Raymond Williams’s death in January 1988 has been followed by an avalanche of obituarial tribute. To some extent, the tributes were a matter of the Left giving a last, sad cheer for one of its most versatile and prolific heroes. Alan O’Connor’s bibliography of works by and about Williams covers an extraordinary 47 pages and includes 29 critical works, five novels, five short stories and five plays by Williams (which, together, have sold over a million copies in Britain alone), as well as perhaps a thousand articles.
Williams was, indeed, a quite compulsive writer, almost a chronic writer. As a young working-class scholarship boy up at Cambridge, he seems to have decided, like not a few Welshmen before and after him, that the way to storm this alien citadel was to overwhelm it with a tide of wordy socialism. As an undergraduate Communist, he wrote his first pamphlet (with Eric Hobsbawm) – a defence of the Soviet invasion of Finland – and wrote prolifically for university magazines as well as editing the University’s Socialist Club Journal. On being called up, he soon decided that what his regiment (the 21st Anti-Tank) really needed was a weekly newspaper – which he edited. On returning to Cambridge after the war as a postgraduate, he seems to have had none of the normal ex-serviceman’s determination to make up for lost time by sticking narrowly to academic work: he decided to launch and edit not one but two journals, wrote a novel, set up a press and produced a film outline. The failure of these and many other projects never stopped the frenetic flow for long. On his move back to Cambridge to take up a fellowship in 1961, he and his wife immediately became active in the Cambridgeshire Labour Party. Amidst the strains of settling into a new job and teaching a new syllabus – and while maintaining a flow of publications on other subjects – he decided that what his constituency party needed was – yes, you’ve guessed – a monthly journal which, predictably, he and his wife edited (and which, just as predictably, soon got on the wrong side of Transport House).
Jan Gorak, in his excellent little book, notes an obsessive quality in much of Williams’s work: obsession with Orwell, with fighting ‘official culture’, with Ibsen, and, perhaps most of all, with his own immense literary ambition. The great drawback of this sort of headlong productivity is that it doesn’t leave much time to read other people. Gorak, noting Williams’s ‘heady disregard for competing – or even supporting – documentation’, suggests that ‘Williams’s greatest source of intellectual development was probably Williams,’ and points out that great chunks of Williams’s work turn up in later books as ‘an unmoulded foreign presence’. Sometimes the same material is presented as part of separate books printed as little as two years apart, but one also finds, for example, his chapter ‘Britain in the Sixties’, originally printed as part of The Long Revolution (1961), forming part of Towards 2000 (1979). Gorak’s verdict – that ‘these repetitions perhaps represent his bid to reaffirm the integrity of the initial investigation, to underscore the authenticity of his credentials as a writer’ – seems too kind.
Alan O’Connor’s appreciation of Williams, despite its strangely wooden, distant quality, sheds more light on his lengthy (1946-61) involvement with the WEA than does anyone else – though still not enough. In particular, one would like to know more of how Williams saw his own career, which, for all his radical Welsh working-class roots, ended as it began, under the shadow of Oxbridge. For, after Cambridge and the war, Williams was one of a notable band recruited to the Oxford Extra-Mural Delegacy by Thomas Hodgkin. Thomas, who was my dearly beloved tutor and friend, often described to me, not without bitterness, how the Delegacy fell victim to an early form of British McCarthyism. Many of those Thomas employed were, like Williams, socialists or Communists (as Thomas himself had been), and though, under their collective impulsion, adult education in Oxford thrived as never before, the Delegacy was publicly attacked by, among others, Ernie Bevin, as a dangerous nest of Communists intent on the subversion of the Morris Motor works, Oxford University and much else besides. The University, startled at finding itself accused – by a Labour government, at that – of harbouring leftists, cracked down hard, and the Delegacy was ruthlessly purged. Williams must have been near the centre of this purge but what sort of role he played we do not know – neither he nor his biographers ever mention it at all. One cannot but wonder how this display of Establishment ruthlessness changed the regard of the young Raymond Williams for the genteel pretensions of Oxbridge, a world he had found friendly enough till then. The only clue we have as to how he worked his way through this period was the reason he gave for his full-blown commitment to Labour politics in the Sixties: intellectuals, he said, must avoid the sort of self-exile to which they had relegated themselves under the last Labour government.
During the Fifties, Williams devoted himself essentially to works of literary criticism. Despite the claims made for Williams as a ‘socialist theorist of culture’, most of this writing stems from a Cambridge literary world dominated by the arch-conservative figure of Leavis. Hence the fact that Williams’s two most important works, Culture and Society and The Long Revolution, do not really sustain the large ideological weight later placed upon them. Gorak rightly refers to ‘the cautious quietism’ of the former work, which treated a whole succession of conservative writers from Burke to Leavis with a gentle liberal sympathy. It was only in the latter (and lesser) work that Williams hit the nerve that mattered with his insistent demand for a ‘common culture’. For, much as he was drawn back to ‘high culture’, Williams could not but be conscious of how embedded in the ruling-class world such a culture was – a world from which he felt deeply alienated. And while, on the other hand, he was willing to treat the tabloid culture of the working classes with unusual seriousness, he was deeply repelled by its shallow I’m-all-right-Jack materialism. His proposals for somehow uniting the cultures and releasing the creative energies which would transform them never amounted to much, but his loud cry of double alienation struck a chord with a whole new post-war generation of intellectuals.
Buoyed by this success, Williams emerged in the Sixties as an intellectual hero of the New Left. Because this was a Left which placed the highest importance on theory, his leadership role was rationalised by his followers as deriving from his contribution to theory – still a potent refrain in the tide of essentially fan-club books listed above. But he was not a major or even a very coherent theorist – his writing is too personal, too wishful, too testamentary for that. In reality, he was a hero to the New Left for other reasons: because his stress on the significance of popular culture connected powerfully with a hitherto half-guilty fascination with that culture on the part of the first television generation; because it was nice to have someone in a respected position on your side; and because Williams seems to have been so gentle and accepting of this younger generation, even taking his displacement from the board of New Left Review in 1963 with the good grace that E.P. Thompson, for example, seems to have found difficult to muster.
With the Sixties Williams embarked decisively on a career as a political writer which he pursued until his death. Really, one feels, his heart was always in the politics of what he wrote about – the one good book he wrote in this later period was on the essentially political Orwell. And it is now his political writings for which his disciples make the largest claims. My contention would be that this is a large mistake and that Williams more nearly represents, as Michael Walzer puts it, ‘the failure of English political writing’. As usual, one glimpses the man best through his essays, a fair selection of which are published in Resources of Hope.
It is fair to say that many of the essays in Resources of Hope blend into one another in an almost seamless way. This is, though, not altogether a compliment, for many of them have a dreamy sameness, a sort of lilting Welsh lamentation over Labour’s shattered hopes in the Eighties, though ending always on the same note of dogged and defiant hope. The style is quite clearly that of the Welsh Nonconformist chapel and there is a quality of cadence and incantation, of necessary mentions and equally necessary silences, to many of the essays. It is a lofty, literary style, full of feeling, rich in reference but largely empty of fact. It involves a sort of stroking of the audience – the faithful only, for these essays are not written to convince outsiders or even neutrals. Many of the tributes to Williams after his death struck the same sort of note. Terry Eagleton, a Williams disciple, reviewing Resources of Hope for the Observer, stroked his audience with certain ritual keywords, just as Williams always did:
One of Williams’s most striking qualities as a writer is a rare combination of reason and feeling. Throughout his work, a toughly analytic mind is fuelled by the rich emotional resources of the creative writer; and the political expression of this is a remarkable blending of vision and realism. These essays unite a steady humanistic faith in the possibility of socialism with a steely refusal of sentimental illusion ... Williams is more emotionally candid than many a political commentator, he is also more sober and sardonic.
If you analyse this, it’s just guff. All of us are, if you think about it, combinations of reason and feeling, just as all political perspectives are blendings of vision and realism, however conceived. And it is élitist nonsense to suppose that creative writers have special or especially rich emotional resources. As for that steady faith – here the chapel lights flicker in mute witness – well, Williams never actually spells out what socialism is for him. It seems, in the great tradition of British wooziness, to be all about values and community and wholeness: in a word, Christian socialism and brown bread.
Now listen to Williams on ‘Problems of the Coming Period’, originally a talk given just before the 1983 Election. Thatcher, he argues, has not really achieved an intellectual hegemony. If you take the percentage of people who are going to vote Tory, ‘from that figure, somewhere in the middle forties, you have to deduct another figure. It’s difficult to put it in exact quantity, but it would be well over 30 per cent, it might be higher, which would vote Conservative if the Conservative Party were led by Prior, Pym, Gilmour, Heath or whoever.’ So Thatcherism has no majority; it exists ‘at the level of 10 or 15 per cent, whatever it may really be’. Now, if one is going to launch forth as a speaker and writer in political analysis, this won’t do. The polls provide exact figures about the Tory vote and about what percentages favour this or that policy option, and one needs to be able to cite those figures. Secondly, this idea of deducting a dreamt-up 30 per cent is pure play – in this case, a literary gent playing with political sociology, rather like Alec Douglas-Home doing his economics with matches. And finally, Williams ought to know that cultural, intellectual and political change is indeed effected by minorities – often by minorities so small as to make his imaginary 10 or 15 per cent a very big number. There is not much sign here of a ‘remarkable blend of realism’, let alone a ‘steely refusal of sentimental illusion’.
Literary-gent amateurishness is one thing: a far more important hollowness in the Williams perspective becomes apparent if one examines his ‘Mining the Meaning: Key Words in the Miners’ Strike’ (1985). The key words he chooses are ‘the right to manage’, ‘economic’, ‘community’, and ‘law and order’ – with fairly predictable polemical results. Williams stands passionately behind the then striking NUM. For him, the strike is about a quite sacred issue, ‘an issue which should be at the centre of the whole socialist project. This is the claim of workers to control not only the wages and conditions, but also the very nature of their work. The human substance of this claim is absolute.’ There is then a lot of similarly heated discussion of community and how the strike, far from being the last kick of an old order, ‘is one of the first steps towards a new order’. Law and order are, of course, all about requiring a simple obedience to authority from the miners, and this is contrasted with the better sort of order preferred by the strikers: ‘a way of life chosen by a substantial majority of its citizens’. There is not the slightest hint that the NUM leadership had not allowed a vote on the strike; that it had required obedience to its authority; that there was not here something ‘chosen by a substantial majority’, that the ‘community’ of miners had not been allowed to decide; and that far from having control over their wages, conditions and work, the miners were not being allowed democratic control over the activities of their own union. There is no mention, no breath of the fact that a substantial minority of miners had broken away over the issue of the denial of democracy, and that some had suffered violence as a result.
Most of the real meat gets compressed into a final elliptical statement: ‘As the strike ends, there will be many other things to discuss and argue about: tactics, timing and doubtless personalities. But it is of greatest possible importance to move very quickly and sharply beyond these.’ Williams’s complete failure, indeed refusal, to confront the cardinal facts of the strike is achieved here by several little key words all his own. Note, particularly, the word ‘ends’. This means: the strike has been a complete and crushing failure, Scargill has spurned all chance of a negotiated settlement and the union is now in smithereens. ‘Tactics’ means: the complete denial of intra-union democracy; the decision of the NUM leadership to order a strike and then try to bully into line those who wanted a vote. ‘Timing’ is a reference to the suicidal decision to launch the strike when winter was ending and coal stocks were high. ‘Personalities’ denotes the fact that the NUM was led by a blustering, autocratic bully who sacrificed the union on the altar of his own ego. These are indeed cardinal facts: without them the strike cannot be understood or even fairly described. But Williams not only refuses altogether to mention these facts but tells us that later on we won’t be allowed to talk about them much either: we will have to move on from them ‘very quickly and sharply’. No sign here of the ‘toughly analytic’ critic we’ve been promised.
It may be objected that the miners’ strike was a special case, that a Welsh radical like Williams couldn’t bear to give other than full-hearted support to Welsh miners on strike. Very well, but then that’s just cheer-leading, not truth-telling – for which Williams was supposedly renowned. Anthony Barnett, for example, writes that ‘Raymond Williams stands for a kind of truthfulness.’ To read Williams on the miners’ strike is to wonder about such a judgment. And it wasn’t just the miners’ strike. Listen to Williams on The Forward March of Labour Halted. The Left, he says, has endured a terrible defeat, and ‘ritual reassurance’ (surely his stock-in-trade) is no longer enough. The question is, why has it happened?
There follows a confused and meandering metaphor about the wings and body of the movement and an aside or two about ‘militant particularism’ – which is Williams’s greatly daring way of referring obliquely, no names, no pack-drill, to the trade-union sectionalism which ripped the Left apart in the Sixties and Seventies. He then imagines a horrible future: that the British Trade Union movement might accommodate to a right-wing Labour or Lib-Lab government. This will produce ‘the American, the recent German, the Japanese solution’, and would thus, horror of horrors, ‘be the end of the historical labour movement’. If it were so easy, of course, it would have happened. After all, West German workers enjoy strong trade unions, relative industrial peace, immeasurably better training and apprenticeship programmes, and a standard of living twice as high as their British counterparts. But the fact is that ‘the historical labour movement’ – sectionalism, demarcation disputes and all – is a truly sacred cow to Williams. He assume that the very idea of this beast no longer getting milked is a complete argument-stopper.
So what, according to Williams, is the way ahead for Labour amid the Thatcherite onslaught? ‘So get ready for militant defence? Agreed.’ Which means siding with every old craft union in turn in its fight to maintain restrictive practices. Then we also have to ‘rethink our ideas of work’: which means that we are guiltily aware that those ancient restrictive practices are quite indefensible. In particular, we have to dream up a new and ‘workable settlement between particular interests and the general interest’: which means that we think the old problem of trade-union sectionalism can somehow be overcome by introducing sectional trade-union leaders to the idea that they ought to be, well, less sectionalist. And above all we must remedy ‘one of the Labour Movement’s central failings ... its quite insufficient attention to, and support of, research, education and popular argument’ – the keening cry of the old WEA tutor.
To appreciate the peroration one has to have a sense of theatre as well as of political ornithology: ‘Wings? We have to put back the body. But the only body that will get anywhere will need a very clear head. So now, urgently, research, information, argument, publication: the conditions of any adequate militancy for a new kind of working class, a new and renewed labour movement.’
To hear this properly one should inwardly listen to it in its original Welsh accent. Note the sheer staginess of beginning one’s final rallying-cry with the one-word question, ‘Wings?’ Then, at the end of a desultory essay which has delicately skirted some major problems with a sort of deliberate muzziness, we are paradoxically enjoined to have a ‘very clear head’. Note, then, the deliberate terseness of ‘urgently’, a busy, polo-necked and directorial word. But all this exhortation to rethink, though carefully vacuous – no new thoughts are actually produced – may nonetheless be a little unsettling, so the audience is quickly given its dose of ritual reassurance. Thus, once more, with feeling, such favourite key words as ‘militancy’, ‘working class’ and the ‘new and renewed labour movement’. Note the careful balance, both political and theatrical, of ‘new and renewed’, and, especially, that long lugubrious Welsh stress on movement. Moooovement. This sound, when emitted in a certain sort of left-wing gathering, is half-way between cooing and lowing, and denotes the strong, nay unshakable feelings of the speaker, his deep commitment to the struggle, and much else. The word ‘movement’ is precious since it is the only term to include not just the Trade Unions and the Labour Party but the Communist Party, the Trots and the whole wide family of the Left. And it has that nice dynamic, progressive feel to it: the whole family of the Left in action, moving, going forward. In fact, what it means is nothing less than the essay’s whole title, ‘the forward march of socialism’. The fact that movement (Williams’s italics) is the last word of his essay means that whatever uncomfortable questions have earlier been raised – well, if not exactly raised, hinted at – it’s all right in the end, the family is together and the forward march goes on. So, moooovement. Over the years this sound has brought down the house – and the curtain – at Labour and Trade Union movement meetings from Dolgellau to Tony-pandy, from Bangor to Barry. To make fun of it is to risk the accusation of sacrilege.
There was, though, a large hole where the middle of Williams’s essay should have been. He refers, though apologetically, to ‘militant particularism’ (‘an awkward phrase, but I wanted to get past any simple equation of militancy with socialism’), but again, there are no names, no pack-drill – he doesn’t even make it explicit that he means sectionalist trade unions. The leaders of such unions were routinely used to brushing off the outraged indignation of majority public opinion: one may imagine how seriously they treated criticism from someone too timid to come out and mention them by name. But Williams feels awkward about having gone even as far as he has and so hastens to assure his readers that as soon as these particularisms are challenged he will rise in their ‘militant defence’.
His one positive recommendation is for more research, information, argument and publication. Now anyone writing about publication at that time (1981) could not but be aware of a militant particularism very close to hand – that of the print unions. They were where all his concerns intersected, and it is quite difficult to see how he could avoid mentioning them. But manage he does. No one can doubt that these unions were desperately abusive. They asserted and obtained the right to say who could work as printers and then doled out the jobs to their own relatives. Jobs were inherited more strictly even than in the peerage. Wages were often extraordinarily high, and often for little work. Strikes and stoppages were endemic and the costs of publication were raised so high that ownership of the press was reserved for multi-millionaires. The printing of books was driven massively overseas. The whole weight and strength of the unions was concentrated on retaining in operation 19th-century printing-presses and practices and in outlawing all the modern innovations which make publication cheap, easy and more democratically accessible. Not infrequently, union chapels used their industrial muscle to censor the contents of newspapers they worked on. This is part of what militant particularism actually did, but to read Williams you’d never know. In the end, the Left’s failure of heart and nerve in criticising abuses within its own camp merely made a present of the issue to its political enemies. One must ask what good is a critical intellectual if he won’t criticise his own side?
Robin Blackburn, introducing Resources of Hope, writes that Raymond Williams ‘was the most authoritative, consistent and original socialist thinker in the English-speaking world’. One cannot but be struck by the warmth and number of similar tributes – and it seems clear enough that Williams was a kind, generous man who provided inspiration and support for many less fortunate or younger than himself. But I must confess that I simply do not understand the claims made for his political writings, which seem to me repetitive, ritualised, empty and downright evasive. Their significance surely lies in the exemplary way in which they display the exhaustion of a tired political tradition, a final anguished charge into a cul-de-sac. There is a very real sadness to this, but it is better to be frank. In the new, post-Communist world of the 1990s the Left has much hard thinking to do – about its own roots and identity as well as about where it goes from here. The inspiration that can be gained from a backward look to the heroes of the Sixties has now a merely nostalgic quality to it. A whole new intellectual beginning is required and the greatest danger to that process will be to get trapped within the rhetoric of an exhausted tradition.
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