Raymond Williams
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Raymond Williams

Literature, Marxism and Cultural Materialism

John Higgins

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eBook - ePub

Raymond Williams

Literature, Marxism and Cultural Materialism

John Higgins

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About This Book

Raymond Williams' prolific output is increasingly recognised as the most influential body of work on literary and cultural studies in the past fifty years. This book provides the most comprehensive study to date of the theoretical and historical context of Williams' thinking on literature, politics and culture.
John Higgins traces:
* Williams' intellectual development
* the related growth of a New Left cultural politics
* the origins of the theory and practice of cultural materialism.
Raymond Williams is an astonishing achievement and will challenge many received ideas about Williams' work.

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1 The tight place

Marxism or literature? 1947–50
Raymond Williams's first critical writings – from, for example, the essays and reviews in Politics and Letters (1947–8) to Preface to Film (1954) – have been powerfully characterised as ‘left-Leavisite’. Perhaps in consequence, they have been too little read. As Williams himself noted in The Long Revolution, sometimes the very availability of a description and the ascription of a name can work to block fully historical analysis (Williams 1961a: 89–90). The aim of the first two chapters of this study is to prise open some of the internal complexities and contradictions that the label ‘left-Leavisite’ works to contain, and to provide a more historically nuanced account and assessment of the early criticism than is generally available.1 In so doing, I shall challenge the dominant view that this early period is best viewed as a merely probationary, and easily superseded, moment in Williams's formation. I argue that, duly considered, the early work presents us with the constitutive dynamic of his intellectual identity. This first chapter examines the uneasy development of his thought from the autumn of 1939, when he began his undergraduate studies in English at Cambridge University, through the first years of his work as staff tutor for the Oxford University Tutorial Committee, to the publication of his first book, Reading and Criticism, in 1950.
Terry Eagleton, probably Williams's single most extensive critic, proposed the term ‘left-Leavisite’ in his provocative and polemical assessment of Williams's work, first published as an essay in New Left Review and then as the opening chapter of his Criticism and Ideology, both in 1976.2 Of course, others had remarked on the importance to Williams of his formation in the discipline of English, but no one had done so with as much vigour as the self-consciously iconoclastic Eagleton.3 In Criticism and Ideology, ‘left-Leavisism’ figures as the first of the three main stages in an incomplete move towards a genuinely Marxist criticism.
In an important but little-known interview with the Cambridge journal Red Shift in 1977, Williams said that although he ‘would accept much of [Eagleton's] account’, he was disturbed by some aspects of it. Questioned about the contradictions of his own position and intellectual history, he responded wryly: ‘What I want to ask is who Eagleton is?’. He went on to argue vigorously that the ‘basic fault of the kind of formalist Marxism which Eagleton is now in is that it assumes that by an act of intellectual abstraction you can place yourself above the lived contradictions both of the society and of any individual you choose to analyse, and that you are not yourself in question’. Against this, he asserted that ‘the belief that one is above that deeply contradictory situation is a fantasy…. There is no position except in fantasy where one can merely examine what others are inscribing’ (Williams 1977b: 12, 15).
A year later, in a discussion with New Left Review which was in part prompted by Eagleton's essay, Williams had sharpened his response, and now rejected ‘the general label left-Leavisism’ because it implied far too unified and far too comfortable a position. Except in fantasy, ‘left-Leavisism’ could only be an ‘inherendy unstable’ position (Williams 1979: 195). As we shall see, what was troubling was the way in which Eagleton's confidently theoretical description glossed over instabilities and contradictions which had been felt very deeply and very painfully, and which the writing itself had struggled but failed to resolve.

The tight place

‘The tight place, where you stick fast; there is no going forwards or backwards.’ Ibsen's words – from When We Dead Awaken – held a particular resonance for Raymond Williams as he completed his undergraduate studies in Cambridge in 1946.4 He quoted them in his final year dissertation on Ibsen (an essay which later formed the basis for the first chapter of Drama from Ibsen to Eliot); and some thirty years later, he recalled how that sense of being unable to move, of being trapped, which he had found in Ibsen, seemed to sum up his own intellectual and political predicament, his own troubled sense of self and vocation. ‘That was exactly my sensation. The theme of my analysis of Ibsen is that although everybody is defeated in his work, the defeat never cancels the validity of the impulse that moved him; yet that the defeat has occurred is also crucial’ (Williams 1979: 62–3).
What were the terms of this defeat? Why did the young Williams suffer from such a sense of failure when, by all ordinary standards, he already appeared to be an achiever, indeed a success? He had, after all, survived the war and come through some of its bloodiest fighting in the Normandy and Ardennes offensives. He had married in 1942, and he and his wife Joy had their first child in 1944. He graduated from Cambridge with a first-class degree in English and was offered a place to do research, but chose instead to become a tutor in the burgeoning adult education movement. Between 1946 and 1953 he completed three books, wrote most of a fourth, collaborated as editor of and contributor to two new (though short-lived) journals, and at the same time worked through the preliminary drafts and versions of his first novel. On the surface, Raymond Williams in the late 1940s and early 1950s was already a successful academic and intellectual. Why then this troubled sense of blockage and of failure?
To understand this, we need to grasp something of the depth of Williams's commitment, one which we can read in the terms he appropriated from Ibsen as commitment to a vocation, and as a commitment always under threat of failure. If we see his vocation as, in the first instance, that of a socialist literary critic, then we can read that commitment as riven by a conflict between its two main components. Literary criticism provided him with both something of an intellectual base and the superstructure of a professional identity; but its generally apolitical or even conservative stance was deeply unattractive to him, as were its usually apolitical and ahistorical modes of analysis. In a sense, the discourse of literary criticism was the ‘tight place’ in which Williams felt so trapped. At this point, as we shall see, he was unable either to go back to the Marxist literary criticism which he decisively abandoned – on professional grounds – in the course of his undergraduate studies; but neither was he able to move forwards beyond the terms of existing literary studies.
At the same time, we need to understand that it was just this sense of being stuck which proved to be the necessary ground for Williams's major work. The deep feelings of failure and defeat which dogged him in this early period provided the necessary dynamic for a reworking not only of the possible relationships between Marxism and literary studies, but for a significant revision and recasting of both. This first chapter examines the constitutive tensions of that ‘tight place’, of the young Williams caught unhappily between a literary criticism he could not accept politically and a Marxism he could not reproduce professionally. It was the extreme discomfort of this ‘position’ in this period that proved to be the very motor and motive of his intellectual development.


In the autumn of 1939, Raymond Williams arrived at Trinity College Cambridge to begin his studies for a BA degree in English literature. It was the beginning of a combative relationship with ‘Cambridge English’ which was to structure and define the main contours of his intellectual identity. It was to shape the nature of his particular contribution to both Marxism and literary studies that together form the focus of this account: that attention to the politics of culture, and to the primacy of culture in politics, which he finally came to name a ‘cultural materialism’.
Unlike most students at Trinity, and indeed in the university as a whole, Williams did not belong to the privileged elite who had received their secondary education in one of Britain's so-called public schools. For these, three years study at ‘Oxbridge’ was simply a stepping stone to an already established place in the natural hierarchy of British society.5 Instead, Williams ‘came up’ to Cambridge as what was to become a familiar icon of 1950s culture, as a ‘scholarship boy’, one of a number of students from working-class families who won a place in one of the prestige universities through the highly competitive entrance examinations.6
Born in the Welsh village of Pandy, and educated first at the local primary school and then at King Henry VIII Grammar School for Boys four miles away in Abergavenny, Williams arrived at Cambridge unwilling to be intimidated, and, initially at least, with a sturdy self-confidence and political identity which were the products of a deeply supportive family environment.7 Trinity had no Fellow responsible for teaching English, so in the first year he was tutored by Lionel Elvin and had his weekly discussions on Shakespeare and the literature of the Renaissance at Trinity Hall. As a member of the Communist Party – which he joined in December – he devoted a great deal of his time to the Cambridge Socialist Club, writing for the Club Bulletin, participating in debates at the Cambridge Union and, at the urging of the Communist Party, acting as editor for the Cambridge University Journal. As a member of the ironically named Aesthetes, Williams also showed a keen interest in film. Far from being the alienated figure suggested by critics such as Jan Gorak, the young Williams found a ready place in the active socialist life of the university: as he was later to put it, ‘I had to dine in Hall and the class stamp of Trinity at that time was not difficult to spot. But it did not have to be negotiated as the only context at Cambridge. The Socialist Club was a home from home’ (Williams 1979: 40).8
Certainly the details of an average week's activities in the Club show the fullness of its timetable. We might take the week-long period beginning 6 March 1940 as presenting an average week's activities in the Club:
Wednesday: 12.30 Hands Off Russia – Lobbying and Poster Parade
Friday: Hand's Off Russia – Meeting in The Dorothy
Saturday: 2.30 Film Club – Pabst's Westfront; 8.00 pm Social
Sunday: 2.00 Film Show; 4.30 Tea; 8.00 Film
Monday: 8.00 pm Business Meeting
Tuesday: Union Debate – Intervention against the USSR
Wednesday: 8.00 pm – 1.30 am Dance
In addition, there were three faculty group meetings for students in history, physics and English. Williams gave a short paper, ‘Culture and the People’, on Friday 1 November 1940 which CUSBC reports was ‘followed by keen discussion providing enough questions to keep the group going for the rest of the year.’9
And yet a notable feature of the later Culture and Society was its hostile chapter on the Marxist literary criticism which was the staple diet of young socialists like the undergraduate Williams. The ‘home from home’ was to be repudiated. Chapter 5 of Part 3 – ‘Marxism and Culture’ – is the only place in Culture and Society where the famously balanced and objective tone of the book breaks down, most obviously in its notorious judgement on Caudwell, whose writing is described with contempt as ‘not even specific enough to be wrong’ (Williams 1958a: 277). The 1930s had seen the publication of a number of works which became standard reading for socialist students of literature: in 1937 alone, Alick West's Crisis and Criticism, Ralph Fox's The Novel and the People, Christopher Caudwell's Illusion and Reality, and the Day-Lewis collection, The Mind in Chains, all appeared. These were all the targets of Williams's sharpest criticism. What it is important to recognise, and what is in any case evident from the angry tone of the account, is that it was just these works which formed the initial basis for his literary analyses as he worked for Part One of the English Tripos. The savageness of his later criticism should alert us to the existence of what he was later to acknowledge as a painful – and determinant – break with these available forms of Marxist literary analysis under the pressures of the availability of the techniques and skills of Cambridge English. That this break was to be the very condition for the formation of Williams's own distinctive version of literary and cultural studies is relatively easy to see in hindsight. It did not and could not appear to be anything so promising at the time.


The first cracks began to appear in the second year of his studies at Cambridge, when he moved from Elvin's sympathetic supervision to a more challenging encounter with E.M.W. Tillyard at Jesus College.10 Tillyard – one of the first lecturers to be appointed to teach the new Cambridge degree in the 1920s, and the pioneer of studies in the historical ‘background’ of English literature that Williams was later to attack with regularity – raised a number of questions which the young Williams was unable to answer.
The second year of the English Tripos focused on the history of the novel and Romantic poetry. In his tutorials with Tillyard, Williams sought to apply the stock responses of the 1930s Marxist criticism he had been reading. In this ‘proleptic criticism’, the literature of the present and of the past is read and evaluated in terms of future needs. In his introduction to The Mind in Chains (1937), the poet Cecil Day-Lewis repeated with approval Edward Upward's contention that ‘the most enduring books are those in which the writer has seen so deeply into contemporary reality that he has exposed “the shape of things to come” latent there’ (Day-Lewis 1937a: 16). Upward himself argued that for the Marxist ‘a good book is one that is true to life…. For the Marxist critic, therefore, a good book is one that is true not merely to temporary existing situations but also to the future conditions which are developing within that situation’ (Day-Lewis 1937: 46). In the same vein, Ralph Fox, in his The Novel and the People, also stresses the need for a new Marxist realism:
The new realism it is our task to create must take up the task where bourgeois realism laid it down. It must show man not merely critical, or man at hopeless war with a society he cannot fit into as an individual, but man in action to change his conditions, to master life, man in harmony with the course of history and able to become the lord of his own destiny.
(Fox 1937: 100)
In this view, novels of the past should be judged in terms of how novels should be written in the present; Romantic poetry represented an unfinished project of human liberation.11 Tillyard's reply to this was apparently blunt and forceful: ‘He told me this was not a tena...

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Citation styles for Raymond Williams
APA 6 Citation
Higgins, J. (2013). Raymond Williams (1st ed.). Taylor and Francis. Retrieved from https://www.perlego.com/book/1616002/raymond-williams-literature-marxism-and-cultural-materialism-pdf (Original work published 2013)
Chicago Citation
Higgins, John. (2013) 2013. Raymond Williams. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis. https://www.perlego.com/book/1616002/raymond-williams-literature-marxism-and-cultural-materialism-pdf.
Harvard Citation
Higgins, J. (2013) Raymond Williams. 1st edn. Taylor and Francis. Available at: https://www.perlego.com/book/1616002/raymond-williams-literature-marxism-and-cultural-materialism-pdf (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Higgins, John. Raymond Williams. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis, 2013. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.