Williams, Raymond

Assigned: Williams, Raymond. “Base and Superstructure in Marxist Cultural Theory” (1337-50). Also read the editors’ introduction (1335-37).

“Base and Superstructure in Marxist Cultural Theory” (1973/1980)


1. On 1337-38 (“Any modern approach to a Marxist…”), Raymond Williams begins with the admission that instead of talking about “base and superstructure,” he would prefer (if it were possible) to deal with “the proposition that social being determines consciousness” (1337). Why? Where, according to Williams, does the “language of determination” (1337) come from, and why is it problematic that it is deemed so central to Marxist discourse? How does Marx’s own theory take up an oppositional stance against the view that human actions are simply “determined”? What two meanings of the word “determine” does Williams bring up, and which does he prefer? Why?

Superstructure: Qualifications and Amendments

2. On 1338-39 (“The term of relationship is then…”), Raymond Williams explains how the Marxist term “superstructure” has been modified over many decades. Why did it need to be changed? How have successive generations of Marxist theorists viewed the way in which the ideological superstructure relates to the economic base of a given society? Taken together, how, according to Williams, have these changes made it possible to account more fully for the complexities of the relation between a society’s base and its cultural/ideological superstructure? Finally, Williams says that he thinks the economic “base” (Basis, Grundlage) is in fact more important to explore than the superstructure. Why so—in what sense is this concept not as easily summed up as many Marxist theorists seem to have thought?

The Base and the Productive Forces

3. On 1339-40 (“So we have to say that…”), Williams examines the term “base.” Why is it inaccurate simply to treat the base of a society as “a fixed economic or technological abstraction” (1339)? Why would it be better, according to Williams, to attend to Marx’s central term “productive forces” (1340) in thinking about the base, and not to focus on his narrower analysis of commodities production? In sum, how should Marxist critics redefine related terms such as “determination” and “superstructure” to augment the explanatory power of their thinking?

Uses of Totality

4. On 1340-41 (“Yet, because of the difficulties…”), how does Williams assess the concept of “totality” as set forth by the prominent Hungarian Marxist György Lukács (Leitch 866-81)? How did Lukács’ idea of a “social ‘totality’” (1340) avoid the inadequacy of the older terms “base” and “superstructure”? And yet, according to Williams, what serious interpretive danger does this newer way of understanding the social and economic dimensions of a society introduce in its own right? What happens to recognition of class structure and class-based “intentions” if one thinks of what earlier Marxists would call the superstructure instead as “a large variety of miscellaneous and contemporaneous practices” (1341) that are not in any discernible way determined by economic activity? Moreover, in Williams’ view, what does such thinking do to recognition that class intentions matter very much when it comes to “certain kinds of law, [and] certain kinds of institution” (1341) such as, perhaps, criminal law, banking, and other such institutions?

The Complexity of Hegemony

5. On 1342-44 (“It is Gramsci’s great contribution…”), why, according to Williams, is Italian Marxist’s Antonio Gramsci’s concept of “hegemony” (Leitch 927-35) a major improvement over the older set of terms base/superstructure and over Lukács’ term “totality” (1342)? What truths about the dominant class’s complex way of remaining in control does Gramsci’s concept of hegemony recognize that cannot be accounted for by the older terms? How does Williams articulate his own version of “hegemony” so as to recognize the depth and complexity of its hold over a given society? In responding, consider what Williams suggests about the role of education in capitalist societies, the playing-out of parliamentary politics (in the American context, say, the constant fighting between the two major parties, and even within those parties themselves), and these societies’ ability to tolerate certain kinds of opposition that yet do not fundamentally challenge their existence. (1343) Finally, to what extent can a theory of hegemony recognize the existence of something “alternative to the effective dominant culture” (1344) and thus truly oppositional?

Residual and Emergent Cultures

6. On 1344-45 (“I have next to introduce a…”), how does Williams explain what he means by his terms “residual” and “emergent” in connection with certain “oppositional” or “alternative” cultural forms or practices (1344)? What is the source of residual cultural practices, according to Williams, and what relation do they maintain with the dominant or “hegemonic” culture? What are “emergent” cultural practices? What determines whether the dominant class considers it necessary to incorporate or capture emergent practices for its own safety and use? How can it be determined whether such cultural practices are merely “alternative” or, more threateningly, “oppositional” (1345)? In Williams’ view, what task should Marxist cultural theorists set for themselves with regard to the residual and emergent forms he has been discussing?

Class and Human Practice

7. On 1346-47 (“We have indeed one source…”), Williams notes the example of “the coming to consciousness of a new class” (1346) as central to Marxist theory in its quest to explain the sources of emergent cultural practices. He insists on the following precept: “no mode of production, and therefore no dominant society or order of society, and therefore no dominant culture, in reality exhausts the full range of human practice, human energy, human intention…” (1346). Why is it important to Williams that establishing and maintaining a dominant culture, involves a great deal of conscious “selection and organization” (1346) as well as exclusion from among all the beliefs and practices that exist in a given society? What complexity is Williams trying to encompass when he refers to the relations between the various sources of new cultural practices that do not easily fit into the dominant culture’s hegemonic order? (1346-47 top)

8. On 1347-48 (“Now then if we go back to the cultural…”), what should be understood about the place of “literature,” according to Williams, in relation to the hegemonic regime of a dominant culture? Why would it be a mistake to suppose that literature is always properly thought of as allied with “emergent” (1347) culture? Why, as well, would it be wrong to suppose that literature can be thought of as separate from the “general social process” (1347)? How, according to Williams, might a dominant culture itself change as a result of its many attempts to “reach out” (1348) to emergent and alternative forms? Why, indeed, is it vital that it should make such attempts?

Critical Theory as Consumption

9. On 1348-49 (“What then are the implications…”), Williams notes that “nearly all forms of contemporary critical theory are theories of consumption” (1348) and that several major modern forms of criticism (ones grounded in “taste,” “sensibility,” etc.), including most recently the formalism of the New Critics, view literary texts as objects isolated from any broader socioeconomic contexts. What “further large theoretical effect” (1348 bottom) does he suggest this approach has had on many kinds of criticism, including, for example, “psychological theory” (1349), myth and archetypal criticism, biographical criticism, and of course New Critical Formalism? How do these practices, according to Williams, study literary objects in a manner resembling the early-Marxist concentration on literature as a “superstructural” efflux from the economic base?

Objects and Practices

10. On 1349-50 (“Now I think the true crisis…”), according to Williams, what is the negative effect of the consumption-based or object-oriented kinds of criticism on our understanding of literature’s significance as a field of study and in relation to dominant and emergent cultural practices?  What counter-practice—what different kind of criticism—does Williams suggest would be a great improvement? Why would looking “not for the components of a product but for the conditions of a practice” (1350) be superior to consumption-based forms of criticism?

11. General question: We should acknowledge the irony of our studying, here in a capitalist country, the writings of a prominent cultural Marxist like Raymond Williams (or the work of Marx and Engels, Lukács, Gramsci, et al.). Marxism, after all, is a theory that wants to change the world, not serve as matter for study questions and exams in some literary theory course. What, then (if anything) are we accomplishing by studying these Marxist authors, and texts such as Williams’ “Base and Superstructure in Marxist Cultural Theory” (1984), when Fidel Castro of Cuba is dead, Russia is ruled by an Oligarch of Oligarchs, and China patiently follows its market-savvy plan to become the great power of the twenty-first century? (Only North Korea, it would seem, holds the line, with its Soviet-style cult of personality and permanent war footing.) Even so, what explanatory power might Marxist-inspired criticism and theory still be said to offer?

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B. et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 3rd ed. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-60295-1.

Copyright © 2021 Alfred J. Drake