Who owns Raymond Williams, one of the father figures of the New Left? Fred Inglis tries to understand why his biography of Williams has been vilified by some left-wing reviewersby Fred Inglis / March 20, 1998 / Leave a comment
Britain has never had a left intelligentsia in the mode of Jean-Paul Sartre or Noam Chomsky, vivid public figures living in a state of pure and principled opposition to power.
The British intelligentsia has, indeed, been closer to policy than in many other countries. The great social architecture which was Britain’s pride-the NHS, national insurance, the Open University, public service broadcasting, nationally-owned energy and railways, civic schooling-was designed by troops of gas-and-water socialists from the universities and, as often as not, the old working class. Richard Titmuss, Chelly Halsey and Richard Hoggart joined happily with Brian Abel-Smith, Barbara Wootton and Michael Young to make the country a better place in which to live.
The Labour left and those fiercer socialists who refused to compromise with power always remained in comradely, acrimonious and sociable touch. The heroic and handsome triumvirate of nobly lost causes-Raymond Williams, Edward Thompson and Stuart Hall-kept up their correspondence with the future through their unyielding opposition to nuclear weapons, and to the great she-rhino and her trampling down of all that the Fabians had built up.
These men held on to a demanding picture of the good society: one in which equality replaced exploitation; in which greed would be defeated by co-operation; in which an active democracy would triumph over old corruption. The small surge of social idealism which caught this vision in the 1960s came to be called the New Left.
One of the giants of the New Left, Raymond Williams, died suddenly and prematurely in January 1988, the year before the cold war and “actually existing socialism” collapsed. Before his death he had warned, presciently, of a new, devastating turbo-capitalism, and insisted that the old working class and the new fighters for peace and eco-sanity were our best defences.
A few years after his death I set out to write his biography. I had known Williams for 20 years but never as a close friend. He had made me welcome in his home, had given me his ideas and unpublished papers, was interested and ironic at the expense of my parliamentary candidacies for the Labour party, had graciously accepted the dedication of a book of mine. I deeply admired him, as did so many of my generation. Sixteen years between us meant that he had been through the anti-Fascist war; I had learned about the honour of Old England during the Suez campaign. He…