Raymond Williams has been praised by critics like Edward Said for his disregard for traditional academic boundaries, and the distinction between literature and Marxism. The connection between Marxism and literature has been debated from times immemorial.  Marxists claim that literature reflects the social system of the times as determined by the economic base. Yet Marxist critics themselves like Engels in a series of letters written in the 1890s recognized the relative autonomous nature of literature. Otherwise it would not explain how literary classics that were generated by earlier capitalist systems still held relevance for current generations.

Earlier on, it was deemed uncomplicated to categorize Marxism or literature as a static concept with known characteristics. In “Marxism and Literature,” Raymond Williams states how Marxism has experienced a recent revival– a related openness and flexibility of theoretical development, especially with reference to cultural theory. The concept of Literature, meanwhile, for related reasons, had become problematic in many ways. He states how the aim of the book is to trace this development. Williams traces his earlier conceptions of Marxism as he had been brought up in a working class family and how Marxism to him at that juncture had political and economic connotations. The cultural and literary arguments were merely an extension of the same.

As he joined Cambridge in 1939, he realized that it could also mean a style of thought, and some defining propositions were picked up as part of a political commitment. This was Williams’s position as a student between 1939 and 1941.  He was aligned towards this radical populism that aimed at making literature rather than judging the same. He was aware of the political and economic part of it in the late forties and fifties. In specialized studies, material Marxism encountered problems it could not digest, and therefore dismissed the same. Meanwhile Williams continued to put forward his historical and political position, as well as cultural and literary work at a conscious distance. This particular period is summed up in his work Culture and Society.

In the mid-fifties, a new phenomenon was emerging that was termed as the New Left and had affinities with William’s cultural and literary positions latent in works like Politics and Letters in 1947 and 1948. Herbert Marcuse is known as the father of The New Left which was a political movement in the 1960s and 1970s that stood in contrast to the vanguardist approach of previous Marxisms and brought together educators, agitators to address issues such as as gay rights, abortion, gender roles, and drugs.   Williams found Marxist thinking that was different from what he encountered in Britain. György Lukács, a Hungarian Marxist philosopher, one of the founders of Western Marxism, practised an interpretive tradition that departed from the Marxist ideological orthodoxy of the USSR. He contributed to Marxist theory with developments of Karl Marx’s theory of class consciousness. He was particularly influential with his concept of reification, his theorizing of realism and applying the same to the novel and; in his The Theory of the Novel, he traces the history of the novel as a form. Lukács, was not only a Marxist political thinker, but influential literary critic of the 20th century. He wrote a lengthy introduction to The Theory of the Novel that was termed as “romantic anti-capitalism” and would later develop into Marxism. In The Theory of the Novel, he coins the term “transcendental homelessness,” defining the term as the “longing of all souls for the place in which they once belonged, and the nostalgia… for utopian perfection, a nostalgia that feels itself and its desires to be the only true reality” (Lukács 70).

Williams tried to trace the history of Marxism as systemized by Plekhanov with support from the work of Engels, and popularized in Soviet Marxism. He could then read the Marxists of the 1930s differently including Christopher Caudwell. He could actually trace the formation. He later read other writers like Lukas. Strindberg was an obvious reference for any aspiring literary critic in Europe between about 1900 and sometime during the 1960s–especially for those intellectuals with a left-wing inclination. The time span can be illustrated with the importance that Strindberg had for the young Georg Lukacs, on the one hand, and, on the other, the strategic position he had for the British Marxist critic Raymond Williams in his working out of what would become “Cultural Studies” (Olsson 249). Williams was significantly also influenced by Brecht. Brecht integrated Marxist philosophy with his dramatic techniques giving way to the epic theatre in collaboration with Erwin Piscator, the father of political theatre.  Brecht insisted that the audience should be intellectually stimulated and not emotionally drained, with his insistence on acting in quotation marks, identifying actions as happening in the past, and his utilizing episodic narratives so as to dispel the willing suspension of disbelief.

Raymond Williams was also influenced by Althusser’s central premise of ideology based on the Lacanian theories of psychoanalysis of how man loses his perception of reality as he enters the realm of ideology, as the child loses its perception of prenatal reality as it enters the symbolic realm as defined by language. Althusser, was also prominent as a structural Marxist thereby effecting an integration of literary theory and Marxist political principles. According to Althusser’s theory, society can be seen as a structure, and the various changes in society function as causes for a single effect. Society, in such a stance, is seen as a structure capable of transformation. His works For Marx and Reading Capital (written with Etienne Balibar) exemplified the same. The next principle Althusser propounded was how structuralists conceive of the self as not inner but the result of several cultural forces working inside us.

Goldmann was a formidable influence on Williams, as he integrated the “genetic epistemology” of Jean Piaget with the Marxism of György Lukas, and was founder of the theory known as genetic structuralism which he developed in the 1960s. Goldmann was also influenced by Walter Benjamin’s theories of the aura of art and Levi-Strauss. Piaget influenced Goldman as genetic epistemology and psychology seemed to establish the efficacy of Marx’s anthropology through careful and systematic empirical research. Goldmann comprehended that Piaget’s genetic research went as far as in providing a psychology which would complement historical and dialectical materialism. The genesis of knowledge is perceived as man receives knowledge from outside and assimilates and accommodates them into inner structures. The subject tries to preserve his inner structures. In the process, he endeavours to adapt these structures. The world is not easily assimilated, and the subject must constantly adapt itself by creating new structures of thought and action (Goldmann 8-9).

Another prominent influence on Raymond Williams was Sartre. Sarte was not political before but after World War II, his writing gained political overtones as his journal Les Temps Modernes testifies. In the 1950s, Sartre was inclined towards Marxism and published Critique of Dialectical Reason, Vol. 1 (1960). Sartre also presented a new critical theory of society based on a synthesis of psychology and sociology, Critique qualified Sartre’s earlier, more radical view of existential freedom. Sartre’s pioneering linking of Existentialism and Marxism yielded a political philosophy uniquely sensitive to the tension between individual freedom and the forces of history. As a Marxist, he believed that societies were best understood as arenas of struggle between powerful and powerless groups. But being an existentialist he professed that individuals were personally responsible for vast and apparently authorless social ills. The chief existential virtue with reference to the individual would be authenticity where he would analyse his or her social situation and accept personal responsibility for the choices made. However, his facticity would also be a determinant in the course of action as things would depend on where he was born and in what situation: The basic concept which is thus engendered, utilizes the double property of the human being, who is at once a facticity and a transcendence, These two aspects of human reality are and ought to be capable of a valid coordination” (Sartre 56).  Therefore unlike other Marxisms, Sartre’s Existentialist-Marxism was a unique theory of individual agency and moral responsibility. He was singular in his points of view as he embraced Marxism, but did not join the Communist Party; and also while being a Marxist, Sartre attacked the violation of freedom and human rights by the Soviet Union, and emphasized on the humanist values of Marx as visible in Marx’s early works. This led to a dispute with Althusser who felt it was superseded by the later scientific system of Marx. And Sartre applied his philosophy to his plays. Sartre’s 1948 play Les mains sales (Dirty Hands) in particular explored the problem of being a politically “engaged” intellectual, thereby influencing Raymond Williams to formulate a theory merging literature, culture and Marxism.

Edward Said in his Orientalism after making it impossible to divorce political knowledge from pure knowledge, combines geo-political aspects with cultural studies to give way to what he designates as humanistic study in his study of Orientalism. Likewise, after comprehending the interrelatedness of the aspects of Marxism, culture and literary theory, Raymond Williams proposes a new theory called cultural materialism marrying Marxist history, and literary and cultural theory: “A theory of the specifities of material, cultural and literary production within historical materialism” (Williams 5).

Cultural Materialism has often been treated as the British equivalent of the American New Historicism with slight variations. Alan Sinfield and Jonathan Dollimore have adopted the approach as exemplified through Political Shakespeare. The work illustrates how hegemonic forces shape canonical works instilling in them values aimed at self-validation in the context of cultural analysis. With regards to cultural materialism, Dollimore states:

One of the most important achievements of ’theory in English studies has been the making possible of a truly inter-disciplinary approach to –some say exit from – the subject….With the various structuralisms, Marxism, psychoanalysis, semiotics and post-structuralism, there occurred a significant dismantling of barriers(barriers of exclusion as well as of containment) and many critics discovered what they wanted to know for some time- how, for example, history and philosophy could be retrieved from their ‘background’ status and become part of the content and the perspective of criticism. (Dollimore 2)

In the chapter entitled “Literature,” Williams traces the evolution of the concept of ‘literature’ and how it has has varied in meaning over the times. He states that it has deteriorated from being an abstraction formed from the conditions of production to being related with works relating to lived experiences that have a self-reflexive quality rather than referring to the circumstances of composition. ‘Literature’ like other concepts changed its original meaning with the advent of capitalism. In comparison to the lived experiences portrayed in literature, actual lived experiences of society and history prove to be less immediate owing to the subliminal ideology that rendered people compliant as subjects and made them imbibe the same. Williams asserts how readers hesitated to trace the history with reference to works like Paradise Lost or Middlemarch, but it became imperative for them whenever they could not divorce the study of a literary work without the study of the evolution of its genre. This amounts to saying that the study of literature tracing history was limited to typological functions. Robert Stamin’s Genre theory identifies four key problems with generic labels (in relation to film): extension (the breadth or narrowness of labels); normativism (having preconceived ideas of criteria for genre membership); monolithic definitions (as if an item belonged to only one genre) and biologism (a kind of essentialism in which genres are seen as evolving through a standardized life cycle) (qtd. In Chandler). William’s conception of genres and literature falls in line with the fourth label – as evolving through social lifestyles.

The meaning of literature changed with the advent of capitalism. Under the influence of capitalism, words like society was extended to civil society, economy that once meant the running of household transformed to pertain to production and consumption, and culture that once referred to agriculture eventually extended to the superstructure. Likewise, the word ‘literature’ also gathered capitalist overtones. In “Death of the Author,” Roland Barthes foregrounded how the concept of author itself is a product of the capitalist ideology as the producer of the text, when he stated: “It is thus logical that in literature it should be this positivism, the epitome and culmination of capitalist ideology, which has attached the greatest importance to the ‘person’ of the author” (Barthes 1466).

In its modern form, literature did not emerge until the eighteenth century and did not fully develop until the 19th century. The word came into use in English in the fourteenth century following Latin and French precedents; the root was the Latin littera, a letter of the alphabet. Litterature in keeping with the common early spelling was a condition of reading. Therefore, in the phrase ‘a man of letters,’ letter stands as an instance of polysemy as opposed to homonymy as it has a common linguistic root. It was closer in meaning to the modern sense of literacy which did not evolve until the late nineteenth century. ”The normal adjective associated with literature was literate. Literary appeared in the sense of reading ability and experience in the seventeenth century; and did not acquire its specialized modern meaning until the eighteenth century” (Williams 46).

Literature as a new category was a kind of specialization formerly known as rhetoric and grammar, as, throughout the Middle Ages as formal education began with the study of language, grammar including the study of literature and dialectic. This sort of medieval liberal arts was supposed to make a personal polite and endowed with a civic sense. Further, literature was a form of learning exclusive to the social elite. It was a marker of social distinction. And it was not limited to works of the imagination. We find that critics like F.R .Leavis privileged literature with a similar function as he comprehended that it had a morally edifying force as he extolls the same in his phrase “the Great Tradition” (Bilan 137). Similarly Arnold in Culture and Anarchy (1869) exemplifies how literature is capable of endowing a civilizing “sweetness and light” to society assuming the redemptive power that was previously enjoyed by religion  (Arnold 48).

From the seventeenth century, it came to mean metrical composition, but again it did not allude to the making of poetry. This use can be seen in Bacon –“learned in all literature and erudition, divine and human;” and as late as in Johnson: “Learned in all literature” referring to a description of King James I in The Advancement of Learning. With the passing of time, literature was a category of use or condition rather than production that referred to social distinction. During this period, as Raymond Williams discerns “three complicating tendencies can be distinguished: first a shift from learning to taste or sensibility as a criterion defining literary quality; secondly an increasing specialization of literature to creative or imaginative works; third a development of the concept of ‘tradition’ within national terms, resulting in the more effective definition of a national literature” (Williams 48). It was a result of : “New political concepts of the ‘nation’ and new valuations of the ‘vernacular’ interacted with a persistent emphasis on ‘literature’ as reading in the ‘classical’ languages” (Williams 47) Though the movement could be discerned starting from Renaissance, it came across powerfully in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. We find a similarity with Eliot’s conception of tradition in “Tradition and the Individual Talent”” where he states his perception of tradition encompasses the whole of literature of Europe to his own day including the literature of his own country as they form one continuous literary tradition (Eliot, Tradition and the Individual Talent). During this period, literature also referred to all kinds of printed work.

Now, during eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the focus was on the work itself and there was the narrowing of the essence  of literature to fiction, tradition was now given nationalistic overtones giving rise to nationalistic literatures. “The shift from learning to taste or sensibility was in effect the final stage of shift from a para-national scholarly profession with its original base in the church and then in the universities, and with the classical languages as its shared material, to a profession increasingly defined by its class definition. Furthermore this taste and theory was determined and prescribed by the elite: bourgeois categories,” which can refer not only to literature, but also manners, wine, and poetry” (Williams 49). Reading therefore got institutionalized at this point where it was determined on the basis of “conscious exercise of ‘taste’, ‘sensibility’, and ‘discrimination’. It may be linked to Stanley Fish’s notion of interpretative communities. (Fish). The major criticism against this field that it may turn the academy into a policing force and adjudge from which number of perspectives reading will proceed and give rise to a perception that does not judge but is judgmental.

Criticism evolved on a parallel with literature as it evolved from fault finding and commentaries in the seventeenth century to an exercise of taste, sensibility and discrimination. In keeping with this tendency, the focus shifted from the production of literature to their consumption. And like movies, it was based on a formula of success- an “emphasis on the use or (conspicuous) consumption of works, rather than on their production” (Williams 49). In such a stance, literature proved to be merely a domain where bourgeoisie prejudices could be exercised and realized. Hebert Marcuse had stated how instead of an individual critically assessing his or her world, capitalism had stifled the emergence of such a consciousness and imagination” (qtd. in Walsh 92). Bourgeois criticism began to not only adjudge works but discriminate them based on what truly constituted literature possessing literary values, particularly ones that arose from a nationalist consciousness which was said to be the defining criteria for great works. We find affinities with Plato’s theory of how literature should contribute to a better Republic; and treated other forms of art as mimesis, and posed the poet as an empty singer of an idle day. “The reliance on ‘sensibility’ as a special form of an attempted emphasis on whole ‘human’ response, had its evident weaknesses in its tendency to separate ‘feeling” from ‘thought’ (with an associated vocabulary of ‘subjective’ and ‘objective’, ‘unconscious’ and ‘conscious’, ‘private’ and ‘public’)” (Williams 49). We discern a similar phenomenon in the practice of writing as well as Eliot’s theory of the dissociation of sensibility proffered in “The Metaphysical Poets.” It states that the metaphysical poets thought and felt with a unified sensibility but the later poets only thought or felt. The emphasis on immediate and lived experiences rendered class comparatively weaker and foregrounded the weakness of concepts as concepts. Criticism as a new conscious discipline in universities favoured the concept of class on one hand, while insisting on objective scholarship on the other. In a more serious vein, criticism was taken to be a natural definition of literary studies, alluding to a specializing category of printed works of a certain quality of literature. Therefore, the forms of literature and criticism as viewed in the context of historical social development functioned as a class specialization and control of a general social practice.

In the latter nineteenth century, literature narrowed in scope to only imaginative or fictional works as a response to the repressive aspects of capitalist production that was manifest mainly in the form of automation that stifled human creative faculty. We find a similar idea being expressed in Freud’s “Creative Writers and Day Dreaming” where he asserts that the creative writer’s stifled repressions gets manifest in creative writing, it is a result of repression- every single fantasy is the fulfillment of a wish, a correction of an unsatisfying reality: ”Furthermore, he possess the mysterious power of shaping some material until it becomes a faithful image of his fantasy; and he knows how, moreover, how to link so large a yield of his of his representation of his unconscious phantasy, that for the time being at least repressions are outweighed and lifted by it” (Freud 376). Fredrick Jameson in The Political Unconscious:  Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act mentions that what is unsaid is the political unconscious, and a repository of repression. In such a context, art, aesthetics and literature are being preserved into these forms rather than being destroyed by practical activities. This functions opposite to the theory of the class nature of art, namely, Klassovost in Marxist theory. “The practical specialization of work to the wage-labour production of commodities; of ‘being’ to ‘work’ in these terms; of language to the passing of ‘rational’ or ‘informative’ ‘messages’; of social relations to functions within a systematic economic and political order: all these pressures and limits were challenged in the name of a full arid liberating ‘imagination’ or ‘creativity’” (Williams 50). Literature in this period acquired a new resonance with central Romantic assertions.

Time saw the evolution of several concepts. The implication of art from a general human skill transformed to an area defined by imagination and sensibility; aesthetic moved from a sense of general perception to ‘artistic’ and the ‘beautiful;’ ‘Fiction’ and ‘myth’ (a new term from the early nineteenth century) changed from the dominant class position as ‘fancies’ or ‘lies’ to the honourable bearers of ‘imaginative truth’, with  ‘Romance’ and ‘romantic’ being given new emphases. ‘Literature’ moved with all the corresponding connotations. There was now attributed a specialized meaning with an elevated sense to aesthetic objects. This was probably a consequence of the aesthetic movement in the later nineteenth century that upheld the dictum of art’s for art’s sake.

Literature was still not primary reading ability and reading experience but the question that whether texts meant to be performed could be called literature.  Question also remained whether literature was assigned to an imaginative dimension, access to a truth higher or deeper than scientific or objective everyday reality. There were attempts to render beauty, truth and the vitality of language synonymous. The categorization and arguments for literature had their base in comparative arguments that functioned not as positive assertions but negative with the result of judging other kinds of writing as either factual or discursive. Now, it transformed into a self-defining area validating aesthetic objects. As per the stipulated function, criticism assumed significance in validating this selective category. “What had been claimed for ~art’ and the ‘creative imagination’ in the central Romantic arguments was now .claimed for ‘criticism’,· as the central ‘humane’ activity and ‘discipline” (Williams 51). To this was connected the elaboration of tradition and in turn the conception of a national literature that began since the Renaissance. It soon ceased to be a history and became a tradition.

According to Raymond Williams, the Marxist theory of practical consciousness had never been applied to the realm of literature.. Whenever application was made, it was limited to three main kinds: an assimilation of literature to ideology which was slightly more than banging one category against the other, inclusion of popular literature; and a persistent attempt to relate literature to the social and economic history within which it had been produced. Literature in terms of expressing a particular class identity has embraced ideology. However, this has been positive in terms of including popular literature as something equally canonical under the umbrella of “great” works as postulated by bourgeois critics. Nevertheless, it still remains to strongly stage an attack on the bourgeois concepts of literature, art, and aesthetics.

Williams concludes that Marxist literary theory translates as successful only if it can question the canonical bourgeois concepts. This challenge must be initiated within the system itself recognizing literature as a specializing social and historical category; for as part of history, it is a key concept of culture and decisive in the development of language. More significantly, language has moved beyond the limitation of the print medium to inner speech and verbal thought. The statement of Williams finds affinities with Derrida’s inversion of phonocentricism that emphasized the existence of the written language over the spoken one in terms of arche-writing. According to Derrida, “arche-writing” is a form of language that cannot be conceptualized within the “metaphysics of presence,” because “writing appears well before writing in the narrow sense, already in the difference or the arche-writing that opens speech itself” (Derrida 128) .

            Therefore, Williams’s assertions are pertinent in the light of stressing the autonomy of the written language, and the recognition of literature as a social and historical category. It highlights how the study of the historicity of the text is as imperative as the textuality of history. To quote Marx from  The German Ideology: “From the start the “spirit” is afflicted with the curse of being “burdened” with matter, which here makes its appearance in the form of agitated layers of air, sounds, in short, of language. Language is as old as consciousness, language is practical consciousness that exists also for other men, and for that reason alone it really exists for me personally as well; language, like consciousness, only arises from the need, the necessity, of intercourse with other men” (Marx). Raymond Williams seems to be talking on a parallel in stressing the autonomy of language, and in turn literature.

Rukhaya M.K. 2015 (Published in the journal The  Context)

Read more at Insignia

Works Cited

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