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International Socialism, June/July 1969


Martin Shaw

Williams & Co.


From International Socialism (1st series), No.37, June/July 1969, pp.??.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


From Culture to Revolution
Terry Eagleton and Brian Wicker, eds.
Sheed and Ward, 50s.

This symposium takes us back to the ideas of the ‘old New Left’, the political grouping based on the universities which emerged in the late fifties around two journals, Universities and Left Review and The New Reasoner, which merged in 1960 into New Left Review. Its concern is the political implications of the ideas of two currents within that grouping: the perspective of a ‘common culture’ developed by Raymond Williams (articles by Williams open and close the symposium, and most of the contributions take their cue from his work), and the ideas of the ‘Catholic New left’. It is the latter, clustered around the journal Slant maintained by the Catholic publishers Sheed and Ward, who have been the only continuous ‘old New Left’ grouping in recent years. (NLR itself was taken over by a new group in the early sixties: see Peter Sedgwick’s The Two New Lefts in IS 17.) Slant, while not unaffected by the ideas of the new NLR, has maintained a tradition in which Williams’ work has a real significance, and it is this group which is responsible for this collection. The New Left arose in the period of flux in British left politics – then experiencing a profound stagnation – by the twin crises of Suez and the Hungarian Revolution. Two political currents, the anti-Stalinism of a group of CP intellectuals and the frustration with pragmatic Bevanism on the Labour Left, provided an initial focus, but the New Left fed on the developing political climate among youth which found much broader expression in the anti-bomb movement.

Like that movement, the New Left stood for a certain detachment from established left politics, but not for opposition to them. It talked of ‘revolution’ but could not make a definitive break with reformism. The ex-CP element, notably Edward Thompson, had not seen the ‘parliamentary road’ as the principal stumbling block when it broke with the Party. The criticism of the right-ward, parliamentary drift, natural in a period of electoral stagnation, did not develop into revolutionary criticism. Electoral stagnation, after all, partly reflected the lack of mass struggle in the working class. In an era of localism insurrection seemed even more far-fetched than the reformist perspective. Thompson, indeed, had little patience for those who had left the CP for the revolutionary left. ‘Revolution’ in the vocabulary of the New Left was not so much an explicit political perspective as a shift of emphasis away from formal politics whether reformist or revolutionary. It meant the recovery of a broad moral standpoint on society, and above all a concern with ‘cultural’ questions, with long-term changes in the quality of life.

For some, cultural questions were virtually autonomous, and there was no need to consciously elaborate their relationship to politics because they were themselves ‘political’. For others the relationship did need to be defined. Thompson especially saw ‘cultural questions’ as ‘questions of power’ related to economic and political control. And Raymond Williams believed that a crucial if complex relation existed. The creation of a ‘common culture’, the ‘long revolution’, was the achievement of the working class, which was the major carrier of the values of community and collective responsibility.

The central place given to ‘culture’ is in fact explained in Williams’ opening article. This is a valuable account of his own development – the experience of social inequality in cultural terms, the contact with a ‘particular English tradition of social thinking’, the gradual articulation of a radical social critique in cultural terms. It is important to understand why. The dominant reformist ideology in the particular working-class culture of which Williams was a product did not present a total alternative to the ideas of the bourgeoisie. On the contrary it recommended the promotion of talented individuals through the educational system to absorb the cultural heritage of the bourgeoisie. ‘Scholarship boys’ were expected to get their ideas from this heritage. There was no readily available synthesis of these ideas – or the framework within which this might be made – from the standpoint of their own class, if Marxism was unknown or rejected (as it often was) because of the intellectual and political crudity of the form in which it was offered. Various intellectuals of working-class origin have thus been forced to make their own attempts at such a synthesis with the materials at hand.

For those whose literary concerns have taken them into the English departments of British universities, the bourgeois romantic tradition of criticism has seemed a potent basis for a new critique. Devastating particularly in its attack on commercialism, it has an obvious relevance to the moralism which permeates British socialist thought. This was the tradition which, in the nineteenth century, William Morris had utilised for revolutionary purposes, guided by Marx’s insights into capitalist production. Now its more modest academic continuation (e.g. in Leavis) was used by ‘New Left’ writers as the basis for their own attack. Richard Hoggart welded it to a nostalgia for the slum family and neighbourhood culture for an attack on the poverty of the developing mass culture. Williams welded it to a much broader attack on the lack of community in capitalism, a lack which is being overcome only through the institutions and culture developed by the working class – not just at the level of family and local community but also at the level of economic and political organisation. Williams’ ideas, in Culture and Society and The Long Revolution, thus expressed and elaborated the best in the dominant traditions of the British labour movement. But they were also confined by those traditions. The perspective was ‘revolutionary’ only in that it saw gradual changes as part ot a geneial process still not fully achieved. And while, as Williams insists in this book, the common culture concept was never one of ‘automatic evolution’, it did suggest that the progress of the reformist movement would be sufficient to achieve the aim. It rested its practical politics on certain proposals for State reform of the mass media (an idea widespread in the New Left, and taken to the extent of participation in the proceedings of the Pilkington Commission of which Hoggart was a member). It did not see the full limitations of the old working-class institutions which represent an adaptation to the system as much as an opposition to it.

The increasing contradictions of this perspective are undoubtedly sensed by Williams – witness the anguish of the May Day Manifesto of which he was the main author. His essays in this symposium, and that of Terry Eagleton bear witness to an attempt to make sense of the ‘common culture’ concept while Harold Wilson undermines the foundations of the Left-reformist politics with which it was originally bound up. The ‘common culture’ idea is increasingly defined as a goal rather than as a constantly growing reality. But this subtle redefinition creates its own problems: we lose the sense of a close relationship to a specific reality and set of ideas, which was the great merit of Williams’ work. What we are left with is a more elastic, idealistic concept – a concept that can be transferred at will to Mao’s cultural revolution, despite the vast historical gulf which separates it from the British working-class movement.

Alasdair MacIntyre concluded from The Long Revolution ‘that unless Williams learns from Marx what Morris learnt he will continue to disappoint as well as to teach.’ What Morris learnt, above all, was that the cultural depravity which the bourgeoisie imposes both on itself and on the masses, was a necessary outcome of the capitalist mode of production; and that the workers must through their own actions overthrow capitalism and begin to create a new society, before the gap between culture (in the sense of art) and culture (in the sense of the everyday life and meanings of society) can be destroyed. These lessons are still not systematically learnt. The occasional recognition that at bottom it is the whole system still gives way to the suggestion that it is the educational and communications systems which are at the heart of the matter. ‘Work, class, power’: these three, as Maclntyre said in IS 5, are not integrated into the perspective. It is stated formally that the problem of a common culture is one of revolutionary politics. But it is not understood that revolutionary politics, and a common culture, are problems of mass action, of direct workers’ power, of workers’ conscious self-activity.

So has nothing changed? Formally there is no recognition of a major modification of perspective. In reality the idea of a ‘common culture’ is being modified, and will have to be more openly modifed, as the traditional institutions of the working class are themselves undermined. If we are not to be mystical about it, we must see that the ‘long revolution’ has gone wrong, and that it is necessary to rebuild on surer foundations.

This book has the disadvantage compared to Williams’ main works that it is written at a level of extreme generality. This is true of Williams’ and Eagleton’s essays, which are however useful because of their gloss on Williams’ earlier writings, but even more of some of the other essays which deal with the dilemmas of radical Christians. From the right we have Walter Stein, failing to distinguish revolutionary violence from the violence of imperialist war, and demanding the right to subject both to the overriding criterion of ‘mercy’. In a more sophisticated vein we have Brian Wicker, for whom Christianity gives ‘a revolutionary basis (sic) to the moral limitations on human violence that humanity itself demands’. The Church’s own ‘revolutionary perspective’ is referred to, not surprisingly in rather obscure terms. At the same time, we find that Stalinism = Marxism; Stalinism (or the experience of ‘socialism’ in Russia) is rejected as an exclusive model: but this does not imply hostility to Stalinism ... on the contrary it is the basis for the ‘dialogue between Christianity and Marxism’!

The dilemma between revolution and Christianity is solved for other Slant writers by the simple expedient of ignoring Christianity. Neil Middleton, for example, writes in straightforward revolutionary terms. Christianity has become a private reason for being a socialist. But for the other writers the dilemma remains. An essay by Adrian Cunningham on neo-thomism (and Action Française) reminds us that this is virtually the major modern School of Catholic social thought. If he is right in saying that it has still to be purged from the minds of Catholic leftists, it is no wonder that their Christianity and their Marxism sit uneasily together.

One might think it strange that the alliance endures at all. The basic reason is the nature of the milieu – not just of Slant, but of the old New Left of which it was (and in a loose sense still is) a part. It is an academic milieu: ideas circulate, often at a tremendous rate, thinkers are discovered and rediscovered, meetings and conferences are held. But rarely do ideas connect, outside extremely narrow confines, with action. They remain untested against reality, and definitive judgements do not have to be made. It is a melee in which the specifically Christian ideas of Slant give it only the vaguest of directions. Connections can be made in passing with all kinds of contradictory thinkers. Marxism is just another set of ideas: not a guide for action, still less a method which has to be refined in struggle. Hence the peaceful coexistence.

The present symposium testifies that the best anchor Slant and the old New Left have is the work of Raymond Williams. The merit of his work is its sensitivity not only to ideas but also to the achievements of the labour movement. But the contradictions in his work remain and are intensified by the changing political situation. A thorough critique of his work – once rashly called by Perry Anderson ‘a prerequisite of any English Marxism,’ (despite this, NLR has not produced it) – is more and more necessary.

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