Welsh European

Authors: Dix, H.

Editors: Woodhams, S.

Publisher: Parthian

Place of Publication: Cardigan


Raymond Williams once acknowledged that a visit by Lucien Goldmann to Cambridge in 1970 was an important moment in the development of his critical thinking. Goldmann represented to Williams the best of French structural Marxism, and his idea of genetic structuralism, which balances structure with agency, anticipates much of Williams’s own subsequent work on forms and formations. For both men, elements within a social structure cannot be separated into a strictly causal hierarchy. Williams thought that it was arbitrary to isolate any singular element from within that totality and assign to it a strict causal primacy over all of the others. This led him to resist the distinction between base and superstructure, placing the emphasis instead on how a social order is constituted through a range of interrelated activities, all of which can be seen as being in some way material practices, but whose precise properties will be overlooked if they are merely reduced to the status of an economic base. Before Williams’s encounter with Goldmann, Louis Althusser had written of the need for a precise distinction between practices within a social totality. Dialectical relations are established by articulating distinct practices as they relate to one another, by ‘thinking their degree of independence, their type of relative autonomy.’ To Althusser too, social and material practices wield a degree of direct autonomous power, but in the last instance this power is always related back to one powerful system, Marx’s base. The relative autonomy of a practice is in fact defined in Althusser’s work by its ‘type of dependence with respect to the type of practice which is determinant in the last instance: the economy.’ This is a position which Williams would crucially modify as his reading of critical theory deepened. Williams suggests that the economy is only causally effective because its power is manifested through a range of other social and material practices.

Source: Manual

Preferred by: Hywel Dix