“Romanticism in the English Social Sciences: E.P. Thompson & Raymond Williams”: Michael Löwy, Robert Sayre
“It is as ridiculous to yearn for a return to that original fullness as it is to believe that with this complete emptiness history has come to a standstill. The bourgeois viewpoint has never advanced beyond this antithesis between itself and this romantic viewpoint, and therefore the latter will accompany it as legitimate antithesis up to its blessed end.”(1)
This passage is interesting not only because it reveals Marx’s attitude towards Romanticism (he acknowledges the essence of the Romantic critique, even while in a dialectical stance situating himself beyond the antithesis), but also because it suggests that the Romantic perspective will only disappear with its antagonist, capitalist society.
Moreover, the implicit definition of the Romantic viewpoint given in the passage–the aspiration to return to an original plenitude–constitutes the germ of the conception of the Romantic “worldview” that we have developed elsewhere.(2) Yet while for us the essence of the Romantic vision is the rejection and critique of industrial-capitalist modernity, in the name of values drawn from the pre-modern past, that vision is by no means always purely past-oriented.
There exists a whole spectrum of left-wing Romantic positions –including a Marxist Romanticism– which seek in the past inspiration for the invention of a utopian future. Capitalism never came to its “blessed end,” as Marx had hoped. Consequently there occur throughout the twentieth century renewed manifestations of the Romantic vision, in diverse political colorations and in all fields of culture, including the social sciences.
England, with a particularly influential Romantic current in its contemporary human sciences, is a striking example. Concentrated in economic and social history on the one hand, and literary, artistic and cultural studies on the other, it is often strongly interdisciplinary. It also stems from a long and rich tradition of nineteenth-century Romantic social criticism –the tradition of Carlyle, Ruskin and William Morris.
As examples of works –coming from diverse political perspectives– that have a Romantic dimension, we might mention the now classic forerunners of “cultural studies” in England, Richard Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy (1957), Eric Hobsbawm’s “Primitive Rebels” (1959),(3) Peter Laslett’s The World We Have Lost (1965), and, more recently, the work of several historians around the socialist-feminist journal, History Workshop (Raphael Samuel, Barbara Taylor, etc.)(4)
But to illustrate the Romantic current in the English social sciences, we will focus on two authors –E. P. Thompson and Raymond Williams– for several reasons. First, each represents one of the two principal fields of inquiry that we have alluded to (although in neither case are those fields completely distinct and isolated: Williams has written a greal deal about poets and Thompson about socio-economic history).
In addition, their contributions are of the first rank, and they have each played a major role not only in their special areas but also in English intellectual and political life in general. Finally, each incarnates, in a particularly coherent and fruitful way, the revolutionary form of Romantic vision.
In spite of a few divergences and an occasional polemic,(5) one cannot but notice a profound affinity between Thompson and Williams, one that is based on their common attempt to reactivate the Romantic tradition for the left. Their two pioneering works appeared at about the same time: Thompson’s William Morris in 1955, and Williams’s Culture and Society in 1958.
In the 1976 postscript to William Morris, Thompson explicitly alludes to the parallels between their itineraries in that period: “It is of interest that I and Raymond Williams […] should have been, unknown to each other, working upon different aspects of the Romantic critique of Utilitarianism” (William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary, NY: Pantheon Books, 1977, 769). And elsewhere in the same edition he celebrates the “superb re-evaluation of this tradition” accomplished by Williams in Culture and Society. (728)
Thus it was no accident that they both participated in the writing of the famous May Day Manifesto of 1967-68 –a document of the new socialist left that categorically denounced the myths of modernization:
“As a model of social change, modernization crudely foreshortens the historical development of society. […] The whole past belongs to `traditional’ society, and modernization is a technical means for breaking with the past without creating a future. […] It is a technocratic model of society, conflict-free and politically neutral, dissolving genuine social conflicts and issues in the abstractions of `the scientific revolution,’ `consensus,’ `productivity’ (May Day Manifesto, ed. R. Williams, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1968, 45).
The Romantic vision is a burning leitmotif throughout the various writings of Thompson. In this article, however, we will limit ourselves to his contribution to the social sciences. Our hypothesis is that the originality, subversive force and coherence of his historical works are closely linked to his rediscovery and reformulation, in (heterodox) Marxist terms, of the Romantic tradition of critique of industrial capitalist civilization.
We will concentrate on three major works: William Morris: From Romantic to Revolutionary (1955, 1977), The Making of the English Working Class, and Customs in Common (1991); but we could easily show that the analysis applies equally to Whigs and Hunters (1978) and to Thompson’s essays against nuclear arms and “exterminism” (and even, to a certain extent, to The Poverty of Theory, 1975).
The Making of the English Working Class had a tremendous impact on the field of English-language social history, because it upset an entire tradition (conservative as well as progressive) of apology for the Industrial Revolution and its socio-economic consequences. This can explain the responses of some commentators, not all of whom are reactionaries.
A review in the social-democratic journal Dissent, for example, complained of the author’s “overly Romantic” tone, which leads him to underestimate the liberating aspects of the English Industrial Revolution. According to the critic, Stephen Thernstrom, an important shortcoming of Thompson’s work is an idyllic image of pre-industrial England, closer to the Tory Radical William Cobbett than to Marx.(6)
As if one needed to be a “Tory” to point out the consequences of the Industrial Revolution for several generations of English peasants, artisans and workers–a theme that is lengthily developed by Marx in several chapters of Capital! Not to mention that Cobbett’s complex thought is here reduced to a simple variant of conservatism.
In fact, it is due to Thompson’s socialist/Romantic viewpoint that he is able to make visible the back side of the decor, to rewrite the history of the turn of the eighteenth century from the perspective of the victims of progress. Rejecting the conventional wisdom of many economic historians who identify human progress with economic growth, Thompson goes so far as to speak of the “catastrophic” character of the Industrial Revolution.
It is in this context that Thompson attempts to understand (rather than to condemn a priori as “regressive”) the reactions of the common people and their nostalgia for a style of work and leisure that preceded the pitiless regimentation of industrialism.
An analogous feeling animates the disillusioned Romantic writers, who turned toward the past at the same time that they denounced in their writing the “manufacturing system.” Refusing to label them reactionaries, Thompson brings out the subversive potential of their critique: “This current of traditionalist social radicalism, which moves from Wordsworth and Southey through to Carlyle and beyond, seems, in its origin and in its growth, to contain a dialectic by which it is continually prompting revolutionary conclusions” (The Making of the English Working Class, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1981, 378).
In confronting the doctrine of the first ideologues of industrialization, like the famous Dr. Andrew Ure, author of The Philosophy of Manufacture (1835)–whose “Satanic advocacy,” Thompson points out, interested Marx and Engel (395)–the historian adopts a critical point of view that draws on two sources from the period: Romantic culture and popular resistance.
Thompson willingly recognizes his debt in this respect: “[W]e are helped towards a certain detachment, both by the `romantic’ critique of industrialism […] and by the record of tenacious resistance by which hand-loom weaver, artisan or village craftsman confronted this experience and held fast to an alternative culture.” Thanks to these two dissident voices, “[w]e understand more clearly what was lost, what was driven `underground,’ what is still unresolved” (486).
In fact, though, at the turn of the 18th century these two forms of protest against the new society were separate and foreign to each other; it is the historian who retrospectively discovers their invisible solidarity in facing a common adversary.
In the conclusion to the book, Thompson returns to his comparison between the two protest movements–that of the workers and that of the poets–to highlight their common opposition to capitalist modernization, and especially to regret their historical non-convergence:
“Such men met Utilitarianism in their daily lives, and they sought to throw it back, not blindly, but with intelligence and moral passion. They fought, not the machine, but the exploitive and oppressive relationships intrinsic to industrial capitalism. In these same years, the great Romantic criticism of Utilitarianism was running its parallel but altogether separate course. After William Blake, no mind was at home in both cultures, nor had the genius to interpret the two traditions to each other. […] Hence these years appear at times to display, not a revolutionary challenge, but a resistance movement, in which both the Romantics and the Radical craftsmen opposed the annunciation of Acquisitive Man. In the failure of the two traditions to come to a point of junction, something was lost. How much we cannot be sure, for we are among the losers” (915).
The failure referred to by Thompson is doubtless an instance of the difficulty of convergence between the cultural protest of intellectuals and artists, and the social rebellion of the laboring classes. The Making of the English Working Class can be considered an attempt to compensate, at a century and a half’s remove, for the missed encounter.
As we know, the 1977 edition of this work was modified and shortened in relation to that of 1955. The references to Stalin and the USSR (few in number) and the polemics against the Labour Party were eliminated, as were some overly lengthy commentaries.
According to some critics, such as John Goode, the second edition, with its excessive insistance on the anti-utilitarian aspect of Morris and his relation to Carlyle and Ruskin, is less Marxist and more Romantic than the first. In short, Goode regrets that Thompson aligns himself with the positions defended by Raymond Williams in Culture and Society.
Although we don’t share this point of view, it does seem clear that the second edition emphasizes more explicitly the Romantic heritage of Morris. Still, the problematic was already clearly present in 1955 (three years before the appearance of Williams’ book). In the following brief remarks we will refer principally to elements that the two editions have in common (when we refer to one edition, it will be that of 1977).
The title of the work’s first chapter –“Sir Lancelot and Mr. Gradgrind”– luminously evokes the climate in which Morris’ thought develops through the confrontation of two archetypes: on the one hand, the Romantic hero par excellence, the mythical incarnation of chivalrous nobility of spirit; on the other, Dicken’s character from Hard Times, the representative of banal bourgeois Utilitarianism, “a cast-iron theoretical system” that was “constructed from bits of Adam Smith and Ricardo, Bentham and Malthus” (9).
The renewal of English Romanticism over the course of the 19th century was a revolt against the values of Mr. Gradgrind, often taking the form of a Medievalism that “posed the existence, in the past, of a form of society whose values were finer and richer than those of profit and capitalist utility” (9).
Although he does not share this fascination with the Gothic age, E.P. Thompson considers Keats’ poetry, for example, to be a legitimate form of resistance against philistinism and the bourgeois mercantile mentality: “The great aspirations at the source of the Romantic Revolt–for the freeing of mankind from a corrupt oppression, for the liberation of man’s senses, affections, and reason, for equality between men and between the sexes–were being destroyed by each new advance of industrial capitalism” (18).(7)
Keats, Carlyle and Ruskin were the spiritual masters of the young Morris, whose first works are filled with Romantic nostalgia for the Middle Ages, for that pre-capitalist, organic community whose values and art contrasted so sharply with those of Victorian England. While Thompson categorically rejects the retrograde aspects of the Romantic worldview of Carlyle and Ruskin, for example, he nonetheless recognizes their profound revolutionary intuitions. And most importantly, he is convinced that it is thanks to the intellectual return to the Middle Ages that Morris was able to free his mind of bourgeois categories.
Surprisingly, Thompson’s perspective on the works of the pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and the first poems of Morris himself is often more negative; in a number of passages he treats them as “escapist” and symptomatic of a “decline” or “degeneration” of English Romanticism (78, 114). But near the end of the chapter dealing with them, Thompson suggests that the movement was only undergoing a temporary crisis: “The embers of romanticism persisted, and they lacked only the wind of hope to fan them into flame” (146).
For Thompson, in the later work of Morris the Romantic flame becomes a revolutionary conflagration. He shows, with great subtlety, how Morris’ socialism corresponds to the aspirations of his youthful revolt, the hope of building Blake’s New Jerusalem and of finally repairing the breach between desire and action. The first socialist writings of Morris (Signs of Change, 1888) are powerful because they are “the point of confluence of the moral protest of Carlyle and Ruskin and the historical genius of Marx, backed by Morris’ own lifetime of study and practice in the arts and in society” (541).
The Romantic dimension of Morris’ unique form of Marxism is particularly visible in his critique of the repugnant, monotonous labor to which workers in the industrial capitalist system are condemned, in contrast with the human and artistic qualities manifest in pre-capitalist artisanal labor (e.g. that of the gothic masons celebrated by Ruskin) (644-45).
The same is true of Morris’ utopia, News From Nowhere (1890), “which only a writer nurtured in the Romantic tradition could have conceived” (695-96). According to Thompson, Morris’ utopia is Romanticism reversed. Rather than a revolt of unsatisfied aspirations against the misery of the present, it is the satisfied aspirations of a liberated future that reveal the misery of the (capitalist) past.(8)
Of course, Morris is not merely a continuer of the Romantic tradition, a latter-day epigone of the great poets and social critics of the 19th century in England. As Thompson emphasizes, he profoundly transformed and renewed the tradition under the inspiration of Marx. This idea is well developed in the 1976 postscript, which in Perry Anderson’s view is one of Thompson’s most important statements; in it Thompson also regrets the non-encounter between Marxism after Marx–strongly marked by positivism and utilitarianism–and the Romantic socialism of Morris.(9)
Thompson’s last book, Customs in Common (1991), brings together both earlier texts and more recent ones specially written for the volume. Among the former are to be found the famous articles, “The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century” (1967) and “Time, Work-Discipline and Industrial Capitalism” (1971), which had a considerable impact on English social historiography.
The book’s introduction brings out what these articles have in common: the analysis of 18th-century plebeian culture as a rebellious traditional culture, one that resists, in the name of custom, the rationalizations and economic innovations–such as enclosures, industrial discipline and the “free” market–that the government, the merchants and the employers attempt to impose.
Thompson refuses the usual explanations, which see this resistance as a retrograde stance in the face of the necessity of modernization, supposedly a neutral sociological and technological process. He interprets it, on the contrary, as a legitimate reaction to transformations that are experienced by the plebeians as an aggravation of exploitation, as the expropriation of their customary rights or as the destruction of valued work and leisure habits.
In Thompson’s view the crux of English history in the 18th century is the confrontation between the new capitalist market economy (with Adam Smith as its first great theoretician) and the customary “moral economy” of the plebs. In a certain way, Customs in Common is an extension to the preceding century of the problematics developed in The Making of the English Working Class, without the focus on the origins of the class and with a deepening of certain “anthropological” aspects of pre-modern popular culture.
Yet as a socialist historian of Romantic inclination, Thompson not only attempts to understand (in the strongest sense of the word) the reasons of the plebs, but also sees in the resistance of these historically defeated people–sometimes passive, sometimes active, and even violent, as in the food riots–the possible germ of a different future: “We shall not ever return to pre-capitalist human nature, yet a reminder of its alternative needs, expectations and codes may renew our sense of our nature’s range of possibilities” (Customs in Common, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1993, 15).
This historical research on custom, and on the destruction by modern capitalism of “pre-industrial” and “traditional” ways of life, is also topical, according to Thompson, because it directly relates to two aspects of our own time. First, the experience of European populations in the 18th and 19th centuries is being repeated, in a different context, in the countries of the global “South.”
Second, the definition of human needs in terms of the market, and the submission of all the resources of the globe to its logic, threaten the human species itself (both South and North) with ecological disaster. The motor driving this disaster forward is “homo oeconomicus”–both in the classic capitalist form and in the “state communist” variant–supposed to be an eternal principle of human nature. But, as Thompson warns, “[w]e stand at the end of a century when this must now be called in doubt.” (15)
In Customs in Common Thompson is particularly interested, among other things, in the food riots as a form of resistance to the market in the name of the older “moral economy” of traditional community norms; he claims that this resistance was not without rationality and in the long run probably saved the poor from famine.
An aspect somewhat neglected in the 1967 essay on the “moral economy” is given a central place in a new essay entitled “Moral Economy Reviewed”: The important participation of women in the riots, which for centuries “were the most visible and public expressions of working women’s lack of deference and their contestation with authority.” This role of women in the riots, Thompson points out, serves to “contest […] the stereotypes of feminine submission, timidity, or confinement to the private world of the household” (335).(10)
A (critical) nostalgia for the pre-industrial style of life is present in all the chapters of the book and particularly in the splendid essay on the notion of time, which contrasts the “task-oriented” work of traditional communities with the disciplined work by the clock of modern industrial societies. Contrary to the “natural” human work rhythm of pre-modern societies (vestiges of which remain today in the activity of artists, writers, farmers–or of parents taking care of children), time in advanced capitalist society must always be consumed, utilized, transformed into merchandise.
With salutary and irreverent irony, Thompson draws the “moral of the story” for this overwhelming upheaval in the social experience of temporality: “[H]aving taken the problem so far, we may be permitted to moralise a little, in the eighteenth-century manner, ourselves. […] [T]he historical record is not a simple one of neutral and inevitable technological change, but is also one of exploitation and of resistance to exploitation” (399).
Once again, it is not a question of returning to the past, but of trying, in the future, to “relearn some of the arts of living lost in the industrial revolution,” and in so doing to discover “how to break down once more the barriers between work and life” (401).
The Romantic dimension is quite as crucial for understanding the work of Raymond Williams, which spans a very long period–from the late forties to the late eighties–and involves a broad variety of fields: literature, theater, the media (especially television), and culture in its multiple meanings, all of which are dealt with in their relations to society, history and politics.
Williams undeniably evolved over the course of his career, but he never repudiated the Romantic underpinnings of his thought. In the 1970s, like many others in the New Left he drew somewhat closer to orthodox Marxism of the structuralist tendency. Marxism and Literature (1977) is doubtless the least Romantic of his writings, although it does not contradict his earlier positions, as is corroborated by other texts dating from the late `70s.(11)
In the eighties, Williams reacted more and more strongly against structuralism and post-structuralism and again brought the revolutionary Romantic perspective to the forefront of his thinking, developing it in new ways.
As with Thompson, we will focus here on a few important examples of Williams’ work in the social ciences.(12) Since they are taken from different periods in his career, they will allow us to show both the continuity and the evolution of Williams’ Romantic problematics.(13)
In Politics and Letters (1979), a series of interviews with several editors of New Left Review, one deals with Culture and Society, the masterpiece which first brought Williams to public attention. Williams explains that the main intention of the work was “oppositional.” He wanted “to counter the appropriation of a long line of thinking about culture to what were by now decisively reactionary positions, […] to try to recover the true complexity of the tradition it had confiscated–so that the appropriation could be seen for what it was. […] The selective version of culture could be historically controverted by the writings of the thinkers who contributed to the formation and discussion of the idea” (97-98).
The tradition that Williams wished to save from appropriation by the right (he began the research and reflection that was to culminate in Culture and Society in 1948, at the beginning of the Cold War) was precisely the Romantic tradition in English letters, one which extends from the late 18th century up to the contemporary period.
The study takes as its point of departure the perception that during that timespan two parallel developments were taking place: on the one hand, the introduction and evolution of a new meaning of the word “culture,” and on the other the huge social transformations involved in the advent of industrial capitalism.
Culture in its new meaning is defined by contrast with this new society; it is the domain of the ideal and of true value, as opposed to the unjust, corrupt, degraded new civilization. Some see culture as a refuge within modern society–the enclave of the intellectual and artistic elite–while for others it is nothing if it is not generalized (“a common culture”). All share the conviction that a cultural community existed before the coming of modernity.
In exploring this tradition, Williams demonstrates the diversity of political positions that are to be found within the same basic posture of refusal of modern commercial, industrial and mechanistic society. He begins by pointing out the affinities between conservatives such as Burke and Southey, and radicals or socialists like Cobbett and Owen; further on he locates within the same tradition the anarcho-communist William Morris and T.S. Eliot, who longed to restore Medieval Christendom. He also shows that certain authors, like Carlyle and D. H. Lawrence, evolved ideologically while remaining fundamentally Romantic.
Williams attributes a crucial role to Morris in the development of the critique of “society” in the name of “culture,” seeing in him a “pivotal figure” between the 19th and 20th centuries. According to Williams, “in the middle of the twentieth century Morris remains a contemporary thinker, for the directions which he indicated have become part of a general social movement. Yet he belongs, essentially, with the great Victorian rebels […]” (161)
Williams devotes an important chapter of Culture and Society to the relationship between the Romantic tradition and Marxism (mainly English, for at that time Williams’ intellectual horizon was almost exclusively British). He claims that many of the English Marxists of the `30s were continuing in a different form the tradition of Matthew Arnold and Morris, since their attempt to create a Marxist theory of culture constituted “an interaction between Romanticism and Marx, between the idea of culture which is the major English tradition and Marx’s brilliant revaluation of it.”
When Williams adds, “We have to conclude that the interaction is as yet far from complete,” he is, perhaps without knowing it, defining the project that he and E.P. Thompson were to carry out in later years (280).
While in the main body of the work Williams examines an intellectual and artistic trend in “high culture,” analyzing and evaluating it in its own terms, the conclusion introduces a new point of view–that of the working class. Contrary to most of the Oxford Marxists of the ’30s, Williams was born into that class (his father was a railroad worker), and in the conclusion of his study he brings to bear his personal perspective, attempting to link the Romantic tradition in elite culture with the culture of the working class.
In both cases he finds an ethos of “community” as opposed to the “bourgeois idea of society” as an aggregate of competing individuals, although the middle-class Romantics base this community on an ethic of “service,” while for the working class it takes the form of “solidarity” (328). Williams prefers the latter, and his celebration of a working-class ideal here is an example of elements already present in his early work that are more fully developed later.
We can clearly see the continuity in Williams’ work also in his response to the friendly but sharp criticisms that the editors of New Left Review made in Politics and Letters (1979), with regard to Culture and Society. In particular, they reproach the book with eliminating the political dimension of the writers studied, and thereby minimizing or masking the objectionable political positions taken by some of them (the later Carlyle’s apology for racism and imperialism, for instance).
In his answer, although Williams acknowledges that he should perhaps have dealt more explicitly with these phenomena, and that he would not write the book in the same way at present, he nonetheless insists on defending his fundamental choices of the `50s:
“I had discovered themes profoundly related to my sense of the social crisis of my time and the socialist way out of it, not in the approved list of progressive thinkers, but in these paradoxical figures. […] [B]y drawing back I was able to reintroduce certain themes and issues which have seemed to me the crucial stuff of action to this day, but which were absent from what I knew then and often know now as politics.” (106)
Indeed the communists and socialists were often as much the proponents of an exacerbated productivism as were the bourgeois ideologues, and for Williams it was precisely with the postwar explosion of productivity that “the questions posed by Blake or Cobbet acquired their force.” (115)
The same problems concerning modernity are major concerns in The Country and the City, written at the beginning of the `70s at a time when Williams was already coming close to a Marxist perspective. The book explores a theme in English literature that partially overlaps that of Culture and Society–the contrast between country and city–by analyzing the often complex relationships between literary images and real history, notably in terms of class relations and points of view.
In Politics and Letters the editors of New Left Review praise this approach as a step forward in relation to Culture and Society. Yet they point out that the book’s true importance lies rather in its transcendence of the usual Marxist problematics, since in general the work of Marx and Engels “lacks the idea of a continuing tradition of values from the past that informs the struggles of the present” (314).
Williams’ distinctive contribution, then, was to have shown the effective presence, through the historical unfolding of the Romantic vision, of pre-capitalist values in the modern emancipatory project. In the interview on The Country and the City, Williams calls it a “polemical” book. But interestingly, in different places in the interview he claims to have aimed at two opposite targets.
On the one hand, Williams says he was attacking a time-honored interpretation of the poetry celebrating country houses, which saw the poems as simple “records” of life in those houses “and so of the organic rural society England had once been […].” On the other hand, he declares that his polemic was directed against the dominant tendency in the Labour Party at the time, which conceived socialism as no more than “a successful industrial capitalism without the capitalists” (304, 314).
In fact, in The Country and the City Williams is battling on two fronts: as a revolutionary, against a form of Romanticism that is a reactionary mystification, and as a Romantic, against the adulteration of the revolutionary project, its corruption by the modern world.
The book’s first moment, then, is a critique of the ideology of the literary tradition praising country life. Williams questions the idyllic image of the country estate projected in 17th-century “neo-pastoral” literature, maintaining that in reality those estates were the locus of an early agrarian capitalism. From the mid-18th century on he sees a shift in rural literature from idealization to a melancholic sense of loss. In this later literature he finds a repeated pattern, in which each generation regrets a Golden Age of rural well-being, reliving the illusion of having itself experienced the disappearance of Old England.(14)
In some passages, this demystification of an idealizing or nostalgic thematics of rusticity can give the impression that Williams is carrying on an anti-Romantic offensive. This is not the case, however. He is attempting rather to call for a Romanticism that can be convincing because it is lucid and complex, capable of engaging the realities of modernity.
It might nonetheless seem regrettable that Williams was not more sensitive to the genuinely utopian dimension that could manifest itself even in those expressions of a leisured elite that he was analyzing. But in The Country and the City he puts forward his own working-class perspective and experience, as he had not done (or rather only in
the conclusion) in Culture and Society.
He refers to his youth in a rural region of Wales (his father was a worker, but in a small village) and to the tight-knittedness of the local working population. It is the concrete solidarities of this “knowable community”(15) that he affirms as a true rural ideal.
In The Country and the City Williams also shows that he is sensitive to the alienation spawned by the modern city. He cites as compelling testimony texts by Wordsworth, Carlyle and Hardy, as well as Engels’ The Condition of the Working Class in England (1844), that describe the experience of social fragmentation in the big city, the egotistical monadization which Engels calls the “fundamental principle” of capitalist society as a whole. (See 150, 215-16.)
Yet Williams also brings out the possibilities of fulfillment offered by the city and finally aspires not to a return to the rural but to a transcendence of the very opposition between city and country, in a post-capitalist society rooted in pre-capitalist values. Williams points out that this ideal was espoused by Marx and Engels but was little developed in later revolutionary thought (304); he also reminds us that Blake had already created a striking image of it, in his famous poem which advocates struggling to build “Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land” (149).
In Williams’ last period–the 1980s–while continuing to delve into authors he had earlier studied, his work becomes increasingly aimed at defining the form that a “New Jerusalem” might take. At the same time, he reviews his past work in the sociology and history of culture, delineating the broad outlines of a general approach that he calls “cultural materialism.”(16)
We will mention here two works that illustrate on the one hand the further development of earlier subjects, and on the other the new orientation toward the future. The first is his monograph on William Cobbett,(17) an author to whom he had already given attention in both Culture and Society and The Country and the City, and who is, among the figures he had dealt with before, one of the closest to his own sensibility and point of view.
Although Williams acknowledges certain weaknesses in Cobbett, he considers them secondary. What makes Cobbett valuable as a writer, in Williams’ eyes, is that he is profoundly democratic in temperament; that he has a highly concrete, spontaneously materialist mode of thought; and above all that he fully identifies himself with the workers in their suffering and revolt at the coming of capitalism. This is precisely the form of Romanticism of which Williams is a proponent.
In his study of the author of Rural Rides,(18) Williams emphasizes Cobbett’s subversiveness against those who would see him as a simple reactionary: “If he is the voice of anything that can be called, for rhetorical purposes, Old England, he is also in that act the voice of protest against finance capital, imperialism and the aristocratic State, and the voice of encouragement of working-class organisation, democratic protest and popular defiance” (Raymond Williams, Cobbett, Oxford Univ. Press, “Past Masters,” 1983).
Williams considers Cobbett’s thought to be in many ways surprisingly topical–notably in his early expression of ecological concern. Yet in one respect he feels the early 19th-century polemicist is unable to help us as we approach the 21st century: Cobbett’s conception of production is overly narrow (79). For Williams this notion must be rethought. Two years after Cobbett was published, Williams began to put down the groundwork in an article entitled “Towards Many Socialisms” (1985)(19), advocating a break with the categories of bourgeois economics.
For bourgeois economics, only `product’ is important; the deleterious effects of production on humans and nature are an unessential “by-product.” For Williams, on the contrary, what is “produced” is in fact the overall society; product and by-product alike are part of production.
What capitalism “produces” therefore includes the resulting human misery and environmental damage. Socialism must aim instead at the “production” of the most widespread possible human and natural well-being (Resources of Hope, 308-09).
While this conception is in some ways a new one, it is in a real sense also a return to a mode of thought preceding capitalism, which separates the economy–as production of market goods–from the social totality and elevates it to the rank of supreme value. And in his propositions for a renewal of the socialist project, Williams wants to revive the past as much as to innovate.
He is convinced, it is true, that we will never return to the small, undifferentiated community, and he knows that a future socialist society must be complex, pluralistic, and technologically sophisticated. But for Williams, all of these appropriations of modernity should make possible a greater fulfillment of the dreams and ideals of the past.(20)
In “Towards Many Socialisms,” as in other essays of the `80s, Williams attempts to bring together a socialism based on class analysis and the “new social movements.” We might see this as part of his larger project–formulated long ago–to reconcile Marxism and Romanticism. Williams himself seems to recognize the relationship when in “Towards Many Socialisms” he points to the affinity between movements like ecology, feminism and pacifism, and the Romantic tradition that he has so finely interpreted.
In conclusion to this discussion of the Romanticism of E.P. Thompson and Raymond Williams, we might recall that these two major thinkers were, during their careers, most often writing against the grain of the dominant intellectual trends–structuralism, post-structuralism, post-modernism, etc.
Now that they are gone, at a time when the acuity of their vision is becoming more and more evident every day and when some signs of a change in the intellectual climate are to be observed, we can only hope that their work will serve as an inspiration for the renewal of the critical social sciences in the years to come.
- Karl Marx,(Grundrisse(1857-58), (Middlesex, England: Penguin, 1973)
- See Michael Löwy and Robert Sayre, “Figures of Romantic Anti-Capitalism,” New German Critique, 32, (Spring-Summer, 1984). The essay was republished, followed by a commentary, and our response, in Spirits of Fire: Engish Romantic Writers and Contermporary Historical Methods, eds. G. A. Rosso and D. P. Watkins, (N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson U.P., 1990). We have further developed our analysis in a book, published in France: Revolte et melancolie: Ie, romantisme a contre-courant de la modernite, (Paris: Payot, 1992).
- Although Hobsbawm’s sensibility is only partially Romantic, Primitive Rebels shows his strong interest in what he calls “archaic forms of social movement,” such as social banditry, Southern Italian millenarian movements and Andalousian peasant Anarchism. As a militant Marxist and Communist, Hobsbawn in no way identifies himself with the methods and rituals of such movements, but he is nonetheless attracted to, and even fascinated by, these premodern phenomena. He points out that they are often considered to be marginal and unimportant by historians, in part “out of rationalist and ‘modernist’ bias”: Eric Hobsbawm, Primitive Rebels: Studies in Archaic Forms of Social Movement in the 19th and 20th Centuries, (N.Y.: Norton, 19.59), 2.
- For an example of the Romantic perspective represented in the journal, see “Editorial: Science, Rationality and Religion,” History Workshop, 9, Spring, 1980), 3.
- In a review of The Long Revolution, Thompson reproaches Williams with not looking beyond the British Isles towards authors from the European continent like Vico, Marx, Max Weber and Karl Mannheim (New Left Review, 9, 1961, 30). The irony of this remark is that it is precisely the criticism (“insularity”) that the new generation of New Left Review was soon to level at E. P. Thompson himself!
- See Stephen Thernstrom, “A Major Work in Radical History,” Dissent, 12 (Winter, 1965), 90-92.
- It must be acknowledged, though, that by no means all Romantics were proponents of equality between the sexes (e.g. Kuskin).
- However, as Perry Anderson rightly points out, it is surprising that in a book of more than 800 pages the author only devotes about six of them to News From Nowhere–as much as, or even less than to some of the early romances like The Defence of Gueneaere. Cf. Perry Anderson, Arguments Within English Marxism, (London: New Left Books, 1980), 165. This is a curious limitation that would merit an explanation. The 1976 postface only partially makes up for its absence.
- Thompson, William Morris, 728, 786; Anderson, Arguments Within English Marxism, 158. Anderson acknowledges that the “seduction of this rich and meditative postscript is a powerful one” (160).
- Thompson cites, concerning a riot in which a crowd of women had expropriated a load of wheat, the following commentary by a contemporary: “Such uncommon Bravery and Resolution appearing in the soft & tender Sex is a Matter of Surprize to those who stile themselves their despotick Sovereigns, & the Lords of Creation” (Northampton Mercury, 2 June, 1740).
- For example, in a review of Michael Löwy’s George Lukacs–from Romanticism to Bolshevism (New Left Books, 1979), Williams refuses to see Bolshevism as a simple “progress” in relation to the diffuse anti-capitalist Romanticism of the young Lukacs and others. He points out that since the Romantics denounced state bureaucracy, the quantification of thought under industrialism, and the lack of community in modern society, “we can hardly, from the end of the seventies, suppose that they were wasting their time or missing some simple central truth” (New Society, 24 Jan., 1980, 189).
- Williams wrote novels as well, which are set in the region of Wales where he was raised, and they also exhibit Romantic traits. His last, posthumously-published novel, in particular, returns to the prehistory of the region, portraying early hunting communities that are unified and close to Nature. Their mode of life is shown as limited, but rich in terms of the quality of their human and natural bonds. People of the Black Mountains (London: Chatto and Windus, 1989).
- For a monograph on the whole of Williams’ work that stresses its continuities, see Jan Gorak, The Alien Mind of Raymond Williams, (Columbia, MO: Univ. of Missouri Press, 1988).
- On the general phenomenon, see Williams, The County and the City, (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1973), chap. 2.
- On the notion of “knowable communities,” see chap. 16.
- See in particular “The Usess of Cultural Theory,” New Left Review, 158, 1986.
- William Cobbett (1763-1835) was famous in his time as a journalist, essayist and polemicist. After early phases of republicanism followed by conservatism, he became a “radical” after 1804.
- This best-known work by Cobbett has achieved the status of a minor classic: See William Cobbett, Rural Rides, (Harmondsworth: Penguin, “Penguin Classics,” 1985).
- The essay has been republished in the posthumous anthology: Resources of Hope: Culture, Democracy, Socialism, ed. Robin Gable, (London: Verso, 1989). In this anthology are to be found most of Williams’ articles and papers of the 1980s. He develops his ideas for a socialist future at greater length in Towards 2000 (London: Chatto and Windus, 1983).
- See, for example, ibid, 306.
ATC 61, March-April 1996
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