The Country and the City
The British “new left” was among the first of this international family. It began in the mid-Fifties as a strongly political movement, taking hostile views of both orthodox social democracy and communism, and since 1960 it has gone through many mutations. The founding influences—such men as Claude Bourdet, Lelio Basso, Wright Mills, Isaac Deutscher, the voices of communist dissent—gave way successively to other influences such as those of Sartre, Marcuse, Fanon, R.D. Laing, to the rediscovery of Lukacs and of Gramsci, and thence to a highly sophisticated European Marxist tradition. But if we are to understand Raymond Williams—and his remarkable and stubborn consistency—we have to return to the early moment.
The British new left is supposed to have arisen on the tripod of three experiences: the communist crisis of 1956; the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, which enlisted onto the margins of British political life a new generation of activists; and the far-reaching cultural criticism of contemporary society identified with the names of Richard Hoggart and Raymond Williams. The “tripod” explanation is much too tidy, but the influence of Hoggart and Williams was of undoubted importance, and of the two, Williams was the more searching theoretician.
What is remarkable is that Williams remains an influence, outlasting changes in fashion. He has never allowed faddists—campus Guevarists, for example—to ruffle his socialist composure. He has argued quietly and rationally, endorsing what is worthwhile in recent movements: the resistance to imperialism and racism, the necessary transformation of academic institutions and routines.
His work can be accused of insularity: certainly it has grown from avowedly national cultural traditions. Culture and Society (1958) owed something to an old dialogue with F.R. Leavis, surveying and drawing conclusions from a long native tradition of moralism from Burke and Cobbett to D.H. Lawrence and Orwell. His best novel, Border Country (1960), is partly autobiographical and explores the conflict of values between a railwayman from the Welsh border and his son who enters a wider intellectual universe. The Long Revolution (1961) offered both a critique of Marxist cultural theory and an interpretation of the history and sociology of British writing, publishing, journalism: it concluded with a statement of the political positions of the (then) British new left. In 1967-1968 when this movement had fragmented, he brought some elements back together and edited the May Day Manifesto, one of the most concrete works of political analysis to come from the British left.
I emphasize these works over his more specialized criticism of drama and the novel because I wish to emphasize Williams’s importance as a political theorist. This emphasis explains also the unusual and unassimilated nature of his position in England. For English intellectual life has a powerful tendency to assimilate the radical and the nonconformist. The island’s institutions, its modes, its inhibitions against the vulgarity of plain speaking, its close intellectual cousinship, its traffic in favors and privileges—all combine to produce a ritual of assimilation and accommodation. Dissent …