Culture is ordinary: Raymond Williams and cultural materialism

Phil Edwards, July 1999

Raymond Williams developed the approach which he named 'cultural materialism' in a series of influential books - Culture and Society (1958), the Long Revolution (1961), Marxism and Literature (1977). I came to cultural materialism by another route. I'd just read Williams' Drama in performance - a survey of the conditions under which plays have been put on over the years, and how changes in staging practice parallelled developments in society. One night, I had a dream. I dreamed I saw a series of scenes, each showing a group of people in their usual surroundings; I remember a group of cardinals, standing outside St Peter's in Rome. The relationships between the elements in each scene - the architecture, the clothing, the rituals, the social roles - were luminously clear. I woke up with a clear, unshakeable sense of the validity and power of the cultural materialist approach.

By the time I read Williams' theoretical work, in other words, I'd already been converted. This experience has had some odd effects. I find Williams' writing clear and easy to read, for instance, which I gather is unusual; asked for a comment on Marxism and Literature, the historian Gwyn A.Williams said, "I defy anyone to read that book without going stark raving mad." With this in mind, I've attempted to suggest why Williams' work continues to merit the attention of socialists, eleven years after his death.

Cultural materialism was always, for Williams, a Marxist theory - an elaboration of historical materialism. "Latent within historical materialism is ... a way of understanding the diverse social and material production ... of works to which the connected but also changing categories of art have been historically applied. I call this position cultural materialism." Cultural production is itself material, as much as any other sector of human activity; culture must be understood both in its own terms and as part of its society. The implications for cultural work are vast: imagine relating Howard Barker's plots to the contemporary demographics of theatre-going, or setting the rise of Zoe Ball in the context of the economics of the BBC. Cultural studies - a discipline whose existence owes much to Williams - has scratched the surface of this approach to the arts, but following it through is a daunting prospect.

Williams' conception of cultural materialism went further, however. The key question was how the relationship between society and culture was understood. In his 1958 essay "Culture is ordinary" Williams cited the Marxist tenet that "a culture must finally be interpreted in relation to its underlying system of production" and glossed it as follows: "a culture is a whole way of life, and the arts are part of a social organisation which economic change clearly radically affects." The second part of this statement indicates Williams' resistance to the classical Marxist idea of culture as a 'superstructure' which echoes an economic 'base'. The first part suggests how he would bridge the gap: culture was "a whole way of life". This Williams counterposed to 'high culture' - "this extraordinary decision to call certain things culture and then separate them, as with a park wall, from ordinary people and ordinary work".

Hence, culture is always political. This is not to say that the crimes of the ruling class can be read off from a film or an advertisement, any more than they can from a party political broadcast. Still less does it imply that work which aims for that level of explicitness is the best or most important. Rather, culture is political because the social process addressed by political analysis is always embedded in culture. Williams reversed the terms of the usual analysis. Rather than being a specialised area in which we see reflections of the political processes governing society, culture is the "whole way of life" which makes up human society; political analysis is a specialised framework which can be used to understand it.

Much writing on culture treats political change as an external force: something which impinges on ordinary people's lives from outside, and which writers may choose to focus on or not. This assumption underpins the tendency of right-wing critics to claim authors for their own - 'apolitical' - perspective. "By the fifties the trick was being turned that if you thought George Eliot was a good novelist, you had to be against socialism. There was a directly political confiscation of the past that was intolerable."

Radical criticism is often little better. Even the approach of reclaiming 'apolitical' works, re-attaching them to their history - reading the Industrial Revolution into Wuthering Heights, for instance, with Heathcliff seen as a dispossessed proletarian - made the same mistake, Williams argued. "Social experience, just because it is social, does not have to appear in any way exclusively in these overt public forms. In its very quality as social reality it penetrates, is already at the roots of, relationships of every kind ... When there is real dislocation it does not have to appear in a strike or in machine-breaking. It can appear as radically and as authentically in what is apparently, what is actually family or personal experience." Wuthering Heights was "central to its time" because of the power of its articulation of emotional experience - an experience which was characteristic of a society which was being torn apart, psychologically as much as socially, under the stress of industrialisation.

Politics for its part is always cultural. The history of the Left and the labour movement is the history of attempts to develop an alternative culture - a long, complex and contradictory process. Williams resisted prescriptive approaches to culture: if it was intolerable for the Right to appropriate George Eliot, it was absurd for the Left to claim that certain art forms were or were not 'socialist'. "A culture is common meanings, the product of a whole people, and offered individual meanings ... It is stupid and arrogant to suppose that any of these meanings can in any way be prescribed; they are made by living, made and remade, in ways that we cannot know in advance."

The culture of the Left exists on a number of levels. There are continuing and developing art forms, such as the art of banners, flags and quilts. There are the achievements of the continual drive for working class 'self-improvement' - in fact a movement of resistance to exclusion from education - from the Institutes of mining villages through to today's WEAs and the Open University. More broadly again, there is the body of collective experience built up through struggle. ("The single most shocking thesis to established liberal opinion in Culture and Society ... was that I did not define working-class culture as a few proletarian novels ... but as the institutions of the labour movement.") Marches and demonstrations, strikes and occupations, all create new forms of consciousness and promote awareness of different ways of living; on a more mundane level, they also bring out ordinary people's ability to organise and co-ordinate activity. Williams insisted that those achievements - and resources - should not be forgotten or minimised.

Moreover, political struggle itself takes cultural forms. The 'DiY Culture' [sic] of squats, anti-roads protests and Reclaim the Streets actions is, among other things, a direct assertion of new cultural possibilities - and of a way of living in which culture, art, pleasure would play a central part. Actions such as these often involve the playful reappropriation of buildings and monuments, symbols of the dominant culture: in Williams' terms, an emergent culture is imposing itself, making itself heard. Predictably, the full armoury of the dominant culture and social order is brought into play to combat it: from "the scum on the front pages of the richer newspapers" (to quote Williams from 1968) through to direct - political - repression. For capitalism has not ceased to be victorious: the space available for cultural or political opposition is continually under attack, from the reappropriation of radical symbols to the literal occupation of social territory through CCTV. And culture cannot substitute for politics - cannot be a short-cut to a larger social transformation, any more than the instrumental model of left politics could function without culture. The complex set of transformations which Williams labelled 'the long revolution' could only triumph by dispossessing "the central political organs of capitalist society": "the condition for the success of the long revolution in any real sense is decisively a short revolution".

Williams' assessments of the prospects for change were sometimes bleak. He believed that neither the Labour Party nor the union movement had advanced a genuinely reformist project for many years, preferring to manage capitalism and take sectoral gains: "The underlying perspectives of a reforming Labour Party and of a steadily bargaining and self-improving trade-union movement - a perspective within which so many major gains have been achieved - suddenly look like and are dead ends," he wrote in 1982. The following year he developed this analysis in Towards 2000, in which he analysed the new managerial politics - a politics which he named 'Plan X', in which the only goal is the continued functioning of capitalism and the pursuit of strategic advantage. Williams didn't live to see New Labour, but I'm certain he would have recognised Plan X through the rhetorical fog.

That said, the space for alternatives is never entirely blocked: "no mode of production and therefore no dominant social order and therefore no dominant culture ever in reality includes or exhausts all human practice, human energy and human intention". There is always - must always be - space for opposition: for thinking and action directed towards the elaboration of another social order. This refusal of despair was also a refusal of indiscriminate anger and weightless theory, of critiques written in the margins of the dominant order. Its roots were in Williams' sense of loyalty: to class, to community and to history. The sense of community he had known in Wales was crucial to him: his recognition of green issues and the politics of place extended rather than diluting his earlier emphasis on class.

His loyalties gave Williams a quiet steadiness which sometimes made him seem like a placid gradualist - a deeply misleading impression. On other occasions the impression was more brutal. In 1985 he wrote: "As the [miners'] strike ends, there will be many other things to discuss and argue about; tactics, timing and doubtless personalities. But it is of the greatest possible importance to move very quickly and sharply beyond these, to the decisive general issues which have now been so clearly disclosed." After Williams' death R.W. Johnson recalled this passage, attacking Williams for attempting to forestall a critique of the NUM's 'tactics, timing [and] personalities'. The charge is accurate but irrelevant. Williams deliberately refused to play that game, for reasons which recall his enduringly controversial critique of George Orwell ("while travelling seriously, he was always travelling light"). Of Orwell's "plain style" Williams commented, "the convention of the plain observer with no axes to grind ... cancels the social situation of the writer and cancels his stance towards the social situation he is observing." The miners' strike, Williams believed, created new possibilities for oppositional thought and action, even in defeat; a socialist writer who ignored these possibilities in favour of post-mortem recriminations would truly be 'travelling light', cancelling out their own social position and political goals.

Three years earlier, Williams had helped set up a group aiming to work on those "decisive general issues": the Socialist Society. The work of the Socialist Society led to the Chesterfield Conferences, the Socialist Movement and the newspaper socialist - eventually reborn as Red Pepper. Several of the people now involved in Red Pepper were active in the Socialist Society in the late eighties and early nineties - myself included. With this history in mind, it is worth asking, finally, what directions Williams' work suggests for the Left in 1999.

Firstly, work is still needed on understanding 'New Labour'. While the genuine reforms enacted by this government cannot be ignored, the heart of New Labour is an attempt to graft reactionary and managerial values onto the image, language and organisational resources of the Labour Party. The true dimensions of 'the project', and the weaknesses in Labour which allowed it to triumph, remain to be analysed. A second area in need of reassessment is the Left itself. The bizarre and disastrous positions adopted by much of the Left during the Kosova crisis attest to the work which now needs to be done, to reconnect the Left with its founding humanist - and Marxist - values.

In a small country undergoing rapid change, national identity is another important theme. While trans-European linkages may be beneficial, their uneven development, dominated by the requirements of capitalism, puts the identity associated with the British state under strain - particularly accompanied by Scottish and Welsh political self-assertion. One symptom is the English cultural valorisation, ever since Trainspotting, of a curiously regressive image of young Scottish masculinity. The advent of these Celtic rebels without a cause is related to a fourth theme, gender politics: in particular, the recurrent anxiety as to whether feminism has 'gone too far' or 'lost its way'.

Finally, the late nineties have given us two further concerns which Williams could not have foreseen. The Internet has been hailed as transforming the nature of work and even of capital. Serious work is now being done to test these claims; this needs to be complemented by an awareness of the real potential of the Internet as a medium for radical communication and action. Lastly, the nineties have been marked by an extraordinary growth in three inter-related ideologies: 'New Age' beliefs, often associated with alternative therapies; belief in the paranormal and extra-terrestrial life; and 'conspiracy theory'. While the last of these, at least, has something to offer serious politics, taken together these beliefs indicate a loss of belief in established authority - and a loss of faith in our own ability to reason and act.

Williams never lost that faith. He believed that the Left could understand the dominant order: we faced, not "some unavoidable real world", but "a set of identifiable processes of realpolitik and force majeure, of nameable agencies of power and capital, distraction and disinformation". But naming the blockages was not enough. "The dynamic movement is elsewhere, in the difficult business of gaining confidence in our own energies and capacities." The task was to establish the lines of development for an alternative. "It is only in a shared belief and insistence that there are practical alternatives that the balance of forces and chances begins to alter. Once the inevitabilities are challenged, we begin gathering our resources for a journey of hope. If there are no easy answers there are still available and discoverable hard answers, and it is these that we can now learn to make and share."

A version of this essay appeared in the August 1999 issue of Red Pepper.



The English novel from Dickens to Lawrence (1970)
Orwell (1971)
Politics and Letters: interviews with New Left Review (1979)
Towards 2000 (1983)
Marxism and Literature (1977)


"Culture is ordinary" (1958), "Why do I demonstrate?" (1968), "The forward march of Labour halted?" (1982), "Lukács: a man without frustration" (1983), "Mining the meaning: key words in the miners' strike" (1985).

All essays are in Resources of Hope (1989) except "Lukács", which is in What I came to say (1989).