U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Raymond Williams on culture and conflict

In one of Machiavelli’s famous letters he waxed romantically about how sharing communion with great thinkers by reading books interrupted the intellectual solitude he suffered from while in exile away from Florence:

“On the coming of evening, I return to my house and enter my study; and at the door I take off the day’s clothing, covered with mud and dust, and put on garments regal and courtly; and reclothed appropriately, I enter the ancient courts of ancient men, where, received by them with affection, I feed on that food which only is mine and which I was born for, where I am not ashamed to speak with them and to ask them the reason for their actions; and they in their kindness answer me; and for four hours of time I do not feel boredom, I forget every trouble, I do not dread poverty, I am not frightened by death; entirely I give myself over to them.” (1)

I am not sold. I always thought of this text as more demonstrative of a valiant—yet failed and ultimately wistful—effort at wishful thinking on the part of Machiavelli. Perhaps more realistically, in the movie Good Will Hunting a similar claim did perhaps more to convince the viewer that the young genius was psychologically unwell, than to conjure for us a romanticized notion of book reading as true companionship.

To me at least books have never been a real alternative to a vigorous intellectual engagement. And since you are readers of this blog, I suppose that you too do not find solitary reading sufficient as a medium of intellectual engagement—let alone real companionship. As much as I enjoy them, the greatest predicament for me in engaging with great theories and books is that they almost always do not fully cater to my particular way of seeing things and to the idiosyncratic intellectual challenges I perceive. Certainly, they often lead me to rethink many of my ideas and develop new ones, but ultimately I need a more particularized arrangement of ideas that I can only obtain from a more interactive form of engagement, such as a good heady argument with flesh and blood people.

Nevertheless, once in a long while a books comes along that seems to address my specific set of intellectual challenges in such a profound and incisive way that I feel for a few fleeting moments as Machiavelli claimed he had. Such has been the case for me with Raymond Williams’ book Marxism and Literature (1977), which more than any other book I have read in recent years seems tailored to address the challenges of writing cultural and intellectual history from the critical conflict oriented perspective that I am attempting. I thought to share with you some of my favorite passages from it:

How the flawed use of the metaphors ‘superstructure’ and ‘base’ compromised Marxist thought:

“In the transition from Marx to Marxism, and then in the development of expository and didactic formulations, the words used in the original arguments [superstructure and base] were projected, first as if they were precise concepts, and second, as if they were descriptive terms for observable ‘areas’ of social life. The main sense of the words in the original arguments had been relational, but the popularity of the terms tended to indicate either (a) relatively enclosed categories or (b) relatively enclosed areas of activity. These were then correlated either temporally (first material production, then consciousness, then politics and culture) or in effect, forcing the metaphor, spatially (visible and distinguishable ‘levels’ of ‘layers’—politics and culture, then forms of consciousness, and so on down to ‘the base’).  The serious practical problems of method, which the original words had indicated, were then usually in effect bypassed by methods derived from a confidence, rooted in the popularity of the terms, in the relative enclosure of categories or areas expressed as ‘the base, ‘the superstructure’.” (p. 77-8)

On tradition as a relatively neglected concept in Marxist thought:

“For tradition is in practice the most evident expression of the dominant and hegemonic pressures and limits. It is always more than an inert historicized segment; indeed it is the most powerful practical means of incorporation. What we have to see is not just ‘a tradition’ but a selective tradition: an intentionally selective version of a shaping past and a pre-shaped present, which is then powerfully operative in the process of social and cultural definition and identification.” (p. 115)

On hegemony as culture:

“The concept of hegemony…[refuses] to equate consciousness with the articulate formal system which can be and ordinarily is abstracted as ‘ideology’. It of course does not exclude the articulate and formal meanings, values and beliefs which a dominant class develops and propagates. But it does not equate these with consciousness, or rather it does not reduce consciousness to them. Instead it sees the relations of domination and subordination, in their forms as practical consciousness, as in effect a saturation of the whole process of living—not only of political and economic activity, but of the whole substance of lived identities and relationships, to such depth that the pressures and limits of what can ultimately be seen as a specific economic, political, and cultural system seem to most of us pressures and limits of simple experience and common sense…. It is, that is to say, in the strongest sense a ‘culture’, but a culture which has also to be seen as the lived dominance and subordination of particular classes. (p. 109-10).”


“A lived hegemony is always a process. It is not, except analytically, a system or a structure. It is a realized complex of experiences, relationships, and activities, with specific and changing pressures and limits. In practice, that is, hegemony can never be singular. Its internal structures are highly complex, as can readily be seen in any concrete analysis. Moreover (and this is crucial, reminding us of the necessary thrust of the concept), it does not just passively exist as a form of dominance. It has continually to be renewed, recreated, defended, and modified. It is also continually resisted, limited, altered, challenged by pressures not all its own. We have then to add to the concept of hegemony the concepts of counter-hegemony and alternative hegemony, which are real and persistent elements of practice.” (p. 112-3)


“The true condition of hegemony is effective self-identification with the hegemonic forms: a specific and internalized ‘socialization’ which is expected to be positive but which, if that is not possible, will rest on a (resigned) recognition of the inevitable and the necessary. An effective culture, in this sense, is always more than the sum of its institutions: not only because these can be seen, in analysis, to derive much of their character from it, but mainly because it is at the level of a whole culture that  the crucial interrelations, including confusions and conflicts, are really negotiated.” (p. 118)

On the problem of temporality and fixed conceptual formulations of social analysis:

“Yet it is the reduction of the social to fixed forms that remains the basic error. Marx often said this, and some Marxists quote him, in fixed ways, before returning to fixed forms. The mistake, as so often, is in taking terms of analysis as terms of substance. Thus we speak of a world-view or of a prevailing ideology or of a class outlook, often with adequate evidence, but in this regular slide towards a past tense and fixed form suppose or even do not know that we have to suppose, that these exist and are lived specifically and definitively, in singular and developing forms. Perhaps the dead can be reduced to fixed forms, though their surviving records are against it. But the living will not be reduced, at least in the first person; living third persons may be different. All the known complexities, the experienced tensions, shifts, and uncertainties, the intricate forms of unevenness and confusion, are against the terms of the reduction and soon, by extension, against social analysis itself. Social forms are then often admitted for generalities but debarred, contemptuously, from any possible relevance to this immediate and actual significance of being.” (p. 129-30)

On the nature of cultural formations, working towards his concept of “structures of feeling”:

“In spite of substantial and at some level decisive continuities in grammar and vocabulary, no generation speaks quite the same language as its predecessors. The difference can be defined in terms of additions, deletions, and modifications, but these do not exhaust it. What really changes is something quite general, over a wide range, and the description that often fits the change best is the literary term ‘style’. It is a general change, rather than a set of deliberate choices, yet choices can be deduced from it, as well as effects. Similar kinds of change can be observed in manners, dress, building, and other similar forms of social life. It is an open question—that is to say, a set of specific historical questions—whether in any of these changes this or that group has been dominant or influential, or whether they are the result of much more general interaction. For what we are defining is a particular quality of social experience and relationship, historically distinct from the particular qualities, which gives the sense of a generation or of a period.” (p. 131)

I could go on, but I’ll stop here.

[1] “Letter to Francesco Vettori,” 12/10/1513.

2 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Eran,
    Thank you for these quotes; I share with you an overwhelming sense of the indispensability of Williams.

    For me, and I think these passages demonstrate it well, Williams’s usefulness is always in the adjectives: that is where he builds his specialized vocabulary, that is where he attains analytical precision of a rare sort. Even a relatively ordinary adjective like “particular”–e.g., “[hegemony is] a culture which has also to be seen as the lived dominance and subordination of particular classes”–adds greatly to the specificity of his meaning, and does so with remarkable efficiency.

    Given that Williams is so much more famous for his work mostly with nouns (in his book Keywords), this wizardry with adjectives comes kind of a surprise, or at least came as a surprise for me. But I think Williams is in a sense wary of nouns exactly because he recognizes their intractable polysemy, their historical mutability, and above all their centrality to the class struggle. Nouns more than any other part of speech are the terrain of the struggle for hegemony. For Williams, I think, adjectives are a safer space from which to analyze.

    • Thanks for pointing that out. I never analyzed nouns and adjectives this way. It seems quite suggestive. I have to think about this more though…

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