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A welfare culture?

It is time to think again. An older phase of capitalism has ended. A received culture of class has declined with it, disarticulated by new forms of industrial organization, a transformed information economy, and changed
patterns of consumption and recreation. The right has thematized these developments and prospered from them,
as successive Conservative electoral victories demonstrate. The left has been slow to respond in anything like an effective contemporary spirit; but here too, now, there is potentialfor change. A new generation of Labour leaders, alert to the social novelties of the period and unwilling to bear another parliamentary season in exile, is proposing bold revisions of the party’s programme; communism, which twenty years ago bewitched a whole radical generation, is surely finished.

The left can make a new start. It is the 1990s. Or it is the 1950s. The comparison is of course selective, deliberately overdrawn; no one will confuse the two periods. Yet the objective resemblances are close enough to be perhaps interesting. Can the
familiar terms of a certain style of left-intellectual annunciation so fully replicate that of an earlier time and yet be lucid, or even self-consistent? A second-hand apocalypse is a poor revelation. Or, if the similarities really do run deep enough to justify the echoes, may it not be that the concerns of the fifties are more actual than they are conventionally thought to be? The intellectual left, above all in those densely populated quarters where cultural analysis goes on, habitually thinks of the fifties as a cradle, a thing well remembered but hardly suited to the purposes oflater years. The founding texts of socialist cultural theory in Britain are just that: enablers of a certain history, not actors in it. But there may be critical value in anachronism, in returning to the period as if without the knowledge of what followed, to remember afresh the terms of its arguments as they emerged, to consider whether they may not have retained – perhaps regained? – a certain value for the present. What follows here is a contribution to such a project.

After 1945: welfare liberalism

It has been claimed that effective political victory in 1945 went not to Labour but to liberalism, in its generic postclassical form. Drawn into an early contest by an overconfident Churchill, Labour acceded to office through a slump in the Conservative vote and went on to implement a social programme that had been designed largely by reformers in Westminster’s senior parties. A parallel claim may be pressed more strongly in respect of cultural policy after 1945.

Post-elementary state education was made available to all, and compulsory to the age of fifteen; merit rather than money determined access to the upper echelon of the new tripartite system, the grammar school. Higher education expanded rapidly in the early postwar years, though from a tiny demographic base. Radio, continuing as a public monopoly, expanded and diversified its programming, but again – like education – on strict hierarchical assumptions. Access to television viewing widened dramatically, though without prejudice to Reithian paternalism. The licensing of commercial television in the middle fifties caused widespread foreboding, but in fact the new service was subject to significant public-service constraints. A governmentfunded council was created, succeeding the wartime CEMA, to support the arts and promote wider interest in them. And in the bookshops, the shelves turned orange and blue, the colours of Penguin and the mark of cultural quality as bestowed by Allen Lane, a more affable, more radical Reith of the printed word. 2 Of course, pure commerce too was active in every paper shop and cinema; but in the old and new centres of cultural policy, a common formula had been set in place. A minority culture, received and continuing, would be diffused to an ever-widening audience. All the terms of this summary should be noted. The expansion was real; but there was no fundamental questioning of what counted as cultural value or of the proper forms of cultural participation.

Self-confirming traditions would now be unveiled for a deserving population. Culture – ‘the best that is known
and thought in the world’, ‘sweetness and light’, in Arnold’s famous gloss – would now, literally, be broadcast.

The formula governing this emerging world of policy and practice was a Victorian bequest; its classic exponent
was Arnold. In its mid-century applications, it was to a great extent the achievement of the two salient tendencies in liberal minority culture between the wars: the Bloomsbury circle and the group around F.R. Leavis and Scrutiny. It has been usual in retrospective commentary, as it was at the time, to stress the contrasts between the two formations. Bloomsbury was an upper-middle-class bohemia, a congeries of families and friends whose unity and security in the face of commercial pressure and ancestral philistinism were sustained by private money.

Scrutiny was proudly petty bourgeois, hostile to all metropolitan ornament and hereditary presumption, the self-conscious vanguard of a ‘critical minority’ that sought nothing but – and nothing less than – the recognition due to unaided intelligence. However, these social-stylistic differences were variants of a shared liberal formula, which both helped to promote after the war. John Maynard Keynes was not only the pioneering
theorist of the new macro-economic policy; he also founded the Arts Council. Bloomsbury’s free-thinking
modernism was hardly consonant with Lord Reith’ s cultural preferences, yet that ‘civilized’ manner
eventually lightened his own puritan tone in the BBC, just as it also became standard in the formerly
‘middlebrow’ cultural and recreational pages of the polite press. Scrutiny’s insistence on careers open to
talent appeared to find some acknowledgement in the weakening of class privilege in education – where, at the
same time, Leavisian accents were more and more widely heard. The new styles of cultural seriousness, in
education and in the media, were essentially generalizations, named or not, from these interwar
models.

Two counterpointed sequences patterned the new period. On the one hand there were expansionary trends:

a significant system of welfare, rising working-class confidence and spending-power, enhanced public
cultural provision, and, together with these, intensified cultivation of consumer-goods markets, including, very
prominently, strictly commercial cultural enterprise.

However, these trends developed within a contrary historical tendency: Britain’s long relative decline as a
capitalist power continued, and was now invested with a special politico-cultural pathos by the postwar retreat
from colonialism, the loss and symbolic redemption of Empire in the Commonwealth. ‘Progress’ was the

officially favoured gloss on this configuration of change,
and, in the ordinary terms of liberal politics and culture,
the word was not inapt. But, looking back from beyond
the seventies and eighties, we can see the decade after
1945 as the formative moment of an abiding crisis. The
re-balancing of existing class relations in a caste-ridden
society and a declining economy, the seeding of new
black communities through reverse migration from the
colonies, and, pervading all things, the scarcely articulate
faltering of Anglo-Britishness as a self-evident identity
and mark of precedence: these familiar pretexts of the
late-twentieth-century reaction against consensual
liberalism were shaped together within a short historical
span.

TWEITYDIE··
LANDSLIDE TO LABOUR
ATTLEE ONE OF POTSDAM BIG THREE

Indeed, amid all the signs of liberal paramountcy, the
liberal intelligentsia itself was not free of discontent.

Cultural life had become narrower and meaner since the
war, according to one Bloomsbury survivor. The
twenties and thirties had been bohemian and
cosmopolitan; the fifties were provincial and earnest,
their tone set by ‘lower-middlebrows’ who approached
the arts in the spirit of sanitary engineers. 3 Among a
younger generation inspired by Leavis, there were those
who would have smiled at this caricature of themselves,
who affirmed that their kind of intellectual was now
poised to take possession of the heritage. 4 But others of
them were disturbed by postwar Britain (or England, as
they would more typically say). Scrutiny itself, now
closed, had recoiled from the approach of educational
reform; Leavis himself could see only further

27

deterioration, the nearing extinction of English minority
culture. The official vaunting of liberal nostrums, in the
heyday of Encounter and the Congress for Cultural
Freedom, intensified the air of paradox, as the highbrow
passions of the thirties became the good sense of the
fifties. Assimilation as rejection, advance as continuing
decline, intellectual freedom as voluntary conformism:

these apprehensions were voiced by both kinds of liberal
intellectual as they contemplated their given place in the
incustomary social landscape of postwar Britain.

Among conservative intellectuals, there was
unequivocal resistance to the prospect of a diffusionist
welfare culture. The best-known initiative from this
quarter was T.S. Eliot’s Notes Towards the Definition of
Culture, a Burkean defence of customary inequality in
intellectual life and education. 5 But had that book been
signed by anyone other than the canonized master of the
new English poetic, it would have passed more or less
unnoticed. Those minority liberals, like Leavis, who
raged against the unheroic fulfilment of their desires were
isolated as cranks. 6 For now, and for most, liberalism
was an ecumenical, not a sectarian rite; in effect, an
established church – the unsaid, often enough the
unthought, of intellectual initiative and exchange.

Hoggart and the abuses of literacy
In the middle 1940s, when Notes Towards the Definition
of Culture was written, Eliot’s sense of English popular
culture was already anachronistic. His vision of the
English everyday – the famous montage of boating,
Elgar, cabbage and the rest – was as if a reprise of his
own earliest impressions, one expatriate American’s
version of pastoral. By the turn of the 1960s, when he
reissued the book without alteration, the loss of reality
was complete. Between the first and second editions of
Notes, the cultural universe of the social majority had
been extensively reordered, in part by those ominous
education reforms and an associated widening of cultural
opportunity, and in greater part through the ever more
vigorous commercial traffic in words and images.

‘Classless’ was the widely promoted description of a
process in which the inherited signs of cultural caste were
displaced in the mock-popular interest of the commercial
optimum, or were themselves commodified as style and
spectacle. Converging with marketing strategies in this,
public policy sponsored a vision of classlessness through equality of opportunity – but, precisely in doing
so, instated the working class as a real cultural presence
and topic. Among the effects of these cooperating
tendencies was the emergence of a new minority in
British intellectual life, a scattering of writers and artists
of working-class origin, who now moved into the

28

approved spaces of cultural production, there to assert or
explore the values and prospects ofthe half-known, halfacknowledged social world from which they had come
and to which, more often than not, they remained
committed.

One of these was Richard Hoggart. Born into the
Leeds working class at the end of the First World War,
Hoggart made his way through a local grammar school
and thence to the university, graduating in English
Literature on the eve of the Second. After wartime
service, he joined the Department of Adult Education at
Hull University, from which he worked as a tutor until
the end of the fifties. Hoggart’s first book was a
conventional work of literary criticism: W.H. Auden.

However, he was also writing short sketches of workingclass life for the Labour left weekly Tribune, where T.R.

Fyvel had succeeded George Orwell as literary editor.

And by the beginning of the 1950s, he was clarifying the
terms of another kind of project, ‘a new and natural
extension’ , as he later described it, of ‘the true stream of
English studies’ into the landscape of contemporary
culture. 7
His critical point of reference was Q.D. Leavis’s
Fiction and the Reading Public (1932), the founding text
of Scrutiny’s cultural diagnostics. Twenty years on,
Hoggart proposed ‘a sort of guide or textbook to aspects
of popular culture’ that would make good the unfulfilled
promise of Leavis’s title by integrating the critical s!udy
of texts within an analysis of the already-formed culture
of their readers: ‘one had to know very much more about

The.

USES OF

Literacy
ASPECTS OF
Lt FE
wt’th special relenmce
to /mblicatioJl::; f1Ild

~VORKl,:Y(;·CLASS

f}1l[J;rtflinmfltlts

Richard Hoggart

how people used much of the stuff which to us might
seem merely dismissible trash, before one could speak
confidently about the effects it might have.’8 The work,
whose precise focus would be the impact of massmarketed cultural forms on the inherited ethos of the
working class, was to be called The Abuses of Literacy.

The book eventually published in 1957 differed
significantly from its early design. The title was shorn of
its provocative first syllable, in an attempt to mollify a
publisher fearful of crushing litigation; and for the same
reason, Hoggart was obliged to pastiche much of his
printed evidence rather than quote it. But the major
change was structural. The original analytic scheme
furnished only half of The Uses of Literacy, its second
part, which was now preceded by a long, hybrid
discourse – part autobiography and memoir, part
exemplary fiction, part social phenomenology – on
working-class life between the wars, offered as the
necessary context for the analysis of popular culture in
the fifties.

It was this reflection on ‘an “older” order’ that gave
the book its tone, distinguishing it very clearly from its
Leavisian antecedent – and also from a left-wing
inspiration like Orwell. Hoggart wrote here with the
assurance and feeling of one who had come from the
world he described, with an unflagging consciousness of
Britain’s class order and his own dislocated relation to it.

He was, in his own later words, ‘a once-born socialist’

immovably committed to the welfare of his native class. 9
The contemporary cultural materials that he went on to
dissect – the glossy magazines, the pulp fiction, the
popular song lyrics – did not express the traditional ethos
of this class and did not (yet) define it, he argued. The
populism of the cultural market was an ‘approach’ from
the outside, exploiting inherited strengths and
weaknesses alike, threatening to reduce its working-class
audience to a demoralized lower caste; it was a kind of
spiritual ‘robbery’.

However, altered social sensibility and political
alignment did not undermine discursive continuity.

Hoggart’s evaluative idiom was saturated with
Scrutiny’s clinical metaphorics of health and
sickness, vigour and debility. His writing was at times
quite possessed by the spirit of the Leavises:

The hedonistic but passive barbarian who rides in
a fifty-horse-power bus for threepence, to see a
five-million-dollar film for one-and-eightpence, is
not simply a social oddity; he is a portent. 10
His closing remarks read like an oath of allegiance: here
was one individual’s ‘contribution to a much wider
discussion, a single diagnosis offered for scrutiny’ .11

Working-class welfare: culture or
civilization?

Hoggart professedly saw The Uses of Literacy as
disjunct, and has remained unmoved by those who have
read it as a single composition. 12 But it is just here, in the
forms of the book seen as a whole, that his discursive
affiliation is more strongly registered. The dominant
mode of the work is narrative; the story it tells is of
decline already far gone and perhaps unarrestable. The
contrast that emerges in his account is not simply
between two periods in the life of working-class Leeds.

His story begins with an evocation of his country-born
grandmother, with her customary know ledges and skills,
then remembers two generations of native city-dwellers,
and turns finally to observe the life-patterns of a fourth
generation, the working-class young of the early 1950s.

Hoggart was aware of the temptation to nostalgia, and
tried repeatedly to check it. But his qualifications were
too punctually stated, too evidently concessionary in
their acknowledgement of an improved material
existence, to remake what was a canonical narrative of
the descent from rural tradition into urban-industrial
anomie.

The two-part organization of the text recalls Orwell’s
The Road to Wigan Pier, and its suasive gesture is of the
same kind, though potentially more effective. In both
cases, a record of experience purports to validate a
critical analysis: because I have known this life, the tacit
reasoning goes, I may reliably make this judgement. Yet
the truth must be otherwise. Memory is a construction of
the past, and in Hoggart’s descriptions (as in Orwell’s)
there was much that was already familiar from literary
characterology. In practice, Hoggart’s writing appealed
to a quite different kind of moral authority, as was evident
in its strategy of quotation. The text draws heavily on
working-class idiom, and on the actual or mimicked
words of commercial culture. These are clearly marked,
by punctuation or typography, as evidence for analysis;
they might be termed object-quotations. At the same
time, the text avails itself of another kind of citation,
which is granted a different status. These are the
epigraphs that introduce his own words, and the many
phrases that occur with little or no formal marking,
woven into the syntax of his own discourse as elements
of itself. They are, in contrast, subject-quotations.

Assembled as resources for Hoggart’ s own prose, Locke,
Tocqueville, Arnold, Gorky, Benda, Auden, Forster,
Lawrence, Yeats and others form a veritable chorus of
wisdom and insight. Theirs is the true authority of the
book, the collective voice of culture raised against a
wayward civilization.

This conceptual binary, familiar from more than a

29

century of English cultural criticism, governed the vision
of The Uses of Literacy and accounted for its most
significant absence: the record of working-class selforganization in politics, work and education. Hoggart’s
disarming explanation for the omission was that these
were the interests of a small, ‘earnest’ minority untypical
of their class. This, coming from an active Labour Party
member and WEA tutor, was hardly compelling. A
stronger, though not more sympathetic explanation
would cite the spontaneous perceptual effect of the
convention that framed his analysis. Cultural criticism,
in the strict sense I invoke here, is not one specialism
among others; it proposes a certain understanding of
society as a whole. The binary culture/civilization
classifies all social tissue as either quality or quantity,
purpose or mechanism, end or means. And the logical
effect of this construction is to render politics
unintelligible as a meaningful social activity; rarefied as
‘values’ or banalized as practical administration, its
specificity is lost. Working-class political activists are
no smaller a minority than the far less class-typical
bourgeois novelist. If the one seemed so obviously less
meaningful than the other, it was because in Hoggart’s
received scheme of analysis, politics as such was a
secondary moral reality.

‘Labour Leavisism’ would be one summary of
Hoggart’s distinctively bifocal cultural vision. Yet he
was both politically less demonstrative and culturally
less desperate than these categories suggest. A moment’s
reflection on his subsequent work prompts a more exact
characterization. Throughout his career – in the Arts
Council and UNESCO as well as in public education Hoggart thought to serve his class of origin as a
Kulturtriiger, and to serve culture through the ‘practical
criticism’ of policy and administration. (Fifty years after
the founding enactments of welfare Britain, he continues
to believe that his people, as he thinks of them, are being
robbed.) His model institutions, the three volumes of his
memoirs confirm, were adult education, the BBC and
Penguin Books. Hoggart’s specific novelty was to renew,
in modified social conditions, the liberal tradition of the
public-service intellectual. In him, the postwar British
Labour movement found its own Matthew Arnold.

After 1956: a new Left
Between the writing of The Uses of Literacy and its
publication came 1956, a year of shocks and portents that
confounded the settled imagination of British politics and
culture and unveiled the shapes of domestic and
international relations after reconstruction. The Suez
fiasco dramatized the predicament of an imperial ruling
caste that could neither check its hereditary arrogance in

30

the face of anti-colonial revolution nor readily accept its
subaltern standing in an international capitalist order now
dominated by the USA. Popular revulsion from the
Anglo-French adventure was one sign that, at home as
much as abroad, old political nostrums were losing their
potency; and the scandalous cultural successes of the
year – Colin Wilson’s The Outsider, John Osborne’s
Look Back in Anger and the film Rock Around the Clock
– gave early warning of new collective sensibilities in
the making. 1956 was also a year of crisis for the Left.

Opening with Khrushchev’s post-mortem denunciation
of Stalin’s rule, it ended, in bloody irony, with the
crushing of the Hungarian revolt by Red Army tanks.

The effect of these revelations in word and deed was
convulsive, throughout the communist movement. The
British party lost one-fifth of its members, as some 7,000
militants, including a disproportionate number of
intellectuals, resigned or were driven out.

It was possible to see in this constellation the hand of
liberal progress: the passing of Empire, the advent of
welfare and affluence, the Cold War adversary
chastened, contained and discredited. In another
perspective it signified complacency and exhaustion in a
time of discoverable hope and shadowing danger.

Intellectual disaffection mounted in the later fifties:

academics, novelists, playwrights and publishers
collaborated in terse collective interventions like
Declaration (1957), Conviction (1958), The Establishment (1959); The Glittering Coffin (1960) was Dennis
Potter’s scabrous figure for Macmillan’s Britain. In the
Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, launched shortly
after the Suez affair, these and broader currents of dissent
found more challenging means of expression. Within this
array of dissident forces, the clearest and most radical
voices were those of the intellectual tendencies now
converging in what soon came to be called ‘the New
Left’ .

Two journals, both founded in 1957, formed the
intellectual nuclei of the New Left. The New Reasoner
was edited from the North of England by two exCommunist historians, John Saville and Edward
Thompson; having begun as an irregular oppositional
organ within the party in direct response to Khrushchev’ s
revelations, the journal was dedicated to the moral
renewal of communism in ‘socialist humanism’. ExCommunists also featured among the editors and
collaborators of Universities and Left Review, and the
theme of a post-Stalinist socialist humanism was
reiterated there. However, the more emphatic concern of
the journal, which emerged from a group of Oxford
students, was to elaborate an analysis and a programme
that would supersede not only orthodox Communism but

Labourism as well, a thoroughgoing socialist critique of
contemporary, welfare-capitalist Britain. 13 A new Left
for a new historical situation: this was ULR’s distinctive
appreciation of the intellectual challenge facing socialists
after 1956. ‘The New Conservatism’ and Britain’s
modified class relations in a period of expanding social
provision and imperial decline were the subject of Stuart
Hall’s opening contribution to this analytic agenda. This
was followed, in the second issue, by a symposium on
working-class culture occasioned by the newly published
Uses of Literacy.

more tellingly for that, made two fundamental
objections. In present conditions, he insisted, ‘workingclass materialism’ must be defended as a ‘humane’ value.

And Hoggart was mistaken in excluding working-class
activism as a ‘minority’ case, in effect relegating the
culture of specialized class representatives to the status
of social eccentricity. This minority, as he would later
maintain in a recorded conversation with Hoggart,
inherited and sustained a general history of struggle for
democracy, trade unions and socialism – ‘the high
working-class tradition’. 17 The implication of these
remarks was far-reaching: in reclaiming material desire
as a moral good and politics as a ‘high tradition’,
Williams was not simply adjusting the balance of
Hoggart’s analysis; he was disorganizing its basic terms,
the binaries that framed it, and so intimating the
possibility of an alternative way of seeing, beyond the
perceptual scheme of liberal cultural criticism.

Williams: beyond culture-and-society
Williams closely resembled Hoggart in his origins and
career trajectory. A few years younger, Williams too had
been born into a working-class family, risen through a
local grammar school to study English at university,
served in the army during the war, then gone to work in
adult education, where he combined his ordinary duties
with various independent writing and publishing

It is instructive to be reminded, nearly forty years

later, just how critically Hoggart’s classic was received
in the New Left’s leading forum. The editors’ opening
question was courteous but incisive:

projects. However, the differences of form~tion were at
least as significant. Williams’s family was actively
socialist. Whereas Hoggart came from an urban English
working class, Williams’s early years were spent in the
mixed-class environment of a Welsh village. Hoggart
completed his formal education in his home town, where
his left-wing convictions developed without assuming
definite programmatic form. Williams, in contrast,
crossed the national and social border to Cambridge,
where, as he later recalled, the Communist Party and the

Would a direct account in terms of readership
reaction differ from Hoggart’s content-analysis of
the publications themselves?14
John McLeish likened the book’s protagonist to ‘a
visiting anthropologist of a behaviourist persuasion’ .15
The common, though unspoken, suggestion of these
remarks was reinforced a contrario by a Welsh
contributor, Gwyn Illtyd Lewis, who shared Hoggart’s
apprehensions of ‘commercial devitalization’ in the
English-speaking population: 16 The Uses of Literacy in
practice reanimated the critical discourse it offered to
supersede, inflecting but not displacing the conventions
of Leavisian cultural analysis. Raymond Williams, in the
opening contribution to the symposium, saluted
Hoggart’s ‘deep loyalty to his own people’, but then, the

University Socialist Club provided the staples of his
intellectual life. These variations on an apparently
common biographical scheme formed two quite different
politico-cultural sensibilities: in the one case a congenital
class tenderness sustaining allegiance to the dominant
traditions of British labourism; in the other, a more
radical and more consequent political training combined
with an egalitarian self-possession conceding nothing to
the deep fatalism of England’s culture of class.

Formed once in the confident Communist subculture
of the late 1930s, Williams underwent a difficult,
protracted re-formation in the altered conditions he found
upon returning to complete his studies in 1945. Although
still a communist, he was now outside the party,
distrustful of its official publicity and unimpressed by its

31

cultural orientation. 18 The red network of his first
Cambridge period had collapsed, and the student
socialists with whom he now sought constructive
engagement took their cultural bearings from Leavis. The
immediate outcome of these new associations was the
short-lived journal Politics and Letters, which, together
with its sibling, The Critic, explored an alliance of
independent socialist politics with literary-cultural
themes familiar from Scrutiny. This initiative has been
mourned as the lost British counterpart of Sartre’s Les
Temps Modernes, but it is difficult to imagine that
unrealized future. 19 Politics and Letters – the broken
register of the title was sign enough – was the expression
of a certain intellectual crisis, not a coherent intervention
in it, and would have ended in confusion had not
circumstantial difficulties foreclosed its development.

The ground of this crisis, as Williams began to
understand it, was the meaning of ‘culture’ itself, and ‘a
long line of thinking about culture’ that had been
‘appropriat[ed] … to what were by now decisively
reactionary positions’ .20

fundamental breaks where there was the strongest
evidence of continuity (William Morris) and continuity
where there was the most vigorous proclamation of a new
departure (in the Marxism of the thirties). In a long
concluding chapter, he synopsized the meaning of this
complex, unfinished history, and situated himself within

Out of this perception, which had begun to form as a
response to the Cambridge Leavisians and then been
clarified with the appearance of Eliot’s Notes, came the
inquiry that led, over the next eight years, to Culture and
Society.21 If the founding motive of the book was
political, its critical strategy was, crucially, historical.

Yet they ‘define … a common field’ and subserve,
apparently, a common purpose: ‘The working-out of the
idea of culture is a slow reach again for control. ’23
Formulations like this, abstract in reference and

The idea of culture, as a privileged term of evaluation,
had emerged during the industrial revolution, Williams
argued, and must then be understood as a critical actor in
the remaking of social meanings that attended it. In order
to undo the moral spell of ‘culture’, it would be necessary
to retrace the process of its formation:

For what I see in the history of this word, in its
structure of meanings, is a wide and general
movement in thought and feeling. … I wish to
show the emergence of culture as an abstraction
and an absolute … 22
– as a separate and higher social sphere, from which
final moral judgement might be given and something of
a moral alternative sustained.

Organized as a long sequence of author-specific
analyses, Culture and Society was in substance the
history of a discourse, its formation, variation and
transmutation. Over the ISO-year span from Burke to
Leavis, it analysed the progressive rarefaction of culture,
the defence of a whole and present social order
narrowing, in stages, to the lament for an irrecoverable
past and the desperate self-assertion of a specialized
minority as the only sure trustees of an unattainable
general spiritual welfare. Williams identified

32

it:

The idea of culture is a general reaction to a general
and major change in the conditions of our common
life. Its basic element is its effort at total qualitative
assessment. … General change, when it has worked
itself clear, drives us back on our general designs,
which we have to learn to look at again, and as a
whole.

The meanings of ‘culture’ were not unequivocal:

The word … cannot automatically be pressed into
service as any kind of social directive …. The
arguments which can be grouped under its heading
do not point to any inevitable action or affiliation.

seemingly inclusive in address, were themselves less
than unequivocal. Culture and Society was evidently a
statement from the Left, yet it was unclear what specific .

intellectual and political orientations it sponsored. The
most influential interpretation, at first offered
affirmatively and, since the early seventies, more often
stated as a charge, was that the book proposed a moral
refoundation of socialism in the tradition of English
cultural humanism; that it was, in a phrase that became
routine, a ‘left-Leavisite’ alternative to the ruin of
Stalinized Marxism. 24 A less-well-known interpretation
agreed that constructive continuity was Williams’s deep
theme, but argued that his intervention was for just that
reason communist in character, paralleling, in its own
idiom, the postwar reorientation of Party cultural
analysis, which sought to trace a ‘national’ lineage for
Marxist thought, in keeping with the new political
strategy of a ‘British road to socialism’ .25 There is, in the
end, little difference between these readings, and both
find support in textual and contextual evidence. The
substantive concepts of Williams’s title were those of
the tradition he discussed, but they seemed often to exert
reflexive control over his own discourse, inflecting his
analytic and evaluative priorities towards a typically
‘humanist’ derogation of political reason, with
correlative intimations of a finally ‘common’ moral
interest. It is striking too that Williams conceived his

revaluation of English cultural criticism in the same years
that saw the Communist Party devote itself to recovering
Coleridge, the Romantics, Carlyle, Ruskin and Morris as
authentically national resources for the Left. Edward
Thompson was prominent in this politico-cultural
initiative, and cognate themes were sounded in Politics
and Letters by another Communist historian, Christopher
HilJ.26
However, neither line of interpretation leads to a
secure historical estimate of Culture and Society. The
Communist Party’s cultural initiative was predominantly
nationalist in thrust, an ill-judged attempt to resist the
emerging North Atlantic culture of the Cold War by
marshalling an essentially ‘progressive’ English tradition
against the ‘decadence’ and ‘barbarism’ of New York
and Hollywood. The result, as evidenced in the Party’s
cultural quarterly, Arena, was a crude national-populism,
often mawkish or phobic, tendentious where not selfdeluding or simply dishonest. There was nothing of this
in Culture and Society, nor anything of Arena’s ready
identification with the British Marxism of the thirties from which, indeed, Williams took a clear, cool
distanceY Arena’s repertoire included a serviceable
pastiche of the Scrutiny manner, defining the ‘function
of a literary magazine’, its ‘lonely’ function, as ‘the
maintenance … of fundamental critical standards’, the
pursuit of ‘critical vitality’ as a condition of ‘creative
vitality’ .28 In such moments, as in its wholesale
condemnation of (American) mass-cultural production,
Arena’s greater affinity was with The Uses of Literacy.

There, of course the use of that register signified a real
discursive continuity. In Williams, the marks of
continuity were not even, properly speaking, residual;
they were rather the scars of a specific, unfinished
engagement in alien country. It seems preferable, with
all qualifications entered, to view Culture and Society as
Williams himself saw it, as ‘an oppositional work – not
primarily designed to found a new position’ but to
undermine an existing one. 29
Three considerations support this self-description and in fact enhance its claim. Williams’ s attempt ‘to
counter the appropriation’ of cultural criticism for
reactionary purposes was not, as continuist
interpretations must assume, the prelude to a socialist
reappropriation of it: on the contrary, his historical
summary of the tradition was fundamentally critical,
speaking of the idea of culture as ‘an abstraction and an
absolute’ . Neither did he suggest that culture in this sense
might be democratized by expansion, privilege
redeeming itself in the gesture of welfare. On the
contrary, he expressly rejected high-cultural
diffusionism, and characterized the liberal-intellectual

tradition of ‘service’ as an adapted form of bourgeois
individualism. 3D Against both forms of the dominant
ideology, he set the alternative principle of ‘solidarity’ and this not as an ethical abstraction and absolute, but as
the historical achievement of capitalism’s associated
producers, the working class. 3l With this plain
affirmation of working-class creativity – positive cultural
values made in and by, as well as against, the social
relations of modern ‘civilization’ – Williams marked a
position beyond the imaginative range of ‘culture and
society’ .

Working-class welfare: from
paternalism to democracy
Appearing in 1958, Culture and Society announced the
possibility of ‘a new general theory of culture’ and
looked forward to ‘a full restatement of principles, taking
the theory of culture as a theory of relations between
elements in a whole way of life.’ 32 By then, the writing of

Essays and Principles had already begun, leading to the
book eventually published three years later as The Long
Revolution. ‘We live in an expanding culture,’ Williams
had written, ‘yet we spend much of our energy regretting
the fact, rather than seeking to understand its nature and
conditions. ’33 The Long Revolution was, for the greater
part, a sustained theoretical and historical effort towards
that understanding, and, throughout, was governed by
the ambition to clarify a politics adequate· to that
‘expanding culture’. Culture and Society had attacked
the prevailing critical conception of the epoch as that of
‘the masses … low in taste and habit’; in a short,
prospective essay also published in 1958, Williams
proposed his counter-thesis: ‘culture is ordinary’.

Implicit in this disarming adjective were a theoretical
proposition, a corresponding social revaluation, and the
germ of a cultural politics, all three brought into focus in
a long opening shot:

The bus stop was outside the cathedral. I had been
looking at the Mappa Mundi, with its rivers out of
Paradise, and at the chained library, where a party
of clergymen had got in easily, but where I had
waited an hour and cajoled a verger before I even
saw the chains. Now, across the street, a cinema
advertised the Six-Five Special and a cartoon
version of Gulliver’s Travels. The bus arrived, with
a driver and a conductress deeply absorbed in each
other. We went out of the city, over the old bridge,
and on through the orchards and the green
meadows and the fields red under the plough.

Ahead were the Black Mountains, and we climbed
among them, watching the steep fields end at the

33

grey walls, beyond which the bracken and heather
and whin had not yet been driven back. To the east,
along the ridge, stood the line of grey Norman
castles; to the west, the fortress wall of the
mountains. Then, as we still climbed, the rock
changed under us. Here, now, was limestone, and
the line of the early iron workings along the scarp.

The farming valleys, with their scattered white
houses, fell away behind. Ahead of us were the
narrower valleys: the steel-rolling mill, the
gasworks, the grey terraces, the pitheads. The bus
stopped, and the driver and conductress got out,
still absorbed. They had done this journey so often,
and seen all its stages. 34
There were reminders here of Eliot, and of Hoggart as of
Leavis before him. But the framing and sequence of the
narrative offered an alternative to their ways of seeing.

The familiar, fatal oppositions between elite and popular,
culture and commerce, town and country, past and
present, continuity and change, sensibility and
machinery, Arnold’s ‘best’ and ‘ordinary selves’ – the
I
entire conceptual repertoire of ‘culture and society’ were disordered in this complex time-space of social
meaning, the shared element of everyday existence.

Culture, as Williams now proposed to theorize it, was
the mode in which all human existence defined and
evaluated itself; strictly speaking, the very phrase
‘culture and society’ was confusionist. The two basic
processes of culture were learning and discovery, the
relay of established meanings and the probing of new
ones, and neither, in a period of significant expansion,
was adequately served by the prevailing dual order. The
case against the capitalist market in culture was familiar
(most recently, in Hoggart’s version), and, although

The Chained Library, Hereford Cathedral

34

intensified in Williams’ s theoretical perspective, was not
altered by it: the inbuilt logic of market activity was
philistine, interested in any kind of expansion that might
show a profit, but indifferent or hostile to all else. Yet the
alternative of public provision – ‘common payment, for
common services’ – was hobbled not only by the usual
complaint of ruinous expense but by the locked
imagination of minority culture, to which Williams now
posed a twofold challenge. It was a commonplace belief
of liberal and conservative cultural criticism that the
educational reforms of the later nineteenth century had
engendered the trivializing mass journalism of the
twentieth; and it was a commonplace of argument that,
with money as with culture, the bad tended to drive out
the good. Both propositions were demonstrably false,
Williams retorted, and inadmissible as valid objections
to enhanced educational provision. However, this
counter-insistence was not offered as reassurance; for it
was implicit in his theoretical concept of culture that
‘growth’ enjoined something other than simple
‘extension’ :

We should not seek to extend a ready-made culture
to the benighted masses. We should accept,
frankly, that if we extend our culture, we shall
change it: some that is offered will be radically
criticized. . .. I would not expect the working
people of England to support works which, after
proper and patient preparation, they could not
accept. … [If] we understand cultural growth, we
shall know that it is a continued offering for
common acceptance, that we should not, therefore,
try to determine in advance what should be offered,
but clear the channels and let all the offerings be
made, taking care to give the difficult full space,
the original full time, so that it
is a real growth, and not just a
wider confirmation of old
rules. 35
Fellow-socialists found much to
question in a passage like this, then
and in later years. ‘Common’, if
offered as a description of existing
cultural relations, appeared to deny
the actual inequalities and
antagonisms of capitalism as ‘a
whole way oflife’. And, if offered
as the keyword of a critical
anthropology (for, as Williams
believed, any culture must be in
some sense common, in order to be
a culture at all), it appeared to float

into empty ethical space – as ‘an abstraction and an
absolute’. The recourse to the first-person plural
strengthened suspicions on these grounds, as also, in a
strategic sense, did the irenic language of ‘offering’ and
‘growth’. It is true – whatever else mayor may not be
true – that Williams’ s writing at this time inclined too
much to emollience. But it is also true, and of greater
historical importance then and now, that some of the best
criticism of these ambiguities coexisted with them, in
the same pages. There was much still to rethink and to
discover, but by the turn of the 1960s Williams had
established the irreducible distance between cultural
liberalism in all its variants – reactionary or reforming and an integrally socialist politics of culture.

‘Paternalism’, the high-minded format of cultural growth
in welfare Britain, was not only inadequate as a counter
to its far more vigorous ‘commercial’ other; it was itself
mystified, and politically objectionable as a modified
version of ‘authoritarian cultural organization’. The true
alternative, Williams maintained, lay in democratic and
pluralist participation in the institutions and practices of
culture, a ‘common’ evaluation-in-process of an
undecided future. 36

Views from the nineties
The general history evoked here is that of a paternalist
cultural liberalism, received and now actualized as the
canonical format of policy in new or expanding
institutions, in a phase of legislated welfare provision
and intensifying consumer-capitalist enterprise. The
pattern of articulated response to postwar cultural
conditions seemed itself to obey a benign logic. A
reactionary intervention like Eliot’s was widely noticed
but won little support, so manifestly reactionary did it
appear, even to the later Scrutiny – whose epigoni were
themselves a dissident rearguard within a largely
sanguine or complacent intelligentsia. Although Hoggart
condemned the new (ab )uses of literacy in terms that
recalled Leavis’ s, he did so in a spirit of fealty to the
ideals of the liberal (now labourist) public educator.

Williams’s historical review of those ideals was
respectful in tone, yet radically destructive, inaugurating
a distinctively socialist theory and politics of culture.

Lending their impetus to the wider challenge of the New
Left, in the approach to an open general election, the new
critical ideas might become a material force – perhaps
indeed, or so the Sunday Times announced after Labour’s
victory in 1964, the doctrines of a ‘New Establishment’ Y
That is not how it turned out, of course. The new
decade saw an accentuation of all the emergent
tendencies of the later fifties. The culture was re-styled
from top to bottom, in processes that modified every

variety of cultural politics, yet without settling the
fortunes of any. By the end of another, far more
convulsive decade, it began to be clear that the social
settlement of 1945 had not been accepted by the Right,
that everything remained in question.

In that sense, then, the issues of the later forties and
fifties remain contemporary; and conversely, the
prominent cultural cruces of today (the marketization of
public service television production, the advent of cable
and satellite services, and of course the Internet), while
they are usually announced, in sorrow or in ecstasy, as
new, go on being defined in the terms of those years when, also, they seemed new. 38 The distance of the past
forty years, as we may gauge it from these early New
Left writings, is evident not so much in the articulate
contentions of the times but in what went more or less
without saying. The society evoked by Hoggart and
Williams was one of mostly settled sex-gender relations,
in which the paradigmatic narratives were those of men. 39
Both writers made reference to the specific oppressions
of working-class women, but these and other local
qualifications were too slight to disturb the calm of a
known (hence unexamined) world. In The Long
Revolution, Williams actually posited ‘the system of
generation and nurture’ as a specific historical structure,
but his novels, the main site of his reflection on matters
of gender and sexuality, reiterated a familiar discourse
on moral order and disorder. 40
A second retrospective crux is the identity of Britain
itself, which was neither taken wholly as given nor
consistently focused in the terms of nationality and race.

Hoggart noted in his working-class subjects an
anachronistic confidence in the Empire. Williams
discussed imperialism as a conventional trope in the
nineteenth-century novel and as a central element of the
contemporary political crisis; and his first published
novel indexed the objective but unacknowledged crossracial ‘community’ of post-imperial Britain (the ‘border
country’ includes London, where Matthew Price’s first
encounter on his journey back to Wales is with a black
woman bus conductor, at once the fellow transport
worker and the determinate other of his signalman
father). However, there was no developed sense of the
‘national’ culture as an imperial formation, shaped and
already disturbed by the ‘internal’ racist logic of an
‘external’ history.41 The unself-conscious citation of
‘England’ meaning (or not meaning?) Britain or the
United Kingdom was a sign that in this as in matters of
gender, the analysis of the culture as one of classes
remained abstract, and in some ways misdirected. 42
In that analysis too, of course, contemporary readers
will not fail to note anachronism. But here the

35

anachronism is not that of certain books that linger on in
print and memory; it lies also in the facile self-accounting
of present tendencies in radical cultural theory and
politics as they remember their ‘classics’ today. This is
not only a matter of the familiar critical distortion that
Williams later identified in the first New Left, including
himself: the unmeasured stress on the putative moment
of the new in history and the misreading of what persists
as delayed obsolescence. The temporal parochialism of
today is more damaging than that of forty years ago. For
what was evident in the left cultural analyses of the fifties,
but is far less evident in the far more richly resourced
cultural studies radicalism of the nineties, is committed,
systematic theoretical and moral resistance to the
dominant cultures of capital. The forms of this resistance
were radically distinct and unequal, as I have emphasized
here: there is no value in recirculating ‘the myth of
Raymond Hoggart’ .43 But the shared motivation of
Hoggart and Williams was that the principles and forms
of a cultural commonwealth would have to be thought
out and imposed against the spontaneous logic of the
capitalist market as a whole system; the quite discrepant
kinds of cultural politics they envisaged converged at
least in their shared reach for strategic clarification. Both
were fully aware of the pseudo-democratic and populist
modes of market address in contemporary conditions.

What they could scarcely have foreseen is how these
modes would come to be internalized and reiterated as
emancipatory theory by a politico-intellectual formation
that honoured them as inspirations. Hoggart thought to
check the effects of the audio-visual phantasmagoria
through countervailing practices of public education.

Williams rejected the market but also the paternalism that
thought to humanize its creatures, and argued instead for
collective determination in cultural production, as part
of a general socialist transformation. Where Hoggart’s
critical liberalism is repudiated and Williams’ s socialism
is declined, few choices remain. The rising tendency in
cultural studies gives itself to a certain anarchoreformism, permanently giddy in the conviction that
micro-subversion is everywhere, in a totality which, at
the same time, it is theoretically passe to name, let alone
seek to dismantle. It is of course true that overmastering
historical forces have sapped confidence and imagination
in every quarter of the Left; but this does not vindicate
the spreading amor fati that rationalizes disappointment
as enlightenment and reconstructs the problem as the
solution. Set invocations of pervasive change and mockheroic calls to renounce the past, whether uttered by
modernizing Labour politicians or by new-wave
intellectual formations that objectively converge with
them, are the tropes of a self-punishing identification

36

with the aggressor; they merely confuse the necessary
effort to think and act lucidly in the real, temporally
complex conditions of capitalism today. In this situation,
the politico-cultural ambitions of that old New Left are
indeed anachronistic – no longer contemporary, in
obvious ways, but in other ways, perhaps, on hold for a
recoverable future.

Notes
1. See Paul Addison, The Road to 1945, Macmillan, London,
1975; Perry Anderson, ‘The Figures of Descent’, in his
English Questions, Verso, London, 1992, pp. 121-92;
Gregory Elliott, Socialism and the English Genius, Verso,
London, 1993.

2. W.E. Morpurgo, Allen Lane, King Penguin: A Biography,
AlIen Lane, London, 1979.

3. Stephen Spender, ‘Comment: On Literary Movements’,
Encounter, vol. 1, no. 2, 1953, pp. 66-8.

4. Malcolm Bradbury, ‘The Rise of the Provincials’, Antioch
Review, vol. XVI, no. 4, 1956, pp. 469-77.

5. Piloted in essays for the New English Weekly in 1943 and
then in public seminars, the book was published in 1948,
the year in which Eliot won the Nobel Prize for Literature
and was admitted to the Order of Merit.

6. Leavis’s philippic against C.P. Snow’s 1959 Rede Lecture
The Two Cultures was one of the more lurid intellectual
events of its time but hardly a significant one (‘Two
Cultures? The Significance of c.P. Snow’, Spectator, 9
March 1962; c.P. Snow, The Two Cultures and a Second
Look, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1964,
gives the original text, with a retrospect and details of the
published reactions to the controversy).

7. Richard Hoggart, An Imagined Life. Life and Times vol.

Ill: 1959-91, Chatto & Windus, London, 1991, p.lO.·
8. Idem, A Sort of Clowning. Life and Times vo!. ll: 19401959, Chatto & Windus, London, pp.l41, 134-5.

9. Ibid., p.78. See also his ‘One Man and his Dog'(rev.

Mervyn lones, Michael Foot), The Observer, 20 March
1994 – an elegiac reaffirmation of ‘humane democratic
socialism’ .

10. The Uses of Literacy (1957), Penguin, Harmondsworth,
1958, p. 250.

11. Ibid., p. 344.

12. An Imagined Life, p. 5.

13. Universities and Left Review, vol. l,nos. 1-7, Spring 1957
-Autumn 1959. The editors were Stuart Hall, Raphael
Samuel, Gabriel Pearson and Charles Taylor.

14. ULR, vol. 1, no. 2, Summer 1957, p. 29.

15. ‘Variant Readings’, ULR, vol. 1, no. 2, p. 32.

16. ‘Candy-ftossing the Celtic Fringe’, ULR, vol. 1, no. 2, p. 32.

17. ‘Working Class Culture’, ULR, vol. 1, no. 2, pp. 32,31;
Williams and Hoggart (in conversation), ‘Working-class
Attitudes’, New Left Review 1, 1anuary-February 1960,
pp. 26-30.

18. Raymond Williams, Politics and Letters: Interviews with
New Left Review, NLB, London, 1979, pp. 61-77; idem,
‘Notes on Marxism in Britain since 1945’, in Problems in
Materialism and Culture, Verso, London, 1980, pp. 24041
19. Anthony Bamett, ‘Raymond Williams and Marxism: A
Rejoinder to Terry Eagleton’, New Left Review 99,
September-October 1976, pp. 47-64.

20. Politics and Letters: Interviews, p. 97.

21. Beginning from work in adult education classes in 1949,
Culture and Society was written between 1952 and 1956.

22. Culture and Society 1780-1950 (1958), Penguin,
Harmondsworth, 1961, p. 17.

23. Culture and Society, p. 285.

24. See Graham Martin, ‘A Culture in Common’, ULR, vol.

1, no. 5, Autumn 1958, pp. 70-79 – the moment, if there
was one, when Culture and Society was canonized as a
founding text for a New Left. The symbolic counterpoint
was Terry Eag1eton, Criticism and Ideology, NLB,
London, 1976, ch. 1.

25. Politics and Letters: Interviews, p. 112. This was Edward
Thompson’s reading.

26. ‘Comment’, Politics and Letters, vol. I, no. 1, Summer
1947, pp. 32-9.

27. Culture and Society, pp. 258-75.

28. ‘Editorial Note’, Arena, vol. I, no. 4.

29. Politics and Letters: Interviews, p. 98. Graham Pechey
(,Scrutiny, English Marxism, and the Work of Raymond
Williams’, Literature and History, vol. 11, no. 1, Spring
1985, pp. 65-76) has emphasized the radically disruptive
strategy of the book.

30. Culture and Society, p. 312.

31. Ibid., p. 313.

32. Ibid., pp. 11-12.

33. Ibid., p. 12.

34. Resources of Hope: Culture, Democracy, Socialism,
edited by Robin Gable, Verso, London, 1989, p. 3.

35. Ibid., p.16.

36. ‘Communications and Community’ (1961), ibid., pp. 2331.

37. Politics and Letters: Interviews, p. 371.

38. Three examples, each involving a senior member of the
liberal-labour intelligentsia, from late 1994. The first was
the late Dennis Potter’s widely discussed attack on the
new regime at the BBC (Occupying Powers, The James
MacTaggart Memorial Lecture, Edinburgh International
Television Festival, 1993; broadcast on Channel 4, 23
August 1994) – a discourse in which all the themes, and
more than one of the contending lines, of the later fifties
were swept together in a surge of invective. There
followed Melvin Bragg’s defence of British television as
‘a kind of national health service of the mind’, whose
‘general democratic availability’ was now under threat
from satellite and cable systems (Independent, 7
September 1994). A month later, John Mortimer

39.

40.

41.

42.

43.

expressed his sense of grief at ‘the death of liberal
England’ and its traditions of public service – in his view,
the work of the Conservative governments of the eighties
(Laurence Marks, ‘The Lost Professional’, Independent
on Sunday, 9 October 1994, p. 19).

See Carolyn Steedman, Landscape for a Good Woman,
Virago, London, 1986, pp. 3-25; and Elizabeth Wilson,
Only Halfway to Paradise: Women in Postwar Britain
1945-1964, Tavistock, London, 1980.

For a variety of feminist responses to Williams, see Jane
Miller, Seduction: Studies in Reading and Culture,
Virago, London, 1990, ch. 2, ‘The One Great Silent
Area’; Jenny Bourne Taylor, ‘Raymond Williams:

Gender and Generation’, in Terry Lovell, ed., British
Feminist Thought: A Reader, Blackwell, Oxford, 1990,
pp. 296-308; Carol Watts, ‘Reclaiming the Border
Country: Feminism and the Work of Raymond
Williams’, News From Nowhere 6, 1989, pp. 89-108;
Lisa Jardine and Julia Swindells, ‘Homage to Orwell:

The Dream of a Common Culture and Other Minefields’ ,
in Terry Eagleton, ed., Raymond Williams: Critical
Perspectives, Polity Press, Cambridge, 1989, pp. 10829.

ULR was very quick to respond to the rise of violent racism
in the late fifties.

Williams attempted to deal with these issues, particularly
the latter ones, in subsequent work, with results that have
provoked as many as they have impressed. See my
‘Towards 2000, or News From You Know Where’, New
Left Review 148, November-December 1984; Paul
Gilroy, There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack’: The
Cultural Politics of Race and Nation (1987), Routledge,
London, 1992; Gauri Viswanathan, ‘Raymond Williams
and British Colonialism: The Limits of Metropolitan
Cultural Theory’, in Dennis L. Dworkin and Leslie G.

Roman, eds., Views Beyond the Border: Raymond
Williams and Cultural Politics, Routledge, London,
1993, pp. 217-30. See also Williams’s sharply critical
‘The Reasonable Englishman’ (rev. Richard Hoggart, An
English Temper), Guardian, 8 April 1982, p. 16.

See Paul Jones, ‘The Myth of “Raymond Hoggart”: On
“Founding Fathers” and Cultural Policy’, Cultural Studies
8, 1994, pp. 394–416, a valuable essay which, like this
one, stresses the distance between Hoggart and Williams,
and illuminates the role of tendentious misremembering
in the recent ‘policy’ controversy in Australian cultural
studies. (See Tony Bennett, ‘Useful Culture’, Cultural
Studies 6, 1992, pp. 395-408, which devises a
Foucauldian-reformist argument for the metamorphosis of
the cultural ‘critic’ into the cultural olic ‘technician’.)

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