Raymond Williams’s Resources for Hope

Raymond Williams’s Resources for Hope

To be radical requires a theory of how this world, for all its problems, contains and is fostering the beginning of another, very different world.

Raymond Williams

All sorts of people had come to the Welsh countryside to spend the day talking about the history of labor radicalism: miners, organizers, researchers, politicians. But the star attraction was missing. Raymond Williams, the Cambridge scholar and socialist beacon, had agreed by letter to speak; rumor was that he would be arriving in a big car. Then, as a runner returned from the parking area to report the distressing news that no big car had arrived, a tall, craggy-featured man rose from the audience and made his way to the stage. He had been there all day, listening, watching, content among his people, not making a point of himself. There was no need to make a point; everyone in that world knew his name. It was not a merely local fame. Zadie Smith recalls that when she was an undergraduate at Cambridge in the 1990s, Williams sat beside Michel Foucault and Roland Barthes in the pantheon of social and literary theorists. He was Stuart Hall’s friend and collaborator, E.P. Thompson’s ally and sparring partner, Terry Eagleton’s teacher, and often worked side by side with Perry Anderson. When he died in 1988, Robin Blackburn wrote in the New Left Review that Williams was the “most authoritative, consistent, and radical voice” of the British left.

Asked to give an account of himself, Williams would begin, “I come from Pandy.” The Welsh village of Pandy sits a short walk across fields from the English border, at the edge of the Black Mountains. The peaks near Pandy rise more than 1,000 feet above the farmland of the valleys. A person can always walk to higher ground for a long and encompassing view. When Williams was young there, in the 1920s and ’30s, the view from the ridges included smoke coming from ironworks and coal pits less than twenty miles to the south and west. At night, the flames of the industrial valleys edged the black horizon with red.

In contrast with landlord-ridden England, Pandy was inhabited mostly by small farmers, who were cash-poor but owned their land. Williams, though, came from a family of landless agricultural laborers, those who did grinding work for short pay on the bigger farms. His father, Harry, after going south for a stint of railway work in the coalfields, took a job as a signalman at the rail station near Pandy. He married Williams’s mother, Gwen, also from a family of farm laborers, and settled in a dark, damp Pandy cottage. Harry joined the railway union and brought to it a set of radical ideas he had learned from the socialists and communists who were organizing the coalpits and ironworks. From then on, the Williamses were not laborers but workers, part of an organized class fighting for a share of power in British life.

Williams was a classic twentieth-century “scholarship boy.” The brightest student in the village school, he read voraciously and tested into further schooling a few miles away at Abergavenny, where his teacher, without consulting Williams, wrote to Trinity College, Cambridge, to suggest they admit his Welsh prodigy. The dons agreed, and Williams was off to the fens of East Anglia and the brooding, eternal-feeling colleges.

It might have been a familiar story of escape and upward mobility, perhaps tinged with the regrets of uprooting and the compensations of nostalgia. But alongside the reading and schooling, the other great source of Williams’s intellectual life was the labor radicalism of his home. In 1926, when he was four, the miners went on strike across Britain, and the other trade unions supported them, calling a general strike that lasted just over a week. Harry Williams was a leader in the local strike, marshaling his fellow railway workers to shut down the Abergavenny station. But the national trade union leadership cut a deal to go back to work, leaving the miners to fight alone; after a few months, their strike ended in defeat. In their Pandy cottage, the Williams family believed that union leaders had undercut the solidarity of ordinary workers. Home and the village were more radical than any national power center, let alone the backward-looking curriculum of Cambridge.

Harry had fought in the First World War and hated the war and the army. Raymond, who had joined the Communist Party at Cambridge, interrupted his undergraduate degree to fight fascism in the Second World War. He volunteered to be a tank commander, fighting battles in the forests and fields of Belgium and France, steering half-blind in an armored shell packed with fuel and ammunition that would ignite at a stroke of bad luck. He joined the liberation of what he called a “small concentration camp” and helped destroy an SS Panzer division. In those ways he did play a part in defeating fascism, but he later recalled war mainly as brutalizing and bewildering. Years later he reflected on fighting Nazi conscripts from occupied nations (often Ukrainians) and obeying British officers who might have sympathized more with their German counterparts than with a Welsh communist under their command. During the war he spent evenings listening to radio reports about the Russian front to restore some sense of a conflict he could understand. (That front, of course, would have been equally nightmarish up close.) The only time he invoked his war service for any scrap of personal credit was with the local draft board when he refused to fight in the Korean War. They accepted that he had done his part already.

When Williams returned to Cambridge, he did not rejoin the Communist Party, though he never marked the decision as the sort of milestone that it was for some on the democratic left. From Cambridge he went on to teach evening classes in adult education, which he did in one form or another for fifteen years before returning to Cambridge, this time on faculty. His writing voice and manner of thought were the products of adult education classrooms, where shared socialist belief was often an assumed bond, and the students were intellectually hungry workers and members of the middle classes—a public beyond the university that Williams would always assume in his later writing.

In his thirties, Williams wrote two books that made him impossible to ignore and that announced his loyalty to both his classrooms and his railroader’s cottage. Culture and Society: 1780–1950, published in 1958, recast nearly two centuries of English literary and intellectual history. Two years later, a novel, Border Country, told the story of the 1926 general strike from the point of view of Matthew Price—a fictionalized Williams who returns to his village as his father is dying—and Harry Price, the father and central figure in the book, whose own life Matthew struggles to understand.

Culture and Society contains, in some form, most of what Williams would explore in the thirty years before his relatively early death in 1988. It aimed at a radical yet humanistic social theory, one built on reading and meditating on experience. In short, society was what happened to us: industrialism, the growth of cities and the clearing out of the countryside, the rise of mass communication and mass politics. Culture was what we made of what happened: the product of unending everyday efforts to understand how to live together. Politics needed culture—solidarity, a shared vision of the world, an orientation toward one another and to the future—and culture was politics: a way of organizing shared lives at the level of meaning.

Williams attacked every effort to define culture as a minority-elite concern—the kind of thing he had encountered at Cambridge—which often carried a fear that the rising “masses” would ruin everything unless their betters managed to instruct them, or at least to keep the national jewels safe from looting. He also criticized the Romantic idea that freedom, spirit, and genius could be individual achievements and possessions, abstracted from the whole social world in which they became possible. But Williams was not so much an iconoclast as a dialectical revolutionary. He treated elite reformers such as Matthew Arnold, Romantic rebels such as John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley, and radical anti-industrial conservatives such as Thomas Carlyle and William Cobbett not simply as confused or as class enemies, but as people engaged with fragments of a genuine and urgent question: what culture, what “whole way of living of a people,” could do justice to human possibility? Was there a way, in a rapidly changing and often bewildering world full of exploitation, degradation, and self-degradation, for people to become free and joyful together? No one could do it in Romantic solitude; hoarding culture among elites was immoral and, finally, self-defeating. But no one yet knew how to make what Williams called “a common culture.”

Williams urged a deepening of democratic practice, which he defined as “the recognition of equality of being,” a rejection of domination by people and institutions and the embrace of a way of communicating and acting together that could find the value in every perspective and identity. There must be, within that shifting variety, some basis of solidarity. Liberals, Romantics, and radicals had all taken these goals seriously in their various ways. Conservatives and socialists alike had seen that there was no living out such goals without reshaping the institutions of society. Left to itself, liberal capitalism would turn relationships into profit models, communication into marketing, and personality into calculation—ultimately producing illiberal domination and manipulation.

Williams argued for a democratic ethics based on egalitarian ways of seeing others and experiencing oneself. To see others morally, a person must refuse to see them as “masses,” homogenous symptoms of social conditions or of their own appetites. The language and, even worse, the feeling that cast others as “masses” was an attempt to cut oneself off from them: I am human, they are a heap of social stuff. “Masses,” he wrote in an ironic echo of Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit, “are other people.” “There are in fact no masses,” he continued: “there are only ways of seeing people as masses.” Seeing in that way cuts off the possibility of democracy.

To communicate democratically, one must communicate sincerely and with integrity, putting oneself on the line. Anything less was manipulation. Williams insisted on this point in Culture and Society: “Any practical denial of the relation between conviction and communication, between experience and expression, is morally damaging alike to the individual and to the common language.” He returned to it twelve years later in The English Novel, warning against “a social mode in which the observer . . . is not himself at stake . . . a mode in which we are all . . . critics and judges, and can somehow afford to be because life—given life, creating life—goes on where it is supposed to, elsewhere.” Facile ideological denunciation and marketing patter were both forms of moral surrender that shielded the self from risk. By contrast, a more full-hearted communication might contain the seeds of a future beyond domination and exploitation. It was a morally charismatic vision, and, especially for a radical of the left, intensely personal.

At the same time that Williams was making an entire literary and political tradition his own, he was planting his flag back in Pandy, which in Border Country he called, more euphonically and with a more unmistakably Welsh note, Glynmawr. The book is about growing up on the border between nations, industries, classes, and eras, and foremost about the general strike of 1926. But just as much, it is about being someone’s son, and beginning, as an adult, to understand the full and complex lives of your parents and their world, grasping for the first time that you do not understand yourself until you understand them—what they gave you, what they could not, what they asked of you, and what you will do with it. The book is as concrete as Culture and Society is abstract about what it means to see others in their full humanity, how unpleasant and plain difficult that can be, and how much it adds, nonetheless, to life.

Family and neighbors in Glynmawr are diffident, poor, and under threat when they act for themselves and others, as the strikers do. But the most vivid scenes are of a gentle solidarity, flexible enough to be forgiving, principled enough to be hard. When the railwaymen are about to go on strike, a maintenance worker arrives with flowers to be planted at the station, flowers that will die of thirst if set aside. Overriding a militant’s insistence that there be no work during the strike, Harry Price, the narrator’s father, announces that they will all plant the flowers together. They do, then walk out. One anti-union maverick refuses to join the strikers, but when some are not rehired after the strike, he launches his own work-to-rule action, doing his job by the book but frustrating operations until his mates can come back to work. This is solidarity not exactly as doctrine or even strategy, but as a structure of feeling, a way of being with others in which you never quite break from them and never quite authorize yourself to dominate them. Williams later remarked that these incidents were drawn closely from the real events of the general strike in Pandy and Abergavenny.

This everyday solidarity demands—is—a constant struggle against the anxious vanity that pulls us apart from one another, the gnawing appetite to be just a little better than a neighbor or another worker. When young Matthew Price seems to have lost a one-pound note that the family cannot afford to lose, his mother, Ellen, is certain it has been stolen by big Elwyn, a somewhat simple boy from a poor family who takes a protective interest in Matthew. “You know what that family’s like?” she asks. Harry is more upset by the quick accusation than by the loss of the money: “I know they’re poor. . . . So are we poor.” (The money turns up, having been innocently misplaced by a neighbor.)

When Matthew returns to the village from a faculty position in London, he asks himself whether he is rootless now, and whether that would be progress toward a larger and more vivid life. He tries out a clever formulation on his father’s old coworker, noting that while he has a “personal father” in Harry, no one who has changed worlds has a “social father,” because his father cannot be a model for his life in his new world. “This is wrong,” replies the neighbor: “I know that it’s wrong.” Harry, too, rouses himself from his illness to tell his son, in his own way, that almost no one has a social father, and no father is merely personal: “You saw me and your Gran: we were different. How many, ever, live just like their fathers? None at all like their grandfathers.” The difference is there on the surface of things, making perfect continuity or tidy identity an impossible conceit. But there are deeper, subtler continuities to find, which Williams concluded are indispensable.

What Matthew Price finally takes from Harry is a simple ideal familiar to anyone whose family members have lived and died by their work: “You set yourself a job, you finish it. Agreed, the job may be wrong, you might have done better. But get the habit when it’s difficult of stopping and going off somewhere else, then it’s not the job’s useless . . . but you, yourself. . . . Only once turn aside . . . once keep back just a bit of your strength, and then . . . you’re finished with yourself.” This is moving, but it is a burden as well as a gift. Like so many others’, Matthew’s vocation is a fragment of his father’s unconsummated appetite—in this case, a self-educated and intelligent rural worker’s hunger to see his world whole and to learn how to change it. Williams’s characters come again and again to this determination to stick to their loyalties as if they were life itself: “Live it through.” It is not a slogan of self-assurance but a stay against bewilderment, a way of surviving intact.

Culture and Society and Border Country are nearly perfect books of very different kinds. In the three decades that followed, Williams wrote two other nearly perfect books, along with a great number of books and essays elaborating on those books’ themes. The Country and the City, which appeared in 1973, brings Williams’s critical acuity to the idea and reality of farm and village life, holding in a single vision the literary traditions of pastoral and counter-pastoral, the political inheritance of country radicalism, the material history of grinding exploitation, and the inhabited feelings of love, grief, hope, and defeat of the often invisible rural poor who were his people. His critical eye spares nothing, yet the book is animated by charitable, patient attention. A landscape, he showed, was “not a kind of nature but a kind of man,” a way of living on and seeing a region and terrain. He invited his readers to see the great country houses, in so many minds the defining features of rural England (just think of Downton Abbey), as monuments to the labor that was stolen to build them—not gracious ornaments on the land, but “barbarous” in their “disproportion of scale” to the lives that surrounded them. Living on land, in place, fulfilled a deep human appetite, but the ordinary condition of that appetite was to be denied satisfaction—dispossessed by enclosure, uprooted by new technology and new markets. Adding insult to injury, there were always rural squires willing to appoint themselves the voices of country virtues, praising the candor and integrity of the village against London cheats. Their conceits, however, rested on “the brief and aching lives of the permanently cheated,” who worked their lands and never saw London unless they’d come as refugees.

Williams declined to see the tradition of rural radicalism as a true alternative. Too often it was just sentimental longing for an intact world that might never have existed, and in any case had no future. In writing of the sweet and good countryside that had been stolen, “a human instinct was separate from the society . . . turning protest into retrospect, until we die of time.” The more properly political radicalism of land reformers, critics of enclosure, and opponents of industrialization struck him as poignant and sincere (unlike the landlords’ moralizing) but trapped in its own paradoxes. People who had managed to live decent lives within a temporary order for a generation or two tried desperately to make it permanent, usually by picking and choosing bits of feudal order and bits of liberal freedom. Most rural radicalism was “an idealization, based on a temporary situation and a deep desire for stability,” and “served to cover and evade the actual and bitter contradictions of the time.” By refusing to look clearly at their past or their present, nostalgic populists kept themselves from working toward a viable future.

The Country and the City goes some way toward fulfilling a goal that Matthew Price voiced in Border Country: bringing social history to life with all its feelings and flesh. “The figures got up and walked,” Matthew tells one of his father’s old comrades, referring to how his archival work has turned into a kind of haunting by his people’s past. Of all self-appointed rural voices, Williams reckoned, almost none identified with the “real and permanent majority of the truly exploited and landless,” for whom there had never been much stability to idealize or defend. Williams was interested in their future, and by extension their past.

Williams turned to that past in People of the Black Mountains. The first of two volumes published after his death in 1988, it takes up another one of Matthew Price’s ambitions: to write, in Matthew’s words, “like a fool . . . the history of a whole people being changed.” Williams begins some 25,000 years ago, among horse hunters early in the last Ice Age, and proceeds to the Roman conquest of Britain in what are, effectively, linked short stories about those who once lived where Williams had grown up. Many of the stories here and in the second volume, which reaches medieval Wales, are vivid and moving. A horse hunt at the edge of winter succeeds, but a snowstorm kills the disabled family member who had to wait out the hunt at camp. An odd child invents the idea of domesticating a pig, but fails when a predator takes the penned pig at night. A “measurer”—a member of the priestly order whose observations of the skies Williams imagines as the source of ancient stone circles with uncanny astronomical alignment—arrives in a village, and a boy with a gift for measurement must choose between staying with his family to celebrate the traditional midwinter festival or following the stranger to discern scientifically the day of shortest light. Young people love one another, and do or do not find ways to make sense of loving in the stories and customs of their people. The land’s meaning changes: a sheep-herding culture is erased when a terrible sheep-borne disease (seemingly anthrax or plague) spreads, and for many generations the upland pastures are cursed and feared as people huddle in the shadows of mountains whose fertility they once saw as their own.

The moral pattern of the stories is Williams’s egalitarianism and trust in “the creative capacities of life,” as he wrote in Culture and Society. New peoples come by land or boat with new stories and new ways of making a living from the land. Under what they call the “law” of basic hospitality and forbearance, those who are already there find ways to make room, even through suspicion, confusion, and the occasional murder at the borderlands of cultures. They are all commoners. There are no lords, or even warriors.

A kind of fall comes with the Celts, the first lords, who arrive soon after cruel and bloody cattle raiders sweep through the mountains, spreading insecurity and even terror. The Celtic leaders promise the villagers protection, but on the unfamiliar condition of submission. Now there will be lords and commoners. First the locals feel gratitude, then confusion, and then they sort themselves into collaborators, scattered resisters, and mere subjects, including, for the first time, the enslaved—the captured descendants of the first post–Ice Age dwellers and hunters, who had long managed to exist freely alongside their herding and farming neighbors. A second fall comes with the Romans, as lordship is joined to empire and all social life is drawn toward a nexus of official power and hierarchy. The lords are not your people, Williams’s stories never stop warning. In one emblematic vignette, a Saxon lord rides to oust Viking raiders who have taken a farmhouse and are holding out there, brutalizing their hostages. The Saxons oust the Vikings, but their “noble” leader brings no justice to commoners. Lordship recognizes lordship, and the Viking commander gets a place in the local hierarchy in return for peace. The cottagers return to their casually shattered lives. With a sweep that has some of the vividness of J.R.R. Tolkien or Philip Pullman but is resolutely worldly, Williams tried in this unfinished project to create a common peoples’ epic of an inhabited place, a story that had gone on for tens of thousands of years before written history and that aimed, by implication and without didacticism, at a future where there would once again be no lords.

Williams would recall the 1950s and early ’60s as a time when the left was isolated and demoralized. In the heart of that ideological Ice Age, he joined Stuart Hall and others to form the New Left Review, which began publishing in 1960. He was approaching fifty when the seemingly near-revolutionary events of 1968 shook Europe and the United States; they must have recalled for him the 1926 general strike, whose popular radicalism had receded into childhood memories. The effect was briefly revitalizing, but soon the marchers of Paris, Washington, and Prague went down in defeat—outvoted in two cases, broken by Soviet tanks in the third. From then on, Williams positioned himself as an ally of young radicals and the “new social movements” for disarmament, feminism, and ecology. He began to speak less in terms of the fraught but peaceful “long revolution” of democratic reform and more in the language of a revolutionary rupture necessary to achieve real democracy. He tended to a no-enemies-on-the-left practice, which included some lamentable friendly phrases about Mao’s regime (interesting experiments in the division of labor, Williams remarked).

Williams moved left as his country’s politics settled into the grim retrenchment of the 1970s and then the long winter of Thatcherism, the political climate of his final decade. Hope for a socialist future was collapsing around him. He had already explored a version of this collapse during the previous ideological winter of the early 1960s. In Second Generation (1964), he limned a working-class union officer’s involuntary suspicion that management’s plan for layoffs is the voice of reality, adulthood, and the world as it is, while the union’s proposal for a shorter workweek with no firings is an idle dream, just talk. This is a structure of feeling working as a shackle, a preconscious conviction of your own powerlessness and a suspicion that the person on the other side of the table, however mediocre, is reality embodied. In this confrontation, your own unbidden feelings betray your conscious, “official” position and sell you out before the negotiation begins. Williams called this experience “confronting a hegemony in the fibres of the self.” Second Generation is full of reminders that political confrontation with the self often ends in defeat: shame at having believed in some defeated theory of equality, anger at union firebrands whose phrases about solidarity and justice now feel like jejune rants, cruelty toward a spouse who commits the offense of still believing in you when you no longer believe in yourself, who insists you are fighting for socialism when, in your body, you know you are just trying to get to retirement.

Of course, the mediocre yet authoritative manager wasn’t just trading on “the fibres of the self”; he also had the hard reality of domestic and global markets on his side. Maybe it would have been possible sometime in the late 1940s or early ’50s to reorient factory work toward shared labor and collective control, but that door had closed. Williams suspected, against every principle he had built his life around, that by the 1960s, being a radical democrat and egalitarian in Britain was far too much like being a Romantic poet under industrial capitalism. Both culture and society, structure and self, formed a kind of pincer action against radical hope.

Radicalism is a complex and sometimes paradoxical posture. In one sense, the radical is someone who seeks deeper and more total change—a radical program. In another sense, the radical is someone who sees problems, wrongs, and barriers to change as pervasive and strong in the present order of things—a radical diagnosis. There is a clear affinity between these two senses of radicalism: the deeper the problems, the more basic the need for change. But the two senses of radicalism may come into conflict. A radical analysis of problems and barriers to change may lead to overwhelming pessimism about any radical program; the hardness of a radical analysis can produce political quietism, with radical programs left to the politically naive. To be radical in both senses requires a theory of how this world, for all its problems, contains and is fostering the beginning of another, very different world. Williams labored mightily to hold together these two kinds of radicalism, to keep alive the idea that the many damaged lives he remembered and wrote about would find secular redemption in a transformed world, and that seeking partial solutions and temporary mitigations is not the best that people can do.

By the 1980s, Williams saw capitalism as devouring landscapes and ecosystems along with human lives and communities. He followed much of the New Left into an increasingly green disposition, and his calls for a politics aimed at “whole ways of life” now meant letting ecological restraint replace the economistic focus on production and exploitation. Although he called on the new movements as the agents of this change, he also sought an imaginative change at the deepest level, to reweave the self into a new, more generous, and more modest way of being among others and on the land. His 25,000-year history of the Black Mountains was a try at this, set in the landscape he said was the only place he ever visited in his dreams.

What is Williams’s legacy? Much of his most striking work pairs exquisite close reading—of a poem by Andrew Marvell, a manifesto by John Ruskin, Wordsworth’s Prelude—with a kind of humanistic materialism that locates the work in the crosscurrents of industrialization, dispossession, and the perennial appetite to make sense of experience. Williams also turned regularly to systematic writings in which he tried to explain more abstractly his life’s work, notably The Long Revolution (1961) after Culture and Society, and Marxism and Literature (1977) after The Country and the City. The Long Revolution contains important meditations on the social theory of communication, at once a human process of interpretation and self-creation and a structure of media technologies and ownership. Marxism and Literature is a forceful statement of anti-reductive materialism, arguing that despite our limited collective freedom, we map that freedom’s limitations only by pressing against its edges, in the process discovering its surprising margins. But these works also matter simply because they are Raymond Williams trying to give an account of what he does. Without the power of the more specific work, they would probably have disappeared. He was a singular interpreter of his time, an observer of immense acuity, generosity, and commitment—qualities that can be hard to hold together—who, because of the company he kept and the decades in which he lived, felt pressed to be more of a theorist than the singular strengths of the work required.

Two dilemmas in particular marked Williams’s thinking. They are, if anything, more present today than when he lived. One was between radical optimism about human potential and near-despair at much of what people were doing. He keenly observed all kinds of betrayal and bad faith, and he wrote as a moralist, denouncing the “cheapjack” salesman, the “addictions” and “obesities” and other self-degradations that came, he argued, of understanding the self as simply a vehicle for satisfaction and other people as opportunities for profit or pleasure. Yet he denied that this is who we really are. His conviction that human life contains deep, organic resources of solidarity and dignity was necessary to his vision of a radically democratic socialism that could grow from cultural ferment and experiment.

For a theorist of communication, the internet sharpens the dilemma in retrospect. Williams praised the idea of “multiple transmission,” of many voices in contrast to broadcast monopolies. He was, in ways, waiting for the internet, which began to creep into public consciousness soon after his death in 1988. He once seemed to suggest that shortwave radio could help to build ground-up socialism, and generally imagined open communication as fostering the type of grassroots democracy and mutual generosity that the early internet promoters would soon promise. The online ruin in which we now live literalizes much bleaker aspects of human nature, such as incorrigible vanity, clannishness, resentment, and sadism. The social theory implied by decentralized communication as we now undergo it feels more like the bloody pessimism of Friedrich Nietzsche (“There is no festival without cruelty”) than anything resembling Williams’s hopefulness.

But then, Williams always insisted that it mattered who owned the media, and how they used it. He argued in 1962 for ending the commercial organization of television, and would surely have seen the corporate internet’s potential for surveillance capitalism, targeted manipulation, and very bad structures of feeling. What else would we expect from a parasocial world built chiefly for profit? Williams would have been a democratic utopian who understood immediately that venture capital would not build socialism. We needed him most, it seems, in the decades after his death.

Williams’s second dilemma concerns nationality and the state. Williams mistrusted all large-scale organized power, with no exemption for the bureaucracies that make up much of the modern state. He traced their corruption in The Fight for Manod, a 1979 novel in which a much older Matthew Price becomes involved in a government scheme to build a “city of the future” in a Welsh valley, and reluctantly learns that the plan has become a real estate scam extending from local middle-class snobs to a capitalist-bureaucratic nexus in Brussels. As for nationalism, Williams detested it, and regarded himself all his life as an internationalist, anti-imperialist, and anti-racist. But he also understood that states and nations, particularly when they overlap as nation-states, are the dominant vehicles for giving shape to anything like “the lives of whole peoples.” An anarchist might imagine that “peoples” could arrange themselves spontaneously (online?) from the ground up and overgrow states. A libertarian might be content to drop the idea of peoples and let individuals play out their own desires in a web of contracts across borders. But Williams believed in the lives of whole peoples, to be defined in some new and more plural way, and he was realist and materialist enough to know that a form of life requires intentional structures, which require organized power. Where should that reside? Williams tended to gesture toward a blend of localism and internationalism. But with no strong state at either level, this is just an evasion of the problem. Not only do we lack an example of a modern people deliberately forming its life outside the nation-state, we don’t even know which direction to move in pursuing that ideal. (Or, rather, the nearest thing we know is organized religion, about which Williams had hardly anything to say.)

Williams’s dilemmas were hard for him to face because they threatened the cogency of the commitments and loyalties that defined him. As time went on and others’ political faith soured, it seemed ever more important to be Raymond Williams, still on the side of the left’s future. He wrote of radical culture in terms of “resources for hope,” and became one himself. His commitment to being Raymond Williams sometimes cost his political and theoretical writings the supple sense of irony, even tragedy, that he’d unfailingly found in every previous attempt to build a home with words in a world ravaged by selfishness and domination. But to read and think vividly without surrendering hope was the task he had set himself. He lived it through.

Jedediah Britton-Purdy teaches at Duke University School of Law and is the author, most recently, of Two Cheers for Politics: Why Democracy Is Flawed, Frightening—and Our Best Hope. He is a member of the editorial board of Dissent.

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