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.

Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Thousands of teenage girls enduring debilitating illnesses after routine school cancer vaccination

    Health fears over school cancer jab

    Shock new Freedom of Information figures show how thousands of girls have suffered serious symptoms after routine HPV injection
    Fifa President Sepp Blatter warns his opponents: 'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

    'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

    Fifa president Sepp Blatter issues defiant warning to opponents
    Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report

    Weather warning

    Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report
    LSD: Speaking to volunteer users of the drug as trials get underway to see if it cures depression and addiction

    High hopes for LSD

    Meet the volunteer users helping to see if it cures depression and addiction
    Why the cost of parenting has become so expensive

    Why the cost of parenting has become so expensive

    Today's pre-school child costs £35,000, according to Aviva. And that's but the tip of an iceberg, says DJ Taylor
    Fifa corruption: The officials are caught in the web of US legal imperialism - where double standards don't get in the way

    Caught in the web of legal imperialism

    The Fifa officials ensnared by America's extraterritorial authority are only the latest examples of this fearsome power, says Rupert Cornwell
    Bruce Robinson: Creator of Withnail and I on his new book about Jack the Ripper

    'Jack the Ripper has accrued a heroic aura. But I'm going after the bastard'

    The deaths of London prostitutes are commonly pinned on a toff in a top hat. But Bruce Robinson, creator of Withnail and I, has a new theory about the killer's identity
    Fifa presidential election: What is the best way to see off Sepp Blatter and end this farce?

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    What is the best way to see off Sepp Blatter and end this farce?
    Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

    Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

    'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

    How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

    Art attack

    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
    Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

    Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

    Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
    Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

    'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

    Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
    10 best wedding gift ideas

    It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

    Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
    Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

    Paul Scholes column

    With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards