The life of Raymond Williams

<strong>Taken from The <em>New Statesman</em>5 February 1988</strong>

For some, Raymond Williams’s writings represented a welcome and bold break with more conventional approaches to English literature; for others, they were too often opaque, even vacuous. What has never been disputed, however, is that he was – and still is – an immensely influential figure in British intellectual life. In this article, published at the time of his death, Stuart Hall, much influenced by Williams in his own work, assesses his importance.

Selected by Robert Taylor

IN THIS AGE of philistine barbarism over which Mrs Thatcher is pleased to preside, the loss of Raymond Williams is irreparable: and those of us who had the privilege to know him personally, to read his work, to talk and argue with him, to be formed, intellectually and politically, in his shadow, hardly know how to express or where to put our sense of the enormity of that loss.

Raymond Williams was born in Gwent, the son of a railway signalman. After grammar school, he served in Normandy in the war, went to Cambridge to read English, became a staff tutor in adult education for the Oxford Delegacy in 1946, moved to Cambridge (which he never left) in 1961 and was made Professor of Modern Drama.

I first met him in Oxford in the mid-1950s when a number of us, looking for a way out of the impasse of the elitism of F. R. Leavis’s reading of English literary traditions, were given by him, and read with mounting excitement, the early chapters of what was to become Culture and Society. Thereafter, our paths continually crossed. He became a contributor to and a key figure in the early New Left. In 1966, he took the lead in drafting the May Day Manifesto, an attempt to formulate a socialist alternative to Harold Wilson’s grimly technocratic vision. Intellectually, his work dominated the development of cultural studies. He was a founder member of the Socialist Society.

I never had the privilege of being taught by him, but he was the most formative intellectual influence on my life. I often had the uncanny feeling that we had stumbled unawares on to the same line of thinking — only he had given it, already, so lucid and compelling a formulation. However, it is through his work and writing that he influenced several generations across the world, and it is by this that future generations will measure him.

His books have no comparison among contemporary writing for range and stubbornness of critical intelligence. In an astonishing variety of modes of writing (and in a long and creative collaboration with his wife, Joy Williams) he offered the most sustained critical engagement with the central domains of English cultural life. He not so much engaged the map of English culture as re-drew it. Culture and Society, his first major book, took the well-known body of writers and thinkers from Burke and Cobbett to Tawney and Leavis and, by tracing their response, from a variety of different positions, to the dominant forces of bourgeois industrial culture, revealed a new configuration in the architecture of English critical thought, which we had hardly glimpsed before.

The Long Revolution used this “native” idiom of critical writing for an audacious exercise in theorising the idea of culture itself — not as “the civilising arts’’ or ‘‘abstract ideal’’ or even “the best that has been thought and said”, but as a “whole way of life”. “Since our way of seeing things is literally our way of living, the process of communication is in fact the process of community: the sharing of common meanings, and thence common activities and purposes; the offering, reception and comparison of new meanings, leading to the tensions and achievements of growth and change.”

This is the first such attempt by an English literary intellectual since Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy — and, in the generosity of spirit and passion of intelligence in wrestling with brutally difficult theoretical questions, it is far in advance of Arnold. The contrast in titles alone is telling. Even more astonishing was Williams’s capacity to detach “culture” from its stubborn integument in a conservative “structure of feeling, to re-appropriate for critical thought the very idea of ‘tradition’ and to construct an organic connection between these ideas and “the long revolution” or what he called “the slow reach for control”: that difficult but persistent effort to democratise our whole way of life to which, intellectually and politically, Raymond Williams’s whole life and work was quietly dedicated.

In Keywords, with his scrupulous attention to how cultural transformations register as changes in the meanings of words, he again simply “remapped” some of the main-turning points of English culture — in what, disarmingly, at first presents itself as merely a personal glossary. In Marxism and Literature and elsewhere, the very status of the literary text is finally challenged and displaced by a new kind of attention to language and different kinds of writing, conceived as forms of literary production. The latter is his most condensed and persuasive reflection on the strengths and limitations of the classical marxist tradition, from the perspective of what he came to call “cultural materialism”.

In The Country and The City, Raymond Williams brought to bear, against the well- entrenched, dominant conception of the English “country house” poetic tradition, a sense of historical context, and an understanding of the complex interplay between text and society, so powerful that it is simply not possible, ever again, to read it in the old way. Characteristically, this was no simple act of literary revaluation. The poems and their cultural settings are not downgraded, but re-claimed and re-ordered by the turning on to them of this penetrating critical- historical gaze. We weigh them differently. They are re-positioned in our imagination and understanding. The mystification of “agrarianism”, which still sustains the “Heritage” impulse in contemporary English cultural life, is slowly dissolved and becomes, in its suffocatingly philistine-civilised forms, untenable as a serious intellectual proposition.

“I am very powerfully moved by the early churches, by the great cathedrals, and yet if I don’t see the enormous weight of them on man, I don’t altogether know how to be a socialist in the area where I work . . . if we acknowledge them as a contribution, we must also acknowledge them as an obstacle... The cathedrals are not just monuments to faith, the country houses are not just buildings of elegance. They are constantly presented to us as ‘our heritage’, inducing a particular way of seeing and relating to the world, which must be critically registered along with our acknowledgement of their value. I always see them as profoundly ambivalent” (Politics and Letters).

Everything about the man — his mind, his way of writing and speaking, his political intelligence — is in those few sentences. His range, connecting and spanning things which our compartmentalised ways of thinking routinely separate: the stubborn holding on to complexity — the “elegance” together with the “weight”, the two ends of the chain; the perception that everything is part of this “giving and taking of descriptions” and affects our “way of seeing and relating to the world”; the long parentheses, which try to hold, so to speak, at the margin of the field of vision of any one sentence, the other connections waiting to be made; the relating of this critical exercise to the question of how to be a socialist, now…

He once observed that Culture and Society had been classified under headings as various as cultural history, historical semantics, history of ideas, social criticism, literary history and sociology. He could have added others, for the whole formation of that variety of intellectual projects now known as “cultural studies” would have been impossible without his path-breaking work. In fact, not only was his work unclassifiable: it actively resisted incorporation into the specialised vocabularies and institutional

‘His work actively resisted incorporation into the specialised vocabularies and institutional rituals of the academic disciplines. His whole idiom of thought was deliberately designed to call into question the taken-for-grantedness of these traditional catelories and boundaries’rituals of the academic disciplines. His whole idiom of thought not only broke across, but was deliberately designed to call into question, the taken-for-grantedness of these traditional categories and boundaries. His cast of mind was intrinsically connective. “My own view is that we must keep trying to grasp the process as a whole.” He wrote, as he said himself, “against the frame of the forms”.

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. “This is the vocabulary we share with others, often imperfectly, when we wish to discuss many of the central processes of our common life.”

His “seriousness” — which separated him off from so many of his contemporaries — lay, precisely, in this determination to return everyone — critic, politician, student, general reader — to the only subject which really mattered: the “central processes of our common life”.

His intellectual work and his politics were thus lived and thought as connected parts of the same project. Williams, as Francis Muihern has remarked, was not a — “left academic”. He was a socialist intellectual, which is different. His commitment to socialism was as unswerving as it was unsectarian: but he refused to be “captured” by any tendency. There wasn’t the usual rift between thought and feeling, idea and life, which characterises so much “politicised” intellectual work. His practice was that of “dialogue” — with other traditions, positions, other ways of seeing and feeling, as a “pointed response to a particular orthodoxy” — because “the society of dialogue” was his way of imagining what socialism would be like.

His deep sense of the Welsh Border working- class community where he grew up, his rich and suggestive use of the idea of “community” in his writing and thinking, his scrupulous attention (for example, during the miners’ strike) to the political consequences of the willed destruction of living communities, and his way of inhabiting the shared commitment to socialism as an “imagined community” — all these diverse meanings were held together within the same “structure of feeling”.

Though he moved away from Wales to work, symbolically, he never left it. In his novels — Border Country, The Fight for Manod, The Volunteers (just reissued in paperback by the Hogarth Press) and the now incomplete Black Mountain novel — he not only continuously re-explored his own formation, but traced the fine calibrations between intellect and experience. Much of his working life was spent in, or in connection with, Oxbridge. Yet he was never “remade” by Oxbridge. He regarded it simply as a good place to do serious work in. When we met to draft the May Day Manifesto, he was the only person who did not find it in any way odd that we were doing so in Coleridge’s old rooms in Jesus College, Cambridge. Wales gave him a perspective on Cambridge — on the way a culture becomes dominant, a “central system of practices, meanings and values” — and the necessary tension between that and the emergent energies and experiences which stubbornly resist it.

In this as in so much else, he was, simply, exemplary. The left is deeply impoverished by the loss of his commanding central intelligence.

The Socialist Society is organising a memorial service for Raymond Williams. Further notice will be given in the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 February 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Pakistan reborn