Raymond Williams deserves a better memorial than this. Author Fred Inglis claims to be a devout fan but his respectful tone only half hides his sneers. Williams, he claims was, 'earnestly ambitious all his life of reputation and recognition, of being known as writer and public figure, and also being recognised for his uncompromising radicalism and principle ('uncompromising' is always such a tribute in the lexicon of the left)'.1
At different times Inglis implies that Williams was a naive idealist, a careerist, a hypocrite and a plagiarist. Overall the book amounts to a cheerful character assasination.
But these are not just personal criticisms, again and again Williams' supposed shortcomings are seen as characteristic of the 'old left' as a whole. Behind Inglis's worldly wise common sense lie all the prejudices of today's New Labour. Inglis admits to a post-modern rejection of the 'large narrative' in the introduction and clearly regards the idea of radical social change as hopelessly old-fashioned; 'What on earth the 'new institutions' would have looked like to end capitalist power only Spike Milligan could have said.'2 Worse still, because he uses sneers as a substitute for analysis, Inglis never properly tackles the central concerns of William's life and work.
This is a shame. Williams stands out amongst left-wing academics precisely because he believed it is possible to understand how society works and worthwhile trying to change it. His main concern was with culture, but his best books skip across the disciplines of social science, history, politics and literature to try show how things connect. In his own eccentric and roundabout way he always tried to move the socialist project forward. He attacked the elitism of literary academia, challenged the dead end of Stalinism and the pessimism of the post modernists, and tried to provide a counterweight to the right in the Labour movement. His successes may have been limited, but we can learn from his attempts.
Williams is best known for pioneering the study of popular culture and the media. His twenty-odd books of cultural criticism widened the accepted definitions of literature and culture, and helped to establish media studies as a recognised subject in the process popularizing a radical and critical approach to the mass media. More importantly, his work has popularised a radical and critical approach to the arts and the mass media, and at the same time had a powerful influence on the development of the left's attitude to culture.
Not surprisingly, Williams' work has also influenced the left's approach to culture. Here there are problems, because for him the examination of culture was never only an end in itself. In ways which (with characteristic slipperiness) he never fully argued out, he saw the cultural sphere as the key to regenerating the left and even radically reforming society. This foregrounding of the 'cultural struggle', shared by a generation of left wing academics, has been a source of real confusion for socialists. Commentators tend to look to William's personal history to explain the emergence of his thought. His father was a rail signalworker, a socialist and a trade unionist, and his family lived in a small town on the Welsh borders. The great personal contradiction in William's life was that the class pride and confidence he learnt in his remote home led him to outstanding success at his local school and from there to the heart of the academic establishment at Cambridge. There is no doubt his strong sense of of working class cultural traditions and his hostility to cultural elitism were very personally felt, and his successful rise in the academic establishment clearly provided a personal prototype for his special brand of cultural gradualism to flourish.
But Williams' development was also shaped by the prevailing ideas and practice of the left. When he arrived in Cambridge in 1939 he plunged into a lively political world. Almost immediately he joined the Socialist Club, the Communist Party, and the Communist Writers Group, he spoke, wrote and debated in almost every forum that would have him. The Communist Party leadership spotted Williams quickly and made him a delegate to the National Congress of Student Unions as well as asking him to write pamphlets and edit a university journal. The CP had abandoned an independent, working class line some time before and was pushing for a popular front against fascism, an alliance of workers with progressive sections of the intelligentsia and the bourgeoisie. Popular front politics, with its emphasis on the role of the intellectual, clearly encouraged the idea of 'the cultural struggle'.
But worse was to come. After the Hitler-Stalin pact in 1939 the party took an opportunistic stance against imperialist war and in 1941, when Hitler invaded Russia, the party switched to uncritical support for the government in 'the peoples' war'. Williams effectively left the party in 1941 when he was called up to fight. He claimed later that it was the crudeness of the party's approach to art and literature that drove him out, and it is true that much of his life's work was an attempt to develop a left wing approach to culture that could rise above Stalinist simplicities. But the cynical manoeuvring which passed for marxist politics among the communists didn't help to inspire confidence in the party or its ideas.
After the war his growing interest in the moral, transformative value of culture fitted neatly with the widespread feeling that the Labour Party was making a new world from above. Appropriately enough he became an English teacher for the Workers Educational Association, teaching literature to classes of 'ordinary people' who wanted to study culture in a way that related to their lives.
It was in this busy period that Williams developed the preoccupations that dominated his work. His first two major books Culture and Society (1958) and The Long Revolution (1961) dealt, critically, with two traditions. At Cambridge, he had been influenced by the ideas of F R Leavis and the magazine Scrutiny that had dominated the literary scene. Leavis and his followers promoted a kind of cultural pessimism still familiar today. They believed modern 'mass' society was creating a crisis of values that threatened the moral and cultural fabric of society, and that the 'Great Tradition' of English culture could be a kind of bulwark against democratic decay, a guarantee of 'higher values'. Their work was elitist, backward looking and chauvinist, and Williams rejected a great deal of it.
In particular Williams challenged the idea of a single great tradition. One of the reasons Culture and Society and The Long Revolution caused such a stir was that they contained histories of English writing, drama and the press that placed the 'Great Tradition' into a broad history that included popular novels, 'penny dreadfuls' and the music hall. Williams attacked the idea that worthwhile culture was the preserve of the upper middle classes while recognising that class barriers still held us well short of the democratic culture he looked for. What he retained from the Scrutiny group was a romantic sense of culture as a source of critical understanding, of human values in opposition to the brute realities of modern society. He combined this romantic view of cultural history with a conviction that the growth of popular culture would allow the working class to stamp its democratic values on society.
At the same time he was still grappling with the Marxist view of culture, or rather the Stalinised version he knew. Since the 1930s, the official party line on culture had been based on two elements; a mechanical interpretation of the idea that art simply 'reflected' social reality, and strict guidelines for 'progressive artists';
Our literature... must be a romanticism of a new type, revolutionary romanticism... Soviet literature should be able to portray our heroes, it should be able to glimpse our tomorrow.3
Williams shared with Marxism a sense of the progressive role of the working class he had grown up in, and he drew on Marxism's insistence that culture must be seen in the context of wider society. But the Stalinist critics' complete rejection of so called bourgeois art was far too crude for a man who liked to see culture as the key to understanding social history.
In these first books Williams tried to shake up our definitions of culture and rescue it from simplification and elitism. He felt culture could be a source of insight and of hope. It wasn't just the growing importance of popular culture in the economy and society that mattered to Williams, everyday culture was the key to understanding society because it provided a unique access to what he called the structure of feeling, the real spiritual life of society, as opposed to the abstractions of sociology or Stalinised Marxism. He prophetically saw, for example, in the 'disbelief, boredom and contempt' expressed in emerging youth culture some sort of challenge to the deadening conformity of post war society. But with an intellectual sleight of hand, the liberating notion that popular culture was valid and interesting turned into the idea that popular culture could itself be a force for change.
The long Revolution contains a valuable critique of capitalist society, Williams had no time for those who argued that class had disappeared. He recognised that the central institutions of society are controlled by an unaccountable elite, and that existing democracy was seriously flawed; 'it is difficult to feel we are really governing ourselves if in so central a part of our lives as our work most of us have no share in decisions that immediately effect us'.4 But he left the actual nature of the Long Revolution characteristically vague. 'The human energy of the Long Revolution springs from the conviction that men can direct their own lives, by breaking through the pressures and restrictions of older forms of society, and by discovering new common institutions.'5
Despite outlining fundamental structural problems in society, the solutions he offers all concern perception and communication, the ways we think about society. The end result is that the actual prescriptions for change hardly seem to match the gravity of the problems; 'I think we have reached the point where we need a new press council,'6 'it would be possible for most theatres to be publicly owned.'7 Not only is the programme for change limited mainly to the cultural plain, but the question of agency is ignored. In the end the book reads like a warning and a plea to the establishmentcultural malaise will turn into something nastier unless the forces of democracy are allowed to flourish. At the same time, the stress on cultural and institutional change struck a comforting note; 'The pressure now, in a wide area of social life, should be towards a participating democracy, in which the ways of means of involving people much more closely in the process of self government can be learned and extended,'8
It is no wonder that while the Long Revolution appeared to some on the left to offer a fresh approach and a sense of hope by identifying democratic impulses in popular culture, it could also be applauded by right wingers in the Labour Party machine. Richard Crossman claimed the Long Revolution 'was the book I had been waiting for since 1945.'9
Despite his rise in the academic worldhe became a lecturer in English at Cambridge in 1961, and Professor of Drama in 1974Williams did not just write about change. At the end of the 1950s he became deeply involved with the New Left, an attempt to build a non Stalinist challenge to the mediocrity of Labourism.
The New Left emerged in the late 1950s out of a series of crises. Britain's credibility as a major power was starting to crumble. The Profumo scandal had given a glimpse of the corruption festering behind the facade of the post colonial British elite, and Anthony Eden's failed attempt to take Britain to war against Egypt after the Nationalists took over the Suez canal exposed both the weakness and the continuing nastiness of the British ruling class. Large numbers of people took to Britain's streets in protest against the government.
The promise of post war Labourism had failed to materialise. Substantial welfare reforms and nationalisation had not delivered the kind of radical change that many had hoped for. Labour had actually lost the elections in l951 and 1957, and many on the left were looking for a way out of the suffocating consensus of post war politics. Meanwhile Khrushchev's criticisms of Stalin and the Russian armies crushing of the Hungarian uprising in 1956 led to serious soul searching amongst Communist Party members.
The initiative for the New Left came from a group of dissident Communist intellectuals, but ex-Stalinists were joined by an assortment of disenchanted Labour Party members, activists from the new and lively Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), sections of the revolutionary left, and a handful of literary figures. The movement coalesced around the New Left Review launched at a meeting in l960 with novelists Iris Murdoch and Doris Lessing on the platform. Fred Inglis describes the mood:
It was a blissful dawn alright. The magazine was to be the focus of a new, principled and non-doctrinal Left, stretching out reconciling hands to old CP members, new sectarians, Labour radicals, and beyond that to the well disposed and educated new generation which looked for a way to combine decent generous-hearted egalitarian ideals with the vivid satisfaction of a world full of delicious consumer goods whose plenitude really looked as though it might help in dissolving class divisions in bloody minded old Britain.'10
Williams became a hero of this movement. His anti-Stalinism, his distance from the mechanism of the Labour Party as well as from the small revolutionary groups gave him a kind of aloof appeal. His combination of social radicalism with a stress on cultural change seemed a humane relief from the crude politics of the Stalinists, and was close to the hearts of the mainly middle class membership of the movement.
Unsurprisingly, no concrete strategy grew out of the New Left, just a general agreement to try and 'remoralise' the left, and a short lived attempt to set up a network of New Left clubs. Despite misgivings with Labour's record, in practice a vague commitment to 'radicalising the movement' could only mean a general attempt to exert leftward pressure on Wilson's new-look Labour Party.
But any illusions that Wilson had a programme for radical social change were quickly dashed after he took office in 1964. He made no break with cold war politics, introduced cuts in the welfare state, an aggressive incomes policy, and launched confrontational attacks on the unions. Williams, E P Thompson and other remnants of the New Left responded in May 1967 with a Manifesto that was both a critique of the Labour Party and an attempt to outline an alternative programme. 'It is now clear that we shall not change that society if we rely entirely or mainly on parliamentary political parties we also need continuing and connected effort outside parliament.'11
The May Day Manifesto became a new focus for those who wanted to revitalise the left. Once again conferences were called, groups were set up. But once again, the results were frustrating. One of the biggest Manifesto conferences at St Pancras town hall in 1969 attracted over 600 people, but two days of debate over the attitude to the USSR, whether students could be the agent of revolutionary change, and even whether Manifesto groups should put up candidates in the next years' general election were inconclusive. Activists left the conference with a feeling of goodwill but no plan of action.
With his customary cynicism, Fred Inglis claims that the Manifesto groups only achievement was to help 'in a tiny way' Labour's defeat in 1970. This is not true. The Manifesto groups and the New Left in general had been right to try to harness the activism and enthusiasm that was emerging in the 1960s and to hammer out a political strategy to the left of Labour and independent of the Stalinists.The fact that leading figures on the left were publicly rethinking old positions and openly looking for new ways to organise could only be positive.
The problem was not the initiative itself, but the leading figures' conception of the movement. It was a time of growing activism, thousands were marching for civil rights in the US and Ireland, and against the bomb and the Vietnam War in Britain. In France student action had detonated a semi-insurrectionary general strike. And there were stirrings amongst British workers too. Indignation at Labour's attempts to increase productivity and to aid the employers offensive had been growing for years. In 1966 seamen went on official strike and Wilson turned the strike into a test of strength with the unions. In 1968 miners lobbying the Labour conference burst into the conference hall carrying banners reading 'Halt pit closures now before it is too late'. By the end of the l960s large sections of workers were in open revolt against local productivity deals and the national incomes policy. In 1969 the CP called a national one day stoppage to lobby the TUC which was followed by a quarter of a million workers. Fords workers struck for higher wages and miners went out on unofficial strike against a national productivity deal signed in 1966. Workers' grudging loyalty to Labour, traditionally brokered by the trade union leaders, was showing signs of strain. The modest but significant growth of the revolutionary groups showed there was an important audience for genuine socialist ideas.
The New Left reflected this wave of activism, but because they didn't base themselves on it, or try and develop it, their deliberations were often dry and unnattractive to many newly radicalized young people. Debates about how to reinvigorate Labour or whether to stand parliamentary candidates didn't appeal to the most militant students fresh from demonstrations or the most political workers smarting under attacks from the Labour Government and looking for ways to build resistance.
Worse still, the New Left combined an obsession with debate with a toleration of fudge and false unity. Fred Inglis, along with many of William's admirers, sees William's powers of conciliation as one of his great strengths. Williams was the movement's favourite chair because of his 'ability to see and seize what unites factions rather than divides them and to insist upon this unity before the conference terminates.'12 Despite the initial enthusiasm and excitement, the end result was a movement with a vague attitude towards practical action and little or no theoretical clarity. It is little wonder that its only achievement was the creation of a journal of theoretical discussion, the New Left Review.
In his hilarious dissection of the New Left, Peter Sedgwick blames it's shortcomings on its class basis. The movement represented 'the false consciousness of the middle class meritocracy' the politics of 'the professionalised radical (who) appoints himself as observer and dispenser to society'.13 But there was also a connected theoretical dimension. A number of critics have noted Williams' tendency to believe you can bring about change by just arguing for it. Lin Chun for example, points out that the May Day Manifesto, for all its radical vision 'failed to investigate the way to get there, especially in terms of the obstacles.'14 But the recent discussions of Williams in the New Left Review seem to regard this as a minor problem, or even at times a source of strength.15 In fact the question of agency, of how to achieve change, which is always skated over in Williams' work, must be fundamental to any serious socialist theory. The academic gurus of the New Left, among them Thompson, Williams and Hall were all searching in their different ways for a socialist politics which rescued human agency from the mechanical determinism of Stalinism. The problem was, in the course of rejecting Stalinist distortions, they tended to undermine a key Marxist concept. They all continued to talk about the workers, but lost sight of the economic factors which underpin their position as the revolutionary agent of change.
Raymond Williams took from Marxism the understanding that society must be conceived as a totality. This lends his work an exciting broad sweep, a recognition of the connections between politics, social development, culture and so on. He also had a general sense of the inequalities of the class system. which meant that he sustained a broad idea of the need for social change. But Williams repeatedly attacked the idea of a causal connection between base and superstructure, the central idea that the form of any society is a product of its material economic development and organisation.
This explains the vagueness of so much of Williams social and cultural theory. Once he had abandoned the idea of determination, he was left rudderless in a sea of interconnected and interacting forces;
What we learn above all, in the historical analysis, is a remarkably extending and interpenetrating activity of artistic forms and actual or desired social relations ...It is the steady discovery of genuine formations which are simultaneously artistic forms and social locations, with all the properly cultural evidence of identification and and presentation.16
Whatever Williams thought, Marxism does not deny human agency, it simply insists that human agency can only effectively challenge capitalist society when it is linked to the economic power of the working class, and that ultimately the impulse for change in any era comes from the economic contradictions in society. Without this approach there can be no clear assessment of the prospects for change, and no guidelines for how to go about it. So, however appealing and inspiring his vision, Williams political strategy always ended as a vague combination of alliances, regeneration and goodwill, and finally, grudging reliance on the Labour Party.
In the l970s, Williams began a more rigorous attempt to apply a Marxist method to the study of culture. As a way round the 'reflection' problem, he argued that culture was best seen as a specific process of production, 'a material social process of signification'17 in its own right. This approach, which became known as Cultural Materialism, proved quite fertile. Dealing with culture as just one sphere of production amongst many certainly brings us down to earth. Its useful to examine who owns the culture industries, and who consumes different cultural products. What is more it provides a clean break from the notions of artistic genius that dominate bourgeois thinking about the arts. It helps us to think of works of art not as perfect, rounded statements, but as products that can contain flaws or contradictions relating to and illuminating contradictions in the relations of production themselves.
At his best, in his later analysis of avant garde theatre for example, or his analysis of television, Williams managed a highly sensitive and specific unpicking of cultural production, relating it back to social development in surprising and illuminating ways. By making cultural production part of the economic base, Williams was trying to give a Marxist gloss to his sense of the social importance of culture, but he created as many problems as he solved. Understanding culture as material production doesn't give any insight into the specific role of culture in society, for cultural products are never just commoditiesthey always have an ideological aspect and this can only be investigated by placing the 'products' in their social context.
Art and culture are by definition sensitive to the widest, and most varied social developments. If you are considering a Hollywood film for instance, you must keep in mind who owns the studios, and the characteristic Hollywood production values. But no history of Hollywood could explain the studios' output unless it considered the Cold War, McCarthyism, the social revolts of the 1960s, the rise of the black middle class and so on.
The narrow focus of Cultural Materialism also begs the crucial question-what exactly are the dynamics of production in society? Without a general theory of how society works, Cultural Materialism can degenerate into empiricism. In the end Cultural Materialism encourages us to analyse culture in isolation from wider society. Williams had some (often vague) notion of capitalist relations and he often talks about class, but other writers in his wake have arbitrarily seen race, gender or sexuality as the key determinants.
Williams was wrong in believing that the base and superstructure model necessarily leads to a reductionist view of culture. His hostility to the Stalinist approach to culture itself was understandable. Clearly art is more than a simple 'reflection' of the economic base. But he mistook Stalinist cultural politics, developed ironically as a means to stifle artistic dissent and innovation in the Soviet Union, for the real Marxist position. Marx and Engels never reduced human creativity to a mere working out of economic contradictions, but they did insist that cultural production was conditioned, often in complex ways, by general social developments:
As regards art, it is well known that some of its peaks by no means correspond to the general development of society nor do they therefore to the material substructure...as we move further and further from the base the interconnection between conceptions and their material conditions of existence become more and more complicated, more and more obscured by intermediate links. But the inter connection exists.16
Far from being mechanical, Marxists have produced some of the most penetrating and sensitive art criticism. Trotsky was one of the first to appreciate the 'structure of feeling' of Modernist art for example. Without apology, his explanation always started from the 'base', but for him, great artists were active agents, expressing the hidden potential energy in deep social contradictions;
Futurism reflected in art the historic development which began in the middle of the 1890s, and which became merged in the World War. Capitalist society passed through two decades of unparalleled economic prosperity which destroyed the old concepts of wealth and power, and elaborated new standards, new criteria of the possible and of the impossible, and urged people towards new exploits.
At the same time, the social movement lived on in the automatism of yesterday. The armed peace, with its patches of diplomacy, the hollow parliamentary systems, the external and internal politics based on the system of safety valves and brakes, all this weighed heavily on poetry at a time when the air, charged with accumulated electricity, gave sign of impending great explosions. Futurism was the 'foreboding' of all this in art.19
For all his tremendous sensitivity to social and cultural contradiction, Williams never accepted that the key to social change lies outside the realm of culture. He therefore never developed a systematic method of approaching the relation between cultural production and social history. In practice, he was left with confusion. At times he seems to believe popular culture is dominated by the ruling class, 'the dominant culture reaches much further than ever before into hitherto reserved or resigned areas of experience and practice and meaning', and at other times he has an almost naive confidence in the development of an alternative culture.
In his later work his appreciation of the incorporative powers of capitalism led him to abandon simplistic notions of change through cultural renewal. And he was always too aware of contradictions to completely romanticise working class culture. At times he moved tantalisingly close to integrating an analysis of culture with the dynamics of class society. Unfortunately his sense of history always seems too woolly and his concept of class too vague. In complete contrast to the Marxist approach, even at his best he didn't take history seriously enough to approach it concretely. Time and again he ended up piling abstraction on abstraction, qualification on qualification;
A new class is always a source of emergent cultural practice, but while it is still, as a class, relatively subordinate, this is always likely to be uneven and is certain to be incomplete. For new practice is not, of course, an isolated process. To the degree that it emerges, and especially to the degree that it is oppositional rather than alternative, the process of attempted incorporation significantly begins.21
The cultural studies that he did so much to create has been responsible for a good deal of confusion and hot air. For many of his disciples the detailed study of popular culture became an end in itself, virtually a popular cult ure in its own right. Others have taken the production of meaning to be primary under contemporary capitalism, the key to the passification of the masses. For still others the production of culture and signification became so autonomous that 'signs' bore no relation to reality only to each other. Any hope of understanding reality as a total process fragmented into a fashionable postmodernism. Williams resisted these tendencies.
One of Williams' most useful theoretical contributions was his demolition of technological determinsm, the idea, common in media studies, that the type of technology developed by capitalism is in itself oppressive. In 'Television-Technology and Cultural Form', Williams showed how current programming strategies helped to cloud our understanding of society, but he also pointed out the democratic potential of new developments in the mass media. His analysis is weakened, however, by his impossibly naive belief that that control of the media is decided by a process of debate or negotiation. He pays lip-service to the importance of 'wider social struggles' but essentially we are back to the radical manifesto; 'There is no solution...but to make local communications ownership and control subject to open and democratic local process, with specific provisions against financing, salary payments and consultancies from outside commercial bodies.'20 Definitely, but how?
For all its sometimes irritating obscurity, Williams writing is always suggestive and radical. He maintained a fierce opposition to 'dominant culture', constantly trying to expose the slippages and bluffs that are used to reinvent received ideas and blunt democratic aspirations. He always assumed that culture 'ought' to be democratic, 'ought' to be in the hands of the mass of the population, whose decency and creativity he never doubted. Even if he never developed a satisfactory theoretical approach he helped open our eyes to the positive aspects of popular culture and he developed important new ways of analysing the cultural process. Unlike so many of his erstwhile colleagues in the New Left, he never succumbed to the pressure to move rightwards and accept that the working class had been finally incorporated or that radical change was impossible. He clung to a vision of a better, socialist society. The shame is, he never worked out how we could get there.
1 F Inglis, Raymond Williams (Routledge, 1995), p177.
2 Ibid, p199.
3 A Zdhanov, Soviet Writer Congress 1934: The Debate on Socialist Realism and Modernism (Lawrence and Wishart, 1977), p21.
4 R Williams, The Long Revolution (Pelican, 1973), p332.
5 Ibid, p375.
6 Ibid, p371.
7 Ibid, p385.
8 Ibid, p343.
9 Critical comment published on the cover above.
10 F Inglis, p156.
11 Ibid, p304.
12 Ibid, p205.
13 P Sedgewick, The Two New Lefts, First published in International socialism 17 August 1964. Reprinted in D Widgery, The Left in Britain 1956-1968 (Penguin, 1976), p 138.
14 Lin Chun, The British New Left (Edinburgh, 1993) p86.
15 See contributions by F Inglis, D Thompson and J McGuigan in New Left Review 215, Jan/Feb 1996. F Inglis particularly seems to celebrate the vagueness of much of Williams' political theory asa kind of virtue in contrast to what he no doubt perceives as the dogmatism of the 'old left'.
16 R Williams, The politics of ModernismAgainst the New Conformists (Verso, 1989), p179.
17 R Williams, Marxism and Literature (Oxford University Press, 1977), p70.
18 F Engels quoted in ibid, p79.
19 L Trotsky, Literature and revolution (University of Michigan, 1971), p126.
20 R Williams, The politics of Modernism, p118.
21 R Williams, Marxism and Literature, p124.
22 R Williams, Television, Technology and Cultural Form (London 1990) p150.