Examples

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’.

Towards 2000 is the second attempt he has made to review his The Long Revolution (1961) and refine its arguments. The first was Politics and Letters (1979), a big book of specific questions posed by Perry Anderson, Anthony Barnett and Francis Mulhern, members of the editorial committee of New Left Review; and of answers, rarely as specific or pointed, offered by Williams. The second section of Politics and Letters includes detailed criticism of The Long Revolution and Williams’s response to the various points made. In Towards 2000 he reprints the third part of The Long Revolution, the chapter called ‘Britain in the 1960s’, silently deleting, so far as I have noted, only one passage – two long sentences about the Tory victory in the 1959 election. The rest of Towards 2000 is a reconsideration of ‘Britain in the 1960s’, in the light, if that is what it is, of the past twenty years.

The main difference between Politics and Letters and Towards 2000 is that Williams was far more dashing and radical in 1979 than he is now. Age? Hardly. There isn’t much difference between 58 and 62, I hope. I think there’s a simpler reason – that Williams, under some pressure from those young Turks of NLR, wanted to show them that he was as tough a man as ever was. In any case, his positions on race, the nullity of Parliament, nationalism in Wales and Scotland, and several other questions, were far more truculent and radical than anything in Towards 2000. For instance: the lesson he learned from the Labour government that came to office in 1966, he told the NLR trio, was ‘the end of the notion of parliament as the principal, central agency for social change’. There’s nothing like that lesson on view in Towards 2000, though there are several proposals for change in the system of elections. In the same NLR conversation Williams told his friends that the notion of parliamentary representation ‘now seems to me in its common ideological form fundamentally hostile to democracy’. He had said much the same thing in Keywords (1976), in the entry on Democracy, distinguishing between the socialist and the liberal traditions and concluding that these two conceptions – democracy as popular power, a state in which the interests of the majority are paramount and are controlled by the majority, and democracy as a system featuring openness of election and free argument – ‘in their extreme forms, now confront each other as enemies’. The theme is taken up again in Towards 2000, where there is an elaborate account of ‘representation’, leading to a discrimination between ‘bourgeois democracy’ – Williams’s current name for liberal democracy – and ‘socialist democracy’. But the account is far more muted than the one in Politics and Letters. Arguing with himself, Williams is a mild disputant.

But the main difficulty with Towards 2000, among many difficulties nearly equal, is that Williams doesn’t know where to stand: the book is the tragedy of a man who can’t any longer make up his mind. His relation to Marxism is heretical, except for the sentiment that keeps him to some degree in the fold. He doesn’t even accept the Marxist vocabulary of base and superstructure, and while he makes the standard comments on ‘the confusions of late-bourgeois subjectivism’, his own sentences feature, by appeal to ‘experience’, a structure of feeling not clearly different from subjectivism. He seems to think, in his NLR moments, that there is some necessary contradiction between private and social experience, or that a respect for privacy sends you straight to ‘the Me Generation’ and ‘solipsism’. But at other times he speaks in terms which a bourgeois liberal would find entirely acceptable.

The same confusion arises at nearly every fundamental point. Is the system of ‘late capitalism’ omnivorous or not? When Williams gets worked up on ‘the coercive power of the capitalist state’, it seems that nothing, no act or purpose, can elude the capitalist determination. But in more subdued moments he thinks that ‘when people are living under a dominant system, you both get alternative sources of social experience in other modes which have survived from the past or are in active opposition to the system, and you seem to get other impulses which have not been produced by the known calculus of forces.’ I have never doubted the possibility of those ‘other impulses’, and while I’m delighted to find Williams acknowledging them and the fact that the known calculus of forces doesn’t account for them, I think the concession makes nonsense of the cultural materialism he avows. I don’t see any evidence, though, that Williams has questioned the adequacy of materialism in its bearing – or rather, the bearing he gives it – upon the acts and processes which constitute cultural life. ‘Material’ is just as much a mystification as ‘spiritual’ is, if a claim to account for, say, a work of art is in question. But ‘spiritual’ doesn’t make this claim; ‘material’ does, and the claim is specious.

It is also a contradiction that in Marxism and Literature Williams interprets the Saussurian distinction between langue and parole as yet another instance of the ubiquitous bourgeois opposition between society and the individual. Nothing in Saussure warrants this conclusion. Saussure knew as clearly as Williams does that a language is the result of – I quote Williams’s version in Politics and Letters – ‘the activities of real people in social relationships, including individuals not simply as products of the society but in a precise dialectical relation both producing and being produced by it’. Has anyone ever doubted this, or denied it? It is perfectly compatible with Saussure’s account of langue and parole and of the synchronic and the diachronic aspects of language.

But why does Williams want to turn these straightforward matters into a continuous horror-show? Towards 2000 is constantly talking about community, settlement and – Williams’s favourite sentiment – bonding, but the book feeds upon hostility. Williams is indeed a kind, unwounding man, but his writing seems to crave the dynamics of antagonism. Towards 2000 doesn’t attack anyone by name, but it disposes its entire discourse by setting up anonymous forces in full fighting kit. The fact that the forces are invariably abstract doesn’t alter the fact that Williams’s setting them up for combat is itself an act of violence. I’m reminded of an essay in which Emmanuel Levinas says that Hegel’s praise of the sense of sight for fostering an ungrasping sense of life is specious: because sight, in Hegel’s account of it, is the mere abstraction of seeing. The solitude of a mute glance upon the object, while it can be represented as the fine withholding of desire and possessiveness, is an act of violence because it doesn’t respect the Other sufficiently to acknowledge its face. Williams’s writing is, in this rather occult respect, violent. In Writing in Society he criticises Shaw’s challenging style, in the Preface to Back to Methuselah, on the grounds that it ‘comes not only to harden into a party trick, but takes over, as a whole way of experiencing others and the world, in which people and objects shrink to fixed appearances, and nothing is left but, playing entertainingly over them, a single confident voice’.

Now nobody has ever accused Williams of sending his mind to play over its own evidence, or of maintaining a single confident voice: but I find it dismal that he is so ready to turn people into forces, and forces into monsters. Discrimination can’t survive the automatic form of attention. To give an example: I don’t spend much time defending the virtue of the International Monetary Fund or the World Bank, but it is absurd and undiscriminating for Williams to say, in Towards 2000, that ‘many of the most effective international forms – not only the multinational corporations but also the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund – are in effect wholly irresponsible to any full actual societies; indeed it is often their specific business to override them.’ If Williams can square that charge with the IMF’s recent dealings with Brazil and Mexico, he can square anything with anything. I’m afraid it’s at least as true of him as of Shaw that in his style ‘people and objects shrink to fixed appearances.’

The argument of Towards 2000 hasn’t developed far beyond The Long Revolution. In the earlier book Williams favoured general planning, elections every two years and on fixed dates, and more participation in the processes of government. Capitalism was the only enemy. He also warned his readers against ‘technological determinism’ and ‘cultural pessimism’. In Towards 2000 he renews his commitment to these values, and emphasises the necessity of developing ‘new kinds of communal, co-operative and collective institutions’. The three minimum conditions ‘for Britain to become a modern parliamentary democracy’, he says, are ‘the transfer of legal sovereignty to the people or to their elected parliament’; ‘abolition of the second chamber now based on heredity and patronage, and its replacement by a differently constituted body, based on election; and the ‘adoption of an electoral system which would determine the composition of an elected parliament in terms of the actual distribution of popular votes’. I don’t think he proposes to get rid of the Monarchy.

The most sustained arguments in Towards 2000 favour ‘the recovery of control of our own production’ and ‘first limiting and then breaking the arbitrary power of capital: increasingly, in practice, of international capital’. Small is beautiful, especially in the form of ‘popular self-management’. As in Politics and Letters, Williams thinks that you could start with the kind of democracy ‘previously imagined only for very small communities’, and then use the new electronic technologies of communication in administering larger communities. He seems to envisage legislation by some kind of phone-in TV. The object in view is ‘the direct exercise of popular power’.

What these suggestions have to do with keeping people alive till 2000 AD is not clear. Williams asks us to think in a wider context, but he has kept his own extraordinarily narrow. He has turned his eyes away from the fact that the lives of people living in a valley in Wales are affected not only by the National Coal Board and the Tory Government but by decisions taken in Brussels, Washington, Moscow, Zurich and – it has happened, and can happen again – at a meeting of OPEC in some London hotel. I have never thought of Williams as a Little Englander or even a Little Welsher, but his concerns in Towards 2000 are extraordinarily parochial. Elections every two years on fixed dates? We’ll be lucky if the question even arises.

If it arises – assuming we survive to use those technological marvels to effect legislation – it will not be because of thinking as abstract as Williams’s. I can’t imagine how Fred Inglis can include Williams in a tradition characterised by ‘a habit of recourse to concrete examples in argument’. Towards 2000 is the most unconcrete, unspecific, undocumented book I have read in years. Let me give two examples. One: in a chapter on ‘Culture and Technology’ Williams writes about ‘the two faces of “modernism” ’, but he doesn’t put a name on either of them. He refers to ‘those innovative forms which destabilised the fixed forms of an earlier period of bourgeois society, but which were then in their turn stabilised as the most reductive versions of human existence in the whole of cultural history’. This sentence is like the assertions university teachers set as examination questions, except that those are usually followed by the instruction: ‘Discuss, giving examples to clarify your argument.’ Williams doesn’t refer to a single work, either of the innovative or the debased form. I assume he means, for the innovative, Joyce, Eliot, maybe Beckett, Schönberg, Picasso: but why doesn’t he say what works he has in view? One generalisation leads to another. ‘Apparently simple kinds of adventure and mystery have been transformed and newly marketed in highly specific representations of crime, espionage, intrigue and dislocation, mediating the deep assumptions of habitual competitive violence, deception, and role-playing, loss of identity, and relationships as temporary and destructive.’ Such as what? To Russia with Love, The Sweeney, the several Godfathers, 2001, Looking for Mr Goodbar?

Two: in a chapter called ‘War: The Last Enemy’ Williams distinguishes between deterrence as a military strategy – which he accepts – and deterrence as ideology, which he repudiates. But the only example he gives of deterrence as ideology is American anti-Communism. He doesn’t even mention the Russian recourse to deterrence as ideology. Does he seriously think that the Russian build-up of its nuclear arsenal since the ABM treaty of 1972, and the Russian BMD programme – two to three times larger than the American one – has been purely for defensive purposes? As for unilateral disarmament, he doesn’t think Britain should ‘go it alone’ – indeed he is severe on ‘the relatively unfocused demand for “unilateral renunciation” ’. ‘Thus in Europe,’ he says, ‘we should consistently advance European rather than British unilateralist arguments and objectives.’ But he opposes – he wrote this chapter, I assume, a year or so ago – the siting of cruise missiles in Britain and the buying of Trident. Fine. But there is not a word of detail, no comment on Germany’s position on nuclear defence, nothing on Nato or the Warsaw Pact situation. He blesses the peace movement, the ecology movement, feminism, ‘an oppositional culture’: but again, there is nothing specific. E.P. Thompson has been quoted in the USA recently as saying that the peace movement must be supported even if it fails to press Russia for disarmament, that disarmament of the West is enough. Assuming that Thompson said anything as specific as that, does Williams agree? The last chapter of the book is called ‘Resources for a Journey of Hope’. Williams concedes that the capitalist social order, as he calls it, has done ‘its main job of implanting a deep assent to capitalism even in a period of its most evident economic failures’. Three things are now, from his standpoint, necessary: ‘First, we have to begin, wherever we can, the long and difficult movement beyond a market economy. Second, we have to begin to shift production towards new governing standards of durability, quality and economy in the use of non-renewable resources. Third, and as a condition of either of the former, we have to move towards new kinds of monetary institutions, placing capital at the service of these new ends.’ These recommendations seem to me to correspond to unilateral disarmament: they don’t take any account of international conditions, or of the fact that Britain is no longer her own master. To call this chapter ‘Resources for a Journey of Hope’ is to disclose how meagre the named resources are, and how implausible, in the terms Williams proposes, the journey is.