Raymond Williams, and Why Culture Matters

Against the Current, No. 137, November/December 2008

Terry Eagleton

THIS YEAR SEES the 20th anniversary of the death of Raymond Williams, one of the towering socialist thinkers of the 20th century. A superb biography of him, Raymond Williams: A Warrior’s Life, has just been published by Dai Smith, who ranks among the finest scholars of Welsh culture and history of our time. Smith charts Williams’s passage from the Welsh border country, where his father was a railway signalman, to Cambridge and then into adult education, a vocation he chose for political motives along with his New Left colleagues Richard Hoggart and E.P. Thompson.

In a rare moment of disillusion, Williams once told me that the difference between teaching adults and university students in the 1950s was one of “teaching doctors’ daughters rather than doctors’ sons.” But he never doubted that any Labour government worth its salt would invest massively in what he called “institutions of popular culture and education,” and lambasted them all from Clement Atlee to Harold Wilson for failing to do so.

“Culture is ordinary,” Williams wrote in a pioneering essay, and his own life was a case in point. He saw his transition from the Black Mountains to the dreaming spires as in no sense untypical: the Welsh working class from which he sprang had always produced writers, teachers and political activists like himself.

Right to the end, he regarded the politically conscious rural community in which he was reared, with its neighborliness and cooperative spirit, as far more of a genuine culture than the Cambridge in which he held a professorial chair, a center of learning he once acidly described as “one of the rudest places on earth.” Working-class Britain may not have produced its quota of Miltons and Jane Austens; but in Williams’s view it had given birth to a culture of its own which was at least as valuable: the dearly won institutions of the labor, trade union and cooperative movements.

Since Williams’s untimely death in 1988, culture, one might claim, has become more ordinary than ever. Not in the sense that Milton has sold in the supermarkets, though Austen has been sprung from the college libraries to give pleasure to millions through film and television.

In the teeth of the cultural Jeremiahs, Williams never ceased to argue for the progressive potential of the media. But he also believed that these vital modes of speaking to each other should be wrested back from the entrepreneurial cynics who exploited them for private gain. His prescription for dealing with the Murdochs of this world was bracingly free of his usual circumspection: “These men must be run out,” he insisted.

The real sense in which culture since Williams’s death has become more ordinary than ever has little to do with Dante or Mozart. One of his key moves was to insist that culture meant not just eminent works of art but a whole way of life in common.

In our own time, culture in this sense – language, inheritance, identity, kinship, roots and religion – has become important enough to kill for. Some men and women today will give up their lives in the name of culture, or take the lives of others. Dante and Mozart may be “elitist,” but at least they have never blown the limbs off small children.

Culture and Civilization

The three political currents which topped the global agenda in the late 20th century – revolutionary nationalism, feminism and ethnic struggle – all place culture right at the heart of their project. In all three cases, language, identity and forms of life are the very terms in which political demands are shaped and voiced.

In this sense, culture has become part of the problem rather than part of the solution, as it was for Matthew Arnold and F.R. Leavis. In more traditional forms of political conflict, working men and women have proved most inspired when what was at stake was not just a living wage but (like the mining communities) the defense of a whole way of life. The political demand our rulers find hardest to beat is one which is cultural and material together.

Ever since the early 19th century, culture or civilization has been the opposite of barbarism. Behind this opposition lay a kind of narrative: first you had barbarism, then civilization was dredged laboriously out of its murky depths.

Radical thinkers, by contrast, have always seen barbarism and civilization as synchronous rather than sequential. This is what the German Marxist Walter Benjamin had in mind when he declared that “every document of civilization is at the same time a record of barbarism.” For every cathedral, a pit of bones. For every precious work of art, the mass labor which granted the artist the resources to create it.

Civilization needs to be wrested from Nature by violence, but the violence does not end there. It lives on in the coercion used to protect civilization once it is established – a coercion which is known among other things as the political state.

These days, however, the conflict between civilization and barbarism has taken an ominous turn. What we face now is a conflict between civilization and culture, which used to be on the same side of the fence.

Civilization means rational reflection, material well-being, individual autonomy and ironic self-doubt; culture means a form of life which is customary, collective, passionate, spontaneous, unreflective and a-rational. It comes as no surprise, then, to find that we have civilization whereas they have culture. Culture is the new barbarism. The contrast between west and east is being mapped on a new axis.

The problem, however, is that civilization needs culture even if it also feels superior to it. It needs it because its own political authority will not operate unless it can bed itself down in a specific way of life.

Men and women do not easily submit to a power which does not weave itself into the texture of their daily existence. And this is one reason why culture remains so politically vital. Civilization cannot get on with culture, and it cannot get on without it either. We can be sure that Raymond Williams would have brought his wisdom to bear on this conundrum.

ATC 137, November-December 2008