- Resources of Hope: Culture, Democracy, Socialism by Raymond Williams, edited by Robin Gable
Verso, 334 pp, £29.95, February 1989, ISBN 0 86091 229 9
- The Alien Mind of Raymond Williams by Jan Gorak
Missouri, 132 pp, $9.95, December 1988, ISBN 0 8262 0688 3
- Raymond Williams: Writing, Culture, Politics by Alan O’Connor
Blackwell, 180 pp, £27.50, June 1989, ISBN 0 631 16589 4
- Raymond Williams on Television: Selected Writings edited by Alan O’Connor
Routledge, 223 pp, £7.95, April 1989, ISBN 0 415 02627 X
- News from Nowhere: No 6. Raymond Williams: Third Generation edited by Tony Pinkney
Oxford English Limited, 108 pp, £3.50, February 1989
- Raymond Williams: Critical Perspectives edited by Terry Eagleton
Polity, 235 pp, £29.50, September 1989, ISBN 0 7456 0384 X
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.
Vol. 12 No. 5 · 8 March 1990
Publishers are usually well-advised not to complain about reviewers, but I would like to breach this convention to vindicate not so much the two Verso books concerned as the political experience and thought which has received such cavalier treatment in your pages. Mary Beard (LRB, 26 October 1989) and R.W. Johnson (LRB, 8 February) are united in dismissing the thinking of the British New Left as of little account, reviewing, respectively, Out of Apathy: Voices of the New Left, edited by the Oxford University Socialist Discussion Group, and the posthumous collection of Raymond Williams’s essays and lectures, Resources of Hope, edited by Robin Gable. In both instances your reviewers dwell on real or supposed flaws as a device to avoid a substantial engagement either with the books they were meant to be reviewing or with the New Left politics at stake in them.
Mary Beard criticises the early New Left for its failure to anticipate feminism, and uses this – a failing noted and discussed in Out of Apathy itself – as an excuse simply to ignore any other claim that the early New Left might have on the attention of your readers. If the record was so blank why did it attract the interest of several hundred Oxford graduates and undergraduates, including many feminists, three decades later? Indeed it is fascinating to see the contemporary resonance of Raphael Samuel’s exploration of ‘the sense of classness’ or the continuing debate among philosophers of ethical and political issues first broached in the debates between Edward Thompson, Alasdair MacIntyre and Charles Taylor in the late Fifties. The early New Left’s rejection of Stalinism, and critique of Labourist statism, was salutary ground-clearing, while the new approaches to culture and the mass media decisively widened the agenda of political analysis and prescription.
Even the gender-blindness of much early New Left thought can be exaggerated, since it was this milieu which produced writing by Doris Lessing (The Golden Notebook), Juliet Mitchell (The Longest Revolution) and Sheila Rowbotham which helped to inspire Sixties feminism. Surely there was some link between the cultural politics of the early New Left, or the categories of Raymond Williams’s thought in The Long Revolution, and at least some of the characteristic concerns of this feminist writing?
Mary Beard had several books to review and so her skimpy treatment of Out of Apathy probably just reflects her lack of interest in that particular chapter of intellectual and political history. Less forgivable is Johnson’s unbalanced and philistine polemic, offered as an assessment of Resources of Hope, and of five other books about Williams, most of which are not even mentioned by name in this ‘review’. Johnson confesses himself puzzled by my claims for Williams’s stature and originality as a socialist thinker, and prefers to attack him for ‘wooziness’ and ‘muzziness’ and the affectations of a ‘literary gent’. According to Johnson, Williams ‘was not a major or even a very coherent theorist’, his early books ‘do not really sustain the large ideological weight later placed upon them’, and his book on Orwell is the ‘one good book’ he wrote after 1961. We are told that Williams’s work aimed simply to make his left audience feel good and has nothing of value to offer those who wish to address the issues of the Nineties. These perverse judgments are offered up with an evident zest to shock the bien pensant but with nothing by way of argument. Someone who can dismiss The Country and the City, or Modern Tragedy, or Marxism and Literature, or the book on Cobbett, so thoughtlessly does more damage to himself than to the intended target of such shallow jibes. Perhaps Johnson felt that he would be out of his depth if he engaged in real discussion of Williams as cultural theorist or critic. But he scarcely fares better when tackling his essays or his practical and political interventions.
The Resources of Hope collection contains such key texts as ‘Culture is ordinary’, ‘Communications and Community’, ‘Socialism and Ecology’ and ‘Parliament and Democracy’. Discussion of any one of these would have given Johnson something of real substance to reflect upon. The first was an early statement of Williams’s cultural position which was to include such highly practical, specific and influential works as Communications – a work which not only helped to open up the whole field of cultural studies but probably had a direct, practical impact on institutions such as the Open University and Channel Four. Thus his 1961 lecture on ‘Communications’ is attractively discursive, but not at all the woozy rambling of Johnson’s ‘literary gent’. And it concludes with proposals for a democratic, decentralised broadcasting structure which would lease facilities to independent producers.
The essays on ecology reflect a sensibility that long pre-dated the rise of Green politics and which had already achieved a major statement in the The Country and the City. If Johnson was really looking for relevance and immediacy he could have discovered it here. Likewise, the 1982 essay on Parliament is a practical political intervention which has lost none of its timeliness. Its critique of the undemocratic features of the Palace of Westminster – with its first-past-the-post electoral system, its secrecy and hierarchy – is accompanied by the sort of highly specific proposals which have inspired Charter 88: notably a commitment to citizen’s rights, proportional representation and executive accountability. It is not Williams who is ‘vacuous’ but your reviewer if he fails to see the effort to spell out alternatives in these essays or in Towards 2000.
The Verso collection included some informal talks or occasional articles together with ‘classic’ essays of the sort that I have referred to. This editorial decision, which I still think justified, allows Johnson to concentrate such rational argument as he can muster on a couple of lesser pieces which are treated as if they somehow sum up Williams’s work. The article entitled ‘Mining the meaning’ was commissioned as a critique of the ‘keywords’ used by the Coal Board, Government and press to justify the pit closure programme as well as Government conduct of the dispute. It was not meant to be a general article on the miners’ strike or an assessment of NUM strategy. Nevertheless Williams did append a concluding paragraph indicating his reservations concerning NUM ‘tactics, timing and personalities’. Had he been asked for an article on the strike as such, these reservations would have been spelt out in a more direct and detailed manner. Even so, they would not have coincided with Johnson’s own gloss to the effect that the strike was the last kick of an old order, and that Scargill was an autocrat who enjoyed no democratic sanction from his members. Scargill, unlike MacGregor, had been elected to the post he held – elected by a huge majority after a campaign in which he toured the coalfields arguing that massive closures were imminent and would have to be met by strike action. Nevertheless, I believe the failure of the NUM executive to hold a ballot on the strike to have been a bad mistake.
Johnson supposes that a misplaced loyalty to his friends in the NUM led Williams to mute his criticisms. Yet his friends among the South Wales NUM were precisely those within the union who had argued for a ballot and against the use of Yorkshire pickets in Nottinghamshire. As it happens, this position was spelt out – while the strike was still in progress – by Williams’s friend Kim Howells (of the South Wales NUM) in the Verso collection Digging deeper. But when Howells, or for that matter Anthony Barnett or myself, argued for a ballot – as we did in the very pages where Williams was also writing – we did so from the perspective of wishing to see the strike succeed. For reasons clearly spelt out by Williams, we believed that the resistance of the mining communities had exemplary qualities – and that a humane economic policy would have worked with rather than against the people of the coalfields.
Johnson’s second lengthy admonition concerns the supposed vagueness in Williams’s advocacy of the need to cultivate a new sense of the ‘general interest’. Johnson thinks there was not enough ferocity in Williams’s critique of ‘militant particularism’. He finds this latter notion altogether too mild, and would have preferred to see Williams launch a broadside against the Unions and Labour Movement as neanderthal formations richly deserving any drubbing that they received from the likes of MacGregor or Murdoch (no mention in Johnson’s discussion of the print workers of the need for strike ballots, since those ballots were held and resoundingly supported strike action).
In these passages R.W. Johnson sounds uncomfortably like his namesake Paul, evoking a distempered animus against the unions. While Williams warned of the dangers of ‘militant particularism’, he was also aware that British trade unions were capable, as in 1975-8, of incredible and even ill-advised restraint, allowing their members’ living conditions to deteriorate in the name of a quite nebulous ‘social contract’. And while the print workers were capable of an ugly egoism and exclusivity, Johnson’s claim that they are to blame for the power of the media empires fails to explain how the latter flourish even more when unions are weak. Johnson’s polemical trick is to construe Williams as an accomplice of sectionalist practice which he never condoned and which he criticised in the fashion he thought most effective.
Williams did advocate a different unionism, but he also believed in the capacity of ‘the movement’ to learn from its experience. This belief intensely annoys Johnson, for whom it is another sign of vacuousness and the Welsh or Nonconformist penchant for lugubrious uplift. Yet, interestingly, Williams’s patient pleas for a new unionism no longer seem so unrealistic – the tactics of the Ambulancemen’s strike are certainly much closer to those he believed were necessary. And whatever the failings of Brenda Dean’s SOGAT I don’t think that any fair-minded critic would include bloody-minded machismo amongst them.
Williams’s critique of ‘militant particularism’ was not directed solely at the sectionalism of trade-unionists: Resources of Hope also warns against lack of preparedness to negotiate a new ‘general interest’ in necessarily and rightly particularist social movements, such as Welsh nationalism or feminism. Similarly he argues in one of the essays that the new struggle for nuclear disarmament in the Eighties must also be a struggle for democracy, human rights and social justice. ‘To build peace, now more than ever, it is necessary to build more than peace’ – an argument taken up, in his own way, by Vaclav Havel on ‘the other side’.
Williams’s discursive style – target of such heavy sarcasms – aimed to bring out complexity, to avoid intimidation and to encourage people to interrogate their own experience. Unlike the great majority of academics, Williams was concerned to reach, and did reach, an audience of working-class activists and autodidacts. The tact and restraint with which he addressed this audience does not seem to me to have been lacking in truth-telling, unless one believes, as Johnson appears to do, that spades must always be called bloody shovels. This characteristic moderation meant that a rebuke from Williams had far more force than the ritualised political abuse we hear from Front Bench politicians – or, if I may say so, than the polemic to which Johnson has descended.
Williams did not address himself, as Johnson supposes, to trade-union leaders but to a general readership which he hoped would include Labour Movement activists and intellectuals. As a Cambridge professor, reasonably rewarded for a job he liked doing, he did not feel it right to attack the militant representations of miserably-paid dinner-ladies or refuse collectors, or moderately-paid miners or car-workers, though he did urge the necessity of linking trade-union action to a wider concern for social justice.
Johnson’s real animus is directed at Williams’s intense and reflective concern with values and with the social settings needed to sustain them. He belabours Williams for a ‘style rich in reference but largely empty of fact’. Certainly there is a ruminative and reflective quality to Williams’s prose and an absence of statistics. But there is such a thing as a moral fact: consider the import of Havel’s writings, for example, with their appeal to existential authenticity. Using the Johnson approach a year ago, Havel could well have been dismissed as a vague dreamer whose ideas lacked the necessary purchase to be politically significant.
Williams knew that his own cultural politics was only one component of the radical renewal of socialism for which he was working: he pointed to the need, for example, for a feasible economics of eco-socialism and self-management. But the example and advocacy of his own work will continue to be a source of inspiration and argument to those who try to democratise the UK state, to resist the pincer grip of government and commercialism on the broadcasting media, to reverse the philistine assault on education, or more generally to challenge the misery caused by the callous workings of capitalism in Britain and the wider world.
Verso, London W1
Vol. 12 No. 6 · 22 March 1990
I’m sorry to have offended Robin Blackburn by my article on Raymond Williams (Letters, 8 March). Robin is wrong to talk of my ‘animus’ against Williams. I had and have none. As I said in my review, he was clearly a nice, gentle and generous man, and I have no doubt that his political writings, defective though I think them, stemmed from noble instincts, that his heart was, as they say, in the right place. The point of my review was rather different. Great claims have been made for Williams as a political writer. This is not an easy thing to be. It calls for a combination of literary and analytic skills with real political nous, a popular touch and an often unpopular desire to get to the truths behind the flim-flam. I had recently come across Michael Walzer’s judgment that Williams was not only an example of ‘the failure of English political writing’ but actually personified it. I reread much of Williams’s work before writing my review and felt, in the end, that Walzer was right. What seemed to me interesting was how a man of such evident gifts, energy and commitment could fail in that way – and how others could hail that failure as a great success. The reason, I felt, was that Williams became trapped – as so many of us do – within a closed rhetorical universe, partly of his own construction. Like all such universes, it became predictable, with its ritual mentions and silences, its key words and, sadly, its evasion of unpalatable truths. It is, I think, impossible to be thus trapped and also to be a good political writer.
Robin thinks I would have liked Williams to ‘launch a broadside against the Unions and Labour Movement as neanderthal formations richly deserving any drubbing that they received from the likes of MacGregor or Murdoch’. Not at all. I would far rather that left intellectuals like Williams had spoken out openly and truthfully about, for example, the inherited nature of jobs in the printers’ union in the Fifties, Sixties or Seventies. If they had done that more effectively – or even at all – there might have been no sitting ducks for Murdoch et al to slaughter in the Eighties. But the truth is not just an instrumentality: inherited jobs, like inherited peerages, deserve to be denounced in themselves, for they are simply wrong.
The real point at issue between Robin and myself is, I think, the question of solidarity politics. Solidarity politics means that in the last analysis one places a higher value on the solidarity one feels with a class or group than on speaking the truth about it. Working politicians and polemicists do this all the time and quite naturally so. We’re all used to that and we don’t look to them as searchers after truth on anything. But I don’t think anyone who wants to set up as a political writer can afford to allow anything to count higher than the truth. This does not, of course, mean that such a writer is not allowed his own commitments. Eric Hobsbawm is a fine example of a political writer who does not allow either his own commitments or a sense of overweening solidarity to get in his way. Reading Hobsbawm, you know he’ll go where the argument takes him, even against his own prejudices if that’s how it turns out. He’s quite capable of describing both how Communism failed definitively as a historical movement and yet also how determined he is to remain a CP member. This level of detachment seems to me both splendid and essential. Robin provides a good example of what I mean in the way he talks of his own advocacy of a ballot in the miners’ strike, emphasising that this advocacy was performed ‘in the perspective of supporting the strike’, as if somehow this alone made it right to mention the embarrassing fact of the denial of democracy within the NUM. I don’t accept that. (I didn’t accept it at the time either. I contributed what I could to help miners’ families – groceries not money because I didn’t trust the NUM with cash. As I handed over the food I also made clear my views about the denial of a ballot. Both were received in silence.) I think that the NUM’s refusal to allow its membership to vote was simply wrong in itself, irrespective of any sort of perspective on the strike. It deserved to be denounced as such, and the truth of that denial of democracy should not have been subordinated to any feelings of solidarity with the miners.
That truth was, moreover, so important – it doomed the strike from the outset – that I fail to see how Williams could write about ‘key words in the strike’ and fail to mention it; at least, not if he was to justify a reputation for ‘a special sort of truthfulness’. The problem with Williams was that with him it was a matter of solidarity first and last, so that where he started was also bound to be the point at which he ended up – thus giving his writing a circular and ritual quality. It is, I suspect, for those reasons that solidarity politics have always slid so naturally into an older, religious tradition – in that repetitive ritual sound one cannot but hear the cadences and incantations of the Chapel. This sort of rhetoric has a long and honourable tradition in our political life, but personally I do not look to it to provide guidelines for the future. There is, of course, room for two views about this and I am sorry if mine has given offence.
Magdalen College, Oxford
Vol. 12 No. 7 · 5 April 1990
In your issue of 8 March Robin Blackburn claims The Golden Notebook as a product of the milieu of the New Left. This is quite untrue unless the New Left is now retrospectively to be expanded to include ideas which in fact it was impossible to discuss with any of the people I knew, most of whom were much younger that I was, and who I thought of as intellectual socialists. The Golden Notebook was not reviewed in the New Left Review. The young woman who asked to review it and was refused complained for several hours of a long wet journey to Wales about the attitudes to women in this milieu, particularly the New Left Review.
Raymond Williams saw himself, inter alia, as a political activist. He can be so judged. I well remember an occasion in the Sixties, in the Town Hall in Cambridge, where he was the main speaker at a big meeting. He spoke in inspiring style about democracy, the people’s future, Jerusalem and all the trimmings, and ended with a rhetorical question: ‘What, then, shall we do?’ We waited in euphoric expectation for the answer and it came: ‘Vote Labour at the General Election.’ The anti-climax! All he had to offer was brilliant rhetoric. Lloyd George, Bevan, Griffiths, Williams, Kinnock – how well the Welsh beguile the English! And how we seem to love it!
Years later, in London, I joined his post-1968 enterprise – Mayday Manifesto – an exercise in injecting some new life into the then ageing New Left. I soon found out that he was being serviced by King Street (then the headquarters of the CP) and tried to warn him about that kiss of death. As an ex-CP member I knew just what was going to happen. He took no notice and I quit, but not before writing to him to underline the message that if he didn’t stand on his own two feet, his brave enterprise would be as dead as the dodo in no time. And it was.
Might he and others like him have done anything else? The answer has to be affirmative. The period 1956-68 saw the birth and decline of the New Left as a strictly parliamentary exercise and of non-violent direct action, of the genus of people’s power, in the form of the Committee of 100. Reinforced by Bertrand Russell’s name and personal example the idea went round the world, but Raymond Williams and the leaders of the New Left (with one or two honourable exceptions) passed by on the other side. The thing eventually collapsed because the circumstances of Britain have been such that non-violent direct action has never had occasion to develop into non-violent insurrection and the displacement of an existing government in the fashion that has become commonplace over the last six months in Eastern Europe. The subject was born in Britain in the Sixties, but perished in its infancy. In the USA it was different. The civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King took to non-violent direct action in historic fashion. John Rawls wrote a theory of civil disobedience, in a near-free and near-just society, into his A Theory of Justice and Murray Bookchin made post-scarcity anarchism respectable.
Raymond Williams was one of a special breed. Others are, or have been, Fenner Brockway, Stuart Hall, Eric Hobsbawm and Bruce Kent – good people who have a genius for human relations and consensus, an ability to use language beautifully to tell people what they want to hear and so send them home with their batteries charged and a song in their hearts. But everything is left exactly as it was. Eventually, politically at least, they get found out. The sad thing is that in this century we have not produced a single political thinker of commanding stature since 1945. Raymond Williams, licensed rebel and excellent teacher, was never a candidate.
Vol. 12 No. 8 · 19 April 1990
I wonder if ‘militant particularism’ (Raymond Williams’s resonant expression – LRB, 8 February) is not the deep flaw of the British character, with those most militantly particular about capital accumulation on the top.
University of Guelph, Ontario
Vol. 18 No. 15 · 1 August 1996
I hold no brief for Fred Inglis and the way in which he has written his biography of Raymond Williams. I also admire Raphael Samuel’s laudable attempt to defend Williams from undocumented and inaccurate attack. Nevertheless, my own research on Williams for a small part of a book published last year (Dons and Workers: Oxford and Adult Education Since 1850) uncovered inconsistencies in Williams’s work and views, and criticisms of him, that would support some of Inglis’s contentions.
In the University Archives in Oxford I certainly found tributes to Williams as a teacher and writer. And in the present Department for Continuing Education in Oxford I had at least one colleague who worked alongside Williams, and who shared his Welsh background, who always spoke reverently of him. But I had another who overlapped with Williams at the end of the Fifties and who also taught English (and whose judgment I trust, having taught extra-mural courses with him myself) who was critical of Williams on several grounds, both educational and political, and whose comments I included in my own account of Williams as an extra-mural tutor. On the subject of alleged Communist infiltration of extra-mural education in Oxford in the late Forties, I found Williams saying very different things to different audiences in a relatively short space of time. Williams also seemed to me to have been unfairly critical of the Oxford extra-mural department in the interviews he gave to the New Left Review, published as Politics and Letters in 1979. In the same source he spoke of his experiences in adult education with a detachment bordering on the clinical – in contrast to other socialists who had taught tutorial classes for Oxford and the Workers’Educational Association, Tawney, Temple and Cole, among many, who continued to express enthusiasm for the work long after moving on to other things.
Samuel writes that Williams had a ‘special gift’ for ‘drawing up new maps of knowledge’. Many of Williams’s admirers have made a similar point over the years. Yet when placed in the tradition of adult education, it seems to me that Williams’s maps were old ones. Culture and Society, the book that deservedly made his reputation, and one of his works that will surely endure, actually presents the old adult education syllabus in a new form. From the 1880s, Oxford University extension lecturers had gone into the communities of the working class to lecture on Carlyle and Ruskin to audiences of workers who eagerly assimilated their anti-industrialism and anti-capitalism. The staple diet of many early literature classes included Dickens, Kingsley and Arnold, as the well-preserved syllabuses in the Oxford University Archive demonstrate. Later, William Morris was added to the pantheon. The tradition of reading authors who were in critical engagement with the dominant values of British society was entrenched in the adult education movement long before Williams remapped it and set it in an accessible form before a fresh audience in the expanding universities of the late Fifties and Sixties. That Williams did not acknowledge his intellectual debts to this tradition as fully as might have been expected seems to me to have been his greatest omission. Perhaps he was not conscious of what he had absorbed as an extra-mural tutor, or of the historical development of the tradition of which he was himself a part. If this was the case, he would not have been the first scholar to have misunderstood or neglected the roots of his own work. But it seems to me to be a surprising omission in a writer so interested in the lineage of ideas and ‘keywords’.
Perhaps the simple moral of this story is that though Williams was a fine scholar and teacher, he was not without flaws in both capacities and should not be immune from fair criticism. As R.W. Johnson has pointed out before (LRB, 4 July), whatever Williams’s merits as a literary and cultural critic, he had his weaknesses as a writer on politics. Since his death he has generally been the object of veneration. Though unable and unwilling to speak for Inglis, my own work on Williams, setting him in a line of educational activism going back a century and more, leads me to conclude that if the Left must have scholar-heroes, there are some equal and possibly better-qualified candidates in the adult education tradition that helped to form him.
St Peter’s College, Oxford