Raymond Williams and André Gorz: Class, Communism, Humanism

The Raymond Williams Society blog this month sees the return of Daniel Gerke who recently published an article on Williams and Antonio Gramsci in Key Words. Here, Daniel turns to the thinking of André Gorz, in relation to Williams, in order to outline the revival and significance of class consciousness in the twenty-first century.

Daniel writes…

In a 1995 essay titled ‘Raymond Williams and Marxism’, John Brenkman diagnosed Williams with a case of over-attachment to the working class. The prescribed tincture was a dose of André Gorz, whose work, Brenkman argued, better grappled with the necessity of decentering class, both in response to the radical challenges of feminism and post-colonialism, and as a way of facing the realities of post-industrial capitalism. In one respect, this was an unusual critique of Williams, who had more often been regarded, even by comrades, as insufficiently attentive to class, at least in its structural dimension. But in the mid-nineties, with the collapse of ‘really existing socialism’ provoking announcements of the end of history, the idea of the revolutionary proletariat as the agent of historical change must have seemed passé.

From the vantage point of 2019, and especially for those of us who don’t really remember it, it’s difficult to imagine such an inert political situation. History, at the close of the post-crash decade, feels fully mobile, and the dominant structure of feeling is a sense of being permanently on the verge of some kind of transformation. Marxism and communism, both the discipline and the politics, have revived in direct proportion to the collapse of what Tariq Ali called the ‘extreme centre’. Politics hasn’t just polarized but radicalized, and class politics is firmly back on the agenda in the most advanced capitalist countries.

A venerable tradition of utopian thinking has also revived, and one of the most fruitful areas of debate is automation and the possibility of a post-work society. There’s a growing literature of what might be called the political economy of post-scarcity, from Paul Mason’s Gorz-inspired Postcapitalism (as well as his latest book: Clear Bright Future: A Radical Defence of the Human Being) to Aaron Bastani’s Fully Automated Luxury Communism, a meme long before it was a book. Unlike Gorz, however, contemporary thinkers of post-scarcity see the struggle against work and the class struggle as inseparable. There no longer seems to be that tension, which Gorz’s work epitomized, between fighting for specifically working-class interests and fighting for a future in which post-scarcity has rendered class distinction inoperative. So, let me preface what follows by advancing the thesis that what the contemporary left is coalescing around is the fusion of a kind of communist humanism with the economics of post-scarcity.

It’s in this context that I’d like to compare Williams and Gorz in a bit more detail, since these two figures could almost be said to represent the base elements in the contemporary left as I’m describing it. Williams: perhaps the pre-eminent thinker of communist or Marxist humanism in Anglophone Western Marxism. Gorz: among the most important progenitors of contemporary post-scarcity thinking on the socialist left.

A thinker who influenced both Gorz and Williams, though Gorz the more foundationally, was Jean-Paul Sartre. Sartre’s intellectual journey, from a kind of voluntarist existentialism to a complex, philosophical Marxism culminated, in 1960, in his Critique of Dialectical Reason. Gorz’s most well-known and controversial book, Farewell to the Working Class, written in 1983, was at root a political-economic development of Sartre’s philosophical argument in the Critique.


Williams had maintained an interest in Sartre’s development into an independent Marxist, which in many respects mirrored his own, ever since the early existentialist plays, and he reviewed Sartre’s Critique in The Guardian in 1977, a year after its English publication. According to Williams, Sartre’s late opus was ‘a landmark in social thought’ and ‘a turning-point in the thinking of our time’. He was particularly impressed by Sartre’s notion of interiority, the idea that Marxism couldn’t just be about objective, determining laws, but must involve individual human beings grasping themselves as both products of and causal agents in the movement of history. Williams also had praise for Sartre’s novel conceptual descriptions of human social relations: ‘series’, ‘collectives’ and ‘fused groups’. It’s likely that Williams, who had been anticipating the English edition of the Critique for some time, would have read Gorz’s 1966 explainer, ‘Sartre and Marx’, in New Left Review.

The challenge that Sartre set himself in the Critique was to relate the praxis of the individual, which for the earlier existentialist Sartre had been the realm of pure freedom, to the larger, material structures of social life and history. To this end, Sartre identified two fundamental forms of human sociality: ‘practico-inert ensembles’ and ‘groups’ or ‘fused groups’. Practico-inert ensembles, which included ‘series’ and ‘collectives’, were aggregations of individuals who, by virtue of some similarity in the condition of each relative to broader society, could be regarded a kind of collectivity, but were still living almost entirely separate lives – a line of people waiting for a bus, for example.

In all but the most unique historical situations, even a class was a serial, and thus in some sense an abstract, collective. The idea was that workers congregated in the workplace not because they’d chosen to embark on a collective project, to each of them an end in itself, but because each was separately compelled by an external relation, that between worker and employer. Sartre called these kinds of aggregate relations, rooted in alienation and exploitation and only abstractly totalising, relations of ‘alterity’, to be contrasted with conscious relations of reciprocity.

9781844673957-frontcover-4f156ab577843ef672320414358f8001The unity of the ‘fused group’, on the other hand, was based on ‘an internal cohesion […] the reciprocity of its members, who undertook together to transform the situation which was shared by them in the direction of a common end’. Sartre’s distinction between seriality and the fused group partially mapped onto Marx’s distinction between ‘class in itself’ and ‘class for itself’, class as a structural given and a class as a conscious, collective and ideally revolutionary social agent. But the pessimism of Sartre’s Critique lay in the assertion that under conditions of scarcity, and this applied both to the capitalist and to the ‘really existing’ socialist societies, every fused group must inevitably dissolve back into seriality. And this somewhat dire conclusion was Gorz’s starting-point in Farewell to the Working Class.

Gorz’s target, like Sartre’s, was alienation. But what caused alienation, he argued, wasn’t just capitalist exploitation, nor even the directly hierarchical relations that characterized oppression in the state socialist societies. What made human beings unfree was the very socialization of production that industrialization implied; the division of labour; the interdependence of national and global markets; financialisation; industrial planning and the relation between state and firm. All of these required that every individual firm, and every individual within them, had to submit themselves to the requirements of massive, impersonal structures that could never produce that sense of free collaboration and unity of purpose that Sartre’s ‘fused group’ represented.

‘Everything now indicates’, wrote Gorz, ‘that it is impossible to create a highly industrialised society (and hence a world order) which presents itself to each individual as the desired outcome of his or her free social cooperation with other individuals’. In another, more philosophical formulation, Gorz argued: ‘it is impossible that individuals should totally coincide with their social being’. This idea of an irreparable breach between individual and collective identification was a step even further down the road of a kind of communist pessimism than Sartre. For Gorz, the revolutionary proletariat as the self-consciously collective agent of human emancipation was a pipe-dream.

But Gorz remained a utopian and a socialist, and so in place of the proletariat, Gorz recommended the historical agency of what he called the ‘non-class of non-workers’. At the root of this shift was Gorz’s view that, under post-industrial conditions, workers had ceased to identify in any meaningful way with their work, and that this rendered both the old protestant ethic of capitalism and the premises of scientific socialism inactive:

‘In the immense majority of cases, whether in the factory or the office, work is now a passive, pre-programmed activity which has been totally subordinated to the working of a big machinery, leaving no room for personal initiative. It is no longer possible for workers to identify with ‘their’ work or ‘their’ function in the productive process […]. Loss of the ability to identify with one’s work is tantamount to the disappearance of any sense of belonging to a class. Just as work remains external to the individual, so too does class being […]. For workers, it is no longer a question of freeing themselves within work, putting themselves in control of work, or seizing power within the framework of their work. The point now is to free oneself from work by rejecting its nature, content, necessity and modalities’ (Gorz in Farewell to the Working Class).

The ‘non-class of non-workers’, then, was that mass of temporary, casual, under-employed, probationary and part-time workers whose condition was increasingly common in the 1980s and is, of course, far more so today. Gorz view was that the left should adopt the emancipatory strategy, such as it was, of this non-class, which wasn’t to gain power over production, but to secure and expand a sphere of autonomy at the expense of a shrinkable but ineradicable sphere of heteronomy, or unfreedom.

For Gorz, freedom and unfreedom, autonomy and heteronomy, would always coexist; there would always be a sphere of freely chosen activity beyond necessity, and a sphere of unfree, socially determined activity that could never be subjectively incorporated by individuals as their own praxis. The goal was thus to diminish human involvement in the heteronomous sphere by as far as possible automating socially necessary production, and at the same time decoupling income, and thus the ability to live, from necessary labour; Gorz’s big ticket demands, then, were the automation of necessary production, and what we now think of as a universal basic income.

To my knowledge, Williams did not comment directly on Gorz’s proposals, but we can get a sense of his views on the economics of freedom and necessity from his responses to the work of another common influence on Williams and Gorz: the East German Marxist Rudolf Bahro. Bahro’s 1977 book, The Alternative in Eastern Europe, championed worker self-management and direct democracy as alternatives to central planning and party bureaucracy, speaking from the experience of a ‘really existing’ socialist society. Gorz, in his Farewell to the Working Class, was dismissive of Bahro’s plans for self-management, since they failed to question the basic socialization of labour out of which, he thought, alienation emerged. Gorz nevertheless praised Bahro’s basic anti-productivist conception of communism as ‘the measurement of wealth by freely determined possibilities for happiness rather than quantities of exchange value’.

Williams wrote a long essay on Bahro’s Alternative in New Left Review in 1980, and reviewed his Socialism and Survival, which addressed, as did Gorz’s later work, the issue of ecology, in 1982. Williams was far more open to Bahro’s vision of worker self-management than Gorz. His only stipulation was it should be scalable upwards, to the level of industries and states, and downwards to local communities, in the manner of the flexible, deliberative democracy that was Williams’s preferred model. ‘It is the indispensable objective’, he wrote, ‘of any movement to achieve (for it is not really to recover) the powers and faculties of effective knowledge and decision’. Moreover, Williams saw Bahro’s participatory democratic socialism as strongly consonant with his own, earlier formulation of the long or cultural revolution:

Reading Bahro’s Alternative was for me a remarkable experience, in that it came through, quite personally, as another version of the project of The Long Revolution. When Bahro comes to summarize his ‘perspectives for general emancipation’ I find myself back in those years and the kinds of thinking that followed from them. A redivision of labour; unrestricted access to general education; a childhood centred on the capacity for development rather than geared to economic performance; a new communal life based on autonomous group activities; socialization (democratization) of the general process of knowledge and decision (Williams in ‘Beyond Actually Existing Socialism’).

Neither Williams nor Bahro entertained in any serious way the prospect of automating necessary work out of existence. The horizons of their emancipatory economics were ‘socialization’ and democratization, words that receive overwhelmingly positive valances in the work of each. And this does put them, in a quite fundamental way, at odds with Gorz. Gorz was abandoning something which Williams, and probably Bahro, would have found very difficult to give up: the possibility, as a political horizon, of reconciling social being and consciousness.

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At the risk of exaggeration, I think Williams’s life’s work could be described as a project of bridging the gap between the totality of interconnected material processes that make up society, and lived experience or consciousness. There’s his early attempt, in Culture and Society, to draw culture and experience into the web of a broad and material way of life; his systematization of different social processes and the ideas of society that flow from them in The Long Revolution; his appreciation of literary realism and its synthesis of historical process and individual lives; his concern to democratize the means of communication to free the collective symbolization of experience latent in a culturally excluded majority; his affinity with some of the more totalizing Western Marxists, from Lukács, to Sartre, to Gramsci; his theoretical flattening of the distinction between base and superstructure in the seventies; his desire for a sociology, rather than a description or valorization, of culture. In each of these endeavours, Williams strenuously resisted the idea that the social edifice was beyond either the ken or the identification of ordinary people. And this was a political stance for Williams, because the alternative to self-knowledge was elite knowledge and elite decision, whether dictatorial, technocratic or indeed vanguardist.

Williams was fundamentally an empiricist, in the sense that he refused to locate the primary psychological mechanism of class rule in ideology. Following Lukács, Williams saw the relative political passivity of workers as rooted in reification, a sense of atomization and pessimism produced by the experience of living in a society that was in fact oppressive, degrading and atomizing. Workers, in other words, were not ill-informed by their experience, nor were they the victims of a pervasive false consciousness; the lives of most workers, most of the time, simply did not offer an obvious means of escape from the naked indignities of capitalism. So, the failure of the working class to make revolution, in Williams’s mind, was not to be explained by a disconnection between social being and consciousness, but by the fact that any adequate sense of one’s social being precluded revolutionary action in the absence of a momentous capitalist crisis.

Now, Gorz was also a kind of empiricist; he believed that as the experience of class was changing, workers were becoming incapable of thinking their classed social being in the same ways as before, and that this necessitated a new approach for the left. Where Gorz went wrong, I think, was in his assumption that consciousness of social being had to take the form of positive identification and libidinal investment. Gorz’s switch from the revolutionary proletariat to the non-class of non-workers was predicated on the latter’s passive rejection of their class position, their lack of attachment to what Gorz saw as both as a subject position that was in any case no longer politically viable. Disinterest in class, in other words, as the precondition of its transcendence. What this precluded as a possibility, I think, is what we’re seeing today: an ever-growing dis-identification with work, an ever more conscious critique of ‘bullshit jobs’ and wasted young adulthood, but at the same time a revival of class consciousness and a proliferation of class analysis and unashamedly socialist political mobilization. If Gorz was right, this would be a very surprising turn of events.

williams againI think Williams would be less surprised, the reason being that he saw that both social being and consciousness were stretched across a temporal continuum. In his theory of residual, dominant, and emergent strains within a culture or collective experience, Williams explained that consciousness can bear within it both the echoes of dead social being, and premonitions of social being to come. Consciousness mutates along with social being, with the hard break that Gorz envisioned never really arriving. And that allows us to venture that, as the social being of class has changed, yes, the experience of it has changed, but not necessarily with any reduction of its connection to the underlying material reality.

In fact, what I suspect has happened is that as the more noble elements of class being, the rootedness in community and work, the security of a job, the pride in producing socially necessary use-values, have eroded, the experience of class has been reduced to something even more fundamental and universal: class as oppression, expropriation, pain and violence; class as a bare awareness of the difference between power and its lack, between consumption and its absence, between luxury and being poorer than your parents. And at the same time, the possibility of a more thoroughgoing freedom from work, such as Gorz envisioned, appears as an ever more plausible terminus of precisely the reduction in the value and stability of work that Gorz saw as stripping class identification of its power.

I have suggested that the contemporary left is fusing the economics of post-scarcity with a kind of communist humanism. Williams’s humanism was about asserting the primacy of human experience and conscious decision-making over all the forms of mechanism and abstraction imposed by ruling over subordinate classes. And at the root of this is a perfectly Gorzian insight: that class, the condition of being expropriated, of having one’s labour chained to the service of alien ends, is fundamentally incompatible with the condition of being human. This being so, the communist vision has always been about, and is today about, abolishing the division of humanity into classes.

Gorz, imagining that class formation could only ever occur based on positive identification, said farewell to a working class that he believed would always be schizophrenically torn between the heteronomy of its social being and the autonomy of its consciousness. But perhaps the challenge of the left today is to demonstrate the value of negative identification with class; to show that social being and consciousness can, as Williams thought, be aligned, but in the service of a fully transformed, and indeed fully human, social being.

Daniel Gerke is an early career researcher whose 2018 thesis, ‘Raymond Williams and Western Marxism: Lukács, Sartre, Gramsci’ (Swansea University), explores the influence of Western Marxism on Williams’s intellectual development. His research interests include Marxist theory, psychoanalysis and the politics of science-fiction and fantasy. He has written for New Socialist and Key Words.