Raymond Williams was one of the foremost public intellectuals of the 20th century. As a social theorist and cultural critic, he had a major influence on various fields, including anthropology, literary criticism, media studies, and history. Born into a working-class family in Wales, his academic career led him to Cambridge and Oxford. He was a driving force behind some of the major institutions of modern leftist scholarship, such as the New Left Review and the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies. Like other neomarxist scholars, he was centrally concerned with the relationship between material and symbolic production, objective structures and subjective ideologies. Many of his books, such as Culture and Society, The Long Revolution, Problems in Materialism and Culture, and Marxism and Literature, share the common thread of interrogating the increasingly fuzzy boundary between the classical Marxist categories of “base” and “superstructure.”
Much of Williams’s work took as a starting point Gramsci’s seminal writings on hegemony. Williams viewed hegemony as a complex and contradictory process, rather than a uniform, static structure. He explored the limits and cracks in hegemony as well as its dominating power, and stressed that hegemony is never complete, but must constantly be defended and modified as it accommodates the perennial challenges to its encompassing authority. Still, evaluating the potential of such challenges for social transformation is no simple task. How may citizens distinguish between the alternative and the truly oppositional, the emergent counterhegemonic strains and the residual traces of prior social formations, given that countercultural forms and impulses are marginalized, selected, co-opted, incorporated, and even produced by hegemony itself?
Williams characterized his theoretical perspective as “cultural materialism” (not to be confused with the cultural materialism of Marvin Harris). In line with his view of culture as a productive process, he saw ideology as not only manifested in thought but also embodied in people’s lived experience. Similarly, he stressed the nature of language as material practice, the terrain on which formative social processes are played out. In this sense, language itself—including writing and other technologies of communication—is among the determining forces that drive social change.
In line with the historical significance he attributed to language, part of Williams’ contribution to social science were his genealogies of the “keywords” of Western thought, including that most fundamental to the discipline of anthropology: culture. By following culture’s historical meanderings from the material, developmental implications of cultivate and agriculture, to the elite connotations of “high culture,” Williams illustrated the function of words as reference points for collective conceptions of society, and thus for the reproduction (and transformation) of social formations. He argued for a view of concepts not as static entities, but as problems, “historical movements that are still unresolved”—in which case we should not simply respond to their “sonorous summons,” but rather attempt to “recover the substance from which their forms were cast.”
Despite his own intense engagement with “high culture” (as theorist, critic, novelist, and playwright), his working-class origins were essential to his intellectual trajectory, and he was deeply engaged in British radical politics. Indeed, he strove in his writings and his actions to forge theoretical linkages between culture and politics, and to argue for the importance of the cultural realm in political activism.
- Eagleton, T. (Ed.). (1989). Raymond Williams: Critical perspectives. Boston: Northeastern University Press.
- Williams, R. (1975). Keywords: A vocabulary of culture and society. London: Fontana.
- Williams, R. (1977). Marxism and literature. London and New York: Oxford University Press.
- Williams, R. (1980). Problems in materialism and culture: Selected essays. London: Verso.