Our best man

Raymond Williams
November 17, 1995

Like E. P. Thompson, Christopher Hill and Eric Hobsbawm, Raymond Williams produced studies of society and culture influenced by Marxism in clear and attractive English prose, accessible to the general educated public and capable of changing its outlook.

If it is worth writing a biography of Williams it is because he had an impact on leftwing views about culture in Britain and far beyond. "Our best man", E. P. Thompson once dubbed him, speaking of the British radical left from the late 1950s onwards. Fred Inglis sees Williams as the most effective leftwing critic, certainly in postwar Britain, of the conservative tendency to associate industrialisation and the democratisation of society with a debasement of cultural values. Williams's project was really a class struggle pursued through the study of literature and the media, in which he examined, often with great subtlety, the whole body of received ideas about culture in order to show how the argument that a given form of cultural expression embodied spiritual perfection was frequently based on assumptions of upper- class privilege; and how working-class people too had a valid claim to being cultured. According to Williams's definition in Culture and Society, culture is "not only a body of intellectual and imaginative work; it is also and essentially a whole way of life". Culture as the ideas of a cultivated minority is rejected in these terms: "The working classIhas not, since the Industrial Revolution, produced a culture in the narrower sense. The culture which it has produced is the collective democratic institution, whether the trade unions, the cooperative movement or the political party. Working-class cultureIis primarily social (in that it has created institutions) rather than individual (in particular intellectual or imaginative work)."

This argument naturally provided rich scope for knockabout struggles in the lecture halls of 1960s Britain. It still does, of course, in this and many other countries. A working-class student of Williams at Cambridge such as Terry Eagleton testifies vividly in this book and elsewhere to the power of the Williams thesis as an exhilarating eye-opener in that citadel of snooty fuddy-duddies chattering about Henry James and Proust. And Edward Said has cited Williams's technique of "unlearning" the "inherent dominative mode", as an important inspiration for his own influential assault on the ideological assumptions behind western studies of the Orient.

Inglis's intricate, sensitive and readable account of Williams's life depicts a personality which was by no means outgoing but of great integrity. The small-town working-class lad from Wales remained true to his roots in his life as well as in his work. He served courageously in the second world war and had a happy family life in unostentatious circumstances: the worst his critics could say was that he sent his children to fee-paying schools.

There are many entertaining scenes of academic infighting at Cambridge, sometimes throwing up strange details: John Vincent, nowadays distinguished not merely as an historian but as a tabloid preacher of hardline Thatcherism, was apparently a "historian Trot" at Cambridge in 1970. Inglis notes that F. R. Leavis and Williams, despite their different ideologies, had regard for each other. This is not surprising given that Williams's critique of Leavis was remarkably scrupulous, as were so many of his critiques - of Carlyle, of Arnold, of Orwell, for example. Indeed one of the most impressive aspects of Williams was his gift for sharp but generous and discriminating polemic, rare in academe.

But there is one basic difficulty with this biography: its presentation of Williams's relations with his comrades on the radical left. Marxism of various kinds played a big role in that milieu. Inglis goes deeply into many of Williams's ideas, but he is cursory and vague about the relationship between Williams and Marxism.

He presumes that Williams was broadly in harmony with Marx's views of culture. Yet in Culture and Society, we find Williams expressly identifying himself as non-Marxist; and anyone who carefully compares Marx's approach to culture with Williams's will see how radically they differed. Marx wanted to bring culture to society as a whole, whereas Williams's main interest lay in redefining the concept of culture so as to argue that different classes in the existing society could claim equal cultural status.

It is easy to imagine Marx attacking Williams with ferocity for what he would have considered well-intentioned but muddle-headed leftwing thinking. Marx was no admirer of the culture of "ordinary" people. It was he who spoke of "the idiocy of rural life" and said that religion was the opium of the people. Marx would have been miffed by Williams's belief that the working class had created its own political parties and trade unions; what about the crucial role of bourgeois intellectuals like Marx himself? Williams's pervasive rejection of any tutelary role for intellectuals over the common people in matters of culture, whether they be followers of Arnold, Eliot, Leavis or the Fabians, would have been seen by Marx as unacceptably conservative in its implication: for if the common people already had a good culture, whence the need for revolution?

Inglis assigns Eagleton the role of hardline Marxist to Williams's softer variety, and repeatedly describes Eagleton's works as brilliant; so brilliant, apparently, that Inglis cannot go seriously into what they say. He fails to note an important distinction between Eagleton's standpoint and that of Williams. The former attacks far more radically than Williams ever did the traditional distinction between "good" and "bad" literature and other forms of cultural expression. As for Eagleton's claim to being a Marxist, it is worth noting that the fact that great literature inevitably often embodies the ruling class's assumptions was for Marx no reason to scoff at its cultural pre-eminence: Marx's writings are steeped in the Greek and Latin classics, in Dante, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Goethe and Schiller.

Williams made several attempts to transcend his scholarly role and guide the people through political action. Inglis describes these forays in detail, writing admiringly of his ability to "talk past the point of conflict" at quarrelsome radical left gatherings, and going so far as to suggest that he was a "lost political leader". It is evocative stuff, especially for those who look back wistfully to the cheerful idealism of the 1960s and 1970s. But Williams's political role - or rather his participation in the politics of leftwing coteries - added up to little, as even Inglis admits.

Although he suggests that Williams remains a figure of continuing validity in politics as well as in scholarship, Inglis plainly has misgivings about the theoretical work of the present leftwing generation of scholars influenced by Williams, regarding them as too hermetic, with none of the master's capacity to affect politics by appeal to the educated public.

The fact is, the ideas of these scholars are even further removed from the common people than those of the elitists infatuated with Henry James and Proust whom they set out to dethrone. Inglis does not try to establish why this should be so. Perhaps it is because Williams's ideas, though influential, were negative - an urbane, enlightening demolition job. He is remembered as the man who quietly but very firmly put Leavis in his place, who specialised in squashing all talk of propagating "higher" values to the masses as, at best, priggish. (He had proposals for combating capitalist cultural debasement, involving the common ownership of the media, but these were easily overlooked, as they were incongruent with his main argument.) This negativeness helped open the way for the more ruthless postmodernist demolition experts, who employ a rebarbative philosophical jargon to attack the old working assumptions of social thought - the "grand theories" - but replace them with nothing. The final result of all this "unlearning" is that today's left, in the West at least, has few inhibitions about adapting itself to the rightwing-dominated media rather than criticising its cultural ravages. It is not too much to say that Williams's thought has been put to demagogic use, that it has been used to undermine cultural standards he himself took for granted.

For all his achievements as a cultural historian and critic, Raymond Williams bypassed the real issues raised by capitalism and culture. What remains inspiring and salutary in his work is his clarity of expression and his scrupulousness in polemic. Inglis pays his subject a comradely and often moving tribute - yet one recalls Williams's verdict on Orwell: a history to honour, but also to move on from.

Radhakrishnan Nayar is a writer on international affairs.

Raymond Williams

Author - Fred Inglis
ISBN - 0 415 08960 3
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £19.99
Pages - 333

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