By common consent , the two most commanding intellectual figures in the New Left that emerged in Britain at the turn of the sixties were Raymond Williams (1921–88) and Edward Thompson (1924–93), theorist of culture and historian of the working class. Close contemporaries, each joined the Communist Party as a student at Cambridge, both serving in tank regiments during the Second World War and graduating after it. Thompson was a member of the cpgb from 1942, when he first joined, until 1956, when he broke with the party over the Hungarian Revolt; Williams, not rejoining it after demobilization, remained organizationally unaffiliated. During the Cold War, both worked in adult education, Thompson in the industrial north, Williams in the coastal south. Williams published a study of drama from Ibsen to Eliot (1952), Thompson a biography of William Morris (1955). In the summer of 1957, after resigning from the party, Thompson and his fellow historian John Saville created The New Reasoner—subtitled ‘A Quarterly Journal of Socialist Humanism’—drawing on other, now former, Communist intellectuals and independent Marxists like Ralph Miliband.
In the autumn of 1958, Williams published the work that made him immediately famous, Culture and Society. Amid all but universal acclaim, the most serious engagement with it came from Victor Kiernan, another former Communist historian, in The New Reasoner. By then, Williams had begun to contribute to Universities and Left Review, founded by a younger group of socialist graduates in Oxford whose collective formation dated from the fifties rather than the thirties. In 1960, the two journals fused to produce New Left Review, under the editorship of Stuart Hall, with the collaboration of a large editorial board, of which Thompson was chair and Williams a member.
In the spring of the following year, Williams published the sequel to Culture and Society, which he had excerpted in ulr before the appearance of the predecessor itself. More ambitious in scope, more theoretical in cast, and more political in conclusion, The Long Revolution clearly demanded major attention in nlr, so Hall asked Thompson to review it. This Thompson was reluctant to do, fearing that to express his differences with Williams risked causing divisions in the New Left he wanted to avoid. Hall replied that open debate, on the contrary, was needed on the left, and his good sense prevailed. In two successive issues of nlr, in May–June and July–August 1961, Thompson addressed The Long Revolution in what was to be intellectually the most substantial single contribution to the first incarnation of this journal, an essay comparable to his famous critique of its second incarnation, ‘The Peculiarities of the English’, four years later. Williams, he wrote, was for the New Left ‘our best man’, the only one of his generation who had stayed in the field of socialist thinking—‘I find it difficult to convey the sheer intellectual endurance this must have entailed’—through the worst years of the Cold War, when Communist culture had been contaminated by Zhdanovism and Marxism petrified into official dogma, surrounded by a complacent or vindictive conservative reaction in establishment thought at large. ‘With a compromised tradition at his back, and a broken vocabulary in his hands, he did the only thing that was left to him: he took over the vocabulary of his opponents, followed them into the heart of their own arguments, and fought them to a standstill in their own terms. He held the roads open for the young, and now they are moving down them once again. And when, in ’56, he saw some of his socialist contemporaries coming back to his side, his smile must have had a wry edge to it.’footnote1
That achievement had not, he went on, been without a certain cost. Williams had not emerged unmarked from the decade. In part, this was a question of tone. Sustained engagement with Eliot and other such period voices had led to a kind of ‘church-going solemnity’ in his reconstruction of the tradition of thought surveyed in Culture and Society, disembodying the far from compatible political or personal passions of those arrayed in it. But it was also a matter of standpoint. Williams had in some measure adopted his opponents’ way of seeing the problems that concerned them, and neglected others central to the socialist tradition. His definition of culture as a ‘whole way of life’ owed too great a debt to Eliot, even in his socially more inclusive reworking of this. For it excluded the conflicts and class struggles that had always divided lives, in the past and the present. The 1840s, chosen by Williams for a demonstration of the procedures of The Long Revolution, he had represented without mention of Peterloo and its killings, the deportations that followed, the Irish Famine, the crushing political defeat of Chartism. In place of such bitter historical collisions were too often advanced a set of abstractions. Foremost among these was ‘growth’, the master-word of The Long Revolution, whose aim was to track the cumulative broadening of popular literacy, culture and democratic organization in a still ongoing and incomplete overall transformation of society, encompassing its economic, political, cultural and familial structures—in Williams’s terms, its systems of ‘maintenance, decision, learning and communication, generation and nurture’—alike.
Growth, in Williams’s generous sense of the word, there had, of course, been. But for a decade like the 1840s, and not for it alone, the term was misleading. ‘Suffering is not just a wastage in the margin of growth; for those who suffer it is absolute.’footnote2 Nor could a quadripartite division of the systems of a society be productive without consideration of the relations between them, and some reflection on the way Marx had conceived these. Much of both Culture and Society and The Long Revolution formed ‘an oblique running argument with Marxism’. But ‘in another sense Marx is never confronted at all’—least of all in such passing strange asides as the claim that he or Engels had never had anything to say about culture or the family. Telling in such errancies, the paradox was that Williams’s ‘influence as a socialist critic has been accompanied by—and, to a certain degree, been the consequence of—his own partial disengagement from the socialist intellectual tradition’.footnote3 There was no shadow of a doubt about his political commitment to a socialist society, splendidly expressed in the conclusion to The Long Revolution. But the abstractions of a vocabulary half-derived from those who opposed any such society were an obstacle to understanding how to get there, and what might stand in the way of it.