Thursday, August 21, 2008

From the LRB review of the new Raymond Williams biography

Perhaps Williams’s greatest achievement by 1961 was to have fashioned a form and idiom in which to combat the dominant cultural pessimism without ceding the moral high ground. What he identified as the ‘long revolution’ was a record of ‘actual growth’, of a liberation of human potential rather than a dilution of ‘standards’. As he put it in a never published conclusion to the book of that name (which Smith reproduces in full), ‘Everything that I understand of the history of the long revolution leads me to the belief that we are still in its early stages.’ That was an important thing to say in Britain in 1961; it’s still an important thing to say, especially if given a properly internationalist application. Part of the value of Smith’s painstaking account is that it shows that even Williams had to feel his way towards that conviction and towards the confident declarative terms in which it is expressed. Thereafter, he could easily sound too confident, too declarative, but, for all his later lapses into abstraction and pomposity, he was right about this central matter, impressively and inspiringly right. Claims that everything is going to the dogs all too often rest on the hidden supports of parochialism, snobbery, class insouciance and a wilful refusal of the intellectual effort required to try to draw up a more realistic balance sheet of gain and loss. Williams fought against those things all along the line.

-Stefan Collini

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