Raymond Williams, Working-Class Struggle and the Jerkiness of History

Paresh Chandra

If there is one thing that no self-respecting Marxist will question it is the idea of revolution – a complete rupture from the past. Complete in two senses: rupture in fundamentals – it is the essence that changes – and a rupture that includes everything; in other words, the essence of everything changes. No part of given reality, no entity, insofar as it is based in this structure, can be preserved. Even if the working class leads the revolution, in destroying the bourgeoisie it also destroys itself; neither the working class, nor the bourgeoisie survive.

Over the course of his long journey Raymond Williams went through a number phases. But even at those moments where politico-pragmatic engagements took him into an engagement – undeniably critical – with the structures of bourgeois democracy, with policy-making etc., he cannot, without a degree of injustice be called “reformist”. An implicit recognition that true transformation is systemic always inflected his arguments. When the social democratic Labour Party is charged of not having done enough, he is arguing that they could have empowered the working class more, and facilitated the development of class-consciousness, and not that social democracy could have brought fundamental change.

And yet it is not hard to espy another strand in Williams’ thought, a strand that does not sit easy with the notion of revolution as total rejection of the current. Owing to his dependence on categories like “community” and “culture” (terms that have had a long history of anti-Marxist use and make Williams’ work very liable to being rallied for all sorts of non/anti-Marxists purposes) it is not hard to make him seem a believer/defender of the “autotelic”. Williams’ younger contemporary, Terry Eagleton, for instance, has lately been bent upon securing a domain of intersubjectivity and Love within the Symbolic Order, as a space where the Imaginary, or that which precedes language and its fallen logic (capitalism, presumably), continues to exist. The category of things that are “(good-)in-themselves” includes art, community, love, friendship etc. For this sort of thinking Raymond Williams is easy fodder. Does he not himself reify the experience of the Welsh village, celebrating the experience of neighbourliness as some sort of atemporal good, a sign of a society not fallen into sin? Does not the notion of a “culture of the working class” also allow for a similar sort of reification? It will be my attempt in this paper to explore how Williams manages to preserve in his work the place of these notions that seem to go against the grain of all that the Marxist idea of revolution entails, generating a sort of productive tension in which instead of necessarily undermining the attempt to bring fundamental change, they come across as possible catalysts.

I

In his short essay on the idea of Welsh culture (Resources of Hope, 99-105), Williams asserts the uselessness of holding on to the idea of an unchanging culture. Welsh culture is neither a well-preserved “resort” to be visited, nor is it the ever present essence of Welsh existence. Culture is something intrinsically contested; it is, in fact, constituted by contestation, not given, but produced at each moment. Similarly, community too is rooted not only in relations that are given, for instance those of the Welsh village community, but is also reborn in moments of open antagonism and struggle, like during the 1926 General Strike. Williams is aware of the problem of holding on to something as intrinsically good in a world where power defines all relations, even those of love and friendship. It would imply the denial of the structural nature of problems, and hence solutions, while implicitly celebrating a privilege that most do not possess. The antagonistic moment at which we challenge the entire given order, with intent to transform it is essential, and any moment of “goodness” can exist only in struggle. In an essay called “Social significance of 1926” in Resources of Hope (105-122), Williams qualifies his seeming celebration of the Welsh community by drawing attention to the manner in which relations of community got re-activated due to the energy of the strike.

The problem of seeing the Welsh community, or any already existing set of relationships as lying outside the domain of capitalist hegemony resembles another predicament that revolutionary politics faces (in theory and in practice). We know that the initial moment at which the status quo is challenged is always localised; it involves local actors, facing the brunt of power at a local level. Understandably, any possible resolution that emerges directly out of this moment of struggle is also local. Assuming that transformation is always a systemic phenomenon, the moment of local resolution has to be negotiated in such a manner that it does not freeze the movement in its tracks. The only positive result to be gained from this negotiation is the generalisation of the question asked. If one increases the ambit of a question, a localised resolution becomes impossible; this entails the posing of the idea of global transformation in opposition to localised recognition/representation.

Williams discusses these two difficulties faced in the struggle for socialism when he theorises the residual and the emergent in his late work, Marxism and Literature. The Welsh community is what he calls the residual: that which belongs to a bygone era and does not completely kowtow to the logic of the current system. In not fully conforming it generates friction which can then be deployed to question the system. On the other hand, the emergent refers to ideas, values, institutions etc. that emerge when a class struggles against hegemony, when the working class struggles against the hegemony of capital, for instance. Both the residual and the emergent are oppositional at a certain moment of their relation with the dominant, or the hegemonic, but their antagonistic status is always under threat of the possibility of immediate recognition and co-option. As was said earlier, it is the abstract ideal of systemic/global transformation that saves, or tries to save, and has the potential to save the antagonistic nature of the residual and the emergent.

At the same time, the abstract ideal of systemic transformation, inadequate in itself to sustain the energies of a movement, needs the support of local struggles, and a basis in already existing matrices of human relations. In other words, the truly oppositional, or that which seeks to transform the totality of things, does not exist outside of the various moments of the emergent and the residual. This is where “community” in the way Williams uses the term, while speaking of the Welsh countryside, becomes important. Communities are necessarily local, but in this vision, never ends in themselves; moments, rather, that appear and disappear, and offer sustenance to the movement at large (this was more or less the role of the Welsh village community in the general strike, as represented in Williams’ Border Country).

II

But how does one reach from sustenance of a movement at a local level, to its generalisation? The term that makes itself available immediately is, of course, solidarity. Movements sustained locally, needed to be united to transform society, are truly brought together by bonds of solidarity; these bonds, furthermore, are facilitated and represented by actual, material bodies and organisations. It is through solidarity that localised segments of the working class move beyond localised interests and end the segmentation that divides them. Solidarity is a special feeling of community that, not existing in given reality, is formed between struggling groups and communities. What sustains a movement then, in addition to local relations of community, and the struggle for localised and immediate demands, is this new sense of community. The 1926 General Strike was great precisely because it demonstrated to those who witnessed it that the community that forms between different segments of the working people is indeed capable of keeping a struggle going.

Williams’ father and other working members of the Welsh village community responded to the struggle of the coal miners almost out of impulse. But what makes this response different from an individualised, empathetic response, is 1) its collective nature, and 2) instead of thinking themselves internal to their condition, the so-called ‘empathisers’ felt themselves internal to the struggle of the miners. Moreover, the Welsh village community, with its spontaneous response to the struggle of the miners did not make the 1926 Strike a general strike. More than anything, this happened because of the extended collaboration and camaraderie between trade union bodies representing various sectors of the working class. If local communities sustain movements at a local level, trade unions are bodies for the building of solidarity at a large scale. If at the end the movement collapsed because of the betrayal of the trade union leadership, it only goes to show the significance of the networks that the trade unions created and utilised. Furthermore, this betrayal is nothing but the willingness to accept local resolutions to general issues, and in that the cutting of the roots of solidarity.

Trade unions are bodies, which though they emerge from local experiences of struggle, are actually not limited to the specificity one particular struggle. If transformation has to be systemic, and has to be brought about by a united working class, then the task of forming a fully conscious, united working class is the first true goal to be sought. Trade unions, and like bodies, that synthesise the wisdom of various local working class experiences are essential to the formation of this class (for-itself). Insofar as trade unions contribute to the construction of socialism, by facilitating the transformation of the working-class-in-itself to a working-class-for-itself, they go against the shallow economism that is associated with trade unionism. The 1926 General Strike demonstrated that trade unions could become bodies to facilitate generalisation. Solidarity was built at a national level through the action of these unions. Betrayal took place when the same trade unions accepted a local resolution, and in that sold out the working-class for the interests for a group of workers. Fittingly, one of the main clauses that the “Trade Disputes and Trade Unions Act 1927,” which was a response to the 1926 General Strike, introduced, forbade “sympathetic strikes”.

III

The local moment of a struggle is not always supported by the residual, should there be a residual. Very often the residual is a functional part of the dominant, and has no oppositional value. Despite the problems of his larger thesis, in Rethinking Working Class History, Dipesh Chakrabarty makes an important observation about the Calcutta Jute Mills: individuals belonging to the middle class provided leadership in many struggles of the workers. Because of the lack of bourgeois-democratic structures the symbolic horizon of the workers did not allow for them to take the role of leaders. The oppositional structures that were formed, strangely, were modelled on feudal hierarchies, now formally subsumed by capitalism in order to reproduce itself. In its articulation with the residual, the oppositional took a form that was already co-opted.

Alternatively, it could happen that the oppositional could get accommodated without deriving its form from (as was the case with the Calcutta workers) a co-opted residual. To take an example closer home (in space and in time), workers’ struggles in the industrial belt in Haryana (Gurgaon, Manesar, Dharuhera, Kapashera) often culminate in, and falter at the demand for a union. Evidently, a recognised union is needed for the workers to be able to articulate their real demands; the union, and the demand for it, comes across as a necessary moment of mediation. The problem with this demand, as some have so competently argued (e.g., Maya John), is that this demand forces the movement into a form that systematically destroys internal democracy and channels of communication between leaders and the rank-and-file, which then usually causes the movement to collapse. The demand for a union is obviously not a co-opted piece of residue. It is an institutionalised form of working class wisdom, gained from past experience, and yet its institutionalisation implies that it too is actually co-opted. Of course, even if the demand for a union were met, it would still mean a defeat for the working-class movement, insofar as a local resolution has been achieved and the process of generalisation cut short.

Not only the residual, but even formations that are produced by experiences of the working class, can be accommodated and can lead to the co-option of new moments of oppositional experience. Nothing can be celebrated as a strong, stable bulwark for resistance. At one moment of working-class experience the residual becomes the basis for opposition, and on another leads to co-option. The institutions and tactics that have emerged from the experience of struggle can at a later moment become the cause of accommodation. This should make us think of why Williams’ belaboured the point about seeing society for the process it is, instead of understanding it in terms of reified images.

The usual mistake that one makes in using categories that Williams had constructed so carefully is that we reify them even as we assert that they are meant to ward off reification. In a sense, categories, in being synchronic, make such reification inevitable. Despite this, the point of Williams’ repeated warnings, and his constant quibbling with names, seems to derive from this discomfort with bourgeois forms of knowledge, which rely on categories (formal logic being the model for all such forms), and are hence unable to account for flux. The dominant, the emergent, the residual and the oppositional, are all processual categories (if one can allow for the existence of a such a paradoxical entity). There is no such thing as the emergent. Or rather there is no such thing as the emergent. The moment a thing is a thing, it is no longer emergent, but has emerged. What Williams is trying to get at with the concept of the emergent is what is hidden behind that which has emerged. The only thing he can positively assert is that there is something hidden. That the process exists is the only thing one can say about the process, one can never really represent or know the process itself.

IV

It is at times hard to tell whether Williams’ concern is with how things are, or with how we see them; with the thing-in-itself in a phenomenological sense, or our representations of it. Is he trying to argue that society, as culture, is a process, or is he trying to make sure that we reject our reified categories and understand/represent it as the process it is. As a Marxist, his interests lie not in establishing the nature of reality, as an epistemological exercise, but in transforming it. Understanding reality is part of his project, but only insofar as it is a part of the process of transforming reality. The subject, the object, and importantly the manner in which the subject relates to object, are all important for him.

Reification is not merely a problem of thought. As has been demonstrated, past moments of experience tend to get reified as institutionalized wisdom only to block the path of working-class struggle. Reification in thought, our inability to get beyond concepts to understand the process, accompanies reification in the unfolding of history; capitalism is one such block in the unfolding of this process. History cannot unfold without the destruction of capitalism, and without its destruction the process that we speak of unfolds like the belt of a treadmill, seeming to have moved, only to return after having gathered a bit more dust. Of course movements have happened, and the working class has attacked capitalism, but these barriers to capital have, so far, been accommodated by newer, more generalized forms of capitalism, newer ways of appropriating surplus; despite the resurgence of non-identity, identity has managed to sustain itself.

Representation and recognition lie, as does transformation, in the domain of the subject. So, in confronting these questions, Williams confronts the question of the subject. Reification, as was said above, is a concrete contradiction. The aporia of thought that every recognition is a misrecognition etc., is constituted by and is constitutive of this contradiction. Williams, in asking us to recognize the process, is asking us to recognize what, in effect, does not exist; the process of de-reification, because reification is a fact, not an illusion, cannot be completed in thought. The never-ending search for adequate concepts can never come to a close, because the search for concepts, philosophy itself, begins with the problem of reification. To resolve the problem of philosophy inside philosophy is to leave unquestioned reification as an actually existent fact, which ensures that each philosophical resolution, as each concrete resolution that is partial, becomes reified. Unable to find adequate concepts, or always being conscious of, and made uncomfortable by the inevitable inadequacy of concepts, Williams is invariably pushed into questions of policy and pragmatic engagement.

What Williams is asking us to do is to “struggle on two fronts”, as Mao said in the “Red Book”. Reification in thought is, in the final instant, a produce of reification as an aspect of history. We must battle reification in thought; we must realise that society, as history, is a process, and as we do this, we must also fight reification as a material fact. Figuratively, to fight reification in reality is to fight it outside oneself, to fight it in thought, is to fight reification inside oneself. The working class must struggle against capital as capital, but it must also struggle against labor as capital, because capitalism accommodates working class assertions; it continuously transforms the emergent into the emerged.

V

Fighting labor as capital, means fighting the embourgeoisment of the working class. This embourgeoisment takes the form of institutionalised wisdom (from past experiences) that often fetters movements. Otherwise, the most obvious case of the embourgeoisment of the working class is social democracy (in English politics, the Labor Party) – the politics of compromise. In Border Country, and in all his accounts of British socialist politics, Williams has always kept a critical stance towards social democracy. The betrayal of the trade unions, their acceptance of compromise when the movement could have gone on, was symptomatic of the politics of social democracy.

Social democracy, though it may take various forms, and may use various vocabularies, is typically the institutionalisation of a moment of working class assertion. The working class fights, and capitalism accommodates the assertion by accepting some localised demands (localised in that they do not transform the system in its fundamentals) – in the English case, this is what Perry Anderson (in English Questions) had called the working class’s incorporation. Over a period of time this corporatism gives birth to the belief that with continuous reform the current system will better itself. Williams seems to have the problems of social democracy in mind when he says,

“Straight incorporation is most directly attempted against the visibly alternative and oppositional class elements: trade unions, working-class political parties, working-class life styles…The process of emergence, in such conditions, is then a constantly repeated, an always renewable move beyond a phase of practical incorporation: usually made much more difficult by the fact that much incorporation looks like recognition, acknowledgement, and thus a form of acceptance.” (Marxism and Literature, 124-25)

Incorporation, more concretely, social democracy, blocks the continuous unfolding of the process. The working-class’s perpetual struggle to destroy capitalism comes to a halt with the belief that the current system is good enough, insofar as it has been able to take into account the needs of the emergent working-class. The feeling that the current system, which was being challenged till now, is good enough, is related to the feeling that it is total (in fact, this too follows from repeated accommodation, i.e. repeated failure of movements to bring fundamental change): there is no possible outside to it, and if any change has to come it has to come through a process of continuous modification from within. Williams’ response to this is:

“…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.” (Emphasis author’s, Marxism and Literature, 125)

The belief that the current moment is the only possible comes from blindness to flux, blindness to the fact that the past was different, and that difference is possible even in the present. This blindness is the product, furthermore, of concrete, identifiable processes of struggle and incorporation. Williams’ call to be aware of the processual logic of history, and to flux, is on the one hand a critical realist call to recognise reality for what it is, and not give in to the amnesia of the incorporated moment – reality is moving, do not let yourself get fooled by the stillness of what you see. On the other, it comes from the recognition that it is necessary to realise that change is possible, and that no matter how all-encompassing the system may seem, it has its blind-spots, its exclusions, for subjects to struggle for change, and not be cowed down into passive acceptance of the given. The struggle against reification in thought accompanies and empowers the struggle against reification in action. And the necessity of this struggle returns us to our earlier discussion of localised resolutions, which really, has been the underlying theme of this essay. It is necessary to fight reification because it is the biggest barrier in the process of generalisation, which is to say, in the process of the formation of a united working-class.

Note: This essay was written in April-May 2012.

References:

Anderson, Perry. English Questions. London: NLB, 1980.

John, Maya. “Workers’ Discontent and Form of Trade Union Politics”. Economic and Political Weekly, (January 7, 2012).

Williams, Raymond. Marxism and Literature. London: OUP, 1977.

Williams, Raymond. Resources of Hope: Culture, Democracy and Socialism. London: Verso, 1989.

Bagchi, Amiya. “Working Class Consciousness”. Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 25, No. 30 (Jul. 28, 1990), PE54-PE60.

 

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