Anthony Barnett provides an introduction to the Raymond Williams Annual Lecture which he delivered a few weeks ago
Looking back across fifty years we can see that 1961 was a year when the world turned. The fifteen years since the joint victory of the United States and the Soviet Union in the Second World War had galvanized both societies.
The year proved to be the zenith of the renewal of the Soviet spirit. It sent the first two men into space, it exploded the largest ever 58-megaton thermonuclear explosion, it inspired Castro to declare his allegiance to ‘Marxism-Leninism’ after defeating the CIA invasion of the Bay of Pigs, the body of Stalin was bundled out of Lenin’s mausoleum and the Berlin Wall went up. American influence, super-charged by consumerism, also combined political renewal with glamour and military expansion: Kennedy became President, the last battles against civil rights took place and the Vietnam war began.
Many felt threatened if not asphyxiated by this dramatic and exciting confrontation of modern powers. The non-aligned movement of countries met for the first time. There were mass arrests of over a thousand civil disobedience activists in London, led by Bertram Russell, opposing all nuclear weapons. In France, Last Year in Marienbad, and in Italy, La Notte, caught a mood of dislocation and apparently civilized distancing, in London if we can ignore Carry on Regardless, John le Carré’s first novel, Call for the Dead, brought the ambiguous intelligence of Smiley into being.
In the US Heller’s Catch 22 became the greatest book on the absurd experience of total war – a rollicking demystification of World War II that would echo non-stop through the sixties – and William Appleman Williams published Contours of American History (just reissued by Verso), showing how class and empire were built into his country’s liberalism from the start. (Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich came out a year later, in 1962, and signaled the start of the Soviet reckoning.)
It seems to have been in England, the home of the world’s greatest empire, closing in on itself, that the main efforts were mounted to find a way out between the two camps – hence the attraction of nuclear disarmament, the importance of New Left Review, and the creation of Amnesty International also in 1961. The year saw two highly original attempts to reshape the strategy of the left: Ralph Miliband published his attack on Labourism, Parliamentary Socialism and Raymond Williams evaded the traps of institutional politics and launched cultural studies with The Long Revolution.
The decades of frustration that followed were aptly summed up by the 50th anniversary of Private Eye. “Churchill Cult Next for Party Axe?” it had joked in its first headline in October 1961… indeed. Its 50th anniversary cover in October this year ruefully acknowledged that satire (like socialism) had not dented the mad machine of Westminster’s elongated decline, running pictures of Harold Macmillan and David Cameron side-by-side to show that Britain is still run by incompetent old Etonians.
For all its difficulties, the idea of The Long Revolution, both its politics, which I discuss, and its emphasis on cultural forces, has also lasted. Perhaps now its time has come. Certainly, I found going back to it salutary and inspiring as, encouraged by the Spanish movement for ‘Real Democracy Now!’, the American Occupy network and its call out to us, ‘the ninety-nine percent’, and above all the Arab Awakening, I returned to the need for revolution and what this might actually mean in the developed democracies of the West.