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Colin Sparks

Raymond Williams, Culture and Marxism

(Summer 1980)

From International Socialism 2 : 9, Summer 1980, pp. 131–144.
Transcribed by Marven James Scott, with thanks to the Lipman-Miliband Trust.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Raymond Williams is Professor of Drama at the University of Cambridge. Surprisingly, for one holding such a position, he claims to stand within the tradition of Marxism. He is a frequent contributor to New Left Review and the editors of that journal have recently published a 400-page book of interviews with him. [1] Part of the publishers’ blurb says that he is ‘the most productive and most influential socialist writer in England today’. There is no way of knowing if that statement is true, but Williams is certainly widely read: his book Culture and Society, first published in 1958, still sells an average of 5–6,000 copies a year.

A large part of his audience is, of course, amongst the intellectual and academic left and that alone may be enough to produce a certain scepticism amongst readers of this journal. There is no doubt that the concerns of those circles are very different from what International Socialism understands by Marxism, but it does not necessarily follow that everything they laud must be revisionist dross. In the case of Williams, I want to argue, some of the questions he has asked have been ones upon which our own answers have been very shaky. Of course, there certainly are grounds for suspicion both about his overall positions and some of the answers that he has given, but it would, I think, be a mistake to reject his work out of hand.

Williams is a difficult writer. This is partly because he often writes in an impenetrable style and partly because his work deals with contemporary problems through the filter of a number of debates within academic thinking. He is, in addition, particularly difficult for readers of this journal because the problems he deals with – culture, art, etc. – are not our central concerns and, consequently, the concepts and issues at stake are not as familiar as those we use in, for example, politics and economics. But the fact that they are not central for us does not mean that they are unimportant, nor does it stop them being useful to other, hostile traditions which we seek to challenge. I will therefore try to explain what the arguments are about as well as criticizing them.

To begin with that part or Williams’ work which I think is most valuable. If we look at the classic Marxist discussions of art, literature culture, etc., we get the following picture: the major task facing a Marxist critic is to show how particular great works of art were related to the society that produced them. This is a concern which begins with Holy Writ itself: Marx, for example, was steeped in the great literature of the past. Lenin wrote about Tolstoy and liked Beethoven. Trotsky defended the continued reading of Dante. That tradition is continued by lesser figures; Lukacs, for example, devoted a lot of his energies to the study of classic texts from Goethe and a host of others. It still continues today, as this journal and Socialist Review demonstrate.

Now, I do not want to argue that this is not an important activity or that all the energy devoted to it was wasted. It is rather that this sort of inquiry is a very limited one. It narrows the scope of culture to a few works. It is usually accompanied by the belief that already-existing forms of culture are superior to newly emerging ones and it is often accompanied by the belief that the best culture was produced in the past. In addition, because it takes as its model culture generated in the bourgeois epoch, it takes over many bourgeois assumptions; for example that great art is the work of great individuals (usually men). As a result, even the best Marxist discussions tend to get involved in arguing about things like ‘creative genius’ and ‘poetic vision’. One set of unintended consequences flows from this intellectual framework: that the masses have produced very little great art apart from marginal areas like folk-song and that cultural production, and even consumption, are very difficult indeed, and are thus the province of a special sort of people. Whether its proponents like it or not, the consequences of this view are profoundly anti-democratic, anti-socialist, and thus disabling.

It was against this limiting conception of culture that Williams developed some of his best ideas. He put his objections in the following form in the course of discussing the study of literature:

‘... the natural area of interest of this kind of person – an interest in all discourse in writing or speech – had been specialised and even restricted to printed imaginative compositions of a certain quality. Of course, when people looked around, most of these had been written in the past. Today – it was said – there was only television and all that rubbish, so that literature, in some places, came to resemble that proverbial bird which flew in ever-decreasing circles until it finally and fundamentally disappeared.’ [2]

Williams arrived at his position not by means of a critique of the limits of the orthodox Marxist tradition but through a study of the ways in concepts like culture had been used within English literature and his early formulations are spelt out in Culture and Society. In some ways, the key thinkers in that literary tradition, and in particular Matthew Arnold (a nineteenth century civil servant, poet and critic), parallel the way in which culture has been thought of by the sort of Marxists I described above. Arnold’s most famous account runs thus:

‘The whole scope of this essay is to recommend culture as the great help in our present difficulties; culture being a pursuit of our total perfection by means of getting to know, on all matters which most concern us, the best that has been thought and said in the world’ [3]

Now, in the case of Arnold, there was no doubt at all about the reactionary consequences of this view. Culture and Anarchy was written as a response to a riot in Hyde Park organised by workers demanding the vote. Arnold thought that this was a very bad thing indeed, and he quoted his father with approval on the subject of rioting: ‘flog the rank and file and fling the ring-leaders from the Tarpeian Rock!’ [4] Arnold’s idea was that this timeless, classless culture could be used as a balm to prevent unpleasant things like class conflict. It is a view which is embedded in the teaching of ‘culture’ in schools, where generations of working-class children have been exposed to Shakespeare et. al. as part of a process designed to turn them into seekers after ‘sweetness and light’ (another of Arnold’s formulations) and obedient wage slaves.

Against this, Williams first argued that culture cannot be reduced to a set of things: ‘A culture can never be reduced to its artifacts while it is being lived.’ [5] When we look at a culture in the past, we tend to think of it in terms of the particular works that it produced. For all sorts of reasons we cannot recover the full range of activities which went to make up any particular culture. In addition, those things which we do look at have often already been filtered by various processes from accident to previous critical judgement which already prejudice our ideas of their place in their own time. Now, while a lot of this may be unavoidable simply because the culture of the past is now dead, it is still a mistake to make a virtue of necessity and to think that all we can do is to look at particular artifacts. And it is even more of a mistake to then judge our own, living, cultural experience by the methods and standards we have used for past cultures. Thus, Williams argued, if we look at working-class culture simply in terms of the cultural artifacts that it has produced we get a very distorted picture which will tend to flatter the greater productivity of the ruling class. In order to get out of this unattractive corner Williams proposed a shift of emphasis:

‘... a culture is not only a body of intellectual and imaginative work; it is also and essentially a whole way of life. The basis of a distinction between bourgeois and working class culture is only secondarily in the field of intellectual and imaginative work, and even here it is complicated... by the common elements resting on a common language. The primary distinction is to be sought in the whole way of life, and here, again, we must not confine ourselves to such evidence as housing, dress and modes of leisure. Industrial production tends to produce a uniformity in such matters, but the vital distinction lies at a different level. The crucial distinguishing element in English life since the Industrial Revolution is not language, not dress, not leisure – for these indeed will tend towards uniformity. The crucial distinction is between alternative ideas of the nature of social relationships.’ [6]

Culture now became the whole gamut of ways in which people thought, felt and acted.

This new position had three important consequences. One was largely conjunctural: at that time it was argued by some that the working class was fast disappearing and being replaced by a new amorphous middle-class population. As evidence, things like changes in leisure patterns etc. were cited. Williams provided a powerful argument against that reactionary view: for him class still remained a central issue which was embodied in different views of the world. The second was that, with a whole new range of things from football to brass bands admitted as culture every bit as much as painting and poetry it is no longer the case that the ruling class or its intellectual mercenaries are the overwhelming source of culture. Thirdly, since these activities were, and are, widespread the study of culture is no longer obsessed with great figures and their products.

All of these seem to me to be valuable and progressive positions. They attack some of the most cherished myths of the bourgeoisie. There is no longer any basis for thinking that there is one privileged area of life which is the sole preserve of the bourgeois individual. There is no longer any basis for the belief that ‘culture’ is the property of an elite who happen to own the means of production and that those who do not happen to share a liking for Monteverdi or Titian or or Ben Jonson are rough untutored louts who lack some valuable human quality – and are thus unfit to rule. There is no longer an area of life in which the working class can be shown to be inferior. Culture is no longer something which flourished in the past, and the present and the future are not deserts barren of human achievement.

But, even if we accept this argument, there remain very substantial problems with Williams’ work. In developing his argument about the reality of working class culture, Williams argued that:

‘We may now see what is properly meant by ‘working-class culture’. It is not proletarian art, or council houses, or a particular use of language; it is, rather, the basic collective idea, and the institutions, manners, habits of thought, and intentions which proceed from this ... Working-class culture, in the stage through which it has been passing, is primarily social (in that it has created institutions) rather than individual (in particular intellectual or imaginative works). When it is considered in context, it can be seen as a very remarkable creative achievement.’ [7]

This raises two difficulties. In the first place, we will want to ask what is the relationship between a ‘social’ culture and an ‘individual’ culture. In the way that it is argued by Williams, this is something of a false debate, since it is clearly the case that, in a classless society, the conditions would exist for the extension of the conditions necessary for the production of ‘intellectual and imaginative works’. But beyond that lies a real problem: why is it that, even if we adopt this ‘anthropological’ version of culture, we still seem to need ideas which allow us to talk about the specificity of intellectual and imaginative works? We could go even further, and argue not only that while angling and novel-writing might both be cultural activities, they are different sorts of activity and in addition, some novels are better than others. In other words, unless we adopt a really radical populism, then it seems inevitable that we require an ‘aesthetic’ in addition to our anthropology. The difficulty does not seem to me insuperable: we can quite easily argue that while the ‘basic collective idea’ may be the bed-rock of working class culture it is capable of a great deal of development and that we can find some cultural activities, and even artifacts, which embody that basic idea but in very complex and subtle ways. Just as there is a distance between trade union membership and activity in a revolutionary party so there is a distance between the basic collective idea and the plays of Brecht. It involves no rejection of Williams’ basic insight to develop ways of looking at the latter. [8]

A much more substantial problem is that of deciding where the boundaries of culture lie in Williams’ account. One of the great advantages of having a conception of culture as painting, music, etc. is that we know what we are talking about. With the definition proposed by Williams everything is, or can be, culture and thus the term is so full that it is empty. This is particularly clear in his argument that working-class culture is, up to now, embodied in institutions, by which he means unions, the Labour Party, etc. Now, since we already have a very well-developed set of concepts for talking about those sorts of things, it is difficult to see what we could add by introducing new terms drawn from the study of culture. This is a very real difficulty, at least at the level of theory. While we can easily agree that, in practice, writing novels is ‘culture’ while winning strikes is not, there are a number of things – street theatre groups, for example – which are not so easy to classify. And even if we can work out a theoretical border line between culture and non-culture we still have to try to solve the problem of the relationship between the two. Williams himself tries to propose a solution to these problems but, for the moment, I would like to leave them hanging on the page as questions and move to wider considerations of Williams’ position as a whole.

For many years, Williams had a problematic relationship to Marxism. In Culture and Society, for example, his discussion of English Marxist theories of culture was, while friendly, distinctly that of a detached observer. In the sixties, with his discovery of Lukacs and Goldmann, he began to publicly announce his convergence with Marxism and his work in the last ten years has been explicitly within a Marxist framework.

But, of course, in this naughty world, Marxism means all things to all people and we need to inquire a little further into what Williams actually has to say. Marxist critics have argued that his early work has a ‘residual populism’ and exhibits a ‘classically centrist stance’ [9] or that his position lacks a full understanding of class struggle and class domination. [10] In some ways the problems with these criticisms is that they do not go far enough in that, at least in Culture and Society, many of Williams’ formulations come very close to abstract reformist propagandism. [11] On the other hand, because they are directed at only the explicit political positions, they stop short of the real problem: can we find in Williams an underlying and continuous position and, if so, how are we to assess it?

One of the key terms in Williams’ vocabulary is ‘structure of feeling’. He defines it thus:

‘The term is difficult, but “feeling” is chosen to emphasize a distinction from more formal concepts of “world view” or “ideology”. It is not only that we must go beyond formally held and systematic beliefs, though of course we have always to include them. It is that we are concerned with meanings and values as they are actively lived and felt, and the relations between these and formal or systematic beliefs are in practice variable ... An alternative definition would be structures of experience: in one sense the better and wider word, but with the difficulty that one of its senses has that past tense which is the most important obstacle to recognition of the area of social experience which is being defined. We are talking about characteristic elements of impulse, restraint, and tone; specifically affective elements of consciousness and relationships: not feeling against thought, but thought as felt and feeling as thought: practical consciousness of a present kind, in a living and interrelating continuity. We are then defining these elements as a “structure”: as a set, with specific, internal relations, at once interlocking and in tension.’ [12]

This idea of structure of feeling is obviously very close to that conception of culture taking its class-definition from the basic idea about social relations. Such a structure is clearly conceived of as prior to formal ideologies or political positions and might survive the changes which these undergo. It seems sensible to enquire as to what is Williams’ own structure of feeling.

A full study of this question would be very long, involving a number of novels as well as his critical work so I will restrict myself to looking at one key book. This is The Country and the City, which was written between 1968 and 1971. It is an appropriate choice for a number of reasons. In the first place, it is roughly co-incident with Williams’ public announcement of his resumption of Marxism. In the second place, it is, by the standards of his critical works, a remarkably personal document. Thirdly, and this is a matter of judgement, it seems to me to be an exemplary book for my purposes.

Williams’ concern in this book is to examine the various ways in which the conceptions of rural and urban life have focussed ideas about social relations as a whole. Early in the book, writing about Cambridge and Cambridgeshire, he remarks that:

‘... whenever I consider the relations between country and city, and between birth and learning, I find this history active and continuous: the relations are not only of ideas and experiences, but of rent and interest, of situation and power; a wider system.’ [13]

In the subsequent discussion, he disposes of various mythical renderings of the opposition between town and country, including the classic Marxist attitude towards ‘rural idiots’. He argues from the experience of Cuba and China that ‘these people, whom orthodoxy has consigned to the role of supporting players in history, have been, for the last forty years, the main revolutionary force in the world’. [14] His main object is to argue that the logic of historical development has been to render the opposition between capital and labour a common feature of both city and country. He argues that the development of modern imperialism has reproduced the tension between city and country on a world scale:

‘The “metropolitan” states, through a system of trade, but also through a complex of economic and political controls, draw food and, more critically, raw materials from these areas of supply, this effective hinterland, that is also the greater part of the earth’s surface and that contains the majority of its peoples. Thus a model of city and country, in economic and political relationships, has gone beyond the boundaries of the nation-state, and, is seen but also challenged as a model of the world.’ [15]

While this may be a limited and one-sided view of imperialism, it retains enough truth to establish that the opposition of country and city remains an important one.

However, it is one thing to argue that the question of the peasantry and its implications for the global struggle for socialism is an important one. It is quite another to then argue that the experience of rural labour has some sort of special virtue. This, I think, is what Williams does; he writes, for example, that:

‘I have had the luck to thin a wood and watch the cowslips and bluebells and foxgloves come back; to repair and rebuild old drystone walls; to hedge and ditch, after long neglect, and to see from skilled men how the jobs should be done.’ [16]

Behind this passage there are two distinct currents of thought. One is the very healthy rejection of the division of labour, and in particular the division between mental and manual labour, which is a central aspect of Marx’s own critique of capitalism. But the other quite unmistakable, current is the privileging of certain kinds of non-mechanised, and in practice incompletely socialised, labour as having some special ability to overcome the opposition between labour and nature. This is not, in my opinion, compatible with Marxist socialism since that theory rests upon the possibility of human freedom through the superior productivity of socialised labour aided by the use of machinery. The source of this conception of labour is not at all Marxist. It lies in that literary tradition, of which Ruskin (a nineteenth century art critic) was the best exponent, and which was on his own account, very important in Williams’ intellectual formation. The attempt to synthesise these two currents has always been problematic and is, for example, the source of a number of the problems in William Morris. One of the central elements of Williams’ structure of feeling is thus, to say the least, heavily nuanced in the direction of a non-marxist current of thought.

Again, if we take the question of class as a primary definer of social experience, there is no doubt whatsoever that this is a central aspect of Williams’ thought. Class-struggle, however, is a different question. There is no doubt that criticisms of his earlier positions have been accepted by Williams and, at the level of formal ‘ideology’ he now accepts the centrality of the notion. What there is much more doubt about is the extent to which this is now an integral part of his structure of feeling. The Country and the City provides a litmus test of that in his discussion of Thomas Hardy, who is obviously central to his concerns.

Williams begins his chapter by reminding us that: ‘Thomas Hardy was born a few miles from Tolpuddle, a few years after the deportation of the farm labourers who had come together to form a trade union.’ [17] He quite rightly reminds us that Hardy is using as his starting point a society characterised by rapid change and intense class struggle. But, in discussing the transmutation from real Dorset to literary Wessex, Williams focuses on Hardy’s concerns with education, agrarian change and social mobility; in other words, the concrete experience of class. Now, so far as this goes, it is undoubtedly correct and Williams is right to argue that Jude the Obscure is the culmination of the earlier novels rather than a fresh departure. But there is another aspect of the transition from Dorset to Wessex: so far as I know, Hardy’s fictional world succeeds in, as it were, boiling off the volatile elements of class struggle present in the Tolpuddle martyrs and other agrarian movements, leaving us with individual struggle which, while they might be important, interesting, even representative, are not what Lukacs would have called ‘typical’.

My purpose in drawing attention to this is not to provide an opening for a boring orthodox polemic about the centrality of the class struggle to all good literature. Rather it is to draw attention to two points about Hardy and his novels as they stand. Hardy’s work is rightly famous for the attention it gives to the practical experience of rural labour and it is therefore an interesting and properly literary question to ask why it is that one important aspect of this experience should suddenly become invisible in Hardy’s fictional account. Secondly, we know that Hardy was aware of attempts at rural trade unionism and wrote about them in what Williams calls his ‘fine essay’ on The Dorsetshire Labourer. [18] Even if Hardy was sceptical about the utility of these attempts, it is again an interesting and properly literary question to ask why something which is present in his non-fictional writing should be absent from his fictional writing. And it is also very important to ask why, in the course of a serious discussion of Hardy, Williams himself never asks these painfully obvious questions.

I think that the answer is that Williams’ structure of feeling does not really incorporate class-struggle as such. Class, as an experience of domination and consequent crippling, is quite central to Williams, but class struggle is something to which there is, at best, a formal and gestural acknowledgement.

We might then say that an approximation to Williams’ real structure of feeling is one in which the passage between country and town and between classes are the central features. In fact, these correspond closely to his own biography as a movement from the son of a railwayman in a Welsh village to the mature professor of drama at Cambridge University. Such a structure of feeling is neither ridiculously eccentric nor unimportant. It is probably true that a number of the readers of this journal have, in a rather less extreme form, a similar experience of upward mobility. And it is certainly true that, in a society whose central image of bourgeois national unity is the figure of a country lady who likes horses and corgis, the question of the images of rural society is of considerable ideological importance. But neither of these major poles are central to Marxist structure of feeling; that would centre upon the permanence and necessity of class-stratification under capitalism and upon the immense possibilities present even in the bourgeois form of socialised labour.

The consequences of all of this are of some importance. While I would argue strongly for the importance of Williams’ initial broadening of the scope of cultural activity and enquiry beyond the rigid bounds within which some prominent Marxist intellectuals wish to confine it, it nevertheless remains the case that Williams’ overall work has had some serious consequences. For example, the problem of combining Williams catholic conception of culture with any sense of the qualitative differences between different types of cultural activity has often led to the rankest forms of populism. A large number of the studies of working class culture hitherto emanating from the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham have been guilty of this.

But, by and large, such problems have been confined to the academic study of culture and have had very little direct political impact. Much more important is the way in which the relationship between culture and non-culture, or between culture and politics, which we looked at earlier has been analysed. Williams’ own solution is to argue that while class definitions of reality may be important, there remains a further area of the ‘human’ which is not exhausted by class:

‘... there is always other social being and consciousness which is neglected and excluded: alternative perceptions of others, in immediate relationships; new perceptions and practices of the material world. In practice these are different in quality from the developing and articulated interests of a rising class.’ [19]

What Williams seems to be arguing here is that there is an area of cultural activity which is not reducible to formal political practice, although he immediately goes on to remark that much of political practice depends upon the relationship between the two.

Now, at one level, this statement is undoubtedly correct. We can find formulations in Holy Writ, for example Trotsky, which point to the evident fact that class consciousness and cultural production develop at an uneven pace. We might find the theoretical underpinning of this objectionable in that it seems to rest upon some notion of an abstract human essence which permeates all human life quite independent of the mode of production but the dislocation that it points to is quite obviously a real one. The problem arises when we insert this insight into its actual political context.

Over the years, Williams has been used by many different political currents and today is no exception. Some of the reviews of politics and letters have been positively gushing. One begins: ‘This is, quite simply, one of the most magnificent books I have read in a lifetime of many texts’ and ends: ‘Magnificent is almost too weak a word for work that has wondered about that.’ [20] I wonder about that sort of praise. And one of the things that I wonder about is why should such a book command such extravagance from left intellectuals in Britain today.

Quite apart from the specific motives of that reviewer or the people who decided to produce the book, the answer seems to me to lie in two related phenomena. In the first place, Williams’ argument, in Politics and Letters as well as Marxism and Literature, has the effect of privileging the extent to which radical cultural practice is important as a pre-figuration of a possible socialist society. That is a thread that has been present from at least Culture and Society but it is quite clear that it fits with the current mood of a wide range of people for whom revolutionary politics in its Leninist form is quite unacceptable.

Secondly, and much more generally, the attraction lies in the congruence between Williams’ argument and a reformist reading of Gramsci. Williams is, in fact, quite specific about the extent to which Gramsci has influenced his later writing although it seems to me that, once again, we can detect the origins of his line of thinking in much earlier works. The reading of Gramsci which the reformists wish to foreground is drawn exclusively but selectively from the Prison Notebooks. It is one which stresses the importance of cultural struggle as separate from the ‘narrow economic struggle’. Thus Williams’ formulations can, without too much difficulty, be assimilated into a general position which neglects or refuses the articulation between economic and cultural struggles in aid of an effectively reformist practice. Williams’ own writings suggest that he would wish to be distanced from these reformist conclusions – at least in Politics and Letters – but the weaknesses of his own position mean that, willy-nilly, he becomes grist for the mill of the Broad Academic Alliance.

In particular, the absence of class-struggle and consequently the absence of the party as the central instrument of the class struggle, mean that the link between the cultural and the narrowly political can never be properly posed, let alone resolved.

We can, in fact, offer an alternative reading of the Prison Notebooks to develop a better solution. The key term in Gramsci’s discussion of the struggle for hegemony is not the specificity of cultural struggles but the role of the revolutionary party – which Gramsci refers to obliquely as the Modern Prince – as the organiser and unifier of those various developments. Thus, he writes:

‘Can there be cultural reform, and can the position of the depressed strata of society be improved culturally, without a previous economic reform and a change in their position in the social and economic fields? Intellectual and moral reform has to be linked with a programme of economic reform – indeed the programme of economic reform is precisely the concrete form in which every intellectual and moral reform presents itself. The modern Prince, as it develops, revolutionises the whole system of intellectual and moral relations, in that its development means precisely that any given act is seen as useful or harmful, as virtuous or wicked, only in so far as it has as its point of reference the modern Prince itself, and helps to strengthen or to oppose it.’ [21]

Thus, in this account, the often-drawn conclusion that there is a unique specificity to cultural struggles is rejected. Here ‘economic reform’ is identified as the essential determinant of cultural activity. In addition, it is argued not only that it is the project of the party to organise these different types of human activity but also that it is the animator of them.

Elsewhere, Gramsci goes much further arguing that it is the aim of a revolutionary party to ensure that: ‘the members of a particular party find in that party all the satisfactions that they formerly found in a multiplicity of organisations’ and ‘at destroying all other organisations or ... incorporating them into a system of which the party is the sole regulator’. [22] Thus, while it may be the aim of the party to provide for the cultural life of its membership and to organise that culture it does so by means of waging a struggle against the organisation of culture by other classes. The primary object of cultural struggle is not to wage cultural struggles within the existing forms of cultural organisation but to provide alternative forms of cultural organisation. It is for this reason, among a host of others, that attempts at a reformist reading of the later Gramsci are quite dishonest: the policy he argues for has nothing at all to do with permeating the existing society. And it also reveals the key to the relationship between politics and culture. In the first place, the difference between working class and other culture is not primarily the ideas embedded in it, nor even the types of activity which are labelled culture, but in the way these are organised. And, consequently, that political organisation in the narrow sense is a prerequisite for the organisation of working-class culture. To the extent that cultural activities undertaken by workers remain under the organisational leadership of the ruling class they remain ‘corporate’; to the extent that they take place under the aegis of the revolutionary party they can become properly proletarian. It is the failure to make these distinctions which opens the fundamentally progressive ideas contained in Williams’ work to the current vogue of reformist interpretation.

For the tiny British revolutionary left most of these points are necessarily abstract, but we may at least examine them as a matter of perspective. It is obviously true that no, or very few, human beings are totally absorbed by the struggle for political power. Any mass revolutionary organisation will be bound to attract towards it as members or active supporters, a large number of people who have interests in everything from football to painting. These may not be the central interests of the people involved, and they certainly will not be the central interests of the party, but they will have to co-exist within the same organisation. Now, they can either be repressed and denied by the party itself, in the interests of some more immediate goal, or they can be organised and directed as part of the collective work of the party. If they are denied, the interests will not go away, although the people holding them might. In that case, these cultural activities will be organised, and thus dominated, by forces hostile to the working class and its party. The alternative is to look for ways in which the party itself might begin to build the sort of ‘cultural apparatus’ which could organise these activities.

There are examples of this in the history of the workers’ movement. The most developed of these are from Germany, where first the SPD and then the KPD developed precisely such organisations covering a wide range of activities. In both of these cases, there are political problems in addition to the fact that most of the studies of them are in German and thus not widely available. The cultural apparatus of the KPD was organised largely round the International Workers’ Aid (IAH) organisation and dominated by Willi Munzenberg. On the evidence which I have, this seems to have been prone to ‘rightist’ deviations and thus perhaps does not provide quite the model that I suggested in an earlier essay. [23] In particular, it does not seem to have solved the problem of the relationship between radicalised bourgeois intellectuals and militant workers. The two do not need to be contradictory, but there is obviously a difference between winning established bourgeois cultural figures to Marxism and organising the cultural self-activity of militants. [24]

But the evidence is not entirely ‘foreign’. Even during its degeneration in the 1930s, the British CP seems to have had a similar if more modest conception. The Left Book Club is a well-known example but there is evidence of other activities. [25] There is, in fact, an urgent need to ransack these forgotten records of the workers’ movement with the same sort of critical enthusiasms which we have long applied to the Theses of the Communist International. As the revolutionary left in Britain develops in size and maturity we will eventually have to provide better answers than those of Williams.


1. Politics and Letters (NLB, 1979).

2. Communications as Cultural Science, in C.W.E. Bigsby (ed.), Approaches to Popular Culture (Arnold, 1976), p. 33.

3. Culture and Anarchy (CUP, 1969), p. 6.

4. Ibid., p. 203.

5. Culture and Society (Penguin, 1968), p. 310.

6. Ibid., p. 312.

7. Ibid., pp. 313–4.

8. Although I do not find Williams’ own solution satisfactory, largely because of the political questions touched on later, it would be too much of a digression to develop this further here.

9. Terry Eagleton in Criticism and Ideology (Verso, 1978), p. 27.

10. By E.P. Thompson in a famous review of The Long Revolution and by A. Swingewood in The Myth of Mass Culture (Macmillan, 1977), p. 43.

11. See, for example, Culture and Society, pp. 322–3 which has a passage about culture.

12. Marxism and Literature (OUP, 1977), p. 132.

13. The Country and the City (Paladin, 1975), p. 17.

14. Ibid., p. 365.

15. Ibid., p. 334.

16. Ibid., p. 362.

17. Ibid., p. 239.

18. I am told, but have never bothered to check, that Hardy was a personal friend of H.M. Hyndman.

19. Marxism and Literature, p. 126.

20. Phillip Corrigan in Media Culture and Society, vol. 11, no. 1.

21. Selections from Prison Notebooks (L&W, 1971), p. 133.

22. Ibid., p. 265.

23. The debate on Art and Revolution, International Socialism 2 : 5, Summer 1979. See B. Gross, W. Munzenberg (Michigan State, 1974). Thus, Munzenberg, while organising a large number of ventures as a ‘quasi-independent’ figure in the KPD also organised a number of ‘popular front’ type conferences even before 1935.

24. One interesting but brief discussion of some of the problems is Brecht’s account in J. Willett’s Brecht on Theatre (Methuen, 1978), pp. 110–11.

25. Joe Jacobs, in Out of the Ghetto (J. Simon, 1978), gives an account ‘from the inside’ of some of these things. There is a lot of interesting material in Photography/Politics: 1 (Photography Workshop, 1979).

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