Politics and Letters: Interviews with ‘New Left Review’ 
by Raymond Williams.
New Left Books, 446 pp., £12.75, September 1980, 0 86091 000 8
Show More
Show More

The relation between politics and letters is necessarily a dangerous liaison, and the questions which it raises are huge, blunt and disobliging. Acknowledged too readily, it is apt to highlight the less becoming features in each. But its potential for treachery is probably greatest when its existence is most vehemently denied. If imagination and the exercise of power were ever simple antinomies in human life, the relation could perhaps be avoided in principle. But to suppose that they often are (or even could be) is to sentimentalise both power and imagination, conceiving the former negatively (as intrinsically oppressive) and the latter positively (as intrinsically ‘liberating’). Raymond Williams has made a more persistent attempt to grasp the nature of this relation than any living British writer and has certainly avoided sentimentalising imagination, even if his conception of power has proved rather more equivocal. In the present volume he is interviewed by a trio from the New Left Review on his motives for making this attempt, and on the degree of success which has attended his efforts.

The result certainly has its mauvais quarts d’heure. But much of it is absorbing to read and the final effect of the whole is arresting. That this could be so is, of course, a notable tribute to Williams himself. But responsibility for the balance between interest and longueurs is shared fairly evenly between all participants. The tone throughout is solemn in the extreme. The weeks of conversation from which the text has been prepared must have had their lighter moments. But in the four hundred pages of the text itself scarcely a single joke has been permitted to survive. Levity is thus cast firmly, if tacitly, as the lackey of power. Confronting power is no joking matter. The effect aimed at is one of conscientious frankness (an exigent ideal). But the effect achieved is occasionally rather different: sometimes it is hectoring, at other times there is an embarrassed mumbling. The NLR team present the format of their dialogue with magisterial confidence: a superior form of the interview – itself, they claim, ‘historically an invention of modern journalism’. Here they make a clear error in the history of genre: the type of interview which they administer (one which avoids the ‘artificial reticence’ of permitting the victim to do most of the talking) was extensively pioneered some centuries earlier by the Holy Office. With unflagging didactic zeal, they take Williams through his intellectual biography, from his upbringing in a sparsely-peopled Welsh border parish (a setting, as the Inquisitors unerringly discern, ‘very abstracted from the normal environment of the modern urban proletariat’) to his present situation as a professor of English at Cambridge (a setting scarcely less abstracted). Some of the exchanges recorded are stilted and sanctimonious: ‘Every socialist should have the strongest sympathy with that.’ ‘We are in total sympathy with that statement.’ But much of the dialogue is extremely interesting, and its cumulative effect greatly illuminates the development of Williams’s thinking and feeling.

What it brings out most strikingly is the intimate connection between the life which Williams has tried to live and the scope of what he has contrived to understand. It is this connection – the connection between social experience and imaginative grasp – which, reflexively in his own case but more directly and generally in the case of others, Williams has above all else sought to comprehend. Simply as a subject-matter, it would be hard to pick a more comprehensive and elusive target for one’s thought. But Williams himself has not sought this understanding simply for its own sake, but rather, to speak crassly, for what politically can be got out of it, for the services which it may offer in orientating and confirming political commitments which he judges beneficent. These preoccupations leave him with a complex and not altogether harmonious set of purposes, and one which he plainly finds almost as difficult to keep clear in his own mind as his readers do in theirs. But they also leave him alert to much which most of us most of the time manage to ignore.

The general puzzle at issue in his thought can be seen in two ways: in terms of the connection between identity and understanding, and in terms of the social (the human) meaning of imaginative creation. Because identity is always social as well as personal, it is always for its bearer (an individual or even a class) both a resource in understanding and an impediment to understanding, laying some prospects effortlessly open to our cognitive grasp and shutting off others with at least equal firmness. Between what we can scarcely help experiencing and what we simply could not experience, however hard we tried, there is, naturally (culturally), a very large space, the space within which cultural and political entrepreneurship can operate effectively and individual moral and aesthetic effort can be rationally hoped for and undertaken. (It is also the space, if one cares to look at it in those terms, within which men make their history.) But however large it may be (however open history is), the space is always a bounded space. Not merely in their external circumstances but even in their powers of understanding, all human beings are embodied instances of moral and aesthetic good or bad luck. Seen from the vantage-point of personal identity, imaginative creation, ‘Letters’ (or literature), for example, is always a form of pressure, an exercise of causal force; and the key judgment which it requires of those on whom it is exerted is always whether it is on balance malign or beneficial. However intricate and profound an instance of imaginative creation may be, it exists at any time within a field of power, the capacity of some human beings to shape the lives of others, and, however marginally (usually very marginally indeed), it acts upon this field. The historically given choice is not ‘politics or letters’, but ‘letters in the service of what politics?’ For imagination is always in the service of some social forces, and its services are not necessarily the less effective or the more benign for being inadvertent.

It is easy to derive from these ideas conclusions which are very vulgar and fatuous, and sometimes very vicious too (as Soviet history has shown). But such conclusions are not validly derived; and their invalid derivation can hardly diminish either the importance or the difficulty of distinguishing, as Williams seeks to, the malign from the beneficial. Put very bluntly (with conscientious frankness), what Williams is attempting is a venture which is profoundly honourable. But because of the universality of its scope and the very partial resources which any single individual could bring to bear upon it, the honour due to his success is unlikely in principle quite to match that due to the venture itself. Only a very confident person could attempt such a venture so overtly. To consent to be seen publiclyattempting it is by implication to proclaim one’s self-confidence well-founded. How, it might be asked, could anyone have the nerve? Well, one obvious strategy for mustering the nerve is to derive the self-confidence from a confident identification (‘affiliation’ is the term Williams uses) with some social focus of value external to oneself, the Republic of Letters perhaps, or the proletariat. But this strategy is in the end a little too obvious, since it readily and rather transparently licenses in another form just that imaginative self-righteousness which it is the purpose of the venture to place in question and, after due chastening, in some form to vindicate.

The confidence which lies behind Williams’s own life, Politics and Letters makes clear, is in the end a confidence in his own emotions and in the stable essence (if more fluid incarnation) of the negative objects of these: ‘the bosses’, capitalism etc. (The ‘immediate enemy’ is sometimes difficult to identify. But the ultimate enemy, however named, is reassuringly stable. An old and cherished enemy can be a self’s best friend.) This confidence is still firmly rooted in his community of origin, even if its expression is now lightly masked by an insistence on the ‘difficulty’ of political and cultural judgment. The major casualty of this insistence is Williams’s prose. What may indeed be complexity in the phenomena often comes out in this prose merely as a portentous haze. But when the haze is penetrated, some things remain exceedingly simple.

What Williams trusts in is the truths of his own experience. It is this trust which shapes the pattern of most of the exchanges with his interviewers. All participants in the dialogue share a large number of beliefs. But there is a marked difference in the ways in which the two parties to the dialogue present their beliefs. The NLR trio, speaking as a single voice, sustain their views as an elaborate and comprehensive system, professionally concerned, apparently, as intellectuals to establish (or in their less dogmatic moments to restore) its coherence, and to extend its scope. Williams is decidedly less preoccupied with coherence and clearly draws little distinction between what he believes to be true and his sense of his own life. It is the incapacity or perhaps the refusal to draw any such distinction which underlies both the strengths and the weaknesses of his thinking.

A striking instance of this contrast in imaginative perspective between the two parties emerges in the treatment of Williams’s wartime experiences. As a tank officer in the Guards Armoured Division, disorientated, and devastatingly at risk in the Normandy bocage, but keenly aware of his control over fearsome destructive power, Williams firmly endorses Tolstoy’s vision of the nature of battle; and, in doing so, positions himself against the poised General Staff perspective on the shape and significance of the war (along with most other aspects of the historical process) which his Inquisitors display. The pragmatic lesson which he draws from the experience, the formidable repressive capacity of a modern army when directed against a community from the outside, can be accommodated with ease within either perspective. But on Williams himself the impact of this important pragmatic lesson seems clearly secondary to the power which the tank as an image of condensed and wholly inhuman violence now exercises over his imagination. The role of the tank in the recent history of Russian hegemony has resonances which, for him, are clearly hard to resist; and since his capacity to endorse other aspects of Russian history is rather greater than some would find excusable, the charge which this symbol carries for him may perhaps be seen as an instance of aesthetic good luck.

The question which haunts him, both intellectually and politically, is in a sense very innocent – perhaps deplorably innocent, perhaps impressively so: ‘What is the meaning of solidarity?’ The quest for solidarity (the Modern Grail?) is the quest for a relation between self and power which is objectively morally sound. In this quest, his heuristic commitment is now rather evident. What he sets himself to do as a student of literary creation is not simply to apply a Marxist rubric of explanation and assessment to an inert subject-matter, but in addition to see and feel this subject-matter in the very extended human context in which it was engendered, sensing the weight of suffering in human history and seeking to locate and fathom the ‘vast areas of silence’, in the present as well as in the past, of which this history is largely composed. The book in which he does this most conspicuously is The Country and the City, which attempts, among other things, to set a certain type of pastoral poetry within the history of a countryside. The sense which he wishes to restore is the understanding that the setting of the lives of the majority of human beings who have ever lived, and indeed of the majority of human beings who are alive now, is a rural setting, and that the reality of this setting (the reality of the lives of most human beings) is one which the great bulk of elaborated imaginative creation has grossly traduced.

This determined stress on socially-extended experience has profound advantages for an inquirer into the political and social (the human) meaning of imaginative creation. (It is in the end human experience which serves as criterion for the merit of social and political institutions.) But the emphasis does have its dangers. Within whatever outer limits nature may set to it, the content of human historical experience is extensively distorted, both cognitively and evaluatively, by the defects of social and political institutions. Williams’s insistence on the priority of experience (a habit of mind, not a theoretical affirmation) as opposed to abstracting analytic thought places him, as his interrogators repeatedly point out, in constant danger of ceasing to be a Marxist. But it also helps to secure him, in contrast to those who are merely the intellectually efficient bearers of Marxism as a belief system, from a number of other and not plainly more trivial dangers. For the most part he holds the tension between allegiance and understanding with some skill. But occasionally, on the whole in the ‘revolutionary’ politics of exotic locations, the tension is released and the General Staff HQ perspective adopted. Solidarity with the peasantry scarcely sanctions anyone in being so responsive to the charms of the ‘hard line’ in 1920s Russia or 1970s Kampuchea. (Even the Inquisitors show signs of perturbation in the face of Williams’s perception of the aftermath of the first fall of Phnom Penh: some clear distortion, here, in sensing the weight of suffering.)

But it is not the intense subjectivity of his search for solidarity which is the weakest feature of Williams’s thinking, so much as the unevenness of his political judgment. Everyone who engages in political judgment makes mistakes, and Williams (under the encouragement of the Inquisitors) readily admits to a good many. (The Inquisitors, as befits their office, speak by contrast as though they had no past to regret.) But what Williams still asserts about political questions – most notably on the possibilities of modern states simply becoming participatory democracies – still sometimes looks rather evidently mistaken. In this area, too, he is apt to presume that to register ‘difficulty’ is somehow to be well on the way towards surmounting it. Here his preoccupation with solidarity is perhaps particularly misleading. For solidarity, however hard to identify with precision, is essentially a matter of personal subjective orientation, a matter of good intentions. But in politics consequences are always at least as important as intentions; and Williams’s sense of what he favours furnishes no grounds whatever in itself for supposing that these ‘difficulties’ can be surmounted even in principle (i.e. that we can even coherently conceive of their being surmounted), let alone that they are at all likely to be surmounted in practice as a result of any set of human historical performances – and more particularly, performances of the type with which Williams’s political sensibility inclines him to align himself. Politics and Letters offers us no reason whatever (apart from an impressive individual obstinacy and the historically privileged upbringing which has made this possible) for supposing that socialism as he conceives it is even possible. A number of Williams’s pronouncements on these topics in recent years (for example, on the arguments of Leszek Kolakowski) have been inexcusably haughty and intellectually disingenuous. The judgments themselves are unconvincing and the reasons which he has given for believing them sound are even less convincing. The quest for solidarity, insufficiently disciplined by regard for consequence, comes out at its worst as a process of self-deception. This effect is the more regrettable because in some ways Williams has made such an outstanding success of his quest, and because, however muffled his expression of it may sometimes have been, he has mustered through it a more forceful and comprehensive vision of what there is to set oneself against in British society and polity today than any other single thinker.

The charge of self-deception is a political charge. But it need not reflect a difference of goal so much as a difference of expectations. If imaginative creation and the experience which it makes possible are, most urgently, a matter of disciplining the self to face human life as it is, no self can be a privileged location from which to judge it. We all have to judge its impact as best we can. The conception of a site from which judgment can finally and authoritatively be delivered, an absolute standpoint, is not merely (as Marxists are perhaps over-eager to point out) a standpoint outside history, it is also a standpoint which it is not open to any self in its entirety to occupy. It may be that Williams’s judgments fail in the last analysis to give to imagination quite the weight to which it is politically entitled, and that it is this failure which makes his solidarities sometimes a little too ready and his expectations sometimes a lot too optimistic. But if everyone can and must judge such matters for himself, it is as well for all to remember that they stand an excellent chance of being wrong. At their worst, Williams and his interlocutors show a stunning moral complacency: but without some zone of subjective complacency it is hard to see how there could be a self capable of judging at all. Politics and Letters will irritate those who judge differently. But even to them it will make markedly clearer the range and force of Williams’s thinking as a whole, the type of integrity which lies behind it, and the courage and labour which have gone into it. What he lacks in incisiveness, he often makes up for in a wholly unmodish good sense and breadth of feeling. In the curious spectrum of New Left Review inspirations (from Adorno and Althusser to Williams himself), the voice from the border country can more than hold its own with the intimations from Cosmopolis.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences