Radical Resources: Sheila Rowbotham on Raymond Williams

On the Raymond Williams Society blog for March we have a review by Sheila Rowbotham of Williams’s 1983 book Towards 2000. Originally titled ‘Picking up the Pieces’, it first appeared in New Socialist in October 1985. Williams was on the advisory board of the defunct Labour Party magazine and contributed such essays as ‘Mining the Meaning: Key Words in the Miners’ Strike’ and ‘Walking Backwards into the Future (both later featuring in the 1989 collection Resources of Hope). Here Sheila discusses the importance of Towards 2000 at a time of demoralisation and defeat for the Left in 1980s Britain.

Sheila writes…

Raymond Williams is not what you might call a “head on” writer. He launches a thought, retrieves it, re-examines it, qualifies it, underpins it with another. He derives meanings within meanings, considers how beginnings affect the existing content of words. What does “to represent” mean? What constitutes “the British”?

IMG_20200327_123618The form of Towards 2000, a series of essays following the themes of social change outlined in his book, The Long Revolution, two decades ago, tends to confirm the exploratory and circumlocutory style of his prose. The result does not make for an easy read nor does it provide neat conclusions and a proverbial “way forward” which is a prerequisite of political programmes. However, because these essays probe the transformations in capitalism and outline the terrain on which socialists can regain their feet, they are important indicators of how we can get our bearings amidst upheaval and disarray. In a period of confusion, Williams’s dogged insistence that tracks can be found, that the present can be understood, that the future is not outside our influence, is well worth the effort of untangling.

A recurring theme is the need for a new balance in the endeavour to shape a better future. One example is the special interests of race, gender, region and the common interest. He is more convincing on regional particularity, not surprisingly with his own Welsh background. “Feminism” is listed with other movements, but he does not consistently see politics through the social experience of how change affects women in the same degree as it affects men, and so “the general” remains implicitly what affects men in particular, still. Emotionally, when I read his writing, so many of the concerns about women’s lives are not there – I find myself stranded, so near and yet so far. But it would be a narrow world if we could never transcend our own starting points and were incapable of reaching towards thoughts which may not come from our own particular experience, yet can still serve to illuminate. Emotional empathy can be heartening, but it can lead to complacency if we make no effort to stretch and take on ideas from a variety of sources.

Williams’s discussion of how vital it is to seek a new balance between representative and participatory democracy has an immediate relevance, for instance, in the debates within Women Against Pit Closures. His focus on the re-orientation necessary for socialist theory in grasping both how to establish a central power strong enough to resist reaction and to secure that “new kinds of communal co-operative and collective institutions” flourish and grow in depth, was one of the problems which the discussions around Beyond the Fragments engaged with.

IMG_20200122_133948When the practical experience of the attempt by local authorities like the Greater London Council (GLC) is assessed, one of the valuable and lasting contributions will be the understanding, on a local scale, of both the contradictions and possibilities of combining differing forms of democracy. Towards 2000 helps to hold and give shape to many such specific debates and it enables us to reconsider some of the theoretical contributions of the “new left” of the late 1950s and early 1960s, which have still not been fully assimilated into a socialist “common sense”. Their rejection of the technological determinism which undermines people’s confidence to struggle for peace or worthwhile jobs is clearly relevant for the 1980s. Similarly, their critique of the limits of analysing the world in terms of a mode of production rather than the whole span of “human social and material activities” leaves us in their political debt.

They also made it possible to begin to reconsider what Williams describes as the “underlying intentions” of socialism: “… to change the social order, and/or to be better represented in a modified social order. These were often translated as choices between “revolution” and “evolution”, though in that transfer of attention to the means or pace of change there is a masking of the more fundamental distinction between a new kind of society and the existing social order reformed.” Capitalism, in other words, claimed compensation from the workers’ movements which came into being, imposing the imperatives of capitalist production over the search for a more human society and the imperatives of the means of struggle over the new forms of social relations which had been the socialist intention. Williams searches for the resources which would enable us to claim back the fullness of our radical inheritance, not simply as a remote utopian impulse, but clear about the forms of production and the types of financial institution which could begin a fundamental shift from a capitalist to a socialist economy.

Williams speaking at the first Socialist Society conference in 1982

There is a note of urgency in Towards 2000 because the older working class communities which formed the labour movement are being broken up by industrial change, and the room for manoeuvre is drastically restricted. The left in Britain faces either “final incorporation of the labour movement into a capitalist bargaining mechanism, with socialism left stranded as a theory and a sect, or the wide remaking of a social movement which begins from primary human needs.” Historically, wide remakings combine groups which are seasoned in resistance and new forces thrown into opposition. People defend notions of rights based on past achievements; the right to vote, to join a union, to make their own decisions, to defend existing communities, to look after one another, to live in peace and freedom. In the process they reach out beyond their own particular neck of the woods and their own assumptions to meet others. It is thus possible for alternative values which contest the logic of the market economy to make sense.

There have been such vital and precious understandings amidst the demoralisation and defeats of the working class in the 1980s. Socialism sometimes degenerates, in uncertainty, into a vituperative cacophony. Williams is one of the voices calmly and resolutely saying we must safeguard and nurture our resources carefully. We could thus travel in a strong and growing company towards 2000.

In 1985, Sheila Rowbotham was working for the GLC’s Popular Planning Unit. She is the author of numerous books, including Woman’s Consciousness, Man’s World (1973), Hidden from History: 300 Years of Women’s Oppression and the Fight Against It (1973), Promise of a Dream: Remembering the Sixties (2000), and Dreamers of a New Day: Women Who Invented the Twentieth Century (2010). Many thanks to Sheila for allowing us to republish her review on the RWS blog.