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A Nice Place to Visit

The Country and the City

by Raymond Williams
Oxford University Press, 335 pp., $9.75

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 appears less as discord than as one more sound to be orchestrated in a skeptical, world-weary consensus.

To remain unassimilated is Raymond Williams’s special achievement. No one has been able to orchestrate him, and it is apparent, after the last twenty years, that no one ever will. He remains at Cambridge a plebeian rock sticking out above the fashionable rightist or leftist tides, a doggedly democratic, anti-utilitarian, revolutionary socialist. In the 1950s he was unfashionable in maintaining an open but critical dialogue with Marxism: he was never a communist, and was perhaps close to some of the independent radical positions of The Monthly Review. In the 1970s he has been overtaken by a fashionable and sometimes scholastic Marxism that derives not from his own work but from Paris or Milan. He has taken from the Marxist tradition a complex and flexible sense of capitalism as process, but whatever else Marxism offers, as philosophy or doctrine, he is ready to question.

A stubborn indifference to the reputable world is evident in the form of The Country and the City, which considers changing attitudes toward rural and urban society, mainly in England. It ignores—and for this it has been disliked by some—the sacred academic unities of period, subject, and tone. Williams discusses the tradition of the country-house poem, with acute attention to the poems themselves; and then moves abruptly to social history, to a chapter of analysis of mortgages, entail, rack-renting, marketing, in which the contradictory findings of experts are worked into his own synthesis. He discusses the images of anomie and alienation clustering around the city, and then shifts without apology to an account of trade unionism, town planning, local government.

This book is angrier, more impatient of academic evasion, more plain-spoken than some of Williams’s earlier works. There are moments when he considers several centuries of polite culture, of its retrospective celebration of paternalist or “organic” country values, then exposes this culture to the scrutiny of a field laborer’s experience and sensibility—makes an abrupt gesture of dismissal and turns to musing on other matters.

The musing is that of a scholarly mind. But the book is not a conventional work of scholarship, and whoever attempts to read it in this way will end up only in disagreements and irritation. It is the work of a moralist, wearing a literary habit. (This is why it cannot be assimilated to the dominant mode of Marxist thought today, which—as the Althusserians are busily telling us—consigns moralism with humanism to the most treacherous regions of bourgeois false consciousness. The Country and the City belongs to a line which includes Burke and Cobbett, Thoreau and Emerson, Culture and Anarchy and Unto This Last, the essays of William Morris, D.H. Lawrence, and Orwell. Williams’s mind moves among whatever evidence seems relevant, regards “history” and “literature” as aspects of man’s experience, refuses to permit questions of knowledge and questions of value and political choice to be segregated in specialist enclosures. This is, of course, thinking of the most serious kind. But it also goes without saying that thought of this kind is of interest only if the thinker has an interesting mind.

This Williams has: but his style bears some scars from his long struggle to resist assimilation. He is rarely a crisp writer and he can be a portentous one. He can imply depths which he does not always disclose; he is over-fond of the words “decisive,” “in the end,” “fundamental,” and yet it is not always clear what has, in the end, been fundamentally decided, since we return, as we began, to “complexities.” He is sometimes a little deaf to other voices, too determined to stand aside, on his own.

These difficulties are most apparent in the last third of his book. The book begins powerfully and with conviction. The “country,” the “city”—there are few stronger sources of imagery than the opposition between these: sometimes formulated as “nature” against “culture,” as purity against corruption, as “organic” against artificial society, sometimes as “rural idiocy” or escapism against enlightenment or against the city seen as the arena for every decisive social conflict.

And in few countries has the country/city opposition entered more pervasively into central literary traditions. In Britain the world’s first industrial revolution was preceded by a capitalist agrarian revolution. For generations, for centuries, money made in trade or in the city was invested in land. It was invested, at the same time, in status; and with landed status went identification with a certain group of supposedly rural values—the values of settlement, of paternal authority and care, of a bountiful and beautiful mode of agrarian production, and lesser values of hunting, horsemanship, attachment to country crafts. Around and within this repeated movement of wealth back to the countryseat there grew up a celebration of retrospective values—indeed, an entire way of feeling—whose supreme term of approval was “old.” Good Old England!

As Williams shows, this structure of feeling was supported always by illusion. It was the newly rich and settled who were most anxious to be seen to have the status of settlement. Ben Jonson’s idealized countryseat, Penshurst, “rear’d with no man’s ruine, no mans grone,” was in fact a manor which had been lost to its owners by execution and attainder fifty years before the poem was written, and had come into the possession of its new owners through court favor. Here we have lands seized from the Church; there we have the fruits of court faction; here again of successful commercial speculation. But it is not only that the “old” settlements and seats have such ruthless origins; the illusion of old and simple country virtues can be sustained only by concealing the fact that the rural gentry are pursuing the same aggressive capitalist modes of exploitation—mediated by mortgages, advantageous marriage-settlements, rack-renting, or enclosure—in their normal agrarian relations.

The illusion, however, was so powerful that those writers who criticized the inhumanity of these practices did so only by clinging the more closely to rural fantasies. It was always the vulgar “new” men who were coming into the country and disturbing “good old” customary agrarian ways. From this there grew up an entire cultural myth, in which approved values always were seen as existing not here and now, but as vanishing into a recent past:

Thus a humane instinct was separated from society; it became a sympathy and a pity, after the decisive social events. The real ruling class could not be put in question, so they were seen as temporarily absent, or as the good old people succeeded by the bad new people—themselves succeeding themselves. We have heard this sad song for many centuries now: a seductive song, turning protest into retrospect, until we die of time.

For the humane retrospective compassion of Goldsmith’s “Deserted Village” this is just. But the myth, Williams argues, extended itself, by way of subtle transitions, to an artificial moral view, from which industrial capitalist society could itself be criticized. As the city came to be seen as corrupt, exploitive, atomized, so the country was seen as whatever was not-city—and hence pre-capitalist or not-capitalist. At this stage the rural myth becomes a main source for “the perpetual retrospect to an ‘organic’ or ‘natural’ society”:

But it is also a main source for that last protecting illusion in the crisis of our own time: that it is not capitalism which is injuring us, but the more isolable, more evident system of urban industrialism.

To sustain this important argument it is right and necessary that the author should move simultaneously into political, cultural, and economic evidence. This he does, and with success. I found his evidence most convincing here when he was attending most closely to texts—notably in his discussions of Dickens and Hardy—and also in some of his very generalized, sinewy passages of historical argument. His social history is the history of a moralist with a profound sense of the process of capitalism.

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