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Raymond Williams at 100

Described as ‘the last of the great European male revolutionary socialist intellectuals’ in his time, read him today a century after his birth and you will never see the world the same way again, writes NICK MATTHEWS

“AHEAD were the Black Mountains and we climbed among them, watching the steep fields end at the grey walls, beyond which the bracken and heather and whin had not yet been driven back. To the east along the ridge, stood the line of grey Norman Castles; to the west the fortress wall of the mountains.”

This is from the first paragraph of Raymond Williams’s seminal essay, Culture is Ordinary, written in 1958, his rebuttal to those at Cambridge University who saw “culture” as something to be acquired by the upper classes.  

We were on a pilgrimage to see the Border Country that had shaped Raymond Williams’s worldview. We stopped for lunch at the Old Pandy Inn. Not for the pub or its excellent menu but to see what remained of Pandy railway station. It was closed in 1958 and explains why Raymond had caught the bus in his essay.

These lines came to me travelling to Wales. Driving through Hereford we took the road to Abergavenny as we left the city.

The railway had played an important role in his father’s life, as a railway signalman, including his joining in the general strike. A key incident in Williams’s great 1960 novel Border Country.

I love his writing and like all great thinkers once you have heard what he has to say you never see the world the same again. Next stop the ordinary village of Llanfihangel Courcorney almost on Offa’s Dyke, the English Welsh border from which his journey had begun on August 31 1921.

All his life he was crossing borders and had the uncanny ability to look at the world from the other side. In 1958’s Culture and Society he explored the cultural boundaries between elite and popular culture, city and country, nature and industry, continuity and change.  

His 1973 work The Country and the City proved a great inspiration to Edward Said’s Culture and Imperialism: Said described himself as Williams’s acolyte and had a poster of him sharing the bill with Williams at a London University event in 1987 displayed in his office.

I have spent a lot of this centenary year in the company of Williams. His writings are not only enlightening but remarkable literature. I like his novels — as Stephen Yeo pointed out Williams came to literary and cultural theory through his own writing and not the other way around. His novels are unpopular in some quarters for not being in the fashionable modernist form, yet they wrestle with many contemporary issues from a class perspective and are well worth reading.

Williams’s journey from Pandy took him from Abergavenny Grammar School to Cambridge University, his undergraduate years disrupted by serving in the Guards Armoured Division from Normandy into Germany before returning to Cambridge.

After the war Williams was an adult education tutor in Sussex. It was in these classes that he tried out his ideas involving collaborative work on communications and culture with mature students. This moment was probably the birth of Cultural Studies in Britain. Without knowing one another and at roughly the same time Williams was writing Culture and Society, Richard Hoggart was writing The Uses of Literacy (1957) and EP Thompson The Making of the English Working Class (1963), which constituted its founding texts.

He followed this with The Long Revolution (1961). Here we see the development of Williams’s method of cultural analysis — cultural materialism. He articulated how social groups generated a structure of feeling, one of his key insights.

Whilst writing these books he began a philological exercise on the changing meaning of words, like culture and society. Over time he accumulated more and more words resulting in his 1976 glossary Keywords, a text that profoundly shaped my own intellectual progress. In it he pointed out that “culture” is one of the most complicated words in the English language. Wrestling with this slippery idea became a life’s work.

Always a champion of adult education and a great advocate of lifelong learning, Williams was however drawn back to Cambridge in 1961 on the basis of his publications. His formal job was in the history of dramatic form. He had published Drama from Ibsen to Brecht in 1961 and later he became the University’s first professor of drama in 1974.

It’s difficult to sum up Williams’s ideas in a few words without oversimplifying. His initial exploration in Culture and Society is that rather than the economy producing culture, the artefacts of culture are a form of production.

As a Professor of Drama, he wrote extensively about the dramatic form and his inaugural lecture was Drama in a Dramatised Society. He pointed out that today we are exposed to more “drama” in a week than a medieval peasant would be in a lifetime, so much modern communications from advertising to modern political discourse is expressed through “drama.” His 1966 work Modern Tragedy, described recently as an overlooked gem, did not fit any known category at the time.

He was in tune also with the developing media of his time. He wrote his 1962 book Communications mainly on the press but from 1968 until 1972 he wrote a TV column for The Listener (a much lamented BBC cultural weekly).  

In the early seventies he took a sabbatical at Stanford University in California where he developed an interest in Information and Communication Technologies.

He watched US television with some bemusement, commenting on the developing technologies from video recorders, large screens to cable distribution, becoming in the process a political economist of televisual technology.

He coined the term “mobile privatisation” to describe what the car and the new communications technologies were doing to society. He hated the term “mass” in mass communications. “There are no masses,” he said, “only ways of seeing people as masses.”

His great early work The Long Revolution had explored the interlocking processes of the transformation driven by three revolutions, democratic, industrial and cultural. A direction of travel that was taking Britain towards an “educated and participatory democracy.”

He was insightful enough to see that this process had been halted and that we were facing a counter-revolution. A position he mapped out in 1983 in his work Towards 2000, that counter-revolution on all fronts democratic, industrial and cultural is now obvious. It’s a pity more on the left did not read Williams’s warnings at the time.

Williams had a belief in the dignity and everyday creativity of working-class people and felt the Labour Party had failed in its educative role to shift the deep-seated conservatism of the British people cultivated historically by imperialism and monarchism.

For Williams, described by Cornell West as “the last of the great European male revolutionary socialist intellectuals,” life as a public intellectual was marked by Britain’s and the Labour Party’s approach to ideas.

In 1968 he was the principal author of the May Day Manifesto, which included contributions from Stuart Hall and EP Thompson. Needless to say, it was denounced as fanciful. We, especially the English, are careless of our intellectuals especially if they do not give succour to the rich. The obvious comparator is George Orwell who was lauded despite being a socialist — but Williams did not provide the fuel for cold war anti-communism or texts that could be used to discredit socialism.

In later years he explored what the relationship between the early green movement and socialism. In 1982’s Socialism and Ecology he challenged us to think about what was going to be required of us: “We are bound to encounter the usual human reluctance to change and we must accept that changes will be very considerable and will have to be negotiated rather than imposed.

“But the case for this new kind of enlightenment, materially conscious, international socialism is potentially very strong and I think we are now in the beginning — the difficult negotiating beginning — of constructing from it a new kind of politics.”

Williams died in 1988 with so much more to give. In his posthumously published collection of essays and speeches, Resources of Hope is his now famous observation, “to be truly radical is to make hope possible rather than despair convincing.”

His journey ended in the graveyard of the Parish Church of St Clydawg about 15 minutes’ walk from the main road through Pandy. During that walk you cross the border between Wales and England; what was Llan y Merthyr Cydawg when it was in Wales is now the Herefordshire village of Clodock. Even after death he was crossing borders.

My journey ended somewhat pretentiously with me reading Williams’s unfinished novel the People of the Black Mountains in the Black Mountains enjoying the views — but needing more of that hope.

For more information on the writer and his centenary visit


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