Raymond Williams – the political dimension

Wassily Kandinsky, Blue Sky, oil on canvas, 100x73 cm, 1940.


Williams developed his intellectual career in close association with the British left, at a decisive period in its history.

Raymond Williams opens Notes on Marxism in Britain since 1945 (1976) thus: “'The neo-Marxist left which today dominates the Labor Party', said a speaker at this year's Conservative Party conference. Or it could have been 'quasi-Marxist left', given the difficulty of ruling-class English with the consonant 'r'”'.

As John Barnie observed in a recent and moving account for the Raymond Williams Foundation,[1] Williams – born and bred in Pandy, near Abergavenny – 'spoke with a soft Herefordshire hiss, of the kind found in the border country near the Golden Valley'. Reading Williams' writings aware of this background repeatedly leads us to moments where an oppositional perspective – of class, nation and accent – ​​is being brought into play.

When recalling the gestation of the book that made his name, culture and society (1958) – a dissection of the meaning of 'culture' in English thought since industrialization – Williams asserted that 'my distance from Wales was as complete as possible'. But even here, the ability to discuss English intellectual culture as an object of analysis rather than an inarticulate position from which to speak required the perspective of a outsider.

This is, presumably, what Williams meant when he pointed out that, despite this distance, 'my Welsh experience still operated within the strategy of the book'. Indeed, Williams' position as a Welshman writing about English culture in a British state was to some extent like that of others. outsiders Colonials discussed in his book for their important contributions to English culture: TS Eliot and George Orwell.

This unconscious foundation became overtly conscious as Williams' work developed; informing the action of all seven of her novels, from border country (1960) to the two posthumous volumes of The People of the Black Mountains (1989), and is increasingly and insistently invoked in the introductions to his seminal works on literary and cultural criticism.


Readers of Nation Cymru may be particularly interested in the shift in political affiliations that occurred in the 1960s. Having been a Communist when he moved to Cambridge in 1939, Williams was not affiliated with any party after the war – in which he was captain in an anti-tank regiment in the campaign. of Normandy – although he broadly shared his father's loyalty to the Labor Party and had campaigned for Harold Wilson in 1964.[2]

O May Day Manifest – developed in collaboration with historian EP Thompson and critic Stuart Hall, circulated for discussion and contributions among socialist groups in 1967, with a completely revised version appearing in book form by Penguin under Williams' editorship in 1968 – reflected a profound disillusionment with the Labor government, intending to unite a range of influential socialist voices around a coherent program capable of revitalizing the left within the party.

The manifest was ignored (even by Tribune, the left-wing Labor paper), and by 1969 Williams was affiliated with the Plaid Cymru. In the essays collected in Who Speaks for Wales? (2003, with a new edition released this year on the occasion of its centennial), Williams located the linguistic activism of Cymdheitas yr laith and the “radical minority nationalism” of Plaid Cymru within the broadest coalition of movements – for civil rights in the United States and from Ulster, feminism and the nascent ecological movement – ​​which constituted the New Left.[3]

Informed by this new perspective, The countryside and the city (1973) is an impassioned critique of dominant, metropolitan ways of viewing the periphery, arguing for anti-colonial struggle and peasant revolt. These struggles are, as always for Williams, cultural as much as political or economic, and in this book the 'selective tradition' of the English literary canon is confronted not only with Welsh and Irish texts but also with African and Indian sources of research.

Raymond Williams' intellectual career can be seen as covering a decisive period in the history of the left: beginning as a key contributor to a New Left that sought to offer an alternative path to Stalinism and social democracy in the 1950s; ranging from the anti-war and student movements of the 1960s to Eurocommunism and the new social movements of the 1970s and 1980s, years that saw his increased interest in Welsh intellectual and political debates coincide with a growing engagement with European Marxism.

Along the way, Williams responded to the intellectual and political changes around him by remaining committed to class politics, a principle of equality with ordinary people, and a resistance to tendency – manifest in the writings of the Frankfurt School, New York intellectuals York, as well as mainstream European Marxism – to treating the working class as a passive victim, hopelessly corrupted by TV and mass consumption.

In an era of dogmatic divisions, Raymond Williams' instincts were directed toward conciliation and bridge-building, whether between the humanist and theoretical left in the 1960s, or between nationalist and socialist currents in Welsh thought in the 1980s. This tendency, which we urgently need to develop, perhaps explains the way in which we continually turn to Williams as a source of hope for the left, particularly in periods of backsliding.

Writing in 1963, he foresaw our current crisis and identified the need for an alternative: “It will be a terrible tragedy if we betray Europe by being pseudo-Europeans or by being so 'English' that we find ourselves in the wrong century facing the wrong problems. Still, we had to content ourselves for years with two parties, locked in an amplified fight and both wrong. It's time for something new, isn't it?"

* Daniel G. Williams is Professor of English Literature at Swansea University and Director of the Richard Burton Center for the Study of Wales. organized the book Raymond Williams. Who Speaks for Wales? Nation, Culture, Identity (University of Wales Press, 2003).

Translation: Ugo Rivetti.

Originally published on the portal Nation.Cymru.

Translator's notes

[1] Available at: https://www.raymondwilliamsfoundation.org.uk/centenary.

[2] Harold Wilson (1916-1995) was leader of the Labor Party (1963-1976) and Prime Minister (1964-1970/1974-1976).

[3] Plaid Cymru (Party of Wales) and Cymdeithas yr laith Gymraeg (Welsh Language Society) correspond, roughly, to two distinct currents of the Welsh nationalist movement. Founded in 1925, Plaid established itself as a protagonist of the Welsh movement, especially after the 1950s, by supporting its initiatives in a more political conception of Welsh identity, as something embodied in the way of life of its inhabitants. Cymdeithas, founded in 1962, embraced a distinct conception of Welsh culture and identity, which would be defined by its linguistic roots.

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