Denis Donoghue

  • Towards 2000 by Raymond Williams
    Chatto, 273 pp, £9.95, October 1983, ISBN 0 7011 2685 X
  • Writing in Society by Raymond Williams
    Verso, 268 pp, £18.50, December 1983, ISBN 0 86091 072 5
  • Radical Earnestness: English Social Theory 1880-1980 by Fred Inglis
    Martin Robertson, 253 pp, £15.00, November 1982, ISBN 0 85520 328 5

I’ll talk mostly about Towards 2000, so I should give a brief account of Writing in Society and Radical Earnestness to begin with. Radical Earnestness is a brisk survey of a ‘tradition of thought’, a ‘mode of feeling’, which Fred Inglis identifies as English and, in a vague sense, socialist. The tradition is characterised by ‘a habit of recourse to concrete examples in argument, a calm refusal of formal metaphysics, an unexamined criticism of “over-abstraction” (which means other people’s abstractions), and a general preference for non-systematised or pluralist theories of political life’. The writers Inglis presents under this rubric are William Morris, T.H. Green, John Maynard Keynes, R.G. Collingwood, F.R. Leavis, George Orwell, Adrian Stokes, Tony Crosland – as he calls him – Richard Titmuss, Richard Hoggart, Raymond Williams, John Berger, E.P. Thompson and Isaiah Berlin. If you need a stereotype of the English socialist, you may as well take this one as any other, though it’s hard to do any worthwhile thinking so long as you burden yourself with such a thing. I infer from Inglis’s reference to ‘the chic notation of the Parisian deconstructionists’ and from a footnote citing Jacques Derrida’s Grammatology that radical earnestness is what he claims for the Englishness of his English socialist tradition, a quality of mind or character consistent with a national commitment to roast beef.

In the chapter on Hoggart, Williams and the New Left Review, Inglis nominates Williams as ‘a plausible candidate’ for ‘a little decorous hero-worship’, ‘for leading hero of the years in which the forward march of consumer individualist values halted itself at the cliff edge, and the call for different, new, vastly more mutual, altruistic, and less destructive values-with-practices became paramount’. Who called, and how the call became paramount, Inglis doesn’t say. In the event, he presents Williams as a stout-hearted man, as decent as they come, but politically naive. On occasions, he says, Williams ‘seems to flinch from acknowledging the deadly and disgusting things done in the names of both Marxism and Communism, the hateful guilt borne by some socialist intellectuals, including heroes such as Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, Benjamin and Brecht, for their lying and distortions wittingly performed in the names of freedom and the masses’. I have curtailed the quotation, but the gist of it is that if you can believe in ‘actually existing socialism’, you can swallow anything. Inglis ends the account of Williams with the obligatory applause, but I’m left feeling that if he called me a hero I’d say: ‘Thanks a lot, I suppose.’

Writing in Society is a selection of the essays, lectures and occasional interventions Williams has published over the past decade or so; a few pieces go back much further, one of them a piece of verse he didn’t choose to publish 27 years ago. Some of them are worked up from university courses, mostly courses in drama. The sturdiest are continuous with the books in which Williams has turned mid-19th-century English fiction, the novels arising from the experience of industrial life, into an academic genre. Three lectures reflect upon ‘Cambridge English’ and its vicissitudes. Then there are larger meditations on region and class in the English novel. The essay I like best is a dogged effort to make sense of Hard Times and of the ‘two incompatible ideological positions’ it articulates: ‘first, that environment influences and in some sense determines character; second, that some virtues and vices are original and both triumph over and in some cases can change any environment.’ Williams argues that the incompatibility, which could easily lapse into muddle, is resolved not in the novel but in the reader, in ‘the production of a general reader who is also a generalised response’. I’m not sure how a particular reader can become, in Williams’s sense, a general reader, though I think an adequate theory of the imagination would allow for the production of sympathies and recognitions which would hold rival attitudes simultaneously in the mind. A theory of the imagination is not, I know, Williams’s business; he would regard such a theory as playing into the hands of idealists, his chosen enemies in the fight for ‘cultural materialism’.

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