The death of Raymond Williams on January 26th robs the left in Britain of its most authoritative, consistent and radical voice. His loss is the more difficult to bear in that it was unexpected and came when he was at the height of his powers. Tributes to Williams have already appeared in many newspapers and periodicals, testifying to a widespread sense that the national culture is sorely impoverished by the death of its most acute critic.footnote Williams approached literature, cultural studies, communications and adult education in such radically new ways that he opened up fresh fields of study and practice. While this cultural work was linked to his conception of a democratic ‘long revolution’ its validity and importance were recognized by many who had no prior commitment to his anti-capitalist politics. Similarly Williams’s drama or novels contain political themes but, like all his writing, are couched in a language far removed from received political discourse. Part of the value of Williams’s work to the Left must be that it did not, and does not, belong to the Left alone. Yet, especially in this journal, it is appropriate to attend to the political meanings of Williams’s work and to begin, difficult as it is, to take the measure of his loss. It will take a long time and many hands to pick up the threads where he left them and we cannot hope to weave as fine an argument. But in however partial a way it is worth registering here those political pre-occupations which were integral to Williams’s vision and achievement.

Raymond Williams was one of the founders of the nlr and contributed eighteen pieces to it, covering every phase of its development. In each decade his work stimulated critical reflection on fundamentals of the socialist project—Edward Thompson’s articles in the early sixties, the exchange between Terry Eagleton and Anthony Barnett in the seventies and Francis Mulhern’s exploration of Towards 2000 in nlr 148 in the eighties. The Review also collaborated with Raymond Williams in the production of what remains the fullest survey of his life and work as a socialist thinker, the book of interviews published as Politics and Letters (1977). This is not to say that the Review always struck the right note in its response to Williams, or that we consistently made the most of the invaluable resource of his intelligence, discrimination and support—attention that could be uneven is now more difficult to explain than misjudged engagement. Yet the larger influence of Williams on the history of the Review can not be in doubt.footnote1

But this was, of course, simply one aspect of a many-sided contribution to the birth of a ‘New Left’—in the Universities and Left Review of the 1950s, as editor of the May Day Manifesto of the late sixties, as a founder of the Socialist Society in the early 1980s and in many less formal ways as writer, speaker and participant in a great variety of working groups, campaigns and projects.

Following the publication of Culture and Society (1956) and The Long Revolution (1961) Williams’s work became, not for the last time, the subject of debate across the Left. Palme Dutt found little more than what he called ‘brand x reformism’. Edward Thompson and C.L.R. James, despite different backgrounds and an ocean separating them, nevertheless concurred in saluting Williams’s achievement and in questioning, in a very different spirit from Palme Dutt, its emphases and lacunae. They asked where were Lilburne and the popular discourse of the Putney debates, where were the concepts of Marx’s Capital and what had happened to class agency and revolution amidst all this talk of ‘common meanings’ and ‘structures of feeling’?footnote2

The generosity of Williams’s approach to pre-socialist, or even antisocialist, traditions was disconcerting to critics on the Left. Yet it allowed him to tap neglected sources of social critique and to construct a socialist commitment that was to prove robust and weather-proof through several changes in the political climate. His insight into the formation of ruling class hegemony, and the ability of his own work to challenge it, stemmed from his decision to examine the patterns of established culture at their strong points and not to content himself with the comforting simplifications of a purely radical lineage. The main impulse of Williams’s work in the fifties was to (re)construct a critique of industrial capitalism as a human order rather than to pursue its specifically economic failures, or alleged failures, in the area of productivity. The Long Revolution went on to elaborate new conceptual tools which could identify hidden dimensions of political transformation and deep structures of the social formation. The insistence that political and economic institutions left out vital areas of experience and social practice, the attention paid to whole forms of life and longue durée, suggested at least the title and perhaps something in the overall method of Juliet Mitchell’s pioneering feminist essay ‘Women: The Longest Revolution’ in nlr 40 (1966). Raymond Williams’s analysis of the British social formation or of the culture industry was or became historical materialist by its very refusal of some of the established categories of Marxist discourse.

Williams’s abiding concern even with conservative tradition went together with the boldest espousal of new practices and institutions. The patterns whereby culture was produced and reproduced were a central pre-occupation for him, so were the democratic possibilities opened up by transformations in communications technology. In early discussions on the New Left board he championed the efforts of Stuart Hall, as editor, to address such questions and to experiment with a new understanding of contemporary popular culture. His work on education and communications created a climate of discussion and expectation which could not be wholly ignored even by officialdom. In his much reprinted Penguin Special on Communications he argued for public ownership of the means of communication, but for their operation to be ruled by a system of leasing to self-managing groups of producers and consumers. Those responsible for setting up the Open University or Channel Four did not directly involve Williams, yet the power of his advocacy remains visible in the better features of these institutions.

An issue of the Listener for April 1968 helps explain why even a Labour Minister of Education would not solicit Williams’s participation. This weekly published by the bbc, with its articles by Sir Isaiah Berlin and Edward Heath, carried a piece entitled ‘Why Do I Demonstrate?’ by Williams in which he explained why he had joined the demonstrations against the Vietnam War and outside the German Embassy following the assassination attempt on Rudi Dutschke. It is worth quoting this at length since it exemplifies so well Williams’s ability to make the most pointed of interventions, to explain to us the wider significance of our own actions, and to put present problems in a new and unexpected context: ‘Today in a score of countries, the protest march has become a regular part of political activity. In the past in Britain, as at Peterloo and in the marches of the Chartists, there was a style of demonstration that pre-dated liberal democracy, the march of men without votes representing that majority who were excluded from political decision, and a march through the streets with banners because this was still the quickest and most visible means of communication. Today the means of communication are much more developed. . . . Yet parliamentary democracy has become increasingly formal under the pressure of consensus. . . . Moreover the theory of representative democracy, with all its strengths and limitations, is being itself surpassed in practice by the pressures of modern organized capitalism to channel decisions to many non-elected bodies. And a key role in this replacement of representative democracy is being played by the modern communications system, which is not, and does not pretend to be, democratic at all, except in purely negative ways. When the German students, after the shooting of Rudi Dutschke, demonstrated against a press monopoly, they were taking into the streets, and for their own good reasons, what had been for many years a central part of New Left theory: that in any large and complicated society, the communications system in newspapers, broadcasting and television is a major political institution—in its supply of necessary information, in its capacity to select, emphasize or exclude, and in its power to influence and campaign. But this institution . . . is permanently up for auction to rich men, to the new communications combines, who then claim by simple purchase this immense political power. . . . Parliament itself has conceded many decisive areas of power, in economic planning and in communications, to wholly undemocratic institutions which it is in no way prepared to fight. The measure of the failure of the social democratic parties in Western Europe is that by compromising on just those issues, they’ve excluded themselves from any serious consideration as the means to democracy and socialism. It is in the gap left by that failure that the new movements are being formed. . . . It is necessary to say soberly and quietly that the decay and corruption of the political system, and the intolerable violence now actually directed against the poor of the world, will go on being fought by all effective means.’footnote3