RAYMOND WILLIAMS: REVITALISING THE LEFT?

A review of F Inglis, Raymond Williams (Routledge, 1995)

Chris Nineham
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 twentyodd 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

At Cambridge. After the war his growing interest in the moral. But worse was to come. But the cynical manoeuvring which passed for marxist politics among the communists didn't help to inspire confidence in the party or its ideas. an alliance of workers with progressive sections of the intelligentsia and the bourgeoisie. transformative value of culture fitted neatly with the widespread feeling that the Labour Party was making a new world from above. When he arrived in Cambridge in 1939 he plunged into a lively political world. There is no doubt his strong sense of of working class cultural traditions and his hostility to cultural elitism were very personally felt. and that the 'Great Tradition' of English culture could be a kind of bulwark against democratic decay. He claimed later that it was the crudeness of the party's approach to art and literature that drove him out. with its emphasis on the role of the intellectual. backward looking and chauvinist.his family lived in a small town on the Welsh borders. It was in this busy period that Williams developed the preoccupations that dominated his work. Popular front politics. Their work was elitist. Williams effectively left the party in 1941 when he was called up to fight. he had been influenced by the ideas of F R Leavis and the magazine Scrutiny that had dominated the literary scene. In particular Williams challenged the idea of a single great tradition. The CP had abandoned an independent. Appropriately enough he became an English teacher for the Workers Educational Association. a guarantee of 'higher values'. with two traditions. the party switched to uncritical support for the government in 'the peoples' war'. he spoke. clearly encouraged the idea of 'the cultural struggle'. They believed modern 'mass' society was creating a crisis of values that threatened the moral and cultural fabric of society. But Williams' development was also shaped by the prevailing ideas and practice of the left. 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 Communist Party. critically. teaching literature to classes of 'ordinary people' who wanted to study culture in a way that related to their lives. working class line some time before and was pushing for a popular front against fascism. and the Communist Writers Group. His first two major books Culture and Society (1958) and The Long Revolution (1961) dealt. wrote and debated in almost every forum that would have him. 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. Almost immediately he joined the Socialist Club. and his successful rise in the academic establishment clearly provided a personal prototype for his special brand of cultural gradualism to flourish. One of the reasons Culture and Society and The Long Revolution caused such a stir was that they contained histories of . Leavis and his followers promoted a kind of cultural pessimism still familiar today. when Hitler invaded Russia. and Williams rejected a great deal of it. After the Hitler-Stalin pact in 1939 the party took an opportunistic stance against imperialist war and in 1941. 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.

and strict guidelines for 'progressive artists'. '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'. The end result is that the actual prescriptions for change hardly seem to match the gravity of the problems. the solutions he offers all concern perception and communication. It wasn't just the growing importance of popular culture in the economy and society that mattered to Williams.. Williams had no time for those who argued that class had disappeared. In these first books Williams tried to shake up our definitions of culture and rescue it from simplification and elitism. 'penny dreadfuls' and the music hall. for example. He prophetically saw. everyday culture was the key to understanding society because it provided a unique access to what he called the structure of feeling.4 But he left the actual nature of the Long Revolution characteristically vague. the real spiritual life of society. the official party line on culture had been based on two elements. He felt culture could be a source of insight and of hope.'5 Despite outlining fundamental structural problems in society. and by discovering new common institutions. 'The human energy of the Long Revolution springs from the conviction that men can direct their own lives. But with an intellectual sleight of hand. revolutionary romanticism. and that existing democracy was seriously flawed. as opposed to the abstractions of sociology or Stalinised Marxism.3 Williams shared with Marxism a sense of the progressive role of the working class he had grown up in. At the same time he was still grappling with the Marxist view of culture. 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.English writing.. 'I think we have . 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. Our literature. a mechanical interpretation of the idea that art simply 'reflected' social reality. boredom and contempt' expressed in emerging youth culture some sort of challenge to the deadening conformity of post war society. or rather the Stalinised version he knew. Since the 1930s. The long Revolution contains a valuable critique of capitalist society. Soviet literature should be able to portray our heroes. by breaking through the pressures and restrictions of older forms of society... and he drew on Marxism's insistence that culture must be seen in the context of wider society. in the 'disbelief. He recognised that the central institutions of society are controlled by an unaccountable elite. it should be able to glimpse our tomorrow. the ways we think about society. the liberating notion that popular culture was valid and interesting turned into the idea that popular culture could itself be a force for change. must be a romanticism of a new type. 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. drama and the press that placed the 'Great Tradition' into a broad history that included popular novels. 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.

'The pressure now. Large numbers of people took to Britain's streets in protest against the government. principled and nondoctrinal Left. should be towards a participating democracy. Labour radicals. 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. The promise of post war Labourism had failed to materialise. and a handful of literary figures. The New Left emerged in the late 1950s out of a series of crises. it could also be applauded by right wingers in the Labour Party machine. and Professor of Drama in 1974Williams did not just write about change. The Profumo scandal had given a glimpse of the corruption festering behind the facade of the post colonial British elite. The movement coalesced around the New Left Review launched at a meeting in l960 with novelists Iris Murdoch and Doris Lessing on the platform.'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.'7 Not only is the programme for change limited mainly to the cultural plain. Britain's credibility as a major power was starting to crumble.'9 Despite his rise in the academic worldhe became a lecturer in English at Cambridge in 1961. in a wide area of social life.reached the point where we need a new press council. stretching out reconciling hands to old CP members. new sectarians. Richard Crossman claimed the Long Revolution 'was the book I had been waiting for since 1945. 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. an attempt to build a non Stalinist challenge to the mediocrity of Labourism. Labour had actually lost the elections in l951 and 1957. sections of the revolutionary left. Substantial welfare reforms and nationalisation had not delivered the kind of radical change that many had hoped for. The magazine was to be the focus of a new. in which the ways of means of involving people much more closely in the process of self government can be learned and extended. 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. but exStalinists were joined by an assortment of disenchanted Labour Party members. Fred Inglis describes the mood: It was a blissful dawn alright. 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. the stress on cultural and institutional change struck a comforting note. At the same time. At the end of the 1950s he became deeply involved with the New Left.'10 . activists from the new and lively Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND).'6 'it would be possible for most theatres to be publicly owned. The initiative for the New Left came from a group of dissident Communist intellectuals. and many on the left were looking for a way out of the suffocating consensus of post war politics.

introduced cuts in the welfare state. but two days of debate over the attitude to the USSR. In 1968 miners lobbying the Labour conference burst into the conference hall carrying banners reading 'Halt pit closures now before it is too late'.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. One of the biggest Manifesto conferences at St Pancras town hall in 1969 attracted over 600 people. Once again conferences were called.'11 The May Day Manifesto became a new focus for those who wanted to revitalise the left. but the leading figures' conception of the movement. and launched confrontational attacks on the unions. just a general agreement to try and 'remoralise' the left. '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. But once again. his distance from the mechanism of the Labour Party as well as from the small revolutionary groups gave him a kind of aloof appeal. The problem was not the initiative itself. His anti-Stalinism. With his customary cynicism. It was a time of growing activism. Activists left the conference with a feeling of goodwill but no plan of action. 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. Indignation at Labour's attempts to increase productivity and to aid the employers offensive had been growing for years. whether students could be the agent of revolutionary change. no concrete strategy grew out of the New Left. Williams. and against the bomb and the Vietnam War in Britain. In 1966 seamen went on official strike and Wilson turned the strike into a test of strength with the unions. an aggressive incomes policy. But any illusions that Wilson had a programme for radical social change were quickly dashed after he took office in 1964. and even whether Manifesto groups should put up candidates in the next years' general election were inconclusive. In 1969 the CP called a national one day stoppage to lobby the TUC which was followed by a quarter of a million workers. groups were set up. And there were stirrings amongst British workers too. Unsurprisingly. Despite misgivings with Labour's record. 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. 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. Fords workers struck for higher wages . and was close to the hearts of the mainly middle class membership of the movement. Fred Inglis claims that the Manifesto groups only achievement was to help 'in a tiny way' Labour's defeat in 1970. By the end of the l960s large sections of workers were in open revolt against local productivity deals and the national incomes policy. thousands were marching for civil rights in the US and Ireland.Williams became a hero of this movement. the results were frustrating. and a short lived attempt to set up a network of New Left clubs. In France student action had detonated a semi-insurrectionary general strike. He made no break with cold war politics. His combination of social radicalism with a stress on cultural change seemed a humane relief from the crude politics of the Stalinists. This is not true.

their deliberations were often dry and unnattractive to many newly radicalized young people. The problem was. the New Left combined an obsession with debate with a toleration of fudge and false unity. the central idea that the form of any society is a product of its material economic development and organisation. the end result was a movement with a vague attitude towards practical action and little or no theoretical clarity. was showing signs of strain. Lin Chun for example. the New Left Review. among them Thompson. He also had a general sense of the inequalities of the class system.'14 But the recent discussions of Williams in the New Left Review seem to regard this as a minor problem. Williams and Hall were all searching in their different ways for a socialist politics which rescued human agency from the mechanical determinism of Stalinism. which meant that he sustained a broad idea of the need for social change. social development. The New Left reflected this wave of activism. 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'. culture and so on. Fred Inglis. . or try and develop it.and miners went out on unofficial strike against a national productivity deal signed in 1966. but because they didn't base themselves on it. they tended to undermine a key Marxist concept. for all its radical vision 'failed to investigate the way to get there. a recognition of the connections between politics. along with many of William's admirers. of how to achieve change. must be fundamental to any serious socialist theory. A number of critics have noted Williams' tendency to believe you can bring about change by just arguing for it.15 In fact the question of agency.'12 Despite the initial enthusiasm and excitement. sees William's powers of conciliation as one of his great strengths. Workers' grudging loyalty to Labour. They all continued to talk about the workers. It is little wonder that its only achievement was the creation of a journal of theoretical discussion. Raymond Williams took from Marxism the understanding that society must be conceived as a totality. 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. In his hilarious dissection of the New Left. but lost sight of the economic factors which underpin their position as the revolutionary agent of change.13 But there was also a connected theoretical dimension. The modest but significant growth of the revolutionary groups showed there was an important audience for genuine socialist ideas. 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. Peter Sedgwick blames it's shortcomings on its class basis. which is always skated over in Williams' work. or even at times a source of strength. But Williams repeatedly attacked the idea of a causal connection between base and superstructure. especially in terms of the obstacles. The academic gurus of the New Left. Worse still. This lends his work an exciting broad sweep. points out that the May Day Manifesto. traditionally brokered by the trade union leaders. in the course of rejecting Stalinist distortions.

Without this approach there can be no clear assessment of the prospects for change. Understanding culture as material production doesn't give any insight into the specific role of culture in society. Its useful to examine who owns the culture industries. It helps us to think of works of art not as perfect. and the characteristic Hollywood production values. In the l970s. rounded statements. But no history of Hollywood could explain the studios' output unless it considered the Cold War. in his later analysis of avant garde theatre for example.16 Whatever Williams thought. or his analysis of television. he was left rudderless in a sea of interconnected and interacting forces. he argued that culture was best seen as a specific process of production. So. and no guidelines for how to go about it. This approach. and most varied social developments. and finally. 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.This explains the vagueness of so much of Williams social and cultural theory. Williams political strategy always ended as a vague combination of alliances.It is the steady discovery of genuine formations which are simultaneously artistic forms and social locations. In the end Cultural Materialism encourages us to . but as products that can contain flaws or contradictions relating to and illuminating contradictions in the relations of production themselves. which became known as Cultural Materialism. Once he had abandoned the idea of determination. regeneration and goodwill. and who consumes different cultural products. the social revolts of the 1960s. it simply insists that human agency can only effectively challenge capitalist society when it is linked to the economic power of the working class. however appealing and inspiring his vision.. Williams began a more rigorous attempt to apply a Marxist method to the study of culture. If you are considering a Hollywood film for instance. Williams managed a highly sensitive and specific unpicking of cultural production. Dealing with culture as just one sphere of production amongst many certainly brings us down to earth. As a way round the 'reflection' problem. is a remarkably extending and interpenetrating activity of artistic forms and actual or desired social relations . At his best. in the historical analysis. Williams was trying to give a Marxist gloss to his sense of the social importance of culture. By making cultural production part of the economic base. proved quite fertile. grudging reliance on the Labour Party. What is more it provides a clean break from the notions of artistic genius that dominate bourgeois thinking about the arts. the rise of the black middle class and so on. What we learn above all. Cultural Materialism can degenerate into empiricism. but he created as many problems as he solved. you must keep in mind who owns the studios. 'a material social process of signification'17 in its own right. Art and culture are by definition sensitive to the widest. Marxism does not deny human agency. and that ultimately the impulse for change in any era comes from the economic contradictions 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. relating it back to social development in surprising and illuminating ways. with all the properly cultural evidence of identification and and presentation. McCarthyism..

gender or sexuality as the key determinants.analyse culture in isolation from wider society.. Marx and Engels never reduced human creativity to a mere working out of economic contradictions. Trotsky was one of the first to appreciate the 'structure of feeling' of Modernist art for example. Futurism was the 'foreboding' of all this in 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. In practice.. the external and internal politics based on the system of safety valves and brakes. charged with accumulated electricity. but other writers in his wake have arbitrarily seen race. and at other times he has an almost naive confidence in the development of an alternative culture. his explanation always started from the 'base'. and which became merged in the World War. new criteria of the possible and of the impossible.16 Far from being mechanical. and elaborated new standards. Williams never accepted that the key to social change lies outside the realm of culture. he was left with confusion.as we move further and further from the base the interconnection between conceptions and their material conditions of existence become more and more complicated. but for him. for the real Marxist position. He therefore never developed a systematic method of approaching the relation between cultural production and social history. the social movement lived on in the automatism of yesterday. Without apology. developed ironically as a means to stifle artistic dissent and innovation in the Soviet Union. and urged people towards new exploits. Williams was wrong in believing that the base and superstructure model necessarily leads to a reductionist view of culture. more and more obscured by intermediate links. In his later work his appreciation of the incorporative powers of capitalism led him to abandon simplistic notions of change through cultural renewal. all this weighed heavily on poetry at a time when the air. the hollow parliamentary systems. At times he moved tantalisingly . great artists were active agents. Marxists have produced some of the most penetrating and sensitive art criticism. but they did insist that cultural production was conditioned. Capitalist society passed through two decades of unparalleled economic prosperity which destroyed the old concepts of wealth and power. But the inter connection exists. expressing the hidden potential energy in deep social contradictions. His hostility to the Stalinist approach to culture itself was understandable. with its patches of diplomacy. At times he seems to believe popular culture is dominated by the ruling class. Clearly art is more than a simple 'reflection' of the economic base. often in complex ways. And he was always too aware of contradictions to completely romanticise working class culture. Futurism reflected in art the historic development which began in the middle of the 1890s. Williams had some (often vague) notion of capitalist relations and he often talks about class. gave sign of impending great explosions. by general social developments: As regards art. 'the dominant culture reaches much further than ever before into hitherto reserved or resigned areas of experience and practice and meaning'.19 For all his tremendous sensitivity to social and cultural contradiction. The armed peace. But he mistook Stalinist cultural politics. At the same time.

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. constantly trying to expose the slippages and bluffs that are used to reinvent received ideas and blunt democratic aspirations. 1995). but he also pointed out the democratic potential of new developments in the mass media.. by his impossibly naive belief that that control of the media is decided by a process of debate or negotiation. Notes 1 F Inglis. relatively subordinate. Williams showed how current programming strategies helped to cloud our understanding of society. A new class is always a source of emergent cultural practice. as a class. Unfortunately his sense of history always seems too woolly and his concept of class too vague. virtually a popular cult ure in its own right. of course. even at his best he didn't take history seriously enough to approach it concretely. Williams writing is always suggestive and radical. p177. this is always likely to be uneven and is certain to be incomplete.. Unlike so many of his erstwhile colleagues in the New Left. an isolated process. but while it is still.close to integrating an analysis of culture with the dynamics of class society. Raymond Williams (Routledge. 'There is no solution. His analysis is weakened. For still others the production of culture and signification became so autonomous that 'signs' bore no relation to reality only to each other. the key to the passification of the masses. . He clung to a vision of a better. he never worked out how we could get there. qualification on qualification. however. Others have taken the production of meaning to be primary under contemporary capitalism.'20 Definitely. and especially to the degree that it is oppositional rather than alternative. He pays lip-service to the importance of 'wider social struggles' but essentially we are back to the radical manifesto. but how? For all its sometimes irritating obscurity. socialist society. The shame is. In 'Television-Technology and Cultural Form'. the process of attempted incorporation significantly begins. salary payments and consultancies from outside commercial bodies. Time and again he ended up piling abstraction on abstraction.21 The cultural studies that he did so much to create has been responsible for a good deal of confusion and hot air. 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. Any hope of understanding reality as a total process fragmented into a fashionable postmodernism. that the type of technology developed by capitalism is in itself oppressive. For many of his disciples the detailed study of popular culture became an end in itself. 'ought' to be in the hands of the mass of the population. He always assumed that culture 'ought' to be democratic. In complete contrast to the Marxist approach. One of Williams' most useful theoretical contributions was his demolition of technological determinsm. He maintained a fierce opposition to 'dominant culture'.but to make local communications ownership and control subject to open and democratic local process. Williams resisted these tendencies. common in media studies. For new practice is not. the idea. with specific provisions against financing. whose decency and creativity he never doubted. To the degree that it emerges.

Reprinted in D Widgery. Literature and revolution (University of Michigan. 20 R Williams. 1977). p179. 11 Ibid. Marxism and Literature. The politics of Modernism. 1976). p385. 22 R Williams. Technology and Cultural Form (London 1990) p150. 3 A Zdhanov. p371. The Long Revolution (Pelican.2 Ibid. 13 P Sedgewick. p205. The politics of ModernismAgainst the New Conformists (Verso. p 138. The Two New Lefts. 9 Critical comment published on the cover above. The Left in Britain 1956-1968 (Penguin. 21 R Williams. Marxism and Literature (Oxford University Press. p332. Jan/Feb 1996. 16 R Williams. 1977). p304. 8 Ibid. 1971). p118. 12 Ibid. 19 L Trotsky. p156. 1993) p86. p199. 1973). p70. . Soviet Writer Congress 1934: The Debate on Socialist Realism and Modernism (Lawrence and Wishart. p126. p375. p124. p21. 5 Ibid. 4 R Williams. The British New Left (Edinburgh. 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'. 17 R Williams. 1989). p79. 6 Ibid. 15 See contributions by F Inglis. Television. First published in International socialism 17 August 1964. 18 F Engels quoted in ibid. D Thompson and J McGuigan in New Left Review 215. p343. 7 Ibid. 14 Lin Chun. 10 F Inglis.

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