Raymond Williams and Marxism – III



The great literary critic’s tense relationship with Marxism was a remarkable chapter in the history of “Western Marxism”

Cultural materialism

Karl Marx is a reference always remembered in the work of Raymond Williams, but there is a text, “Marx on culture”, in which he takes stock and criticizes the way in which that author interprets culture.[I] Three aspects are highlighted.

Initially, there are general comments in Marx about writers and artists spread across various texts. Secondly, there is the outline of what would be a general theory of culture that follows from his general position on human development. Finally, there are a number of questions raised and left aside or only partially answered.

Interestingly, the second aspect, explored extensively in Economic-philosophical manuscripts (which, as we know, was the starting point of György Lukács' aesthetic ideas) did not arouse greater interest in Raymond Williams. His attention turned to the famous passage from german ideology in which it is stated that there is no autonomous art history developing independently of social history. Marx here fought the idealism of the Young Hegelians who saw real history as a product of consciousness.

The materialist inversion, on the contrary, wants us to start with the material production of life and, from there, move on to consciousness: “That is, we do not start from what men say, imagine or represent, nor from men thought, imagined or represented to, from there, reach men of flesh and blood; It starts with really active men and, based on their real life process, also exposes the development of ideological reflections and echoes of this life process”.[ii]

The basis of Raymond Williams' argument in his criticism of these new interlocutors follows the theoretical turn carried out by him, which shifted the idea of ​​reflection to the affirmation of the material and active character of the superstructure. Art, for example, is considered material not only because its products are materials (books, records, paintings), but also the means with which it works are materials (paper, oil, paint, etc.). In a famous passage, expanding on this thesis, he wrote: “From castles, palaces and churches, to prisons, workshops and schools; from weapons of war to a controlled press: any ruling class, in various ways, but always materially, produces a social and political order. Such activities are never superstructural. They are the necessary production within which only an apparently self-sufficient mode of production can be realized.”[iii]

The understanding of the material character of culture, which was no longer seen as a reflection hovering above the production of basic goods, subsequently gained special relevance with the creation of the so-called “creative economy”, whose weight is increasingly significant in the production of wealth in the world. within developed capitalist societies. This is the most significant moment, the most remembered contribution of Raymond Williams, to Marxist theory.

At the same time, this attention to the recent development of capitalist society meant that Raymond Williams did not transform the appreciation of community life into a mere moral condemnation of the modern world. The socialist Raymond Williams viewed this process with optimism, which he calls “the long revolution”. At this point, he distances himself from Lukács, Adorno and Goldmann, authors who give centrality to the process of reification – a theme far from the concerns of Raymond Williams, who was committed to highlighting the resistance potential of the cultural sphere. And, for this very reason, he never endorsed the problematic Marxian thesis of “ideological decadence” espoused in different ways by those three authors and, also, by Christopher Caudwell.[iv]

Being material, culture is also considered a productive force. This expression in Marx was directed to the economic sphere, to commercial production. But, says Raymond Williams, capitalism does not only produce goods, it also produces schools, prisons, control of the press and other things without which the production of goods cannot take place. With this in mind, Raymond Williams developed an original sociology of culture. Topics such as institutions and formations of cultural production, means of production, processes of social and cultural reproduction, etc. received masterful treatment in the book Culture.[v]

In this sociology of culture, art is not credited with a decisive role in the process of humanization (Lukács) or denial of the alienated world (Adorno). The question of the specificity of artistic production is still suspended, a theme that will later dissolve into the equivalence and relativism proclaimed by postmodern Cultural Studies.

There is, however, a fundamental issue, relating to political economy, that distances Raymond Williams from Karl Marx. The affirmation of the physical materiality of cultural commodities (books, records, paintings) and the means used in their production (paper, oil, paint), cited to affirm that they are not superstructural, has nothing to do with what for Marx is fundamental: the value category. Before visible physical materiality, what exists for Marx is nature, this first reality, the “material substrate”. And they are not cultural factors that interfere in production from the beginning. Use values, “the bodies of commodities, are nexuses of two elements: natural matter and work”.

Therefore, says Marx, “contrary to the sensitive and raw objectivity of the bodies of commodities, the objectivity of their value does not contain a single atom of natural matter”. The objectivity of value, therefore, is “purely social” and prior to any increase.[vi] The faded presence of nature and work, in Raymond Williams, allowed the replacement of the “natural substrate” by apparent materiality and, also, the overlap of cultural elements to explain the dynamics of the capitalist mode of production. What in Marx was exclusively social gained a cultural guise in this way.

The same argument is then re-presented in a brief critique of Marx's notion of productive work. Insisting on the criticism of the base-superstructure dualism, Raymond Williams points out what seems to him an ambiguity in that author: the definition of productive forces, sometimes as “any of, and all, the means of production and reproduction of real life” [vii], sometimes as a more restricted conceptualization that only includes the material or economic base. In the latter, in addition to the exclusion of so-called “superstructural” phenomena (politics, culture), there would be an economic determinism that sees the productive forces as something that appears to be “a self-subsisting world alongside individuals” (phrase taken from german ideology).

This theoretical indecision cannot be resolved: on the one hand, a broad conceptualization, which includes “the material character of the production of a social and political order”, on the other, a narrow vision, which restricts production to work on raw materials and which, in this way, it projects and alienates “a whole body of activities that have to be isolated as “the realm of arts and ideas”, as “aesthetics”, as “ideology”, or less flatteringly, as the “superstructure””.[viii]

The example cited by Raymond Williams to criticize Marx is not the happiest, but it illustrates well the differences between the theoretical planes on which they both operate: the statement, contained in the floorplans, according to which a piano maker is a productive worker, but the pianist is not, as he does not reproduce capital. Raymond Williams states in this regard the “extraordinary inadequacy of this distinction for advanced capitalism, in which the production of music (and not just its instruments) is an important branch of capitalist production”.[ix]

The “real error” attributed to Marx reveals a misunderstanding on the part of those who did not face the discussion on productive work in book II of The capital and in Theories of surplus value. In these works, productive work does not concern the nature of the production process, the concrete content of the work, or the nature of the product, but the production relations in which the worker is inserted. Thus, the amateur pianist who plays just for the pleasure of playing is not performing productive work, unlike the professional pianist in the job market.

Raymond Williams' entire argument derives from his insistence on combating what he calls the base-superstructure model. However, it is worth remembering that Marx rarely spoke of “superstructure”. Raymond Williams, on the contrary, clings to this model to, through criticism, vindicate the material character of culture.

This surprising appreciation of the cultural sphere, the most daring moment of his work, ended up influencing contemporary social theories. She lives, however, with a slippery concept of culture. In its various texts, culture is sometimes thought of in a restricted conception, as can be read in this passage: “We use the word culture in these two senses: to designate an entire way of life – common meanings -; and to designate the arts and learning – the special processes of discovery and creative endeavor.”[X]

Em The long revolution, however, there was a surprising expansion of the concept that included “the organization of production, the structure of the family, the structure of institutions that express or govern social relations, the characteristic forms through which members of society communicate” [xi].

We are, therefore, faced with an impasse whose origins refer to the abandonment of the base-superstructure spatial metaphor and economic determination always present since the first works of Raymond Williams. Engels was the first to propose a non-deterministic reading of the 1857 Preface to Contribution to the critique of economics political, remembering the action of return of the superstructure on the material base. The issue, however, is far from being resolved with that warning. Perry Anderson, faced with so much controversy, proposed abandoning the concept, suggesting a “decent funeral”. But what to put in its place?

To escape the monocausal determinism that haunts everyone, Marxist authors chose to follow different paths. Louis Althusser, for example, understands the category 'mode of production' as a complex structure formed by three instances (the economic, the legal-political and the ideological), each of which has a specific level of historicity. In this way, the old economic causality is replaced by structural causality or metonymic causality, expressions used to designate an invisible structure that, like the Subject in Lacan, produces effects. Althusser, therefore, resorted to psychoanalysis, importing the concept of overdetermination to escape economic determination.

Raymond Williams sought to get around the problem by understanding determination as “setting limits” and “pressures” and not inflexible laws [xii]. However, the question remained open and in the interview book Politics and letters she came back. It was then noted to Raymond Williams that the emphasis on the materiality of cultural practices “takes us back to a circular social whole. It might be suggested that since they are material, they may have a causality equated with material practices of a kind conventionally understood as more economic. This would be a step beyond idealistic versions of a social whole, but would it be an adequate response to our problem? In your case, after all, it is certainly no coincidence that it was textile manufacturing, with its vast potential for demand for objects of basic physical necessity, that pulled the trigger on the Industrial Revolution?”[xiii]

The refusal of “economic determinism” led Williams to an impasse: stating that we are facing “a real, unique and indissoluble process”, without hierarchy, keeps the author far from vulgar materialism, but, as he noted, on the borders of idealism . At times Williams demonstrated that he was aware of the dangers he was running, waving a retreat when he said that he learned from Lukács that “The domination of the economic order of society is peculiar to the capitalist order”.[xiv]

In fact, in pre-capitalist societies, according to Lukács, “the economy has not reached, even objectively, the level of being-for-itself, and that is why, within such a society, there is no possible position from of which the economic foundation of all social relations can become conscious.” [xv]. In capitalist society, on the contrary, the mercantile form penetrates the whole of social life, transforming everything in its image.[xvi]

But, whatever the evolutionary stage, there is always a hierarchy within the different social formations. Marx, when relating material production and culture, was aware of the need to establish priorities, even in the most primitive forms of social life. Thus, in a famous passage from The capital, stated that in the study of extinct societies the historian should prioritize the “remains of ancient work instruments” for the evaluation of economic-social formations, since “what distinguishes the different economic epochs is not what is done, but how, with what means of work is done”.

These means indicate “the social conditions in which the work is carried out”. In an analogy with animal species, he observed that working instruments would have the same importance as the “bone system” for the knowledge of disappeared animal species, and illustrate much more the characteristics of a society than “the means that only serve as a container of matter that is the object of work and which as a whole can be called the vascular system of production, such as, for example, tubes, barrels, baskets, pitchers, etc.”[xvii]

Marx quotes with approval Benjamin Franklin's definition of man as animal toolmaking, reaffirming the ontological priority of productive activity and the complementary and constitutive character of culture, which eliminates any “circularity” within social formations. The work of the negative, represented by the instruments of production, denies the passivity of consciousness and, at the same time, puts a brake on the activism of a consciousness confronted with the “hardness” of nature.

Karl Marx's observations on the “bone” and “vascular systems” can be read as a critical anticipation of a certain culturalist anthropology that shifts the priority to the “vascular system”, by studying utensils, tubes, barrels and accessories as previous cultural expressions which would, in themselves, define the character of society. But it is also worth warning against the temptations of a circular whole in which cultural practices have a causality comparable to material practices. And, mainly, they contradict the uses and abuses that Raymond Williams' cultural materialism would later suffer in Cultural Studies.

The abandonment of the primacy of the material base has political consequences when accompanied by the idea of ​​community and the redemptive role of culture. On several occasions, Raymond Williams states that capitalism generates contradictions that have no relationship with economic laws. These are “permanent human needs” that escape market production: “health, housing, family, education, what we call leisure”, contradictions “less possible to be resolved than those generated within the market” . Therefore, the political struggle goes beyond the economic sphere and calls on culture to its aid: “The cultural revolution finds its source in the perennial resistance to the suppression, by capitalism, of such basic and necessary forms of production. The cultural revolution is, in this way, against the entire version of culture and society that the capitalist mode of production has imposed.”[xviii]

The infernal dynamics of “production for production’s sake”, of the progressive accumulation of capital, would, according to Raymond Williams, have contaminated real socialism that also adhered to “productivism” and “industrialism”. In a little-known text from 1961, he wrote: “the industrial revolution is thus primordial, and capitalism and socialism are simply alternative ways of organizing it”, understanding that “the current world struggle often presents itself as a direct competition between capitalism and socialism to see who can make industrialism work better.”[xx]

The determinism here is evident in blurring such different social contexts. “Production for production’s sake” in capitalism is at the service of extracting the rate of surplus value. In the case of the Soviet Union, differently, forced industrialization, a project conceived by Trotsky and Preobrajenski and put into practice by Stalin, was the result of a political choice – the solution found to resist the siege of socialist countries by capitalism after the revolution and, then, throughout the Cold War period. The dissenting voice of this brutal method was Bukharin, a supporter of evolutionary gradualism, defeated in internal struggles and shot in 1938.

The development of the productive forces led by force allowed Russia to defeat the Nazi war machine, which, in turn, guaranteed the survival not only of socialism but also of the much praised bourgeois democracy in Europe, according to Eric's well-founded analysis. Hobsbawm.[xx]

Raymond Williams' critique of productivism is based on an alternative conception that sees society as a “human organization with common needs” and no longer an exclusively economic and political sphere as both capitalism and actually existing socialism would have understood. Such defense of a “human order” led Raymond Williams to look with sympathy at social movements that, unlike the traditional class struggle, based on relations of production, raised general issues with increasing political visibility.

This is the case of the feminist movement and the ecological movement, as well as the pacifist movement against nuclear weapons. The emergence of such movements served as a reference for the critique of productivism in “real socialism” and capitalism. Raymond Williams observed, by the way, that Marxists knew how to denounce the exploitation of women, but they did not write any studies on the reproductive process, which always seemed to be on the margins of production. The ubiquity of the commodity is criticized, as activities that do not generate commodities are also a form of production or, at least, without them production cannot take place.[xxx]

In this way, Raymond Williams unfolded his thesis on the material character of the superstructure and its inclusion as a productive force and, at the same time, reaffirmed the complementarity between the “system of maintenance” (economic) and the “system of reproduction and creation” ( family), as he wrote decades ago in The long revolution. In this way, he came closer to the flags raised by the feminist movement from the 1960s onwards.

Williams' sensitivity to new demands and his militant commitment attest to his intellectual openness and his commitment to socialism and humanism. But they didn't change her axis of thought. The decentralization of the economic sphere continues to be present and, as a result, culture is oversized. We are, therefore, faced with a heterodox version of Marxism, which sees socialism not as a consequence of the contradictory development of the productive forces, as Marx thought, but as a democratic change in the relations of production, aiming at a conscious redirection of productive activity towards the satisfaction of real human needs.

The transition to socialism, therefore, presupposes a cultural revolution that aims to create a common culture whose foundation is solidarity – a revolution that has its germ in the community tradition and in the institutions created by the working class. [xxiii]. “Intellectual and educational work”, the cultural revolution, appears as a necessary precondition for not repeating the Stalinist experience commanded by force. In this emphasis given to awareness, a certain distance can be observed in relation to Raymond Williams' first analyzes in which culture remained in a state of “semi-unconsciousness, as something that is always partly known and not perceived” [xxiii] by the individuals who experience it.

“Lived experience” continues to be claimed in the mature works of Raymond Williams, but it now coexists in a relationship of subordination with the pedagogical work that wants to go beyond immediacy. Both must go together: no longer the self-sufficiency of “practical consciousness” nor the diffusionist pretension of introducing theoretical concepts distant from life experience into the working class.

Raymond Williams' forays into politics are consistent with his self-inclusion in the militant and combative tradition of the labor movement and not in the “Marxist tradition”, as Hoggart observed. The tense relationship between the great literary critic and Marxism was, without a doubt, a remarkable chapter in the history of “Western Marxism”.

*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]

To read the first article in this series, click https://aterraeredonda.com.br/raymond-williams-e-o-marxismo-i/

To read the second article in this series, click https://aterraeredonda.com.br/raymond-williams-e-o-marxismo-ii/


[I] . WILLIAMS, Raymond. “A man without frustration”, in London Review of books, Vol 6, number 9, 1984.

[ii] . MARX, K. and ENGELS, F. the german ideology (São Paulo: Boitempo, 2007), p. 94.

[iii]. Idem, P. 96.

[iv]. CAUDWELL, Christopher. The agony of bourgeois culture (Buenos Aires: CEICS-Ediciones Ryr, 2008).

[v]. WILLIAMS, Raymond, Culture (São Paulo: Paz e Terra, 1992).

[vi]. MARX, Karl. The capital, vol. I (São Paulo: Boitempo, 2017), p. 120 and 125. A rigorous treatment of Marx's main work can be found in TEIXEIRA, Francisco. Thinking with Marx (São Paulo: Essay, 1995).

[vii]. WILLIAMS, Raymond. Marxism and literature, cit., P. 94.

[viii]. Idem, P. 96

[ix]. Same, pp. 96-7.

[X]. WILLIAMS, Raymond. Resources of Hope, cit., P. 5.

[xi]. WILLIAMS, Raymond. The long revolution (Buenos Aires: Nueva Visión, 2003), p. 52.

[xii]. WILLIAMS, Raymond. Marxism and literature, cit. P. 89-92. The theme returns in the entry DETERMINAR in Keywords (São Paulo: Boitempo, 2007), pp. 136-141.

[xiii]. WILLIAMS, Raymond. Politics and letters cit., p.140.

[xiv]. Idem, P. 135.

[xv] . LUKÁCS, Georg. History and class consciousness (Porto: Escorpião, 1974), p. 72.

[xvi] Same, p. 99.

[xvii] . MARX, Karl. The capital (Rio de Janeiro: Civilização Brasileira, 1968), p. 204.

[xviii] Idem, P. 146.

[xx]. WILLIAMS, Raymond. “The future of Marxism”, in The twentieth century, July 1961, p. 63.

[xx] . HOBSBAWM, Eric. the age of extremes (São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 1997).

[xxx] . WILLIAMS, Raymond. Politics and letters, cit., p. 142.

[xxiii]. Williams' forays into politics have been competently studied by RIVETTI, Ugo in The long journey:Raymond Williams, politics and socialism, cit.

[xxiii]. WILLIAMS, Raymond. Culture and society, cit., p.358.

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