Outline of Raymond Williams

Outline: Raymond Williams, Marxism and Literature pp 75-89

I. Base & Superstructure

Two propositions:

  • Determining base and determined superstructure
  • Social being determines consciousness

Drawn from Marx’s Preface:

In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or – this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms – with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure. In studying such transformations it is always necessary to distinguish between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, artistic or philosophic – in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out.

Drawn from Engels’ Letter to Bloch:

According to the materialist conception of history, the ultimately determining element in history is the production and reproduction of real life. Other than this neither Marx nor I have ever asserted. Hence if somebody twists this into saying that the economic element is the only determining one, he transforms that proposition into a meaningless, abstract, senseless phrase. The economic situation is the basis, but the various elements of the superstructure — political forms of the class struggle and its results, to wit: constitutions established by the victorious class after a successful battle, etc., juridical forms, and even the reflexes of all these actual struggles in the brains of the participants, political, juristic, philosophical theories, religious views and their further development into systems of dogmas — also exercise their influence upon the course of the historical struggles and in many cases preponderate in determining their form.

Drawn from Marx:

In order to study the connexion between intellectual and material production it is above all essential to conceive the latter in its determined historical forms and not as a general category…Unless material production itself is understood in its specific historical form, it is impossible to grasp the characteristics of the intellectual production which corresponds to it or the reciprocal action between the two.

Drawn from Engels’ Letter to Bloch:

We make our history ourselves, but, in the first place, under very definite assumptions and conditions. Among these the economic ones are ultimately decisive.

For Marx:

  • uses superstructure differently in the 18th Brumaire, to mean the whole ideology of the class, its form of consciousness and constitutive ways of seeing itself in the world
  • use was not precise but relational
  • used against the separation of “areas” of thought and activity & against the imposition of abstract categories on real human activity
  • indissoluble connections b/t material production, political and cultural institutions, activity and consciousness

Subsequent Marxists (specifically Ortho):

  • implied these were precise categories that marked specific observable “areas” of life
  • Plekhanov names five sequential elements

Williams’ critique: these are not separate areas needing distinction for analysis, rather they are specific activities and products of real humans. In other words, analytic categories become substantitive descriptions which then take priority over the social process (constitutive processes) they are attempting to describe.

Apologists attempt to refine the definition of superstructure but Williams says it is more important to look at method of thinking about the base. Base often treated as uniform object but it is central tenet of Marx’s sense of history that material production is not static but dynamic and internally contradictory – rather there are deep contradictions between real forces of production and the social relations of production

II. Determination

What is meant by determination?

A) root meaning is “setting bounds” or “setting limits”

  • simple version: determining a calculation, a course of study, etc.
  • more complex: determination by an authority b/c it implies something beyond or external to the specific action which nevertheless settles or decides it

B) two types of determinism:

  • abstract determinism: some external power decides the outcome of an action irrespective of the will of its agents. Presupposes powerlessness of the participants.
  • inherent determinism: essential character of a process or its properties determine the outcome (character or properties are then its determinants). Scientific. Presupposes relatively fixed characteristics and change is result of altered conditions/combinations

Marx’s idea corresponds at first to this scienfitic, inherent determinism. It makes sense that Ortho take this to mean “iron laws” that can be learned and will predict the future. But added difference for Marx which is tied to his understanding of objectivity: Objective conditions are and can only be result of human activity in the real world, the distinction is between historical objectivity and abstract objectivity.

Historical objectivity: the real conditions in to which humans find themselves born, which are accessible for them to enter

  • Abstract objectivity: they have inherited conditions in sense that it is outside of their control, they can only seek to understand it and guide their actions accordingly. THIS is the basis of economism.
  • Abstract determinism developed due to real historical limits – large scale capitalist economy appeared to be outside of control of everyone, so Marxists concluded it was governed by “laws” in abstract sense. Hence it is “determined” in sense of being a response and interpretation that is conditioned by its experience of real historical limits. Engels fell to this conception.

But Marx argues that change can only be achieved when real historical limits are surpassed in practical activity. Which ties to second sense of Marx’s understanding of determination:

It is not just setting of limits but an exertion of pressure = to determine or be determined to do something is an act of will and purpose; both positive and negative determinations:

  • positive in that they act to exert pressure against the historical limit
  • negative in that they act in ways to maintain and renew the limits.

Hence society is constitutive with powerful pressures which are internalized and come to express “individual wills.” This is in the whole social process, cannot be isolated out and treated as separate item

Concept of overdetermination

(inherent, dual sense of objective, setting limits and exerting pressure)


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