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Raymond Williams Was a Socialist Visionary

Raymond Williams would not have claimed to have found all the answers. But we should remember him as one of the most thoughtful socialist writers of the 20th century.

Raymond Williams with Frank Kermode, Cambridge, 1981.

Raymond Williams was born on August 31, 1921, a hundred years ago today, and died in January 1988 at the age of sixty-six. He would be remembered as a leading figure of the intellectual left in Britain, particularly his native Wales, and as one of the founding fathers of cultural studies.

He made his name with a series of detailed, thoughtful, stubbornly radical analyses of literature, culture, and politics, as well as novels and dramas — and it is above all this “cultural” Williams who is remembered on the modern left. But in the last two decades of his life, he embarked on a different kind of rethinking of socialist theory and practice — less well-known, but if anything, more relevant to the problems we face today.

Raymond Williams was one of the earliest voices calling for socialists and environmentalists to work together, and he backed up that urgency with his own searching inquiry into how an ecosocialist project could rethink the relations between humans and nature.

Williams’s rethinking of the socialist project was set against the backdrop of the 1970s and ’80s, a period that saw the slow fragmentation of the postwar social-democratic compact, in a long crisis of the global capitalist and carbon economy. Much-demonized by later conservative commentators as an era of chaos and trade union dictatorship, the ’70s in Britain now seem, in retrospect, to disclose possibilities of creative socialist alternatives. This was a period of major working-class militancy, growing feminist and anti-racist politics, and burgeoning countercultures — as well as the first stirrings of the modern environmental movement.

Yet the 1970s was also incubating a hard right-wing backlash. In 1979, Margaret Thatcher’s Tories came to power, with their unholy alliance of neoliberal economics and reactionary British nationalism. Over the 1980s, this political project reshaped Britain from an economy of coal and manufacturing to one of oil, gas, and financial services. At the same time, it laid waste to old industries and working-class communities, condemning the labor movement and socialism to eclipse for a generation. The defeat of the coal miners’ strike of 1984–85 set the seal on a new order, whose consequences we are still living through.

Ecological Socialism

By the time of the miners’ strike, Williams had issued several calls for socialists and (as they were then known) “ecologists” to join forces. A convergence between socialism and environmentalism may look like common sense today, with a Green New Deal central to so many left agendas, but it was far from obvious in the 1970s and ’80s. Mainstream labor and socialist movements (East and West) often appeared deaf to ecological concerns.

The ecology movement — at a time before the full dangers of climate change were obvious — often seemed naïvely apolitical, appealing to the existing power structure for a “solution.” Other times, it was romantically conservative, what Williams called “a kind of elegant regret for a vanished, innocent, greener, more peaceful world”; or even frankly reactionary, offering Malthusian solutions to the “population bomb” under the cover of a return to subsistence agriculture.

These pitfalls have hardly vanished today. Williams was one of the first to argue for their overcoming in a transformational “convergence” between the ecological and socialist movements. “Ecological socialism” — though “a bit of a mouthful,” Williams admitted — was the key to meeting present and future crises.

Looking at the deindustrializing wasteland of Mrs Thatcher’s Britain, Williams argued that the labor movement had walked into a trap. Capitalism had always seen both nature and people as “raw material,” to be “shifted around” and used up for profitable production. Socialists and trade unionists had too often settled for arguing for economic growth: the way to solve poverty, it seemed, was simply “more production.” But when production was no longer profitable, capitalism could cancel the contract and move on — as it was doing in 1980s Britain. The labor movement’s acquiescence in capitalism’s drive to produce more — regardless of what was being produced, or the ecological consequences — had left the industrial working class facing the prospect of “its own general redundancy.”

At the same time, for Williams, ecological critiques cast in terms of a preindustrial, “natural” order offered no genuine alternative. This nostalgic environmentalism, he thought, evaded not just the hard social and economic questions, but also the ecological ones: for it was the modern capitalist world that would have to be transformed, to ensure a sustainable human and natural existence.

Between Country and City

Raymond Williams’s openness to the arguments of the ecological movement was based, in large part, on his long-standing ties to rural areas and communities. He had grown up in a village on the Welsh-English border — an agricultural area, but next to the great coalfields of South Wales. Williams kept close ties with these districts; all of his six novels are at least partially set in South Wales and its “border country” with England, and often show a close concern with the details of human-natural interactions, unusual among leftists in Britain.

Williams always reacted strongly against urban — and urban socialist — attempts to brush off the countryside, or agriculture, as marginal and irrelevant. On the other hand, he mounted a harsh critique of right-wing romanticizations of “the countryside” as a natural, preindustrial haven, emptied of the working people who had, so often, helped shape it.

In The Country and the City (1973), arguably his greatest contribution, Williams traces these oppositions through English literary culture, against the background of the growth of capitalism in agriculture and industry. He concludes by linking this history to contemporary crises: resource depletion and environmental destruction, but also Third World revolutions which had brought rural populations to the forefront of social struggle. “The country” and its problems could hardly be dismissed as archaic or marginal — no more than they can today, like when farmers in India brought about what may have been the largest strike in history.

These themes resonated strongly with Williams’s Welsh identity, which he was rediscovering in the last two decades of his life. Again, bucking the trend of the left-wing orthodoxies of his day, he insisted on the importance of place and community in visions of socialism. He looked beyond established nation-states like Britain, not just to embrace internationalism but also to reconsider the political valence of regions and smaller nations like Wales.

Against the reactionary British nationalism of Margaret Thatcher and the Falklands War, he argued that a nation-state like Britain was “both too small and too large for useful politics.” Too small because it could not be really “independent” in a globalized capitalist world, and could only try to cover up its subordination to larger forces with nationalist rhetoric. Too large because it could not represent the “unevenness” and “diversity” of its components — Wales, Scotland, London, or Liverpool. The argument has a contemporary ring in the aftermath of Brexit.

Yet Williams’s solution was not to seek out ever-smaller “sovereign” units. He preferred to “explore new forms of variable societies” where different kinds of democratic decision and interaction would take place on different scales. This may sound oddly utopian to the Left of today, still usually confined within established national frameworks — but it is a horizon that we might do well to keep in sight.

Rethinking Materialism

The convergence of socialism and ecology did force Williams to rethink one of the major philosophical underpinnings of Marxism: materialism. Marx and Engels had founded historical materialism, offering an understanding of human history which began from “the material production of life itself,” not from “forms of consciousness.”

They were building on, but also critiquing earlier forms of materialism, like those of French Enlightenment thinkers or Ludwig Feuerbach, which they saw as abstract, “mechanical,” and insufficiently historical. Instead they explained human history in terms of a dialectical process, in which “social being” (or material life) determines “social consciousness.”

Williams’s reworking of this inheritance was prompted in part by the Italian Marxist Sebastiano Timpanaro, whose lucid polemic On Materialism appeared in English in 1975. Timpanaro charged much of mainstream “Western Marxism” — Hegelians and the Frankfurt School on the one hand; Althusser and structuralist Marxists on the other — with abandoning materialism.

He argued that these trends, with their overwhelming emphasis on culture and philosophy, and distancing from the natural sciences, were offering a thinly veiled idealism while claiming to be historical materialist. Against this, he reaffirmed the centrality of materialism to Marxism, which should rebuild its links with the natural sciences and recognize the constraining power of “nature” upon all human history.

Williams gave Timpanaro’s work an enthusiastic welcome but also sought to push the inquiry further. He agreed with Timpanaro’s reassertion of the value of materialism, as he did with much of his critique of Western Marxism. And he appreciated Timpanaro’s rebuttal of the triumphalist notion of the “mastery of nature,” which Marxism had borrowed from nineteenth-century bourgeois thought. But he dissented from Timpanaro’s alternative, a materialist pessimism that insisted on inescapable physical constraints: “nature’s oppression of man.” Timpanaro’s tragic perspective, and his reminders of the ultimate extinction of the human species, foreshadow much dystopian environmentalist thinking of today, as we face an ecological crisis on a scale scarcely suspected in the 1970s.

Williams’s response looked beyond the “abstract categories” of “nature” and “man” to a more open and detailed enquiry into “the intricate and constitutive processes” of human-nature relationships. “When we say nature,” Raymond Williams asked, “do we mean to include ourselves?” Physical forces, he reminds us, are not simply external but actually constitute human life, defining our possibilities as well as our limits. And much of what is often seen as “nature,” i.e., separate from humans, has been deeply shaped by human effort — though hardly always “mastered” or controlled.

Facing those difficulties in detail, Williams thought, could suggest not a tragic pessimism, but a guarded optimism of the will. This rethinking provided the basis for his call for an ecosocialist politics: one which recognized the full extent of ecological limits, but placed people — all the people — first. And as such, took seriously the capacity of humans to intervene in, and to change, their relationships with “nature” — both within and outside themselves.

Thanks to this emphasis on human-natural interactions, Williams was also on his guard against misuses of materialism: attempts to cast human politics in terms of supposedly fixed biological or technical “facts.” He argued vigorously against social Darwinism, which offers capitalist competition as biologically ordained, and against technological determinism, which claims that technical forces dictate the forms of human culture (both doctrines have since seen a major resurgence, with the neoliberal climax and the rise of Silicon Valley).

We might even apply Williams’s arguments to other “bad materialisms,” as Sophie Lewis calls them: “radical feminisms” which wield essentialized biological categories as weapons against oppressed people. Attempts to enshrine materialism as a “closed generalizing system” were beside the point, Williams thought — for materialism’s unique value lies in “its rigorous openness to physical evidence.” All its categories are “subject to radical revision” — by physical investigation and by the social contestation of meanings and concepts. The “materialist enterprise” is thus continually moving “beyond one after another ‘materialism.’”

This resonates with an appeal Williams made elsewhere: to imagine future socialist societies as more complex and diverse than the capitalist order, not as simpler or more uniform. He critiqued, on these grounds, earlier socialist utopias, but also the “actually existing socialism” of his day, in the Eastern Bloc.

In this vision, a decisive break with capitalism would certainly be needed, but the “transition to socialism” became less the creation of a one-size-fits-all socialist “order” than the opening of a horizon of increasingly “active, complex, and mobile” social life. Neither materialism nor socialism, for Williams, should be frozen into fixed forms at particular points in their development — both must remain open to democratic negotiation, argument, and evidence.

From Production to Livelihood

Williams was prepared to push his questioning into the heart of historical materialism itself. Its “received formulations” had often been, he thought, “at once historically limited and insufficiently materialist.” Williams had never been afraid to challenge Marxist orthodoxies, while retaining a firm commitment to socialism in practice and theory.

He had long questioned the notion of culture as a “superstructure” determined by an economic “base” — one popular way, going back to formulations of Marx and Engels, of interpreting the founding proposition of historical materialism, that social being determines social consciousness.

In the 1970s and ’80s, like various socialist anthropologists, historians, and feminists, Williams was looking for more complex ways to understand this claim. Williams’s cultural theory affirmed not just that culture itself is material, but also that “means of communication” — the media, telecommunications, precursors of the internet — played a major role as “means of production” in their own right.

In his late writings, he moved beyond this again, to challenge the central Marxist concept of “mode of production.” The drive to master nature and “produce” from it abstract quantities of goods was a specifically capitalist one, he argued in Towards 2000 (1983). The focus on “production” was mystifying, too: its downsides were shuffled off as “by-products” or “side-effects,” and whole areas of human sustenance — like the work of nurture and care — were relegated to secondary status.

The orientation to production ultimately saw both people and nature as “raw materials” to be exploited. Even when state-socialist regimes or labor movements had tried to uncouple production from profit, they had still treated “nature” as something to be mastered — and generally ended up seeing people in the same way. A true ecosocialism would require “radical change . . . in the idea of production itself” — in humans’ relations with nature as well as with each other.

Instead of “production,” Williams’s alternative would be organized around “livelihood.” This concept pointed, he wrote, to “a way of life and not a way of producing,” but was at the same time “wholly practical,” centered around “self-managing, self-renewing societies . . . in a living world.” The orientation to “livelihood” was an old one, dating from before the capitalist emphasis on transforming and exploiting nature took hold, but Williams rejected any nostalgia for precapitalist “natural” or “moral” economies.

Rather than prelapsarian visions, Williams suggested a clear-eyed choice of those human interventions which “support and enhance life,” as against damaging ones. “Livelihood” then becomes a way of living within hard material limits — as capitalist “growth” could not — in a world of finite resources and dependence on ecological conditions. But it also became a way of re-posing the question once asked by socialists like William Morris: What way of life, what human relationships, are we creating?

Raymond Williams would not have claimed to have found all the answers. But as one of the most thoughtful socialist writers of the twentieth century, his questions and proposals can still challenge us today. Ecosocialism is now firmly on the agenda, but the task before it looks still more daunting than it did in the 1980s.

As the climate crisis deepens, temptations that Williams warned against are all too present: on the one hand, shutting our eyes to our ecological predicament while pinning our hopes on capitalist “growth” or technological progress; on the other, a relapse into apocalyptic despair, the assumption that ecological disaster will necessarily foreclose all human projects. The rethinking of materialism — a project always provisional, rigorously open to evidence and argument — has perhaps never been more necessary.