Marx: Also Stuck in a Bourgeois Culture + Determination

Back when we were reading Marx, we brought up the irony of the whole enterprise, and particularly of “false consciousness.”  That is, Marx is claiming that the dominant class controls the means of production and also the dominant ideology.  Thus consciousness is a product of the means of production.  This is elaborated in The German Ideology, I believe.  My group pointed out the irony of Marx claiming both that people are stuck in their placement under the dominant class/production, and also claiming to be able to see past his own placement in order to come up with his whole idea of a teleological progression of history.

Williams acknowledges this irony, which was a great relief!  He says that one of the reasons that certain of Marx’s terms are narrowly understood (in this case, “productive forces”) is because,

“if you live in a capitalist society, it is capitalist forms that you must analyze.  Marx lived…in a society in which indeed ‘the productive forces appear to…constitute a self-subsistent world.’  Thus in analysing the operation of productive forces…it is easy….to slip into describing them as if they were universal and general.  …Marxism thus often took the colouring of a specifically bourgeois and capitalist kind of materialism” (92).

This is just one reason that Williams points to for a common interpretative error regarding Marxism.  This error basically consists of an exaggerated separation between components and results.  Alternatively, there is too much of a uniform, static understanding of the “base.”  In general, Williams seems to make the case that Marxism often distills concepts to such an extent that they are over-simplified and cause a gap that in fact the very thing that communism is seeking to unify.

This error can be illustrated with regard to the concept of determination.  Williams cites several definitions of this term: “setting bounds,” “setting limits,” or “to put pressure on.” (84).  The first two definitions imply “something beyond and even external to the specific action which nevertheless decides or settles it” (84).  This impulse to externalize the determinant is basically boils down to the belief by people that “the control of the process was beyond them, that it was at least in practice external to their wills and desires, and that it had therefore to be seen as governed by its own ‘laws'” (86).  Williams then points out that this attitude was essentially the very thing that Marx set out to overturn.

Williams encourages a reading of Marx in which there is not such a separation.  Rather than setting an “objectified” society against “individual wills,” he claims that society “is always…a constitutive process with very powerful pressures which are both expressed in political, economic, and cultural formation and, to take the full weight of ‘constitutive’, are internalized and become ‘individual wills.’  Determination of this kind…is in the whole social process itself and nowhere else” (87).

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