Between 1965 and 1985 there was a major transformation of the English intellectual Left, as R. H. Tawney and Archbishop Temple were forgotten, C. A. R. Crosland and Roy Jenkins were edged aside, and a new body of sages has delivered a more uncompromising and more revolutionary message in their place.

Of these sages, Raymond Williams, Eric Hobsbawm, and E. P. Thompson were the most important. All three are or were “tenured radicals,” all three used academic subjects as instruments of persuasion— literature in Williams’s case, history in the other two cases—and all three had a stimulating effect on the English student revolutionaries of the late 1960s and their successors as these came to maturity without the restraint and respectability that the English student revolutionaries of the 1930s had acquired through participation in the “just and unavoidable war against fascism.”

Williams (1921-1988) earned his first reputation from the publication of Culture and Society: 1780-1950 in 1958. But it was through the student revolution that he achieved fame, not only in England but also in the United States, where he has had as devoted a following as in England. Indeed, his American followers have been more devoted, since none of them has been as disrespectful as the literary critic Terry Eagleton, his most distinguished follower in England and now his memorialist,[1] who in Criticism and Ideology (1976), along with much praise, made withering criticism of Williams’s “pragmatism,” “muted intellectualism,” and “residual populism,” of his “provincialism,” “humanism,” and “idealism,” and of the deplorable “parody” he had given of the “classic relations between the revolutionary and the proletariat.”[2]

Williams adapted himself sartorially to the revolution as readily as Eagleton did, borrowing as his symbols the duffle coat, the leather jacket, and the Mosley-ite black sweater in which he was photographed in 19 82. But those who glamorize him as a proletarian should remember that modern England is a suburb in which rural working-class solidarity is anachronistic, and that Williams was in essence a “scholarship-boy"—one of the most important cultural categories in England in the last sixty years—who, like Mr. Enoch Powell, had risen through education but, unlike Mr. Powell, felt guilt about his elevation.

In the 1970s and 1980s Williams came to stand for feminism, ecology, Welsh nationalism, and for the armed struggle against imperialism in the Third World. In the 1950s and early 1960s—before he was carried away by the euphoria of the student revolution—he was symbolized by his schoolmaster’s tweeds; he embodied an earnest, secular version of the inherited decencies and resentments of Welsh nonconformity and the Welsh Labour movement; and he had as his leading intellectual characteristic the amiable but slightly rancid seriousness of a believer in culture and literature who displayed a puritan, or Marxist, mistrust of anyone who had power or position in education, politics, and society.

From the mid-1960s Williams was in continuous demand, wrote more than he ought to have done, and found outlets for almost everything that he wrote. One result was an endless oeuvre which dealt in the broadest way with culture, language, politics, and society. Another was that he repeated himself, became both fluent and reminiscent, and finally assumed the rectitude of opinions that he had originally felt obligated to argue for. In the three volumes published since his death, there are interesting essays and addresses about the Labour Left and the Labour Party, about the significance of modernism, and about the connections between popular opinion and the “ordinariness of culture.”[3] But “what he came to say”[4] has for so long been so obvious that only devoted disciples, hagiographers like Professor Alan O’Connor,[5] or mutually self-congratulatory old comrades like Professor Edward Said, who appears in both The Politics of Modernism[6] and the Eagleton memorial volume, will find very much to detain them.

Williams wrote at two levels—colloquially and self-confidently in confirming for audiences of his own persuasion the truths that they shared with him; opaquely and mistily in works that attempted to establish the truth and coherence of these persuasions. Intellectually he was without power; he wrote no work that persuaded by the cogency of its argument. His originality was an originality of manner: his achievement was to deploy ordinariness and reasonableness in recommending opinions that were neither ordinary nor reasonable, and that became entirely unreasonable in response to the nightmare of abnormality that swept the universities of the Western world when he was in his middle forties.

Williams’s ideas were few and simple. They had all been stated by 1977 and, even at their most emphatic, involved either retreats from positions he had seemed to be occupying earlier or accommodations to climates created by others. He may, as Eagleton claimed, have had an “intuitive knack of pre-empting intellectual positions,” but he was at least as good at picking up already existing positions, and it is difficult to believe that Culture and Society would have been as conservative as it was without the anti-revolutionary climate of the 1950s, or that the cultural Marxism of Marxism and Literature (1977) would have been achieved at all if others had not arrived at it earlier. It was also of first importance for Williams’s reputation that the young in the mid-1960s were willing to hear from an attractive lecturer who had working-class credentials and active service as an officer attached to the Coldstream Guards, and that what they wanted to be told was that revolution could be justified morally and intellectually, and the caution of Culture and Society swept aside by the violence that was advocated in Modern Tragedy (1966).

Williams was the son of a rural Welsh railwayman and went from a Welsh grammar school to read the Cambridge English Tripos at the end of the 1930s. He became a member of the Communist Party in his first year as an undergraduate and collaborated with Eric Hobsbawm—an undergraduate contemporary—in writing a pamphlet in defense of the Russian invasion of Finland. Two undergraduate years at Cambridge were followed by conscription into the British Army in 1941, active service as a tank officer during the Allied invasion of Europe, and a further undergraduate year at Cambridge when the war was over. After a short period spent editing small-circulation magazines in London, he settled first in Sussex and later in Oxford as a salaried lecturer for the Oxford Extra-Mural Delegacy (Oxford’s organization for adult education), expounding for the benefit of (putatively) working-class audiences that trust in culture and mistrust of capitalism, and that belief in D. H. Lawrence which some Marxists and ex-Marxists shared with the followers of F. R. Leavis,

On joining the army, Williams seems to have lost touch with the Communist Party. Later he became a supporter of the Labour Party, but appears for a long time to have been interested less in the political than in the cultural objections to capitalism. After the Labour defeat at the general election of 1966, he resigned from the Labour Party in protest against the elitist cynicism or ruling-class character of Mr. Harold Wilson’s leadership. In spite of resuming support for Labour later, he then became one of the half dozen or so freestanding Marxists who fostered the analytical outrage with which the English New Left and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament have embarrassed the Labour leaders, eased Mrs. Thatcher’s way electorally, and made the Labour party as unelectable as like-minded Democrats have made successive Democratic presidential candidates in the United States.

From an early stage, Williams wanted to be a writer rather than a don and a novelist as well as a critic, and from his first period in Cambridge was a journalist and public speaker. Public speaking and small-circulation journalism remained with him for the rest of his life, along with an interest in film and television, while Border Country (1960)—his first and only tolerable novel— gave confusing insights into what he was trying to say morally and politically.

Border Country gave a low-keyed account of relations between a father and a son. Though it dealt with politics, it was dominated not by politics but by gratitude, nostalgia, and death, and by its account of the idyllic solidarity of a rural Welsh village. The novel resisted the idea that the meritocratic son or the entrepreneurial trade unionist were better than the dying railwayman, and there was an anti-intellectual implication that a natural, unreconstructed, conservative way of life was more real than the academic way of life which the son had adopted.

Border Country, though published later, was written at the same time as Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim, which dealt with the academic problem from the academic end. But Amis had no experience he was willing to disclose in order to match the experience that Williams disclosed in Border Country, no yardstick except a satiric yardstick with which to compare a farcical university with the University of Oxford, and no more interest in explaining what he had learned from his mandarin education in Oxford than Williams had, as a novelist, in explaining what he had learned from his mandarin education in Cambridge.

In 1961 Williams returned to Cambridge for a third time, now as a lecturer (later a professor) in the Faculty of English. At the same time he became a fellow of Jesus College, to which he was brought by M. I. Finley, the American Marxist historian, who was a fellow of the college already. In a similar way, Williams himself was later to bring Eagleton, who, in five works published in his twenties in the atmosphere of Vatican II, expounded a liberationist Catholicism which, though it looked to “Marxist, Third-World, Black-power and Hippy intensity” for help in converting “monopoly capitalism” into a “just community,” stood in contradiction to Williams’s irreligion.

In a review of works by Eagleton and his collaborators in 1966, Williams gave a mistrustful welcome to “radical Catholicism’s” attempt to “find Christ in the world.” But nothing in the review or the rest of his writings suggests any interest in Christ or any wish to relate Christianity to the “civilized paganism” with which he half-identified himself then.

In Williams’s writings religion scarcely existed, and it was a central principle that a “common language” was more important than a “common faith.” At no point did he consider religion in its own terms, certainly not in The Long Revolution (1961), where it would have given backbone to boneless arguments, or in The Country and the City (1971) where the Church of England should have been of central significance, or in Culture and Society, where many of the thinkers discussed were obsessed by Christianity.

Williams’s mind was historical and meditative rather than theoretical, and such standing as he had as a theorist derived from Marxism and Literature, in which he woke up to the fact that Lukacs, Gramsci, Plekhanov, Goldmann, Althusser, Benjamin, Barthes, Chomsky, Brecht, and Sartre (among others) had created a cultural Marxism, and that the amalgamation of linguistics, semiology, and Freudian psychology into “cultural materialism” had liberated Marxism from the “deformations” associated with Stalinist practice.

Marxism and Literature denied that Marxism was reductive, or that Marx and Engels had had a rigid belief in a base/ superstructure model of culture. It underscored their emphasis on “creation and self-creation,” questioned the idea that they had made a simple equation of the “social” with the “collective,” and argued that Marxism could overcome the “reified” or “abstracted ... psychological” conception of determination based on “isolated modes of production” which was said to have been forced on it by capitalist society.

What this meant was that thought and culture were to be understood not as “distortion” or “disguise,” but as a Gramscian “hegemony” which “saturated the whole process of living” and came to exist “in the fibres of the self.” And this was important, however obscurely expressed, because it suggested that theory could develop a “general consciousness within what was experienced as an isolated consciousness,” and that “tradition,” which orthodox Marxism had normally dismissed as inertly “superstructural,” could now be seen to have been “the most evident” or “shaping expression” of “hegemonic pressures and limits.” In other words, that “theory” could be exonerated from the charge of being ineffectual and could meet the perennial Marxist demand for criticism that would “change the world.”

In the 1970s Williams was catching up— doing to Marxism what others had been doing in the 1950s and 1960s and what Carlyle, Matthew Arnold, and many others had been doing to Christianity between 1840 and 18 80—ridding it of features that made it unacceptable to the modern mind. But just as Carlyle, Arnold, and other fellow-laborers had thrown out so much of dogmatic Christianity that nothing distinctively Christian was left, so Marxism and Literature threw out so much of dogmatic Marxism that what was left was either vacuous and banal or not distinctively Marxist.

In this connection, there is no need for conservative thought to be afraid of Marxism or to fail to turn its insights to advantage. To take only one example, the idea of hegemony—even of class hegemony as an element in culture—can be deeply illuminating so long as it is understood that hegemony, though distressing for those who wish to have hegemonic authority but are excluded from it, is necessary in the modern world not only in the interests of peace and stability but also, where historic liberties and equalities have been established, in the interests of liberty and equality.

Williams was too limp a thinker to understand this as either a Marxist or a conservative truth, and wobbled uneasily between wishing to protect intellectual autonomy within a Marxist or socialist consciousness and accepting Mao Tse Tung’s vision of writers being absorbed into “new kinds of popular .. . collaborative writing.” So much so that the more closely one looks at Marxism and Literature, the more difficult it is to see what was left of Marxism, beyond the name, once Williams’s “complexities . . . tensions . . . shifts . . . uncertainties and confusions” had been applied to it as Carlyle and Arnold had applied theirs to Christianity.

If Marxism and Literature lacked bite and edge, it also carried Williams out of his depth. He had been much more in his depth in discussing the English situation that had led up to Culture and Society twenty years earlier. In Culture and Society, English society had been the victim of the cultural corruption of which Leavis had made himself the enemy, industrial society had been the enemy of both culture and community, and the English language—the only real guarantor of community—was being emasculated by the class-oriented imposition of Standard English. Culture and Society took the form of critical exposition of the social doctrine that Williams found in approximately fifty British thinkers since Burke, and in making his critical dispositions he worked with three conceptions. First, that English society before the eighteenth century had been “organic,” however defective it had been in humanity; second, that the English thinkers with whom it dealt had been reacting primarily to the upheaval created by industrialization and democracy; and, finally, that “culture” had provided these thinkers with a “court of appeal” and a “scale of integrity” for evaluating the “way of life” and “driven impulse” of the new kind of society that had been “reaching for control.” Burke and Southey from one side, and Owen and Cobbett from the other, were shown writing from their experience of “the old England” in criticism of the new. “One kind of conservative thinker” and “one kind of socialist thinker” were shown uniting subsequently to criticize laissez-faire ideology by reference to the life of society as a whole, and “organic” was declared to be a central term through which “Marxist thinking” and “conservative thinking” could identify “liberalism” as the common enemy in the 1960s. It was hardly surprising, in these circumstances, that William Morris was said to be “pivotal,” since he, more than anyone else—according to Williams—had found a political role for art and culture in contrasting with established forms of life the possibility of an alternative form of life in the future.

In the closing pages of Culture and Society Williams made the first widely read statement of his political opinions, defending a “democratic attitude” against “fear and hatred” and inserting into the aging socialism of the 1950s a Luddite or Leavisite version of the resentments of the 1930s. Williams did not have to invent for himself the working-class persona which public-school Marxists like Auden and Spender (or an alienated Etonian like Orwell) had had to invent for themselves twenty-five years earlier, and he was thus in a better position to write sympathetically about the “ethic of service” and “real personal selflessness” which had been inculcated by the public schools, the professions, and the regular army. On the other hand, he attacked the scholarship “ladder” which working-class boys like himself had been able to “climb,” denouncing it not only because it “sweetened the poison of hierarchy” but also because it pretended that the “hierarchy of merit” was different from the “hierarchy of birth and wealth,” when in fact both were hierarchies (or elites) that were diminishing “community” and obstructing the “effort” that “every man” ought to make to value his own skill and the “skill of others.”

In Culture and Society Williams did not advocate violent revolution, which it would have been ridiculous to do in England in 1958. What he said instead was that democracy was “in danger,” that there was a “sullenness” and “withdrawal” which would end in the “unofficial democracy” of the “armed revolt” if they were not dealt with, and that the only way to deal with them was to deprive newspapers, television, cinema, and radio of the “dominative character” that was enabling the “insincerity of a minority” bent on protecting its own culture and power to persuade the masses to “act, think and know as it wished them to.”

About equality Culture and Society was vague. “A common culture” was not “at any level an equal culture,” there was no need for equality in “personal property” or for equality of “knowledge, skill and effort,” since “a physicist would be glad to learn from a better physicist” and “a good physicist” would not think himself “a better man than a good composer. . . chess player . .. carpenter or runner.” Equality was, nevertheless, crucial, and societies from which it was missing were said not only to “depersonalize . . . and degrade” but also— as though Japan had never existed—to raise “structures of cruelty and exploitation” that “crippled human energy.”

Williams was a class warrior as surely as Orwell had been. He had Orwell’s sense of complexity, and also Orwell’s mistrust of panaceas. In the discouraging circumstances of 1958, his virtuous but self-defeating conclusions were that freedom was “unplan-nable,” that the “human crisis” was always a “crisis of understanding,” and that culture was a “natural growth” which could only be achieved by comprehending the “long revolution” that had been going on since the eighteenth century “at a level of meaning which it was not easy to reach.”

Culture and Society supplied an historical and theoretical basis from which The Long Revolution vacuously, Communications (1962) piously, and the May Day Manifesto of 1967 politically, deduced policy conclusions about the ways in which public ownership and control could make the media minister to a common culture. These did not, however, expand the structure that Culture and Society had established. It was only in Modern Tragedy that expansion was effected.

Like Culture and Society, Modern Tragedy discussed texts—the main tragic texts and texts about tragic theory that had been written in Europe and the United States since Ibsen—and extracted from them a political message about the inadequacy of individuation and about the desirability of revolution.

Modem Tragedy was written in a dense, coded prose. Decoded, it manifests the confusion between the cultural elite and the people which was a feature of Williams’s doctrine throughout his work and which became particularly troublesome in this book, where dramatic and fictional tragedy were presented as realizations of the “shape and set” of modern “culture,” and the dramatists and novelists who had produced it were assumed to represent “our” minds and experience.

This thesis was both elitist and anti-elitist, naive about the prospect of bridging the gap between the cultural elite and the people, but emphasizing the affiliations that kept Williams, as a member of the former, in conscious empathy with the latter. The effect was nevertheless odd, implying that Strindberg, Brecht, and Arthur Miller, for example, were not arcane, and amalgamating the “we” who went to their plays or listened to Williams’s lectures in Cambridge with the “we” who had been described appreciatively in Border Country. However deep Williams’s desire was to make “critical discrimination” relevant to the people among whom he had grown up, moreover, it neglected the consideration that critical discrimination was in fact a minority activity which spoke meaningfully only to those who had already heard Leavis’s voice.

In Drama from Ibsen to Eliot (1952) Williams had criticized the English theater as a manifestation of literary decline and for failing to achieve either “the communication” of an “experience” and a “radical reading of life,” or that “total performance” which reflected “changes in the structure of feeling as a whole.” In Modem Tragedy the central contentions were that “liberal” tragedy, while being liberal because it emphasized the “surpassing individual,” and tragic because it recorded his defeat by society or the universe, reflected the inability of the money-oriented privacy of the bourgeois ethic to provide a “positive” conception of society. It was the “individualfight against the lie” embodied in “false relationships, a false society and a false conception of man” that Ibsen had made central, but it was the liberal martyrs’ discovery of the lie in themselves and their failure to relate themselves to a “social” consciousness that heralded the “breakdown of liberalism” and the need to replace its belief in the primacy of “individualist” desire and aspiration by a socialist perception of the primacy of “common” desire and aspiration.

Williams wished to give tragic theory a social function. He pointed out that “significant suffering” was not confined to persons of “rank,” and that personal belief, faults in the soul, “God,” “death,” and the “individual will,” which had been central to the tragic experience of the past, were not central to the tragic experience of the present. It was the “human agency” and “ethical control” manifested in revolution and the “deep social crisis through which we had all been living” that were the proper subjects of “modern” tragedy, and it was human agency and ethical control that tragic theory needed to accommodate.

The first point that had to be explained was the Burkean point that revolution caused suffering. The second point was the anti-Burkean point that revolution was not the only cause of suffering, that suffering was “in the whole action” of which “revolution” was only “the crisis,” and that it was suffering as an aspect of the “wholeness” of the action that needed to be considered. And this, of course, disclosed the real agenda in Modern Tragedy—the use of tragic texts to formulate a socialist theory of tragedy in which revolution would receive a literary justification and society would become more important than the individual.

In all this Williams was moving out from the defensiveness of Culture and Society and making a central feature of the argument that, when the revolutionary process was complete, “revolution” would become “epic,” suffering would be “justified,” and pre-revolutionary institutions, so far from being the “settled . . . innocent order” that they had claimed to be, would be seen to have been rooted in “violence and disorder.” This was the route by which tragedy and tragic theory could remove cynicism and despair, could give revolution the “tragic” perspective that Marx had given it, and could show what tragedy had hitherto failed to show, that “degeneration, brutalization, fear, hatred and envy” were endemic in existing society’s “tragic” failure to “incorporate . . . all its people as whole human beings.” It was also the route by which tragedy and tragic theory could incorporate the fact that further “degeneration, brutalization, fear, hatred and envy” would be integral to the “whole action"^-not just to the “crisis” and the revolutionary energy released by it or the “new kinds of alienation” which the revolution against alienation would have to “overcome ... if it was to remain revolutionary,” but also, and supremely, to the connection between “terror” and “liberation.”

Williams’s rhetoric was ruthless, and yet in retrospect looks faintly silly. Nor were the tasks that he attributed to tragic theory plausible. It remains true, nevertheless, that Modern Tragedy, while reiterating the formal denial that revolution was to be identified with the violent capture of power and identifying it rather as a “change ... in the deepest structure of relationships and feelings,” implied, more than any other of Williams’s works, a circuitous but indubitably evil attempt to encourage the young to think of violence as morally reputable.[7]

In evaluating Williams, one wishes to be just. He should not be dismissed merely because his followers have helped to keep their party out of office, since many of them, and perhaps he also, regarded party politics as merely a convenient way of inserting their moral messages into the public mind. Like the theorists of the student revolution of the Sixties, Williams was “against liberalism,” but those who are against liberalism for conservative reasons do not need his sort of support. They should not be misled by the “organicism” of Culture and Society, which ignored the moral solidarity of twentieth-century English society and used the language of solidarity in order to subvert such solidarity as monarchy and two world wars had created by denying that it existed.

In later life Williams made something of the malice he claimed to have encountered on his final return to Cambridge in 1961 from what he thought of as its middle-class establishment, and contrasted its brassiness and careerism with the cultural superiority of the community in which he had grown up. The review of The Long Revolution that appeared in The Cambridge Review in May 1961,[8] and which Williams found it convenient to attribute to such an establishment, was written in fact by a conservative dissident who believed no less than Williams in the desirability of moral solidarity, but thought it vulgar and hypocritical to pretend that Williams’s working-class background and experience of adult education around the Sussex Downs exempted him from the elitist character inseparable from occupancy of a tenured appointment in a serious university. Indeed, the animus behind the review, which Professor Alan O’Connor describes as “icy,” was the belief that those who benefit from such appointments have a duty to expose humbug rather than to disseminate it, and that the quality in Williams’s thinking which a recent reviewer in the Times Literary Supplement (Chris Baldick, in the November 3-9, 1989 issue) described as its “extending humanistic impulse,” was more properly described as an “innocence about the scope of political activity, ignorance of the diversity of contemporary society, and capacity for ignoring the quality of life of those of whose condition... Williams ... had no experience which ought... to have disabled a prophet of that ‘better human order’ which he sought to bring before us.”

The writer of the review did not know then that there was to be a student revolution, or that Williams was to be one of its sages. But he was right to believe—and he repeats now—that Williams’s condemnation of existing society was a trick, that it raised expectations for the future by ignoring the expectations that were fulfiliable already, and claimed academic or tragic authority for its condemnation of existing capitalist society while being uncritical about the prospect of an imagined post-capitalist society in the future. Who but the theorist of a “children’s crusade” would justify the infliction of pain and suffering on the off chance that the pain and suffering entailed in existing hegemonies might be replaced by a hegemony from which pain and suffering had been eliminated? And is it not good to know that from one “mighty voice” at least there will in the future be no fresh misrepresentations of the nature of power, and the duties and responsibilities of power and position?


Williams is best understood as the politicizer of Leavis, the man who, while he criticized Leavis, brought him out of the closet and converted “critical discrimination” into a set of Marxist slogans. Williams lacked Leavis’s power and his pretense that critical discrimination was not political. He also lacked Eagleton’s fluency and intelligence, and the intellectual brutality that has saved Eagleton from being merely the playboy of the movement of the 1960s.

Mr. Neil Kinnock is already imposing on the socialism of the English Labour Party a moralistic liberalism to which Williams’s mistiness is so eminently conformable that his influence may well survive the 1960s. Nevertheless, it is Williams, among others, whom Mr. Kinnock is emasculating. It is the violent and revolutionary nature of the doctrine that Williams shared with these others in those years which is being abandoned, and it is for this reason that this article has highlighted the content of the doctrine that he preached then to a generation for whom it was “bliss to be alive” at that odious moment.

  1. Raymond Williams, Critical Perspectives, edited by Terry Eagleton; Northeastern University Press, 235 pages, $35. Go back to the text.
  2. From Criticism and Ideology: A Study in Marxist Literary Theory, by Terry Eagleton (New Left Books, pages 32-35). Go back to the text.
  3. Resources of Hope, by Raymond Williams, edited by Robin Gable; Verso, 334 pages, $50; $16.95 paper. Go back to the text.
  4. What I Came To Say, by Raymond Williams; Hutchinson Radius, 280 pages, $21.95. Go back to the text.
  5. Raymond Williams, Writing, Culture, Politics, by Alan O’Connor; Basil Blackwell, 180 pages, $39.95. Go back to the text.
  6. The Politics of Modernism, by Raymond Williams, edited by Tony Pinkney; Verso, 200 pages, $49.95. Go back to the text.
  7. Williams's Afterword to Modern Tragedy is reprinted in The Politics of Modernism, page 95. Go back to the text.
  8. “Mr. Raymond Williams,” by Maurice Cowling; The Cambridge Review, May 27, 1961; pages 546-551. Go back to the text.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 8 Number 6, on page 10
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