Raymond Williams

Raymond Williams was born in 1921, the son of a Welsh railway worker. His books include Culture and SocietyThe Long Revolution, The Country and the City and Marxism and Literature. He taught at Cambridge for many years and was professor of drama there from 1974 to 1983. He died in 1988.

Past Masters

Raymond Williams, 25 June 1987

What can we possibly say of the claim that ‘the first great revolutionary movements in Europe’ were all ‘more or less imbued with the ideas of Joachim of Fiore’? Or, if ‘more or less’ offers an escape clause, what can we say of another claim: that ‘Joachim created the aggregate of symbols which govern the self-interpretation of modern political society to this day’? Or that ‘it is hardly too much to claim that the vague and powerful assumptions we all make about historical transition have their roots in Joachism’?


Raymond Williams, 17 April 1986

The simplest autobiographies are those which are ratified, given title, by an achieved faith or success. Among these, what passes for success has come to predominate. It is then not surprising that most are either written by ghosts or by the equally ghostly figures of acknowledged reputations. Many of the harder kinds of achievement are too full of other kinds of content, to say nothing of contradictions and uncertainties, to pass easily into a Life. A memoir of some event or experience is one thing; the composition of what can be seriously taken as a whole life experience quite another.

Torches for Superman

Raymond Williams, 21 November 1985

Who carried a torch for August Strindberg? On his 63rd, and last, birthday, some ten thousand people, led by the Stockholm Workers’ Commune with bands and red union banners, marched past the apartment that he called the Blue Tower, after the name of a Danish prison. The ‘Marseillaise’ and ‘other anthems of liberation’ were sung. There were cheers for ‘the People’s Strindberg’ and ‘the King of Poets’.

Ruskin among others

Raymond Williams, 20 June 1985

‘When I was an undergraduate in the early 1960s,’ Mr Hilton writes, ‘I was asked to understand that an interest in Ruskin was as foolish as an enthusiasm for modern art.’ This is incomprehensible, until it is observed from the cover note that Mr Hilton was at Oxford. Even so, either he was very unlucky or this is an example of that interesting and recurrent phenomenon in which a new generation discovers a well-known writer in its own terms and as it were originally. Mr Hilton goes on to speak – with reference to work in Oxford in the mid-1970s – of ‘the avant-garde of the new Ruskin studies’.’


Raymond Williams, 24 January 1985

Two truths are told, as alternative prologues to the action of modern Wales. The first draws on the continuity of Welsh language and literature: from the sixth century, it is said, and thus perhaps the oldest surviving poetic tradition in Europe. The second draws on the turbulent experience of industrial South Wales, over the last two centuries, and its powerful political and communal formations.

A Man without Frustration

Raymond Williams, 17 May 1984

It is still very difficult, in the English-speaking world, to focus the work of Lukacs. Any full understanding of it depends on a familiarity with classical German philosophy and with the intellectual development of Marxism which is still relatively uncommon in our language. The intricacy of the current international discussion of various phases of his thought contrasts very sharply with the few relatively general impressions which most of us have been able to register, even through careful study of those more readily accessible works which are said to be his most significant. Three of these impressions can be recorded as a measure of our distance. First, that he is one of the more interesting and tolerable Marxist critics of literature, in the breadth of his learning and in his relative freedom from dogmatism. Second, that as an opponent of Brecht and of Modernism, and a defender of classical realism, he belongs to an old and fruitless kind of Marxism and can even be fairly taken as a cultural representative of its Stalinist phase. Third, that he is a major example of the ‘humanist fallacy’ in Western Marxism, in his reliance on notions of ‘man as subject’ and more directly in his kind of socialism, which is more properly a ‘romantic anti-capitalism’.

Cambridge English and Beyond

Raymond Williams, 7 July 1983

Was there ever, in fact, a ‘Cambridge English’? Not as in ‘Oxford English’, which refers in its most general use to a manner of speaking: but in the sense of a distinctive and coherent course and method of study. There has been an English Tripos in Cambridge since 1917, and an independent Tripos and Faculty since 1926. I realised recently that I had been in contact with English at Cambridge for two-thirds of this history, since I came as an undergraduate in 1939. Moreover, for the last twenty years or so I have, in some problematic ways, been near the centre of its affairs. It is then at first sight curious that I still look at what is called ‘Cambridge English’ as a historical phenomenon: as something happening, throughout, at a certain distance.

The Red and the Green

Raymond Williams, 3 February 1983

Some very important changes in socialist ideas are now beginning to come through in Europe. Yet at the surface of politics they are invisible in Britain, even though there are those here who have contributed to them. Where they have become visible at the surface, as most notably in the rise of the Green Party in the German Federal Republic, they are still commonly interpreted as a local ‘ecological’ variation, without long-term effect on the main body of socialist institutions and ideas. Similarly, the difficult argument about relations between the Left and the popular campaigns for nuclear disarmament – description of these as the Peace Movement raises the precise point – is often displaced to the idea of a ‘single issue’, which leaves the main body of politics intact.


Raymond Williams, 17 June 1982

The most arresting image on television, in recent weeks, has been the stylish map of the world which introduces Newsnight. It does not show the Falkland/Malvinas islands.

English Brecht

Raymond Williams, 16 July 1981

Bert Brecht, the Communist poet and playwright, has become a cultural monument. Is it then not time, he might ask, to consider blowing him up?

Gravity’s Python

Raymond Williams, 4 December 1980

What is the difference between a satirist and an impressionist? I don’t know – what is the difference between a satirist and an impressionist?

Isn’t the news terrible?

Raymond Williams, 3 July 1980

‘I see the news is bad again.’ The banal phrase punctuates my memories of the late 1930s. I remember an adolescent anger that people would not name the things that were happening: the invasion of Austria; the cession of the Sudetenland; the invasions of Czechoslovakia and Albania – all packaged as ‘the news’. While in London it no doubt seenmed ridiculous that Chamberlain referred to Czechoslovakia as a far-off country of which we knew little or nothing. I could see, there in Wales, that what he said was true for these railwaymen and farmers, whose gravity and abstraction, at this level of affairs, at once puzzled and irritated me.

Remembering the taeog

D.A.N. Jones, 30 August 1990

Rightly admired as a critic, an interpreter of ‘culture and society’, Raymond Williams was disappointing as a writer of fiction. The Eggs of the Eagle is the second volume of...

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R.W. Johnson, 8 February 1990

Raymond Williams’s death in January 1988 has been followed by an avalanche of obituarial tribute. To some extent, the tributes were a matter of the Left giving a last, sad cheer for one of...

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Dark Spaces

Dinah Birch, 28 September 1989

The image of a lost golden past is as old as literature. Certainly as old as English literature at any rate, for the earliest Anglo-Saxon texts look backwards, haunted by a sense of vanished...

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D.A.N. Jones, 21 November 1985

Security is the problem that exercises both Philip Roth and Raymond Williams. The sort of ‘security’ I mean is the sort that spreads a feeling of insecurity – a fear of...

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Denis Donoghue, 2 February 1984

I’ll talk mostly about Towards 2000, so I should give a brief account of Writing in Society and Radical Earnestness to begin with. Radical Earnestness is a brisk survey of a...

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Literature and the Left

Marilyn Butler, 18 August 1983

It is a surprise to find Raymond Williams, in the year of his retirement as Professor of Drama at Cambridge, editing a series called ‘Literature in History’. In a writing career that...

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The Quest for Solidarity

John Dunn, 24 January 1980

The relation between politics and letters is necessarily a dangerous liaison, and the questions which it raises are huge, blunt and disobliging. Acknowledged too readily, it is apt to highlight...

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