Raymond Williams and Marxism – II

Image: Clem Onojeghuo


The changes in Williams' thinking are explained by the evolution of capitalist society and also constitute responses to the criticism suffered by his first books

Base and superstructure

A literature teacher in an environment dominated by idealistic interpretations, Raymond Williams turned to Marxism to advance his studies. In the book Culture and materialism, recalled that in the 30s there was a strong debate among the writers of the magazine Scrutiny, led by FR Leavis and Marxism – and in this debate Marxism was defeated.

The reason for the defeat would be, according to his interpretation, in the attachment to the “inherited formula of base and superstructure”,[I] which produced reductionist and superficial analyses. Therefore, Raymond Williams decided to “leave aside” the orthodox tradition disseminated by Russian (Plekhanov) and English (Christopher Caudwell) Marxism, and seek new paths: “If we are not in a church, we do not worry about heresies”,[ii] said Raymond Williams asserting his freedom of thought and the need to seek alternatives to traditional Marxism.

The axis of theoretical redirection is the contestation of the static image of the mode of production as a building with two floors, base and superstructure, which would condemn the latter to passivity, to being a mere reflection of rigid economic determinism. This static spatial image should be replaced “by the more active idea of ​​a field of mutually determining, yet unequal, forces.”[iii] Raymond Williams' theoretical redirection was a long labor, as he himself says: “It took me thirty years, in a very complex process, to move away from that inherited Marxist theory” [iv], until he formulated his own theory that he called “cultural materialism”.

The changes in Raymond Williams' thinking were not the result of internal factors, they were not just improvement efforts. They are explained by the evolution of capitalist society and also represent responses to the criticism suffered by his first books.[v] Since the publication of culture and society e The long revolution The charm that Leavis's conservative literary criticism had on Raymond Williams was contested by Marxist authors such as Terry Eagleton, who considered him “a left-wing Leavist”,[vi] or Edward Thompson, who criticized his “sociological pluralism” that denied material determination.[vii]

The idea of ​​culture as “a whole way of life” defended by Raymond Williams would thus be an abstraction, a generalization – almost a synonym of society, as he himself ended up admitting. The reference to the people, and not the working class, was considered an expression of undisguised populism. In a similar way, the attachment to sociology to the detriment of Marxism would have led to the replacement of totality and economic determination by a fragmentation of society into separate spheres, in the style of Weberian sociology, a fragmentation in which everything seems to be colonized by the preponderance of culture.

Two decades later, in a debate with Edward Said, Raymond Williams recalled that the concept of common culture was developed by him against the notion of dominant culture that identified culture with high culture, thus reducing its scope and justifying class privilege. The concept, he claimed, belonged to “one phase of the argument,” but since that time “I have written mainly about divisions and problems within the culture; facts that prevent us from conceiving of common culture as something that exists now.”[viii] The socialist Williams, here, implies that common culture is a project and not a given reality, which in a way has parallels with the Gramscian idea of ​​national-popular culture.

The many shortcomings of the early works are readily apparent. In The long revolution, for example, Williams focuses on the radical transformations that shaped modernity. Alongside the industrial revolution, the democratic (extension of voting) and cultural (extension of education and mass media) revolutions occurred. These revolutions are interconnected, but they reproduce the separation between the economic, political and cultural spheres, a separation that is related to the sociologies of Max Weber and Pierre Bourdieu. The fragmentation of the social takes place with the understanding of capitalism as a “maintenance system” (economic), alongside the “decision system” (political), “communication system” (cultural) and the “system of reproduction and creation” (family). From this perspective, the truth about a society must be sought in the “exceptionally complex” relationships between these subsystems,[ix] and not in the social relations of production, as Marx wanted.

In Marx, as we know, there is no fragmentation of society into subsystems, as totalization occurs through the category of capitalist mode of production and its historical forms of extraction of surplus value (simple cooperation, manufacturing, large industry). Therefore, as far as I know, Marx never used the expression “Industrial Revolution” which guides the analysis of Williams’ early works. Some time later, in The countryside and the city, Raymond Williams recognized the integrated character of these two spaces and, in this way, the Industrial Revolution lost its centrality and was no longer seen as a driver of historical development. Capitalism, he recalled then, was born in the countryside in the first form of agrarian capitalism.[X]

Later, Raymond Williams also sought to rectify the old approach to economic determination and culture, observing: “I tended to oppose the idea of ​​cultural process, which seemed to me so extraordinarily neglected, to what I took as an economic and political process previously emphasized and adequately exposed. The result was that I ended up abstracting my area of ​​emphasis from the entire historical process. In the effort to establish cultural production as a primary activity, I think I sometimes gave the impression (…) that I was denying the determinations entirely, although my empirical studies hardly suggest this.” [xi]. One can observe here the author's awareness of the discrepancy between his refined cultural and literary studies and the theoretical limitations of his first works.

Culture as a “primary activity” was the motto most criticized by Marxists and the most publicized by their admirers. Perhaps sensing the dangers inherent in his conception of culture, Williams said: “how many times have I wished I had never heard that damned word”. [xii]

Marxism and Literature

Marxism and Literature, originally published in 1971, marks the decisive moment in the evolution of Raymond Williams. From then on, his thinking, until then restricted to British references, became international. The encounter with the renewed Marxism of Gramsci, Lukács, Adorno, Benjamin, Brecht and Goldmann expanded his theoretical horizons, as well as references to Sartre. Reflections on culture are restored to a higher level, remaking and refining Raymond Williams' thinking.

Overcoming the base-superstructure metaphor, the cornerstone of its gait, led him to seek an “alternative approach” through the Gramscian theory of hegemony, which would configure a new vision of totality, including disputes within social life and relations of dominance. There is, however, a visible difference between the two authors here, which begins with the fact that Gramsci starts from the architectural metaphor that Raymond Williams rejects. It is in the superstructure, said Gramsci repeating Marx, that men become aware of contradictions and act to modify them.

There is no determinism, Gramsci stated, but rather the commitment to show the gaps for political initiative: “The pretension (presented as an essential postulate of historical materialism) to present and expose any fluctuation in politics and ideology as an immediate expression of infra- structure must be combatted, theoretically, as a primitive infantilism, or it must be combatted, practically, with the authentic testimony of Marx, writer of concrete political and historical works”[xiii]. Using those works by Marx, Gramsci points out the differences between an abstract categorical plane, that of the Preface to Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, and the study of concrete historical moments. The concept of hegemony, therefore, goes hand in hand with the analysis of “power relations” in each situation. Gramsci's “absolute historicism” thus sets in motion the apparent rigidity of the architectural metaphor through the concept of “historical block” in which “material forces are the content and ideologies the form”.

Gramsci’s political concept of hegemony (“direction plus domination”) has civil society as its backdrop. In this sphere, subalterns can “leave the economic-corporate phase to rise to the phase of political-intellectual hegemony in civil society and become dominant in political society” [xiv]. This concept, says Gramsci, is a tribute to Lenin, being considered the Russian revolutionary's “maximum theoretical contribution” to the philosophy of praxis.[xv]

Raymond Williams, distancing himself from this political approach, transformed hegemony into an “evolving concept”, aimed preferably at the cultural sphere. The difference between the two authors is evident. The subjective tone continues to be present in Raymond Williams: hegemony, for him, “is a whole set of practices and expectations, about the totality of life: our senses and energy distribution, our perception of ourselves and our world. It is a lived system of meanings and values.”[xvi] In Gramsci, as we saw, it is a concept focused on the issue of power, the struggle of subordinates to “become a State”.

Developing the “evolving concept of hegemony”, Raymond Williams argues that a ruling class can never impose its cultural domination on the entire society. Based on this statement, RaymondWilliams developed detailed analyzes of the three cultural forms of hegemony: the dominant, the residual and the emerging. The second, constituted in the past, remains active, escaping dominant values ​​and positioning itself as an alternative or opposition to the dominant culture. The third can also assume the status of alternative or, alternatively, clear opposition to the dominant elements. This effort of discernment is faithful to Gramsci's thought, which states that “a cultural formation is never homogeneous”. Applied to cultural analysis, tensions between the dominant and the emerging opened up productive and innovative paths for literary criticism.[xvii]

When dealing with hegemony, Gramsci, it is worth remembering, never referred to “counter-hegemony”, an expression of a dualistic nature. Gramscian hegemony was seen as a dispute over the political and cultural direction of society, the “becoming of the State” of subalterns, and not as a struggle between two separate cultural conceptions. Therefore, there is a difference between the analysis plans of the two authors. Raymond Williams refers to the concept of hegemony, in Marxism and Literature, basically to criticize the base/superstructure metaphor, and not to address the issue of power. In Gramsci, who starts precisely from this metaphor, reflection on the centrality of power forced him to follow the successive changes in the “relations of force” in each situation. For this reason, the concept of hegemony gains successive modifications in prison notebooks dictated by the “rhythm of thought”, which explains the lack of a conclusive conceptualization of an expression that remains subordinated to the changing “relations of force”.

Raymond Williams, to use an expression dear to Gramsci, made a “translation” of the concept of hegemony to build his own theory – cultural materialism, far from the “philosophy of praxis” of the Sardinian revolutionary. Unwittingly, he provided a simplified definition of hegemony that surprisingly ended up having enormous influence on Anglo-American cultural anthropology. The simplified version, according to American anthropologist Kate Crehan, is due to the fact that Raymond Williams dispensed with “the fatigue of seriously facing the complexity of prison notebooks”, remembering that he does not quote any passage from the book. “The lived system of meanings and values” thus became a definition “and, too” and idealist appropriated by an anthropology that consecrated the version of a Gramsci “devoid of his intense interest in the materiality of power”.[xviii]

It should also be noted that, in addition to politics, Gramsci related hegemony to culture and literature. Raymond Williams, writing on the same subjects, missed the opportunity to compare his project with Gramsci's.

The refusal of the base-superstructure metaphor also guided Raymond Williams' foray into literary issues, a moment in which he criticized theories that dualistically relate art and society, understanding the latter as an epiphenomenon. The long revolution already anticipated the positions that Williams later developed. In that book, he posed a “conventional” question and sought to answer it: “what is the relationship between this art and this society”? But “society,” in this question, is a misleading whole. If art is part of society, there is no solid totality outside of it to which the form of our question grants priority. Art is there, as an activity, like production, commerce, politics, family formation. To properly study relationships, we must study them dynamically, seeing all activities as particular and contemporary forms of human energy.” Therefore, it is a question of “studying all these activities and their interrelationships without giving priority to any one”.[xx]

This direction reappears in the criticism that Raymond Williams made in Marxism and Literature Lukács' theory of reflection, Adorn's theory of “mediation” and Benjamin's “dialectical images” – the last two considered, without further ado, more elaborate forms of the theory of reflection.

In the “debate on expressionism” in the 1930s, Lukács defended a conception of reflection close to mechanistic materialism. In those texts focused on polemics, Lukács started, in an epistemological register, from the opposition between materialism and idealism, as exposed by Engels and Lenin of Materialism and empirocriticism. A clear example can be seen in the essay “Art and objective truth”,[xx] whose title speaks for itself: art (=reflection); objective truth (truth placed outside the subject).

But, even in this epistemological text, art is conceived as a specific form of reflection, and in it consciousness does not remain passive as there is a prominent place for fantasy. The artistic reflection does not duplicate the immediate appearance, as it produces a concentration, an exasperation of the most typical and significant features. This direction given to the specificity of art marks a clear repulsion in relation to the application of the mechanical theory of reflection made by both positivism and “socialist realism”, consecrated as the official aesthetics in 1934 (the same year in which Lukács' essay was published).

Such differences herald the developments of the future Aesthetics. The epistemological focus was progressively replaced in Lukács' mature work by an ontological interpretation that included art in the civilizing process. The subject-object dualism thus gained a material mediation: work, human activity interposed between matter and consciousness. In work, the inaugural form of praxis, the priority of being over consciousness, of nature over man, is already presupposed. Consciousness, however, does not remain passive thanks to the active intervention of men and the “cunning” presence of work instruments.

Denying passivity, consciousness anticipates its teleological action, as Hegel exposed in his youthful texts from the Jena period, or as Marx wrote in The capital, taking as an example the difference between the mechanical activity of the bee and the teleological act of the architect's work. Starting from work, Lukács developed Aesthetics the two main forms of reflection: scientific and artistic. The highly mediated character of artistic reflection led Lukács progressively to prefer the word pamper yourself to refer to the specificity of art.

Raymond Williams does not ignore the mutations in Lukács' thought, condemning in advance any reference to the reflex theory. Interestingly, in the seventh chapter of The long revolution (“Realism and the contemporary novel”), Williams was very close to Lukacs’s conceptions to the point of having been considered the “British Lukács”.[xxx] Then the paths separated. With regard to Lukacs's aesthetic theory, Raymond Williams pointed out the divergences indirectly when he reviewed three books about that author  [xxiii]. He then recalled that the individual-social class relationship, which guided History and class consciousness, it was replaced in mature works by the individual-species dialectic.

Some quotes from Agnes Heller's book, Lukács revalued, are reproduced to clarify the reader about the Lukacsian meaning of pamper yourself (imitation and ethos), an expression that characterizes the specificity of artistic reflection: “a work of art is mimetic if it captures the species in the individual and thus represents the sphere of the so-called “particular” (das Besondere). (…) Through the intensification of subjectivity, the artist achieves objectivity; through his extremely deep and sensitive experience of time he reaches the species level. This experience of time (…) constitutes the eternity of the temporal, the universal validity of what emerged in the historical here and now (…). It is in the “particular” that experience, ascending to the level of the species, takes shape.”

Raymond Williams points out the similarity of this conceptualization with XNUMXth century idealism, but highlights the new element: the connection with the historical process and “the culmination of this process in the general human liberation that works of art already prefigure”. From this conceptualization, however, Williams “wants to keep his distance”, as he is not interested in composing a theory of art, but “a means of understanding the diverse social and material productions (…) of works to which the categories of art, connected, but also changing, have been historically tied. I call this position cultural materialism, and I see it as a diametrically opposed answer to the questions that Lukács and other Marxists have posed.”

As for Adorno, the identification mediation=reflex sounds strange, considering this author's radical criticism of the reflex theory [xxiii] and, in addition, to realism.[xxv] Raymond Williams cites a passage in which Adorno states that mediation is not a means between extremes, but is something that occurs through extremes and in the extremes themselves. This passage reproduces Hegel's thesis, according to which everything is mediated. Adorno exemplified this reasoning in his controversy with Paul Lazarsfeld, when, studying the reception of music on the radio, he stated that it is not immediate, as both the music, the radio and the listener are subject to various mediations. [xxiv]. Be that as it may, mediation is not a reflex, it is not a logical device to reestablish the relations between art and society, base and superstructure, material social process and language.

As for realism's claim to faithfully reflect reality, it is seen, according to Adorno, as an impossibility and an attempt to participate in what should be criticized – reified reality. The aesthetic distance proposed by him is a basic condition for art not to identify with degraded reality and, thus, affirm its utopian character, its refusal to reconcile itself with reality.

Raymond Williams, therefore, did not do justice to these two great thinkers, discarded in the few lines dedicated to them in Marxism and Literature. In this book, there is a sophisticated critique of the mechanical forms taken by reflex theory: the stimulus and response models, Pavlov's “second system of signs”, Voloshinov's “sign system”, etc. Lukács and Adorno, however, did not deserve a more detailed critique commensurate with their invaluable contributions to aesthetic theory.

Lucien Goldmann was the subject of a long and respectful article. Williams found parallel plans between his thinking and Goldmann's. The concept of structure, uniting social facts and cultural creation, displaces the attention traditionally given to the individual author seen in his external relations with society. The subject of cultural creation in Goldmann is a “transindividual-subject”, and with this unified formulation he sought to put an end to the author-society duality. Thus, the emphasis shifts to the correspondence between the mental structures of the social groups in which the author is inserted and of which he becomes a spokesperson and the structures of society. Williams noted with sympathy the proximity of Goldmannian “structural homologies” to his own conception of “structures of feeling”. But Goldmann, under the influence of structuralism, remained on a static and ahistorical level restricted to synchronic analyzes of cultural phenomena, “epoch” analyses.[xxv]

Regarding relations with Lukács and Adorno, it is worth remembering that the existing differences arise from the distinct theoretical projects pursued by each of these authors. Both Lukács and Adorno sought, each in their own way, to develop an aesthetic theory – systematic in the first and unsystematic in the second, but always in dialogue with Marxism (in Lukács the resumption of individual-species relations of Philosophical economic manuscripts; in Adorno, an expansion of mercantile fetishism and the law of value from The capital).

Williams took another path. In the entry Aesthetics, from the book Keywords, pointed out the historical changes that have occurred in the meaning of the word, to conclude: “What is evident in this story is that aesthetic, with its specialized references to art, visual appearance and a category of what is “beautiful” or “beautiful” is a key formation in a group of meanings that emphasized and at the same time isolated subjective sensory activity as the basis of art and beauty as distinct from, for example, social or cultural interpretations. It is an element of the split modern consciousness of art and society.”[xxviii].

To overcome this split that condemned art to remain a spiritual sphere detached from the real world, Raymond Williams distanced himself from the aesthetic theories embedded in the “Marxist tradition” to develop a sociology of culture focused on the conditions of possibility of various “significant practices” ( literature, theater, mass culture, television, journalism, fashion, advertising).

In this way, he opened new paths for cultural studies. I only note the pointlessness of stating that in Lukács and Adorno, art remained a separate sphere, alien to social conflicts. The desire to exorcise Leavis' ghost perhaps explains the inappropriate inclusion of both in idealism.

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

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[I]. WILLIAMS, Raymond. Culture and materialism, cit., P. 26.

[ii]. WILLIAMS, Raymond. Culture and materialism (São Paulo: Unesp, 2011), p. 29

[iii]. Thethem, P. 28.

[iv]. Same, 331.

[v]. See in this regard the enlightening study by Ugo Urbano Casares Rivetti, The long journey: Raymond Williams, politics and socialism (USP: 2021).

[vi] EAGLETON, Terry. “Introduction”, inRaymond Williams. Critical Perspectives” (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1989), p. 5.

[vii] THOMPSON, EP “The Long Revolution” (part II), in New Left Review, cit.

[viii]. WILLIAMS, Raymond. Politics of modernism (São Paulo, Unesp, 2011), p. 235.

[ix] . WILLIAMS, Raymond. The broad revolution, cit., P. 118.

[X]. See WILLIAMS, Raymond. The countryside and the city (São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 1989).

[xi]. WILLIAMS, Raymond. Politics and letters, cit., p.133.

[xii]. Same, p. 149.

[xiii]. GRAMSCI, Antonio. Prison Notebooks, vol. 1 (Rio de Janeiro: Civilização Brasileira, 1999), p. 238.

[xiv]. GRAMSCI, Antonio. Prison quarter,  I (Torino: Einaudi, 1975), p. 460.

[xv]Same, p. 320.

[xvi]. WILLIAMS, Raymond. Marxism and Literature (Rio de Janeiro: Zahar, 1979), p. 113.

[xvii]. See CEVASCO, Maria Elisa. Ten Lessons on Cultural Studies, cit., pp. 128-9; To read Raymond Williams, cit., pp. 181-277.

[xviii]. CREHAN, Kate. Gramsci, culture and anthropology (Lecce: Argo, 2010), p. 175.

[xx]. WILLIAMS, Raymond. The broad revolution, cit., pp. 54-5.

[xx]. LUKÁCS, Georg. “Art and objective truth”, in Problems of realism (Mexico: Fondo de Cultura Economica, 1966).

[xxx]. PINKNEY, Tony. “Raymond Williams and the “Two faces of modernism””, in EAGLETON, Terry (org.).  Raymond Williams. Critical perspectives (Great Britain: Polity Press, 1989), p. 12.

[xxiii]. WILLIAMS, Raymond. “A man without frustration”, in London Review of Books, vol. 6, number 9, May 1984.

[xxiii]. See ADORNO, Theodor. negative dialectic (Rio de Janeiro: Zahar, 2009).

[xxv].See ADORNO, Theodor. “Extorted reconciliation”, in MACHADO, Carlos Eduardo Jordan. Debate on expressionism (São Paulo: Unesp, 2011, second edition) and “Position of the narrator in the contemporary novel”, in Literature notes I (Duas Cidades/Editora 34: São Paulo, 2003). The critique of realism reappears in several texts, culminating in the Aesthetic Theory (Lisbon: 1982).

[xxiv] . I developed the terms of the controversy between Adorno and Lazarsfeld in “Reception: the epistemological divergences between Adorno and Lazarsfeld”, in Essays on Marxism and Culture (Rio de Janeiro: Mórula, 2016). See also, CARONE, Iray. Adornment in New York (São Paulo: Alameda, 2019).

[xxv]. WILLIAMS, Raymond. “Literature and sociology: in memory of Lucien Goldmann”, in Culture and materialism, cit.

[xxviii] . WILLIAMS, Raymond. Keywords, cit., pp. 156-7.

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