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25 August 2021

How Raymond Williams redefined culture

Raymond Williams made it his mission to reclaim culture from the literary elite. A century after his birth, he has lessons for us still.

By Lola Seaton

When the socialist intellectual and writer Raymond Williams died, suddenly and prematurely, in January 1988 at the age of 66, tributes expressed the loss in superlative terms. The British left, Robin Blackburn wrote in New Left Review, had lost its “most authoritative, consistent and radical voice” and the national culture its “most acute critic”. At a commemorative evening the following year, the theorist Stuart Hall told the audience that Williams “is in my view without question the most important cultural critic, historian and theorist of the postwar period”.

The loss was also felt in unusually personal terms. At the 1989 memorial chaired by Hall, the psychoanalyst and socialist feminist Juliet Mitchell confessed she was still reeling from Williams’s death: “For me Raymond came to have an almost mythical importance. His work for me is a presence.” Colin MacCabe, who got to know Williams well in the 1970s, and Hilary Wainwright, who encountered Williams through their joint involvement in the Socialist Society in the 1980s, both described the strength of Williams’s “presence”. For Terry Eagleton, Williams’s friend and former student and colleague in the English department at Cambridge, where Williams taught from 1961 until he retired in 1983, he was “very much a father figure – not just to me. He was very fatherly, in some sense.”

The moral authority of Williams’s work and the affectionate attachment it inspired arose from the autobiographical pressure and political commitment of his writing. Francis Mulhern, Williams’s editor at New Left Books (now Verso), reflected after his death on the “strong sense of a thinking, feeling, speaking individual” behind his words. As Eagleton told me: “He was the kind of socialist who really lived his beliefs personally.”

[See also: Why Theodor Adorno and the Frankfurt School failed to change the world]

But in 2018 Eagleton lamented that, three decades after his death, Williams’s influence had “for the most part disastrously dwindled”. The 1979 foreword to the remarkable series of interviews with Williams published as Politics and Letters – a kind of collaborative oral autobiography – began by noting Williams’s wide readership: a “unique position among socialist writers in the English-speaking world”. But Geoff Dyer’s introduction to the book’s 2015 reissue instead contemplates the “long and gradual shrinking of a legacy and influence that had seemed assured”. Unlike his near-contemporary socialist writer John Berger, whose books were spotted at Occupy protests, Williams appeared “the worthy relic of a vanished, pre-Thatcherite Britain”.

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It’s true that Williams cut a somewhat archaic figure – he looked, according to Eagleton, the “archetypal don”, with tweed jacket and pipe – but the comparison is asymmetrical: Berger lived until 2017, whereas Williams died while Thatcher was still in power and the Soviet Union still in existence. With the collapse of the USSR, MacCabe said, “one of the determining parts of the intellectual world… just went”, irrevocably altering the coordinates of political possibility. Williams’s “whole enterprise is built on the assumption that you are contributing to the construction of a socialist society”, MacCabe argues, and though Williams was highly critical of Soviet communism, his work is “difficult to read” in the post-Cold War world.

If Williams seems remote to us, though, it is not just because he speaks from a different and vanished world, but because of the particular way in which he rooted his work in that world. His critical engagement with “official” English culture was persistently grounded on an appeal to lived experience: his wide-ranging intellectual inquiries into culture are propelled and animated by passages of memoir. Williams’s project, Eagleton wrote in 1976, is “a life’s work: not merely the work of a lifetime, but an oeuvre… deeply anchored in the experience of an historical individual”. There is an irony to the way that the autobiographical element that once made his writing so resonant may now make him a distant figure, as the world from which he spoke recedes.

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The life to which the work was so tethered began 100 years ago in Pandy, a farming village in south Wales, close to the border with England. Williams’s grandparents had been farm labourers, but his father worked on the railway as a signalman and was deeply involved in working-class politics. Williams was not yet five years old when his father was sacked for taking part in the General Strike in 1926. Though he was reinstated, it was a formative event for his son, who decades later fictionalised the episode in his first novel Border Country (1960).

“We begin to think where we live,” Williams once wrote, and the Black Mountain landscape of his youth would remain a profound influence. That close-knit, rural working-class community survives as a perpetual reference point in his work, the source of his lifelong emphasis on solidarity and community. It also informed his critical attitude toward official English culture, especially as he encountered it at Cambridge, initially as a student in the English faculty.

In Politics and Letters, Williams tells a short anecdote about a lecture he attended by the Leavisite critic LC Knights: “When Knights said that nobody now can understand Shakespeare’s meaning of neighbour, for in a corrupt mechanical civilisation there are no neighbours, I got up and said… I knew perfectly well, from Wales, what neighbour meant.”

Border country: Williams was born in Pandy, south Wales, a crucial reference point in his work. Credit: greenwales / Alamy 

There is a critical convention that says a “trained reader” ought to discount subjective experience in the formal appreciation of cultural objects, especially sacrosanct ones like Shakespeare plays. But Williams’s habitual invocation of autobiography was part of an unceasing effort to apply his values to every area of his life and work, whether humdrum or exaltedly academic. Discussing the effacement of ordinary workers in country-house poems in Politics and Letters, Williams asks: “If I cannot be seriously offended that in [Ben Jonson’s] poem he wrote out the labourer, what affiliation can I now make to labourers? […] if you don’t feel offence at this profoundly conventional mystification… then what is the meaning of solidarity?”

Arriving at Cambridge in 1939 by way of a scholarship place at a grammar school in Abergavenny, Williams threw himself into the lively left-wing sub-culture there, joining the Socialist Club and the Communist Party. During this heady period of political activity (and perhaps a degree of academic neglect) he met his future wife, Joy Dalling, who was a student at LSE, which had been evacuated to Cambridge after the outbreak of war. Conscripted in 1941 at the end of his second year, after much training and waiting, Williams landed in Normandy in 1944, fighting in an anti-tank regiment that helped to liberate Brussels.

Returning to Cambridge after the war – an “appalling”, scarring experience which intensified his pacifism (he refused his recall for service in Korea in the 1950s) – Williams resumed his interrupted studies with a new fanaticism, writing papers on George Eliot and Henrik Ibsen (ex-servicemen were spared exams).

[See also: Living in Fernando Pessoa’s world​]

After graduating in 1946, he went into adult education. He spent 15 years as a tutor for the Workers’ Educational Association, teaching in the evenings, and writing, with iron regularity, in the mornings. Barring a brief spell as one of the editors of the short-lived journal Politics and Letters (from which the 1979 book took its title), Williams worked on his criticism outside the academy and in a kind of heroic isolation in the late 1940s and 1950s – culminating in his breakthrough Culture and Society (1958).

Through a series of tendentious readings of English social thinkers – from Edmund Burke to Thomas Carlyle, Matthew Arnold to TS Eliot – Williams wrested a more inclusive conception of culture from that predominantly reactionary tradition. These writers’ elite notion of culture was, according to Williams, a reaction to the “disintegrating tendencies” of industrialisation.

Here, Williams was writing against the influential critic FR Leavis, who believed that the high culture of an embattled minority was a last enclave of civilised values saved from the anarchic, cheapening forces of industrial modernity and “mass” society. Leavis’s view of industrial modernity was too simple, Williams argued, ignoring, for example, the gains brought by steam power and electricity. And its nostalgia was ultimately misplaced: the enemy was not industrialism, but capitalism. For Williams, who saw promise rather than cause for despair in modern popular communications – television, radio, film – it was not the new mass media that corrupted the masses, but the divisions of class and wealth created by the profit motive and private ownership.

Williams’s new thinking about culture took aim not only at Leavis, but also at the kind of vulgar Marxism that reduced culture to an adjunct of the economy. Like the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, Williams instead recognised culture as a crucial domain in which power is expressed and experienced – and contested. In his words, “the essential dominance of a particular class in society is maintained not only, although if necessary, by power, and not only, although always, by property. It is maintained also and inevitably by a lived culture: that saturation of habit, of experience, of outlook.”

[See also: Tom Nairn: The prophet of post-Britain]

In his more theoretical, speculative sequel to Culture and Society, The Long Revolution (1961), in which he turned his attention away from the “tradition” to contemporary Britain, Williams asserted that culture “is ordinary”, not a specialised activity reserved for leisured elites, but encompassing a “whole way of life”. It was also fundamental: not “grace after meals”, but a heightened version of the necessary efforts we make every day to understand – through interpreting and describing – our environment so “that we can live more successfully in it”.

What counted as “culture” was not just what was studied in august Cambridge lecture halls or placed in museums, but spanned all kinds of activity – popular ballads as well as country-house poems, TV as well as Shakespeare – including things not customarily thought of as “cultural” at all, such as, Williams claimed, “great working-class institutions” such as trade unions.

The “deliberately contradictory” phrase he devised to capture this continuity between social experience and cultural expression was “structure of feeling”, a means of analysing art as “the articulate record of something which was a much more general possession”. The concept illuminated “the area of interaction between the official consciousness of an epoch… and the whole process of actually living its consequences”.

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Following this impressive trilogy – Border Country, Culture and Society and The Long Revolution – Williams was appointed to a fellowship at Cambridge, where he remained for the rest of his career, as professor of drama from 1974 until his early retirement in 1983. (A fourth book, possibly Williams’s best known, Keywords, can also be grouped with this early burst of work, though it didn’t appear until 1976. It was a “record of an inquiry” into significant words such as “culture”, “class”, “industry”, “democracy”, whose evolving meanings, Williams showed, contained a complex social history.)

Throughout this time, Williams wrote prolifically – not only works of cultural theory and analysis, but novels, scripts and pamphlets, as well as hundreds of articles and reviews. His prodigious output owed something to the way he managed his teaching. Though “extremely kind” and encouraging, according to Adrian Poole, whose PhD Williams supervised in the early 1970s, Williams was not renowned for his attentive pedagogy. Yet he was “a very effective lecturer”, with an “enviable air of authority and self-composure”, in Eagleton’s phrase, and “struck you as a man deeply at ease in his own being”, with gravitas if not charisma.

Williams kept aloof from party politics – he had lapsed from the Communist Party by the time he was called up in 1941, and renounced any residual allegiance to Labour in 1966 in disgust with Harold Wilson’s compromises – yet was always active in efforts at socialist renewal. He emerged as a key figure in the New Left, especially in composing the May Day Manifesto (1967), an attempt to carve out a socialist alternative to the Fabian distortions of labourism and the Stalinist perversion of communism.

[See also: Whose freedom?]

For all this, and his intellectual interest in community and genial, humane demeanour, he was reserved – “quite a distant person”, MacCabe recalls. Francis Mulhern told me he was once asked if Williams was a friend: “I said, thinking aloud, ‘I’m not sure what would count as being his friend,’ by which I meant you always felt there was this well-protected core.”

This remoteness was perhaps a critical technique, a way of finding, as Williams put it in a discussion of country houses in his classic work of criticism The Country and the City (1973), some “breathing space, a fortunate distance, from the immediate and visible controls”. Williams stayed in Cambridge, he said, despite his ambivalence towards this elite institution, because “the contestation that I’m interested in happens in places like this. Essentially here you are meeting your key opposition”, but “if you’re slackened from that by the comfort, the tradition, the artificial beauty of the place” – the “fine buildings, fine gardens” – “then you have to keep withdrawing. So I find I’m always into Cambridge and out of it, into and out of it.”

The texture of his prose is marked by this withdrawal: it has an internal coherence but also a secluded feel, as though all his ideas are derived from inward meditation on his own experience. Even his treatment of this experience can be oddly abstracted and impersonal. Williams has been praised for his “historic” sense of himself – his ability to view himself as if from outside – but one can occasionally detect an almost defensive note in the way he cushions autobiographical allusions with a disclaimer. Discussing the Black Mountain village of his childhood in The Country and the City, Williams diffuses the peculiarity of his attachment to it by saying, “Many other men feel this, of their own native places…”

A similar expression – almost of obliga- tion to dissolve the personal into the communal – crops up in his essay, “The Idea of a Common Culture”: “It is really not surprising that, in this time and place, I should have been trying to think about culture, as a particular experience which I share with many others.

[See also: The courage of Desmond Tutu]

His highly distinctive style, characterised by complex syntax and long, self-qualifying sentences full of abstractions and participles, is often described as “difficult”, “dense”, “clotted”, “cloudy”. Mulhern suspects this refusal to fix his sense was in part “negatively conditioned by the communist experience”, which left him with a “will not to be doctrinaire”, to refuse “easy formulations”. Williams distrusted “the plain style” associated with George Orwell (whose politics he also criticised), suspicious “of anything that appears so natural”.

His laboured prose is perhaps the deliberate residue of the effort of seeing and articulating what the dominant culture “conventionally mystifies”. Just as when struck by the conventional beauty of country houses, Williams suggests, we may have to try to see the ordinary labour, subsequently effaced, that went into their building and maintenance. For this, one may need to cultivate a measure of obstinate vigilance: to withdraw when you find yourself “slackening”, seduced by the comfort of tradition.

To Orwell’s speciously unadorned prose, Williams preferred a style that was palpably man-made, manifestly a form of work. Reality is not fixed but “is continually established, by common effort”, is “that which human beings make common, by work or language”. If this thought is a little fatiguing, it is also hopeful and radical: if something is made, it can be remade. It is also a reminder that the easiest, most natural-seeming ways of seeing can mislead and distract us, and that dispelling ideological illusions is not always – perhaps is hardly ever – a matter of simply opening one’s eyes.

***

In today’s individualistic, self-involved, self-serious culture, saturated with auto- fiction and digitised performative confessionalism, Williams’s impersonal, almost allegorical attitude to his experience can seem evasive, stiff, unsatisfying. But if contemporary generations can be accused of taking their experience too seriously, Williams’s detachment may provide a model for taking one’s experience seriously but not uncritically. It may also bequeath a confidence that what is personal need not be private but is often shared – that there is a common structure underlying individual feeling. Such self-distancing may help us scrutinise rather than reify our impressions, placing emotion beyond rational argument.

We may not want to inherit Williams’s exact stress on community and place – categories tellingly often fetishised by the right. But his dwelling on the details of lived experience remains a vital starting point for generating realistic, humane visions of how things might be different.

“[A]ny idea of a future social order has to be very precisely located,” Williams insists, and “in any particular country or particular region we have to start from what is physically there or available.” Without this attention to working “with the grain” of a particular society and culture, socialism itself, Williams seems to suggest, risks replicating the reductive logic of capitalism, reducing people to economic units and schematically plotting a new “mode of production”, but not a “whole way of life” that can stir imagination and motivate action.

[See also: Christopher Ricks: “Criticism is being good at noticing things”]

Williams’s socialist cultural politics is above all a democratic, resourceful project. He doesn’t conjure utopian visions out of the air or wish to impose grand plans from above, but insists on beginning from where we are. There is no magic leap from a present of total disarray to an immaculate alternative, only a long, never-finished process of struggling for fairer, more egalitarian ways of living together – ways which won’t resemble a return to simpler, analogue times. Or rather, ways of “going on” living together, as Williams sometimes put it: we do not begin ex nihilo, but in medias res, inheriting a legacy of prior achievements and drawing on emerging pockets of resistance and moments of solidarity: “No dominant social order… exhausts all human practice, human energy, and human intention.”

Though Williams’s prose contains flashes of rousing clarity, it demands stamina. Yet his steady emphasis on the long term and the patient rigour of his thought can help inure one to the inevitable succession of immediate disappointments. “Nothing,” Christopher Prendergast has written, “would seem further from the exhaustingly self-nuancing Williams style than the genre of the slogan.” And to be governed by slogans, Williams said, is to risk “a quite terrible loss of the future: the loss of a socialist future which people can begin to be physically imagining”. “We want more, much more,” he continued: “The challenge is therefore to a necessary complexity.”

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This article appears in the 25 Aug 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Retreat