Raymond Williams and
the Moral Project of the New Left

— Terry Murphy

Views Beyond the Border Country:
Raymond Williams and Cultural Politics

edited by Dennis L. Dworkin and Leslie C. Roman
(New York and London: Routledge, 1993), $17.95 paperback.

DENNIS L. DWORKIN, in the introduction to Views Beyond the Border Country, suggests that this volume “honors the life and thought of Raymond Williams, one of the most important socialist thinkers of the postwar era” (1), yet concludes his own contribution with the extraordinarily harsh judgement that “though [Williams] has only been dead for less than five years, he is already part of a different political age.”(54)

Materialist friends of the Hegelian dialectic (as well as those hostile to positivist conceptions of historical progress) would do well at this point to pause: Such an emphatic insistence on the Pastness of the past, rather than its continuing and shaping presence, simply runs the risk of inadvertently returning to older and earlier systems of intellectual thought, a curiously flat conclusion to draw from such original fulsome praise.

But it is Dworkin’s brash flourish that finally strikes me as symptomatic of the more general problems of Views Beyond the Border Country, situating itself, as it does, on the terrain of what Dworkin calls “the crisis in British radical thought” and “Leninist models of radical change” in the age of “the clear failure of existing socialism in Eastern and Central Europe.” (54)

Alan Wald has commented on how frequently such “categorical rejections of classical Marxist traditions, especially on the part of intellectuals sitting on the sidelines, have merely led their proponents back to the repetition of earlier misconceptions – to theoretical positions that are actually pre-Marxist and pre-Leninist, and sometimes are more sectarian and elitist than the ’vulgarities’ that were to be transcended.” (2)

Views Beyond the Border Country often runs this risk, in my opinion. For though it is more widely acknowledged now than at the time of his death in January 1988 that the socio-cultural thought of Raymond Williams was in a central way flawed, very few critiques of this body of work have attempted the difficult task of specifying, within the political traditions of Marxism to which Williams committed himself, what I would like to call the structural limitations of his generation of writing.

And yet to comprehend such limitations requires, or so it seems to me, reintroducing the political dimension to the debate about Williams’ work, and relating the development of his thought more generally to the historical and theoretical vicissitudes of the generation of activist-scholars in Britain to which Williams belonged – that is, to the generation which came to write in the years between the Berlin Workers’ Uprising of June 1953 and the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989.

It is therefore not in order to dismiss Raymond Williams’ work but in order to attempt to place it, by means of a neglected intellectual-biographical comparison, that I offer these introductory comments to a brief evaluation of the merits of the essays in Views Beyond the Border Country.

Romantic Dimensions of Marxism

I have come increasingly to note how the intellectual development of Williams mirrors in a central way that of Michael Löwy, perhaps the most important and the least well-known revolutionary Marxist and activist-scholar currently working in the field of the sociology of culture. Consider the following commonalities: their interest in Goldmann and Lukacs, their hostility to Althusserianism, their concern that Marxism contain an ecological and humanist dimension and, related to this, their recognition of the hidden romantic moment in Marxist political philosophy. (3)

[Editors’ Note: The presence of a hidden romantic moment” in Marxist thought is a fascinating question. It is explored at length in some of the works of Michael Löwy, including his essay co-authorcd with Robert Sayre, The Romanticism of E.P. Thompson and Raymond Williams, ATC 61, March–April 1996.]

At the same time, such a comparison allows for an equally necessary differentiation. Lüwy and Williams are products of divergent traditions claiming fidelity to Marxism: Fourth Internationalist in the case of the former and lapsed Stalinism in the case of the latter.

As a number of commentators have noted, perhaps most importantly Terry Eagleton in his memorial lecture at Oxford in 1988, the curious thing about Raymond Williams then was that lie consciously moved leftwards, instead of rightwards into political quietism or truculent anti-socialism, as he grew older. (4)

This dimension – the fact that Williams changed politically, that he became more critical of bourgeois civilization – is almost entirely absent from the essays in Views Beyond the Border Country. Symptomatically, the weaker essays in the volume tend to concentrate their fire on the work of the younger Williams (Culture and Society, The Long Revolution).

These pieces critique the work that Williams wrote when lie was closest to the People’s Culture project of the Communist Party of Great Britain and which Williams himself was later to describe as “first stage radicalism.” (5) Moreover, in the name of a hardheaded contemporaneity (of which Dworkin s earlier quoted comment is ideal-typical), which dismisses notions of working-class community as “nostalgic,” these weaker essays critique the very elements of Williams’ work – the hidden romantic dimension in Marxist political philosophy – that I would consider most valuable.

A thumbnail sketch of Williams’ political biography, as I understand it, may be of benefit here in order to situate my own claims and to distance myself from Dworkin’s unhelpful comment that the death of Williams and the death of Stalinism excuses us from a full evaluation of his work because they are henceforth part of a different political age.

Raymond Williams’ Evolution

It is impossible to say what Williams’ overall reaction would have been to the destruction of Stalinism in Eastern Europe in 1989. But to my mind any serious analysis of Williams’ development in the last few years of his life ought to include an evaluation of the posthumously published volume The Politics of Modernism.

This ultimately unfinished work was written “against the New Conformists,” in the name of the ethico-moral project of the New Left at the height of its intellectual and moral power (for argument’s sake, from the May Day Manifesto (1968) to Beyond the Fragments (1979) or thereabouts). And to come to terms with the manner in which Williams understood that project, it seems to be necessary to recall some significant dates in Williams’ political biography.

For me, the important dates include (1) the politico-intellectual consequences of his youthful anti-imperialist and pro-Stalinist perspective of December 1939 when he first joined the CPGB; (2) his distance from the CP due to the partial collapse of this perspective in a near-nervous breakdown in May–June 1941 at the time of Nazi Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union; (3) his quasi-pacifism following the experience of combat with the British Army in France; (4) the importance he accorded, following the Second World War, to the victory of the Chinese Revolution in 1949; (5) his early recognition of the impasse of “actually existing socialism” from June 1953; (6) his intellectual attraction to the tradition of cultural historicism (Coleridge, Leavis, Eliot) and rejection of the CP’s positivist conception of Marxism as manifested in Culture and Society, written during the moment of the Hungarian Uprising and the Suez crisis; (7) his attraction, in common with others of his generation (Edward Upward, George Thomson, Louis Althusser), to Maoism, anti-imperialism and the idea of the cultural revolution, culminating in the writing of The Country and the City (1973); (8) the partial collapse of his Stalinist intellectual-generational hostility toward the political tradition of Trotskyism from the late 1970s, culminating in his appearance at the British SWP’s Marxism 86 when he presented a paper on the socialist novel. (6)

What are the practical theoretical limitations attendant upon this political biography? In the first place they mirror the vicissitudes of the whole of the socialist movement itself until the mid-1970s the lack of a theory of the self-organization of the oppressed, that is, the almost total failure to champion the need for autonomous movements for liberation for women and gays and lesbians.

Williams was a life-long sceptic of the value of critiques of the family, regularly placing such writing as the work of dissident bourgeois intellectuals. Similarly, he tended to see a “confusion” between ideas of social and sexual liberation in the history of both the artistic avant-garde movements and in the radical protest movements of the 1960s.

It is not difficult to see that the foundation of much of the limitations to this socio-cultural viewpoint is that of Third Period Stalinism. (7) My contention is that this Stalinized version of Marxist culture is what Williams learned in his youth, and that this fact explains Williams’ “generational blockage” concerning Trotsky and self-admitted “ignorance” concerning psychoanalysis in the Politics and Letters interviews (as well as his historically mistaken claim that the People’s Front period saw cooperation between Communists and Surrealists. Williams makes this claim in The Politics of Modernism; the mere fact that he devotes attention to surrealism is here the interesting point.)

In Williams’ case, the viewpoint which maintained in the late 1920s and early 1930s that psychoanalysis, surrealism and Trotskyism were social democratic and reactionary currents of thought modulated in the years after 1953 into the view that they were merely bourgeois dissidents (rather than revolutionary or potentially revolutionary) areas of thought. (8)

It is my opinion that The Politics of Modernism attempts to break with this perspective through a renegotiation of virtually all these concerns against the backdrop of the wholesale degeneration of various other politico-intellectual projects in Britain. It is an open question how successful Williams was in undertaking this project, and a tragedy that the planned essay Marxism and Modernism was never written.

Culture and Communist Decline

To turn to Views Beyond the Border Country in the light of these considerations is to be aware, then, of the absence of this political dimension and to acknowledge what the introduction calls the lack of “an effective socialist tradition” in the USA, certainly among the majority of non-activist Marxist academics, in partially explaining this absence.

The essays in the volume tend, on the whole, to set up an opposition between Raymond Williams and Stuart Hall. (Hall, though never a member of the British CP, was a frequent contributor to its journal Marxism Today, and the leitmotifs of his work were entirely coincident with those of the magazine.)

That is, what the contributors see as Williams’ cultural nostalgia for the working class and the working class community (the word “nostalgia” is indicative of the positivist framework of a number of the contributions) is set against Hall’s supposedly clear-headed insistence on the importance of alliance politics, new social movements and a radical democratic agenda to challenge the New Right. Alternatively, they assume that the work of Raymond Williams on hegemony and bourgeois incorporation is entirely compatible with that of Stuart Hall.

The problem with the initial distinction is that rather than being polar opposites, the early work of Williams and the work of Hall represent alternative traditions within the overall degeneration of the CP’s People’s Culture project. The second problem is that it is an open secret that one of the main targets of Williams’ anger in The Politics of Modernism is ... Stuart Hall. (9)

The least that contributors like Dworkin, Jon Thompson and Michael Apple could do is acknowledge this disturbing fact. For in the absence of a consideration of the arguments which Williams launched against the “new conformism” now widespread among the generation of the New Left (10), the contributors inadvertently return to some of the least useful positions of the mid-1970s – precisely to that moment when a process of bourgeois incorporation (tenure and appointment, guest lectureship and newspaper write-up, televisual biography and general self-congratulation) became a widespread option, and had actually begun to affect politico-theoretical options.

It should therefore come as no surprise that the best essays in the volume are those written by white women and women of color. For it seems clear that the contradictions in Williams’ own work are most obvious to those who must read him against the grain and in the absence of the more intense pressures on the white male academic to stop thinking.

Gauri Viswanathari’s essay Raymond Williams and British Colonialism: the Limits of Metropolitan Cultural Theory is an interesting contribution, though I would take strong issue with her reading of the ambivalent relationship between romanticism and Marxism in Culture and Society. For me, the rank confusion in Williams’ work concerning the relationship between culture and imperialism is a result of the residual Stalinist project of People’s Culture, working against a partial revolutionary romantic critique of Stalinist Marxism.

Viswanathan’s essay, it is to be hoped, represents a starting point: Her methodological criticisms of Williams are entirely justified, but she fails to present an alternative model. My own feeling is that the abandonment of a romantic moment in Marxism (which the writer toys with) would prove self-defeating to the project of a global anti-imperialist perspective.

Marxism requires the lifeblood of the romantic themes of liberation and humanism for this project. Leslie G. Roman’s essay On the Ground with Anti-racist Pedagogy is a particularly fine contribution, which employs feminist standpoint theory in order to test out the false claims to minority rights on the part of white students during the David Duke campaign in Louisiana.

Interestingly enough, Roman’s piece is one of only two essays to use the insights of The Politics of Modernism. Nevertheless, it is crucial to note that in several respects her essay moves beyond that of Williams by incorporating an actively anti-racist and feminist component in her “landscape of the truth.”

Roman, in other words, successfully employs precisely those crucial mid-1970s lessons of the movements of the oppressed (the women’s movement, the civil rights movement) into a Marxist viewpoint in the classroom. And in this respect her work could not come at a more appropriate time, when both in the USA and in Canada openly fascist viewpoints, employing the rhetoric of equal rights for whites, are being espoused in the streets and in the classrooms.

Views Beyond the Border Country is an ample demonstration that activist-scholarship, a concrete political standpoint and the insights of feminism and anti-racism ought to inform the politics of any future left in North America, both inside and outside the classroom.


  1. Dennis L. Dworkin and Leslie G. Roman, Views Beyond the Border Country: Raymond Williams and Cultural Politics (London and New York: Routledge, 1993), 1. All other references will be placed in the body of the review.
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  2. Alan M. Wald, The Responsibility of Intellectuals (New Jersey and London: Humanities Press, 1992), xvii–xviii.
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  3. Curiously enough, Löwy did not always recognize this hidden romantic moment, though it has since become one of his central concerns. He was alerted to it while working on his doctoral dissertation by a friendly review written in the New Society by ... Raymond Williams. See Michael Löwy, On Changing the World: Essays in Marxist Political Philosophy from Kurt Marx to Walter Benjamin (New Jersey: Humanities Press, 1993), xiii.
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  4. Eagleton’s memorial address for Raymond Williams was printed in New Left Review (168, March–April 1988) under the title Resources for a Journey of Hope: the Significance of Raymond Williams.
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  5. The project of People’s Culture emerged in the United Kingdom in the ranks of CI intellectuals at the time of the turn to the People’s Front in 1935. This finalized the CP’s break from any interest in the twentieth century avant-garde movements, particularly surrealism. The fact that surrealist leader André Breton played a part in exposing the Moscow Show Trials obviously played a part here! More fundamental, however, was the CP’s interest in winning the support of Liberal intellectuals in the name of the fight against fascism. The People’s Culture project had` other dimensions, e.g. the popularization of English folk music by people like A.L. Lloyd, which paralleled the American folk revivalism of someone like Pete Seeger.
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  6. All this is not to say that Williams was “moving towards Trotskyism”; the fact that Michael Löwy learned valuable lessons from Williams’ political thought is a counter testimony to such linear notions of intellectual development. The term for this sort of convergence is that employed by Löwy himself in Redemption and Utopia (1992): “elective affinity.”
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  7. Obviously, the Communists Party’s dismissal of Trotskyism, surrealism and psychoanalysis (Pavlovism as always preferred) grew progressively more harsh as the 1930s wore on, moving from “social-democratic deviation” to “in the pay of fascism and the Mikado” by the time of the Moscow Show Trials.
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  8. See the document signed by the surrealists Aragon and Sadoul at the Congress of the International Union of Revolutionary Writers held at Kharkov, Ukraine in 1930. Lettre Auto-Critique d’Aragon et de Sadoul, Tracts Surrealistes et Declarations Collectives 1922–1939 (Paris: Le Terrain Vague, 1980).
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  9. Hall had been one of the editors of New Times, a collection of essays produced by Marxism Today before they became the Democratic Left and admitted that they had thought for many years that East Germany was the “socialist paradise” and the like. Williams was very critical of this whole tendency, which had moved very far rightward (e.g. in promoting the idea of alliances with the Liberal Democrats to defeat Thatcher). Williams’ phrase about intellectuals “making long-term adjustments to short-term situations” was his riposte to that tendency.
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  10. The phrase “new conformism” was coined by Williams himself, but he died before he could write the essay Against the New Conformists, which was to be the last piece in the collection The Politics of Modernism.
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ATC 71, November–December 1997