A towering figure of the British left, Raymond Williams is known for many achievements. These include his pioneering work on the social dimensions of language; a revaluation of canonical literature in Culture and Society that revealed its dissident underside; and his scrutiny of the historical exploitation and nostalgia that underlies the cosy myth of the English country house. All this is not to mention a variety of political and social commitments throughout Williams’ life ranging from a key role in the formation of the New Left to his tireless work in adult education.
But for Williams’ centenary, however, I’d like to highlight what is one of the most fascinating yet frequently under-acknowledged elements of his thought. In the last decade of his life, Williams turned his attention to utopia, addressing it both as a genre within the arts and an intriguing historical concept. Utopia’s ‘strongest centre’, Williams argued in his 1983 state-of-the-nation study Towards 2000, is ‘the conviction that people can live very differently, as distinct from having different things and from becoming resigned to endless crises and wars’. It’s a statement that seems like a beacon of a hope in our currently bleak times: a briefly resurgent left now once again on the backfoot in a world of pandemic, ecological collapse and the potential capitalist colonisation of space.
What led Williams to such a conclusion, given the scorn that is often poured on utopia from both left and right? Many socialists, including Marx and Engels themselves, have been keen to jettison wild utopian daydreams in their pursuit of credibility and political action; famously, they critiqued the early nineteenth century French thinker Charles Fourier for imagining a future of harmonious communes and lemonade seas without addressing how we might get there – in other words, the question of class struggle. Ever since the Cold War, meanwhile, we have been told that radical attempts to establish a more just society will inevitably lead to a 1984-style dystopia of concrete, conformity, and brutalised misery.
The answer lies in what might be called Williams’ more philosophical convictions about humanity itself. Williams can be thought of as a Marxist humanist; he desired political change based on the recognition that capitalism was not only economically unjust but also ultimately inadequate for a specifically human kind of self-fulfilment. In this, he shared the concerns of the broader New Left that he had helped foment. Williams’ recognition that capitalist hegemony, or ideological ‘common sense’, reaches the ‘fibres of the self’ reveal an understanding that dominant social systems must work at a biological level to be effective. Long before current research by neuroscientists and endocrinologists showed that devices like smartphones are rewiring us from the inside, leaving us in a confused state of anxiety and desire that is exploited by advertising and media propaganda, Williams was on to the complex interactions between market imperatives, technology, and the human body.
The flipside of this ironically dystopian-sounding argument is that Williams built on Marx’s theory of human ‘species being’ (Marx was a contemporary of Charles Darwin and read him with interest) to argue that we are simultaneously creative and social creatures. In capitalist society, our capacity for inventiveness, activity, and co-operation is exploited by the imperative to make a profit for someone else. Rarely is work a liberating, enjoyable, and fully sociable activity. Yet such a utopian future might be possible – because it’s in our nature. For Williams, hints of it occasionally appear in the arts and culture – a notion that has strongly informed my own existing work on post-punk and my current research on the 1960s and ’70s counterculture.
This emphasis on what humanity might actually be like in a biological and evolutionary sense is vital at a moment where a giddy but dangerous ‘post-humanism’ dominates our culture, imagining dizzying pliability at the expense of a solid foundation both for political action and the appropriate shape of a better society. Tellingly, post-humanism emerged from the late twentieth century wave of radical postmodern thought that often foolishly dismissed thinkers like Williams as archaic; yet it’s now a central plank of the work of influential far right intellectuals like Nick Land. The reasons why are too complex to explore here – but suffice it to say that there is more than a passing connection between post-humanism and the Right’s current direction of travel (Land has been an influence on Steve Bannon and Dominic Cummings alike).
Finally, another element of Williams’ utopian thought remains a valuable corrective not to the Right, but to a self-destructive tendency on today’s Left. According to cultural critic Andrew Milner, Williams had an all too rare concern with ‘the problem of how to establish democratic socialism as the political pre-condition for a common culture, rather than with the attempt to identify the specific content of any such culture’. In other words, he was wary of laying down the law too heavily about the precise details of how we should be living while we still remain trapped in a society in which true equality is impossible. This is a vital lesson for all those swept up in finger-pointing, competitive accusations of ‘problematic’ language or behaviour: utopia cannot simply be moralised into being. Only the hard collective graft of socialist endeavour may one day render something resembling utopia possible.