Soul of a tribal socialist

Raymond Williams by Fred Inglis Routledge, pounds 19.99 A puzzling, polemical cold fish - Roy Hattersley considers Raymond Williams
It is easy enough to ridicule the leaders of the Sixties New Left. Fred Inglis describes them lying on the floor of Raymond Williams's Cambridge rooms and pausing in their discussion of the Monarchy's future while "college servants carried in trays of excellent food". There was indeed a "colossal self-importance" in their belief that they could "rewrite the guiding principles of what was still the eighth richest country in the world". But, 30 years on, no radical can read about their ineffectual arrogance without feeling envious of the certainty with which they set about changing the world by seminars and pamphlets. To them, it seemed self-evident that socialism - properly defined and rigorously applied - was superior to every other form of human organisation.

They came to their inflexible conclusion from very different backgrounds. All of them were consciously, indeed blatantly, intellectual - hence their usual unwillingness to accept the compromises which are essential to election victory and successful government. But Williams's socialism was tribal as well as cerebral. He was the son of a railway signalman from Pandy and heir to the values - not least redemption through hard work - which once characterised the Welsh working class. Like so many young men of his class and kind he wanted to do everything and be everything. It is no surprise that, once the young communist had come to support the war, he progressed from basic training in the Royal Corps of Signals to a commission in the Guards Armoured Brigade.

There is some dispute about whether or not this Robespierre of ideological socialism lost his class identity. Certainly, he talked a lot about Wales and bought a cottage in the place whence he came. But in the end, despite his contempt for flummery, he applied for a university doctorate and one of his students - arguing about his understanding of working class attitudes - told him that his obsession with disarmament was essentially a bourgeois preoccupation.

Williams's academic career was eclectic almost to a fault. He was, in turn, scholar, teacher, literary critic, dramatist, novelist, pamphleteer, polemicist, and philosopher of a sort - although his contribution to political thought was more concerned with spreading old ideas among the young than with anything which was new or original. Most of the roles he discharged with a distinction which was incredible for one who did so much, though Inglis (with an affectionate frankness) describes Williams's publisher agonising about his great work of fiction, People of the Black Mountain. She regarded it as "an extraordinary piece of work ... but not very good." It was proof that the author was "not a man to whom comedy or any comic leavening of life came easily".

Few of the personal testaments with which Inglis enlivens Williams's biography portray an affable or sympathetic character. A pupil from the early Seventies describes the "authoritarian populist" who "always refused to act in concert with others". His priorities were so "carefully protected" that he had no interest in painting, architecture or music. When he was invited to take part in a record request programme, he was unable to nominate half a dozen records that he enjoyed. Williams valued his privacy so highly that some of his associates regarded him as solitary while others believed him to be simply antisocial. On occasions he certainly exhibited charm. His complex character, indeed his whole life, was held together by two qualities - scholarship and political conviction - which made him a major influence on three decades of political thought.

Williams's work was always controversial. In Culture and Society he praised Coleridge - an essentially reactionary figure - for his rejection of materialism. T.S. Eliot was accused of political bluff and theological bluster. Less surprisingly, D.H. Lawrence was exalted for his vision of a society in which men and women are genuinely free. Freedom within a supportive community is the recurring theme of all Williams's work - the literary no less than the political. In The English Novel from Dickens to Lawrence, he measures the great fiction of the 19th century against what he believed to be the great political force of that age - the creation of the cities. Some of the authors dreamed of the arcadian past. Others hoped for a dynamic future. But Williams always focused his attention on the sort of world which he believed that good men should strive to build.

Many of the ideas which he cherished as a young man have been proved conclusively wrong. And the rise in Western prosperity has encouraged the belief that the principle on which Williams's life was based has become outdated. In Inglis's phrase, Williams embraced "the values of the losers - solidarity, mutuality and equal shares in difficulties". We need to relate those noble concepts to the new world of consumer durables. It is a task for an ideologue who combines Williams's convictions, with a willingness to accept the realities of modern society.