Published in International Socialism No. 39, 1988.

    The sudden and early death of Raymond Williams, in January of this year, produced a sense of shocked loss on the British Left. From all parts of the socialist spectrum there came expressions of affection and admiration.[1] It was entirely right that this should be so, for these were not simply the conventional expressions required in an obituary, but restatements of judgments that had been made over the previous quarter of a century. For Perry Anderson Williams’ work is ‘the most advanced socialist thought in England’, while according to Anthony Barnett ‘Williams has seen the complex, cultural powers of capitalism more clearly than any other socialist writer in England.’ Terry Eagleton calls him ‘the single most important critic of post-war Britain’, and notes that many of Williams’ former adversaries, himself included, have now moved closer to his positions. Even in this journal, Colin Sparks – not a man who suffers centrists gladly – has called aspects of Williams’ work ‘valuable and progressive’.[2]

    Certainly Williams’ work, in sheer quantity and range, is impressive. By the end of the seventies he had sold some 750,000 books in Britain, and by now must be heading for the million mark. His writings ranged from  literary criticism, literary theory and cultural sociology, through the history and detailed analysis of press and television, to straightforward political commentary and polemic. He was equally at home in the scholarly volume and the journalistic review.

    Even more important, Williams did not, as Terry Eagleton noted in his obituary, make ‘the usual trek from youthful radical to middle-aged reactionary’. On the contrary, his work became sharper and more committed as he grew older. One way of measuring this is to compare his development to that of his two most distinguished contemporaries on the British left, Eric Hobsbawm and Edward Thompson – the only two to bear comparison with him in terms of both intellectual achievement and political influence,[3]  and with both of whom Williams collaborated at points in his career. In 1961 Thompson published a polemical review of The Long Revolution in which he accused Williams of failing to confront Marxism and of liquidating conflicting forces into a single tradition. But by l976 Thompson was defending Williams against Eagleton, and in 1980 it was Williams’ turn to criticise Thompson for wanting to set aside all other differences in a united struggle against nuclear ‘exterminism’:

    Yet some of us at least must go on to say, first, that specifically socialist analyses of the production and reproduction of these dangers are, while undoubtedly incomplete, still centrally relevant; and, second, that we have still to look to specifically socialist analysis and mobilization to generate the linked forces that will in fact be capable of significantly reducing and finally ending these dangers.[4]

    Likewise, in the period just after the war it was Hobsbawm who remained a Communist Party hard-liner while Williams temporarily ‘dropped out’; but by 1984 he was sharply attacking Hobsbawm for his proposal of electoral co-operation between Labour and the Alliance .[5]

    Williams’ determination to swim against the stream is wholly admirable. Any explanation of his particular trajectory must begin with his roots in a Welsh working-class family. (Of course, to be born into such a family is, in and of itself, no guarantee of integrity or commitment; Neil Kinnock has given us ample proof of that). But Williams’ work, as his semi-autobiographical novel Border Country (1960) shows, is inextricably tied up with a set of personal loyalties and commitments. That was his strength – and his weakness. Personal integrity can powerfully sustain an individual, but it cannot build a movement.

    It is a commonplace to note the preoccupation with ‘borders’ in Williams’ work. Most of his work was produced on the uneasy borderline between reform and revolution. And his greatest strength was his ability to constantly cross the frontier between theory and practice.

    In the first place, as well as being a literary critic, Williams was a dramatist and an able novelist (an area of his work which cannot be discussed here). He thus tried to break down the notion of the critic as a parasitic academic specialist and to reunify criticism and ‘creation’ within his total practice as a writer.

    But more crucially, Williams always linked his intellectual work to a political practice, never taking refuge in the evasion that theory on its own  was a practice. In an article on Matthew Arnold (who wrote his Culture and Anarchy in horror after a demonstration of sixty thousand workers had ended with the destruction of the Hyde Park railings) Williams concluded: ‘While people like that dominate and multiply, it will always be necessary to go again to Hyde Park.’[6]

    Those of us who have been to Hyde Park on many albeit less exciting occasions  recognise Williams as one of our number: an activist of the post-war British left. If this assessment seems harsher and less generous than the judgments cited above,  it is not because they are wrong – that Williams’ work should be read and learnt from requires no repetition – but simply because Williams’ thought is serious enough to deserve rigorous criticism. He himself set the standard of uniting theory and practice and it is by that standard that he must be judged. His work is not simply a collection of books and articles but part of the history of the British left since l945. What follows is an attempt to show how Williams was formed by that history and how he failed to reform it.


    a) The Ghost of Stalin


    Williams joined the Communist Party in December l939.[7] He appears to have been an active and trusted member, and was given the job, together with Eric Hobsbawm, of writing a pamphlet on the Russo-Finnish War.[8] But his membership lapsed when he joined the Army in 1941 and he decided not to rejoin in 1945 – indeed his position seems to have been in some ways quite hostile. But breaking with Stalinism involves more than not renewing a membership card, and it took Williams many years to escape, even partially, from the heritage of Stalinism. In his formative years, the period up to 1956, Stalinism seemed to be the only version of Marxism on offer. Of course alternative traditions did exist, but their base was minute and it would be pointless to moralise with Williams for failing to notice them.

    As a result, in making a quite healthy rejection of Stalinism Williams also distanced himself from Marxism. In particular his detailed work in literary and cultural history brought him up against the problem of ‘base and superstructure’, a question to which he was to return time and again over many years. The problem with the Stalinist model was not merely that it grossly oversimplified the relationship between base and superstructure, but that it used such relationships as a ground for instant judgment and condemnation. A writer was assigned to a particular class base and immediately labelled as progressive or reactionary. Thus in l948 one Fadeyev told the World Congress of Communist Intellectuals: ‘if hyenas could use fountain pens, and jackals typewriters, they would write like T S Eliot.’ Not surprisingly, Williams had little patience with this sort of thing. In the chapter on ‘Marxism and Culture’ in Culture and Society (1958) he dealt harshly with such  reductionism. Looking at the work of Caudwell in the thirties he noted sourly: ‘for the most part his discussion is not even specific enough to be wrong.’ And referring to the debate in the Communist Party about Caudwell’s work, he added dismissively: ‘This is a quarrel which one who is not a Marxist will not attempt to resolve.’

    Williams had been working on these problems for some years before 1956, but the crisis in international communism provoked by Kruschev’s destalinisation gave his work a new meaning. For if Kruschev was to be believed, the base-superstructure model faced a new challenge: how had Stalin’s crimes co-existed with an allegedly socialist economic base? For a few, the problem was resolved by recognising that the Russian economic base was not socialist; far more opted for the alternative of a ‘humanist’ Marxism which stressed the relative autonomy of the superstructure from the base. Williams’ Culture and Society can thus be seen as belonging to the same international movement which produced Lucien Goldmann’s The Hidden God (1955), Ernst Fischer’s The Necessity of Art (1959) and Sartre’s Critique of Dialectical Reason (1957-60). These were very different writers, coming from  different traditions, but all converging on the same problem of establishing a more complex relationship between base and superstructure.

    In political terms such work was not very productive.[9] It had little to say about the past or future of Stalinism, and it tended to promote the idea that ‘ideological struggle’ should be autonomous from the  economic struggle. (Williams himself never wholly fell into this trap, thanks to the proletarian roots discussed above; but many of his contemporaries and disciples did.) On the Russian question Williams never moved much further; his main influence was the work of Isaac Deutscher which, despite its links to Trotskyism, saw Stalinism as in some sense progressive.  In the seventies he was still claiming that Stalin had carried out Trotsky’s agrarian programme, and in 1980 his essay on Rudolf Bahro is premised on the assumption that the societies of Eastern Europe are ‘non-capitalist’.[10]

    But Williams’ engagement with Stalinism had an interesting if misguided by-product – his theory of tragedy. His thoughts on this subject culminated in the publication of Modern Tragedy (1966).  This is in many ways a remarkable attempt to discuss tragedy outside of a purely literary framework . Williams begins with the assertion that tragedy is not just a literary genre but an ‘immediate experience’ of ordinary life, in such events as for example a mining disaster. Now of course the claim that the victims of such a disaster deserve at least as much dignity and respect as an ancient Greek king is wholly justified. Yet these disasters occur, ultimately, because employers put profits before the safety of their workers. To class such events as ‘tragedies’ is to mystify them by conferring a sense of the cosmic and inevitable on what is humanly changeable.[11]

    To apply the category of tragedy to politics is even more problematic. In his Drama from Ibsen to Eliot (l964) Williams devotes six pages to Jean Anouilh’s reworking of Sophocles’ Antigone without ever once remarking that the play was written and first performed during  the Nazi occupation of France. Yet by making Créon into a tragic figure Anouilh’s play in fact becomes a justification of collaboration with fascism.

    Something similar happens in the third part of Modern Tragedy. Here Williams publishes a play of his own, Koba,  based on the life of Stalin and taking its title from one of Stalin’s own pseudonyms. Koba becomes the revolutionary as tragic hero. He begins by defining himself as a descendant of serfs, ‘Koba the avenger of his people’. After his death one of his old comrades, Mark, proclaims:

    He was Koba and he changed. We have all seen this. But it is more than his history. It is the history of need. When the need arises, the absolute need, most men will kill. This is the history of the world…The tragedy of Koba is that the need broke him, and in the end destroyed him. What he made has condemned him. This is where we now are.[12]

    This first of all conflates revolutionary violence with Stalinist terror and then puts both under the label of tragedy. Ultimately it can be read only as at least a partial justification of Stalinism.

    Tragedy does not point to action; far more than Williams would be willing to recognise it serves to console us for being incapable of action. And Williams, unable to deal with Stalinism head on, pursued his political problems by an indirect route.


    b) The Detour through Culture


    During the 1950s Williams, a member of no political party (though supporting Labour actively at elections) devoted himself to the study of ‘culture’ – a study which culminated in the publication of Culture and Society (1958) and The Long Revolution (1961). In one sense the choice to concentrate on such a ‘secondary’ area may be seen as a political evasion or an admission of defeat. There are striking parallels with  Georg Lukács who, in the thirties, unwilling to confront Stalinism and yet reluctant to act as its direct agent, devoted himself to literary criticism – or with Lucien Goldmann in the fifties who decided, in isolation from any political movement, to demonstrate the superiority of Marxism as a tool of academic research.

    Yet to see Williams’ early work simply in these terms would be to greatly underestimate its significance. By the end of the fifties his work was becoming relevant to a whole set of important changes in British society. The long post-war boom, bringing full employment and rising living standards, had led to major developments in the patterns of working-class life. As Harold, in Williams’ novel Second Generation (l964), notes wryly: ‘There’s more goes to Spain now for their holidays than went out to the Brigade, when there was the fighting.’ Universal secondary education was transforming the experience and opportunities of millions of working-class children. Newspaper readership was growing while newspaper ownership was becoming more concentrated. The rapid spread of television in the fifties transformed the cultural patterns of working-class life.[13]

    Against those who argued that what was happening was a decline in cultural values, a drastic deterioration from the time when ‘culture’ was the property of a small elite, Williams insisted that culture was a whole ‘way of life’[14] and that the post-war social changes had not necessarily been a bad thing:

    …the contemporary historians of popular culture have tended to concentrate on what is bad and to neglect what is good…If the readers of bad newspapers have increased in number, so have the users of public libraries, so have students in all kinds of formal and informal adult education.[15]

    So far, so good. But Williams’ position had other implications. Firstly, his  stress on culture and communication led him, in Peter Sedgwick’s words, to replace a conflict model of society with ‘a communications model, in which the unity of humankind is primordially broken, not by the clash of rival social interests, but by blockages and faulty linkages in moral perception.’[16] And secondly, his concern to establish a tradition of cultural thought led him to suppress some of the conflicts in our history. To make William Morris part of the same tradition as Matthew Arnold and F R Leavis is to bend the truth away from class struggle.

    While Culture and Society was primarily concerned with an intellectual and literary tradition, The Long Revolution extended the concept of ‘culture’ and led directly into Williams’ engagement with the mass media, which continued to be a major element of concern in his work for the next twenty-five years. In Communications (1962) he applied some of the techniques of literary criticism to the study of the press. For example, he juxtaposed the main headlines of the various national papers on a given day:






    Such juxtaposition is effective and it makes a point. But in itself the critique is limited; at worst it might lead us to believe that the Times – or the Worker – is more ‘serious’ or even more truthful than its rivals.

    In a later book called Television: Technology and Cultural Form (1974) Williams applied a similar technique of close analysis to the ‘flow’ of a television news programme, showing how the rapid juxtaposition of items failed to make connections between different events – for example, a news item that ‘a government committee has reported that many claims in drug advertisements are false’ and the drug advertisements inserted in the very same bulletin, or the contrast between political detainees in Vietnam and an American family camping.

    Again, this makes an effective point but it only goes so far. Williams’ attack on advertising is such that it can almost be seen as an expression of critical support for the BBC. The real problems of power and ideology are evaded. We may note the irony that between l968 and l972 Williams wrote a monthly column on television for The Listener, a journal published by the BBC; if his criticisms had gone to the heart of the matter this would scarcely have been accepted.[17]

    The practical proposals which flowed  from Williams’ analysis were remarkably anodyne: in The Long Revolution the introduction of social studies in the school curriculum and the establishment of a Press Council ‘charged with the maintenance and extension of genuinely independent newspapers and magazines’; in Communications he suggested that ‘some theatres could be nationally owned, some owned by municipalities’ while ‘a Local Newspapers Trust, in which working editors and journalists would have a majority, could be publicly financed to regain ownership.’ What is not at all clear is who is going to carry through these desirable if marginal reforms.[18]

    Williams played a leading role in the submission, by New Left Review in 1961, of a detailed document to the Pilkington Committee (set up by the Tory government to advise on the future of broadcasting, under the chairmanship of Sir Harry Pilkington, boss of Pilkington Brothers Ltd). This document[19]  asserted that:

    We are all members of a single society – a society which depends upon all of us and from which we derive our ideals and values; a society in which common interest is still true self-interest, however strong and persuasive the pressures which divide us may seem.

    After this touching affirmation of common interest with the controllers of the mass media Williams and friends clearly felt justified in proceeding to present detailed proposals for how such programmes as Juke Box Jury could be improved.[20]

    Williams’ emphasis on culture thus represented the acceptable face of the New Left. When the New Left discussed workers’ control they were largely ignored; when they supported unilateral nuclear disarmament they were vigorously denounced; but when they talked about culture they showed that they were available for co-option. A particularly striking example of such an attempt at co-option was offered by Richard Crossman’s gushing review of The Long Revolution in the Guardian (9 March 1961):

    And now, in “The Long Revolution”, by Raymond Williams, we have the first theoretical exposition of the new socialism…undeniably the first book to break through the thought barrier into a new epoch of Socialist ideas…If I have expressed my disappointment with some passages so frankly, it is because “The Long Revolution” is the book I have been waiting for since 1945 – the book which no one of my generation could possibly have written…Reading “The Long Revolution” I had the feeling that I was in at the birth, anxiously watching what was once an embryo now suddenly emerging, messily but triumphantly, as a new-born babe.

    It is worth recalling who Richard Crossman was. An ex-Bevanite, he was probably the most intelligent and perhaps the most cynically unscrupulous of all the current Labour leadership. At the very time he wrote this review he was busy carving up the unilateralists in the Labour Party by means of the ‘Crossman-Padley Formula’, a compromise proposal carefully (and successfully) designed to divide and confuse the unilateralist left.(To the Aldermaston marchers  of that year he was popularly known as ‘Dick Double-Crossman’). It is unlikely that he had any genuine interest in Williams’ ideas[21] but he recognised that Williams could be useful in drawing the younger generation of left intellectuals behind the Labour Party. Williams cannot of course be blamed for Crossman’s bad faith, but co-option does depend on what is co-optable; a book advocating workers’ militias would not have got a rave review from a future Labour cabinet minister.

    Williams was, in fact, already aware of the dangers of co-option. In a dialogue with Richard Hoggart in the first issue of New Left Review he had noted somewhat sourly:

    In the last eighteen months or so I’ve felt a situation like they set up in their colonies, where they have members for native affairs, who are not going to influence decisions, but who are encouraged, even petted, to show their robes every so often. Being cast for this role of member for working-class culture is just as insulting and as useless as that.

    It was against this background that Williams made his return to active politics in the sixties.


    c) Regrouping the Left


    The political perspective of Williams’ earlier work was undoubtedly gradualist. Terry Eagleton’s claim (in NLR 95) that the effect of Culture and Society was ‘to consecrate the reformism of the labour movement’ is not unfair. For example, in his chapter on Newman and Arnold,  Williams asserts:

    the most remarkable facts about the British working-class movement, since its origin in the Industrial Revolution, are its conscious and deliberate abstention from general violence, and its firm faith in other methods of advance.

    The state, as we have seen from his practical proposals for culture and communications, was regarded as a source of finance rather than an enemy to be smashed.

    As for The Long Revolution, its paradoxical title was a deliberate provocation. It offended the gradualists by its defiant use of the term ‘revolution’, but at the same time it insisted that any revolution would be a long process of cultural change, not a cataclysmic seizure of power. Of course any Marxist will recognise that the taking of power  must be followed by a long period of development before human values and behaviour are thoroughly transformed[22] ; but that does not get rid of the necessity for a revolutionary confrontation. This problem simply evaporated from Williams’ work; instead he was still preoccupied with ‘good ideas’ -  for example:

    I see no reason why two-year intervals of re-election of at least a substantial part of the House of Commons should not be our immediate objective, since it seems vital for the health of our democracy that more of us  should feel directly involved in it.[23]

    But the times were a-changing. Williams’ invocation, in the Conclusion to Culture and Society of ‘a slow reach again for control’ had some justification in the fifties, when he was asserting that there was still movement against those who said that everything had stopped. But in the more hectic climate of the sixties the ‘slow reach’ was to give way to the quick grab.

    Williams had not actually joined the Labour Party till the beginning of the sixties, but in view of his own subsequent statements it is as well to record just how much he put his faith in the 1964 Labour government, and especially in the traditions of the Labour Left. When the Wilson government published its White Paper on the Arts Williams wrote in Tribune (5 March l965)[24]:

    … Jennie Lee’s white paper – a policy for the arts – is like the first snowdrop: a flower certainly, but small, isolated, the colour of the season.

    …”We have been in the habit of financing some fields of the arts on no more that a poor law relief basis…All new social services have to fight long and hard before they  establish themselves. Only yesterday it was the fight for a free health service. The day before it was the struggle to win education for all.” This, clearly, is Jennie Lee’s own perspective, and of course it is right. Behind the words is the memory of Aneurin Bevan, and the sense of the Labour movement so many of us shared with him. And just because this is so, she will not lack allies, but she will need them, badly.[25]

    By this time Williams had already been through the experience of the early New Left. A founder member of New Left Review, he had seen the network of Left Clubs grow for a couple of years, then suddenly collapse. But Williams’ perspective had never been that the New Left should be an ‘organizational political grouping’, an alternative to the Labour Party, but rather ‘a group of writers and political thinkers, essentially based on the tradition of the moral critique of industrial capitalism which has been so important in the British working-class movement.’ In 1965 he was claiming that ‘there are already signs that it has in important ways influenced some Labour Party thinking, though it would be wrong to over-estimate this degree of success.’[26]

    When the disillusion with Labour came, it was sharp and bitter. In July l966, sickened by Wilson’s attack on the striking seamen and his government’s slavish support for the US in Vietnam, Williams resigned from the Labour Party. At the same time, he was not prepared to simply lapse back into academic passivity. Instead he became involved, along with Edward Thompson and Stuart Hall, in the most significant political intervention of his career, the May Day Manifesto.

    The Manifesto was originally issued in 1967 and extended and revised in 1968.[27] The introduction stated that

    The people involved are not looking for political careers, and serve no established interest or party…They are experienced already, in many different ways, in the practical work of politics: as active members of existing parties and campaigns. But now they put this first: to bring the theory and the practice together, and so to meet new people and to begin new activity.

    It was a brave and generous initiative, but one that suffered from a fundamental weakness. The Manifesto was not a party, but sought rather to regroup the various currents of the existing left. As a result it had to please everybody (or everybody within its potential orbit) and avoid drawing lines of exclusion; but this very situation prevented it from setting priorities, and without priorities there can be no effective action.

    The text of the Manifesto, edited and rewritten by Williams, makes this clear. It starts well, with chapters 3 to 7 exposing the facts of poverty and inequality in contemporary Britain. But not until chapter 35 does it ask the question ‘But What Is the State?’ before going on, in less than two pages, to fail conspicuously to answer it. Chapter 41 declares ‘There Are Alternative Policies’ and goes on to set out the bases for ‘a socialist national plan’. Who will implement the plan – a Labour government under capitalism? -  is never specified. Only in chapter 48 are the trade unions dealt with, and that in a peculiarly evasive manner; unofficial strikes are commended, but there is no criticism of the trade union bureaucracy. The conclusions are necessarily vague: there are a lot of struggles and campaigns going on, and we support all of them.

    Peter Sedgwick, writing in International Socialism 3l (series one), commented on the first edition of the Manifesto:

    It is a little early yet to make any definite assessment, but my feeling is that this is one more doomed initiative. The old round of seminars, study-circles and similar suffocating trash is starting up again. I hope I will be proved wrong, but so far the Manifesto Campaign does not appear to be on its way to selecting revolutionaries, or possible revolutionaries. Several of the sponsors I know to be zombies or faint-hearts who have no intention whatever of carrying through the manifesto’s purported aims.

    Ungenerous? Sectarian? Ultra-left? The only problem was that he was proved catastrophically right. An organised non-organisation was a contradiction in terms. As an eye-witness recalls, at the launching of the Manifesto  in Central Hall ‘at the close of the meeting at least a third of the audience streaked to the door to sell their various periodicals with much muttered greeting and cursing.’[28]

    In effect the events of 1968 left the Manifesto unable to intervene. But it staggered on for another year and in April l969 convened a National Convention of the Left. Williams became Chairman of this body, the conference of which was attended by some 600 delegates from a hundred different left-wing organisations and campaigns.  Such an amorphous body was clearly incapable of any effective action. The International Socialists argued that the conference should commit itself to a specific platform and to the perspective of a unified organisation – this would at least have drawn some lines between the potential revolutionaries and the rest. But, as The Guardian (28 April 1969) reported:

    …the heat was taken out of the debate when Mr Williams, from the chair, laconically pointed out that, as each organisation represented at the conference was completely autonomous, a majority decision of the convention had only a limited meaning; each group within the minority could continue to pursue its own particular policies.

    The swamp, ably assisted by the Communist Party, held the line. No commitment was made, Williams declared himself ‘satisfied’ with the conference, and the whole outfit was, to all intents and purposes, dead, although bits of it staggered on until the 1970 general election mercifully put an end to it.

    Williams’ attempt at regrouping the left ended in abject failure. Certainly the May Day Manifesto attracted some of the young radicals of the period, but it had nothing concrete to offer them. At best it was a bridge over which they passed to something else. But there is no point crossing bridges unless someone else has built a settlement on the other bank.


    d) Moving Left


    But if Williams didn’t do much for 1968, 1968 seems to have done something for him. After 1968 he dropped his explicit opposition to Marxism and was prepared to describe himself as a Marxist. His Marxism contained some strange strands of Third Worldism and some important questions remained unanswered, but there was a serious attempt to engage the Marxist tradition. In his cultural work Williams started to absorb the important contribution of Lucien Goldmann; though his one specifically Marxist work, Marxism and Literature (1977), is disappointing, being overly abstract and schematic and failing to engage any texts in detail.

    The main problem remained that of the state. In his political thriller The Volunteers (1978) Williams showed himself only too well aware of the state’s capacity for surveillance and violence. But elsewhere his formulations were more evasive. He characterised parliament as ‘bourgeois democracy’, but argued that proportional representation is ‘strategically desirable’.[29]

    The strengths and weaknesses of Williams’ position were  brought out in a television review he wrote for The Listener (24 September 1970) of the police series Softly, Softly. The review begins brilliantly with Williams telling how he had seen the programme after returning from visiting a student in prison, and contrasting the throwaway remarks on the programme about light fines for assaults on the police with the nine months sentence imposed on the student. He then goes on:

    Outside political demonstrations, I have invariably found the British police as good as they are said to be, and I have had several easy and pleasant acquaintances with them. Even on most demonstrations,they are quite evidently different from the riot police and stormtroopers we see in action elsewhere. I stood on tiptoe at Twickenham last December wondering just what would happen when the pressure of the crowd threw me, as seemed inevitable, straight at a police line. I guessed it would depend on the luck of the draw: whether I got the one in fifteen or so that I have noticed at ordinary demonstrations as quick to be aggressive. Again, I have probably been lucky. Some very bad things have happened to people I know and trust, and in any case I am white, Celtic, agnostic, and in professional employment – quite apart from being as old as most superintendents. It is very far from easy to take any single, settled attitude, because we have an all-purpose police force, operating in vastly different communities. ‘Law and order’, I find, is as crude a slogan, on most lips, as ‘the fuzz’ or ‘the pigs’.

    The strength is the closeness to experience, and not just any old experience, but militant experience – Williams was at Twickenham to demonstrate against the South African rugby team. Yet he still distances  himself from those who call the police ‘pigs’. And beyond the concreteness of experience, what is the actual role of the police in class society? That question is evaded. But, it will be objected, that is not what the article was supposed to be about. Precisely!

    Writing at the end of the miners’ strike in New Socialist 25, Williams made quite clear which side he was on – the strike was not ‘the last kick of an old order’ but ‘one of the first steps towards a new order’. Yet a few months earlier in The Guardian (11 June 1984) he had written enthusiastically of ‘the convergence of the labour movement and the ecologists’. Still, as in the May Day Manifesto days, it was the impulse to support whatever was going on.

    What, then, was to be done? In his response to Eric Hobsbawm  (New Socialist 16) Williams stressed that electoral combinations were not so important as ‘fundamental research and political education’:

    The campaign must be much more than ‘bringing the message’ or even ‘winning the intellectual argument’ (though that, too, is necessary). In one linked area after another what we really have to discover – and as far as possible agree on – is what that intellectual argument actually is: the fully contemporary argument for socialism.

    This could be read in several different ways. On one reading it is an echo of William Morris’s call to ‘make socialists’. But Morris knew only too well that this could not be done without an organisation. Williams, having burnt his  fingers on the May Day Manifesto, had no organisational proposals, beyond  rather distant support for the Socialist Society.[30] While deeply distrustful of the Labour Party, he never committed himself to building a political alternative outside the Labour Party.[31] Once again, we are back with nothing better than ‘good ideas’.


    e) Culture and Ideology


    But Williams’ legacy to the left does not consist of his rather scrappy organisational and tactical recommendations. It lies in the body of writings he has left, the combination of his earlier enquiries into culture with his later engagement with Marxism, to produce what he came to call ‘cultural materialism’ – defined in Marxism and Literature as ‘a theory of the specificities of material cultural and literary production within historical materialism.’

    Williams’ work must ultimately stand or fall on the basis of its individual judgments and analyses; and to take stock of the richness of his work would be a task far beyond the scope of this article. But certain themes can be drawn out of his work that show the strength of his contribution.

    Firstly, there is his insistence that literature is a mode of communication. As he put it in Drama from Ibsen to Eliot :

    Literature, in its most general definition, is a form of communication of imaginative experience through certain written organizations of words.

    Literature, then, is not something of a different order from other cultural manifestations; it has its own specificities, but it is is part of the process whereby human beings communicate with each other. This is at least a beginning of a demystification of the whole notion that certain texts are ‘great literature’ and hence immune to the analysis which we make of other ideological products.[32]  As he points out in Marxism and Literature, the concept of literature is not something that is rooted in an eternal and unchanging human nature; on the contrary ‘in its modern form the concept of “literature” did not emerge earlier than the eighteenth century and was not fully developed until the nineteenth century.’ Yet this in no way means that Williams wants to abandon literature as something unnecessary or undesirable; on the contrary he stresses the positive value of literature and its very specific power to exert ideological influence; as he writes in The English Novel from Dickens to Lawrence (1970):

    Sociology can describe social conditions more accurately, at the level of ordinary measurement. A political programme can offer more precise remedies, at the level of ordinary action. Literature can attempt to follow these modes, but at its most important its process is different and yet still inescapably social: a whole way of seeing that is communicable to others, and a dramatisation of values that becomes an action.

    Secondly, there is Williams’ stress on historical continuity. Culture and Society traces a debate over a period of two hundred years. Not that Williams naively assimilates the past to the present; Burke’s conservatism is not Disraeli’s, let alone Thatcher’s. But Williams insists that the different forms are linked, that the issues human beings fought over in the past are not separate from those they fight over in the present. Only in this way does the study of history become something other than a drily academic pursuit and only thus does it become possible to learn from history.[33]

    It is this sense of historical continuity that gives Williams’ writing on literature some of its greatest power. He will have no truck with the idea that literature deals with ‘timeless’ or ‘universal’ truths; books must be located in the very concrete material circumstances of their production. In his study of the English Novel Williams makes a devastating attack on the idea that Thomas Hardy was concerned with the ‘timeless pattern’ of English rural life; he shows that Hardy can be properly understood only in terms of the concrete social changes taking place in English country life in the nineteenth century.

    Yet this sense of historical specificity does not deny continuity, but rather enhances our awareness of it. In his centenary lecture on Matthew Arnold, delivered in 1969, Williams approaches Arnold, not as a boring Victorian, but as a thinker relevant to the upheavals of the late sixties:

    The hostile reaction to demonstrations and sit-ins, in our own period, is easy to understand when it comes from the traditional right. But there is now also a New Right, talking of excellence and humane values and discipline, in the same breath; seeing minor demonstrations as ‘anarchy’ and ‘chaos’ and opposing them in the name of reason and culture and education.

    Likewise, Williams’ history of the English Novel is enlivened by the way in which he shows that the past illuminates the present and the present the past. Conrad’s Nostromo evokes the role of imperialism in Katanga, and when he writes of Ladislaw in George Eliot’s Middlemarch he comments :

    Perhaps you’ve noticed how often critics refer to his hair; the tone is exactly one we’ve heard often recently about young men in the sixties; and in fact there’s a connection. For Ladislaw is a free man in the way the others are not; a free mind with free emotions; a man who is wholly responsive.

    Thirdly there is William’s stress on the fact that culture is always embodied in material forms. As he reminds us in Marxism and Literature

    …”thinking” and “imagining” are from the beginning social processes…and they become accessible only in unarguably physical and material ways: in voices, in sounds made by instruments, in penned or printed writing, in arranged pigments on canvas or plaster, in worked marble or stone.

    Hence Williams’ insistence on the importance of form, in particular on the social and historical determinants of literary form. And above all this leads him to his stress on language. He argues in Marxism and Literature that ‘Marxism has contributed very little to thinking about language itself.’ He points to two areas which should be of particular concern to Marxism – ‘the emphasis on language as activity and…the emphasis on the history of language.’ And he denounces the pernicious impact of traditional linguistics:

    …the living speech of human beings in their specific social relationships in the world was theoretically reduced to instances and examples of a system which lay beyond them.

    Unlike Stalin, who had argued that language was not part of the superstructure, Williams recognises the ideological nature of language. The changing meanings of words and the struggles over meaning are an essential part of human history. Hence Williams’ Keywords (1976), in which he traces the  changing and contested meanings of over a hundred English words, from ‘art’ and ‘class’ to ‘sex’ and ‘violence’.

    There is a wealth of thought and insight here which future Marxist analysts of literature and culture will have to  absorb critically. But yet there is also a crucial gap at the heart of Williams’ work. Already back in New Left Review 10 Edward Thompson was arguing that ‘what Mr Williams has never come to terms with is the problem of ideology.’ Since that time Williams has written a great deal about ideology, but much of it is not very helpful. In Marxism and Literature he dismisses much Marxist work on literature and ideology as no more than ‘banging one inadequate category against another.’ The entry on ‘ideology’ in Keywords simply juxtaposes different meanings of the term, without focussing on how it can be effectively used. He notes that one possible definition  is ‘the set of ideas which arise from a given set of material interests or…from a definite class or group’, but he fails to argue for the superiority of this definition over others in the context of the needs of ideological struggle. Much the same criticism can be made of the section on ideology in his book Culture (1981).

    Williams was well aware of the criticisms of his work on this score, and there are many sharp asides in his writings. He could have little sympathy with the Althusserianism so widespread in the seventies; his own stress on experience was diametrically opposed to Althusser’s insistence that experience was a primary component of ideology. And he had even less sympathy with the post-Althusserian pessimists of the mid-eighties. Less than two years ago, in New Left Review 158, he wrote angrily:

    Is it only an accident that one form of theory of ideology produced that block diagnosis of Thatcherism which taught despair and political disarmament in a social situation which was always more diverse, more volatile and more temporary? Is there never to be an end to petit-bourgeois theorists making long-term adjustments to short-term situations?

    More generally, in New Left Review 100 he argued against the concept of a ‘formalist Marxism which makes the whole people, including the whole working class, mere carriers of the structures of a corrupt ideology.’ Inasmuch as this is a defence of working-class self-activity, of the ability of working people to change the world, it is wholly correct. But the problem of ideology cannot be wished away so easily. The vast majority of the working class are – not all but most of the time – under the influence of a reactionary ideology. Otherwise we would have had socialism long ago.

    In Marxism and Literature he adopted an even more aggressive stance:

    If we are asked to believe that all literature is ‘ideology’, in the crude sense that its dominant intention (and then our only response) is the communication or imposition of ‘social’ or ‘political’ meanings and values, we can only, in the end, turn away.

    Yet this peremptory appeal to the gut is itself ambiguous. If the word ‘political’ is taken in its narrow sense (i.e. matters appropriate to a trade union’s ‘political’ fund) then the proposition is obvious nonsense, and to my knowledge no Marxist has ever advanced it. But if all literature is not in some sense concerned with the communication of ‘social’ meanings – and hence the justifying or challenging of social power – then most of what is valuable in Williams’ own work must be abandoned.

    Williams’ failure to put the question of ideology at the centre of his work can be illustrated from his book on The English Novel from Dickens to Lawrence. The account begins by noting that a whole group of major English novels – by Dickens, Gaskell, Disraeli, Thackeray and the Brontës – were published in a period of just twenty months in 1847-48 – a period that not only saw crucial social and cultural changes in British society, but also witnessed the crisis of Chartism. Williams makes the connections; but he fails to bring out the way in which the authors shared a hostility to Chartism. If Dickens, Gaskell and Disraeli showed an interest in the condition of the working class, it is precisely because they were looking for a political alternative to Chartism, to the self-organisation of the working class. Williams makes connections, but he fails to draw ideological lines.

    Again, in the chapter on Dickens, Williams stresses the novelist’s roots in ‘popular culture’, but evades the main issues raised by Dickens’ politics – Dickens may denounce social abuses, but he cannot tolerate the idea of working people taking their fate into their own hands. Williams comments contemptuously that ‘it is stupid of Orwell to dismiss Dickens as a “change-of-heart man”’. But in many ways Orwell’s essay on Dickens [34] is a lot more politically focussed than Williams’, drawing out clearly the anti-revolutionary strands in Dickens’ view of the world. In the whole twenty-five pages devoted to Dickens Williams makes not a single mention of Dickens’ nasty little anti-trade union tract Hard Times. The omission may be intended as a deliberate attack on Leavis[35] , but it none the less represents an evasion of the problem of Dickens’ conservatism.

    A similar problem emerges in the chapter on DH Lawrence. Williams expresses considerable enthusiasm for aspects of Lawrence’s work, and makes some interesting and perceptive comments. But he never faces up to the fundamentally conservative themes in Lawrence – his hatred and fear of Bolshevism and his grossly reactionary attitudes to women. In his famous comments on Balzac, Engels argued that it was precisely because he was a consistent reactionary that Balzac was able to understand modern society in a way that a liberal or social conciliator could not. A similar case could be made for Lawrence – that he understands the twentieth century precisely because he is so opposed to the changes taking place around him.[36] But Williams, by failing to deploy a concept of ideology, is unable to do this.

    Crucial to the argument is the question of ‘mediation’, a concept to which Williams gave considerable importance. He was certainly right to insist that a cultural product cannot be too rapidly reduced to the base, that the process that links a sonnet and a social class is a long and complex one that must be studied in detail. But the concept of mediation becomes meaningless unless there are ultimately two terms to be linked; the connection may be indirect and mediated  but it cannot be infinitely deferred.

    In Marxism and Literature Williams argues that it is a ‘caricature’ of Marxism to claim that it is a reductive and determinist theory in which

    …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.

    But unless Marxism argues something of this sort, while making all due allowance for the complexity of mediation, then is there any longer any meaning to the term ‘Marxism’?

    In Culture and Society Williams quite rightly dismisses Caudwell’s proposition that all poetry since the fifteenth century is ‘capitalist poetry’. If Spenser, Blake and Seething Wells are all capitalist poets then the term doesn’t tell us much. But he goes on to argue that ‘it is very doubtful whether “bourgeois culture” is a useful term.’ Yet if culture is not in some sense appropriated by the bourgeoisie and used as a weapon to reinforce its social power, if culture floats serenely above and beyond the class struggle, then why exactly should we as socialists concern ourselves with it at all?

    Alex Callinicos has argued that there is as yet no satisfactory Marxist theory of ideology.[37] If one is to be developed, then there will be much to learn from Williams’ work. But only on condition that the crucial gaps in his thought are recognised.


    f) The Intellectual and the Party


    Williams spent the last twenty-seven years of his life in Cambridge University, the last fourteen as a Professor. It would be grotesque workerism to condemn him for this. We all have to compromise to survive under capitalism, and teaching literature in higher education is not in and of itself more reprehensible than delivering kissograms or making motor-cars. Yet it is too simple to write, as Francis Mulhern did in his Guardian obituary, that Williams was ‘less a left-wing academic than a socialist intellectual whose workplace was the university.’ Williams himself was all too well aware of the powerful cultural pressures that protect the existing order in our society, that strive to incorporate and render harmless any oppositional current of thought. As he wrote in New Left Review 100:

    …academic theory…can, at its worst, be quite quickly incorporated – the unlooked-for recognition of the untouchable becoming, rather smoothly, the invitation to stay – within the fluid eclecticism now characteristic of academic institutions, until even Marxism becomes a ‘subject’.

    Williams himself resisted the blandishments of academic co-option largely on the basis of personal integrity (and those who failed to co-opt him pointedly ignored his retirement lectures). But not every individual can rely on the inner strength of personal commitment, and those who cannot need the countervailing force of a political organisation.

    It was such an organisation that Williams rejected throughout most of his life. He was only too familiar with the history of Stalinism, with the way intellectuals had been dragooned or prostituted by their parties. In The Long Revolution he wrote scathingly of the way in which political organisations use military terminology (‘recruiting’, ‘rank-and-file) to describe their activities, while in the May Day Manifesto the groupings of the revolutionary left are accused of overlaying the real problems with ‘an inauthentic and superficial controversy.’

    It is not difficult to understand why Williams was so suspicious of a revolutionary organisation, but it is none the less possible to argue that the absence of a revolutionary organisation meant that he did not realise his full potential. Activity in a movement would have given him the discipline that any intellectual needs, would have focussed his attention on those aspects of culture and ideology most relevant to the needs of the struggle. But it would also have given him the audience he deserved. At his best Williams was a brilliant journalist and a powerful polemicist; but all too often his style became obscure or evasive, doubtless because of the need to win publishers’ approval or academic acceptance. If a real socialist press had existed in Britain during Williams’ lifetime, it could have harnessed his talents instead of letting them be squandered and dispersed in the pages of The Guardian or The Listener.

    Two years ago Williams spoke at Marxism 86 on Socialist Novels. Here he had an audience with which he could share basic assumptions (and, incidentally, an audience larger than  any of the broad, ‘non-sectarian’ groupings that he associated himself with could mobilise.) It was the ‘tragedy’ of Williams’ career that his work was developed in isolation from a revolutionary movement – a tragedy to which he himself contributed by his refusal to engage in the task of building a revolutionary party.

    This is not to blame Williams for not being Lenin. Williams did his own work, and he enriched the whole left by doing it. But it is only in the framework of a revolutionary party that ‘cultural struggle’ can come to full fruition, for only there can it be waged in relation to the priorities of economic and political struggle, rather than left to the preoccupations and judgments of individuals.

    It would be absurd to call Williams’ work a failure. In any meaningful terms it was a powerful success. Yet in a sense Williams did fail to achieve the full success he was capable of – and he failed because of the terrible inheritance of Stalinism and the isolation of the revolutionary left.

    Williams’ work is thus incomplete – not only because of his early death but because of the conditions in which it was produced. It leaves more questions behind than it answers. But it will be in trying to answer those questions that the left can strengthen itself and forge the weapons it needs for the cultural struggles of tomorrow.


    [1] See among others: Francis Mulhern (Guardian, 29 January 1988); Terry Eagleton (Independent, 29 January); Anthony Arblaster (Tribune, 5 February); Gareth Jenkins (Socialist Worker Review, February)

    [2] Anderson in New Left Review (hereafter NLR)  35; Barnett in NLR 99; Eagleton in The Function of Criticism (London, 1984) p 108 (see also his piece in NLR 95); Sparks in International Socialism (hereafter IS) series 2/9

    [3] I except the case of another contemporary, Tony Cliff. The intellectual and political achievement is at least comparable, but the circumstances of its production – wholly outside of bourgeois academic institutions – are quite different.

    [4] Thompson in NLR 9 & 10, and NLR 99; Williams in NLR 124

    [5] New Socialist 16

    [6] Problems in Materialism and Culture, London, 1980, p 8

    [7] The main source of biographical information on Williams is the volume of interviews Politics and Letters (London, 1979)

    [8] While working on Eric Hobsbawm some years ago I attempted to trace this pamphlet, but failed. Williams did not reply to a letter of enquiry. If any reader knows where I can find a copy of this pamphlet I should be very grateful to hear from them.

    [9] Williams does point to some of the real problems raised by the base-superstructure model in terms of cultural analysis. In his essay on ‘Base and Superstructure’ (in Problems in Materialism and Culture) Williams refers to a passage in the Grundrisse where Marx discusses the nature of productive work; he summarizes Marx’s conclusion as ‘So piano-maker is base, but pianist superstructure’. Quite rightly, Williams recognises that this simply will not do – above all in the epoch of Stock, Aitken and Waterman.

    [10] The Country and the City, London, 1973, p 302; NLR 120

    [11] In Williams’ ‘Dialogue on Tragedy’ (NLR 13-14), which preceded Modern Tragedy, one of the characters explicitly rejects this position:

    ‘The limits on man, in these plays, are deliberately trivial. With better plumbing in the municipal baths, Ibsen’s Stockmann need not have been a hero at all. If there had been a cure for syphilis, Osvald need not have died. If there had been a proper scheme of social insurance, Willy Loman need not have killed himself.’

    For some pregnant comments on the relations between tragedy and politics, see Peter Sedgwick’s obituary of Deutscher, ‘The Tragedy of the Tragedian’ in IS series 1:31

    [12] For Williams’ later recognition of the problems raised by this, see Politics and Letters, pp 393-4

    [13] Williams missed, however, the significant transformations in recorded music over the same period. To dismiss, as Williams does in the final chapter of The Long Revolution, the whole rock and roll experience as ‘Tin Pan drool’ may be explicable in terms of Williams’ generation and the musical traditions of South Wales, but it leaves a major gap in his understanding of the epoch.

    [14] For further discussion of this point see C Sparks, ‘Raymond Williams, Culture and Marxism’, in IS series 2/9

    [15] Culture and Society, Harmondsworth. 1963, p 296

    [16] ‘The Two New Lefts’, in D Widgery,  The Left in Britain 1956-68, Harmondsworth, 1976, p 137

    [17] Williams himself notes that ‘a man I knew at university…explained how useful, to his profession as an advertiser, had been his training in the practical criticism of advertisements.’ Problems in Materialism and Culture, p 183

    [18] Edward Thompson (NLR 9) notes that the logic of Williams’ position is ‘that if there is to be a remedy it must come through far-reaching administrative measures which will ensure a newly independent press.’ He adds: ‘But I hold this to be utopian.’ It is entertaining to see Thompson using ‘utopian’ as a term of abuse, but he is wholly correct. Williams, like Fourier, generates good ideas without identifying the agency that will put them into practice.

    [19] published in NLR 7

    [20] My own marginal notes, made at the time in my copy of NLR, suggest that as a regular viewer of Juke Box Jury I found the proposals ill-informed and irrelevant.

    [21] Williams later commented: ‘He misunderstood it fairly completely – in fact I don’t know how much of it he read.’Politics and Letters, p 134

    [22] See on this point Tony Cliff, Lenin volume 3 (London, 1978)

    [23] The Long Revolution, Harmondsworth, 1965, p 337

    [24] Article reproduced as Appendix in the second edition of Communications (1966)

    [25] This should be set against the claim in Politics and Letters (p 368): ‘I never trusted Aneurin Bevan, for the cynical reason that it takes one Welshman to know another.’

    [26] NLR 30

    [27] All references here to the second edition (Harmondsworth 1968)

    [28] Widgery, The Left in Britain, p 207

    [29] Towards 2000, London, 1983, p 120; Politics and Letters, p 382

    [30] The Socialist Society re-enacted the rise and fall of the Left Clubs and the May Day Manifesto. Its founding conference attracted 1200 people, its first summer school 500. At the first annual conference there were 300 and at the second summer school 150. At this point I personally began to extrapolate a trend and turned my attentions elsewhere.


    [31] One of the last political interventions of Williams’ life was in the summer of 1987 when Kinnock was attempting to close down New Socialist. According to New Socialist 54 Williams attended an emergency meeting of the Editorial Advisory Panel and made ‘a powerful and decisive contribution’:

    He argued that what was important about New Socialist was not that it was a journal of ideas and debate for the Left, but that it was precisely the Labour Party’s journal of debate. The significance of this was that New Socialist formed an organic link between left intellectuals and the organised Labour movement. No other left journal, however excellent, could occupy this key position.

    This intervention, combining a passionate commitment to the defence of the left press with a one-foot-in-one-foot-out attitude to the Labour Party, is a beautiful illustration of the ambiguities of Williams’ position.


    [32] Not that Williams was wholly free from literary conservatism. His Cambridge lecture series published as The English Novel from Dickens to Lawrence  was conceived as a rejoinder to Leavis’s The Great Tradition, and attempted a radically different evaluation of Dickens, Eliot, Hardy and Lawrence. But Williams still stayed within the framework of the academically acceptable; his book has one paragraph on Robert Tressell and a whole chapter on Conrad. A serious attempt to write a revolutionary history would surely have given Tressell a chapter and Conrad a paragraph.


    [33] It is precisely in the recognition that history must be understood in terms of both continuity and change that Williams comes closest to the Marxist tradition. The slave Spartacus and the German Spartacists were not fighting the same battle; but both battles were part of the same war. Alex Callinicos uses a characteristically undialectical formulation when he stresses ‘difference’ at the expense of continuity in his ‘Note on Racism in the Ancient World’(IS 2:37):

    Only Marxism can provide a theoretical foundation for what distinguishes the best historical writing – a sense of the difference between societies – while not collapsing into a relativism which denies the existence of any pattern of historical development.


    [34] ‘Charles Dickens’ in Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters volume I.  Williams makes many acute criticisms of  Orwell, but fails to fully recognise Orwell’s strengths, ultimately because he cannot tolerate Orwell’s consistent anti-Stalinism.


    [35] Hard Times was the only work of Dickens which Leavis accepted as part of the ‘great tradition’. Williams had dealt, quite harshly, with Hard Times in Culture and Society. In Politics and Letters he recognises the ambiguities of his approach to Dickens: ‘But in my attitude towards Dickens, there has been this swing. I won’t ever get it right, somebody might.’


    [36] Engels’ approach has nothing to do with the Stalinist tradition of dismissing, denouncing or suppressing writers because of their reactionary opinions. For Engels it is only by recognising the standpoint of a reactionary writer that we can appreciate his or her true value and thus learn from the work


    [37] Is There a Future for Marxism?, London, 1982, p 213