Paul Anderson, review of Resources of Hope by Raymond Williams (Verso, £9.99), Sanity, April 1990

Raymond Williams, who died last year, was undoubtedly one of the most important and serious British left-wing writers of the post-war years. He was a man with the intellectual range of Jean-Paul Sartre or George Orwell, and he deserves the international readership that Sartre and Orwell enjoy. He was as interesting and elegant a novelist as he was a cultural theorist and occasional political essayist.

This book collects 27 of his essays, mainly political polemics, written over a period of 30 years on topics as diverse as state funding of the arts, the significance of the 1926 general strike, the weaknesses of the “English parliamentary tradition” and the politics of the eighties peace movements. Through them all runs a thread of radical democratic anti-capitalism which has an ambiguous relationship with the established institutions of the British Labourism. Williams was at the same time appreciative of the traditions of the British Labour Party and trade unions and uneasy at what they had spawned.
He was in essence a humanist Marxist New Leftist, whose basic approach to the world was at odds not only with the bureaucratic corporatism of Keynesian social democracy and the disaster of “actually existing socialism” but also with the sectarian neo-Leninism of the “57 varieties” and the arid scholastic Althusserian structuralism of New Left Review at its seventies worst. That much is clear in any one of the essays collected here, but never more than in “Socialism and Ecology”, written in 1982, one of the  most cogent statements ever of the need for a radical green politics, taking issue with some of the conservative assumptions of the twentieth century left about economic growth.

Yet Williams backed Harold Wilson In 1964, never engaged in public criticism of the Communist Party or of other vanguardist sects, and kept contributing to NLR even at its nadir. Williams was a fine example of a man who believed that hair-splitting disputes with rivals on the left were an unnecessary and stupid diversion from attacking the real enemy. Nevertheless, some of his silences are telling.

For example, his often brilliant essay “The Politics of Nuclear Disarmament”, written in 1980 as the western peace movement was exploding on to the scene (and still worth reading for its dissection of the parochialism of traditional British nuclear unilateralism), barely mentions the existence of the Soviet nuclear rearmament programme, which mirrored Nato’s plans (as they then were) to install cruise and Pershing II in western Europe.
To be sure, he argues against defending the “workers’ bomb” and says in a rather coded way that Soviet manipulation of the peace movement would be unwelcome. And of course, the main task of the western left and peace movement was always (and remains) to change the course of its own ruling class. Bui there’s something missing here – something that should not have been missed, however likely it was to fuel controversy: Williams didn’t grasp the nettle of developing a critique of “actually existing socialism”. Why, I’m not sure, though it’s a common enough nettle to ignore wilfully on the British left, even since Gorbachev has admitted the failings of what the Communist Party always said was perfect. Perhaps it’s just the old maxim of making a priority of one’s own predicament – a principle that Williams certainly followed in his concern for local community, best explored in his fiction. Or perhaps it’s all generational: most people I’ve met under the age of 40 find 1917 about as much an inspiration as 1688.
None of this is meant to put you off reading this book. It’s an excellent introduction to Williams’s ideas, thoughtfully edited and well produced. And Williams is essential reading. But he was not a leftist pope. His contribution was above all to a discursive culture of opposition. He wrote to provoke discussion and dissent, and should be read with that In mind.
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