Raymond Williams and Marxism – I

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Williams is a materialist, but matter for him is, from the beginning, social matter full of human meanings.

Until recently, Raymond Williams was an unknown author outside Great Britain and was rarely included among thinkers linked to the Marxist tradition,[I] despite having written an extensive work in which he innovated and raised to a higher level what Marxists had written until then about culture. In several works on the history of Marxism his name is not mentioned. See, for example, notable books such as the classic work by Pedrag Vranicki[ii] or the well-known history of marxism, organized by Eric Hobsbawn – both detailed researches in which Raymond Williams did not appear – or even the work organized by Stefano Petrucciani [iii] in which, in the chapter on Anglo-Saxon Marxism written by Alex Callinicos, Raymond Williams has his name mentioned only once alongside other representative authors of British Marxism. Perry Anderson, writing about Western Marxism, reserved a footnote for Raymond Williams, to state that he was “the most eminent socialist thinker to come out of the Western working class”, although he understands that his work “was not the work of a Marxist ”.[iv]

Raymond Williams considered himself first and foremost a literary critic and also a writer of novels, plays, film scripts, etc. who remained on the margins of academia, working for many years in adult education. By an ironic twist of fate, he became known and recognized as a Marxist cultural theorist.

Marxist? Raymond Williams himself, however, got around the question by defining himself as someone who belongs to the socialist and communist tradition, and considered it an error “to reduce an entire tradition, or an entire emphasis within the tradition, to the name of the work of a single thinker” . It is, he added, “a militant tradition, in which millions of men participated, or an intellectual tradition, in which thousands of men participated” [v]. Including himself in this current of thought, the literary critic established an enriching critical relationship with Marx's legacy that contributed to developing Marxist reflection on culture.

Marxism, as is known, did not have much political influence in Great Britain. The dissemination of Marxist ideas was mainly the responsibility of the fragile and insignificant Communist Party, being, on the other hand, hostile by a reformist Labor Party with a strong presence in the trade union movement. Raymond Williams was active in those two parties for a short period of time. Then, shortly before he died, he joined a party that advocated Welsh nationalism (Plaid Cymru, Welsh Party), where he remained for less than two years.

He was not exactly an “organic intellectual” in the Gramscian sense, as Britain lacked “a public counter-sphere”, as Terry Eagleton observed. Without the support of a strong labor movement and revolutionary parties, Raymond Williams was led to “occupy an indeterminate space halfway between an active but reactionary academy and a desirable but non-existent public counter-sphere”.[vi] Stuart Hall, when referring to his comrades in Cultural Studies, used the strange definition “organic intellectuals without any organic point of reference” [vii], which is also far from the Gramscian conception.

Despite the isolation, the lack of social forces focused on social revolution, Raymond Williams did not stop working until the last few days in social movements, committing himself to the campaign for nuclear disarmament, the defense of ecology, the feminist struggle, etc. In short: he was always a faithful fighter for his conception of socialism. This loyalty to socialism, however, has always coexisted with a tense and heterodox relationship with the Marxian legacy, marked by successive approximations and distancing.

However, this does not mean that one should deny his invaluable theoretical contribution to cultural issues, an area little frequented by British Marxists. His first works as culture and society e The long revolution They were hugely successful with the public, obtaining large circulations. Raymond Williams' presence on the British cultural scene was notable until the 1980s, when discussions about multiculturalism diverted attention from the meaning of cultural tradition.[viii]

culture and society sought to problematize cultural tradition, rescuing its critical aspects in relation to the effects of the Industrial Revolution, present in both conservative and progressive authors, but criticizing in both the reduction of culture to high culture, always accompanied by its shadow, the degraded mass culture. Against this fragmented and elitist vision, Williams claimed the idea of ​​a common culture, indicating with it the paths he would follow from now on, his own paths, far from both conservative literary criticism and Marxism.

Raymond Williams's departure from the Marxist tradition generated, at the time, several criticisms. The most elaborate was written by the renowned historian Edward Thompson, in 1961. In two long essays he criticized culture and society e The long revolution thoroughly, pointing out its weak points. Thompson found that Raymond Williams had engaged in “an oblique discussion with Marxism” without, however, confronting Marx. Another point highlighted, among many, is the definition of culture as “an integral way of life” which, like TS Eliot, excluded conflict. Instead of “way of life”, EP Thompson prefers to talk about “way of struggle”.[ix]

The Marxian thesis according to which it is the social being that determines consciousness had been called upon by Raymond Williams to replace the base-superstructure relationship, but coexisted, according to Thompson, with the idea of ​​a “common culture” that ignored the moment of contradiction and of the struggle and, mainly, its material determination. Therefore, it was culture that determined social being in the first Raymond Williams. But history, Thompson added, is contradiction, it is class struggle.

Therefore, “only in a free and classless society will history become the history of human culture because only then will social consciousness determine social being” [X]. Therefore, only in communism can we talk about “common culture” and the role of conscience leading material production aimed at satisfying real human needs.

Raymond Williams did not respond to Thompson. Many years later, he recalled that Thompson pointed out “some necessary and correct things”, but sought to justify the absence of conflict as a result of the historical moment he studied: “I felt in Edward's texts a strong attachment to the heroic periods of struggle in history, the which was very understandable, but as formulated they were particularly inadequate to address the unheroic decade we had just experienced.”[xi]

This criticism and others made at the time struck a chord with Raymond Williams, leading him from then on to retreats and conceptual corrections, as can easily be seen in Politics and letters, a book in which the author's entire work was subjected to intense interrogation and challenges that were always very well formulated by interviewers Perry Anderson, Anthony Barnett and Francis Mulhern, members of the editorial committee of the prestigious New Left Review.

The courage and serenity with which Raymond Williams defended his ideas or accepted harsh criticism is impressive. He responded to everyone with modesty and firmness. This is, as far as I know, a unique book in the social sciences, a moment of truth in which all the books written by an author are discussed point by point without condescension. Reading it has become mandatory for scholars who can therefore consult the chapters relating to each of the works and learn about the author's criticisms and responses.

Revolutionary romanticism

During interviews Raymond Williams stated that he never forgot his proletarian origins and the community life he experienced in Wales. Looking back at the book culture and society, he recalled: “my Welsh experience operated unconsciously in the book’s strategy. For when I concluded it with a discussion of community and cooperative solidarity, I was in fact writing about Welsh social relations.”[xii]

Community: expression of a supportive society and also a central reference for the construction of socialism. Robert Sayre and Michael Löwy found in Raymond Williams an ally in defining Marxism as one of the expressions of “revolutionary romanticism”. Like other authors, he would have sought in the past “an inspiration for the invention of a utopian future” [xiii]. This past, in Raymond Williams, is characterized by worker solidarity and the presence of a culture with potential for resistance. Ciro Flamarion Cardoso observed, by the way, that Raymond Williams “believed in the existence of a tradition of “radical” thought about culture, specifically British, in which William Morris was in a position of maximum prominence” and, also, in “the possibility of a popular-based cultural revival”.[xiv]

From the beginning, the unified reflection on culture, community and politics was present in our author's work. It is, without a doubt, a “lived thought” faithful to his origins and which accompanied him at all times, as his biographer Dai Smith has demonstrated.[xv] In 1982, the idea of ​​community continued to guide Williams' political horizon: “In my own conception, the only type of socialism that has any possibility of being implemented, in the old bourgeois industrialized societies, would be centered on new types of communal and collectivist institutions ” [xvi].

The themes treated by Raymond Williams are the most diverse, but his basic training is as a literary critic in a Britain where literature was at the center of intellectual concerns. Since the XNUMXth century, a tradition of thought had been consolidated that opposed the effects of the Industrial Revolution on civilization, known by the name Culture and Society – not coincidentally the title of one of Williams’s first works. The critique of industrialism, made in the name of romantic humanism, attracted a significant group of authors, such as Thomas Carlyle, Matthew Arnold, TS Eliot and William Morris.

But it was Arnold's disciple, Frank Raymond Leavis, who, after the First World War, took the lead in defending English culture threatened by the vulgarity of mass culture. The moral and political character assumed by literature was summarized as follows: “Carlyle, Arnold and Leavis share a question about the role of culture as an instrument for reconstituting a community, a nation, in the face of the dissolving forces of capitalist development. Cultural studies participate in this questioning, but, following Morris, they decisively opt for an approach via popular classes”.[xvii]

In this last direction, the works of Richard Hoggart, Edward Thompson and Raymond Williams are included. In culture and society Raymond Williams covered the conservative interpretations of the crisis of culture crystallized in tradition. Interestingly, he did not pay attention to the politically conservative, if not reactionary, character of most of these interpreters, since his objective, as he later stated, was “to try to recover the real complexity of the tradition that had been confiscated”.[xviii] With this reading against the grain, he sought to rescue the progressive seeds of the British cultural tradition, rooted in the romantic critique of industrial civilization. In the last chapter, the working class comes into play, which, with its writers such as William Morris, also maintained elective affinities with the romantic tradition .

The long revolution brings a change in the interpretation of the Industrial Revolution: it, as part of a “long revolution”, has nothing regressive and is not restricted to the cold “industrialism” that would have corroded the supposed “organic community”, as it brought with it the advent of democracy of mass, literacy, realistic novels, mass media and the expansion of democracy. In this context, culture is no longer identified only with works of art enjoyed by a minority and disconnected from social life to be understood as a “way of life”, something common to all, present in social life.

The subjective turn

One of the main characteristics of Raymond Williams' work is the shift in emphasis from structures, so common in dogmatic versions of Marxism, to the valorization of subjectivity and “significant practices” constitutive of social reality. In this way, he distanced himself from Engels and Lenin, authors who affirm the priority of matter over consciousness, a postulate that supports the theory of reflection. Raymond Williams is a materialist, but matter for him is, from the beginning, social matter full of human meanings. When it remains in literary criticism, this conception proves to be adequate, since there the object, the literary artifact, only exists due to the subject's prior activity.

But for social theory, in this case Marxism, it presents problems, as the ontological priority of nature always poses resistance to the activism of conscience. Without this other of the social being, “practical consciousness” develops without facing the harsh resistance of nature. Man, therefore, is no longer seen as a natural-social being, but as a being that has always been social. Furthermore, there is a risk of entering into anti-scientific thinking that subjects nature to the theory of history.

Some of the representatives of the so-called “Western Marxism”, such as Lukács de History and class consciousness, Karl Korsch and Gramsci, preceded Raymond Williams in this perspective, moving towards the frontiers of idealism. The “overcoming” of nature, in a purely social reality, facilitated the discarding of the theory of reflection and the ontological primacy of matter over consciousness. Turning one's back on the old materialism also had political implications: it made the “practical consciousness”, which in Lenin did not go beyond the “union consciousness”, self-sufficient, no longer needing to be helped by revolutionary theory and the political party. .

It is no coincidence that Raymond Williams claimed to “believe in the economic struggle of the working class”, considering it “the most creative activity in our society” [xx]. This labor vision, giving centrality to “meaningful practices” and “practical consciousness”, reaffirms the emphasis on subjectivity. Thus, coherently, Raymond Williams was able to write in Resources of Hope, that socialism, in addition to action and organization, “will include feeling and imagination”.[xx]

New concepts in the tradition of Marxist studies accompany the recovery of subjectivity: “selective tradition”, “experience”, “emotion”, “structure of feeling”. The latter is the most important of them and the most significant of the difficulties in escaping the dual vision that traditionally separates objectivity from subjectivity, nature from society, being from consciousness. “Structure of feeling” is a composite expression aiming to unite what is hard and fixed (structure) with what is malleable and fluid (feeling). This junction announces a difficulty – it is the preview of a problem, the attempt to approach something slippery, the effort to name something that has not yet been mastered and cannot be fixed through definitive concepts.

Marx, in his youth, used similar expressions. Initially, he spoke of “empirical activity” and “sensible activity” in order to reconcile Hegel and Feuerbach. Later, when he studied political economy, he went beyond these two authors, referring to “productive activity”, “work” and “praxis” – cunning mediations that encompass matter and consciousness in a contradictory unity. Thus, in Marx's mature works, what rises to the forefront in the civilizing process is material mediation, that is, the manufacture of work instruments and the development of productive forces, and no longer the primacy of work over language, as either Engels, or the consideration that both are constitutive phenomena without hierarchy, as Raymond Williams wants.

The expression “structure of feeling” is a symptom of an issue to be faced rather than a precise concept. Its origins come from literary criticism, a field in which Raymond Williams uses it masterfully to find, in different authors of a generation, common points, shared feelings. Despite the differences, there are common features in them, which indicates the existence of a certain structuring of feelings. One of the examples studied in the book Culture and materialism is the cultural group known as The Bloomsbury Circle, which brought together people with occupations as diverse as Virginia Woolf and John Maynard Keynes.[xxx]

The difficulty arises when the concept moves from the literary sphere to the study of society. In the book The long revolution, Williams states: “In a sense, the structure of feeling is the specific result of the experience of all the elements of a general organization.” This definition was criticized in Politics and letters because it is imprecise, since, at a given historical moment, several generations coexist. And, in addition, the expression seems to have a multi-class character – something common that would encompass all social classes [xxiii].

The concept of “structure of feeling” is based on the experience of individuals, in the sphere of experience. But, does “lived experience” equate to knowledge? Does it relate directly to reality? For empiricism, yes. In its confrontation with metaphysics, which intended to find truth in thought itself, empiricism will find it in experience. This, in turn, is based on immediate certainty that does not require mediation. It is precisely against this presumption of immediate knowledge that dialectics, since Hegel, was constituted.

Such knowledge provided by experience, said Hegel, is a prisoner of particularity. The passage to the universal, as dialectics wants, is done through reflection that denies, in its progressive movement, in its effort of determination, immediacy and sensible certainty.[xxiii] Readers of The capital they hear the echo of the Hegelian critique of immediacy in the first paragraph of the book: the immediate, “natural” presence of the commodity whose empirical evidence, appearance, is subsequently denied by the work of reflection.

In Raymond Williams' early works we find the equivalence between experience and knowledge, which, in a way, brings him closer to Jean-Paul Sartre and radically distances him from Louis Althusser, who includes and dissolves, without further ado, experience in ideology. In the book of interviews, Raymond Williams was questioned about this, reminded by the interviewers that there are processes inaccessible to experience (the law of capital accumulation, the rate of profit, etc.), which prevent the passage of “structures of feeling” and from “experience” to knowledge, attesting to the impropriety of migrating the concept from the literary field to social structures.

Raymond Williams accepted the criticism, noting that his “appeal to experience” to found the unity of the social process “was problematic.” And further: “at certain times it is precisely experience in its weakest form that appears to block any realization of the unity of the process” [xxv]. The use of composite expressions does not always guarantee a well-executed synthesis between matter and consciousness, such as that carried out by Marx. Phenomena such as alienation and reification, not by chance, do not appear at the center of Raymond Williams' reflections, being solemnly ignored by the sovereign “practical conscience” and by the virtues of an experience imprisoned by immediacy.

*Celso Frederico is a retired senior professor at ECA-USP. Author, among other books, of Essays on Marxism and Culture (Morula). [https://amzn.to/3rR8n82]


[I] In Brazil, the dissemination of Williams' work began with the work of Maria Elisa Cevasco. See, by the way, CEVASCO, Maria Elisa. To read Raymond Williams (São Paulo: Paz e Terra, 2001) and “Culture: a British topic in Western Marxism.” in MUSSE, Ricardo and LOUREIRO, Isabel (orgs.). Chapters of Western Marxism (São Paulo: Unesp, 1998); GLASER, André. Raymond Williams. Cultural materialism (São Paulo: Biblioteca 24 hora, 2011); PALACIOS, Fabio Azevedo. Marxism, communication and culture (USP: 2014); RIVETTI, Hugo. Criticism and modernity in Raymond Williams (USP: 2015) and The long journey: Raymond Williams, politics and socialism (USP; 2012); SOUZA MARTINS, Angela Maria and NEVES, Lúcia Maria Wanderley. Culture and social transformation. Gramsci, Thompson and Williams (Rio de Janeiro: Mercado de Letras, 2021).

[ii] VRANICKI, Petrag. History of Marxism (Rome: Riuniti, 1972).

[iii] PETRUCCIANI, Stefano. History of Marxism (Rome: Carocci, 2015).

[iv] ANDERSON, Perry. Thoughts on Western Marxism (Porto: Afrontamento, s/d), p. 137.

[v] WILLIAMS, Raymond. “You’re a Marxist, aren’t you?” in Resources of Hope (São Paulo: Unesp, 2014), pp. 34-5.

[vi] EAGLETON, Terry. The function of criticism (São Paulo: Martins Fontes, 1991), p. 104.

[vii] HALL, Stuart. From the diaspora. Cultural identities and mediations (Belo Horizonte: UFMG/UNESCO, 2003), p. 207.

[viii] See MULHERN, Francis. “Culture and society, then and now", in New Left Review, number 55, 2009 (Spanish edition).

[ix] THOMPSON, Edward. “The Long Revolution”, in New Left Review, number 1/9, May-June, 1961 and number 1/10, July-August, 1961. Another relevant criticism was made by KIERN, VG “Culture and Society", in The New Reason, number9, 1959.

[X] THOMPSON, Edward. “The Long Revolution (Part II)”, in New Left Review I/10, cit..

[xi]. WILLIAMS, Raymond. Politics and letters (São Paulo: Unesp, 2013), p. 130.

[xii]. Same, p. 104.

[xiii]. SAYRE, Robert and LöWY, Michael. “The romantic current in social sciences in England: Edward P. Thompson and Raymond Williams”, in Marxist Criticism, number 8, p. 44.

[xiv]. CARDOSO, Ciro Flamarion. “The Group and British cultural studies: EP Thompson in context”, in MÜLLER, Ricardo Gaspar and DUARTE, Adriano Luiz (orgs.), EP Thompson: politics and passion (Chapecó: Argos, 2012), p.113.

[xv]. SMITH, Dai. Raymond Williams. The portrait of a fighter (Universitat de València, 2011).

[xvi]. WILLIAMS, Raymond. “Democracy and parliament”, in Resources of Hope, cit. p. 401.

[xvii]. MATTELART, Armand and NEVEU, Érik. Introduction to cultural studies (São Paulo: Parábola, 2004), p. 40. On the centrality of literature in English cultural life, see EAGLETON, Terry. “The rise of English” inLiterature theory: an introduction (São Paulo: Martins Fontes, s/d).

[xviii]. WILLIAMS, Raymond. Politics and letters, cit. p.88.

[xx] .Idem, p.112.

[xx] Idem, P. 113.

[xxx]. WILLIAMS, Raymond. “The Bloomsbury Circle”, in Culture and materialism, cit.

[xxiii]. WILLIAMS, Raymond. Politics and letters, cit., pp. 151-160.

[xxiii]. For the chief mate's criticism see: HEGEL, GW Encyclopedia of philosophical sciences. In compendium (1830) (São Paulo: Loyola, 2012), pp. 46-7 and 146.

[xxv]. WILLIAMS, Raymond. Politics and letters, cit., P. 132.

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