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Alasdair MacIntyre

Culture and Revolution

(Summer 1961)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.5, Summer 1961, p.28.
Thanks to Ted Crawford & the late Will Fancy.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The Long Revolution
Raymond Williams
Chatto and Windus, 1961, 30s.

Culture and Society 1780-1950
Raymond Williams
Penguin Books, 1961, 4s.6d.

Hegel said that the function of philosophy was to make man at home in the world. The effect of a good deal of socialist theorizing is almost the opposite. The categories of thought are often so alien to the detail of everyday experience that theory becomes not a kind of insight, but a kind of blindness, and a blindness almost deliberate and willed. On the one hand there is the fabric of life at work and in the family, the worries about children and schooling, the pub and the Trade Union branch, housing and money and holidays. On the other hand there is some imposed abstract political scheme, a mechanical rendering of Marx’s view of history or, worse still, of Lenin or the Fabians. These, coexisting in a single mind, produce in turn theoretical sterility and frustration, a violent refusal to face the complexity of thought and temporary relief in the substitution of easy slogans and formulas for well-founded conclusions.

Raymond Williams has done more than any other writer to liberate us from this. His novel, Border Country, makes it plain why he was so well equipped for the task. For those who have traversed in their own lives the journey between working-class and university life, or between Wales and England, the felt experience is a movement towards and not away from theorizing. To travel in class and in place is also to travel in time through the social strata laid down at different periods in the past hundred years. One can be forced to ask for a view of history because one discovers that one is oneself what the past has made one. All of Raymond Williams’ work is touched with an entirely admirable and unobtrusive self-consciousness of this kind.

This personal quality is linked to a method of approach which in one respect at least promises well. Williams approaches social change through thought about social change. In Culture and Society he discusses the variety of descriptions which people have offered in theories, in novels, in polemical tracts and literary criticism, of social changes since the industrial revolution. This, as The Long Revolution makes clear, is not a substitute for describing such change itself. But the changes did not happen, did not exist, except as an incarnation of human purposes and projects, and we do not know what men were doing who contrived these changes unless we know how they envisaged them. The cultural images which men throw up are a first attempt at a history of human action in their time; but even before that they themselves are also part, and the articulate, conscious part, of the change which such history aspires to describe. We cannot describe a period first in our terms and then ask how good contemporaries were at describing it; for we do not know what they were doing unless we know how they described it. It is in the incoherences of such descriptions that we discover the key to the difference between the true story and the story as told. So Marx began not by going straight to capitalism and measuring up his own description of capitalism against that of classical political economy. He began with the classical economists, whom he treated as the voice of capitalist society, and only later pierced through the veil of half-understanding with which capitalism protects itself.

The danger of such an approach is that by accepting the terms in which a culture makes itself articulate we become imprisoned within those terms and unable to transcend them. This danger is particularly acute when the culture we study is that of our own age or the recent past. For then we cannot get outside ourselves unless we already possess a theoretical background of the kind which Marxism aspires to provide. I do not mean of course that Marxism enables us to leave our skins; but it suggests that we can find a standpoint to judge what we are by what we can be. Marxism brings contemporary possibility on to the stage in order to pass judgment upon contemporary actuality.

Although Williams is not a Marxist, he escapes imprisonment by the present in Culture and Society because he brings together such a host of conflicting witnesses that no one conceptual scheme dominates us. Cobbett, Mill, Disraeli, Gissing, Lawrence, Tawney and many others all contribute to a growing, if contradictory, consciousness of the possibility of a common culture. But in The Long Revolution where the question is asked how far that possibility has in fact been realised the situation is much worse. Put briefly, Williams accepts as authentic the unity of our society and his long revolution is a revolution against nothing except the inertia of the past. The false consciousness of gradualism is allowed to be judged in its own terms.

This comes out clearly in William’s essay on the individual and society, where the beginnings of a good discussion never come to fruition because Williams does not allow for the fact that particular framings of the antithesis always took place in a context of specific institutions. To place what Williams says about Freud in the context of the situation of the intelligentsia in the decline of the Austro-Hungarian Empire or Williams’ metaphors of vagrancy and exile in relation to actual vagrancy and actual exiles would be to transform his discussion. The result of Williams’ abstraction is a loss of tension. We escape the fact that every individual exists at a point where life is a conflict between his unrealised potentialities and the barriers which confront their realisation. We are defined both by what we can be and by what we have to struggle against. Every form of class society up to our own has been at once a release of and an inhibition of human possibility. In our society. class is wholly inhibiting. Or so at least the Marxist argues. Williams never confronts this thesis. Instead of the splendid, tentative discussion of Marxism and literature in Culture and Society we get in The Long Revolution a presentation of Marxism as the ghost of a theory in which most of human life is omitted.

What Williams himself omits is three-fold: work, class, power. This is not to say that in occasional paragraphs their importance is not recognized. But these lonely banners of traditional socialism are never integrated into the book. Instead of class-consciousness we get as the subject of this book far too often an unidentified “we”. Instead of work and its organization we get “the concept of the market”. Instead of power we get public opinion. And the whole argument is weakened by its insularity. Capitalism never appears on the scene properly because no world movement appears there as such. British development is treated as though autonomous.

There have been since the industrial revolution in Britain two main critiques of our form of life. One was the romantic protest against capitalist ugliness whose culmination is in Lawrence and Leavis. The other was the socialist protest. William Morris held them together in his own day: it is a prime victory of bourgeois ideology to have kept them apart ever since. Raymond Williams has done more than anyone else to bring them together again. But so far at the key points in his writings the argument always breaks down. I have not begun to do justice to the richness of the books; but it is clear from The Long Revolution that unless Williams can learn from Marx what Morris learnt he will continue to disappoint as well as to teach.

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Last updated: 20 February 2010