The Quest for Solidarity

John Dunn

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

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 full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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