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Living in a Material World
Raymond Williams's Long Revolution

When Raymond Williams describes an act of the mind he assumes that both its individual and its social circumstances must be taken into account: without falling for determinist equations, he never forgets that human works are inextricable from human lives. That's my kind of social theorist, and my kind of socialist intellectual--yours too, I hope. Yet it took me 15 years to get serious about him--starting in 1968, when I noticed his name looming up at me from various newish British popular culture bibliographies, through 1976, when forays from pop into alienated-artist territory led me to his renowned Culture and Society, to just a few years ago, when I finally cracked The Country and the City and then Orwell and then Marxism and Literature and then . . . My reluctant conversion is far from atypical, especially among Americans, most of whom remain merely reluctant. Again and again I meet properly left-leaning academics who profess vast respect for the man and then politely dredge up the title of another book of his they've read. But forget academics--it's the laity I want. If inquiring college graduates (and dropouts) can read Milan Kundera and Roland Barthes and Dick Hebdige and William Gass, they can damn well read Williams, a richer writer, book by book or all in all, than any of them.

I go to Williams first for information. Working from an ambit of interest that embraces all human aspiration, he's mastered a distinctive and formidable body of knowledge by concentrating on (while never limiting himself to) examples drawn from English literature. Though this method is more professorial than one would like, it's less professorial than would appear. This is true because Williams defines his subject so that it extends beyond the details of thousands of books, beyond Jonson's patronage and Gissing's bohemianism and Lawrence's education, beyond even Smith's bookstalls and Northcliffe's newspapers. But it's also because Williams's ambit of interest induces him to investigate his examples from unconventional angles. He insists on connecting works to lives--the lives of readers and intermediaries as well as creators, all of them understood critically, psychologically, and politically. He loves the literature of the past, but resists the highbrow temptation to be put off by the contemporary world. And though I can't claim his style is scintillating, I do find his presentation tonic. One of the pleasures of Kundera and Barthes and Gass is their elegant self-referentiality, the way their books double back on themselves like the self-enclosed systems of signs they're implicitly acknowledged to be. Insofar as it's possible, Williams rejects this formalist gambit. He believes words refer to real things which precede language, and that's the way he writes. He's devoted to content--which in his terms means he's devoted to politics.

Williams is described by New Left Books, the staunchest of his many publishers, as "the most productive and influential socialist writer in England today." Although along with Stuart Hall and E.P. Thompson (as well as Hall's mentor and Williams's fellow left-Leavisite Hoggart) he's credited with laying the theoretical groundwork for Britain's new left, many would grant pride of influence to Thompson, who in recent years has been instrumental in remobilizing the moribund Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. But unlike Thompson (whose roots are in Quaker radicalism) and like Hall (who is Jamaican and working-class), Williams (who is Welsh and working-class) has managed to keep talking to all sides during sectarian feuds. And in any case no one will deny Williams's astounding productivity--one reason, though there are certainly others, for his almost as astounding sales totals, now up over a million worldwide.

Counting three collaborations but leaving out revisions, which in at least three cases have been major, the 1984 collection Writing in Society was Williams's 25th book, ready just months after number 24, The Year 2000. Though the first appeared in 1950, when he was 29, Williams only gained recognition with number five, 1958's Culture and Society, and not until the '70s did his output begin to gather critical mass: 14 of his 25 titles have been published since 1971. Nor has Williams confined production to books. Until 1961, when he was invited back to Cambridge to lecture in drama, he made his living teaching workers evening classes, and he has been a busy essayist and reviewer as well as a playwright. He's surfaced politically at crucial junctures, and raised three children with his wife of 42 years. In 1982, he retired from Cambridge to write (as New Left Books rather dauntingly puts it) "full-time." Georges Simenon watch out.

Williams's prolific habits have left me feeling as if I'd better sit down and write full-time myself before the old man laps me again, an indignity I've suffered three times since this essay was conceived as a way of celebrating Columbia University Press's new (1983) edition of Culture and Society. Especially given Williams's obsessive thoroughness, though, I'm still not sure I feel ready; having read 16 of his books (not all of which are easy to come by even in what Williams, with uncharacteristic levity, refers to as "the Yookay"), I don't intend to stop. I'm curious about Preface to Film (with Michael Orrom, 1954), one of the first attempts by a critic of Williams's loft to analyze popular culture at length, and The English Novel From Dickens to Lawrence (1971), constructed from lecture notes and therefore, it is said, somewhat less dense than most of his nonfiction. An enthusiastic admirer of his working-class novels Border Country (1960) and Second Generation (1964), I'm eager to locate the thriller-influenced Volunteers (1978) and the science fiction-influenced Fight for Manod (1979). For me, Williams isn't just a fecund and significant and immensely useful writer. He's an enjoyable and even exciting one.

Which is not to suggest that Georges Simenon has anything to worry about. As someone who makes it his business to recognize serious fun when it kicks him in the head, I can guarantee that Williams doesn't qualify. Lumpy, slightly turgid, unabashedly Latinate, he just isn't a writer with much entertainment value. Not only can't he go up against Simenon as beach reading, he can't go up against Thompson. The semipopular novels and broadcast dramas he's essayed suggest that Williams is willing to entertain as best he can when occasion and audience so indicate. But as far as he's concerned, us college graduates (and dropouts) should relish the ideas and information he provides so abundantly and find nothing less than full-fledged aesthetic satisfaction in his profound, subtle, and inventive command of voice and persona, format and shape.

Nevertheless, or hence, Williams remains a surprisingly obscure figure among left-leaning Americans. At best, they may have read Culture and Society, though they've just as likely taken on Thompson's Making of the English Working Class, which is three times as long. But their taste in culture theory probably runs to various Big Frankfurters and Big Frogs, some nouvelle cassoulet of Benjamin-Adorno-Marcuse-etc. and Barthes-Foucault-Derrida-etc.; those who retain a nostalgic yen for ideas formulated in the English language probably prefer American-style quasi-structuralists like Fredric Jameson (for politicos) or Harold Bloom (for aesthetes), or leftist art-critic-plus John Berger, or Williams's star student and fond patricide, Terry Eagleton. All of whom, I contend, would have had a much dodgier time reaching their audience if Culture and Society hadn't cleared the way.


It's difficult now to comprehend the radical impact of Culture and Society, not just because its hard-earned premises have long since been absorbed as commonplaces, but also because from the first its acclaim was so broadly based. In Britain Williams's account of the evolution of the term "culture" in English letters was praised even by Tories who disdained his sentimental attachment to the lower classes, and here the book was reviewed enthusiastically by Irving Howe, Michael Harrington, Harold Rosenberg, and Alfred Kazin--all except Kazin socialist sympathizers to be sure, but every one a big-name highbrow, which was what counted in the status-hungry U.S. intellectual product market. Here, there, and everywhere, Williams was chided for his "over-solemn" style, but his fairness and thoroughness were so palpable that even his natural enemies found it in themselves to forgive his willful originality and steadfast leftism. And at the same time his natural allies were galvanized.

In Britain, the catalyst wasn't just the book's content but the very idea of the thing, and of the man who wrote it. At a time when the nation's remaining left intellectuals were split philosophically between crude Stalinoid economism and mealy-mouthed quasi-Fabian reformism, when the hot young writers were ravening existentialists like Colin Wilson and William Golding or once-angry strives like Kingsley Amis and John Braine, Williams stood up as an explicitly working-class left socialist whose enormous intellectual ambition would have been deemed arrogant in a showier, less circumspect man. With figures like Hoggart and Thompson and Hall and Berger and Doris Lessing and Arnold Wesker and Alasdair MacIntyre peeping out after the twin shitstorm of Budapest and Suez, the British new left was slowly beginning to recognize itself, and like its American counterpart of a few years later it had its own ideas about how leftists should relate to what economism dismisses as the superstructure. Committed in their personal lives to sensibility as well as to justice, these people had no intention of submerging irreducible aesthetic experiences in ideology. But they were nevertheless suspicious of the traditional British reluctance to embark upon grand theoretical projects. Especially with such congenial thinkers as Gramsci, Lukács, Goldmann, and the Big Frogs all but unknown in the English-speaking world, Williams emerged as both an inspiration and a citable authority; 1961's The Long Revolution, planned from the start as the social-history counterpart of Culture and Society, proved at least as influential on the left as its companion volume.

If only because it's always been so specific to British needs, however, Williams's charisma has eluded Americans, and though he's been well reviewed in this country, his reputation here rests primarily upon Culture and Society itself. Now, Culture and Society is certainly Williams's most comprehensive and momentous work, and in an odd way it's his most representative as well. There's no more accessible introduction to the style and scope of his thought, to its dogged complexity, its difficult yet dazzlingly commonsensical insights, its contained confidence, its formal canniness, and above all its balance. It epitomizes both his willingness to learn from the other side's struggle to understand its historical predicament and his sharp overriding awareness of whose side he's on--of the way the world presents itself to the union loyalists, small farmers, housewives, night-school students, and other set-upon citizens who constitute "the people." But to most of his allies today (and to Williams himself), Culture and Society sometimes actually seems slanted in the direction of such reactionaries as Burke and Carlyle and T.S. Eliot, Furthermore, it soft-pedals Williams's politics, which in any case were at their most conciliatory during the '50s, remembered by Williams as a period of "disgusted withdrawal" for him no matter how much his unflagging commitment impressed his even more disgusted potential comrades.

Yet though Williams says Culture and Society now seems "a book written by someone else," he still holds that it played a crucial role in redefining the politics of "this strange, unsettling and exciting, world." For while from here it may be regarded as a narrowly literary project that betrays his lingering sense of obligation to F.R. Leavis, who had redefined the study of English at Cambridge by the time Williams returned to his undergraduate scholarship after three years manning a tank in World War II, in fact it goes up against the fundamentals of Leavisism. Although it certainly makes judgments, it's nowhere near as hierarchical, as politely snobbish, as obsessed with "discrimination." More important, the tradition it invents doesn't comprise works of art in all their organic, undidactic glory. It's a tradition of social commentary, mostly by essayists or by poets and novelists acting as essayists, occasionally embodied or even (shocking!) formulated as abstract propositions within living works of art. Yet what Williams values as much as the ideas in such writing is its personal stamp, the same kind of ineluctable individual voice fetishized by Leavis, the new critics, and soon the whole of Western cold war aesthetic ideology. As he puts it in a telling passage: "Burke's writing is an articulated experience, and as such it has a validity which can survive even the demolition of its general conclusions."

In the end, one of the deep satisfactions of Culture and Society is the way it maintains the same kind of tension between "articulated experience" and "general conclusions," and one of its hidden disappointments is its failure to formulate that tension abstractly. This is not a book with a neatly summarizable thesis--for all its analytic reach, its triumph is one of tone and structure and especially method rather than argument. As Williams explained to a convocation of lefter-than-thou colleagues and students in 1967, its conception is oppositional, countering the candid religious-reactionary conservatism of T.S. Eliot, the covert humanist-liberal conservatism of Leavis, and the economist reductionism of Marxists who believe that the "superstructure" of art and ideology exerts no influence on the economic "base," that it merely reflects or mediates or typifies a determinative mode of production. Though in an oft-cited and significant introductory note he promises to trace the evolution of the words "industry," "democracy," "class," "art," and "culture" from 1780 to 1950, that isn't what he does, not in any schematic way. Instead he unravels the "vital strand" of English thought in which old values are recontextualized by (capitalist) material progress, and in doing so demonstrates, quite politely, that the elitism of Eliot and Leavis (not to mention the Marxists) isn't necessarily shared by the culture theorists who preceded and engendered them. Here, for instance, is Edmund Burke himself. "I have never yet seen any plan which has not been mended by the observations of men who were much inferior in understanding to the person who took the lead in the business."

Of course, like anybody with the stuff to launch an informed and innovative attack on elitism, Williams can claim elite status himself. This prospect oppresses him. Like the protagonist of his novel Second Generation, he chose never to complete his doctorate, but the decision hurt, and if Culture and Society seems to respond only indirectly to Marxist tradition while tackling academic orthodoxy with inordinate passion, that's one reason why. Especially in the '50s, he couldn't shake his fascination with the citadels of learning--of "culture"--that he'd breached with such effort and rejected with such ambivalence. And despite the cavils of allies whose privileges of birth--of class, generation, or both--have eased their own relationship with the academy, this orientation is anything but misdirected. The above from which capitalist ideology is generated is most often located in an ivory tower, which means that academic truisms quickly degenerate into virulent middlebrow cliches. It's clear enough that Leavis and his minions were the target of Williams's comment on Leavis's beloved George Eliot: "It has passed too long for a kind of maturity and depth in experience to argue that politics and political attachments are only possible to superficial minds." But since the '50s this fiction has become the standard copout of literally millions of real and would-be aesthetes: neo-expressionist painters, progressive rockers, comic-book collectors, balletomanes, regional theater honchos, you name it.

In fact, it's only Williams's kind of scholarship that leaves me free to treat this chronic idealist bromide so scornfully. During a decade of research that began when T.S. Eliot's Notes Towards the Definition of Culture got him thinking in 1948, Williams became something of an expert on all the manifestly unsuperficial minds to stray toward the political since the advent of the spinning jenny. He soon found that what the Leavisites encapsulated in a notion of "culture" that signified either highfalutin minority art or unspoiled preindustrial community was invariably connected, by the sharpest contemporary observers of the growth (and depredations) of English industrialism, to "society"--to explicit consideration of class and power. It was by working according to the same premises--in the tradition of Coleridge and Cobbett, of Orwell and Caudwell--that Williams made his methodological mark.

At the same time, Culture and Society developed Williams's own broad basic version of this tradition, one he's pretty much stuck to ever since. Although he grew up in a village near the Welsh-English border and has always honored rural life and the interpersonal day-to-day, he welcomes popular education and refuses to sentimentalize the human relations of the pastoral past, be it Eliot's Middle Ages or Leavis's mid-19th century; in a credo any historian of culture should recite thrice daily, he declares: "If there is one thing certain about `the organic community,' it is that it has always gone." But at the same time he has little use for romantic alienation, for the bohemian exile who thinks "society as such as totalitarian," emphasizing instead "the relative normality of the artist" and the power of art, "by affecting attitudes towards reality, to help or hinder the constant business of changing it." Yet sane and forceful though this formulation may be, it really isn't the source of the book's power, which is more a matter of "articulated experience" than of "general conclusions"--inhering first, as I've said, in its premises and method, and second in its tone and structure.

Maybe Williams is too solemn, but he's certainly convincing, and Culture and Society is the prototype. Like all his nonfiction, it's written in the knobby, inelegant voice of a man honestly struggling to figure things out--a little donnish, perhaps, but in a disarmingly sincere and clumsy way. Next to "culture" itself, the author's favorite words are clearly "difficult" and "complex"; the book is replete with phrases like "the difficulties are obvious" and "a very complex system of specialized developments." He's forever doubling back on himself, or harumphing asides that neither provide needed diversion nor prove what a witty fellow he is. And if the apparent byways of the argument are often stern gibes at class prejudice--at the mean irony of Arnold ("a stock reaction to `the vulgar' which is surely vulgar in itself") or the cautious irony of Tawney (whose "manner before the high priests is uneasy"), at misconceptions about adult education or mob violence--who'll be tempted to gainsay them? They obviously come from a man who's studied his field and learned his place.

Learned his place like hell. For in effect Williams has mastered the usages of scholarship so he can turn the tables on the dons who taught him so much and undervalued his experience so profoundly. Anyone who doubts it should ponder the "Conclusion" of Culture and Society. A 44-page essay that bears no chapter number, bursting with only a page break out of Chapter 6 of Part III ("George Orwell"), it's a structurally audacious kicker to what is in form if not content a proper critical history, proceeding unflappably from certified bigdome to certified bigdome. Rather than humbly summing up or grandly expanding upon the wisdom already received, it takes the discussion into enemy territory: mass and working-class culture. In the '50s, of course, up-and-coming bigdomes spouting mass-culture theory were as common as dissertations on Henry James, but not like Williams. As you'd expect, he steers well clear of both reactionary and left elitism, and in addition refuses the nostalgic out of such well-meaning democrats as Richard Hoggart, who in The Uses of Literacy sets up an invidious comparison between mass communications and the homely entertainments of his youth in Leeds (for an American version, see Oscar Handlin's "Comments on Mass and Popular Culture"). Williams doesn't go this way because he doesn't buy the whole concept of the mass: he's willing to use the term adjectivally, but he's deeply suspicious of its origins in "masses," which he labels "a new word for mob." In the most simply memorable sentences he ever wrote, he puts it quite bluntly: "To other people, we also are masses. Masses are other people."

Yet although Williams's good sense about modern popular forms has proceeded as one might hope from this beginning--he has never panicked over the supposedly built-in perceptual perversions of new media, always extended his interest in drama to movies and television, and has even said that new communications technologies signaled "a new phase of civilization"--in the end he's more taken with modern popular processes than with modern popular products. His assessment of "mass culture"--"the strip newspaper, the beer advertisement, the detective novel"--isn't a whole lot more enthusiastic than Hoggart's might be. His analysis of working-class culture, however, is far more radical than Hoggart's praise for club singing and Peg's Paper. After all, Williams says, mass-disseminated forms are rarely created by "working people" anyway, and why would we expect them to be? Working people don't create cultural objects, they create cultural institutions. "Culture in the narrower sense" is the special province of bourgeois individualists, leaving the working class with its own project: "The culture which it has produced, and which it is important to recognize, is the collective democratic institution, whether in the trade unions, the cooperative movement or a political party." As Williams observes, a little dryly, this is "a very remarkable creative achievement"--no less so, and perhaps more so, because it's collective, prefiguring the "common culture" he believes human beings must achieve.

Imagine what it might have been like for E.M.W. Tillyard, the Cambridge tutor who before the war dismissed Williams's earnest young Communist Party line on the progressivism of Dickens and Hardy as "a fantasy," to come upon this sharply reasoned attack on the illusions of status Cambridge dons hold so dear. And imagine too how it might have hit fledgling acolytes of literature as they pondered the bomb and the angry young men in their chambers. By climaxing a respectable scholarly work with a utopian postscript, Williams unleashed an unforseen blast of cultural energy. It wouldn't be the last time he united formal mastery and political effectiveness, but it might yet prove to have been the best.


That lucky old art-action synthesis has been Williams's abiding goal ever since, and because his appetite for more democracy--for socialism, whatever precisely that turns out to mean--is so tenacious and ingrained, the defeats he's suffered pursuing it have troubled him even more than they do most writers of radical conscience: you can turn a deaf ear to your conscience, but not to your entire being. And then there's a second complication: though politics is the ground of his existence and the soul of his writing, it's writing that possesses and sustains him, both as his work and, to an extent that must concern him, as the subject of his work. No wonder this fervent materialist insists that culture is material--he'd hardly be content devoting his life to some chimerical play of ahistorical signifiers.

Williams's '60s were energetic and involved. His resurgent activism was characteristically unsectarian, his confident creative output characteristically uncategorizable. He fruitlessly mediated the bitter disputes engulfing New Left Review when Perry Anderson's group took over from the old (at 35) guard of E.P. Thompson and Stuart Hall; joined the Labour Party in time to see the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament vanquished there in 1961 and stayed on till 1966; helped organize Britain's Vietnam Solidarity Campaign in 1965; conceived and assembled two versions of The May Day Manifesto in an attempt to rally the Labour left when Harold Wilson's union and monetary policies became too much; and chaired the National Convention of the Left until it dissolved in fractious turmoil after the Conservative victory of 1970. During the same time he published The Long Revolution and Border Country, both written in the '50s, revised his 1952 Drama From Ibsen to Eliot (now Brecht), did two plays with the BBC, produced numerous major essays and countless reviews, and completed five books: Communications, a Pelican adult-education primer regarded by many reviewers as a dastardly call for the nationalization of culture; Second Generation, a working-class novel and an academic novel simultaneously; the iconoclastic Modern Thought, which not only brought novels into the canon but in 1966 included a chapter comparing "Tragedy and Revolution"; The May Day Manifesto, first published privately and then taken by Penguin; and The English Novel From Dickens to Lawrence.

The English Novel (which I've read since I began writing) is probably Williams's easiest nonfiction, not for its discursive, semicolon-studded style but for its subject matter, and his novels aren't just more fun to read than his cultural writing, they're richer, in that way fiction has. But Williams's most exciting books of the period are The Long Revolution and Modern Tragedy. Though criticized by Thompson for vagueness and gradualism, The Long Revolution's leftism scandalized mainstream pundits, and once again structure and method intensified impact. Bracketing a 50,000-word abstract on creativity and society and a 25,000-word forecast of the politics of British culture in the '60s around seven part-critical, part-sociohistorical case studies of topics Williams had taught in night school, the book's apparently haphazard structure was as careless of academic decorum (and authority) as its unassumingly cross-disciplinary reach. And the topics themselves were ground-breaking: the class and educational training of 350 literary eminences, the empty-headed history of "standard" English, the interrelations between what is taken for strictly formal progress in the theater and power shifts in the society. These unorthodoxies were compounded by Modern Tragedy, an all-out attack on the atavistic 20th century theory of tragedy, which in its craving for ritual insults ordinary human suffering ("The events which are not seen as tragic are deep in the pattern of our own culture: war, famine, work, traffic, politics"). Having done the deed, it makes a somewhat murky but courageous and essential attempt to resolve the great unanswered question of revolutionary thought: why men and women in nonreligious, individualistic cultures should be expected to risk death for a future they'll never see.

It's really Modern Tragedy that marks Williams's turn toward Marx and Marxism, which get nine entries in its index and none in The Long Revolution's. Though in a typical nonconformist lapse he's never declared himself a Marxist per se, modern Marxism has long been the primary context of his discourse. Attributable in the first instance to the increasingly ideological tenor of the British new left, this long-range trend also has roots in Williams's CP days at Cambridge and follows an intrinsic trajectory of his thought. But it often remains invisible to the casual observer. If Standford University Press could find three blurbs that make Modern Tragedy look like an update of Gilbert Murray, Williams probably planned it that way. This is a man for whom publish-or-perish is all but literal, and he has not the slightest hesitation about exploiting his status as a certified bigdome to do subversive work in academic subgenres as well as to invent new subgenres himself.

His genre work includes a monograph, George Orwell (1970), which looks behind the plain-talking persona of Britain's consummate class exile; a communications text, Television: Technology and Cultural Form (1974), which comes complete with outlines and flow charts; two survey-course overviews, Marxism and Literature (1977) and The Sociology of Culture (1982), both of which take on Britain's structuralism/Althusserianism epidemic almost by the by; and two collections, one formidably comprehensive and the other vaguely thematic. Qualifying as innovations would be the historical dictionary, Keywords (1976), which finally completes the lexicography promised in the foreword to Culture and Society, and a 417-page interview, Politics and Letters (1979), where he spars skillfully with a tag team of Marxist interlocutors. And somewhere in between is his greatest book, The Country and the City (1973), a formal triumph on the order of Culture and Society taken to a new level of difficulty.

Its ideas crushed down into synoptic concision by Oxford University Press's strict 60,000-word limit, Marxism and Literature is a slower read, but Williams has never written anything harder to get into than The Country and the City. After a brief, thoughtful personal memoir and a devastating demonstration of how the organic community has always gone (even for Hesiod in 800 B.C.), he begins his examinations of pastoral with one of those bombshells I love him for: the observation that where Virgil's narrator Meliboeus, "the `source' of a thousand pretty exercises on an untroubled rural delight and peace," was in fact a dispossessed smallholder remembering the land that had been grabbed out from under him, Horace's equally celebrated second Epode, written a few years later, is "the sentimental reflection of a usurer, thinking of turning farmer, calling in his money and then, at the climax of the poem, lending it out again." Great stuff, but it all takes place within 20 pages; as Williams explores his double theme--arcadia as real estate, a bountiful land exploited by the rich and worked by the poor--things slow down precipitously, mostly because his source material (especially the country-house poems that were his original topic) is often tedious whatever its documentary value or standing as literature. Tedious for the general reader, that is--Williams obviously doesn't think so.

In part this is because he has such an appetite for knowledge. And in part it's because he's so moved by any literary effort--from Jonson or Hardy, from George Crabbe or John Clare, from Stephen Duck ("still called with a lingering patronage the `thresher-poet'") or Fred Kitchen (a farm laborer who entitled his 1939 autobiography Brother to the Ox). In part, however, it's because unlike the general reader he isn't blindered by the urban provincialism The Country and the City means to destroy. This is no anti-urban tract, but it does redress the distortion of rural reality that's been an orthodoxy ever since the landed gentry began to equate sophistication with the town houses where they consolidated their power. As you work your way in you realize that what's making your eyes glaze over isn't just the prose or the endemic artificiality of pastoral as a genre. It's that like all city folk you've been steered away from any systematic interest in what Marx and Engels, in a phrase Williams will never completely forgive, branded "the idiocy of rural life"--even though you live off that idiocy, less opulently than the landed gentry but no less absolutely.

Williams's unimpeded appreciation of both country and city, not just in theory but in felt detail, makes him a rarity among writers in the Marxist tradition--among writers of any kind. Because rural-urban is one of the great governing tensions of his life, right up there alongside politics-art, The Country and the City gathers tremendous resonance. Throughout its second half he juxtaposes the "knowable community" of the English village against new urban ideas of collective consciousness--the Jungian mystification in which "the middle terms of actual societies are excluded as ephemeral," the revolutionary emphasis on "altered and altering relationships." The argument gathers momentum until what began as a monograph about country-house poems blooms into a meditation on imperialism, ecology, and the deep need of human beings to both escape and hold on to their childhoods. The way the book moves, building a surprising but irresistible climax from an almost wearisome accumulation of analysis and observation, reminds me of how submerged metapolitical themes finally rush to cognition in the preadolescent protagonists of Henry Roth's Call It Sleep and Christina Stead's The Man Who Loved Children. This is criticism with the emotional power of a great novel--a moving personal document and a prophetic work.


Except for the 1983 monograph Cobbett, The Country and the City was the last book Williams devoted to specific works of literature. Over the past dozen years he's produced some of his most imaginative essays (on Hard Times, Robert Tressell, science fiction) as well as some of his deadliest (vide Writing in Society's made-in-Cambridge Shakespeare and Racine papers), but he's also drawn a sharper line between literature and analysis, writing novels on the one hand and straight theory on the other. Williams was an enraptured admirer of Finnegans Wake when he decided to take up fiction as a vocation in the early '50s, and although he soon embraced conventional narrative technique, he's never stopped chafing at what publishers dictate to be publishable length; like Joyce, he wants his novels to contain whole worlds. He labors hard at them (several have undergone five or more complete rewrites over periods of many years), and they're impressive in several respects--their avoidance of the satiric marginality that afflicts so many academic settings no less than their judicious refusal to turn working-class characters into paragons. But they've never been his most influential or (what hurts) widely read works. So although like any good Briton he has small taste for system, it's in philosophical matters that he's made most of his recent impact.

Because metaphysics has been of the essence for left intellectuals in this time of sectarian impotence, Williams's attention to theory can be seen as strategic, as defensive practical politics within his real ambit of power: the left. Keywords and Marxism and Literature carry on his lifelong battle against establishment culturati, but more than Culture and Society they're also aimed at the pet notions of his presumed political allies, not just vulgar-Marxist base-superstructure dualism but also what he's described as "a mode of idealist literary study claiming the authority of Marxism and the prestige of association with powerful intellectual movements in many fields"--in a word (though one will never do), structuralism.

Williams is accused with some justice of continuing to trundle out the base-superstructure model for ritual dissection long after it's lost its credibility: though of course they all have different names for it, by now most left culture theorists subscribe to some version of what Williams calls "cultural materialism," which stresses the symbiotic relationship between the realm of the imagination and determinative economic forces. (Williams places special emphasis on the ambiguity of the verb "to determine," which can imply anything from mechanical cause-and-effect to the setting of limits that are always susceptible to further testing.) Nevertheless, his discussion of the crucial base-superstructure concept--in a seminal 1973 essay reprinted in 1980's Problems in Materialism and Culture as well as in Marxism and Literature--remains essential, if only because all materialist thinkers tend to slip toward its hypostatized categories in moments of philosophical panic. This applies even to those who employ the much subtler Gramscian concept of hegemony, which not surprisingly holds considerable attraction for Williams himself. He's done some of his most useful work classifying what Gramsci calls counter-hegemonic modes: whether "oppositional" or simply "alternative," they're often also "residual" (consider all the apparent conservatives who've made progressive contributions to culture theory) or "emergent" (and probably destined for absorption into an improved hegemony, as in Williams's exemplary "The Bloomsbury Fraction"). His emphasis is on language and culture as material practices ("meaning is always produced; it is never merely expressed") that address "the lost middle term between the abstract entities, `subject' and `object,' on which the propositions of idealism and orthodox materialism are erected."

Another way to designate that lost middle term is "experience," a Leavis keyword that means a lot to Williams's leftist contemporaries, particularly E.P. Thompson, but has been rejected on grounds of epistemological instability by upstart British Francophiles. Typically, Williams hasn't hung on to it with anything like Thompson's schismatic stubborness; where the historian has devoted a book-length essay (a long book-length essay) to an attack on Althusser and his hellspawn, Williams has made a valiant if self-aggrandizing attempt to turn back what I'll call sign-and-structure theory by co-opting it into his own view of culture. There's no need to go into the gruesome details (Marxism and Literature and The Sociology of Culture are the relevant texts), but it's worth noting how well Williams's early theoretical impulses prepared him for the Invasion of the Big Frogs. His nonspecialist fascination with lexicography immunized him against the silly semiotic tendency to treat words as synchronic givens. And he'd devised the term "structure of feeling" to capture that lost middle term long before structuralism had had its covertly idealist way with the best minds of the next generation. From the beginning he's seen it as his mission to get at the synthesis of subject and object without which humane and effective politics are impossible.

But as leftists learn again and again, it's easier to make politics not impossible than to make them possible, and though Williams's activism has been diligent, his political writing has never been as visionary as his cultural writing. Sympathizers to his right and left feel constrained to point out its manifest inconsistencies: this is a man who was still expressing qualified support for Pol Pot in late 1977, but who also believes that a true bicameral legislature would do Britain a world of good. Such positions are difficult enough to support individually, much less in tandem. But as leftists learn again and again, any wise guy can poke holes in other people's ideas--coming up with just one that hold water itself is the hard part. Williams is torn by the same contradictions that rip at all but his most self-deceived or cold-hearted allies: on the one hand he sees that reform's ended up next to nowhere, and on the other hand he sees where revolution's ended up. Because he'd rather risk making a fool of himself than simply remain mute, he tries to do right by the tactical matter before him without necessarily piecing it into a totally systematic worldview. And if these shifts don't render him the most convincing strategist, they do no dishonor to his articulated experience. This is also a man who 's elevated "difficult" into a byword and spent a whole book proving revolution is tragic. There's nothing glibly armchair-Marxist in his willingness to countenance contradictions. He makes you swallow them lumps and all.

And then he complicates them even further. Of course neither reform nor revolution has achieved enough. But Williams has no use for the armchair shibboleth that they've done nothing for people. As he's learned about the role of physical force in Chartism and before, as he's pondered Russia, China, and the third world, his politics have toughened markedly; it's his considered position that, even in Britain, "the condition for the success of the long revolution in any real terms is decisively a short revolution." The evidence of his own experience has been too overwhelming, however, for him to scoff at the progress his class has made since 1688--a progress Williams perceives not in terms of physical comfort but of culture, especially education and the growth of genuine democratic self-confidence among working people. As Eagleton has complained in Criticism and Ideology, this awareness does tend to stymie Williams when he gets into tight political questions. But he would never have articulated his experience without it.


There may be reason to fear that Williams's work has peaked. I'm hampered in this judgment because I don't know his late novels, but nothing leads me to believe that Williams's fiction will ever have the impact of his nonfiction. And since Marxism and Literature, his nonfiction has skirted both the eccentric and the perfunctory. The Sociology of Culture seems as rehashed as Communications without the earlier book's modest instructional aura. Problems in Materialism and Culture provides a wide-ranging overview, but it's still only a collection by a writer who's never gravitated toward the born essayist's concision and wit, which goes double for Writing in Society. Readable though Politics and Letters is, you have to know Williams's oeuvre to feel the fascination of its revisions and commentary and autobiography. And The Year 2000 takes a typical formal leap and falls flat on its face.

The project at hand is an analysis of the crucial decades to come that doesn't credit utopian/dystopian cliches or cede a specious primacy to any determinative force--economic, cultural, political, religious, what-have-you. Williams begins with a searching little disquisition on futurology as a theoretical practice, then volunteers to make himself a guinea pig by reprinting for critical examination the 25,000-word conclusion of The Long Revolution. As it happens, "Britain in the Sixties" holds up well enough to provide a convenient kicking-off place. But Williams never subjects it to the kind of scrutiny we've been led to expect, a scrutiny that might help us think for ourselves about his continuing biases. Instead of a richly self-referential speculation, we get a predictably depressive, predictably undespairing prognosis that's unlikely to read as well in the year 2000 as "Britain in the Sixties" does now. For Williams's life-long habit of putting culture before comfort is certainly a bias: in his plausible utopia, citizens attend lots of electronic meetings and relegate crass consumer desires to the unenlightened capitalist past. I agree that Williams's theoretical model, the Club of Rome's limits-to-growth analysis, isn't taken seriously enough by the paper profligates of socialist futurology. But somehow I find calls to self-denial less convincing when they come from prophets who have ascetic tendencies to begin with.

A product of the '50s, an era of expansive material well-being whatever its spiritual paucities, "Britain in the Sixties" tempers sane skepticism with a sense of burgeoning possibility. For this its author has been called wooly-headed, which may well be true but misses a crucial point: at some deep temperamental level Williams is so dour that without access to optimism he's in danger of becoming unbalanced. As a reader, I don't mind the gravity of his style; in fact, I take a certain amusement in its graceless refusal to joke around. But I don't like what his style says about his worldview; I'm a little suspicious of the experience it articulates. For if there is a category missing from this determinedly comprehensive body of work, a human fundamental that rarely seems to cross Williams's mind, it's pleasure--especially, materialist though he may be, physical pleasure.

Williams almost never theorizes about sex, and he really doesn't like Freud much. Sex does, however, play a major role in his bildungsroman, Second Generation, which among other things functions as a tract against "the old bourgeois fantasy" of "the personal break-out, through sex"--a theme that both charges and narrows the book. The climactic epiphany comes when the protagonist and his true love go dancing, apparently to rock and roll of some sort. For Williams, this scene is a striking achievement. Despite dribs and drabs of approbation for the symphony here, jazz there, insurgent pop somewhere else, he rarely evinces any feeling for nonverbal art (his awkwardness around painting and sculpture seriously cramps The Sociology of Culture). It's also one of the few places in any of his books that this half-witting champion of popular culture actually enjoys any. True, in the television columns he wrote for The Listener at the turn of the '70s, some glimmers of fun flicker through. But even that casual context occasions remarks like: "There are laughs of so many kinds. Those induced don't usually last."

A key to Williams's anti-hedonism is "Advertising: The Magic System," a circa-1959 essay that in its grimly acerbic way is as visionary a piece of left culture theory as Walter Benjamin's "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction." Williams acknowledges advertising's news function and its crucial ancillary role in the growth of the democratic press, but he loathes what it's become: in his opinion, not merely the instigator of dysfunctional desire but the chief means whereby capitalism deflects attention from its inability to provide basic social needs. I know of no more devastating account of consumerism as a pathology. But Williams's hostility to consumption is clearly a little pathological too, tied as it is to an obsession of his own: production. His refusal of the passive mode is too unbending; his critique of sensationalism verges on the prissy and puritanical. Not only does he find it hard to respect people's right to be lazy, but he won't understand that the modern need to get done, turned on, zapped, even blitzed isn't always the result of media manipulation. In an information-saturated environment that isn't going to get much less volatile under any kind of socialism an anti-authoritarian like Williams wants to see, such needs are also legitimate aesthetic responses, often to works by artists who have as much claim to speak for and to working people as he does.

For if Williams is exceptionally curious and open, he's also rather guarded and chauvinistic. Somewhere within him there's an affinity-meter that operates on a pass-fail system. If like Burke or Eliot you edge into the black (or is it the red?), he'll give you everything's he got, but if you fall short, beware: Williams can be brazenly small-minded about work he doesn't approve of, especially smash middlebrow succés d'estime in which he detects the fatal virus of cynicism--Smiley's People ("an owlish confirmation of deep inner betrayals") or The Threepenny Opera ("cold-hearted muck about the warm-hearted whores and engaging crooks"). He seems virtually unaware that there's any such thing as American literature except in his academic specialty, drama, where he stops at Miller and Williams--as you'd expect from someone who'd no sooner endorse modernism than formalism and who doesn't bother himself much with the 20th century avant-garde. His astute comments on social marginality proceed from a fascination compounded of clear-eyed sympathy and dark suspicion--this is not a man inclined to believe that anything enduring can emanate from bohemia.

Both his distrust of simple pleasure and his distrust of arty arcana make Williams look like a cultural conservative, and in important respects that's what he is. But there's another way of putting it, as anyone who's absorbed Culture and Society should recognize. Like the backward/forward-looking movers of that saga, Williams refuses extremes of bourgeois individualism--both the easy availability of consumer culture and the recondite self-involvement of minority culture. I think this is a mistake. Whatever the perils of these modern/modernist options, they're so vivid for people that much of the century's best art engages them, and if postmodernism turns out to mean anything it will necessarily achieve some synthesis of the two. Still, I also think it's a mistake to dismiss Williams's pet notion of artistic progress, in which the culturally dispossessed find their own voices, arriving at a kind of homely yet formally innovative realism-plus which bears the same relation to Williams's beloved realism that his cultural materialism does to materialism as it's ordinarily understood. You might even point at the quasi-postmodernist art--the Latin American novel, say, or Yookay semipop--that does both these things at once.

In fact, if you were feeling particularly perverse, you could try to squeeze Williams into quasi-postmodernism himself. I don't mean to slight the practical political value of his work, especially since its unstylish usefulness is intrinsic to its aesthetic effect. But I think there's a clue to Williams's hopes for himself (as distinct from the world) in his 1964 essay on that urbane Scots empiricist David Hume, now reprinted in Writing in Society. In high Althusserian dudgeon, Eagleton has sniffed that Hume would seem "an unlikely candidate" for Williams's praise, given the "anti-intellectualism" of Hume's reversion to direct sensory experience. But Williams makes clear that he shares this kind of anti-intellectualism. He has peered into the abyss of absolute skepticism and decided that if it comes down to a choice between life and metaphysics, he'll take life, thank you very much. And in any case there's an equally pressing if less noble reason for his interest--Hume's neglected stature as pure writer.

Williams tips his hand with an uncharacteristically elegant opening sentence: "In the republic of letters a man can live as himself, but in the bureaucracy of letters he must continually declare his style and department, and submit to an examination of his purpose and credentials at the frontier of every field." He wonders whether Hume should be classified as "moralist, logician, historian, essayist," and then quotes Boswell, who called him "quite simply, `the greatest Writer in Britain,'" and Hume himself, who described the "Love of literary Fame" as his "ruling Passion." Williams approves, arguing that "we can read Hume, sensibly and centrally, as a writer, and that this literary emphasis not only does not weaken his importance as a philosopher, but is even fundamental to it." By now he's plodding like himself again ("weaken his importance" indeed) and thus set apart from Hume's unrepentant hedonism (enough is enough), but he clearly identifies with the philosopher--with his "curiosity and ambition" and his "subtlety of reference not wholly separable from confusion," with his attachment to society and his conviction that a skeptic must always be skeptical of his own skepticism. And also, one must suspect, with his "Love of literary Fame."

Moralist, historian, essayist, sociologist, reviewer, literary scholar, communications theorist, political thinker, Williams refuses to submit his purposes and credentials to the bureaucracy of letters. He feels he's earned the respect he accords Hume--he wants to be seen simply as a writer. But he's not beyond classification: just as it isn't unreasonable to call what Hume does philosophy, it isn't unreasonable to call what Williams does criticism. Williams will object. He can't stand the Leavisite association of "criticism" with consumption-oriented abstractions like "taste," "cultivation," and especially "judgment," all of which separate "response from its real situation and circumstances," and he thinks "the young Marxist anti-realists" are just as bad: "this culture is rotten with criticism." Yet his best writing does respond to other writing, and naturally enough it shows just the salutary sense of context he prescribes--it both engages historical, sociological, political, and philosophical contingencies and candidly originates with a specific individual.

Something like the great Eric Blair character George Orwell, who (as Williams points out) manipulated language to convince us that content determined what words he used, Williams criticizes criticism as he plays the critic-in-spite-of-himself, and while I don't think his reluctant-professor persona is as self-conscious a mask as Blair's decent-Englishman, it's clearly a literary creation. If unlike Hume he isn't running for "greatest Writer in Britain," that's only because his distaste for judgment is real--as real as the socialist principles that inspire it. And of course his socialist principles effectively eliminate him from the competition. His natural enemies continue to regard him with respectful condescension, even more for his loyalty to a Marxist tradition that's now counted passé on top of everything else than for his small interest in what Hume called "Elegance and Neatness," which as Williams notes "is what the literary pursuit was often and is still often understood to be." Meanwhile, those allies who continue to honor the great-man theory--and there are many who are secretly quite slavish about it--disqualify him on doctrinal and/or realpolitikal grounds.

Though I wouldn't think of nominating anybody for greatest Writer anywhere, I have to say that Williams's non-Marxist affinity with Marxism seems to jibe with the promise and broken promises of that great secular religion, just as his affirmation of the vital values of minority culture jibes with his unflinching refusal of its niceties. What's more, I think it's determinative economic forces that have prevented him from pulling off another art-action synthesis on the order of Culture and Society; his interventions in the popular leftism of the late '60s and the elitist leftism of the '70s are realpolitik enough for me. In a lifetime of deeply imaginative, formally adventurous writing, he's made more sense than anyone about the conjunction between art and society, commenting tellingly on an amazing range of other matters while doing so. I wish he were more fun, but I'm not going to make a federal case out of it. I hope he learns to enjoy the occasional cynical laugh before he dies. And I hope he lives to see the revolution--long or short, I don't care.

A Reader's Guide

Culture and Society (Columbia University, 1958): For convenience's sake, think of it as an account--from a British (in fact, English) perspective--of the religion of art which so many basically self-interested secular humanists have subscribed to since the dawn of industrialism. Not by any means an unsympathetic account, either--like most religions, this one has its points.

The Country and the City (Oxford University, 1973): Jean Renoir: "It is practically the only question of the age, this question of primitivism and how it can be sustained in the face of sophistication." Raymond Williams: "The common idea of a lost rural world is then not only an abstraction of this or that stage in a continuing history (and many of the stages we can be glad have gone or are going). It is in direct contradiction to any effective shape of our future."

Marxism and Literature (Oxford University, 1977): You don't have to be Marxist to love Marxist culture theory, which for all Marxism's history of philistinism and suppression has thrown up thinkers (Gramsci, Bakhtin, Brecht, Benjamin, Barthes, Jameson, maybe even Williams) and categories (hegemony, class, third world, popular front) unrivaled in their power to point beyond the enervating modernist cliches of the Euro-elite. For anybody prepared to spend 24 hours reading it, this 212-page condensation is a dandy little intro.

Problems in Materialism and Culture (Verso, 1980): Though Williams's formal impact--his sense of pace, shape, and specific gravity--is book-weight, I recommend this collection to those seeking a multi-faceted once-through. Except for "Advertising: The Magic System," the 14 essays are from the '70s. Other highlights: the sharply anti-liberal "A Hundred Years of Culture and Anarchy," the two-part précis of cultural materialism, and "The Bloomsbury Fraction," which brings off the nearly impossible feat of analyzing social group as creative actor.

Second Generation (Horizon, 1964, out of print): It's cited less admiringly than Williams's father-and-son novel Border Country, but I prefer this slightly awkward follow-up. Its fundamentally fair-minded depiction of academic life has a nasty edge and cuts deeper than Lucky Jim's comedy of manners or A New Life's alienated psychologizing, and its working-class detail is almost as convincing as Saturday Night and Sunday Morning's. Plus glimpses of how seriously Williams takes sex.

The Long Revolution (Columbia University, 1961): "Britain in the Sixties" is a little dated, as are Williams's speculations on the physiology of creativity. But the theory is clear, concise, and complex, and the dissection of one of his pet peeves, "correct" pronunciation, is only the most entertaining example of how devastating he can be when he goes head-to-head with class prejudice.

Modern Tragedy (Stanford University, 1966): Part One, "Tragic Ideas," which details the mystification of tragedy in 20th century academia, ranks with Williams's most trenchant writing. Part Two, "Modern and Tragic Literature," bogs down a bit (Camus and Doctor Zhivago?), and overreaches when it attempts to rationalize revolutionary sacrifice--"the paradox of a man saving his life through losing it." Williams can't quite face the fact that the survival of a society means nothing to someone who gives his or her life for it once that individual's life is gone--unless there's pie in the sky when you die, the most objectively counter-revolutionary of all religions bromides. Nevertheless, he proves himself less obtuse and/or mystagogic than most philosophers of revolution merely by addressing the subject.

Politics and Letters (Verso, 1979): If you've gotten this far, even with a little skipping, you're ready for some gossip. The autobiographical reminiscences from the normally reticent Williams are quite gratifying. As are the searching if sometimes inconclusive clarifications and adjustments elicited by interviewers Perry Anderson, Anthony Barnett, and Francis Mulhern.

The English Novel From Dickens to Lawrence (Merrimack, 1970): Lapsed English majors start here. Williams bypasses Austen because he wasn't ready for her (though he was by the time of The Country and the City, which reprises several of the ideas here, sometimes almost verbatim). But he's great on Dickens, Hardy, Lawrence, and the Brontës, who are honored with an early feminist analysis.

Keywords (Oxford University, 1976): I thought I'd consume these 110 critical lexicographies like bon-bons, which was foolish of me--they go down more like beef jerky, giving you plenty of time to wonder what he'd find in the history of such dangerous words as "fun," "death," "self" (or, as Greil Marcus suggests, such supposedly outmoded ideals as "courage" and "patriotism"). Nevertheless, his demolition of bourgeois shibboleths like "career," "charity," "educated," his clarification of Marxist concepts like "determine," "materialism," "mediation," and his battle for disputed territory like "humanity," "tradition," "realism," and of course "culture" make this a book even those with no special yen for Williams should look at.

Additional Reader Tips:

Five of the 14 essays in Writing in Society are superb, none more so than a 50-page disquisition on the class assumptions of rhetorical stance written as an introduction to The Pelican Book of English Prose. Despite a nod or two at the anti-sex league, Orwell, which Williams pulled back from as his politics moved left in the '70s, is damn near definitive on a 20th century rival who fascinates him almost as much as Lawrence. Border Country is memorable for its nature writing and for its minute, undogmatic description of how the General Strike of 1926 affected one Welsh railway station. The political failures of The Year 2000 are mitigated by astutely updated culture theory. Though Drama From Ibsen to Brecht predates Culture and Society, Williams has never again described artistic evolution so thoroughly. The Sociology of Culture is like a mid-'70s James Brown album--enough to prove his genius to history should none of his other work survive. Communications needn't be read by anybody with access to Culture and Society or The Long Revolution. Television: Technology and Cultural Form is admired by communications prof.

Village Voice, Apr. 1985