Along with E. P. Thompson, Raymond Williams stands as one of the most influential and respected British intellectuals of the 20th Century. And like Thompson, a significant part of his work involved an analysis and excavation of the political, cultural and spatial politics of Britain during the Industrial Revolution. He was also one of the most prolific critical theorists in Britain, with more than 750,000 copies of various books and essays published.
He was born near Abergavenny, Wales, Williams was the son of a railway worker in a village where all of the railwaymen voted Labour while the local small farmers mostly voted Liberal. It was not a Welsh-speaking area - he described it as 'Anglicised in the 1840s' (Politics and Letters, 1979). There was, however, a strong Welsh identity. "There is the joke that someone says his family came over with the Normans and we reply: 'Are you liking it here?'".
He attended Grammar School in Abergavenny though his teenage years coincided with the rise of Nazism and the threat of war. He was 14 when the Spanish Civil War broke out, and like Chomsky , was very conscious of what was happening. At this time he was supporter of the League of Nations, attending a League-organised youth conference in Geneva. On the way back, his group visited Paris and he went to the Soviet pavilion at the International Exhibition. There he bought a copy of The Communist Manifesto and read Marx for the first time.
He went to Trinity College, Cambridge, but his education was interrupted by war service. He joined the British Communist Party while at Cambridge. Along with Eric Hobsbawm, he was given the task of writing a Communist Party pamphlet about the Russo-Finnish War. He says in (Politics and Letters) that they "were given the job as people who could write quickly, from historical materials supplied for us. You were often in there writing about topics you did not know very much about, as a professional with words." No copies of this work seem to have survived. At the time, the British government was keen to support Finland in its war against the Soviet Union, while still being at war with Nazi Germany.
In the winter of 1940, he decided that he should join the British Army. This was against the Party line at the time, though in fact he stayed at Cambridge to take his exams in June 1941, the same month that Germany invaded Russia. As he describes it, his membership lapsed, without him ever formally resigning.
At the time he joined the army, it was normal for undergraduates to be directed into the signal corps. He received some initial training, but was then switched to artillery and anti-tank weapons. He was seen as 'officer material' and served as an officer in the Anti-Tank Regiment of the Guards Armoured Division, 1941-1945, being sent into the early fighting in Normandy after D Day. In Politics and Letters he says "I don't think the intricate chaos of that Normandy fighting has ever been recorded". He commanded a unit of four tanks and mentions losing touch with two of them during fighting against SS Panzer forces; he never discovered what happened to them, because there was then a withdrawal.
He was part of the fighting from Normandy in 1944 through to Germany in 1945, where he was involved with the liberation of one of the smaller concentration camps, which was afterwards used to detain SS officers. He was also shocked to find that Hamburg had suffered saturation bombing, not just of military targets and docks as they had been told.
He received his M.A. from Trinity in 1946 and then served as a tutor in adult education at the University of Oxford for several years.He made his reputation with Culture and Society, published in 1958 and an immediate success. This was followed in 1961 by The Long Revolution. Here, in Chapter 3: "The Growth of the Popular Press") he anticipated by thirty years the later excavations by Chomsky (in Manufacturing Consent). Williams provides an exhaustive analysis of costs, circulation figures and industrial growth in the British newspaper industry from 1665 to the present, showing their revolutionary intent and potential and their subversion by the industrial/capitalist complex. The book ranges also through the myriad fields of British culture, interrogating Language ("The Growth of "Standard" English"), Education ("Education and British Society"), and Literature ("The Social History of English Writers") - preparing the ground for others like Terry Eagleton to cultivate. Here, for the first time, he also problematises the notion of "culture" itself ("The Analysis of Culture"). His interrogation of the print media was expanded in 1962 into an even more prescient and Chomskian analysis in his Communications. Here, he carries out a systematic step-by-step analysis of the history and content of newspapers by both quantity and quality - critically appraising how they deal with controversy and how they go about the business of establishing and maintaining hegemony.
Williams' writings were taken up by theNew Left and given a very wide readership. He was also well-known as a regular book reviewer for the Manchester Guardian newspaper (before it moved to London and became Establishment). His years in adult education were an important experience and on the strength of his books, Williams was invited to return to Cambridge in 1961, eventually becoming Professor of Drama there (1974 - 1983). He was Visiting Professor of Political Science at Stanford University in 1973, an experience that he used to good effect in his still useful book Television: Technology and Cultural Form (1974). A committed socialist, he was greatly interested in the relationships between language, literature, and society and published many books, essays and articles on these and other issues. Among the most important is The City and the Country (1973), in which chapters about literature alternate with chapters of social history. It is here, in particular, that his work closely echoes that of E. P. Thompson. His writing is passionate, clear and scathing about the impact of the Enclosures and of the subsequrent const5ruction of the many grran houses that were consequentially impposedupon what had once been common land, shared by the ordinary peasants for centuries:
“Some of them had been there for centuries, visible triumphs over the ruin and labour of others. But the extraordinary phase of extension, rebuilding and enlarging which occurred in the 18th century, represents a spectacular increase in the rate of exploitation, a good deal of it, of course, the profit of trade and of colonial exploitation; much of it, however, the higher surplus value of a new and more efficient mode of production. It is fashionable to admire these extraordinarily numerous houses: the extended manors, the neo-classical mansions, that lie so close to rural Britain. People still pass from village to village, guidebook in hand, to see the next and yet the next example, to look at the stones and the furniture. But stand at any point and look at that land. Look at what those fields, those streams, those woods even today produce. Think it through as labour and see how long and sys¬tematic the exploitation and seizure must have been, to rear that many houses on that scale... What these ‘great’ houses do is to break the scale, by an act of will corresponding to their real and systematic exploitation of others. For look at the sites, the façades, the defining avenues and walls, the great iron gates and the guardian lodges. These were chosen for more than their effect from the inside out... they were chosen, also, you now see, for the other effect, from the outside looking in: a visible stamping of power, of displayed wealth and command: a social disproportion which was meant to impress and overawe. Much of the real profit of a more modern agriculture went not into productive investment, but into that explicit social declaration: a mutually competitive but still uniform exposition, at every turn, of an established and commanding class power."
As his writing matured and developed, his interest in hegemony also grew. He became fascinated by meaning - by how language and meaning are transformed by social, political and economic structures and changes. This led him to write Keywords (1976) -an exploration of the actual language of cultural transformation. Neither a defining dictionary nor a specialist glossary, it is a record of an enquyiry into a vocabulary: a shared body of words and meanings concerned with the practices and institutions described as "culture" and "society". He charts the historical changes to key meanings in key words that help to shape our understandinng of life and society.
His tightly written Marxism and Literature (1977) is mainly for specialists, but it also sets out his own approach to cultural studies, which he called cultural materialism. This book was in part a response to "structuralism" in literary studies and pressure on Williams to make a more theoretical statement of his own position against criticisms that it was a humanist Marxism, based on unexamined assumptions about lived experience. In his later Problems in Materialism and Culture (1980) he tackles the central problematic of Marxist revisionism head on. His essay "Base and Superstructure in Marxist Cultural Theory" is an attempt to counter (like Thompson) the structural Marxism of Althusser. For the first time, Williams makes considerable use of the ideas of Antonio Gramsci. Williams was also interested in the work of Pierre Bourdieu . His book Culture (also published under the title The Sociology of Culture 1981/1982), also further develops some key arguments, especially about aesthetics, and finally, his The Politics of Modernism, (published posthumously in 1989) places him firmly at the critical intersection with Postmodernism. Here, his "When Was Modernism?" poses a crucial question which situates the critical theorising in its social, economic and political context. He shifts the terms of the Modernism-Postmodernism debate from formal analysis to an analysis of social formations (much in line with his prior Sociology of Culture). He questions the role and status of the avant-garde in society and asks what might be meant by a cultural theory "beyond the modern" which avoids the pitfalls of much postmodernism and examines the implications of both modernism and the avant-garde for socialist-political organisation.
Raymond Williams started out writing of the 15th and 16th Centuries and ended up writing about today and our own dilemmas. Williams can accurately be called the grandfather of British Cultural Studies and laid the foundations in his work for the later developments in that field by Stuart Hall and others at Birmingham.