Raymond Williams on Culture and Politics: An Introduction (Extract)

This week saw the publication of Culture and Politics: Class, Writing, Socialism, a new collection of essays by Raymond Williams. On the blog we have an exclusive short extract from the book’s introductory essay by editor Phil O’Brien. Culture and Politics, published by Verso, contains five previously unpublished essays alongside five uncollected pieces, including material on Herbert Read (a lost chapter from Culture and Society), Marxism, Popular Culture, working-class writing, Pierre Bourdieu, and modernism.

One of the key moments in Williams’s political life came in July 1966 when he resigned his Labour Party membership, as he explains in Politics and Letters: ‘I decided to leave […] and write some sort of a manifesto, stating very clearly that the Labour Party was no longer just an inadequate agency for socialism, it was now an active collaborator in the process of reproducing capitalist society’. It was a decisive moment: his personal negotiations between the revolutionary and reformist traditions on the left clearly emerged and inevitably collapsed. ‘When you have been pondering a decision for fifteen years, you can finally take it in two days without haste’, he revealed. It was a decision to leave but also an acceptance that reformism, in the final instance, was inadequate: within a month he started work on what would become the May Day Manifesto (1967/8).

The manifesto’s composition involved a reconstitution of the New Left, reuniting old friends (Williams, Stuart Hall, E. P. Thompson and Dorothy Thompson, for instance) alongside emerging radical voices (with Terry Eagleton, Michael Rustin, and Robin Murray amongst them). ‘Against an advanced capitalism, only an advanced socialism offers any chance of the recovery of human controls’, they proclaimed, with automation and technology playing a central role in their vision of liberation from the capitalist relations of work. It is in these sections that one can clearly see the hand and mind of Williams, the conciliatory figure of the manifesto committee. He would expand on such questions in ‘The Meanings of Work’, first published in 1968, the year of the May Day Manifesto’s second edition. It was a time of rebellion and revolution as well as a remarkable moment in the history of the freshly emboldened and expanded New Left. Wary of what could be the comforting simplicities of nationalization (that great emblem of the labour movement), in ‘The Meanings of Work’ Williams advocates for workers’ control and the expansion of truly democratic, self-managing co-operatives. Amongst lines and phrases taken directly from the manifesto, he stresses the need for automation to be ‘used to reduce not cost but labour’ – this would ‘relieve and release human energy for our own purposes’ and be the ‘means of a liberation which has often seemed only a dream’.

Characteristically refuting all forms of determinism, the task according to Williams was ‘to use the machines, rather than to be used by them’. ‘The Meanings of Work’ was part of a four-year project by New Left Review, led by one of its editors, Ronald Fraser. He commissioned fifty short essays on work from socialists and non-socialists which appeared between 1965 and 1969 in the journal as well as across two Pelican Originals. Williams’s essay, an afterword to the first book, dates to a decade when his energies were often harnessed by the drafting of practical policy interventions: the radical proposals for democratic control of the media in Communications (1962) followed by the detailed account of radical socialist transformation put forward in the May Day Manifesto, for example. But the 1960s ended with the breakdown of a left unity he had fought hard to maintain. The manifesto working committee called a National Convention of the Left and, with the support of Williams, considered running candidates in the 1970 general election who would have been a direct challenge to the Labour Party. ‘A movement which had managed to sustain a significant amount of left unity disintegrated over the electoral process’, regretted Williams, before adding, pointedly: ‘A strategy of common activity could survive anything except an election’. The frustrations of 1970 provided the platform for Williams’s most important decade.

The Country and the City came out in 1973, followed by Keywords three years later, with Marxism and Literature a year after that – publications which cemented his status as a formidable intellectual of international renown. The release of the first book coincided with ‘Base and Superstructure in Marxist Cultural Theory’, an essay which would form a central plank of the third. First appearing in New Left Review’s winter issue of 1973, it was based on a lecture given in Montreal seven months earlier. ‘Marxist Cultural Theory’, the fourth essay in this book, is a verbatim transcript of that talk. They are almost identical pieces but the small differences are deeply significant. Both versions of the essay capture Williams as he sets his work ‘into a new and conscious relation with Marxism’. It was new in the sense that it was an extension and expansion of a relationship which can be traced back to the Wales of his youth.

Williams had first encountered Marxist literary theory at Cambridge in 1939, not within formal study but from discussions with fellow socialists. Yet before that an informal and practical knowledge of and affiliation with Marxist thinking was already part of his political education, as the son of working-class parents and someone active on the left as a teenager in the 1930s around his home village of Pandy on the Wales–England border. By the mid-1970s, the relationships between Marxism and literature had ‘preoccupied most of my working life’, he revealed.

He felt the Marxism of his earlier Cambridge years had been relatively narrow – what he described as a radical populism – and, while maintaining a commitment to its central currents, sought a more complex and dynamic Marxist theory of literature and culture. As an undergraduate he witnessed many of the arguments drift into deadlock, but the reopening of the debates by Western Marxists in the 1970s through the work of Lucien Goldmann, Louis Althusser, Antonio Gramsci, and Walter Benjamin energized Williams, by then back at Cambridge and about to be appointed Professor of Drama. ‘[M]y own long and often internal and solitary debate with what I had known as Marxism now took its place in a serious and extending international inquiry’, he said, with some relief. That refusal of a fixed and mechanical Marxism – the imposition of a theory onto culture, for instance, rather than a materialist reading of culture as a constitutive social process – finds its greatest expression in ‘Base and Superstructure in Marxist Cultural Theory’. It is such an important essay in both Williams’s body of work and in the broader intellectual traditions of Western Marxism that its earliest exposition warrants publication here for the first time. The differences that exist between the two versions, however slight, are substantial for their theoretical implications.

Phil O’Brien is the author of The Working-Class and Twenty-First-Century British Fiction, an editor at Key Words: A Journal of Cultural Materialism, and secretary of the Raymond Williams Society.

Order Culture and Politics: Class, Writing, Socialism by Raymond Williams here.