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Victor Paananen

Raymond Williams (1921–88):
Cultural Production & the Labour Process

(June 1998)

From Socialism Today, No. 29, June 1998, pp 30–33.
Transcribed by Iain Dalton.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Raymond Williams was a working-class Marxist critic who revitalized Marxist cultural and literary criticism. Ten years on from his death, VICTOR PAANANEN pays tribute to his work.

JANUARY 1998 MARKED the passage of ten years since the death of Raymond Williams, the individual who made the largest contribution to Marxist literary and cultural criticism of anyone writing in Britain this century. For Marxist criticism to advance, it had to become more thoroughly Marxist, indeed more thoroughly materialist, than it had yet been. The materialist outlook of Marxism sees the work that humans do in the world – the labour process itself – as the fundamental reality. Labour is always a material and social process, and Marx laid out the basis for an understanding of literary and other kinds of ‘artistic’ production as labour too.

Unfortunately, Marx’s early work on this topic received too little attention, and artistic production came to be looked at as different from other labour. As will be suggested later, Williams might have made his argument for the centrality of labour even more explicit. Nonetheless, he was the Marxist critic who turned criticism ‘right-side-up’, and he fully deserves the wide influence that he now has around the world.

Williams’ questioning in depth of the Marxist tradition in literary criticism produced not only better Marxist criticism but a more comprehensive understanding of what Marx actually said. William’s intuitions about the way to proceed seemed to have been sound from the outset, but he had nonetheless to clear the way forward, re-thinking and rejecting much of the guidance of earlier British Marxists like Christopher Caudwell, Ralph Fox and Alick West. He also resisted the influence of the idealist Marxism emanating from continental theorists, especially Louis Althusser.

To use one of the terms that Williams would define and render useful, Williams had the advantage of an ‘alignment’ determined by his birth into a working-class family as the son of a railway signalman in Pandy, a village in Wales. He was five years old when the general strike “was bitterly fought out on a small scale in the village” (Williams, Politics and Letters, p. 27). Williams was the precocious scholarship boy who occasionally appears in such communities, and he won a place at Cambridge, where he “met only one other person from a working-class family” (Politics and Letters, p. 40), and understood immediately that the narrow ‘culture’ that his education was based on excluded most of the whole way of life into which he was born. As one of his early essays put it, culture is ‘ordinary’; it is how people live.

Despite what appears on the school syllabus, culture is not made up of specimens of the artistic expression by which a ruling class has over the centuries revealed its emotions. Matthew Arnold’s ideal of culture, “the best that has been known and said” – still the foundation of most liberal education – not only excluded the experience of ordinary people but understood the world in ways foreign to all not within a narrow class-based fraternity.

To become conscious of one’s alignment, as Williams did in encountering the educational system of the ruling class, is to move to ‘commitment’. For that reason. Williams’s life was also, throughout, a committed political life. Given the circumstances that socialists faced in the long night of Stalinism, Williams had to search for a way forward to a non-bureaucratic and democratic but still revolutionary socialism and this he did in a life-long quest that moved forward along with his search for the authentic intellectual contribution of Marx.

COMING FROM A community in which the Communist Party had traditional roots, he joined the CP while at Cambridge but drifted away during the war years (during which he saw active service) to re-emerge in the post-war socialist movement as one of the founding figures of the New Left and the primary author of the 1967 May Day Manifesto.

Williams was always impatient with reformists and careerists: in his contribution to The Forward March of Labour Halted? in 1981, for example, he called for a Labour Party not content to settle for small gains within capitalism but showing a full programmatic commitment to socialism.

In a 1977 interview, Williams admitted that he had suffered from “a generational block” (Politics and Letters, p. 402) that kept him from exploring Trotsky’s contribution to revolutionary theory, but he accepted his interviewer’s statement that a “grasp of this social process through which a new political order comes into existence was the deep insight, the great legacy of Trotsky’s thought” (p. 399).

No doubt, Williams’s brief involvement with the Communist Party left him with a distorted view of Trotsky that he found hard to shake off. Still, as Terry Eagleton came to recognize, “A striking feature of Williams’s career is that he moves steadily farther to the political left, in a welcome reversal of the usual clichéd trek from youthful radical to middle-aged reactionary” (Eagleton, obituary for Williams in New Left Review, 1988).

When Williams found apparent contradictions or ambiguities in Marxist texts, he never hesitated to say so, and, for a time, resisted the label ‘Marxist’. In his Culture and Society (1958), he looks at the controversy that once raged over the question of whether the critic Christopher Caudwell produced pseudo-science or a Marxist aesthetics and declares that as “one who is not a Marxist”, it is not for him to decide. Nonetheless, and characteristically, even though he in that early but important book declares Marxist explanations of concepts like ‘base’ and ‘superstructure’ to be inadequate formulations, he would spend almost twenty years in rethinking that relationship so that he could, as a Marxist, explain it in a more materialist – more Marxist – way.

This long struggle for a truly Marxist approach to literature and culture finally resulted in the landmark book, Marxism and Literature, in 1977. By this time, Williams’s thinking had been so refreshed and clarified by an immersion in Marx, and his lifelong alignment and commitment so fully confirmed in the economic-political-historical totality that he now grasped through Marxism, that he does not hesitate to announce himself a Marxist and his approach to literature that of a ‘cultural materialist’. Marxism and Literature, itself now twenty years old, must stand as the central book in Williams’s career, and the one that revivified Marxist criticism and assigned it new tasks.

THE BOOK PROCEEDS by examining key concepts that were distorted by previous Marxist critics. At the same time, it exposes the inadequacy of bourgeois formulations about literature and casts profound doubt over the value of such commonplace categories as ‘genre’ and about usual understandings of the nature of the ‘author’. Literature had long been classified, pointlessly and inconsistently, within a narrow range of ‘genres’ or types – such as novel, epic, or lyric – but such categories ignore both developments as society changes and the innovative drive that humans display. As for ‘authors’, there is, as with all others who perform labour within a society and economic system, great variation in social role, consciousness, and degree of independence.

For a book of clarification, Marxism and Literature is demanding reading in that it must struggle very hard indeed to draw out seemingly small distinctions – reproducing, as it were, Williams’s own lifelong struggle with Marxism and literature. It furthermore suffers from a paucity of examples: Williams explains that the format of the series of Oxford introductions for which the book was written severely restricted the number of pages at his disposal. In his many books and articles, Williams’s writing is remarkably free of the jargon that has infested criticism in recent decades, but here the language strikes most readers as abstract and unfamiliar. Yet, despite its problems, Marxism and Literature remains a book that in its 218 packed pages allows Marxist criticism and Marxism itself to lurch forward significantly.

‘Culture’, which most accurately refers to a ‘whole way of life’ – ‘culture’ in the sense in which anthropologists use the word – is always something made by humans. Marx developed the idea that humans make their own world by showing that making a culture is also material, social production – labour. Many Marxists, however – unlike Marx himself – failed to grasp that ideology, the production of ideas, is itself material and social. Marx used the metaphor of ‘base’ and ‘superstructure’ (‘Überbau’), and Marxist critics and others took this relationship in terms of a quite un-Marxist separation of material and intellectual realms. (For a Marxist, ‘social being determines consciousness’).

To begin to demonstrate that cultural activity is material production, Williams turns to ‘language’ and deplores the reliance of literary criticism on inadequate linguistic theory like that of Ferdinand de Saussure. Marx understood that language is an integral part of human self-creation: even if human identity is socially and materially determined, it is verbally constituted. Language, according to Marx, is ‘practical consciousness’; language is material (‘agitated layers of air’, as Marx puts it) and social.

Language use is productive activity arising from , as Williams puts it, “continuing speech-activity between real individuals who are in some continuing social relationship”. There is a “continuing development of a language”, as opposed to Saussure’s reliance on ‘past product’. “Material reality”, Williams says, is grasped “through language, which as practical consciousness is saturated by and saturates all social activity, including productive activity” (p. 37). The label ‘literature’ was historically limited to certain works selected by a ruling class from certain imaginative – generally old – texts, but ‘literature’ more accurately includes all kinds of linguistic work: “Literature”, Williams says, “is the process and the result of formal composition within the social and formal properties of a language” (p. 46).

If, for the most part, Williams finds classic Marxist formulations about language and the production of intellectual products more useful than subsequent efforts, he does not hesitate to accept Antonio Gramsci’s specialization of the term ‘hegemony’ to describe the way that the ruling class moulds the consciousness of those that it rules. He finds this word more useful than ‘superstructure’ or ‘ideology’ to describe those ‘ruling ideas of each age’, which Marx recognizes, ‘have ever been the ideas of its ruling class’ and thus come to be mistaken for reality even by those who are ruled. Within a particular hegemony, one may distinguish tradition (always selective), institutions (particularly in education and communications, largely what Althusser calls ‘the state ideological apparatus’), and formations (i.e. self-conscious intellectual or artistic movements).

Elements in a culture or a specific cultural product, like a piece of literature, that are Dominant, Residual, or Emergent, may usefully be distinguished. The Residual, which is made up of attitudes left over from classical or feudal times, can on occasion be counter-hegemonic in harking back to pre-capitalist values, as in the Christian ideal of brotherhood set up against modern competition.

The Emergent is likely to arise on a class foundation from an area of cultural production neglected by the hegemonic: until trends in rock music are incorporated into the profit system, they are often both protest and a vision of new social relationships. Their emergence is of course often stifled by the Dominant – which is the shared understanding of life under capitalism that celebrates competition rather than community.

Within structures of feeling (a favourite Williams phrase throughout his writings) found in literature and in other cultural production, even ‘Pre-emergent’ elements can be grasped. Structures of feeling are themselves social experience but often mistaken for personal experience and are felt long before fully articulated. Williams offers no examples, but the various phases of British youth culture over the last fifty years would, perhaps, be full of examples of structures of feeling that are ‘Pre-emergent’ but social in origin and in search of cultural articulation over against the hegemonic. Punk music and body-piercing are two recent instances of ‘Pre-emergent’ resistance to the hegemonic.

The ‘aesthetic’ experience is an item of consumption within bourgeois economics. What has been sought in the aesthetic in the bourgeois period are the human values that capitalism excludes. Aesthetic experiences are real, indeed at times quite physical, but occur in specific social and historical circumstances and not on an ideal plane or with meanings in other cultures or at other times. Crises in technique have occurred in periods of crisis in the relationship between art and society, so ‘forms’, which are themselves modes of social relationship, become unstable in periods of social change.

The Emergent can, remarkably enough, often be seen in the form of a literary work even before it is seen in content. (We can begin to grasp what Williams means by this emphasis on form by realizing that the new ‘message’ of rock-and-roll was grasped by youth culture before it could be articulated. Similarly, the disintegration of traditional forms in the novel has arisen alongside a feeling of dissolution in bourgeois culture that is still more an anxiety than a statement).

As for ‘Alignment and Commitment’, all writing is aligned in that it arises from a position within social relationships, but committed writing is conscious of this alignment or comes from a change of alignment. Finally, summing up, Williams argues that literary production is a social and material self-composition in which at times the hegemonic may be confronted “in the fibres of the self”.

OUT OF WHAT appears to be an unwillingness to adopt language crudely applied by some Stalinist critics, Williams does unfortunately seem in Marxism and Literature to miss some opportunities to link literary production and other forms of cultural production with the general labour process. He notes that the word “‘labour’ ... was more and more narrowly conceived”, so that it did not cover “the whole material process” (p. 33), but only certain kinds of work. But surely Williams should not then avoid the unifying word ‘labour’ but should insist that it be broadened to its full Marxist meaning, in which it encompasses all human efforts to change the world.

As Williams himself points out:

“‘Consciousness and its products’ are always, though in variable forms, parts of the material social process itself: whether as what Marx called the necessary element of ‘imagination’ in the labour process; or as the necessary conditions of associated labour, in language and in practical ideas of relationship; or, which is so often and significantly forgotten, in the real processes – all of them physical and material, most of them manifestly so – which are masked and idealized as ‘consciousness and its products’ but which, when seen without illusions, are themselves necessarily social material activities.” (pp. 61–62)

Labour, in fact, represents a linking of mental and material processes, but when labour is alienated, as it has been ever since the simultaneous emergence of private property and the division of labour, the result is ideology, which Marx and Engels call ‘self-dependent theory’ or ‘false consciousness’.

If Williams boldly asserted the inclusion of all social material process under the word ‘labour’, a unity not missed by Marx and Engels, he would make it much more evident that literary and cultural production, its products as well as its processes, may be analysed in the same terms as other kinds of labour. Humanity itself is divided in the division of labour (as Engels argued), so it is at best a damaged human being reaching after completeness who has made the literary product. All the limits and pressures of the writer ‘s social existence are reflected in the writer and the literary product. The realm of the aesthetic as an escape from the harsh realities of capitalism is the false consciousness that believes it is “in a position to emancipate itself from the world” (Marx and Engels, German Ideology). Williams risks maintaining the separation of ‘mental’ and ‘material’ labour that both he and Marx warn against. All human productivity is precisely ‘labour’ and must be called that even if other Marxists, especially in the 1930s, had too narrow a view of what the word meant.

The achievement of Marxism and Literature is, in fact, to return to Marx to demonstrate that the production of literature – and all other cultural production – is the creation of a material social process. All creative work is part of the labour process by which humans, in the defining activity of the species, change the world. All labour is part of an effort to create a more human world.

When the labour expended is alienated labour, the distortions of such alienation is evident in the product, whether that product is a sonnet or a skyscraper. But all work, literature included, reaches for a full humanity. The work Marxists are called to perform addresses the ultimate human goal most directly because the labour that Marxists undertake is the building of socialism. To this ultimate task, Raymond Williams, from the unexpected vantage point of the study of literature, helps us to understand how human labour contains a yearning within it that is part of the historical movement toward world-wide socialism.


Culture and Society 1780–1950: An exploration of the impact of the period of the industrial revolution on society and the culture that proposes to represent it (1958).

The Long Revolution: The industrial, democratic, and cultural revolutions are intertwined and must advance together (1961).

Modern Tragedy: Modern tragedy can be understood only within the twentieth century experience of war, revolution, and social crisis (1966).

Drama from Ibsen to Brecht: Even though naturalism in drama was needed to show the human rather than supernatural origins of human suffering, the conventions of naturalism have proved increasingly inadequate after Ibsen (1968).

The Country and the City: What we call the country is largely made by human labour, but English literature has expressed a longing for a rural way of life impossible in the modern city (1973).

Keywords: Definitions of the slippery words needed to analyse culture and society (1976).

Marxism and Literature: Williams’ most important work of Marxist theory (1977).

Politics and Letters: Interviews with the New Left Review: In his responses to interviewers, Williams puts forward a history of his ideas and some autobiography (1979).

Culture: A brief outline of a sociology of culture (1981).

Towards 2000: Analysis of the current brutal phase in capitalism that manages to find hope for a socialist future (1983).

The Politics of Modernism: (Posthumous, assembled by Tony Pinkney) Modernism in the arts was anti-bourgeois in its initial impulse but was soon employed to justify capitalist control in a world without values (1989).

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