Raymond Williams

Issue section: 
Issue: 
(332)

Dai Smith, Parthian Books, £12.99

In his 1958 essay "Culture is Ordinary", Raymond Williams writes of his time in university that he was "in no mood, as I walked about Cambridge, to feel glad that I had been thought deserving; I was no better and no worse than the people I came from…because of this, I got angry at my friend's talk about the ignorant masses."

This quote captures Raymond Williams' identification with the working class and the struggle for socialism, as well as his unremitting hostility to elitism, a theme that is central to Dai Smith's fascinating, if ultimately unsatisfactory, biography of Williams' life up to 1961.

Born in the Anglo-Welsh border town of Pandy in 1921, Williams received an early education in socialist politics from his father, who had been instrumental in organising a local branch of the early Labour Party, and his membership of the Left Book Club.

Radicalised by the threat of fascism and the events of the Spanish Civil War, Williams joined the Communist Party in Cambridge in 1939. He quickly grew disenchanted with Stalinist opportunism and its mechanical attitudes towards art and, after the Second World War, committed himself to a non-reductive analysis of culture.

Williams wanted to rescue the merits of bourgeois art from the Stalinists who denied its validity. In doing so, he pioneered the notion that popular culture was relevant and contained within it the embryo of a rejection of the stifling post-war consensus by the youth who embraced it.

However, like many of the New Left intellectuals of his generation, Williams' reaction against the crudity of Stalinism led to his rejection of much of the conceptual equipment of Marxism. While his identification with the working class was not in question, his conception of it was vague and left him unable to satisfactorily solve the problem of just how the changes he saw as necessary were to be brought about.

Smith's biography is an interesting and often insightful compendium of Williams' fiction and unpublished papers. In the introduction Smith notes that he wrote in such a way "that the voice of Raymond Williams, in his own words, can be heard". Smith does this not simply through extensive quotation but also by exploring the connections between Williams' history and the often semi-autobiographical nature of his fiction.

Unfortunately, in taking this path, the book makes no attempt to resolve Williams' contradictions. Much like Smith's earlier book on the South Wales Miners' Federation, The Fed, this biography is full of rich detail and vividly brings its subject to life but fails to analyse and assess its subject's strengths and weaknesses in any serious way.

Despite these shortcomings, this book is an essential read, not least for the sheer weight of original research and the obvious and deserved admiration of the author for Williams.