A Marxist Critique of Raymond Williams
Posted by Taimur Rahman on October 29, 2008
One of the most influential ideas that came with the rise of modern art (dadaism in particular) is that one can be a complete novice in terms of skill or craft and yet be considered an artist simply by being able to convince others through the use of esoteric language. For instance, the urinal became a piece of art when it was taken from the toilet and put on display by Marsden Hartley in 1917. The Turner Prize committee even called it “the most influential work of modern art”. Homage was aptly paid to this piece of art when a performance artist named Pierre Pinoncelli urinated in it. Although Pinoncelli may not have meant any double meaning by his “performance”, my own view is that the Pinoncelli homage is truly what such art deserves.
It is much the same in the world of intellectual production. The most plain simple and straight forward concepts that do not depart in any way from everyday thinking dressed up in obscure, esoteric, abstract, and abstruse language can at once make it to the hall of fame within the bourgeois academy. This is because the bourgeois academy is recoiling from the science of Marxism, hence, any reversion to idealism that successfully takes on the garb of further development of thought is at once celebrated. This is the story of the rise of the so-called New Left as the alternative to Soviet or Stalinist Marxism. The Pinoncelli homage to the New Left was paid by post-modernism.
In internal discussion in the party the name of Raymond Williams was thrown about. Should we use Raymond William’s concepts of residual, dominant, and emergent to analyze Baloch nationalism? Is Raymond Williams’ analysis of nationalism more “refined” than the analysis of Lenin and Stalin? These questions were asked. Unfortunately, I did not have enough time to respond to these legitimate queries and dealt with them in a summary fashion. However, upon further insistence, I have taken out some time to write this short response.
Raymond Williams’ essay “Base and Superstructure in Marxist Cultural Theory” (New Left Review 1973) is considered ‘seminal’ within Cultural Studies. Hence, I will base this critique on this ‘seminal’ essay.
1) Distinction between “social being determines consciousness” and “base determines superstructure”
The first task that Williams undertakes is to introduce a distinction between the proposition that “social being determines consciousness” (SBDC) and “base determines superstructure” (BDS). He says that while SBDC is acceptable the BDS becomes “at times unacceptable” (see pg. 3).
The fact is that the BDS is a further elaboration by Karl Marx himself of what it means when he says that social being determines social consciousness. What is social being? Marx answers this question quite clearly. He says: “The first premise of all human history is, of course, the existence of living human individuals [i.e. social being]. Thus the first fact to be established is the physical organisation of these individuals and their consequent relation to the rest of nature” (Marx, German Ideology). The words “physical organisation of these individuals” is nothing other than the concept of relations of production and “relation to the rest of nature” is nothing other than the concept of productive forces. In other words, the passage states that the first facts to be established by a materialist study of any given society are the productive forces (relation to nature) and productive relations (physical organization of individuals). The proposition that SBDC inevitably points to the necessity of establishing the nature of productive forces and relations of production.
To accept on the one hand, that SBDC (as Raymond Williams does) and refuse on the other the distinction between the base and the superstructure is absurd. Social being is the economic base and social consciousness is the superstructure. SBDC and BDS are premised on the distinction between the world of being/production and the world of consciousness/superstructure. In other words, SBDC and BDS are two ways of saying the same thing.
(later I will demonstrate that this absurdity is the result of a concession to liberalism).
2) Qualifications on the use of the concept of “determination”
(note: “determination” and “determines” are the same thing. “Determines” is a verb and “determination” is a noun made by Williams to describe this concept)
Williams says that the relationship of “determination” is inherited from idealists (pg.4). The implication is obvious (although Williams does not make it explicit). Since “determination” is inherited from idealists it is problematic for materialists. On such grounds one should also reject dialectics since the concept of dialectics was also inherited from idealist philosophy. As a matter of fact one should reject most concepts that we work with today because the vast majority of concepts were developed on the terrain of idealism. This is once again absurd.
Just because a concept that encapsulates a relationship is inherited from idealists does not imply that it is by definition unusable for materialists. Materialism does not reject the whole of idealism. It rejects only the view that thought is independent of matter.
3) The inversion of “determination”
Williams continues that since Marx rejected “abstract determining consciousness” (i.e. God determines the will of Man) and inverted idealism (example, thought is not independent of matter but matter is independent of thought; or God does not create man, man creates God), Marx also inverted the concept of “determination”. This is like saying that Marx did not believe in God because he rejected determination, or Marx was an atheist because he believed that one thing could not be determined by another.
Take Williams and put him in simple language and you will quickly realize that he is talking complete childish rubbish. Marx did not reject God because he rejected or inverted the concept of determination. Marx rejected God because he understood that matter was independent of thought (as Lenin painstakingly points out in Materialism and Empriocriticism).
For Williams Marx alleged “inversion” of determination (for which he furnishes no evidence because none actually exists) does not imply “predict” or “prefigures” but “setting limits” and “exterting pressures”.
Firstly, this is not the fabled inversion that we were promised by Williams. A dialectical inversion occurs when the cause and effect are reversed (God created man, man created god). This is merely ascribing a different connotation to the word determines.
Secondly, look up any dictionary and one discovers that the word “determine” contains all these connotation. Determine: “control, decide, regulate, direct, dictate, govern, affect, influence, mould”. In that very paragraph Williams reminds us about his knowledge of European languages. He could have used that knowledge to remind us that the word determine comes from the Latin word “determinare” that means “to limit or to fix”. He could have pointed out that the word literally means “de” (completely) “terminate” (end, limit, boundary). Williams says that when Marx used the term determines he implied by it “setting limits and exerting pressures” not “prefigured, predicted and controlled”. Clearly the meaning of the word “determines” includes all of the above.
(I feel it important to add that I do not consider Marx’s words to be divine that I would feel that need to interpret and reinterpret every word he uses. Marx revised his own views and used different terms at different points in his life. The object of this exercise is to point out that Marx’s use of the word “determines” is, quite simply, correct.)
Williams should have avoided the entire tale of inversions dialectical inversions of determinations that make a mockery out of Marxism. But then I suppose such intellectual gymnastics are necessary in order to meet the objective of peddling childish ideas as great developments of thought.
4) Economic Base as an Object
Raymond Williams continues with qualifications that have been placed on the relationship between base and superstructure (he briefly touches upon those qualifications made by Marx and Engels themselves as well as the concept of “mediation” and homologous structures”). Since his object is not these qualifications, there is not much point in spending much time on them. The real concept that he wants to look at is the economic base.
He argues that the economic base has been considered in terms of a “uniform” “static” “an object”. The finger is naturally pointed at Soviet Marxists, Stalinists, and others that belong to organized communist parties. Indeed, the charge is a very serious one. It is almost convincing until one realizes that the cardinal principle of every communist party is that under capitalism the productive relations and productive forces are are coming in increasing contradiction the inevitable result of which is socialism? How can communist parties be accused of technocratic determinism (a charge made by Williams) on the one hand and on the other be accused of considering productive forces as “static”.
This knotty problem is solved when we read what Williams means when he says that the economic base has been considered “static”. Here are Williams’ examples of how the base has been conceptualized as “uniform”, “static” and “an object”.
a) “The base is the real social existence of man.”
b) “The case is the real relations of production corresponding to a stage of the development of material productive forces.”
c) “The base is a mode of production at a particular stage of development.”
In the first statement, nowhere is it implied that the “real social existence” of humanity is uniform or static. Similarly, the “social existence” of humanity is not an object, it is a relationship (SOCIAL existence).
In the second statement the non-static nature of the base is implied in the fact that there are various stages of development. There cannot be stages of development in a static, uniform entity. Furthermore, the base is defined in terms of “real relationship” not in terms of an object.
The third statement also talks about stages and development and hence cannot be static or uniform. It cannot be an object because a “mode of production” is defined in terms of relations.
I ask the reader, how do the above statements in anyway imply that the economic base is uniform, static or an object? It seems that Raymond Williams considers statement that define the economic base in terms of “real social existence”, “productive forces and relations” or “mode of production” the equivalent of defining the base static, uniform and an object.
Williams goes on to state that the productive forces and relations are so “active (that is, non-static and non-uniform) that the “metaphorical notion of the base could possibly allow us to realize”.
Why can the metaphor of the economic base(-superstructure) not capture that the base is active? Williams doesn’t bother to explain. He thinks it is enough for him merely to state a proposition and the reader will bow down in awe of it. Clearly there is nothing inherent in a metaphor that prevents one from describing active entities (she ran like the wind, he changed like a chameleon, they blossomed like flowers).
Hitherto all new-left intellectuals (including Williams) criticized Marxist-Leninist for considering only the economic base as active (and the super-structure as passive), now it seems Williams has concluded that we also consider the base as passive. Moreover, the only evidence for this brave new hypothesis are the statements that the base is the “real social relations” at “particular stage of development”.
5 ) Productive Labour and Productive Forces
Such complete confusion can be expected from Raymond who demonstrates his “rare” grasp of Marxism economics when he confuses the entire discussion on un-productive labour in the Grundrisse.
Raymond incorrectly argues that according to Marx distributers of pianos are also productive worker. In fact, Marx makes it very clear that workers that contribute to the realization of surplus-value are un-productive because a productive worker is defined by political economy as a workers that produces new surplus value (here again Williams incorrectly argues that productive laborers within capitalism are those engaged in commodity production because (a) commodity production is not the same as capitalist production (b) the distinction between productive and un-productive is based on the production or realization of surplus value).
Raymond makes a laughing stock out of himself when he concludes from this discussion that “piano-maker is base, but pianist superstructure” (pg 6). Neither the worker nor the pianist are base or superstructure. Because as Raymond himself pointed earlier (but apparently he did not pay enough attention to what he was himself writing) the base and superstructure is not an object or a person. It is a relationship/activity.
The activity (not individuals) of producing, distributing or consuming (i.e. purchasing and playing the piano) within capitalism are all part of the economic base. The superstructure is the ideological justification for the manner in which pianos are produced, distributed, consumed.
Williams follows up this complete confusion with the assertion that “Within [Marx’s] analysis of [capitalism], he had to give the notion of ‘productive labour’ and ‘productive forces’ a specialized sense of primary work on materials in a form which produced commodities” (pg 6).
Firstly, capitalism is not the same as commodity production. As Marx elaborates in Capital, commodity production precedes capitalism. Capitalism only begins where labour-power becomes a commodity. Secondly Williams puts ‘productive labour’ and ‘productive forces’ interchangeably. But this is totally incorrect. Productive labour is that labour that produces surplus-value within a society based on wage-labour (i.e. capitalism). Hence, the distinction between productive and un-productive labour is only applicable to capitalism. Productive forces is a category that encapsulates all history (including the history of humanity before class society). Marx was under no obligation to define ‘productive forces’ in in terms of commodity production. That would imply that before commodity production there were no productive forces? Last, Marx did not make “primary work on materials” a central definition of capitalism. The work could be purely intellectual (although even that requires some material). For Marx capitalism began with wage-labour regardless of the particular form that this work takes (manual, primary, secondary, with or without materials, intellectual or anything else).
It is on this completely erroneous argument (an argument that no Marxist-Leninist has ever advanced, its author is only Williams himself) that Williams asserts that productive forces have been understood only in capitalist terms.
6) Redefinition of Economic Base
His redefinition of the economic base is on the basis that “the most important thing a worker ever produces is himself, himself in the fact of that kind of labour”. Hence, all activity that reproduces the worker in the work is part of the economic base according to Raymond Williams. From this Williams concludes (later) that all artistic activity (production of culture) should be considered part of the economic base. He asserts that since Marxist-Leninist have understood the economic base only in capitalist terms (by which Williams means commodities production) “vital productive social forces” (by which Williams means the production of culture) have been dismissed as “superstructural, and in that sense as merely secondary”.
Williams entire emphasis boils down to the fact the production of art should be included in the economic base because it is a “vital productive social force” during which the artists reproduces him/herself in the work.
Firstly, categorizing something in the superstructure does not make it secondary or worthy of being dismissed. Secondly and more importantly, the economic base superstructure distinction is an theoretical abstraction. The economic base are the REAL relations between people, and the superstructure are the CONCEPTIONS of those relations (social being and social consciousness).
The production and distribution of art involves, both, economic relations between people and conceptions of those relations. Hence, in accordance with this definition of base-superstructure, aspects of the production of art are in the economic base while aspects are in the superstructure. This is because even the production and distribution of ideas involves a certain economic process. In sum, the conceptions of art are part of the superstructure while the production and distribution of art occurs through real economic relations.
Art, however, is recognized in society not by the economics of its distribution but by the beauty of its conception. Hence, it is understandable if the impression is created that art has nothing to do with the economic base. But one look at the large capitalist concerns that control the world of art (whether music, painting, performance, or some other craft) will reveal that economic relations are very much part of the production and distribution of works of art.
Williams redefinition of the economic base would completely destroy any distinction between the real and the conceptual.
7) Totality, Intention and Hegemony
This distinction is exactly what Williams destroys when he substitutes in the place of base and superstructure the notion of “totality” and “intention”. Thus, according to Williams, “social intentions” determine the structure and organization of the totality (i.e. society).
This is not Marxism but pure liberalism. For it was Marx’s great discovery that social relations are formed as a result of the level of development of productive forces. Hence, men enter relations “independent of their will”. Marx says ” The social structure and the State are continually evolving out of the life-process of definite individuals, but of individuals, not as they may appear in their own or other people’s imagination, but as they really are; i.e. as they operate, produce materially, and hence as they work under definite material limits, presuppositions and conditions independent of their will.”
Furthermore, Marx points out that the fact that huamns enter into relations that accord to productive forces and are hence indpendent of their will leads to the creation of a “social power” that stands above the individuals and forms a power alien to them. Marx writes “The social power, i.e., the multiplied productive force, which arises through the co-operation of different individuals as it is determined by the division of labour, appears to these individuals, since their co-operation is not voluntary but has come about naturally, not as their own united power, but as an alien force existing outside them, of the origin and goal of which they are ignorant, which they thus cannot control, which on the contrary passes through a peculiar series of phases and stages independent of the will and the action of man, nay even being the prime governor of these.”
In simple words, Williams has created a theory in which society (totality) can be molded and remolded in accordance merely with “intentions” that are entirely independent of objective reality (i.e. the level of development of productive forces). This is precisely the illusion that Marx fought against.
Once he has separated social ideas from its link to the economic base, all that remains for him is to link this to the concept of hegemony and to argue that “oppositional” forces (not proletarian forces) need to break this hegemony to attain emancipation. How is this to be accomplished?
8) Tripartite Division of Culture: Residual, Dominant and Emergent.
Raymond Williams makes a tripartite division of culture into residual, dominant, and emergent. What do these three terms mean?
Residual is what is left of the culture of the society that existed before
Dominant is the culture that exists today
Emergent is the culture that may come about tomorrow.
(This is very similar to what Comrade Prachanda stated when he said made a tripartite division in politics between reactionary, status-quo, and progressive. Arguably because Prachanda’s division were not dressed in obscure language it was considered simplistic. But when Raymond William dresses up the same tripartite division for culture, he was considered “refined”. In fact, both this tripartite division (whether in politics or culture) is deeply simplistic. Fortunately for us Prachanda never meant for this tripartite division to be taken as anything other than a rule of thumb (i.e. a simplifying heuristic). It is otherwise with Raymond Williams and the crew of the Cultural Studies that quite literally worships at the alter of this tripartite division.)
But what is it about this tripartite division (in politics or culture) that is a retreat from Marxism? It is quite simply that the division between the past, present and future is arguably one of the oldest concept in human thinking. Greek thinkers developed the continuity and interconnection between them as early as Heraclitus of Ephesus who argued that inner strife and opposition were the cause of constant change. On an idealist terrain this tripartite dialectic reached its highest level of development in Hegel.
Marxism’s key advance was the fact that he linked this dialectic of change to the contradiction between the productive forces and relations of production (i.e. class struggle). It was Marx that argued that the contending ideas of every epoch in history(superstructure) were really the ideological expression of contradictions present within the economic base (i.e. productive forces and relations).
It precisely this advance that Raymond Williams militates against. Hence, this tripartite division has no link to the struggles of the working class. Anything from dadism to abstract art can be considered oppositional or emergent. Raymond Williams explicitly says “there are no relations between literature and society in that abstracted way” He explains this further by saying “if we are looking at the relationship between literature and society, we cannot either separate out this one practice from a formed body of other practices, nor when we have identified the particular practice can we give it a uniform, static, and ahistorical relation to some abstract social formation”. In other words, art and literature are connected to social practice but not to society or to social formations.
While paying lip service to the class struggle, the entire theory undercuts the notion of class struggle.
It far better to think of culture in class term within the form of national culture (the culture of particular classes within particular nations). That would then give us a far more complex picture of society and culture rather than a simplistic tripartite division. The contestations within culture would tell us about the contestation of classes in society. And we can think not in terms of three strands within culture but as many cultures as there are classes in a given society.
The political tripartite division is simplistic because it tells us nothing about the character of the forces under consideration, nor anything about their relationship to each other. It is far more accurate to call forces of change or reaction by their class names (bourgeois, proletariat, peasant, feudal, patriarchal and so on).
9) Capitalism is not Exhausting Human Creativity
Finally, Williams indirectly concludes that capitalist society and capitalist culture has not exhausted human energy (i.e. it is not leading to barbarism). He says “no mode of production, and therefore no dominant society or order of society, and therefore no dominant culture, in reality exhausts human practice, human energy, and human intention.” Hence, Williams conclusion is that human energy, creativity can continue to expand even on the basis of capitalism, feudalism, Asiatic society, slave society and so on (since no mode of production can exhaust human energy).
Now comrades we see that the main contours of Raymond Williams’ theory is nothing other than bourgeoisie liberalism that pays lip service to Marxism.
First, he makes a completely ridiculous distinction between Distinction between “social being determines consciousness” and “base determines superstructure”. Second, his attempt to quality or invert the concept of determination is fraught with contradictions and complete confusion. Third, he makes a caricature of Marxism-Leninism by stating that the economic base is static. Fourth, his understanding of Marxian economics is demonstrated by his inability to understand the difference between productive forces and productive labour. On this basis he reconstructs notions about the economic base that completely destroy the fundamental discoveries of historical materialism. In their stead, he substitutes common place liberal notions based on simplistic tripartite divisions. And concludes by indirectly stating that human energy and creativity is not being dampened by capitalism.
Now, I ask you, the refined views of Raymond Williams are the same refined views that we have heard from the bourgeoisie since its inception. It is only the bourgeoisie, therefore, that can consider these views to be more refined that the revolutionary theory of Marxism-Leninism.
Long Live Marxism-Leninism
Down with New-Left Liberalism
Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.