Revolutionaries have traditionally believed that there are three forms of class struggle. The first two are both relatively obvious: political mobilization and economic organization. But in addition to the political and economic struggles there is a third. Lenin, invoking the authority of Engels, called it ‘theoretical struggle’. But this was not a call directed to philosophers. The theory which he argued for was Marxism itself, the general theory of historical materialism. The struggle involved was its application, not only intellectually to the specific conditions of the day, but educationally, to the working class and its most able members: ‘training the masses in political consciousness and revolutionary activity’, ‘we can and must educate workers so as to be able to discuss these questions with them’. Today in the West, the masses—enfranchized, unionized, no longer working eleven-hour days—are surrounded by ‘education’ and ‘discussion’ in the mass media, not all of it always wrong. The third struggle, in advanced capitalist countries, now takes on a different form: alongside the duty of revolutionary theoretical clarification is the need to transform a political consciousness already heavily invested by the bourgeoisie. This struggle is a struggle for ‘culture’. One way of suggesting the contrast between Western capitalist democracies and the Tsarist autocracy in Russia might be that Lenin’s two classical conditions for revolution—‘Only when the “lower classes” do not want the old way, and when the “upper classes” cannot carry on in the old way—only then can revolution triumph’—have changed. The second clause still holds. But the first condition, in the West, should now read: ‘only when the “lower classes” want to go on in a new way’. In other words, until a majority of the working class actively desire socialism, they will continue to be willing to accept bourgeois solutions to the recurrent crises of capitalism, however temporarily acute.

It follows that cultural studies are a crucial component of historical materialism and that cultural struggle is an arduous, exacting and vital part of revolutionary practice. It also follows, therefore, that whenever Marxists attempt extensive generalizations about ‘culture’, they cannot proceed convincingly if they presume that the main problems of political theory and practice have been effectively solved in a separate domain. On the contrary, it seems much more likely that there is a strong bond between the political and the cultural weaknesses of Marxism in the West.

In Britain, Marxists should be alert to such a bond in any discussion of the work of Raymond Williams, who currently dominates the field of ‘cultural criticism’. Until recently it was not necessary to say this, because his commanding achievement had rarely been approached systematically.footnote1 Now, however, Terry Eagleton, a former pupil of Williams, has written an aggressive survey of Williams’s work.footnote2 The first thing to be said about this article is that it is a very welcome end to a silence which now seems incredible. By insisting that literary criticism cannot evade taking the ‘full weight’ of Williams’s contribution, and by then proceeding to a political estimate of it as well, Eagleton has boldly confronted the most productive and one of the most creative writers on the British Left today. For this we are all in his debt.

It is my belief, however, that the balance of Eagleton’s judgement of Williams—both literary and political—is seriously wrong. In this brief rejoinder I will try to explain why, and to suggest some ways in which another appraisal of Williams’s complex work is possible. Obviously the remarks which follow are not presented dogmatically, but there is one point I would argue strongly. Williams has raised major questions that he has not satisfactorily solved; as a result it is relatively easy to point to the obvious weaknesses in his case and conclude from them that he has no case at all, that he has no legitimate ‘problematic’, or whatever. I will try and show that the framework of Williams’s cultural and political theories has indeed been flawed. But there is another respect in which the direction of his work has been vindicated, if one assesses it not only in terms of the answers he has proffered but also in terms of the general balance of priorities and relevance he has asserted. For Williams has seen the complex, cultural powers of capitalism more clearly than any other socialist writer in England, and has consistently tried to measure the means and resources of resistance to them.

From the short-lived journal which he helped to start in 1947 (Politics and Letters) through to the present, Williams has always worked on the relationship between culture and politics. His insistent message has been that these two areas of practice, defined in their broadest terms, are bound up with each other in a multitude of discernible forms. If there is an evident weakness to William’s work it is that through fear of losing the connections between politics and culture, he has often refused to deal separately, and therefore sufficiently, with either part. His constant thematic stress on the unity of the two has tended to block him from a structural explanation of how they relate to each other, and what the limits of such relationships may be. The problems are complex, but Williams tends to harp on their ‘difficulties’ in a way that at once rightly insists upon the connections and yet acts as an impediment to unravelling them.

Eagleton wishes to cut this particular knot. His text on Williams is a preliminary chapter to a study in literary theory and concludes with a call that criticism be transformed into a domain of scientific knowledge. This demand for theoretical concentration on problems of literary practices and the specific ideologies attached to them may advance our understanding of literature; and Eagleton’s primary objective is to proceed to new methods of critical analysis. With some justification, Eagleton speaks of Williams as having ‘by-passed’ Marxism during the last twenty years. The intended function of Eagleton’s essay is to get criticism back onto the high road. In this sense, his critique of Williams is only secondary to his main purpose.

In seeking to furnish criticism with its appropriate methods, however, Eagleton appears to deny validity to wider problems. For him ‘culture’ is not a problematic area; it does not exist except as ‘an ideological term’, demanding only exercises in demystification. At best, culture is ‘an empty anthropological abstraction’. This Althusserian elision of culture into ideology leaves room for certain concrete, specific exposures of ideological mechanisms (Eagleton’s own work is an example), but the resulting difficulties are now well known. ‘Science’ floats uneasily between the status of an independent fourth practice and a position on the other side of ideology’s oblique stroke (ideology/science). Even more significantly, art—which is neither ideology nor science—does not obtain any location at all within the classification. As ‘art’ includes literature, the very object to which Eagleton would apply his scientific criticism itself appears to have no status within this theoretical system, once ‘culture’ has been assigned to the realm of ideology.footnote3