Culture and community - Nicolas Walter

A detailed critical review of Raymond Williams' book The Long Revolution, by anarchist Nicolas Walter.

Submitted by Steven. on June 24, 2016

Three Traditions

RAYMOND WILLIAMS BELONGS TO THREE TRADITIONS — puritanism, cultural investigation, and socialism. It shouldn't be misleading to call him a Puritan since the trial of Lady Chatterley's Lover last autumn, when Richard Hoggart and E. M. Forster both rightly insisted on calling Lawrence one. It is a bad mistake to suppose that Puritanism must necessarily take a religious form — social and political dissent spring from the same source as specifically religious dissent, but have grown away from it. Liberalism looks back to Paine and Milton; socialism to Owen and Lilburne; anarchism to Godwin and Winstanley. All three attitudes belong to the honourable tradition of British Puritanism; as Hoggart put it, "the distinguishing feature of that is an intense responsibility for one's conscience," and Williams, like Lawrence (and Forster and Hoggart too), comes at the end of the line reaching from the Puritans of the Great Rebellion down to our own day. He is a modern Puritan, with what Forster called "this passionate opinion of the world and what it ought to be, but is not".

He also belongs to another honourable tradition, that of cultural investigation: he is what might be called a modern "ethologist". In this tradition the great names — many of them Puritans as well — are Cobbett and Coleridge, Carlyle and Arnold, Ruskin and Morris, Wilde and Shaw, Tawney and Orwell, Richards and Leavis, Eliot and Read, and Lawrence and Hoggart again. It is probably in this role that Williams is best known. His previous books included an essay on Reading and Criticism (1950), an account of Drama from Ibsen to Eliot (1952), and then a brilliant examination of contemporary attitudes to Culture and Society since the Industrial Revolution (1958). This detailed and most interesting book, after dealing with the work of his predecessors from Burke and Cobbett to Orwell and Cauldwell, ends with a conclusion giving Williams' own ethological theories. His contribution to Conviction (1958) was a summary of his position, and The Long Revolution1 is essentially a very much expanded restatement of it.

Neither Culture and Society nor The Long Revolution can be considered without the other, So the Pelican edition of the earlier book is doubly welcome and should certainly be read first. Richard Crossman evidently and significantly failed to do so before writing his Guardian review of The Long Revolution, which hailed as "a new break-through on the Left" a book following closely and explicitly what the author has been saying for years, and managed not to mention Culture and Society at all. One wonders just how much old socialist leaders are interested in new socialist ideas which won't win any votes in the next election but might make socialism a living force again.

It is here that we see Williams in yet another honourable British tradition: he is a modern socialist. He was a working-class scholarship-boy from rural Wales — the background of his moving autobiographical novel Border Country (1960) — who won high academic honours at Cambridge, moved into and out of the Communist Party, and has been engaged since the last War in adult education and "committed" literary criticism, chiefly of modern drama. Hoggart's background is oddly similar, except that he comes from Leeds and began as a critic of modern verse (nor was he ever a Communist, as far as I know). The conversation between the two men printed in the first New Left Review shows how close they are; and Hoggart's book The Uses of Literacy (1957) is the ideal Pelican companion to Culture and Society.

Williams' strong but undogmatic brand of socialism is typical of the New Left, and he is in fact one of its elder statesmen, sitting on the editorial board of New Left Review and contributing frequent articles (including several chapters from his books) to it and to its predecessor, Universities & Left Review. He provides a valuable counterweight to the dialectical rhetoric of Edward Thompson and the youthful enthusiasm of Stuart Hall, and helps to give the New Left a certain air of academic respectability.

It is possible to examine what some writers say without bothering much about what they believe. This is quite impossible with Raymond Williams. He is the sort of writer whose whole work is deeply informed by his principles: the sort of ethologist whose view of culture is ultimately based on a moral attitude to people, on "an intense responsibility for one's conscience" and a "passionate opinion of the world and what it ought to be, but is not" — on puritanical socialism.

Three Questions

Raymond Williams is trying to find the answers to three questions: What is culture and how is it related to the community? What is wrong with our culture? How can it be preserved — and, more important, extended — for the common good?

His technique is always to use a great deal of material gathered by patient research to support his arguments. In Culture and Society he examined what other people had said about the problem during the 150 years before him; in The Long Revolution he examines English cultural life during a period about three times as long. About 80% of the earlier book was devoted to quotations from and comments on several dozen writers, and about 80% of the new one is devoted to a study of the ideas of creativity, culture, society and class in Parts One and Three, and to seven historical essays in Part Two. These essays in particular are meant to make the point of the title, which comes from a passage at the end of Culture and Society:

The forces which have changed and are changing our world … are industry and democracy. Understanding of this change, this long revolution, lies at a level of meaning which it is not easy to reach.

At the beginning of The Long Revolution he points out that as well as the industrial and democratic revolutions there is a third force changing the world — the cultural revolution; and each of the seven essays attempts to reach a level of meaning that can help us understand at least some of its aspects. As he says, "we have no adequate history of our expanding culture," and he has therefore set himself a twofold task:

Partly to get the record as straight as I can; partly to bring the questions of value involved in the history to the point where commitments can be open.

So this book is meant to provide some of the groundwork to a so far unwritten history, within the terms of Williams' own open commitment:

I see this cultural history as more than a department, a special area of change. In this creative area the changes and conflicts of the whole way of life are necessarily involved. This at least is my starting-point: where learning and communication are actual, and where through them we see the shapes of a society. What we see in this way we can then try to put to use in a much wider area. We can try to say how, where we live, we see growth and change, perhaps in new ways that are decisively altering our received social thinking.

It is "received social thinking" above all that Williams is attacking — what Matthew Arnold called "stock notions" and Professor Galbraith calls "conventional wisdom". His chief concern is to refute several fashionable but dangerous "formulas" used to describe our culture. He tries to reconcile popular pairs of opposites — such as "creation" and "perception", "individual" and "society", "culture" and "diversion", "work" and "leisure", "producer" and "consumer" — and to obtain a useful synthesis in their place. Thus he quotes Coleridge and J. Z. Young (but not Berkeley) to show that perception is itself an act of creation, and argues that the basic factor in culture is the mutual act of communication. Then he quotes Rousseau and Fromm (but not Aristotle) to show that we are essentially social animals, and argues that this communication between individual people is the expression of our "social character". From this it is a short step to an expression of political faith:

If man is essentially a learning, creating and communicating being, the only social organisation adequate to his nature is a participating democracy, in which all of us, as unique individuals, learn, communicate and control.

It is in the light of this attitude that we should consider his historical essays.

These show how far we are from a participating democracy in cultural as well as political and economic life. Williams points out, to begin with, that our system of educational apartheid, which is now dignified by the formula of "equality of opportunity" (as racial apartheid in Rhodesia is by that of "partnership"), is derived from the deliberately class-aligned school system established during the last century to preserve the status quo. We have not moved far from the situation described by Crabbe many years ago:

To every class we have a school assigned;
Rules for all ranks, and food for every mind.

He also points to the grave defects of the conventional syllabuses in which our children are still examined — no social studies except paternalist "civics", no non-literary arts except a little drawing and music, living languages carefully disguised as dead ones (and, he might have added, little genuinely experimental science) — and to the complete failure to solve the problems of "teenagers" and of further education. He is rightly disturbed by this situation:

It is a question of whether we can grasp the real nature of our society, or whether we persist in social and educational patterns based on a limited ruling class, a middle professional class, a large operative class, cemented by forces that cannot be challenged and will not be changed. The privileges and barriers, of an inherited kind, will in any case go down. It is only a question of whether we replace them by the free play of the market, or by a public education designed to express and create the values of an educated democracy and a common culture.

I wish that he had taken into account at this point Michael Young's idea of the Meritocracy, but I suppose there isn't room for everything.

He similarly points out that the response to the coming of universal literacy during the last century or so has been a largely class-conscious one — above all, "the fear that as the circle of readers extends, standards will decline", which leads straight to the formula of the "deluge". He lists the deluges that have successively overwhelmed traditional reading habits and have all been greeted with cries of alarm — printing around l500, popular drama around 1600, popular novels and magazines around 1700, radical newspapers around 1800, "mass" newspapers around 1900 (now we have television). In fact the cultural standards of most people have risen pretty steadily for about 500 years and look like continuing to do so, if the process is not halted by some external agency.

Then he describes the growth of the popular press over the last three centuries, showing in passing how the authorities tried to suppress the radical periodicals for the first two and the advertisers finished off most of the survivors in the last one. He also makes it clear that newspaper publishers have nearly always been speculators rather than leaders of opinion, and that the popular idea of the "Northcliffe Revolution" is yet another false formula:

The true "Northcliffe Revolution" is less an innovation in actual journalism than a radical change in the economic basis of newspapers, tied to the new kind of advertising.

Once more, he is disturbed by the present situation:

Is it all to come to this, in the end, that the lost history of the press in Britain should reach its consummation in a declining number of newspapers, in ownership by a few very large groups, and in the acceptance … of the worst kinds of journalism?

Then comes an interesting account of the growth of "Standard English", in which he traces the decline of dialect into accent and disposes of yet another formula — the belief that the language spoken by any class at any time is more "correct" than that spoken by any other class or at any other time. He shows how arrogance and deference have elevated various forms of vocabulary and pronunciation into a temporarily superior position, how fear of vulgarity and affectation has tended to preserve each form, and how social and cultural change has nevertheless pushed each form into the background — as post-war usage is doing to pre-war "Received Standard" speech now. "Thousands of people have been capable of the vulgar insolence of telling other Englishmen that they do not know how to speak their own language," and they still do so; but they do not speak like their parents, nor will their children speak like them. Unfortunately, whatever the prevailing standard may be, we can always be sure that it will continue to be "impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman despise him". I am sorry Williams doesn't quote this fine Shavianism, and also that he doesn't deal with the strange practice of swearing; in fact this chapter provokes more questions than it even tries to answer.

The next chapter is a summary of what looks like a Ph. D. thesis — an investigation of the social backgrounds of about 350 writers born between 1470 and 1929. This confirms what one might expect to find, such as the continuing importance of Oxbridge, the rising proportion of alien writers (coming either from outside England or from alienated groups within the country), and the increasing economic insecurity of professional writers as writing becomes increasingly professional. It is significant that the established social pattern always breaks at the same time as the established literary pattern — so that the Romantic Movement and the Industrial Revolution coincide not only with each other but also with a remarkable diversity in the origins of the writers involved. The chief lesson Williams draws is that writers' social backgrounds are always closely linked with social movements in general and with literary traditions in particular. I wish that this chapter had been much more detailed — and also that the statistical information given in pp. 231-239 had been represented on a simple table. This sort of quasi-Marxist analysis can be extremely valuable when it is done intelligently, and I hope Williams publishes fuller results of his investigation in the near future.

The last two historical essays are called "the Social History of Dramatic Forms" and "'Realism and the Contemporary Novel". Both are interesting, but both tend to become rather abstract essays in literary criticism and to obscure the implications of what they say — which is, more or less, that recent plays and novels have usually been confined by aesthetic formulas that make them socially dangerous or futile; so that drama and fiction should somehow be re-opened to contemporary life and thought. This is of course a moderate plea for social realism, not according to any ideological formula but in response to the urgent needs of society. In fact examples are more eloquent in this sort of situation than exhortations can ever be, and the sort of work described in ANARCHY 1 ("The 'New Wave' in Britain") is more effective than anything said in these two chapters; Williams has indeed made a more effective plea himself by writing Border Country. I always feel suspicious of appeals for this or that kind of art or literature, but Williams does manage to put the case for social realism fairly well, and as usual anything he says about cultural problems is worth listening to; most of us will probably agree with him over this particular point, though I think he is unfair to work that is not "committed" in the way he likes.

Three Answers

Raymond Williams finds the first question relatively easy to answer. Culture, he said in his Conviction essay, is not just "the arts and learning" (the usual idea), and is certainly not "the outward and emphatically visible sign of a special kind of people" (the idea of culture as a sign of grace or a status-symbol), but "a whole way of life". He admitted that "there is an English bourgeois culture, with its powerful educational, literary and social institutions in close contact with the centres of power" (the idea of culture as class ideology), but denied that this is in any real sense English culture as such. He has followed Eliot — who said: "Culture … includes all the characteristic activities and interests of a people" — in turning from the traditional ethologists to modern anthropologists and sociologists for a wider and more satisfactory definition of culture. (He has, however, rejected the modern psychologist's idea of culture as ritualised release from unconscious tension, and ignores the modern zoologists' idea of culture as highly organised play altogether).

In The Long Revolution he moves from "a whole way of life" to the vague phrase "structure of feeling". What he seems to be getting at is that culture is the collective activity of a community: culture is what society does, rather as the mind is what the brain does. It is culture that makes a human community more than either an aggregation of individual units or an instinctive association of big-headed two-legged ants. England is more than the sum of its inhabitants; and the difference is English culture, the structure of feeling of the English community.

Thus culture is the "pursuit of perfection" (Arnold's phrase) only to the extent that one of the functions of society is the pursuit of perfection — or the Good, or what you will. And similarly culture is the preserve of "a special kind of people" (the élite, or intelligentsia) only to the extent that the uncultured majority has been unable or the cultured minority willing to share it. For a long time, of course, the majority of mankind has been unable to share culture in any meaningful way; hunger, oppression and ignorance make up an infallible prescription for resentful apathy. What was wrong with English culture 500 years ago was that most people were scarcely members of English society at all, except as glorified slaves; what has been wrong with English culture since then is that the people who have gradually won a certain measure of life, liberty and happiness have been excluded from both culture and society by their former masters; and what is wrong with English culture today is that though we have nearly all the ingredients of a free and open society of equals we are still not prepared to get down to mixing them.

So the answer to the second question is that England could and should be one nation, and is still two nations — or is it three? A century ago Arnold said that English culture was divided into three parts — Barbarians, Philistines and the populace. These classes have merged into each other, perhaps, but they have divided again. Hoggart has commented on "the strength of our sense of class":

We don't need to feel it consciously, but simply to accept the notion of grades seeping all through society. We seem to have three-tiered minds: upper, middle and lower class; high, middle and lowbrow; Third, Home and Light.

As Tawney was complaining thirty years ago:

Here are these people …who, more than any other nation, need a common culture, for, more than any other, they depend on an economic system which at every turn involves mutual understanding and continuous co-operation, and who, more than any other, possess, as a result of their history [and their geography, he might have added], the materials by which such a common culture might be inspired. Yet, so far from desiring it, there is nothing, it seems, which they desire less.

So the first two questions have been answered. It is the third question — What must be done? — which is the most important one to ask and the most difficult one to answer.
There are two kinds of answer that are usually given — the nostalgic and the optimistic. The nostalgic answer is that there was once a common culture and our task is to revive it; the optimistic answer is that there is already a common culture in embryo and our task is to bring it to birth.

Nostalgic ethologists — including people like Cobbett, Ruskin, Morris and Lawrence — have in the past tended to relapse into rustic medievalism, but the modern version of cultural nostalgia can be seen in what Leavis and Denys Thompson said in Culture and Environment nearly thirty years ago:

Literary education … is to a great extent a substitute. What we have lost is the organic community with the living culture it embodied … Instead or the community, urban or rural, we have, almost universally, suburbanism.

They do not, it is true, share the reactionary passion of many of their predecessors, but even so their qualifications are not wholly convincing:

We must … realise that there can be no mere going back, but the memory of the old order must be the chief incitement towards a new, if ever we are to have one.

A closely similar attitude can be seen in the guild socialist, Penty, just after the end of the first World War:

Whereas a false culture like the academic one of today tends to separate people … a true culture like the great cultures of the past unite them. The moral is obvious: "The recovery of such a culture is one of our most urgent needs."

I am sure it is simply an evasion of our cultural difficulties to hope for a solution through a return to a golden age somewhere in the past — even more so when it seems on investigation to be a largely imaginary golden age. Leavis and Thompson put it in the last century; Cobbett put in the one before that; Goldsmith even further back; and most of the nostalgics, like Ruskin and Morris, have gone right back to the Middle Ages. It would help rational discussion of this idea if we knew when this "Merrie England" existed and what it was like. I don't believe it ever existed at all. I think that the Urkultur is sheer fantasy. People are always remembering the "good old days" with affectionate regret, even when there is ample evidence that they were really very bad old days indeed (consider the current vogue for the Edwardian Era). Remember Lucky Jim, who began by writing a lecture about "the instinctive culture of the integrated village-type community" and ended by saying: "The point about Merrie England is that it was about the most un-Merrie period in our history."

So we turn to the optimistic ethologists. These are of two kinds — "right" and "left". The former include Coleridge, Carlyle, Maurice, Mill and most socially conscious Victorians — above all, Matthew Arnold:

Culture has one great passion, the passion for sweetness and light. It has one even greater — the passion for making them prevail. It is not satisfied until we all come to a perfect man; it knows that the sweetness and light of a few must be imperfect until the raw and unkindled masses of humanity are touched with sweetness and light.

He was careful to deny that he was being patronising about the masses or snobbish about culture:

It does not try to reach down to the level of inferior classes … It seeks to do away with classes; to make the best that has been thought and known in the world current everywhere; to make all men live in an atmosphere of sweetness and light, where they may use ideas … freely-nourished and not bound by them. This is the social idea; and the men of culture are the true apostles of equality.

This is all very well, but the trouble with the all-embracing benevolence of "levelling-up" is that it easily turns sour, as it had done with Carlyle and Arnold's own father, as it tended to do with Arnold himself, and as it has done since with Lawrence and Orwell and Eliot and Read and dozens of others. It is difficult to go on loving men if you expect too much from them in the first place, and no one is more bitterly misanthropic than the disappointed philanthropist.

The pattern is simple. The right-wing optimist expects the uncultured majority to take culture readily and gratefully from the cultured minority; when this doesn't happen, he blames not the élite or the class system, but the masses, and either retires into an ivory tower of indifference or relapses from paternal humanism into open authoritarianism. In both cases the last stage is snobbery and contempt. Hence Bloomsbury; hence the "posh" papers; hence Reith and the BBC; hence the repeated reinforcement of the old view that the living culture of the leisure class should be not shared but preserved intact; and hence the continued and even strengthened polarisation of English culture. In practice, Coleridge's "clerisy", Carlyle's "writing and teaching heroes", Arnold's "aliens", and so on down to Eliot's "élite" and Read's "artists", always tend to become a band of "top people" combining to keep precious "culture" out of the grubby hands of the masses. And this tendency is made even stronger when there is a class of professional "top people" with its own vested interests to protect, as we have now and as was prophesied by Adam Smith two centuries ago:

In opulent and commercial societies, to think or to reason comes to be, like every other employment, a particular business which is carried on by a very few people who furnish the public with all the thought and reason possessed by the vast multitudes that labour.

Incidentally, who are these "vast multitudes"? What are the "masses"? Williams demolished this cherished formula in Culture and Society:

The masses are always the others, whom we don't know …To other people, we also are masses. Masses are other people. There are in fact no masses; there are only ways of seeing people as masses.

And he added an important corollary:

The whole theory of mass-communication depends, essentially, on a minority in some way exploiting a majority.

"Mass" is really just a new word for "mob", and we can see how right-wing optimists come to feel about the mob when we turn to Eliot:

A mob will be no less a mob if it is well fed, well clothed, well housed and well disciplined.

There is a strong strain of authoritarianism leading on to frank despotism in this kind of search for a common culture, and in the end it often does more harm than good by raising hopes that cannot be fulfilled.

The other kind of optimistic ethologists are the socialists who believe, after Marx, that proletarian culture is the living culture and will become the common culture when the proletariat destroys the bourgeoisie. This is the theory that elevates folk-songs and folk-stories into an absurdly superior position and consigns most of recorded European culture into a limbo of decadent formalism. I take it that we agree to dismiss the implications of this theory, even in its more

page 89

subtle forms, while recognising of course that folk-culture is just as valid and valuable as any other other aspect of cultural activity. Williams certainly entertains no illusions about the necessary superiority of working-class life in general or art in particular. The real tragedy is that any aspect of culture should be judged in terms of class labels rather than of intrinsic merit and social worth.
But at its best left-wing optimism is something very fine — often an integral part of puritanical socialism — and while Williams does not in fact share such an attitude he has certainly been influenced (as I hope we all have been influenced) by the sort of thing felt by Morris eighty years ago when he was looking forward to

The victorious days when millions of those who now sit in darkness will be enlightened by an Art made by the people and for the people, a joy to the maker and the user.

So the first answer to the third question is a negative one — the common culture will not be created by a return to the past or a gift from above or an eruption from below. How will it be created? The second answer is also negative — it won't be created at all. Williams agrees with Eliot that culture cannot be forced — "These activities are probably by-products for which we cannot arrange the conditions" — and hopes that the coming of socialism will somehow involve the spontaneous growth of a common culture as the living expression of a free and open society of equals. This was already expressed in Culture and Society:

If, in a socialist society, the basic cultural skills are made widely available, and the channels of communication widened and cleared, as much as possible has been done in the way of preparation, and what then emerges will be an actual response to the whole reality, and so valuable.

In Part Three of The Long Revolution, which is hopefully entitled "Britain in the 1960's", he attacks the idea of culture as a market in which kicks of varying strength and sophistication are sold by shrewd speculators to faceless morons; and then he attacks the idea that private and public responsibility are separate categories. This is an ancient line of argument among social critics — the famous phrase Galbraith uses to describe the modern Affluent Society was used by Sallust to describe Rome two thousand years ago: Habemus publice egestatem, privatim opulentiam — but it is none the less relevant for that. The point of Williams' argument is that we all care about our unhealthy community with its private opulence and public squalor and our unhealthy culture with its private satisfactions and public apathy — but what are we, as members of our community and participants in our culture, prepared to do about it?

At the very end of his book, after a long and rather derivative discussion of contemporary economic and political problems, Williams says what he thinks we ought to do for the sake of a common culture. He proposes some sort of decentralised public ownership of the media of drama, cinema and broadcasting, and some sort of public councils for the book and periodical trades. At the same time, he calls for increased public patronage and informed criticism of the arts, more adult education and "new forms of education" for teenagers, and a public consumer service; and elsewhere he has also suggested an advertising tax and council. So we are presented with a programme of Fabian nationalisation and/or municipalisation, which is rather disappointing.

Williams' defence is that the long revolution must be continued and will die of atrophy if it is not pushed forward by decisive common action. The immediate danger he sees is that the "Establishment" will become more firmly entrenched and the people who are called "masses" will accept the title — then the "massification of society" (an American phrase) wiIl take place and "I'm all right, Jack" will be the true national anthem. We are back where Matthew Arnold began, when a revolution has reached a crisis and the choice is between culture and anarchy (which means chaos, not this magazine!). Our society, says Williams, is a changing organism, and our culture is similarly dynamic, not static. It is going to move in any case — which way do we want it to go? The only way he can accept is one of "conceding the practice of democracy, which alone can substantiate the theory". Hence his unappetising blue-print.

Three Criticisms

Before dealing with Williams' specific proposals, I should like to make two other criticisms of this book. The first is that its scope is far too narrow. It is insular, considering British culture only as a monad living in splendid autarky among other monads; foreign cultures are scarcely mentioned. It is insular even within the British Isles, taking no account of the variations that exist in Ireland, Scotland and Wales, and in the North and South-West of England. It is limited in its treatment of even English culture — despite his repeated insistence that culture is "a whole way of life", Williams confines his investigations to verbal culture as expressed in speech and literature, and says almost nothing about such other aspects of our cultural life as films, broadcasting, music, painting, sculpture, architecture, museums, town and country planning, transport, clothing, sport, holidays, hobbies, hygiene, eating and drinking, sex, crime and religion. He pretty well ignores the problem of Snow's "two cultures" and the relevance of the scientific and technological revolutions that have accompanied the industrial and democratic ones; numeracy is as important as literacy. The book looks too much like a collection of essays on subjects that happen to interest the author. What is lacking is any hint of the breadth of view we find among English writers like Wells, Russell or Aldous Huxley, or among anarchists like Kropotkin and Rocker.

My second criticism is that The Long Revolution is nearly unreadable. I do not ask Williams to try to be a great writer like some of his predecessors, but I do ask him — and anyone else who wants to be heard — to say clearly what he means so that he can be readily understood. No doubt culture is a difficult and important subject, and no doubt Williams is more interested in saying exactly what he believes than in coining clever phrases (though I am sure the Long Revolution will now join the Affluent Society and Meritocracy and Organisation Man and Lonely Crowd in the modern pantheon of social criticism), but there is no need to write so that every sentence has to be read twice before it makes sense. Reading this book is like running hurdles across a ploughed field in pitch darkness.

This is a serious enough matter for any writer; for one whose whole subject is the problem of communication it is unforgivable, and it has already done Williams harm. One reason why so many reviews have been unfair to the book is that the reviewers haven't managed to get through it (goodness knows how the general reader will fare), and in their irritation they have poked fun at the author's solemnity and apparent self-righteousness — which is bad manners, perhaps, but he does ask for it. Williams and his publishers are guilty of giving bad service to their customers — incidentally, there are no notes at all, the bibliography is scrappy, and the index is quite inadequate; otherwise the book is beautifully produced. If the opacity and verbosity of the prose had been dealt with properly, it would have been possible to get the important ideas across more effectively, to back them up with more relevant material and to discuss the controversial issues at greater length. Style isn't everything, but it is still important, and a writer ignores the technique of communication at his peril.

My third criticism is that Williams has been betrayed by his socialist allegiance into making some unfortunate positive proposals for and some false assumptions about our culture. He outlines his programme so abruptly and briefly (on pp. 335-347) that its details will probably become objects of dispute rather than subjects for discussion. It is not simply that it is authoritarian and not libertarian; Williams' idea of socialism is probably as libertarian as anyone's — though I think he would prefer the word "communitarian" (we can't use "communist" in this sense any more), since his aim is neither liberty nor authority but true community. No, the trouble is that they seem to be the products of a formula (public responsibility = public ownership) in defiance of reality (public ownership = state control). Williams prefers bureaucrats to plutocrats in theory, but in practice I prefer America to Russia. The point is that we are trying to change existing society, not to create a new one from scratch. Ideally, a community should obviously control its own culture; but the inevitable result of public control of a class culture like ours is the reinforcement of the position of the ruling class. We have already seen public control of some of the means of production and distribution failing to improve our community and even, in some ways, making it worse. We seem to be caught in a dilemma: we cannot change the quality of society unless we change its structure, we cannot change the structure of society unless we change its quality, and if we try to change both at once we run the risk of upsetting the whole thing and being more badly off than before. (Perhaps it is impossible to make improvements by design?)

Williams is so anxious to persuade us that "the ordinary people should govern; that culture and education are ordinary; that there are no masses to save, to capture, or to direct" that he misses the mystery lying at the heart of culture. We need an equal society not because all men are equal but because some men are more equal than others. There are enormous differences between people, and these differences become more important as the community becomes larger. In the old days societies were small, or condemned most of their members to slavery, or both. Today we are committed to large societies with no slaves, but it will take more than wishful thinking or public ownership to make them work. We must recognise our differences as well as our similarities; we are individual animals and social animals at the same time. And it is when we are most different and most individual that the unique and inexplicable act of creation takes place, whether its purpose is communication or simply self-expression. Williams never seems to take this existentialist or romantic assertion into account. He is always honest and sincere — indeed this is one thing no reviewer has doubted — but he is seldom original or profound, as some of his admirers claim. He is not nearly as impressive when he turns to philosophy and politics as when he asks concrete questions about culture; when he does this he should certainly be listened to. We should not turn from what he says because we are bound to disagree with his conclusions. As he himself has said in another connection, "If Eliot is read with attention he is seen to have raised questions which those who differ from him politically must answer or else retire from the field." It is now up to us to find our own answers.

  • 1The Long Revolution, by Raymond Williams (Chatto & Windus, 30s.).