Culture is ordinary: the politics and letters of Raymond Williams
Monday, 21 August 2017 15:30

Culture is ordinary: the politics and letters of Raymond Williams

Published in Cultural Theory

Derek Wall introduces the life and work of Raymond Williams, and presents a review of a recent book about his politics and writings.

Raymond Williams, born in Pandy in Monmouthshire in 1921, was a working class Welshman who became one of Britain's greatest socialist intellectuals. A grammar school boy he read English at Cambridge, became a professor and wrote a series of books on Marxism and culture. He sold 750,000 copies of books like Culture and Society, Keywords, The Long Revolution and Marxism and Literature. He has shaped the left we have today. Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood likes to quote Williams' description of what it means to be politically engaged on the left: 'To be truly radical is to make hope possible, rather than despair convincing'.

Green Party leader Natalie Bennett gave the Raymond Williams Foundation lecture in 2015. Jeremy Corbyn also seems to sound a lot like Raymond Williams, with his desire for a democratic, ecological and deep seated socialism.

Williams is best known for his work on culture. He argued that culture is ordinary and not elite, calling for a democratic approach to the arts. His most important piece of writing is in fact entitled 'Culture is Ordinary' published in 1958, remains worth reading today in the 21st century. 'Culture is Ordinary' is part a critique of T.S.Eliot's Notes Towards the Definition of Culture. The poet famous for both The Wasteland and the musical Cats was interested in how we understand this slippery word and its wide implications. Notes Towards the Definition of Culture has some strengths. Eliot sees culture as a wide and multiple concepts including both artistic achievement and a description of a whole way of life. His examples of British culture are rather charming ranging from cheese to sporting events:

Derby Day, Henley Regatta, Cowes, the twelfth of August, a cup final, the dog races, the pin table, the dart board, Wensleydale cheese, boiled cabbage cut into sections, beetroot in vinegar, nineteenth century Gothic churches and the music of Elgar.

However, Eliot pursues a right wing elitist perspective. He argues that culture can be high or low, that only a minority fully engage with high culture, that culture is essential to prevent social disintegration. Ultimately only a kind of cultural elite can preserve and maintain the culture necessary for a civilised society to exist.

Raymond Williams in contrast argues that although distinctions are possible, citing the excesses of the media which even before tabloids like the Sun was crude and prejudice, culture is not the preserve of a tiny minority. In 'Culture is Ordinary' Williams argues that, 'An interest in learning or the arts is simple, pleasant and natural.'

Williams further noted that by becoming a student at Cambridge he didn't lose the working class Welsh culture that he had been brought up with. However, he had come to look at culture using two sets of academic perspectives. At Cambridge he became a follow of two cultural prophets, Karl Marx and the literary critic F.R.Leavis. He attended Leavis' lectures and was deeply influenced by him.

Leavis taught that literature was important because of its moral effects and its impact on everyday life. Williams agreed with him that formal artistic culture, such as a novel or poem or song, rather than being separate object was influenced by and influenced wider social life. Williams concept of the 'structure of feelings' also seems inspired by Leavis. However, Leavis was a cultural pessimist and, like Eliot, an elitist. He feared that culture was debased by industrial society, and feared the effect of mass American culture.

Williams learnt a lot from the Cambridge Marxists, but also came to reject some of their cultural analyses. He noted that the Marxists taught him several things: 'First, they said that a culture must be finally intrepreted in relation to its underlying system of production.'

Thus culture was if not totally determined by production was however strongly influenced by economics. A capitalist society shapes us with a capitalist culture. Also, the Marxists argued that education and access to culture was restricted by social class. Williams noted that with his working class background he was keenly aware that access to education was restricted. However, Williams also thought that Cambridge Marxism was also – paradoxically - elitist. While class and capitalism shaped culture, he thought there was also an independent and potentially resistant working class culture. Workers did not simply absorb capitalist norms, but created their own meanings. Williams also saw the Marxism of the 1930s as too prescriptive and dogmatic.

Williams took from the Marxism of his student days an assumption that culture was bound up with economics and class. He developed the concept of cultural materialism, arguing that culture had a material effect. He also argued that Marxism can be prescriptive about any form of culture, and argued that as well as socialism requiring the collective ownership of production, it also need collective, rather than elite, ownership of the means of communication. Diversity and real democracy were necessary for a vibrant socialist culture. State ownership was not sufficient, and one group's perception of the meaning of culture would always be restrictive.

Towards the end of his life he argued that new electronic communication would transfer culture. Raymond Williams is an important thinker if we seek a socialist culture and we defend the idea that culture is ordinary by which he meant culture was for all of us not simply an elite. Those of us on the left should study is words with care: culture helps shape society, so we need to learn how to shape culture.

                                                                                                      

Book review of Politics and Letters: Interviews with New Left Review,  by Raymond Williams, Verso, London, 2015.

Raymond Williams (1921-1988) was a self-described ‘Welsh European’, whose academic work as a literary theorist and activism, as variously a member of the Communist Party, Labour Party and Plaid Cymru, shaped the post-World War II British left. This recently reissued book provides a survey of Raymond Williams’ life and works. It is a novel and exciting project. Raymond Williams was interviewed about each of his most important books as well as his early biography and political essays. His opinions are subjected to detailed critique with a special attention from the interviewers on contradictions and silences in his work. This makes fascinating but often somewhat brutal reading.

Both the form and the content of this collection of interviews with the New Left Review (NLR) mark this as an important volume. Williams saw the book as a new and disturbing piece of literature. Three members of the NLR editorial board subjected Williams’ work to detailed scrutiny. Many of his major books and significant essays are examined. Such analysis was perhaps especially rigorous because the NLR editors knew his work in some detail, and believed his contributions were essential to the construction of Marxism in a UK context.

It is common to subject thinkers we disagree with to criticism, how much more painful but instructive to examine those with whom we sympathize with sharp analytical tools. Williams seems to have been plunged into personal crisis by taking part in the volume which, running to over 400 pages, took several months of interviews to complete. While this form may have been difficult for Williams, at times, it is an excellent overview of his work up until 1980 and provides a model for critical materialist scholarship. It would be good to see this form extend to other thinkers; it produces impressive results.

The contents, as well as the form, have considerable merit. A major intellectual figure from the 1950s to his death in 1988, Williams often seems forgotten, and even at his height of popularity seems to have been largely unnoticed outside the UK. There are a number of reasons why his considerable output remains important nearly thirty years after his death.

He challenged the Marxism that he encountered in the 1940s, as naïve, and embarked on a quest to make Marxist ideas both more sophisticated and accessible. While Britain is seen as distant from varied forms of Western Marxism some of the questions examined by thinkers as varied as Sartre, Althusser, Gramsci and the Frankfurt School were also addressed by Williams.

Equally, his experience as a working class socialist who gained access to an elite academic institution are instructive. He can be seen as a key thinker in the development of ecosocialism. His essay ‘Ecology and Socialism’ helped inspire socialists to embrace an ecological dimension in their politics and for greens to look to a socialist commitment in their environmental analysis.

The early chapters of the book, which are biographical, are perhaps the least challenging but most enjoyable. Raymond Williams discusses how he was born the son of a railway signalman in the Welsh border town of Pandy in Monmouth. He shone at grammar school. Without his knowledge, his headmaster and father successfully applied for him to read English at Cambridge. His father was an active member of the Labour Party and memories of the 1926 General Strike were strong in Williams’ community as he grew up. His left wing commitment deepened at Cambridge and he joined the Communist Party. He wrote Communist Party pamphlets with Eric Hobsbawm but drifted out of the party. During the Second World War he joined an anti-tank unit and fought in Normandy. His intellectual trajectory saw him developing theoretical insights from the literary critic F.R. Leavis as well as Marx and Engels.

The early chapters provide some of Williams' most charming and vibrant prose, but the remainder of the book is more instructive and, for Williams, often challenging. He was, for much of the postwar period, Britain's key left wing intellectual. He sold hundreds of thousands of books, which given their theoretical nature is impressive, and he appeared in numerous BBC television programmes.

His contention that 'culture is ordinary' was used to challenge elitist notions of culture, specifically T.S. Eliot’s notion that a kind of secular priesthood was needed to protect and promote culture. Williams engaged with Western Marxist approaches to literature and language, helping to introduce thinkers such as Gramsci, Althusser and Lucien Goldman to British audiences. His work helped promote the creation of a Marxist influenced form of cultural studies in the UK.

Raymond Williams is most important as a thinker who intervened and challenged both elite literary theory and the often simplistic and deterministic form of Marxism that dominated in the 1940s and 1950s. The suggestion in Politics and Letters is that, despite this, he was not always a rigorous and consistent theorist.

His first major work Culture and Society, published in 1958, is treated to extensive discussion in Politics and Letters. As far as I can tell Culture and Society argues that culture, rather than being ‘organic’ and fixed, is a product of social change. Williams describes the output of a number of key English commentators on culture from around 18th century onwards with an emphasis on the influence of the industrial revolution. Williams moves from Burke via William Blake to Carlyle and Arnold on to the interesting Marxist literary theorist Christopher Caudwell.

The barrage begins. Williams’ interviewers argued that he provides too little criticism of right wing thinkers under examination such as Edmund Burke, who was motivated by antipathy to the French Revolution. They also hint that Williams is too Anglocentric in the book, even failing to discuss the contribution of Marx and Engels who, of course, lived in exile in Britain during the period under study.

The interviews continue with Williams defending his political engagement during the writing of the book and agreeing with some of the critical points made by the NLR editors. He notes defensively but rather pleasingly that: ‘You have to remember that I read my own books too, and that in a competition for critical readers. I shall at least be in the final list.’ (106).

This dialogue is reflected through much of the remainder of Politics and Letters. Williams often seems better on intervention than sustained analysis, which is surely a strength. For example, despite the supposed weaknesses of Culture and Society, it was a largely successful intervention that challenged the notion of an elite culture. From his early employment with the Workers Education Association to his broadcasts with the BBC, Williams promoted an approach to culture that sought to build diversity and democracy.

I also feel that, while there is a small Raymond Williams industry, his approach can be seen as a contribution to a wider network of scholarship. On the left when we speak of a particular thinker, say Marx or Brecht, we import a form of methodological individualism. But intellectual production is a collective endeavour with key thinkers acting perhaps as nodes rather than unique originators. Perhaps one of Williams’ most important contributions to challenging this notion of an individual intellectual was his book Keywords, where he introduces a method that promotes a collective endeavour to research and understand, moving us beyond an author alone.

In Keywords Williams showed that words, rather than having an essential meaning, are subject to often dramatic change. One is reminded of the Russian theorist Bakhtin’s notion that the class struggle extends to the interpretation of individual words and that meaning is dialogic and polysemic. The interviewers in Politics and Letters, of course, take a sharp line, looking at contradictions and silences in Keywords. However, they acknowledge Keywords as a vital contribution, noting:

The intellectual effect of the kind of work initiated by Keywords could be regarded as akin to that of the Marxist critique of political economy – the demonstration that ideas and categories which are deemed universal and timeless are in fact eminently changeable and timebound. […] Your strategy in Keywords is to register the changes of meaning across a whole vocabulary very pointedly indeed.

Amongst Williams’ numerous works, The City and the Country is a key text for those of us on the ecosocialist left. In it, Williams develops his ideas about nature and culture, making way for his green political orientation in his essay 'Ecology and Socialism’. The City and the Country shows that ideas of nature and environment often fail to reflect the social construction of ecological concepts and issues.

The last section of the book deals with Williams’ political essays. These could be seen as marking a successful hegemonic project, a new left thinking that has become, at least in the UK, a left common sense, to some extent. Williams dominates political discourse on the left even though his name may be forgotten. The socialist and feminist leader of Plaid Cymru, Leanne Wood, quotes Williams. The current leader of the Green Party of England and Wales gave an annual Raymond Williams Foundation lecture in 2015. The Communist Party of Britain seems closer to Raymond Williams’ approach, with formulations that link culture to class politics. This website, Culture Matters, seems also to be very much in the Williams mould. I have no idea if the new and most left-wing leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, reads Williams, but he often sounds as if he does.

Williams seems to reject both a mechanistic Marxist politics that rejects culture, and culturalist politics that forgets class and economics. While the English Marxist historian E.P.Thompson critiqued Williams’ work as being too culturalist, Williams, towards the end of his life, defined himself once again as a Marxist. Williams also puts emphasis on a democratic and participatory form of left politics. Williams was, as noted, a keen early advocate of an ecological dimension to socialism.

During the 1980s the Communist Party of Great Britain was torn apart by a conflict between Eurocommunists and more traditional members, with the Party eventually dissolving in 1991. Supporters of the Morning Star newspaper then relaunched the present Communist Party of Britain. The Communist Party has had a strong intellectual influence on the wider UK left.

Williams was not a participant in the conflict within the CPGB in the 1980s, having left the Party during the Second World War. However, his work provides an insight into the conflict. Like the Eurocommunists, Raymond Williams stressed the need to engage with culture and new social movements, although he was keen that such engagements did not replace working class solidarity and activism.

In summary, this pioneering book shows that his thinking was neither consistently rigorous or original, but that he helped challenge both a particular form of rigid Marxism and an elitist approach to culture. In doing so he opened up ideological space for the British left in 2016, which in its diversity notes both class politics and ecology as well as the importance of structural change in ownership, and includes debates around identity and intersectionality. Raymond Williams contributed to some vital changes in the left political landscape in Wales and England, and we can still gain from close study of his words.

Part Two of this article is an edited version of a review first published in Marx and Philosophy Review of Books, www.marxandphilosophy.org.uk.