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A Century Of Raymond Williams

The article below, from Tribune, about the pioneering ecosocialist Raymond Williams, reminded the Red Green Labour editorial team that his early 1970s pamphlet Socialism and Ecology was a founding document of the, then radical, SERA.

You can read that pamphlet here: Socialism and Ecology and also find it in our resources section.

A Century of Raymond Williams

Socialist writer Raymond Williams was born 100 years ago today. His work expressed a radical democratic vision of society – and maintained that rigorous critique was a tool of liberation.

‘Think it through as labour and see how long and systematic the exploitation and seizure must have been to rear that many houses, on that scale,’ writes Raymond Williams in his remarkable 1973 book The Country and the City. It’s a reflection on the symbolism and destructive power of the country house and estate but, as a statement of intent, also neatly encapsulates an abiding feature of Williams’s writing: a historicist and materialist approach with a central emphasis on social process. Today, on the centenary of his birth, it’s an instructive starting point from which to revisit the significance of this Welsh writer’s thinking for socialists. For it was to socialism that Williams—a pioneering intellectual of the twentieth century—was committed and, more specifically, it was Marxism that he repeatedly turned to and from throughout his life.Williams first read Marx and Engels as a 16-year-old, picking up a copy of The Communist Manifesto from the Soviet pavilion at the 1937 Paris Expo, on his way home to Wales from a League of Nations Youth Conference in Geneva. He would go on to read Capital as a student at Cambridge and embark on a complex engagement with ‘received Marxist criticism’. Challenging the orthodoxies of what he dismissed in his 1958 breakthrough book Culture and Society as formulaic, weak understandings of the base and superstructure model, Williams worked through his frustrated attachments to Marx to develop his own enduring contribution to Marxist cultural theory: cultural materialism. This came in 1977 with Marxism and Literature and was the product of a process dating back to his final years as a student reading English.

‘I could at last get free of the model which had been such an obstacle, whether in certainty or in doubt: the model of fixed and known Marxist positions,’ he said with some relief, reflecting on his undergraduate readings of Marxism. ‘Once the central body of thinking was itself seen as active, developing, unfinished, and persistently contentious, many of the questions were open again.’ Here, Williams deploys a characteristic move: examining the contradictions within simplified and therefore limited understandings of society which failed to place due emphasis on human agency and the creative capacities of ordinary people. ‘The common abstraction of “the base” and “the superstructure”’, he notes, ‘is thus a radical persistence of the modes of thought which [Marx] attacked.’

For Williams, Marx was both specific and flexible in his analysis of economic production and its relationships to culture and ideology. This attention to the active and dynamic, to the constitutive processes of culture, and to the social and material histories of cultural production are key to Williams’s thinking. ‘What I would now claim to have reached’, he said in 1976, in ‘Notes on Marxism in Britain since 1945’, ‘is a theory of culture as a (social and material) productive process and of specific practices, of “arts”, as social uses of material means of production’.

It’s a trajectory which is possible to trace in a new book of Williams’s writings I’ve recently edited for Verso. Culture and Politics: Class, Writing, Socialism includes unpublished and uncollected essays from 1958 (with a lost Culture and Society chapter) through to 1987 (the year before he died). One central contribution is on ‘Marxist Cultural Theory’ – the original lecture which became the renowned essay on ‘Base and Superstructure’. Originally delivered in Montreal in 1973, during a stint in North America when he was a visiting professor of political science at Stanford, it captures Williams at the beginning of a renewed engagement with Marxist approaches to culture. He began to test out new ideas in lectures and seminars, first in Cambridge—where he returned in 1961 as a lecturer in English—and then in Italy, Yugoslavia, Hungary, Germany, Scandinavia, and the Soviet Union.

Some of his lectures from this period and into the 1980s have been released as part of my wider research for the book. Williams would use public speaking as a way of reaching for new critical revelations: a method which informed and was often the basis for his published work. It was rare that he lectured from a full text, often using brief notes with loose timings scribbled in the margins. ‘Many of the ideas occurred while I was actually speaking,’ he revealed, when discussing the verbatim lectures which make up his study of The English Novel from Dickens to Lawrence.

For his friend, the cultural theorist Stuart Hall, these patterns of thought in Williams’s style and sentence construction embody emancipatory and democratic movement: ‘In his writing and speaking—those slow, exploratory sentences that turned back on themselves, tracing the actual lived movement of his mind—he insisted on the effort to reach out beyond any specialised intelligentsia to a wider audience and to link intellectual work with a broader social and political purpose.’ Part of that purpose, according to Daniel Hartley, is captured by Williams’s ‘self-renewing sub-clauses’, deployed in ‘an attempt to render his style adequate to the complex mediations of Western civil society.’

The task of rendering such complexities of capitalism within his prose—consistently examining accepted ‘norms’ and received ‘traditions’—makes for a dense and at times difficult style. But Williams had many different registers. There is the scholarly intensity of ­Culture and Society and the highly theoretical Marxism and Literature, as well as the patient introductory tone of his first book Reading and Criticism (written as an adult education study guide), the reflective elegance of his debut novel Border Country, and the everyday observations of his TV column. Throughout most of his writing there is also the light touch of autobiography – momentarily returning the reader to the Welsh village of Pandy where Williams grew up, in a working-class family on the Wales-England border. It is this experience of place and class which is fundamental.

Although the outlines of his life are well known—from Pandy to Cambridge, from fighting in Normandy to adult education and the formation of the British New Left—there is still much which hasn’t been comprehensively documented, particularly from the sixties onwards. Dai Smith’s authoritative account, A Warrior’s Tale, takes us up to 1961 and the making of Williams. But beyond that, in terms of biographical writing, we only have Fred Inglis’s contentious 1995 biography (Inglis adds ‘[blah, drone]’ when quoting Williams from The Long Revolution, for instance). Fascinating glimpses come through in Williams’s own work—when describing his impressions of US television, for example—and in interviews, particularly in the formally-innovative Politics and Letters (1979). And yet his influence as what the historian and his friend E. P. Thompson called a ‘uniting pressure’ needs greater scrutiny and reflection within an intellectual biography; Williams’s centrality to socialist thought in the twentieth century demands as much.

His renewal of Marxist cultural theory in the seventies was coupled with—as Daniel G. Williams has shown—an ‘increasing engagement with Wales and Welsh issues’ and the ‘meaning of his Welsh experience’. Here, again, Raymond Williams demanded complexity: ‘For if there is one thing to insist on in analysing Welsh culture it is the complex of forced and acquired discontinuities: a broken series of radical shifts, within which we have to mark not only certain social and linguistic continuities but many acts of self-definition by negation, by alternation and by contrast. Indeed it is this culture of Wales, profoundly and consciously problematic, which is the real as distinct from the ideological difference from a selective, dominant and hegemonic English culture.’ It’s a historical reckoning with Welsh identity and a class critique of Englishness from the perspective of the Welsh border country, written in 1983 as he retired from Cambridge, a symbolic centre of English learning.

This period of sustained engagement with Wales—something always there in his fiction—was accompanied by an expansion of international lectures in the 1970s and, significantly, a trip to Paris to work with sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. As I explain in the introductory essay to the new collection, E. P. Thompson introduced Williams to Bourdieu; Williams then went on to collaborate with Nicholas Garnham on the long essay, ‘Pierre Bourdieu and the Sociology of Culture’. Like Thompson, Garnham saw the work of Bourdieu as in ‘conscious and constant opposition’ to Louis Althusser and structuralism. In turn, Bourdieu, as a response to Althusserian Marxism, looked to the first New Left in Britain and the writings of Williams, Thompson, Richard Hoggart, and Eric Hobsbawm, some of which were published in translation in Bourdieu’s journal Actes de la Recherche en Sciences Sociales. There are some remarkable letters from Bourdieu to Williams in the Williams archive but it’s those from Thompson to Williams which reveal why so many of these prominent leftist intellectuals looked to him as a father figure; Stuart Hall describes Williams as such in his memoir Familiar Stranger. ‘The more excited Raymond became, the quieter he grew,’ remembers Hall. ‘He dropped into a sort of Welsh burr and you had to listen very carefully to hear what was being scrupulously formulated.’

It was Williams’s commitment to socialism and socialist renewal which saw him occupy a position as mediator, often acting as the link between disgruntled factions, notably Thompson’s disagreements with New Left Review. It’s as a constructive and critical voice within socialist debates that one can best understand his political affiliations and interventions, rather than through official party memberships. He joined the Communist Party for 18 months as an undergraduate, the Labour Party for five years (from 1961), and Plaid Cymru in 1969 for at least a year, possibly two. He left all three but remained an important source of ideas for each, welcome or not, sometimes on the inside, mostly on the outside. In one of the essays in the new collection, he shares a panel with the socialist politician Tony Benn at a fringe event during the notorious 1985 Labour Party conference. Williams emphasises the need for a socialist strategy which could overcome the limitations of representative democracy and move towards forms of direct democracy, decentralisation, and self-management.

His was a radical democratic vision which, as he outlined in 1983 in Towards 2000, faced the challenges of the present and used what he identified as the ‘resources of hope’. ‘It is not only in the movements of peace, ecology and feminism that the shift has begun,’ he writes, in what would be his last full-length book. ‘It is also in the vigorous movement of what is called an alternative culture but at its best is always an oppositional culture: new work in theatre, film, community writing and publishing, and in cultural analysis.’ The task Williams sets for today is to form, locate, and use contemporary resources of hope. His ‘resolutely materialist account of culture’, in the words of Marie Moran, is one such possible resource which allows for what Williams himself described as ‘an active, conflicting historical process’ to emerge, ‘in which the very forms are created by social relations which are sometimes evident and sometimes occluded.’

This returns us to the country house and ways of seeing historical process which can lead not only to a reckoning but a liberation. One of his most enduring yet simple observations was on how traditions are selected, how they are constructed and defined retrospectively. We must avoid the error, he insisted, ‘of supposing that a selective version made by some temporarily dominant society is “universal” whereas the selective version of some temporarily dominated society is merely “local” or “traditional”’. For Paul Jones, this enables his modes of thinking—alongside his democratic vision and belief in the ‘popular capacity for productive creative practice’—to be used ‘as a critique of imperialist and neo-colonialist relations between nations and societies.’ Williams’s desire to expand and redefine the uses and values of intellectual work comes through in such critiques of society; it is one of the challenges of the twenty-first century: to think it through as labour.

You can pre-order ‘Culture and Politics: Class, Writing, Socialism’—the first book of Williams essays to include previously unpublished material in more than three decades—from Verso.

About the Author

Phil O’Brien is the editor of Culture and Politics: Class, Writing, Socialism by Raymond Williams and author of The Working Class and Twenty-First-Century British Fiction. He is an Associate Lecturer at the Open University and secretary of the Raymond Williams Society.

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