Issue 192 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published December 1995 Copyright © Socialist Review
Socialist historian Gwyn Alf Williams was a brilliant writer and spellbinding broadcaster. He was perhaps the most colourful figure among the remarkable group of Marxist historians who emerged in the Communist Party after the Second World War.
Starting as a medievalist, he ended his work analysing the legend of King Arthur, but on the way wrote on Goya and about the Italian factory occupations of 1920-21. From the dusty and parochial he transformed and popularised Welsh history permanently. Look at just about anything written on it and you will find countless acknowledgements and references to his work. He will dominate it for years to come.
Brought up in Dowlais, the abandoned crucible of the world's first steel industry, his parents were school teachers and supporters of the Independent Labour Party. He won a scholarship to Aberystwyth University but before taking it up he joined the ranks of both the Communist Party and the British army. The end of the war found him a not untypical figure among socialists of his generation, a dissenting sergeant agitating for demob.
He broke with the Communist Party as a supporter of the Yugoslav leader Tito and spent the rest of his life searching for a political home. As an academic he remained a frustrated activist. As a professor at York University he dabbled with Maoism and appealed for--instead of against--student unrest. An internationalist politically and culturally, he tried briefly in the early 1980s to rebuild the left in Wales as a wing of the Welsh nationalist organisation, Plaid Cymru.
His best book, The Merthyr Rising, appeared in 1978. Inspired by ten years of class struggle, it is a classic of Marxist historical writing. As professor of history at Cardiff he was a brilliant teacher, not least because he remained a Marxist, a rebel and an outsider. He was devastated by the defeats of the early 1980s which he saw firstly as a national catastrophe for Wales. He claimed that the 1979 general election had reversed 200 years of Welsh history and his response, though defiant, was politically a temporary retreat into nationalism, 'The whole of Wales is more or less redundant as far as capitalism is concerned, therefore capitalism is redundant for us.'
Yet typically the best selling book he wrote on Welsh history at the time, When Was Wales?, is an excellent book which demolishes all the myths that are the stock in trade of Welsh nationalism. The 1980s also spawned his career as a broadcaster with the television series, The Dragon Has Two Tongues, which brought his passionate wit to a wider audience, as he sparred with Wynford Vaughan-Thomas, a typically puffed up specimen of the Welsh establishment. He went on to make fascinating programmes, the subjects of which, from Goya to Sylvia Pankhurst to present day Russia, showed his impressive range.
His success as a broadcaster enabled him to produce his own powerful epitaph in a programme reflecting on his life. Not at all Indulgent, it included his visit to Russia and dealt honestly with lost illusions in the existence of workers' states. It dealt similarly with the prospects for social change through a regenerated Wales.
Like so many socialists of his generation who joined the Communist Party to enter the struggle against Hitler, he never entirely escaped the influence of the politics of national 'popular fronts'.
'You can call me a Titoist,' he said at one point without a trace of irony. Yet at the end of an interview recorded shortly before he died, when in typically flamboyant style, face direct to camera with a twinkle in his eye, he said, 'I'm unreconstructed, and I don't bloody care,' you knew he remained a socialist and a fighter.