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.
At points where I would argue with him the history has not yet been adequately written. Thus Williams is right to question the myth that the enclosure movement of the eighteenth century displaced at a blow an “organic” pre-capitalist community. The unenclosed open-field village at that time showed often only the husk of communal forms, while the grain within had long been eaten away by capitalist relations. But he overstates the case; and this may be because our historiography still fails to give an adequate account of the breaking of copy-hold and customary tenures, and the effective demise of the “yeoman,” in the century before the maximum enclosure took place. The previous contests between the customary users of the land and the new market-exploiters had been very sharp. Although the enclosure of the commons was only the last episode of this struggle, the petty use-rights, which were part of the subsistence economy of the poor and of the small men were still valued very highly. They were seen as the last resource of an “independence,” and as such they became a symbol and entered into rural myth.
But the repeated contests over commons were not mythical. Nor was the feeling of a copy-hold farmer who faced the loss of generations of tenure merely nostalgic: he was giving up something valuable to him here and now, albeit based on inherited right. The defense of threatened rights or usages is not necessarily retrospective in any nostalgic sense. Most radical criticism of society, and especially of capitalist society with its repeated rationalizations, starts from such a sense of being threatened. The Luddites of 1811 were defending craft skills and the Clydeside engineers of 1917 or of 1971 were defending established craft positions.
What was wrong with this “myth” of rural life was that it became softened, prettified, protracted, and then taken over by city-dwellers as a major point from which to criticize “industrialism.” Thus it became a substitute for the utopian courage of imagining what a true community, in an industrial city, might be—indeed of imagining how far community may have already been attained. England and the United States have different modes: we have different woods to go back to. But Williams would see the idealizing of country life as a continuous cultural hemorrhage, a loss of rebellious blood, draining away now to Walden, now to Afghanistan, now to Cornwall, now to Mexico, the emigrants from cities solving nothing in their own countries, but kidding themselves that they had somehow opted out of contamination by a social system of which they are themselves the cultural artifacts. In a somber late chapter he reminds us that the idyllic laborers, the Corins and Mertillas upon whom the myth was long sustained, are now the poor of Nigeria, Bolivia, Pakistan.
It is not of course the actual emigrations to the country that concern Williams but the intellectual or spiritual emigration from our own internal cultural complexities. His target here is a certain view of an old “organic” society which did central service in the thought of F.R. Leavis, and which, at its worst, could turn every contemporary problem into a lament for the loss of older ways of social life, older language, older sensibility.
Regrettably the argument, which broadens and becomes more complex as it proceeds, appears to break up at the end. The compressed critical judgments become more abrupt, less supported by texts. This makes me uneasy. I have no objection to a critic writing as a moralist. Those who do object must discard not only Williams but also Trilling, Orwell, Lucien Goldmann, Edmund Wilson—indeed any writer who strays beyond the fences of the safely academic. But the literary judgments must carry critical conviction, and in these final chapters they are too compressed to do so.
There are other difficulties. Williams defines the capitalist process so inclusively that it becomes difficult to know if there is any cultural phenomenon of the past four hundred years which could not be found relevant to his theme. Capitalism, he argues,
as a mode of production, is the basic process of most of what we know as the history of country and city. Its abstracted economic drives, its fundamental priorities in social relations, its criteria of growth and of profit and loss, have over several centuries altered our country and created our kinds of city. In its final forms of imperialism it has altered our world. Seeing the history in this way, I am then of course convinced that resistance to capitalism is the decisive form of the necessary human defence.
To this, and most of all to the final sentence, I assent. But then everything in four centuries of literature must relate in some way to this. Capitalism, like sin, is ever present; and if field laborers may escape the moralist’s lash, since they are always in the last analysis the exploited, every other class, and its culture, becomes in some way contaminated by its covert or overt association with sin.
We need reminding of this truth: it takes us a little way. But only a little. For we live in society just as we live in our flesh. And it is within a more precise view of society that discriminations of value must usually begin. For if capitalism is the basic economic process of four centuries of history, there has been evidence throughout (and this is the challenge which socialist theory makes) of human processes that are alternatives to capitalism. We have to go on to ask: what form could a human protest take against an ongoing, all-triumphant economic process unless as “retrospect”? And it is exactly this defense—of use values against money values, of affections and loyalties against the marketing of values, of idealized old community against new competition—that we find in some of the most interesting works of English literature. Williams, for example, could have looked more scrupulously than he does at the values at stake in that central Leavisite text, George Sturt’s Wheelwright’s Shop.
But the major omission, in a book with this theme, is any central treatment of Wordsworth. There are perceptive pages on how Wordsworth saw the city. For the rest, we have little more than a comment upon “The Old Cumberland Beggar,” a comment based on a selective reading, with which I am in disagreement and which does not come to terms with the central concern of the poem: its radical assault upon utilitarian attitudes.
Williams offers his reading of the poem as an index of the inauguration of a “decisive phase” of country writing. But other, and no less decisive, issues have been overlooked. Williams has not examined Wordsworth’s transposed Godwinism, his Jacobinism of the primary affections and loyalties, situated (it is true) in an idealized rural scene, which is strongly felt in the poetry of 1796-1806, and which institutes a far more decisive break with the paternalist sensibility than anything to be found in Crabbe. Even if some of the themes have been flogged to death, it is still impossible to examine that profound and contradictory complex of attitudes we find in Wordsworth without some attention to Rousseau, the idea of Nature, Jacobinism versus Godwinism.
This perhaps could not have been attempted in a book of this sweeping scale. For after decades of Wordsworth scholarship, many issues remain unclear. It is necessary to go back to the notebooks and drafts of The Prelude: to observe how paternalist attitudes excluded from “The Ruined Cottage” were later stealthily restored as the poem was revised for The Excursion. Without examining such evidence one cannot understand how a certain tradition of “nature” poetry could be a resource for defenses against capitalist utilitarianism—defenses far more intransigent than Williams suggests.
I find two other major difficulties in the book’s conclusion, but these lie in the intractable nature of the problems being dealt with. The first is posed by Williams himself. If resistance to capitalism is “the decisive form of the necessary human defense,” and if this is properly seen as relevant to literary value, then to what social ideals (as opposed to rural, “organic,” and nostalgic ones) may this resistance rally?
The difficulty, for this very political moralist, is, exactly, political. Williams was never a Stalinist, nor was he ever much attracted by orthodox Trotskyism. What he finds discouraging in the dominant Marxist traditions is their sanctified catch-phrases about “rural idiocy”; their ambiguous assent to the “progressive,” rationalizing character of capitalism; the strategic priority they attribute to the role of an urban proletariat, all combining to reject those emphases upon “natural” process to which (with whatever qualifications) Williams evidently remains stubbornly committed. Thus Williams is on the side of use values as opposed to market values, and he shares with his own laboring grandparents a sympathy for certain traditional modes of human growth and experience as opposed to the arbitrary rationalizations of administrators. But the loudest Marxist voices describe exactly these preferences and sympathies as sentimentalism about “rural idiocy”; while both capitalist and communist apologists are committed to the arbitrary rationalizations of industrial bureaucracy.
Thus both orthodox communism and orthodox social democracy shared, twenty-five years ago, the same intellectual priorities as capitalist thought itself—a contempt for rural backwardness (which could only too easily justify imperialist exploitation) and a practical acceptance of the division and opposition between town and country, manual and mental labor. Such arguments were used to justify Stalin’s “victory” over the kulaks, which Williams sees as “one of the most terrible phases in the whole history of rural society.”
But to recognize this, twenty or thirty years ago, was to recognize also that there was no social force to which one’s aspirations could be attached. It was “to be pressed back toward the extreme subjectivism and fatalism which then, and for a generation, dominated our thought.” The dead-lock, he suggests, has been breaking up in practice, as, following the Chinese example, revolutionary agrarian movements have, in the “undeveloped” world, enforced change upon the cities: and, ultimately, have challenged the “developed” world itself. But the deadlock remains within the culture of the developed world—and not least within the minds of an urban Marxist intelligentsia—which remains assured of its own priorities. One objective of this book is to help break this deadlock.
Which leaves us with a final difficulty—not overlooked by Williams, but the most critical of all. For we are trapped, as he has shown, within certain structures of feeling: the prevailing rationalizing urban mode on the one hand, the evasive, retrospective rural mode on the other. And you can’t argue people into a new structure of feeling. What is needed, at the end of this book, is not an argument but a poem or a novel: Border Country rewritten from the author’s new standpoint.
Perhaps an English canvass would be too narrow for this. The evidence for a new structure of feeling is unlikely to be found in an island whose peasantry is a memory and whose beautiful countryside is regarded in an urban consciousness as a park land to be maintained by farmers but to be conserved for urban aesthetic consumption.
Williams tries to redress the picture by inserting a late discursive chapter surveying writing from the former colonial world. But the survey is too compressed. All the major novels of agrarian life in this century come from outside the British Isles. And even in the densely urbanized United States there are traditions of writing which might have enabled Williams to define more exactly the changed structure of feeling for which he is in search. One thinks of the first book of Thomas McGrath’s Letter to an Imaginary Friend, that record of the growth of a twentieth-century poet’s mind, a Prelude in which the mountain shepherd (or Frost’s New England variant of the Cumberland “statesman”) is displaced by the combine harvester and the conflicts of Wobbly organization in North Dakota. This is a landscape, whether urban or rural (and McGrath’s imagery serves to break down conventional dichotomies and to emphasize unitary experiences both of exploitation and of resistance), under “the continual wind of money, that blows the birds through the clocks.” At the end of this book, McGrath returns to Dakota from the city, with a retrospect seen in a way which Williams perhaps might approve. “It is not my past that I mourn—that I can never lose”:
—No, but the past of this place and the place itself and what
Was: the Possible; that is: the future that never arrived….
For the past, and especially the rural past, needn’t always be seen retrospectively, in a lament over old and dying modes which, when examined scrupulously, were never real. It may also be seen as a vast reserve of unrealized, or only partially achieved, possibilities—a past that gives us glimpses of other possibilities of human nature, other ways of behaving (even “organic” ones). There are passages of Wordsworth which can too easily be faulted by contrasting them with the reports on Cumberland of the Poor Law Commissioners. For these passages could also be read as the evocation of “the future that never arrived,” which offered just enough evidence, in a rite of neighborhood, in a traditional skill, to furnish fuel for a poet’s imagination.
I don’t think Williams would disagree. Nor would he disagree that his themes must be pursued far beyond his own national exploration. For if his material is largely national, the moral inquiry which informs his book is not. It remains part of that stubborn, uncompromising clarification of socialist thought which historians will come to see as more important and more lasting in influence than better advertised products of the international new left. There is something in the unruffled stamina of this man which suggests a major thinker. The very awkwardness of his style is that of a mind which must always find its own way. The idiom is too English to fall easily into international discourse; but I believe that in time it will.
February 6, 1975