Raymond Williams (1921-1987): His Life, Work and Intellectual Background

 

Dr. Derek Tatton, Wedgwood Memorial College

October 18 2011

Raymond Williams is not a household name, but his reputation as a thinker and writer continues to grow and extend.  He is thought of in conjunction with his close contemporaries Richard Hoggart and Edward P. Thompson, as well as the younger figure of the Birmingham-based academic Stuart Hall.  The Raymond Williams Foundation (RWF) has received e-mails in the last six months from various countries, including a request very recently (2011) from Buenos Aires for a magazine article asking the question:  ‘Basically how important is the work of Williams today?’ Terry Eagleton has rightly observed that ‘what Raymond Williams did then (in his earlier years) he did almost single-handedly, working from his personal resources’.  A crucial figure in his life was his father, who was a railway man in industrial South Wales in the 1920s, a time when there were some 290,000 miners in the region. Among many of these men was a great natural cultural interest in literature, history, music and politics.

The development of the RWF itself helps answer the question about his continuing importance.  When its income increased dramatically several years ago following a bequest, web-site promotion enabled an extensive and growing network with funds provided to assist over 30 educational projects in this country and abroad.

The RWF leaflet has three quotes from Williams’ writings and each indicates his continued relevance:

  1. “I ask for a common education that will give our society cohesion, and prevent it disintegrating into a series of specialist departments, the nation become a firm”. - Culture is Ordinary, 1958;  
  2. “The WEA taught me much… it has always stood for the principle that ordinary people should be highly educated, as an end justifying itself, and not simply as a means to power…” - Open Letter to WEA Tutors, 1961;
  3. and, most pertinent to the theme addressed here:  “The new interactive technologies could transform (the problems and travel and funding) by providing regular facilities for consultation and decision from people’s own homes…” - Towards 2000, 1983

These three statements were discussed, expanding on Williams’ prescience within the spheres of education and participative democracy.  The latter was the main theme of this lecture - but before returning to that, another key area of Williams’ work was considered:  seeing a short extract from The Country and the City documentary film featuring him as commentator for TV and taking viewers through several key issues in his seminal book of that title.  Works like Culture and Society and The Country and the City are better known, of course, than his writings about Adult Education, on which this talk is mainly based.

The period from 1945 to 1961, working full time with the WEA, he had University extra-mural freedoms and opportunities which were the ‘making of Raymond Williams’  – the years when he wrote Culture and Society, The Long Revolution and Communications with each very much indebted to ‘the adult education movement’.

By the 1960s he was established as a leading writer and thinker across an exceptionally wide range of spheres.  Striking a personal note, I gained entry to Cambridge through an Extra-mural bursary (having left school at 15) and Williams supervised me for the final year of my English Tripos.  I was struck, as were many others, by his exceptional assurance and the ease with which he could cross borders; on a par with the Cambridge intellectual elite at its best, but keeping a broad adult education perspective alive, holding to his Welsh border-country roots.

His classic early essay Culture is Ordinary gives the essential background on this.  He gained from his father and wider family an early and precocious knowledge of the industrial, social and cultural history of South Wales.  That was crucial in his formation and stayed with him.  The older Williams defined himself as a Welsh European and there is a sense in which he never really left Wales.  His deep attitudes and approaches to education were learned early in that border country where there was a ‘dystopia aspiring to be a utopia’ as Dai Smith has put it.   

The chapter on Education in The Long Revolution (1961) closes with:  ‘I do not doubt that the proposals suggested above will be called Utopian…’.  They were!  And by the early 1980s Williams himself was aware that, rather than the long revolution evolving the way he, and others across a broad spectrum, had anticipated, we were already well within a counter-revolution, moving fast to what was, in his terms, a new Dystopia - from Thatcherism, through ‘New Labour’, to the contemporary global economic crisis.

The Raymond Williams who supported the Cambridge Labour Party in the mid-1960s, had become, in his later years, deeply critical of not just parliamentary politics but political parties as such, predicting their total incorporation within an unregulated capitalist future.

Williams’ personal trajectory through to this position which foresaw these trends, enables a re-valuation taking Adult Education to be microcosmic:  a desolate landscape where the education movement which Williams knew has now effectively disappeared into history.  Yet, there are also quite strong currents of concern and opposition, re-groupings, new forms of continued education with a radical potential are emerging through this period where neo-liberalism reigns and ‘education for its own sake’ is disdained.

These relate to a ‘resource for hope’ summarized in the quote above on the benefits of new interactive technologies which is only now, decades later, being realised.

In Adult Education, whilst formal work has either simply ceased to exist or it has been incorporated in government priorities for work-related initiatives, there has been growth across a wide range of adult learning activities: the U3A, book groups, reading groups,  literary and arts festivals, renewed interest stimulated by TV in family history, revived Lit. and Phil. Societies, local history, archaeology,  an actual growth in membership – despite the economic crisis – of National Trust, RSPB and a number of ecology, green  and animal welfare organizations.

Although Raymond Williams fell out of fashion in the 1990s, a few years after his death, a biography by Fred Inglis did appear in 1996. Raphael Samuel, reviewing this, observed that ‘Williams ‘books are remarkable for their teacherly qualities. (They are) open texts which positively invite classes to rework the argument, and make it their own.’ Samuel also observes that ‘Raymond Williams was not an historian, and except for his riveting book on William Cobbett, never wrote a line of conventional historical narrative. But his intelligence was pre-eminently a historicizing one…… the contextual and historical is a leitmotiv, even the inspiration in all his published work, the book on mass communications, no less than that on the prehistory of the People of the Black Mountains.’

Concurrently, fresh social, political and philosophical education initiatives have developed: Philosophy in Pubs, Discussion Circles, Café philosophique, Sci-bars, and Salons, stimulated by the Battle of Ideas.  Many have a ‘big issues’ agenda relevant to education-for-citizenship perspectives, with some, supported by RWF, using new technology to connect with, for example, Melvyn Bragg’s BBC Radio Four programmes In our Time, www.opendemocracy.net  and other rich resources.  All this is now connecting globally through various web networks and the nascent ‘occupy’ movements – so that that, in Anthony Barnett’s words: ‘Raymond is bouncing back’.

Bibliography

  • Raymond Williams, Culture and Society 1780 – 1950 (1958, Harmondsworth
  • Raymond Williams, The Long Revolution (1961, Chatto & Windus; 2011, Parthian with Foreword by Anthony Barnett)
  • Raymond Williams, Communications (1962, Harmondsworth)
  • Raymond Williams, The Country and the City (1973, Chatto & Windus)
  • Raymond Williams, Towards 2000 (1983, Chatto & Windus)                                                           
  • John McIlroy & Sallie Westwood, Editors, Border Country – Raymond Williams in Adult Education (1993, NIACE):  Culture is Ordinary, pp 89-102; An Open Letter to WEA Tutors, pp 222-225.               
  • Dai Smith, Raymond Williams – A Warrior’s Tale  (2008, Parthian)                                                     
  • Mike Dibb, Director The Country and the City (1979, BBC Film)

Derek Tatton 2011, revised by Robert Blackburn 2015