Monday, February 25, 2008

Politics And Letters

I've begun reading Politics and Letters, a long collection of interviews with the great Welsh Marxist historian and critic Raymond Williams (1921-1988). Williams was born in Wales, but won a scholarship to Cambridge and moved to England at 18. After fighting in World War II he became involved in adult education (there's a fascinating essay on that topic in What I Came to Say), but in 1961 he returned to Cambridge to teach and write.
I first stumbled on Williams's work through his book Keywords (1976; new edition 1984), a sort of historical dictionary of key words (get it?) in the humanities. Keywords is a book that I think everyone who's interested in culture and politics should at least consult, if not read all the way through, because not only does it show how important concepts have changed their meaning over time, it reminds you that different meanings co-exist at any given time. I'd realized years ago that it was very hard to pin down the meaning of terms like "capitalism" and "socialism", though this didn't stop people from throwing such words around as though they were clearly defined and it was just a matter of knowing the definitions. More recently I'd been bothered to see writers using words like "identity", "sex", and "culture" without always being aware that they had different shadings and connotations, which led to a great deal of confusion. I thought people were supposed to learn to be careful about such things in graduate school, anyway, but evidently not.
I began reading Williams's The Country and the City (1973) a couple of years ago, but found it overwhelming, so put it aside for a while. (Not because it was hard to read or understand -- far from it -- but because it had great emotional power for me.) Since then I've read his book on George Orwell (first published in 1971 but updated several times) and a posthumous collection of essays, reviews, and speeches, What I Came to Say (1989), which, again, affected me very powerfully. I've also read his autobiographical first novel, Border Country (1960) -- about the son of a Welsh railway signalman (a veteran of the 1926 General Strike,) who becomes an academic in England but goes home when his aged father becomes ill -- and was tremendously impressed by it. A later novel, The Volunteers (1978), is a political thriller set in the early 1980s; not quite science fiction, and not as powerful as Border Country, but still good work. He didn't limit himself to conventional literature; I'm looking forward to reading his writing about television, for instance. There are a couple of essays in What I Came To Say on the news media which should interest anyone who's interested in how the media cover war and politics, especially those of us who've read Chomsky on that subject.
For Politics and Letters (NLB, 1979) Williams was interviewed at great length -- the book is over 400 pages of small type -- by members of the editorial committee of New Left Review.
The interviews begin with an account of his early life, and I was struck by this account (pp 34-35) of how this Welsh schoolboy, involved from the beginning in labor struggles, saw the world. The words in bold type still seem timely; I think a lot of people today make the same mistake about their political opponents. 
Reconstructing your vision of the world up to the time of the university, what would have been your most representative image of the ruling or exploiting class? 
The first one to come to mind would actually have been a very antique figure – the rural magnate or landlord, whom we mocked. The immediate cultural image was that of a Tory squire. 
Did they really exist within the compass of your experience? 
You could not go and see them. You could see a park wall, not beyond it. After that, we would characteristically have thought of bankers. I remember long discussions with my father about the ownership of industry by banks. Then, of course, there were the railway-owners and the mine-owners. But the rather archaic agrarian stereotype was still dominant. I don’t think that it was just because I lived in a rural area. This displacement away from the dominant class enemy of the last hundred and fifty years, the industrial employer, to older antagonists has been surprisingly persistent in the perception of the ruling class on the British left. In my case, I also had the natural adolescent reaction that the ruling class was not just wrong but out-of-date – the characteristic conviction of the young that the rulers are old, irrelevant and not of our world. I thought all Tories were stupid by definition. This was a very common rhetoric in the thirties. It carried certain real feelings. On the other hand, it disarmed people, including me and a lot of my friends, from understanding the intelligence and capacity of the ruling class, and its contemporary implantation. 
In my case, distance from London probably did have some importance. I never saw any of the central metropolitan power definitions. Of course, I knew of what the troops had done in the mining valleys – we were constantly told of it. But that was second-hand. We were in no doubt at all about the character of the employers, but the ruling class still did not seem very formidable. The result was to build up a sense, which was very characteristic of wide sectors of the Labour movement at the time, that the working class was the competent class that did the work and so could run society. That was said so much after the General Strike. It was disabling ultimately. But as an adolescent I remember looking at these men even with a certain resentment – they seemed so absolutely self-confident. I have never seen such self-confident people since.