Williams, Raymond (1921-1988)

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Blurring the distinctions between traditional academic boundaries, while focusing attention on aspects of culture usually silenced by the dominant society, Raymond Williams was a pervasively influential twentieth-century thinker. In more than thirty published books, and in hundreds of articles, Williams addressed questions of culture, communication, politics, literature, and drama. Working outside mainstream communication research agendas, two of Williams's books, Culture and Society (1958) and The Long Revolution (1961), became foundational texts in the development of a new political and intellectual tradition known today as British cultural studies.

Williams, born in Pandy, Wales, was the only son of Henry Joseph Williams and Esther Gwen-dolene Williams (neé Bird). He was raised in a socialist, working-class household; his father was a railway signalman, the son of a farm laborer, and his mother was the daughter of a farm bailiff. Williams attended the local elementary school, and when he was eleven years old, he received a county scholarship to attend King Henry Eighth Grammar School in Abergavenny. In 1938, Williams earned his high school certificate in English, French, and Latin and won the state scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge. As a student at Trinity, he wrote short stories and political articles, reviewed films, and became editor of the student newspaper, the Cambridge University Journal. Williams rejected prevailing class boundaries and social positions in his writings on the stereotype of working-class boy as social misfit.

After two years at Trinity, Williams was drafted into the army, commissioned into the Royal Artillery, and sent to Normandy. The dehumanization of people that he observed during World War II had a significant effect on him, and when he was later recalled to service in 1951, he refused as a conscientious objector. Williams returned to Cambridge in 1945 and completed his degree. Financial responsibilities forced him to reject a graduate university fellowship, and in 1946, he instead began working in adult education as a staff tutor for the Oxford Delegacy.

Williams developed an affiliation with the New Left, a working-class labor movement that reacted to modern developments of industrial capitalism and emphasized popular education and popular culture. Considering popular culture to be a crucial site of struggle, Williams, in his articles and books, thought historically about cultural practices and explored issues of alienation and reintegration, along with the challenges of going between academic and working-class cultures. In 1961, Williams was appointed to a lectureship on the English faculty at Cambridge and later became a professor of modern drama. As a professor at Cambridge, Williams earned a reputation for supporting dissent, even that which was inarticulate, incoherent, or messy.

Two early influences on Williams were Marxism and the ideas of Cambridge literary critic F. R. Leavis. From Marxism, Williams gained an appreciation of the relationship between the system of production and culture, while from the ideas of Leavis, Williams received an understanding of the connections between art and experience. Politics was central to Williams's life and work; he wrote as a socialist for socialism and believed in the necessary economic struggle of an organized working class. He viewed his own political commitment as part of a long revolution, through which the system of meanings and values that contemporary capitalist society has generated must be defeated by sustained intellectual and educational work. For Williams, the long revolution was an integral part of the struggle for democracy and economic victory for the working class. Williams and other members of the New Left addressed fundamental Marxist theoretical questions regarding issues of power, class, domination, and exploitation. Ultimately, Williams rejected the economic and reductionist emphasis of traditional Marxism in favor of a Marxist cultural perspective that connected the realm of art and ideas to the entire material social process.

It is the centrality of culture, in each study of society, that is the common theoretical thread found in all of Williams's writings. Culture is viewed as a basic component of an evolving social process; nothing is static, fixed, or predetermined because all of life is an active and evolving process. Culture is a way of life, the lived texture of any social order. Williams rejected traditional boundaries between high culture and popular culture, insisted that culture is more than the visible sign of a special type of cultivated people, and called culture "ordinary" because it is fundamental to each individual in every society. Williams saw communication as an integral part of culture because ideas, meanings, experiences, and activities are transmitted through language, in the form of certain communication rules, models, and conventions. Language, he said, is a socially shared, reciprocal activity that is a basic element of all material social practices. Every society is somewhat different and creates its own traditions and meanings through an ongoing and active process of negotiation and debate.

In Marxism and Literature (1977), Williams outlined his own theoretical position—cultural materialism. Cultural materialism combines an emphasis on creative and historical agency that privileges experience as a fundamental part of any cultural analysis. It insists that all cultural practices, such as newspaper articles, poems, paintings, novels, political speeches, and buildings, be considered as practical communications that are created by a particular group of people or class in a historically specific place and time. Williams saw individuals as active participants who help to create their own culture, and he suggested that cultural practices should be studied along with historically specific social relations that relate to these practices.

While much of Williams's work thematically reflects his Welsh origin, his concepts are not culture specific; they address universal humanistic considerations. Throughout his career, Williams resisted traditional academic disciplines, categories, and boundaries. He did not distinguish between the imaginative and factual types of writing and insisted that both are cultural practices within an ongoing social process, produced by a specific society, in a particular historical time, under specific political and economic conditions. He considered Culture and Society, The Long Revolution, and his first novel, Border Country (1960), to be the integral parts of his trilogy on culture.

Often considered to be one of the great European socialist intellectuals, Williams remained politically engaged throughout his life. His writings liberate previously marginalized thought and provide historically based analyses of ideas that transcend race, class, gender, and cultural boundaries.

See also:Culture and Communication; Language and Communication; Society and the Media.


Eagleton, Terry, ed. (1989). Raymond Williams. Critical

Perspectives. Cambridge, Eng.: Polity Press.

Inglis, Fred. (1995). Raymond Williams. London: Rout-ledge.

O'Connor, Alan. (1989). Raymond Williams: Writing, Culture, Politics. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Williams, Raymond. (1958). Culture and Society. London: Chatto & Windus.

Williams, Raymond. (1960). Border Country. London: Chatto & Windus.

Williams, Raymond. (1961). The Long Revolution. London: Chatto & Windus.

Williams, Raymond. (1977). Marxism and Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Williams, Raymond. (1979). Politics and Letters. Interviews with New Left Review. London: Verso.

Bonnie S. Brennen