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Introducing Raymond Williams

by Tom Gann / August 25, 2020

Image: The Four Zoas by William Blake

Bad New Times | Essays  }
In the 1980s Raymond Williams was the thinker of the relation between the conjunctural and the organic. This grounded his position on electoral and political strategy. 4420 words / 18 min read

“Socialists and Coalitionists” was first published as as “Splits, Pacts and Coalitions”, in (the original) New Socialist’s March/April 1984 edition. It is available in Verso’s collection Resources of Hope: Culture, Democracy, Socialism, edited by Robin Gable, and we are grateful for Verso’s permission to allow us, the, as it were new New Socialist to republish it. We hope this will be the first in a project of republishing some of the texts published in the original New Socialist. “Socialists and Coalitionists” (as it was then named) was also published in the collected volume, edited by original New Socialist editor James Curran, The Future of the Left, in which, as Rory MacQueen writes, “the leading lights of the New Left and others—including Neil Kinnock and Tony Benn” attempted “to fight back against a near-unanimous media demand for a return to ‘the middle ground’.” “Splits, Pacts and Coalitions” was one of a number texts Williams wrote for the original New Socialist, all of which corresponded with the project of the magazine, as the editor James Curran told Dan Frost, “to provide a bridge between public intellectuals, the Labour movement and radical civil society” and “to renew democratic socialism through inputs from Euro-Keynesians, the peace movement, global social justice, industrial democracy, feminists, greens, and the radical local communitarian tradition.” Williams’s New Socialist texts include, the wonderful, “Mining the Meaning: Key Words in the Miners’ Strike”, “Ideas and the Labour Movement”, “Walking Backwards into the Future” and “Hesitations Before Socialism”, all of which are collected in Resources of Hope.

There will be an understandable temptation to read “Socialists and Coalitionists” without context, its concerns and analysis seem to speak so precisely and clearly to our situation. We have not only a significant election defeat for Labour, but one of those which we have experienced not “just as analysts or observers but where they really hurt, in the lives of our own people”. We have in response, in part, to that hurt, a shift in the Labour leadership to the right, whilst, rhetorically at least, during the campaign, the winning candidate maintained enough ambiguity to draw in some left support – though we are already seeing how that ambiguity is being resolved, perhaps quicker than we expected. Finally, we have Williams’s immediate object of concern and contestation, calls, also to an extent coming out of that hurt and to perhaps a greater extent gaining momentum because of that hurt, for what is now called a “progressive alliance”.1 Williams’s text certainly rewards those readings, and any reader is likley to be pulled up short by descriptions of situations and arguments that could have been made today (and this very much begins with its opening sentences – just replace 1983 and 1984 with 2019 and 2020. I don’t want to discourage these readings, and the reader could now skip this introduction and go straight on to the text (and then, having obtained a copy of Resources of Hope if they do not have one, carried straight on to read “Mining the Meaning”). However, as MacQueen argues persuasively, shifting what can be learnt in 2020 from both the events of 1983-4 and from the new left’s responses, whilst there are resonances, “there are many more significant differences between now and then.” Moreover, I want to argue, too rapid a collapse of today with 1983-4 does a significant disservice to some of what is most valuable in Williams and, in particular, in Williams’s work in the 1980s.

The 1980s saw an extensive, if often not always terribly generative, engagement with and deployment of Gramsci on the left in Britain, I want to argue that although he makes significantly less explicit reference to “the Sardinian”, Williams too was preoccupied with Gramscian questions, though often pf a slightly different sort to the cultural studies reading of Gramsci and how ‘hegemony’ operated within that field. Williams’s priority in many of his 1980s texts, was in working through and worrying over the “correct relation between what is organic and what is conjunctural”.2 The famous (and correct, and, yes, timely for today) criticism of “petit-bourgeois theorists making long-term adjustments to short-term situations?”, grounded in a lack of attention to those aspects of the situation that the concept of “Thatcherism” misses, those that are “more diverse, more volatile and more temporary”, represents perhaps the clearest case of this, but we also see it in “Socialists and Coalitionists”, particularly in attempting to grasp the relationship between long-term, organic, aspects of decline in Labour’s support and short-term, conjunctural ones. To read “Socialists and Coalitionists” as immediately applicable to today risks underestimating the conjunctural aspects of Williams’s text, treating everything as structural and missing the importance of the diverse, volatile and temporary aspects of 1983-4. Bringing the questions back to today it means not attending to what produces today’s diversity, volatility and temporary character, about which Williams can provide us with a sort of model and an ethics of theory but, by definition, little directly.

So, what was the conjuncture in which Williams was writing and aiming to intervene in? The best place to start here is in Eric Hobsbawm’s “Labour’s Lost Millions” and “The Forward March of Labour Halted?. “The Forward March of Labour Halted?” defines the deeper historical-theoretical problematic, and “Labour’s Lost Millions” offers both its application to the situation of 1983-4 and a crucial summary of the situation. Williams does not particularly contest the empirical summary of “Labour’s Lost Millions” but he does contest the wider problematic and political consequences drawn by Hobsbawm. MacQueen’s claim that “Banquo’s ghost” in The Future of the Left was played by Eric Hobsbawm applies particularly strongly to Williams’s contribution.

MacQueen also details other differences in the situation, which the reader of “Socialists and Coalitionists” should bear in mind,

the left was much stronger in 1983, having not yet suffered forty years of defeats under neoliberalism. The miners and printers had not yet been smashed, and trade union membership, though arguably beginning its decline, was nonetheless close to historic highs—around twice today’s level. More propitiously for the Conservative government, North Sea oil was flowing ever more freely, helping to mask other economic problems. And a simplistic story of two left-led Labour leaderships wrestling unsuccessfully with European and nationalist issues amidst centrist splits obscures significant differences. Michael Foot, having been James Callaghan’s deputy, was elected leader on a unity ticket rather than on a left manifesto from the backbenches. Most of the labour movement in 1983 saw the European Union as a constraint rather than a bulwark. Mike Gapes and Chris Leslie are not Roy Jenkins and Shirley Williams, and Michel Barnier is not General Galtieri.

To these differences, some of which (particularly the relative economic stability of 1983-4 compared to today but also the more extensive left advance within Labour preceeding the defeat – most obviously we did have the leadership in 2019) reveal some aspects of the present that are more diverse, volatile and temporary than 1983-4, some suggest different limits and weaknesses. We could perhaps add a similarity but one that is conjunctural not structural (it waned through the 1980s and beyond and has only re-emerged in the last few years), is the intellectual strength of socialists in Britain. This is a key basis of the optimistic line of Williams’s argument, though today this intellectual strength is perhaps one, at present, distinctively of socialists (rather than of the labour movement), in smaller institutions (like this New Socialist, the development of new left think tanks like Autonomy and Commonwealth and in The World Transformed and the other Transformed events) and perhaps individually concentrated (and therefore particularly vulnerable). John McDonnell is probably a more intellectually inspirational figure than Tony Benn was, though Benn had his own considerable virtues of moral leadership. The effects then of our current intellectual strength then is isolated to a significant degree from the labour movement as a whole. A further difference, on a point crucial for Williams’s analysis that in his account the basis for much of the necessary educational, persusasive activity of the 1980s was to be done through movements outside or at the edges of the Labour Party. Williams’s 1980s work is to a significant extent constituted as responses to the strength of social movements in the 1980s, and in their potential to carry forward kinds of prefigurative politics, cultural challenges and act as democratic institutions, that is to reinvigorate,Culture and Society’s famous description of the instituions of the labour movement as the “very remarkable creative achievement” of working class culture3. Today, the new institutions grew with Corbynism and in closeness to Labour, and now our function is unclear.

This openness to the emergent is precisely where Williams finds hope in contrast to Hobsbawm’s conformism and pose of hard-headed realism. Hobsbawm’s analysis pays little attention to emergent social movements, or perhaps to put it better, what attention Hobsbawm does pay is generally negative. Hobsbawm tends to posit the emergence of social movements and the new contradictions both explored and opened up by them as undermining the kinds of class identities and coalitions necessary for left politics. This tendency of Hobsbawm’s is most apparent in “The Forward March of Labour Halted?”. I have Doreen Massey’s copy copy of the Marxism Today/Verso book, in which Massey’s notes include a large “?” at Hobsbawm’s claim “the organized working class a hundred years ago was almost entirely masculine” and in Hobsbawm’s rather curious sets of claims around the relative absence of working class racism and feelings of differentiation within a class concevied on a national basis over the period of 75 or so years dating from 1878, Massey has circled rather emphatically, all Hobsbawm’s careless uses of men for people.

Hobsbawm’s tendency to exclude women from the working class had also been significantly challenged from within history as a discipline. Sally Alexander, Anna Devin and Eve Hostettler argued Hobsbawm’s choice of sources, particular his reliance on official Trade Union sources, meant he missed the extent working class women who continued working for wages (and not only in domestic service) and took part in political activism and that, “instead of responding to feminist argument and research — including them in the advance of historical thought or disputing them in a properly argued (and supported) way—he dismisses them.”4 Hobsbawm’s position then is determined by experiencing emergent political and theoretical articulations associated with struggles outside what has been officially registered as a cause for pessimism, a worry that the old ways of doing things, which remain the only bulwark against “barbarism”, are being fragmented (and that his own authority as a theorist or political actor is being challenged). For Williams, however, new political and theoretical developments were largely experienced in terms of new openings and new possibilities, chances for institutional, theoretical and personal transformation, ultimately as what makes new socialism possible.

This is not, of course, to say that Williams’s response to emergent social movements, especially the women’s movement was perfect. In a very late (1987) interview with Terry Eagleton, “The Practice of Possibility”, also published in Resources of Hope Williams regrets that despite the references to the “system of generation and nurture” in The Long Revolution, the engagment with questions surrounding this and “the limits” enacted to an “extraordinary” degree by the “notion of masculinity” in his novels and lectures: “the suppression of tenderness and emotional response, the willingness to admit what isn’t weakness – one’s feelings in and through another; all this is a repression not only of women’s experience but of something much more general”, he failed to explore these questions on a more theoretical level, “that’s no real excuse; I ought to have been doing this in my other work too; but by the time I came to understand it in that way it was already being done by a lot of good people who were no doubt making more sense of it than I could have done.”5 Williams, however, unlike Hobsbawm did retain the openness and the capacity to identify emergent sources of hope in a way that allowed for thinking beyond the limitations of possibility in Hobsbawm.

Whilst the breadth of social movements and their insitutional effects may be more lacking today, as I write this, in the UK Black Lives Matter protests, we may be seeing an emergent substantial social movement. It is necessary to be careful with terms here as there have been significant anti-racist movements against police and state violence but the potential of UK Black Lives Matter in the current moment is to expand the size, scope and power of this movement does represent a qualitative advance. A significant question for Labour will be how they respond to this movement and its challenges (a coalitional politics committed, as Hobsbawm advocates, to appealing to those “worried about law and order” would of course struggle with an effective meeting, and it is what Starmer appears to have decided to adopt). A judgement around these strengths and capacities and the efforts to find and also to make points of diversity, volatility and temporariness will be a significant basis of deciding whether there is a hope of pursuing a distinctively socialist strategy or whether we should trim our sails and accept a subordinate position for socialists and socialism in either version of the coalition.

MacQueen’s corrective to the view that there are similarities between the Labour leadership in the 1983 and 2019 election defeats, an observation which also bears on how to conceptualise the party’s direction under a new leadership, has significant implications too for how we might conceptualise the possibilities of either type of coalition (the small, labourist coalition or the big, progressive alliance coalition). Labour was led emphatically from its left in 2019 against significant parts of the Parliamentary Party. Equally, the result in the leadership contest suggests that significant numbers of supporters of the Corbyn leadership were not unambiguously committed to a socialist direction. Paradoxically, the programme Foot ran on in 1983 was both in significant ways to the left of Labour’s 2019 programme but did not represent the left of Labour. This means, firstly, the question of disunity as a factor in the election defeat has different implications – in 2019 we were undermined from the right, in 1983 there was a challenge from both the left and the right to the leadership leading to a particular sort of incoherence. Secondly, the fact the 2019 programme was at the leftwards edge of possibility – though also already entailed significant compromises in a largely forlorn effort to maintain unity from both the leadership and socialist members - means the unity implied by either coalition involves socialists giving up significantly more than 1983-4 would have. 1983’s position was relatively closer to what could have been made acceptable to the SDP/Alliance or the Labour right. What points of programmatic coherence are there between McDonnell or Corbyn, at the very least, or socialist members for whom joining Labour was already a compromise, and either or both Rachel Reeves or Ed Davey?

What points of programmatic coherence are there between McDonnell or Corbyn, at the very least, or socialist members for whom joining Labour was already a compromise, and Rachel Reeves or Ed Davey?

2020 is not 1984, it is necessary to attend to specific features of the conjunctural in order to learn from “Socialists and Coalitionists” but Williams’s text does retain a vitality and a capacity to teach. Part of this is due to the persistence of specifically political structures (strikingly in comparison to many Western European countries, England at least (unlike Scotland to a very considerable extent and Wales to a significant one) has not experienced a crisis of political parties. Not only does the two and a half party system persist but it is, essentially, the same two and a half parties) and part is in Williams capacity to respond and to analysis, including precisely that setting the organic and conjunctural in the right relationship.

Williams’s crucial innovation and clarification, one whose widespread acknowledgement would considerably improve current discussion of the progressive alliance, is the argument that if the argument is made on broadly electoralist terms it is an argument not between the advocates of no coalition and a coalition but between the advocates of two different sorts of coalition, the small, labourist coalition and the big, progressive alliance coalition. The argument that Labour is itself a coalition and that this is limiting was not new in Williams’s work, it was an argument he made in 1965’s “The British Left” (also published in Resources of Hope),

the fact that the Labour Party is a coalition has led to an evident poverty in theory: any attempt to go beyond quite general definitions leads at once to strains on this complicated alliance. The prospect of parliamentary power, within the existing political system, leads regularly to a muting of necessary arguments, and the needs of the Party, in parliamentary and electoral terms, are given a quite frequent priority over political principle. The prospect of power, in this constitutional way, leads to a strengthening of those already large elements in the Party who broadly accept the existing political and economic system and who, apart from substituting themselves for Conservatives as ministers, wish to make only comparatively minor reforms.6

To make the coalition even smaller, too, this is also an experience many of us will have encountered within Corbynism, leading to an unwillingness to push beyond the points of coherence in anti-austerity (but not necessarily anti-capitalist) and anti-war (but perhaps not anti-imperialist) politics. The fragilty of the labourist or even Corbynite coalition leads to structural subordination of socialists and socialism, as is very evident in the concessions to reaction and generally chiding tone adopted by Hobsbawm in his argument for either kind of coalition politics (as Williams says, Hobsbawm appears to prefer the labourist coalition, a broad church reliant broadly on the left keeping quiet and muting necessary arguments, to the bigger coalition but perhaps only because the bigger coalition is viewed as a less practical electoral fix). I suspect the often sourness of contemporary debates around the progressive alliance, particularly on twitter, is partially rooted in two denials, firstly a denial that Labour also is a coalition and one that current conditions entails a relatively similar subordination of socialists to the subordination of socialists involved in the progressive alliance – one lesson the leaked report tells us with regard to 2017 is that if the left do not accept subordination within Labour we will not be allowed to win – and secondly, a denial that in the absence of a serious challenge to those current conditions, one deeper and more extensive than we managed from 2015-19, the progressive alliance is probably a more electorally plausible strategy than an attempt to win by Labour alone (the implication of Williams’s argument is if the decision were only between a labourist coalition and a progressive alliance he would probably marginally prefer the progressive alliance).

The question of alliances is one of hegemony, therefore, as well as coherence. Not just what is the community of interest, on what points can agreement be found but who leads, who is able to cohere these forces. A coalition politics, of either stripe, almost by defintion under current conditions cannot be led by socialists. As Williams demonstrates agreement around programmes necessarily means much must be given up on the level of policy but Williams argues for a further a even more determining point, one rooted in the crucial thread that runs through all his work, that coalitional politics, at least coalitional politics determined by electoral expediency, necessarily marginalises not only socialist policies and commitments and leaders but socialism as a process.

Williams argues, rooted in the crucial thread that runs through all his work, that coalitional politics necessarily marginalises not only socialist policies and commitments but socialism as a process.

The insistence that socialism is a process not a state has been emphasised by many theorists and leaders from Marx himself, most notably in the “Critique of the Gotha Programme” to Álvaro García Linera but it is Williams who is perhaps the figure (or at least the man) on whom this claim and its implications are most deeply felt. In Williams socialism as a process is often expressed through metaphors of development, drawing on both the process of learning and a particular Romantic tradition, it is necessary to distinguish development in this sense as a total, slow, long revolutionary process, concerned with connectedness and receptive capacity as much as mere growth from development within economistic, stageist or Enlightenment conceptions. This conception of development and the total character of the process overlaps significantly with and was inspirational for a whole tradition of socialist feminist work, most explicitly Juliet Mitchell’s “Women: The Longest Revolution”.

The deep problem, therefore, with coalitional politics is not only what must be given up to cohere them but how the very process of alliance making sets limits on development. We see a version of this claim in “The British Left” and it comes to the fore at the end of “Socialists and Coalitionists”. As Williams argues, the process of democratisation of the Labour Party, “recently improved democratic structures” clashes with the needs of the big coalition, as the direction of a democratised Party is “continuously active, as distinct from manouevered coalition agreements between separate leaderships.” Negotiated agreements and compromises always rely upon certain fixings in place and stability and capacity of leaderships to command – who would agree to anything if the decision may be reversed by the base of the other side? However, whilst the democratisation of Labour allows for the coalitional process to be more active and public, in a substantially untransformed Party, the same coalitional imperatives and appeals for electoral unity “override this active process.”

Both coalitions are electoral fixes which presume that it is on this terrain that politics happens, they, consequently view as irrelevant, naïve or destructive all the necessary work of socialist development – “a radical reconstruction of all the main directions of policy in the light of the most open and informed contemporary socialist analysis” and persuasion,

the whole point of this new political direction would be the attempt, by informing and educating each other in the hard realities of the contemporary world, to launch the widest possible public process of reconsidering and (where necessary) changing every popular assumption, habit and attitude. Indeed the centre of this new politics would be a campaign to shift the popular ground on which we have in fact been defeated: not to adapt to it or to manoeuvre around it, but to go out and try to transform it.

Hobsbawm’s sneers, a typical reflex of the right at the left, are symptomatic here, “much the worst option is that proposed in some quarters of the Labour Left (or the ultra-left which has colonised the empty spaces in the organisations of the movement left by the withdrawal of the masses from the party). This is to establish a ‘correct’ position and wait for the British people to recognise how wrong they are in not agreeing with it. As for those who show their disagreement by voting with their feet or the ballot-papers, good riddance to bad rubbish”, as if this were the attitude of anyone on the left of Labour. The position, rather, has always been that people can be (though there are no guarantees) persuaded of a socialist position (and that people’s own knowledge and experience will shape what that position is). A significant point made in passing by Williams illuminates this and certain debates today, it is in his impatience at treating “current distributions of votes as if they were primary data from which the social and economic situation, or at least the main responses to it, can be inferred. There is a related habit of inventing social entities in the form of ‘the Labour vote’ or ‘Labour voters’ and so on.” One sees a similar, limited political sociology in the arguments of many advocating a progressive alliance, notably Paul Mason, if political identities are sticky and directly expressive of a social and economic situation or position (which is held to be relatively simple, not both over and under determined), then the work of politics is the work of cohering these identities, essentially through addition. If voting behaviour and political identities, are complex, inchoate responses to over and under determined situations and experiences then work of education and persuasion becomes possible – the politics of not trimming sails around electoral fixes but of an expansive and popular socialism becomes possible.

The movement beyond the alternative of two coalitions, both of which subordinate socialists and socialism is hard and there are no guarantees of success. The struggle as Williams suggests is not against the advocates of either position but against the political conditions that make either an attractive response. Its basis is in faith in popular capacities against those conditions. As Williams argued against certain sorts of Marxists in “Culture is Ordinary”, “when the Marxists say that we live in a dying culture, and that the masses are ignorant, I have to ask them, as I asked them then, where on earth they have lived. A dying culture, and ignorant masses, are not what I have known and see.”7 New politics begins both in the hurt and determination not to be defeated again, like we were in 2019 but also in the confidence in popular capacities to make situations more temporary and volatile than they might seem.


  1. For a more systematic and development argument for a progressive alliance see Gilbert’s Compass pamphlett, “The Progressive Alliance: Why Labour needs it” 

  2. Antonio Gramsci. [1929-35]. 1971. Selections from the Prison Notebooks. Edited and translated by Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell-Smith. London: Lawrence & Wishart/ p. 178. I should say large parts of this argument are influenced by thinking about Chris Green’s two texts for (this, the new) New Socialist, “Poor Gramsci” and “Learning Nothing Lessons from Thatcherism” and from conversations with him. 

  3. Raymond Williams, 1958, Culture and Society: Coleridge to Orwell. London: Hogarth Press. p. 309 

  4. See also the discussion in Dennis Dworkin. 1997. Cultural Marxism in Postwar Britain: History, The New Left and the Origin of Cultural Studies. London: Duke University Press. pp. 199-201 

  5. Raymond Williams. [1987]. 1989. “The Practice of Possibility”. In Resources of Hope. Edited by Robin Gable. London: Verso. p. 319 

  6. Raymond Williams. [1965]. 1989. “The British Left”, in Resources of Hope. p. 167 

  7. Raymond Williams. [1958]. 1989. “Culture is Ordinary”. In Resources of Hope. p. 34 


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Tom Gann (@Tom_Gann)

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