Raymond Williams was a Marxist cultural theorist, novelist, critic and socialist thinker. His writings encompass a wide range of literary and cultural studies and history. As a Marxist thinker, he made an important contribution to the Marxist tradition of literary theory but was reluctant to call himself a Marxist.
However, he considered himself a socialist. The chief feature of Williams’ theory is that his ideas are a translation of his practical involvement in political activities, not merely a result of his erudition.
Williams, in his early phase of writing, emphasized on ‘close reading’ of literary texts. Later on, his study rather moved towards cultural studies. Not that it was a departure from literature, Williams was still involved in literature through his fictional works.
Williams considered literature one amongst many cultural practices and rejected the idea that it is a privileged category. His other idea concerning literature is that literary work cannot be seen in isolation but rather be seen in the cultural context.
He even had a disregard for the term literature that he thought included privileged forms of writing under its purview with the exclusion of other forms of writing. His view was that ‘writing’ not ‘literature’ is the appropriate term that can encompass all forms of writings.
One of Williams’ major works is Culture and Society that studies the culture of the West. His Culture and Society (1958) is a departure from conventional ideas about culture. In this book, he nullifies the idea that culture is a result of material conditions.
His view is that cultural forms contribute to the development of society. This thought led him to coin the term ‘cultural materialism.’ This book dwells upon ideas of writers such as Edmund Burke, William Cobbett, William Blake, William Wordsworth, George Orwell, and others.
Though Williams was a theorist himself, he was never reluctant to point out the shortcomings of theory. He argued that rejection of history by theories such as formalism, structuralism, and post-structuralism is erroneous.
For him, the rejection of history is a rejection of the possibility of change. This stance makes him believe in human efforts that he thinks can change conditions of existence. In this sense, he was a Marxist humanist.
Williams advocated human agency and their role in history in the face of post-structuralism’s emphasis on ‘de-centering’ man. Many of his contemporaries believed that meanings and values were impossible.
On the other hand, Williams believed in man’s creative and constitutive faculty that, he views, can change his own creation of meanings and values. This stance of his speaks of possibility and openness and denies narrowed notions of theory.