Raymond Williams and Marxism

 Originally Appeared in: Cultural Materialism: On Raymond Williams | Published: 1995


For twenty years Western Marxists looked back to two historic moments to guide our theoretical work on society and culture 1917 and 1968. As symbols, as historic watersheds, as reminder and conscience of political struggle, the Russian Revolution and then the events in Prague, Paris, and Mexico City and in the United States at the Democratic convention in Chicago and at Columbia University stimulated important work in every field of social and cultural theory.
As each generation of Marxists has faced coming to terms with Stalin, “Soviet Marxism,” or “actually existing socialism,” it has developed various explanations for the fate of the Russian Revolution. And at each turn there have been attempts to consolidate—and with-stand—the criticisms of the Soviet Union by renewing the notion that 1917 remained a starting point and a benchmark for socialism in the twentieth century. 

The proximity of the uprisings in Paris and Prague in 1968 gave a new twist to these resurrections of the Russian Revolution, namely, the belief that the struggle against Western imperialism and capital-ism and the struggle against state socialism and Soviet hegemony were two sides of the same coin. The challenge to Western capital-ism, we believed, would turn out to belong to the same struggle as the challenge to Soviet totalitarianism. From this perspective, the Russian Revolution could once again become a revolutionary starting point. From this conjuncture flowed Rudolph Bahro’s critique of actually existing socialism. 

The sentiment that the revolutionary legacy had a future pervades a good deal of writing throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s, but the future began to dim as the decade of Thatcher and Reagan took hold tooth and claw. The 1980s rapidly eroded the whole project in which Marxist theory attempted to preserve the expectations and transformations of the 1960s. 

An emblem of Marxist theory in the Thatcher-Reagan decade is furnished in the film written by Hanif Kureishi, My Beautiful Laundrette. Omar’s Papa is a Pakistani journalist and socialist. Ailing and alcoholic, he lies bedridden in London watching his son trim his toe-nails for him. He berates Omar for succumbing to his rich uncle’s enticements and admonishes him, “You’ve got to study. We are under siege by the white man. For us education is power.” The socialist’s son, however, is smitten with Thatcherite ambition and wants only to make money managing his uncle’s laundrette. When Papa stumbles into the laundrette’s grand opening hours late and encounters Johnny, Omar’s long-time friend, a former skinhead turned entrepreneur, he can only shake his head and sigh, “The working class is such a great disappointment to me.” 

When this decade of greed and social regression in the West then culminated, so unexpectedly, in the revolutions of 1989 in the East, critical Marxism found itself, I believe, at an ultimate impasse. There were of course last gasps: “Now that the Soviet perversion of social-ism has collapsed the West can finally have a genuine debate on socialism!” “The events in Eastern Europe finally prove that even actually existing socialism contained an inner dynamic propelling it toward changes Despite such absurd claims, the liberation of East-ern Europe from socialism has shattered the mythological value of the Russian Revolution. It is no longer a meaningful starting point for envisioning social and political change. When the Berlin Wall fell, Humpty-Dumpty could not be put back together again. 

The very project of critical or Western Marxism has been thrown into question. I do not mean to suggest that it is implicated in the fallen regimes. The differences in political conviction between Western and Soviet Marxism, or between critical and scientific Marxism, ran deep. What counts, rather, is that Western Marxism could not provide the intellectual tools or the political vocabulary that the peoples and movements of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe—let alone China—needed to struggle for their freedoms and rights and for justice within their societies. Western Marxism proved irrelevant to the great revolutionary moment at the end of the twentieth century. 

As a result, socialism has been left to appear antithetical to democracy. Conversely, the anachronistic notion that capitalism is the cradle of democracy has gained prestige worldwide. Thatcherism and Reaganism have scored an unanticipated ideological victory that will continue to influence the processes of social and political renewal going forward in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. 

What then does it mean today to take up the topic of Raymond Williams’s contribution to Marxism? It cannot be a matter of looking to his works simply for paths out of the current impasse. As regards Marxism itself, I believe the impasse is permanent. The need is for a rearticulation of socialism and democracy. And Williams’s contribution to that theoretical and political task, which requires a critique rather than a renewal of Marxism, was immense. 

As a novelist, Williams found sources for this articulation of socialism and democracy in his own earliest experiences as the child of working-class parents. As a political thinker, he sought to link socialism and democracy by interrogating the meaning of revolution and the vocabularies of modern politics. As critic and teacher, he revitalized socialist thought through his commitments to the democratization of culture. Through this multiplicity of his writing—fiction, politics, criticism—there emerges, I hope to show, a profound working through of some of the most urgent political and cultural issues of our time….

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