First published in 1977, Marxism and Literature represents the final stage in the elaboration of the concept of "cultural materialism" that critic and author Raymond Williams had already sketched in two previous works, Culture and Society (1958) and The Long Revolution (1961). In the introductory pages of the volume, Williams discusses "cultural materialism" within a Marxist framework by claiming that it is "a theory of the specificities of material cultural and literary production within historical materialism." At the same time, the book is a revision of Marxist cultural and literary criticism, and its project is to go beyond the "mechanic materialism" that has been unable to replace bourgeois cultural analysis. In his rewriting of Marxist theory and criticism, Williams points out the interaction between concepts that had, so far, been treated as dichotomies. In addition, cultural materialism focuses primarily on cultural and literary "production" rather than on "consumption."
Written at a time of widespread challenges against both the literary and social establishments, Marxism and Literature is divided into three parts:
- "Basic Concepts" (which includes definitions of culture, language, and literature)
- "Cultural Theory"
- "Literary Criticism"
This division reveals the author's project to bring together Marxist theories of languange and literature. The book unveils how the bourgeoisie has succeeded in affirming its own cultural, literary, social, and economic standards. Williams also argues that Marxist theory did not successfully question the bourgeois notion of culture because it trapped cultural production within the superstructure, conceiving it as a mere reflection of the economic activities that constitute the base. Marxist theory should change this way of thinking about culture by focusing on a more interactive and less hierarchical model. Williams suggests that base and superstructure should not be treated as separate ideas, privileging the former over the latter, but as interacting entities which mutually influence each other. Building on Gramsci's theories, Williams finds that hegemony links social inequalities to culture as these influence and conditions cultural practices.
However, Marxism and Literature leaves ample room for dissent as its cultural theory takes into account "emergent formations" that represent an oppositional relationship to the dominant culture. These are formed thanks to "structures of feeling," a central concept in Williams's cultural theory, which refers to common beliefs held by a significant group of people at a given historical moment. The goal of literary criticism should be to bring out these emergent formations to develop a new collective consciousness.