Raymond Williams: thirty years on

Submitted by Matthew on 31 January, 2018 - 1:06 Author: John Cunningham

January 2018 marks thirty years since the death of Raymond Williams, the writer, theoretician and critic.

In the 60s and 70s Williams’ star shone brightly in the intellectual firmament of the left. It has faded somewhat since. Unjustly so in my opinion, for there is still much to be learnt from the writings of this son of a Welsh railway worker who became one of the foremost Marxist thinkers of his generation, much to the chagrin no doubt of many of his colleagues at Cambridge University, where Williams graduated and was to spend all his life as a lecturer.

Perhaps, ironically, it is Williams’ very success that has contributed to his marginalisation. For it was Williams who did so much, through works such as Culture and Society (1958) and The Country and the City (1973) to spread the idea that culture was not the preserve of the elite, that “culture is ordinary”, to use his famous phrase.

This idea, so readily acceptable today, so much a part of the “wallpaper” of our way of seeing the contemporary world, was once thought irredeemably radical. It is easy to forget how ground-breaking this was when Williams first espoused it.

Williams played a leading role in developing the ideas of cultural materialism which although entirely colonised and, I guess, mostly de-radicalised by academia today, nevertheless played an important role in developing new critical ways of looking at the world as Empire crumbled, old “certainties” withered, the Labour Party ossified and the Stalinism went into its death agonies.

Williams was extremely well-read and immersed in English literature and wrote key studies in aesthetics and literary criticism such as Marxism and Literature (1977) and Writing in Society (1985). Partly influenced by the Hungarian Marxist György Lukács, he emphasised the notion of realism in the arts, while rejecting the woodenness and stupidity of so-called socialist realism. He was an advocate of teaching creative expression and adult education (he worked for the Workers Educational Association for many years), and took a lively interest in the newer forms of media such as TV. It is encouraging that a number of the current leaders of the Labour Party also share this interest in the transforming power of education.

In 1971 he wrote a short critique of the life and work of George Orwell which ought to be compulsory reading for those who have put the author of 1984 on a pedestal. Debunking the Orwell “myth”, Williams makes the point that Orwell influenced “not only people who had given up their commitment to radical social change and who were using Orwell’s disillusion as a cover. There were plenty of these, and others who didn’t have to live the process through, who could take Orwell’s disillusion neat. But there were just as many who began their political commitment from the point where Orwell left off, who agreed with him about Stalinism and about imperialism and about the English establishment, and who made a new socialist politics out of his sense of failure.”

Williams was one of those who helped to make that “new socialist politics” a reality. Towards the end of his life New Left Review, for whom Williams wrote many essays, conducted a series of long interviews with him, surveying the whole range of his work and ideas and collected them in the volume Politics and Letters (1979). He died in 1986. Williams captured much of his early experience in a novel he wrote, Border Country, based partly on his own childhood. Many of his writings, alas, are now out of print but Dai Smith has written an excellent biographical study, Raymond Williams, A Warrior’s Tale (published in Cardiff by Parthian in 2008) which takes the reader up to 1961; I presume a second volume will follow at some point.

Whether your interest is the drama of Ibsen, Nuclear Disarmament, Charles Dickens, realism in TV drama, working class culture or the North-South divide, turn first to Raymond Williams. It will be a rewarding experience.

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