1988: in an article for the New Statesman Jamaican-born cultural theorist Stuart Hall described Welsh literary scholar Raymond Williams as ‘the most formative intellectual influence on my life’ . It was published the year of Williams’ death, a month, in fact, after his passing. Hall, still fresh with the memory of his departed friend and ally, wrote the text as a celebration of Williams’ life. In concise and spirited prose he outlined the dynamic that had typified their friendship. It was, all told, a rare and enduring alliance of intellectual reciprocity and mentorship. Hall explained – though the Welshman spent his last years in the Essex market town of Saffron Walden – Williams’ intellectual, academic, and professional life, pre-1983, was divided between the eminent locales of Oxbridge. It was at one of these institutions that the men who would become architects and pioneers of British cultural studies first met.
Oxbridge, circa 1955: the influence of domineering literary critic F.R Leavis weighs heavy on the shoulders of those engaged in the study or teaching of English literature. Hall and a number of aspiring academics are ‘looking for a way out of the impasse of F.R. Leavis’s reading of English literary traditions’ . Here they encounter Williams who, between teaching an adult education programme at the university, is working on what would become his seminal text Culture and Society. An encounter with the group leads Williams to give Hall and his cohort early chapters of the book. They devour them. This exchange is the flashpoint; it marks the beginning of a shared intellectual trajectory between the two men that would, in the coming decades, range across and discover entirely new theoretical grounds. For an intelligent group of young men, eager to break ‘the great tradition’s’ deadlock on thinking, Culture and Society must have felt like an irresistible clarion call to action. Williams’ essential project was to overhaul entrenched intellectual tradition, to erode the distinction between high and low, elite and popular cultures, and to break down the barriers between modes of academic thought in literary criticism and sociology. Hall wrote of a lasting theoretical synchronicity between them. ‘I often had the uncanny feeling that we had stumbled unawares on to the same line of thinking’ he said. Culture and Society was the start of it.
1956, the 20th congress of the communist party of the USSR in Moscow: Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev booms ‘Comrades! The cult of the individual acquired such monstrous size chiefly because Stalin himself supported the glorification of his own person’ . The British reaction is swift. Many leave the Communist Party to form a New Left. Hall writes that this new organisation of leftist thinking was ‘founded around such books as […] Culture and Society’ . Fast forward to January 1960: the leftist magazines The New Reasoner and University & Left Review merge to form New Left Review, Hall is magazine editor and a conversation between Richard Hoggart (British author of another key New Left text entitled The Uses of Literacy) and Raymond Williams appears on page twenty six. What had been a disparate group of like-minded individuals is beginning to form around the magazine into a cadre of networked peers. In his opening observation Williams confesses to Hoggart ‘I’m glad that at last we’ve managed to meet. Since The Uses of Literacy and Culture and Society came out, many people have assumed that we knew each other well, though in fact I think it’s been no more than exchanging perhaps a dozen letters in the last twelve years, none of them, it seems, while the books were being written’ . In his inaugural editorial Hall sets out NLR’s agenda in plain, direct writing – ‘the humanist strengths of socialism […] must be developed in cultural and social terms, as well as economic and political. What we need now is a language sufficiently close to life – all aspects of it – to declare our discontent with “the same order” .
It is now summer 1990 and temperatures in Britain reach record highs: in volume 53 of October, an arts and culture journal founded in 1976 by New York critics Rosalind Krauss and Annette Michelson, Hall publishes a landmark essay titled ‘The Emergence of Cultural Studies and the Crisis of the Humanities’. It is two years since the death of his friend, but the spirit of Williams suffuses Hall’s text. The essay unfolds in broad historical strokes and the emergence of cultural studies is again tied to the work of Williams in Culture and Society and The Long Revolution. Despite hostility from the old guard, the 60s and 70s saw both men publishing extensively to reconfigure the landscape of what was thought possible in British academic institutions and society. So, from the historical vantage point of 1990, during the death rattle of Thatcher’s reign, seven years before Tony Blair ushered in the age of Cheshire-grinned spin, many things had changed and many things would stay the same. What remains consistent is the legacy of these two friends and forefathers of a new critical perspective. Theirs is a body of knowledge that continues to echo through the language of culture and society at large.