeks of 'history' in the worst publicly sustained sense of the word-- the 'past' as that swamp from which 'we' moderns are struggling to escape (p.58).

If confirmation of this were wanted, the June election provided it. Robert Gray, in support of his view that the Conservatives have no monopoly on patriotism, argued that the socialists could do worse than to look to 1945 as 'the moment when the Labour movement and the Left came closest to undermining their opponents' claim to speak for the higher interests of the nation as a whole' (Gray, 1982:26). This is precisely what the Labour leadership--especially Foot--did in the June election, with consequences that were, in fact, disastrous. This was not the past which 'the people', in any majoritarian sense, wished to be reminded of or led back to, and their vote was a decisive rejection of it. Any political force which seeks to lead the British people forward via that particular backward route is doomed and deserves to become an anachronism.

None of this is to suggest that the past can be abandoned as a field of struggle for the 'national-popular'. What it is to suggest is that such struggles must themselves be able to learn from the past by drawing the consequences of the successes and failures of similar, earlier endeavours. It is also to suggest that such struggles need to be informed by a clear and careful calculation of the social forces in the present which are held to constitute the basis for a popular democratic interpellation--for being 'called into' the place of 'the people' versus the power bloc--since, without this, it is not possible to determine whose history is to be struggled for, or for whom or how to write it.

More of this later. Meanwhile, I want to connect these remarks to a consideration of the functioning of the categories of 'the people' and 'the popular' in certain regions of Marxist cultural and aesthetic theory. In his extremely important criticism of the view that ideologies have an essential class-belongingness, Ernesto Laclau argues that such criticisms enormously expand the arena of class struggle since they open up 'the possibility of integrating into a revolutionary and socialist ideological discourse, a multitude of elements and interpellations which have up to now appeared constitutive of bourgeois ideological discourse' (Laclau, 1977:110). Whilst that's true, I suspect that many such 'elements' are a good deal more gluey and tacky than Laclau suggests; they cannot be prised away from bourgeois discourse simply by an act of discursive will. Indeed, it is mainly for this reason that many Marxists have been reluctant to embrace the concept of 'the people' (initially the product of liberal and nationalist discourses) (5), or have done so only gingerly and, even then, only and entirely on another domain: roughly, that of the proletarianization of the concept of 'the people' in which people and working class are definitionally equated. The consequences of this for the ways in which 'the popular' has been conceived and constituted as an area of struggle within (certain tendencies of) Marxism have, I want to suggest, been in part responsible for its manifest unpopularity. 'What was popular yesterday,' to remind ourselves of Brecht, 'is not today, for the people today are not what they were yesterday.' This suggests that our sense of 'the people' and, equally important, of who is to count as belonging to 'the people' must also change if strategies are to be developed that will be appropriate to--and contribute to--their changing configuration. Rather than providing this, Marxist constructions of 'the popular'--not exclusively, but to a degree that is sufficient cause for concern--have displayed two opposing yet complementary tendencies. On the one hand, to borrow (cautiously) from McLuhan, Marxist constructions of 'the popular' have exhibited an alarming degree of 'rear-view mirrorism', walking backwards into the future by rediscovering historically superseded forms of 'the popular' and offering these as a guide for action in the present. Counterbalancing these have been tendencies toward an 'ideal futurism' in which the only version of 'the people' that matters is one that has yet to be constructed: the ideally unified people of a projected socialist future. Frequently, in historicist formulations, the two are combined; an idealized people of the future is conceived as standing in a relationship of Aufhebung to an idealized people of the past, cancelling out the limitations of earlier forms of 'the people' whilst simultaneously preserving their positive qualities, but at a higher level of historical development. Either way, 'the people', in their recognisably actual and current forms, have been found wanting, theorized as a field of negativity, a fall from what they once were and might yet be, with political consequences I now want to examine.

Marxist constructions of 'the popular'

I can perhaps best begin with an exemplary tale. The editorial to the first issue of New Left Review in 1960 declared:

The purpose of discussing cinema or teen-age culture in NLR is not to show, in some modish way, that we are keeping up with the times. These are directly relevant to the imaginative resistances of the people who have to live within capitalism--the growing points of social discontent, the projection of deeply-felt needs. ... The task of socialism today is to meet people where they are, where they are touched, bitten, moved, frustrated, nauseated--to develop discontent and, at the same time, to give the socialist movement some direct sense of the time and ways in which we live (p.1).

That strikes me as exactly right. The first fruit of this concern with popular culture, however, was an essay by B. Groombridge and P. Whannel in which the following assessment of rock 'n' roll, of Tony Hancock's popularity and of Stanley Matthews' status as a popular hero was offered:

There is nothing wrong with this kind of entertainment so long as it is not our sole diet. Provided also that we do not make large claims for it. Rock 'n' Roll is a splendid outlet--it should not be something to 'believe in ' (Groombridge and Whannel, 1960: 53-4).

The contradiction is symptomatic of the period or, more accurately, of the period immediately prior to the 1960s. In a commanding essay on the subject, Bill Schwarz has admirably pin-pointed both the strengths and weaknesses of the theorisations of 'the popular' and 'the people' in the work of British communist historians in the 1950s. Whilst applauding their attempts to re-possess the past so as to discover an authentic radical popular tradition--the tradition of the Free Born Englishman--which might provide a historical support for the construction of a specifically national popular politics, Schwarz notes the limitations of this approach:

... it tended to turn attention severely away from contemporary cultures precisely because the reorganised structures of popular culture in the twentieth century--condensed around suspicions of Americanization (Hollywood and pulp fiction)--appeared as a barrier and impediment to this retrieval. The heroic culture of the past was seen as struggling against the contemporary cultural forms of the working class, the past against the present (Schwarz, 1982:74).

'The people of the past versus the people of the present:' it was as a consequence of this construction, Schwarz argues, that the communist historians of the period failed to produce any sustained analysis of their own political/cultural conjuncture. To the degree that the noble and heroic tradition of the Free Born Englishman found a distinct lack of confirmation in the grubbily material struggles of the working classes in the 1950s, so what was intended as a historical aid to contemporary political analysis became a blockage to it. In effect, the radical popular tradition 'rediscovered' by Thompson and Hill, for example, rather than being one that could be convincingly represented as leading to and connecting with the present, came to function as a standard with which to berate it. In the 1950s, as a consequence, the people--the real active living people the historians made so much of in their excavations of the past --were nothing so much as a disappointment in their failure to live up to the standards which had been constructed for them. But, as Schwarz notes: 'The past is not a yardstick by which to measure the present'(p.81). Nor, one might add, is it a stick with which to beat it. 'This means,' he goes on, 'that not only the successes of the past democratic struggles need to be taken into account, but also their failures and the historic process by which popular cultures have been rendered subordinated'(p.81). It also means looking for elements of positivity within present popular cultural forms and practices. Other wise, there is no means by which either the successes or failures of past struggles can be made to connect productively with those of the present. The discovery of continuities between past and present is not worth the candle if it results in discontinuities being conceived moralistically or being represented in the form of a fall, a failure or a lack on the part of 'the people' today.

This neglect of their contemporary popular culture by communist historians entailed the virtual surrender of the terms of debate in this area to left-inflected versions of conservatively inclined traditions of criticism: to the mass culture critique, in its peculiarly English variants, routed from Arnold via Leavis to achieve its most influential 'leftish' condensation in Richard Hoggart's The Uses of Literacy. Within this tradition, popular culture and, with it, 'the people' in any recognisably contemporary form, existed only in order to be condemned, to be found wanting on moral, aesthetic and--although this more sotto voce--political grounds also (Hoggart feared, following a long line of conservative critics, that the people's culture ill equipped them for their role as citizens within a democracy). Americanization--which subsequent critics have learned to value more positively as embodying a productive irritant, exerting a certain power of attrition in relation to the forms of ruling class hegemony which had traditionally prevailed in Britain (cf. Hebdige, 1982)--was particularly likely to be singled out as the villain of the piece: an external agent implanted within and corroding the earlier, sturdier--if also, in Hoggart's account--slightly flatulent forms of the people's culture. Reproved by conservative critics for having sacrificed the standards of 'true culture' for grossly inferior, sub-standard products, 'the people' found that they were cast in the terms of an equally disapproving discourse on the left, taken to task for having sold their birthright for a mess of pottage.

It's small wonder that socialist cultural discourse became progressively marginalized during this period. It marginalized itself. It typically addressed only those who, by definition, were not of 'the people'--those who were not contaminated by the cheap and trashy burgeoning world of popular culture, only those who 'knew better' or who had a bit of 'real culture' under their belts--in order to speak disapprovingly and regretfully about those who were. True, 'the people' were not held to be responsible for their own deterioration: the media, capitalist ideology and the like were clearly identified as the main culprits. However, such diagnostic subtleties make little difference to an addressee, 'the people', constructed as the repository of an unalloyed negativity, the innocent but also, by im plication, ignorant dupes of a capitalist conspiracy. It's small wonder that, subjected to such a hectoring discourse, people stopped listening. It's not possible to win the hearts and minds of the people if they are conceived as so hopelessly corrupted from the outset that no discursive space is created in which--not as some ideal construct, but in their available forms, necessarily as constituted in the midst of a capitalist culture--they can be spoken both of and to as other than simply objects to be reformed. If this does not hap pen, it will not be too surprising if popular impulses express themselves to one side of the terrain constituted by socialist discourses. This is precisely what happened in the 1960s when young people and, more particularly, women--hopelessly absent from socialist constructions of 'the people' at the time--moved into a variety of newly constructed cultural and discursive spaces (subcultural movements, the women's liberation movement, even the media construction of 'swinging Britain') in which positive forms of self-recognition and estimation could be produced. The im mediately post-war writings of the Communist Party Historians' Group exhibited another familiar tendency: that of representing the 'monumental' cultural and literary achievements of the past--the works of Shakespeare, Blake, Morris and the like--as embodying the true voice of 'the people' in their period; as, in effect, 'the people's' true cultural heritage, plundered from them by the bourgeoisie, and which it is therefore important to restore to them. In fact, this view was widespread not merely among historians but also among British Marxist critics from the 1930s through to the 1950s. In the writings of Ralph Fox, Aleck West, Christopher Caudwell and the classicist George Thompson, the view that works now revered as classics were the genuinely popular works of their age, the product of an intimate and creative union between artist and people, predominated (6). Nor was this particular construction of 'the people' and their creative role in cultural history limited to Britain. Indeed, it found perhaps its most consummate expression in the writings of Lukacs with consequences that are well worth examining. Although he disdained to examine contemporary forms of popular culture (except to condemn them as 'vulgar capitalist ideology'), a definite conception of 'the popular' informs Lukacs' writings on literature. His 'undisputed masterpieces of world literature' (Shakespeare, Goethe, Cervantes, etc.) are such, he argues, because of their close association with and dependency on the culture of 'the people' of their respective periods. In the more compromised reality of developed capitalism, where the more organic ties supposedly connecting 'the people' and literature in earlier periods have been severed, it is nonetheless via identification--conscious or un conscious--with progressive popular forces that the writer is able to achieve the heights of realism appropriate to his/her age. Cut that connection, and literature withers into formlessness, subjectivism, and so on. Yet in spite of the weight it thus carries in his account of cultural development, the culture of 'the people' never figures in its own right in Lukacs' work; nor is it ever assessed in terms of its consequences for 'the people' themselves. Creative only by proxy, 'the people' in Lukacs' writings are valued only to the degree to which they furnish the necessary supports on which 'great art' can thrive; their creativity is thus siphoned off from their own sphere of activity into that of high culture. Furthermore, once 'the people' becomes a proletariat, its creativity disappears entirely. It is only pre-capitalist or transitional-to-capitalist forms (Shakespeare, etc.) which reflect a close association with popular culture. In later epochs, popular culture is too compromised by capitalist ideology to fulfil this function. All that's available to writers in such periods is the abstraction of a proletarian world-view, not a living culture. In capitalism, for Lukacs, 'the people' have no culture, only a philosophy and--in the light of the distinction he proposed in History and Class Consciousness between the empirically given class consciousness of the proletariat and its rational or imputed class consciousness--not one they're necessarily aware of.

Equally important is the fact that, as well as functioning as the privileged, indeed unique representative of 'the people', Lukacs' proletariat is additionally saddled with the burden of philosophical totality. The 'universal class', it neither represents nor is able to lead anything so limited as a 'national popular'; operating not at a national level but at the world-historical level, it stands in for 'the people as a whole'--that is, for everyone, for humanity, for the internally unified, all-embracing, post-historical subject of Man. The 'imagined community', to borrow Benedict Anderson's happy phrase, of Lukacs' socialism is, ultimately, world-wide and trans-historical, en compassing all subjects--past, present and future--and subordinating them to the universal sway of a yet-to-be-achieved universal human subject produced in a relationship of direct and unmediated unity with itself (8).

Given the historicism of Lukacs' theory of cultural development, popular culture in capitalism is conceived as a triple fall--a fall from the healthy (but limited) popular culture of the past, a fall from the superior standards of bourgeois art (itself a fall from the healthier art, nourished from a direct contact with the people, of the past) and a fall from the future culture of socialism when popular culture and great art will fuse and when 'the people', in becoming universal, will recognize the art of the past as their own creation. This historicist consummation is vital to Lukacs' theory: it is the only means by which he is able to give his account of cultural development a popular edge. 'The people' who, in between time, create nothing, except by proxy, turn out, at the end of history, to have created everything. The trick is, of course, that 'the people' of whom Lukacs speaks in earlier periods are never the 'real people', warts and all, but always and entirely the anticipations, the understudies, of this post-historical ideal people.

Whilst this account of cultural development is largely unusable--it neither has nor could produce a popular cultural politics-- it is not entirely so. Its pertinence becomes clearer if viewed, not just conjecturally in terms of the politics of the Popular Front, but in the context of Lukacs' longer term theoretical, philosophical and political orientations. For the political perspective which backgrounds Lukacs' construction of 'the popular' can best be seen if that construction is, so to speak, turned on its head: the view of 'the people' as the necessary support for 'great art', that is to say, is rather less important than the consequence which follows from it--namely the construction of bourgeois culture as being, in its progressive phases, the bearer of popular currents. In this respect, Lukacs' proletariat, as the privileged representative of 'the people', functioned as an ideal, conceptual condensation of a number of cultural and philosophical possibilities intended for the bourgeois--always the implied reader in Lukacs' writings--as part of an attempt to in cline the progressive wings of the bourgeoisie towards socialism or, at least, against fascism. In constructing the progressive bourgeois cultural tradition as the product of a close union between popular and bourgeois aspirations and ideals, Lukacs' appeal was that the bourgeois--the best, the ideal bourgeois (himself, in fact)--should, at least passively, support socialism as the only means of realizing, in the Hegelian sense of making actual, the ideals enshrined in the high-points of the bourgeois humanist tradition. This is not to sup port this particular strategy, but it is worth stressing its activist nature: not a reflection of a pre-given popular but an attempt to construct one and one which would include elements of the bourgeoisie, turned against their class and towards an alliance with the proletariat for ideal cultural and philosophical reasons.

Nonetheless, it is as a set of abstracted formulations divorced from these specific political calculations that Lukacs' conceptions of the creative role of 'the people' have proved most influential and, in this respect, their influence has been almost entirely counter productive. Their negative consequences come home to roost most clearly in the gloomy prognostications of the Frankfurt School, to some degree obliged to adopt the perspective of negativity because the proletariat, in its empirical forms, had proved unworthy of the immense philosophical and cultural burdens Lukacs had placed on it. Marcuse, for example, in one of his later works, emphatically rejects the view that the proletariat can be deemed to represent the interests of 'the people' as a whole, let alone carry the burden of the philosophical demand for universality. Further, he argues, given that 'the proletariat is not the negation of the existing society, but to a large extent integrated into it,' there is 'no 'place among the people which the writer can simply take up and which awaits him' --a correct view which, however, inclines him to the opposite extreme in entertaining the possibility that revolutionary art may well have to become 'The Enemy of the People', constructed against them, in their given form, in order to be for them, but, again, in a purely ideal sense (cf. Marcuse, 1979: 30, 34 and 35). Either that or, as in some of his more modish writings, Marcuse was driven to look for glimmerings of positivity everywhere, seeking to constitute a new locus and source for popular and progressive currents in the interstices of the social structure.

However, I shall not dwell on these considerations. Nor do I want to paint too one-sided a picture. There are other tendencies than those I have outlined. Apart from Gramsci, there is Brecht who sought not merely to produce a new sense of 'the popular' as the site of a critical and speculative intelligence but to create a space for it within the very structure of his epic theatre. More recently, the work of Mikhail Bakhtin has proved influential, enabling a reconstruction of the popular tradition of carnival and of the potentially subversive effects of its echoes in later cultural forms, popular and 'high'. However, Terry Eagleton has rightly stressed the limitations of the carnival tradition--a licensed blow-out which may facilitate accommodation to the prevailing social order no matter how much it might rupture that order symbolically (Eagleton, 1981:148-9). In any case, the limitations of rummaging through the past for aspects of carnival whose mutated echoes can be made to be heard in the present are surely obvious. Much the same is true of Ernst Bloch. It's true that his work on folk and fairy tales has enabled some interesting contemporary work to be done, re-assessing such forms as the commercial cinema and television soap-opera in view of the degree to which their magical resolutions help to keep alive utopian impulses (9). Again, however, ransacking contemporary cultural forms for the elements of positivity they preserve from archaic ones is a limited basis for the development of political-cultural projects that will be orientated to and take account of the specifically distinguishing characteristics of contemporary popular culture and the modes of its production, distribution and consumption.

Important though these exceptions are, their overriding limitation is that--except for Gramsci and the Italian Communist Party-- they have scarcely ever impinged on the cultural policy formulations of major socialist parties, be they of the communist or labourist varieties, particularly in Britain (10). Here, the tendencies I sketched in earlier have predominated. Attention has concentrated either on constructing a radical and progressive past popular tradition in order that 'the people' today might learn and take heart from the struggles of their forebears, or on constructing 'the people' as the supports of 'great culture' so that they might eventually be led to appropriate that culture as their own. Either way, a similar orientation is produced. The struggle for 'the popular' is conceived as one of seeking to displace the current and actual forms of 'the people's' culture with a different content. In the case of the first tendency this is to be done by reviving the power of those elements which con tributed to the cultural formation of 'the people' in the past so that these might be set against and override those forces making for their deformation in the present. In the case of the second tendency, it is a matter of progressively leading 'the people' to replace their given culture with the 'real culture' of the bourgeois tradition, to be further developed at a higher level of historical self-consciousness in socialist society.

Whilst it's true, of course, that any socialist strategy must be centrally concerned to effect the cultural re-formation of 'the people', it's singularly inappropriate to seek to do so by taking issue with it as a whole: such a strategy would lack any means of productively interacting with that which it sought to change. Revolutionary art as 'an enemy of the people' is all very well but hopelessly inconsequential since it is, by definition, unable to connect with any social force capable of translating its truths into practice. It preserves the abstract possibility of being able to change everything at the price of being practically unable to change anything. As Brecht once remarked, it's no use just writing 'the truth'; one has 'to write it for and to somebody, somebody who can do something with it'(cited in Slater, 1977:141).

It's worth considering the second of the two tendencies outlined above in greater detail in the light of this remark. Influential not merely in Lukacs' writings, but the enshrining principle of Lenin's writings on culture, a strongly present theme in Trotsky's writings on the subject and of considerable importance in Lunacharsky's actions as the People's Commissar for Culture (see Fitzpatrick, 1970), its oddest characteristic, perhaps, is that it is, in some respects, Arnoldism in reverse: bringing the best that has been thought and known in the world to 'the people' as a means of effecting their liberation via self-knowledge rather than their subordination to a centre of cultural and political authority. Indeed, in the case of the Soviet Union in the 1930s, it assumed precisely this latter function --a sufficient warning of the dangers inherent in seeking to place socialist culture in the place previously occupied by bourgeois culture, as its heir, if doing so means taking over bourgeois cultural apparatuses without thoroughgoingly transforming them. However, I am more concerned with the logic of this tendency as applied to the conduct of cultural struggle within capitalist societies. Its influence in this respect has been particularly pronounced in the conceptions of cultural politics associated with the literary region of Marxist cultural theory. Here, theorisations of 'the literary'--usually in some way distinguished from ideology, either as an anthropomorphically organized rendition of or route to valid historical self-knowledge (Lukacs), or as a set of operations on ideology which waylay it into betraying its contradictions and repressive kernel (Althusser)--construe it as a constitutively critical and therefore potentially progressive practice if only, and the qualification is important, read 'in the right way'. According to such conceptions, the task of a political criticism is to lead 'the people' away from the texts they currently read (popular, mass or pulp fiction) and toward those which they don't ('literature') whilst, in the process, making the lat ter progressively readable. It's worth noting that the spheres of literature and, more generally, art, are the only regions of culture in which Marxist political calculations have taken this form. It has never been suggested, in other areas where culture has a clear class articulation--the culture of manners, for example--that the line of progressive politics is that of bringing the culture of the ruling classes to 'the people', or vice versa, not even if subjected to an appropriate reformulation and recontextualization. There are, it seems to me, no good reasons why art and literature should be granted such an exceptional status. To assume they should is to suppose that their effect can be calculated independently of the effects of the classificatory practices through which their valorization as special and privileged instances is produced. It is also to ignore the specific spheres of operation which are produced for practices thus classified by means of their classification. It thus now seems reasonably clear, in view of the work of Pierre Bourdieu and Rene Balibar, that, in terms of their objective social location and functioning, 'literary' and 'artistic' texts form part of social institutions--the institutions of Art and Literature--whose effects, in producing and reproducing relations of superiority/inferiority in the sphere of culture, symbolising and legitimising class differences in representing these as the product of unequally distributed (but 'naturally' acquired) cultural competences, must be calculated as repressive (cf. Balibar, 1974, and Bourdieu, 1979).

What follows from this? Not, to be sure, the opposite error of arguing that all practices nominated as 'literary' or 'artistic' are essentially repressive. What it is to suggest is that the conditions of struggle in relation to practices so classified have objective dimensions which make some forms of intervention appropriate and others radically inappropriate. In particular, since it is an area which excludes 'the people'--and, indeed, whose business it is to do so in determining, measuring and assessing those specifically selected cultural competencies which are to be allowed to count in the pro cesses through which elites symbolically distinguish themselves from 'the people'--it is one which offers no scope for the intervention of a popular cultural politics . There is no space within or in relation to the institutions of Art and Literature in which 'the people' can be addressed or constituted as subjects for politicization except in the highly abstracted form of some future, ideal people about to enter into possession of its cultural heritage. This is not to suggest that 'art' or 'literature' should be abandoned as fields of struggle but merely that there is a need for clear-sightedness about what can be achieved in order that appropriate strategies might be developed. In my view, the range of possible objectives in these areas is limited to the consequences which Marxist discursive mobilisations of practices nominated as 'literary' and 'artistic' might have on the formation of petit-bourgeois intellectuals--minimally, impeding the ability of the institutions of Art and Literature to compact such intellectuals into a cultural alliance with the ruling bloc; maximally, to incline them toward socialism for literary, artistic and cultural reasons. Certainly, however, it's hopeless to expect, or even to want, that the popular classes could in any way be addressed by or implicated in such strategies and calculations. Unless, of course, one wants to include the petit-bourgeoisie as a part of 'the people'... but that's another story, to which I'll return.

The obverse of this is that 'the people' must be addressed on the terrain on which their tastes, preferences and competences are actually constituted. Whilst it would be an error to locate in 'the people' the source of an aesthetic that is essentially and paradigmatically opposed to a bourgeois aesthetic, Bourdieu does put his finger on something important in his remarks on this subject. This is particularly true of his observations concerning what he characterizes as the anti-Kantian orientation of the 'popular aesthetic' with its marked preference for representations which seem to have some practical value or utility (Bourdieu, 1979:31-52). This orientation, Bourdieu argues, should not be conceived as a lack in relation to the values of distantiation or contemplative disinterestedness so highly prized in bourgeois aesthetics, nor as their mere antithesis, but as the manifestation of a different class ethos which, in part, knowingly rejects the opposing aesthetic values against which it is constructed. Brecht again: I shall never forget how a worker looked at me when I replied to his suggestion that I should add something else to a chorus about the Soviet Union ('-t has to go in--otherwise what's the point?'), that it would destroy the artistic form. He put his head on one side and smiled. A whole area of aesthetics collapsed because of his polite smile. The workers were not afraid to teach us and they were themselves not afraid to learn (Brecht, 1974: 52). Whilst this is not to suggest that one should simply write for 'the people' where they are, it is to argue that one needs to recognize where they are if one is to lead them to somewhere else and that, since they are already set on a collision course with bourgeois aesthetics, nothing is to be gained by seeking to effect their alignment with that aesthetics, no matter how critically reformulated. The duality which the second of the tendencies outlined earlier produces when applied at the level of critical practice is equally noteworthy. The very attempt to constitute literary and artistic texts as the sites of potentially progressive effects--if 'read in the right way'--is evidence of an activist critical orientation. In seeking to mobilize such texts politically by detaching them from the hold of bourgeois critical discourses and inscribing them within the terms of ideological and cultural reference supplied by Marxist critical discourse, Marxist criticism has, in practice, in its handling of canonised texts, always recognized the infinite pliability of such texts: that is, the fact that they can be plucked from the organization of reading expectations produced by one discourse and be installed in another discursively organized set of reading possibilities. This stands in marked contrast to the largely passive attitude exhibited by Marxist theorists of virtually all persuasions toward those texts produced and put into circulation by, to use Frankfurt shorthand, the 'culture industry'. Such texts have been regarded as somehow inert, impossible to mobilize. As a consequence, analysis in this area has largely taken the form of exposing the effects of such texts, laying bare their meaning-producing mechanisms in order to reveal what are thus constituted as their essentially repressive operations, as if these were given and fixed. What things, texts and practices mean, however, depends on how the struggle for their meaning is conducted; meaning is never given independently of or in advance of such struggles which, in any case, are never finally resolved. Stuart Hall again, speaking of sub-cultural style:

Every now and then, amongst the other trinkets, we find that sign which, above all other signs, ought to be fixed--solidified --in its cultural meaning and connotation forever: the swastika. And yet there it dangles, partly--but not entirely--cut loose from its profound cultural reference in twentieth century history. What does it mean? What is it signifying? Its signification is rich, and richly ambiguous: certainly unstable. This terrifying sign may delimit a range of meanings but it carries no guarantee of a single meaning within itself... What this sign means will ultimately de pend, in the politics of youth culture, less on the intrinsic cultural symbolism of the thing in itself, and more on the balance of forces between, say, the National Front and the Anti-Nazi League, bet ween White Rock and the Two Tone Sound (Hall, 1981: 237-8).

The demand this voices is for the development of forms of criticism and cultural strategies which address 'the people' in the actual forms of their cultural constitution in advanced capitalism so as to graft the texts and practices which comprise contemporary popular culture on to new chains of meaning rather than condemning the entire ter rain as one of an undiluted and irredeemable negativity. This is not a call for an uncritical reclamation or celebration of the forms in which 'the people' today actually re-create themselves/are re-created. Nor is it to suggest that popular cultural forms should be sifted for their 'good' and 'bad' elements as specified by some calculus of progressivism. Rather, it is to suggest that the effects of social contradiction in the sphere of culture are more complex than those of dividing the cultural sphere into two opposing camps (however conceived: high/popular, bourgeois/working class) with the result that, ultimately, one is faced with the choice of deciding between them, of opting for the one or the other. Hall has repeatedly stressed that even the most repressive and conservative popular cultural forms must make some concessions to popular values and ideologies, must articulate popular sentiments to dominant cultures and ideologies rather than imposing a pure and undiluted dominant ideology on 'the people', if they are to recruit popular support and participation. A politically alert popular criticism should seek to occupy the site of this contradiction, developing a hermeneutics of volubility in which the op positional values embodied in popular cultural forms would be made to speak to and be heard by 'the people' themselves and, in the pro cess, be articulated to socialist values: less a question of replacing the culture of 'the people' with another than of making their/our given culture mean differently and, in the process, contributing to its re-formation. Certainly, such a strategy, orientated toward the contradictory cultural formation of 'the people' in the present, is a good deal more meaningful than those which relate to 'the people' in the present only via the construction of 'the people' as either a past or a future ideal.

'The popular' and the petit-bourgeoisie

The $64,000 question in all of this, of course, is: who are 'the people'? It's not a question that can be answered abstractly inasmuch as 'the people' or the 'popular classes' have no existence independently of the rival systems of (to use Laclau's term) popular-democratic interpellations which seek to constitute them as such. Less a problem of definition than one of politics, the question refers less to who 'the people' are than to who they might be--to the ways in which different social forces might be defined and grouped together in a political alliance in being 'called into' the place of 'the people' which different popular-democratic interpellations produce and, in the process, aligned with or against the struggle for socialism. In this sense, the right has as much of a stake in the political definition and production of 'the people' as does the left; indeed, its current ascendancy in Britain is due largely to its virtually undisputed command in the sphere of popular-democratic interpellations.

Although lacking any existence independently of the forms in which they are defined and constructed in different political projects, this is not to say that the struggle for 'the people' can be under taken entirely voluntaristically. Rather, it requires a careful calculation of the social forces which, by virtue of their economic position and characteristic ideologies and beliefs, can potentially be 'called into' the place of 'the people versus the power bloc' and, accordingly, of the cultural and ideological means by which the struggle for the production of such a people should be conducted. Whilst forms of undiluted workerism still exist, most contemporary socialist constructions of 'the people' are variants of Euro-communism--'the people' as an undifferentiated whole against monopoly capitalism, or 'the people' as an alliance of progressive social forces and oppress ed groups putatively led by the working class. A common attribute of such formulations is that, apart from the working class, the social forces which are thus grouped together in a (potentially) popular alliance are, for the most part, conceived in non-class terms. This contrasts with earlier Marxist constructions of the popular classes. Lenin's writings on the relations between the proletariat and the peasantry in pre-revolutionary Russia, for example, both recognized the specific class interests of the latter and argued the need for the proletariat to make sacrifices of a corporate kind in order to co ordinate the interest of the peasantry to its own in a broadly based popular struggle against the Tsarist regime.

The problem which most contemporary versions of 'the people' evade--or, at least, do not confront squarely--concerns the relations between the working class and the new petit-bourgeoisie and the means by which the latter might be recruited in support of an alliance of popular forces led by the working class. For it is clear in terms of both the absolute and relative expansion of this class, and in view of its increasingly decisive cultural and political role, that any construction of 'the popular' which does not address this class and articulate its interests, ideologies, beliefs and values to the struggle for socialism is doomed to increasing marginality. As Laclau has argued, the struggle for the middle classes is the 'basic struggle on which depends the resolution of any political crisis under capitalism' (Laclau, 1977: 115). Whatever its shortcomings, Poulantzas' Classes in Contemporary Capitalism grasps the nettle in this respect in the reasons it gives for insisting on the need to theorize the new petit-bourgeoisie as a class rather than as an agglomeration of intermediate strata. As he explained in a later essay:

What difference does it make if we regard salaried workers as an intermediate strata or as a specific class? The definite characteristic of strata, in comparison to classes, is that strata do not have specific and relatively autonomous class interests. This means that even if we exclude salaried workers from the working class we nevertheless see them as being automatically polarised towards the working class; and we therefore treat them as if they do not have specific interests of their own. Whereas if we see them as a specific class, distinct from the working class, we must give proper recognition and attention to their specific and distinctive class interests. So the problem of the hegemony of the working class presents itself as exactly how to organize the people, the popular alliance. This popular alliance is made up of different classes with specific class interests. If this were not the case the problem would be reduced to an extremely simple one (Poulantzas, 1977:115-116).

As is well known, Poulantzas gets himself into all sorts of difficulties in his attempts to theorize the class specificity of the new petit-bourgeoisie. However, these concern less his remarks on the new petit-bourgeoisie as such than his contention that the new and old petit-bourgeoisies should be regarded as belonging to the same class by virtue of the ideological relations which unite them in spite of their different positions in the relations of economic production. Whilst I cannot enter into these debates here or into the associated ones concerning whether the new petit-bourgeoisie is best theorized as a class or, in Olin Wright's terms, as a 'contradictory class location' (Wright, 1978), the perception that the new petit-bourgeoisie--whatever terms we choose to use to describe it--constitutes a relatively autonomous economic, social, political and cultural force which left-wing constructions of 'the people' must address and include seems to me indispensable to the project of constructing viable popular alliances within advanced capitalist states.

But if, as Laclau suggests, the struggle tor the middle classes is the key issue at stake in the contest between rival popular-democratic interpellations, the form which this struggle must take today is that of a struggle to split the new and traditional petit-bourgeoisies. For although Poulantzas was mistaken in arguing that these shared an essential class unity, they may certainly be constructed into a unity at the political and ideological levels. This has been one of the major achievements of Thatcherism: the disarticulation of the relations between the working class and the new petit-bourgeoisie which were forged by Labour's social-democratic version of 'the people' via the construction of a version of 'the people' in which the values and ideologies of the traditional petit-bourgeoisie--individualism, self reliance and self-help (charity begins at home), thrift, anti-statism, the view of the nation as an imaginary household which must balance its accounts--have played the leading role. There is nothing patrician or bourgeois about Thatcherism at the level of its style or rhetoric. Presenting itself as a break with the past--the immediate past--it is constructed via a return to the more remote past, resurrecting the values of the traditional petit-bourgeoisie in their most archaic form--the solid virtues of a nation of shopkeepers, a peculiarly resonant imagining of the nation's past, present and possible future--to which it has succeeded in articulating the values of significant sections of the new petit-bourgeoisie and of the skilled working class.

In his comments on Trotsky's analysis of the German situation in 1931, Laclau observes that Trotsky failed to appreciate that 'in Germany any advance towards socialism was dependent on the alliance between the working class and the middle class, and that such an alliance required the ideological fusion of Nationalism, Socialism and Democracy' (Laclau, 1977:131-2). As with the Comintern, the only aim the working class could pose in relation to the middle class, according to Trotsky's prognosis, was that of the proletarian revolution' (Laclau, 1977:131-2)--one which, in failing to address or take account of their specific interests in any way, left the German middle classes vulnerably exposed to the suasions of National Socialism. The history which ensued was too tragic to bear repeating, for it will not remain--indeed, has already gone beyond --the level of farce.

If Marxists are to develop a conception of 'the popular' that will prove serviceable in this context, a good deal of hard thinking is necessary. It's not enough to recognize that the nation is one of the key sites on which the struggle for 'the people' takes place. Nor is it enough to recognize that the struggle for the representation of the past holds the key to the struggle for the nation, for its present and possible future imaginings. If such work is to address the needs of the moment, it must additionally recognize that such struggles are, among other things, a struggle for the new petit-bourgeoisie, a struggle for its alignment with the working class as the major class forces in a broadly based popular alliance capable of turning the tide against the right and making it run in the direction of socialism. The moral for a politically orientated cultural studies is clear enough: the problem of the petit-bourgeoisie, both new and traditional--of their cultures, pasts and imagined futures--is one that needs to be placed on the agenda. In order to do so adequately, however, some even more hard thinking is called for. It's no longer enough, if it ever was, to theorize the petit-bourgeoisies as a rump, as what's left once the working class and bourgeoisie have been defined, as if their constitution could be accounted for solely in terms of their contradictory location within the tendencies toward polarisation which mark the relations between the two fundamental classes. Neither the political nor the ideological orientations of these social forces can be understood without taking into account their own peculiar determinations and histories. It's true, of course, that these must be conceived relationally in relation to the determinations and histories of both the working class and the bourgeoisie. But this is merely a truism ~f class theory. It is equally the case that the determinations and histories of the working class and bourgeoisie must be conceived in relation to one another. What I am suggesting here is that the determinations and histories of both these fundamental classes need also to be conceived in relation to the relatively autonomous determinations of the new and traditional petit-bourgeoisies; to recognize that these social forces have exerted pressures which have borne on the formation of the two fundamental classes as well as themselves having been shaped by the formation of those classes. If such work isn't undertaken, there's a danger that the struggle for 'the people' will be conducted in the guise of a struggle for 'the people' of yesteryear and that it will, accordingly, go on being lost.

Griffith University
August 1983


1. I have relied here on Doreen Massey's (1983) analysis of the election results.

2. But not just Stuart Hall, of course: his articles have formed part of a much wider debate developed in the exchanges between many contributors to these journals, particularly the former. A collection of these articles has recently been published (Hall and Jacques, 1983).

3. See, for example, Anderson, 1983, and Formations of Nation and People, forthcoming. There have been other, less welcome contributions to the topic too--Gellner, 1983, for example.

4. Wright, forthcoming: 48. For Habermas (1979), the public sphere, a product of bourgeois society, is the sphere of non-governmental opinion making. As such, it is non-coincident with the distinction between the state and civil society, tending to include elements of both.

5. Raphael Samuel chronicles this reluctance in the first of his prefaces to People's History and Socialist Theory (1981).

6. See, for example, George Thompson's Marxism and Poetry and Ralph Fox's The Novel and the People, both available in several editions.

7. These necessary consequences of Lukacs' concept of the proletariat as the identical subject-object of history are most revealingly discuss ed in Revai, 1971.

8. Benedict Anderson's reflections on the inevitably polyglot nature of humanity--'there was and is no possibility of man's general linguistic unification' (1983: 46)--reveal the inherently Messianic nature of such conceptions. A cultural unification of mankind which was not at the same time a linguistic unification is unimaginable.

9. See, for example, Dyer et al., 1981, and Zipes, 1979.

10. For a discussion of the popular cultural politics of the PCI, see F. Ferrara, forthcoming. Similar orientations have been manifest within the British Communist Party in recent years--its role in organizing the People Against the Jubilee celebrations, for example.


Anderson, B.(1983) Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, London: Verso Editions and New Left Books.

Balibar, R.(1974) Les Francais fictifs: le rapport des styles litteraires au francais national, Paris: Librairie Hachette.

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New: 30 June, 1997 | Now: 23 April, 2015