Modern British and Irish Criticism and Theory: A Critical Guide

By Julian Wolfreys | Go to book overview

11. Raymond Williams (1921–1988)

Raymond Williams is widely regarded as the most significant 'left-wing' figure in late twentieth-century British intellectual life, or in Cornell West's forgivable hyperbole 'the last of the great European male revolutionary socialist intellectuals' (1995, ix). His various contributions, as a creative writer, as a central source of inspiration for the proto-discipline of cultural studies, as a key figure in the New Left intelligentsia, have all been variously acknowledged. Much less common, however, is a serious acknowledgement of his role as a critical theorist. Yet Williams himself increasingly came to characterize his work as a distinctive kind of theory, that is as a kind of 'cultural materialism'. He had first used this term in a short essay published in the hundredth issue of the journal New Left Review, to which he had been a long-standing contributor. Cultural materialism, he explained, 'is a theory of culture as a (social and material) productive process and of specific practices, of [arts], as social uses of material means of production'. He added that the position would be 'spelled out more fully' in Marxism and Literature and in the book that would eventually be published as Culture (1980d, 243). There is an important sense in which these two books do indeed 'spell out' the theory, and they will therefore command our attention here. But we should note also Williams's own insistence, in the 'Introduction' to Marxism and Literature, that cultural materialism had been 'a position which, as a matter of theory, I have arrived at over the years' (1977, 5). Its pre-history, as part of a much longer intellectual evolution, demands our attention also.

Trained in English at Cambridge, Williams derived much of his initial critical vocabulary from the Leavises and Scrutiny. Formed by the biographical experience of Welsh working-class life, he was also a lifelong socialist, with an enduring interest in marxist and quasi-marxist cultural theory. At one point in his 1977 interviews with the New Left Review, he recalls the establishment of Politics and Letters, which he had co-edited at Cambridge during 1947 and 1948: 'Our intention was to produce a review that would… unite radical left politics with Leavisite literary criticism. We were to be to the left of the Labour party, but at a distance from the CP. Our affiliation to Scrutiny was guarded, but… nevertheless quite a strong one' (1979a, 65). An understanding of Williams's intellectual evolution will require some appreciation of how he variously negotiated this doubly ambivalent relationship to Leavisism on the one hand, marxism on the other. From Leavis, he inherited organicist and holistic conceptions of culture and methods of analysis, a strong sense of the importance of the particular, whether in art or in 'life', and an insistence on the absolute centrality of culture. But he rejected Scrutiny's cultural elitism, especially as displayed in the mass civilization versus minority culture topos. From marxism, he inherited both a radically socialistic critique of ruling class political, economic and cultural power and a strong sense of 'materiality'. But he rejected the economic determinism of the so-

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