determination by stariya


                                              Raymond Williams

     No problem in Marxist cultural theory is more difficult than that of “determination.” According to its
opponents, Marxism is a necessarily reductive and determinist kind of theory: no cultural activity is
allowed to be real and significant in itself, but is always reduced to a direct or indirect expression of some
preceding and controlling economic content, or of a political content determined by an economic position
or situation. In the perspective of mid-twentieth century developments of Marxism, this description can be
seen as a caricature. Certainly it is often asserted with a confidence as it is out of date. Yet it can hardly be
denied that it came, with all its difficulties, from a common form of Marxism. Of course within that form,
and in more recent Marxist thinking, there have been many qualifications of the idea of determination, of
the kind noted in Engels’s letter to Bloch, or of an apparently more radical kind, such as the contemporary
idea of “overdetermination” (a difficult term in English, since its intended meaning is determination by
multiple factors). Some of these revisions have in effect dropped the original Marxist emphasis, in
attempted syntheses with other orders of determination in psychology (a revised Freudianism) or in mental
or formal structures (formalism, structuralism). These qualifications and revisions certainly indicate the
inherent difficulties of the proposition. But at the same time they are welcomed by those opponents of
Marxism who want to evade its continued challenge or, more directly, dismiss it as irrelevant dogma. It is
then crucial to be certain what that challenge was and is. A Marxism without some concept of
determination is in effect worthless. A Marxism with many of the concepts of determination it now has is
quite radically disabled.
     The root sense of “determination” is “setting bounds” or “setting limits.” In its extraordinarily varied
development, in application to many specific processes, it is the sense of putting a limit and therefore an
end to some action that is most problematical. The determination of a calculation, a course of study, or a
lease is, as an idea, relatively simple. Determination by an authority is at first simple, but is the source of
most of the special difficulties, in its implication of something beyond and even external to the specific
action which nevertheless decides or settles it. The sense of externality is decisive in the development of
the concept of “determinism,” in which some power (God or Nature or History) controls or decides the
outcome of an action or process, beyond or irrespective of the wills or desires of its agents. This is abstract
determinism, to be distinguished from an often apparently similar inherent determinism, in which the
essential character of a process or the properties of its components are held to determine (control) its
outcome: the character and properties are then “determinants.” What had been (abstractly) the “determinat
Counsell and foreknowledge of God” (Tyndale) became, especially in the physical sciences, “determinate
conditions” or “determined laws,” based on precise knowledge of the inherent characteristics of a process
and its components. The abstract idea presupposes a powerlessness (or unsurpassable limits to the power)
of the participants in an action. The “scientific” idea presupposes unalterable or relatively fixed
characteristics; change is then a matter of altered (but discoverable and in that sense predictable)
conditions and combinations.
     It seems clear that the Marxist version of determinism, at least in its first stage, corresponds to this
“scientific” idea.
     In the social production which men carry on they enter into definite relations that are indispensable
and independent of their will…a definite stage of development…(SW, i. 362)
     The English “definite” translates Marx’s forms of bestimmen. The existing stage of material
production, and the social relations corresponding to it, are in that sense “fixed.”
     The mass of productive forces accessible to men determines the conditions of society…(GI, 18)
    From this sense of determined conditions it is easy to understand the development of a Marxism
which stressed the “iron laws,” the “absolutely objective conditions,” of an “economy,” from which all else
followed. In this influential interpretation, Marxism had discovered the “laws” of an objective external
system of economy, and everything then followed, sooner or later, directly or indirectly, from these laws.
But this is not the only way in which the sense can be developed. It is as reasonable, remembering “enter
into” and “accessible to,” to stress the predominance of objective conditions at any particular moment in
the process. This turns out, in practice, to be a quite different claim. It is what Engels wrote, defensively, in
his letter to Bloch: “we make our history ourselves, but, in the first place, under very definite assumptions
and conditions.” What this restores, as against the alternative development, is the idea of direct agency:
“we make our history ourselves.” The “definite” or “objective” assumptions and conditions are then the
qualifying terms of this agency: in fact “determination” as “then setting of limits.”
    The radical difference between “determination” in this sense, and “determination” in the sense of the
“laws” of a whole process, subject to inherent and predictable development, is not difficult to grasp but can
often slip away in the shifting senses of “determine.” The key question is the degree to which the
“objective” conditions are seen as external. Since, by definition, within Marxism, the objective conditions
are and can only be the result of human actions in the material world, the real distinction can be only
between historical objectivity--the conditions into which, at any particular point in time, men find
themselves born, thus the “accessible” conditions into which they “enter”--and abstract objectivity, in
which the “determining” process is “independent of their will” not in the historical sense that they have
inherited it but in the absolute sense that they cannot control it; they can seek only to understand it and
guide their actions accordingly.
     This abstract objectivity is the basis of what became widely known, in Marxism, as “economism.” As
a philosophical and political doctrine it is worthless, but it has then in turn to be understood historically.
The strongest single reason for the development of abstract determinism is the historical experience of
large-scale capitalist economy, in which many more people than Marxists concluded that 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.” Thus, with bitter irony, a critical and revolutionary
doctrine was changed, not only in practice but at this level of principle, into the very forms of passivity and
reification against which an alternative sense of “determination” had set out to operate.
     Abstract determinism, that is to say, has to be seen as in one sense determined. It is a form of response
and interpretation that is conditioned by its experience of real historical limits. The decisive difference
between “determinate” natural laws and “determinate” social processes was overlooked--in part by a
confusion of language, in part from specific historical experience. The description of both kinds of
knowledge as “scientific” compounded the confusion. But is it then possible to return to a sense of
“determination” as the experience of “objective limits”? As a negative sense this is undoubtedly important,
and Marx used it repeatedly. New social relations, and the new kinds of activity that are possible through
them, may be imagined but cannot be achieved unless the determining limits of a particular mode of
production are surpassed in practice, by actual social change. This was the history, for example, of the
Romantic impulse to human liberation, in its actual interaction with a dominant capitalism.
    But to say only this is to be in danger of falling back into a new passive and objectivist model. This is
what happened to Engels:
    The historical event… may… be viewed as the product of a power which works as a whole
unconsciously and without volition. For what each individual wills is obstructed by everyone else, and
what emerges is something that no one willed.
     Here society is the objectified (unconscious and unwilled) general process, and the only alternative
forces are “individual wills.” But this is a bourgeois version of society. A particular form of this version
was later specified in Freudianism, and is the real ground for the Marxist-Freudian syntheses which,
ironically, have been the main opposition to economism and economic determinism. Society, whether
generalized as such or as “capitalist society” or as “the social and cultural forms of the capitalist mode of
production,” is seen as the primarily negative force which follows from any understanding of
determination as only the setting of limits. But “society,” or “the historical event,” can never in such ways
be categorically abstracted from “individuals” and “individual wills.” Such a separation leads straight to an
alienated, objectivist “society,” working “unconsciously,” and to comprehension of individuals as
“pre-social” or even anti-social. “The individual” or “the genotype” then become positive extra-social
     This is where the full concept of determination is crucial. For in practice determination is never only
the setting of limits; it is also the exertion of pressures. As it happens this is also a sense of “determine” in
English: to determine or be determined to do something is an act of will and purpose. In a whole social
process, these positive determinations, which may be experienced individually but which are always social
acts, indeed often specific social formations, have very complex relations with the negative determinations
that are experienced as limits. For they are by no means only pressures against the limits, though these are
crucially important. They are at least as often pressures derived from the formation and momentum of a
given social mode: in effect a compulsion to act in ways that maintain and renew it. They are also, and
vitally, pressures exerted by new formations, with their as yet unrealised intentions and demands.
“Society” is then never only the “dead husk” which limits social and individual fulfilment. It is always also
a constitutive process with very powerful pressures which are both expressed in political, economic, and
cultural formations and, to take the full weight of “constitutive,” are internalized and become “individual
wills.” Determination of this whole kind--a complex and interrelated process of limits and pressures--is in
the whole social process itself and nowhere else: not in an abstracted “mode of production” nor in an
abstracted “psychology.” Any abstraction of determinism, based on the isolation of autonomous categories,
which are seen as controlling or which can be used for prediction, is then a mystification of the specific
and always related determinants which are the real social process--an active and conscious as well as, by
default, a passive and objectified historical experience.
     The concept of “overdetermination” is an attempt to avoid the isolation of autonomous categories but
at the same time to emphasize relatively autonomous yet of course interactive practices. In its most
positive forms--that is, in its recognition of multiple forces, rather than the isolated forces of modes or
techniques of production, and in its further recognition of these forces as structured, in particular historical
situations, rather than elements of an ideal totality or, worse, merely, adjacent--the concept of
“overdetermination” is more useful than any other as a way of understanding historically lived situations
and the authentic complexities of practice. It is especially useful as a way of understanding
“contradictions” and the ordinary version of “the dialectic,” which can so easily be abstracted as features
of a theoretically isolated (determining) situation or movement, which is then expected to develop
according to certain (determinist) laws. In any whole society, both the relative autonomy and the relative
unevenness of different practices (forms of practical consciousness) decisively affect actual development,
and affect it, in the sense of pressures and limits, as determinants. Yet there are also difficulties in the
concept. It was used by Freud to indicate the structured multiple causation of a symptom: a crystallization
very similar to the Frankfurt School’s concept of a dialectical image. Some traces of this origin survive in
some of its theoretical uses (e.g. in Althusser, who introduced it in Marxism but who failed to apply its
most positive elements to his own work on ideology). As with “determination,” so “overdetermination”
can be abstracted to a structure (symptom), which then, if in complex ways, “develops” (forms, holds,
breaks down) by the laws of its internal structural relations. As a form of analysis this is often effective, but
in its isolation of the structure it can shift attention from the real location of all practice and practical
consciousness: “the practical activity… the practical process of development of men.” Any categorical
objectification of determined or overdetermined structures is a repetition of the basic error of “economism”
at a more serious level, since it now offers to subsume (at times with a certain arrogance) all lived,
practical and unevenly formed and formative experience. One of the reasons for this error, whether in
economism or in an alternative structuralism, is a misunderstanding of the nature of “productive forces.”

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