Marxism and Literature
is a work of nonfiction by Raymond Henry Williams. The book discusses the existing body of Marxist literature where in Williams adds his own theory of cultural materialism to the collection. Marxism and Literature
was first published in 1977 by Oxford University Press. It has since been republished in various editions. Williams taught drama at the University of Cambridge and is known for his influence within New Left schools of thought.
His theories laid the way for an entirely new approach to Marxist principles and Marxist critiques of arts and culture. It’s important to note that Williams wrote this book during a period when Marxist ideas suffered a lot of scrutiny and challenges, as did the concept of “society” more generally.
Williams has a clear thesis for this work. He intends to review longstanding, unquestioned Marxist principles and expose why they are problematic and unsound. He also discusses what he believes to be a glaring problem with literary theory and how it’s divisive. To solve all these problems, Williams proposes a new theory—cultural materialism.
He believes that cultural materialism is central to all Marxist thinking, and that by bringing together Marxist theories of language and Marxist theories of literature, he can reimagine Marxism. Marxism and Literature
is divided into three broad parts—basic concepts, cultural theory, and literary criticism. Although Williams handles these components separately, he does demonstrate how they link together and why they should be unified.
The first chapter considers the broad principles of culture, society, and economy. Williams explains that the whole definition of “culture” is undergoing a paradigm shift, so it’s vital to go back to its most basic definition to see where the problems lie. He notes that we are following the bourgeois ideals for culture, society, and economy, which revolve around commerce and capitalism.
Williams points out that culture now equates with civilization, which is in turn built around refinement, progress, and celebration of this new so-called “order.” Essentially, we’re living in a world where cultural enlightenment is the goal, and so anything which doesn’t contribute to this economically is not valuable. Williams is concerned that traditional Marxism doesn’t go far enough to challenge the bourgeois cultural ideal, and for this reason Marxism fails.
Language studies underpin much of the book. Williams contends that Marxism doesn't add much to the understanding of language, therefore Marxists have a responsibility to seize missed opportunities for reimaging language. He explains how words, signs, etc. gather meaning through cultural usage and social interactions. Although words may have a cluster of supposed meanings, the meaning of words are changeable: they are not static or inherent. For this reason, Williams believes Marxism must consider language alongside culture.
Literature is the more specific use of language Williams concerns himself with. He explains how literature changed its meaning, purpose, and value following capitalism, and so Marxism must now revisit its literary theories. It’s no longer, for example, so much about the inherent act of writing itself, but how the writing is received and reviewed. The fact that literary critiquing is now a profession embodies what Williams means—the value of literature is now commodified. It’s also traditionally associated with the bourgeoisie.
Williams also stresses that Marxist theories on ideology must be revised, as the term “ideology” is now a “catch-all” for any thinking which is not Marxist. This argument closes Part I of the book.
Part II considers both base and superstructure, which are traditional foundations of Marxist theory. Williams criticizes the idea that the base, including the oppressed and oppressor relationship, equals the foundations of a society upon which the superstructure develops. Williams argues that this will always favor the base because how the oppressor holds down the oppressed shapes the society. This means the superstructure can’t change without changing the fundamental relationships within that society.
Williams also worries that Marxism doesn’t properly consider concepts such as traditions, which Marxists tend to see as simply part of the history of a superstructure. However, traditions allow society to select from its past and shape its presence, and they are also not static. Williams explains how this shift begins in institutions, such as schools or religious worship. This then gives equal weight to the superstructure, which can influence the base.
Part III looks at literary theory and how literature is now aesthetic and a means of capturing artistic quality. Williams believes there’s value, on one hand, to keeping aesthetics and literature separate because it lets them remain important in a society that often tries to exclude them.
However, Williams also explains that literary theory is so fundamental to society now as a whole that it’s impossible to consider it as separate. It’s in this, he argues, that typical Marxism fails. Marxists must attempt to understand the self-creation exercised by authors to see how it relates to a collective consciousness. This will then unite literary theory and language theory to overcome problems with traditional Marxist modes of thinking, which encompasses Williams' theory of cultural materialism.