The Marxism of Raymond Williams

Raymond Williams was a Marxist whose politics were deeply anchored in radical working-class and internationalist traditions. Recent postcolonial critics have accused him of ignoring the realities of empire. Examining his body of work shows this is wrong.

Raymond Williams in 1969.

Raymond Williams hasn’t survived the cultural turn intact. Even though he was instrumental in foregrounding the significance of culture in human affairs, his materialist methodology and commitment to socialism jarred against the textualism and cultural relativism of the last three decades. The rise of neoliberalism had an effect as well. It undercut the values of cooperation and solidarity that were key to postwar radical intellectuals like Williams. But a Williams revival is finally underway. Phil O’Brien provides an excellent new collection of essays by Williams that warms the heart of his longtime admirers and introduces a new generation of socialists to his deep counterhegemonic outlook.

There are many reasons to read Williams today: His thick descriptions of cultural processes and literary texts allow the reader to inhabit a rich world of working-class traditions criticizing the dominant values and meanings of capitalist culture. His analysis of culture is rooted in class, capital accumulation, and political antagonism, which buttresses the notion that culture is a sphere of class contestation. His Marxism never succumbed to the cultural pessimism of critical theory and was deeply attuned to the changing fortunes of political agency in various historical formations. And, finally, he was committed to the potentialities of the realist aesthetic and its investment in voicing dispossessed classes and marginalized perspectives. With an academic upswing in the study of global realism currently underway, Williams’s views about the veracity and international reach of realism are also back in currency.

Add to that the compelling biographical facts of his working-class Welsh formation, his Communism in 1930s Cambridge, his experience commanding a tank in World War II, his career teaching for over a decade in the Workers’ Educational Association, and a professorship of drama at University of Cambridge — and you get a sense of the wide range of social and political experience that Williams’s work embodies. Indeed, Williams was the leading cultural Marxist and socialist intellectual of twentieth-century Britain, and he shaped a whole generation of New Left critics and theorists.

Williams also had a profound influence on radicals like Edward Said. In 1973’s The Country and the City, he provided a model of ideological critique that shaped Said’s political turn in criticism in the 1970s and 1980s. In fact, Said applied Williams’s categories (like “structure of feeling”) to the analysis of empire as he carved out his most famous, though flawed, postcolonial reading of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park by revising Williams’s own reading of the novel. For Said, Williams exemplified the politically committed intellectual that he admired but criticized in the name of empire (I will return to this issue at the end). The truth of the matter is that, even to those who thought they had superseded him, Williams’s thinking was far richer and deeper than they had supposed. Terry Eagleton put it well when he said in The Idea of Culture that contemporary cultural theory is “yet to catch up with” Williams’s positions.

There are numerous aspects of Williams’s work worth engaging today, including his writings on drama, his own novels, and his critical studies of British culture and media. O’Brien’s collection provides a representative set of his work. I focus here on Williams’s contribution to Marxism — his engagement with the Marxist tradition and materialist analysis of culture as well as his notion of the “long revolution” as a progressive working-class project.

Williams was a lifelong socialist, but his engagement with Marxism was uneven — depending on period and context. In 1930s Cambridge, he was friendly with British Communism, but he drifted away from it after the war. The 1950s were a period of political isolation when he worked on his first significant critical contribution, 1958’s Culture and Society, 1780–1950. The 1960s brought him back to more clearly defined Marxist preoccupations in which capitalism and class (rather than industrialism) played a sharper role in his analysis. The Country and the City and 1977’s Marxism and Literature embody his Marxist contribution at its best, and that fertile decade of the 1970s also produced his most direct sustained engagement with British Marxism in the form of an extraordinary series of interviews that he conducted with New Left Review. Published as Politics and Letters in 1979, these deep interrogations stand as a testimony to Williams’s intellectual openness, generosity, and willingness to be scrutinized by a younger generation of New Left Marxists, who, in their spirit of powerful challenge, leave no stone unturned in their searching questions to him. No wonder it took Williams six months afterward to return to writing. His interlocuters pushed him to the limit, making him explain and defend his judgments and life project and concede his analytic failings. Yet he managed to come out of this ten-day ordeal with his intellectual and political stature only growing in esteem.

Two aspects of Williams’s engagement with Marxism are worth flagging. The first is literary critical, the second theoretical — basically to do with Georg Lukács and Antonio Gramsci. Williams found Lukács’s writing on realism very fertile. Though he dissented from his narrow ideological take on modernism, he agreed with Lukács about nineteenth-century realism, where the relationship between fiction and reality is less problematic. As Williams explains in Politics and Letters: “My argument for realism has always been that it is a certain perception of reality and a certain awareness of interrelationships, not that it carries a certain mode of composition with it, nor that it has a second-order relation to pre-existing reality.” The realist novel, Williams argued in a characteristic description in 1961’s The Long Revolution:

offers a valuing of a whole way of life, a society that is larger than any of the individuals composing it, and at the same time valuing creations of human beings who, while belonging to and affected by and helping to define this way of life, are also, in their own terms, absolute ends in themselves. Neither element, neither the society nor the individual, is there as a priority.

It’s this relation between individual and society that nineteenth-century realism represents so well, and it is this interaction that is challenged by the representational crisis of modernism. But, unlike Lukács’s sense of ideological corruption, Williams read modernism as a particular response to a new set of social developments, like mobility and the changing social location and composition of writers. The essay in O’Brien’s collection called “When Was Modernism?” recovers Williams’s original materialist reading of modernism (a more accurate version than an earlier, posthumously circulated one). It shows Williams both accounting for modernism and, at the same time, resisting its hegemonic and universalizing cultural appetite to substitute itself for what is a broader and more diverse modern artistic movement.

The same nuanced response can be seen in his engagement with Gramsci. Unlike other theorists who turned Gramsci into a culturalist, Williams understood the political nature of Gramsci’s project and emphasized class contestation within hegemony. As Williams argued in Marxism and Literature, because there are “primarily inequalities between classes,” Gramsci’s notion “introduced the necessary recognition of dominance and subordination in what has still, however, to be recognized as a whole process.” As a “lived system of meanings and values — constitutive and constituting,” hegemony, therefore, entails power distribution as well as an opposition to it. So “it does not just passively exist as a form of dominance. It has continually to be renewed, recreated, defended, and modified. It is also continually resisted, limited, altered, challenged by pressures not at all its own.” Hegemony is not an “abstract totalization” of control and domination; it actively embodies forms of contradiction in the political equation.

For Williams, counterhegemony and alternative hegemony are key concepts here. To explain their workings in cultural theory, he makes a further elaboration and introduces an incredibly useful set of concepts that convey the complex dynamism of cultural production: dominant, residual, and emergent. Culture is crisscrossed by varied forces, whether those forces are residual elements from the past still active in the present (like the selective tradition of what we choose to remember and celebrate about the national past); emergent “new meanings and values, new practices, new relationships” (like the Bloomsbury Group in the interwar period); or dominant mechanisms of incorporation and acceptance integral to class rule (like elite forms of education that separate working-class writers from their communities).

What’s certain for Williams is that modes of domination do not exhaust human potentialities — and herein lies hope for change and social transformation. As he states: “no mode of production and therefore no dominant social order and therefore no dominant culture ever in reality includes or exhausts all human practice, human energy, and human intention.” This emphasis sets the scene for interpreting a range of cultural activity: from new cultural formations and elitist tradition to the progressive work of class fractions like the Bloomsbury Group (who intervened to liberalize their whole class, as Williams compellingly argues in “The Bloomsbury Fraction”). For Williams, cultural analysis is about both the stability and variation of forms and conventions, connected to social and political contestation. His “Marxist Cultural Theory” in O’Brien’s collection is a good summary of Williams’s theoretical innovations in this regard.

Williams called his Marxism “cultural materialism” — which is effectively a descriptive accounting of culture as a material practice that traces its role both in hegemonic and counterhegemonic practices. While Williams directly tackled theoretical questions in the 1970s, his Marxism was based more fully in cultural practice, and this was a conscious choice. As he states in Politics and Letters: “Why do I discuss a minor 18th-century poet in more detail than I do Marx? Because this is where a really reactionary social consciousness is being continually reproduced, and to till your own alternative garden to it is not enough.”

His notion of the “long revolution” exemplifies this intellectual orientation. It’s about identifying political, industrial, and cultural practices, including working-class institutions, that are part of the long struggle for social emancipation. Williams’s challenge to capitalism is best articulated in an essay called “You’re a Marxist, Aren’t You?” published in 1989’s Resources of Hope. Here he articulates his life project succinctly when he says:

I believe that the system of meanings and values which a capitalist society has generated has to be defeated in general and in detail by the most sustained kinds of intellectual and educational work. This is a cultural process which I called “the long revolution” . . . a genuine struggle which was part of the necessary battles of democracy and of economic victory for the organized working class.

Culture is important because it is entangled with power. Challenging its dominant forms in the name of democracy, solidarity, and cooperation is, therefore, crucial political work for Williams. O’Brien’s collection contains gems that speak to this project. “British Working-Class Literature After 1945” is a superb example of how class experience changes through education and distance from working-class origins, producing the novelistic “form as escape.” In “Popular Forms of Writing,” Williams ruminates on the effects of cultural domination on working-class language.

Two other political essays capture Williams’s socialist commitments in powerful ways. “The Future of Marxism” conveys his internationalist perspective and his deep sense that Marxism is an active political movement that is much bigger than some narrow Western Marxist complacencies. He states, “The only thing that matters is the reality of socialism: the achievements of peace, freedom, and justice,” and everything now “depends on the search for understanding, between varying traditions and peoples.” As this particular essay shows, what Williams was sure about was that any anti-capitalist movement that “hesitates before socialism” requires constructive engagement and an inclusive unified vision of change through equitable political and economic democracy. His confidence in working-class organization came with a universal perspective and a recognition that socialism entails deep-rooted equality that is worth fighting for.

What of Williams and empire? Reading Williams’s work, it is hard to accept the Saidian accusation that Williams ignored empire. His New Left Review interlocutors raised the issue of empire back in 1979, in relation to his 1958 text Culture and Society, and Williams did then acknowledge that he should have accounted for its impact on the tradition he was outlining in a systematic way. But Said himself hadn’t done so in any of his books until Orientalism in 1978. In fact, empire does play an important role in The Country and the City — not a “peripheral” one, as Said maintains in 1993’s Culture and Imperialism.

What Said actually objects to about Williams is not that he ignored empire, but that empire is not the singular and primary source of cultural production and meaning that it is for Said from Orientalism onward. If Williams saw capitalism and imperialism as part of the same interpretive framework (that land improvement in the colonies links back to enclosures in Britain), Said posited the explanatory singularity of empire: that it is Britain’s imperial culture that makes territorial expansion and colonial practices possible. Sympathetic as Williams was to Said’s anti-colonial politics, to substitute capitalism for empire in explaining British domestic culture and society simply vitiates Williams’s materialist emphasis on capitalist relations.

As Williams explained in his reading of Mansfield Park, empire should be understood in the context of capitalist accumulation, and the plantations in Antigua should be seen as part and parcel of Jane Austen’s morality of improvement, which has both domestic and colonial effects. To inflate the economic and representational power of empire in the novel is not just to misread it. It is also to misconstrue the workings and effects of capitalism as a social formation in Britain at the time.

The Country and the City provides a robust perspective for analyzing the global effects of both capitalism and imperialism. As Williams argued, “one of the last models of ‘city and country’ is the system we now know as imperialism.” Williams wrote this when Said himself was enmeshed in writing his politically and conceptually negligible Beginnings: Intention and Method (1975). Indeed, it was Williams, then, who was extending his own analysis to the colonies and postcolonies. The Country and the City is full of references, mentions, and analyses of texts from around the world, like Chinua Achebe’s 1958 novel Things Falls Apart.

Williams was, in fact, clear about the commonalities of experience across racial and imperial divides, and he concludes by saying: “Yet we have got so used to thinking of common experiences through the alienating screens of foreignness and race that all too often we take the particularity of these stories as merely exotic.” This is a conceptual advance that captures the challenges, and overcomes the limits, of thinking about global culture. It’s a testimony to Williams’s rich materialism that it developed to tackle the cultural effects of imperialism head-on. Said’s hostile and dismissive attitude toward Marxism blinded him to the tradition’s real assets and advances.

Williams has a lot to offer twenty-first-century socialism, including a distinctive ecological perspective that benefits materialist environmental critique. But the main reason to read Williams is his commitment to working-class cultural production and political organization and his way of looking at the world from the vantage point of labor.

About the Author

Bashir Abu-Manneh is head of the School of English at the University of Kent and a Jacobin contributing editor.