Raymond Williams was the son of a railway worker also the secretary of the local Branch Labour Party in the 1920s. His birthplace was in a village where all of the railwaymen voted Labour while the local small farmers mostly voted Liberal. His teenage years were shadowed by Nazism and the threat of war. He was 14 years old when the Spanish Civil War broke out that led to his membership of the local Left Book Club. Attending a youth conference in Geneva in 1937 with this club, he bought a copy of The Communist Manifesto and read a Karl Marx book for the first time. Williams attended Trinity College of Cambridge, where he joined the Communist Party of Great Britain. There, he was given the task of writing a Communist Party pamphlet about the Russo-Finnish War. In Politics and Letters (1979) he says that they "were given the job as people who could write quickly, from historical materials supplied for us. You were often in there writing about topics you did not know very much about, as a professional with words."
He never liked the university very much as when asked to contribute to a book called My Cambridge (1977a), he began his essay by saying, "It was never my Cambridge. That was clear from the start". Williams interrupted his education to serve in World War II. In winter 1940, he enlisted in the British Army, but stayed at Cambridge to take his exams in June 1941, the same month Germany invaded Russia. Joining the military was against the Communist party line at the time. According to Williams, his membership in the Communist Party lapsed without him ever formally resigning.
When Williams joined the army, he received some initial training in military communications. He served as an officer in the Anti-Tank Regiment of the Guards Armoured Division, being sent into the early fighting in the Invasion of Normandy. In Politics and Letters (1979) he writes, "I don't think the intricate chaos of that Normandy fighting has ever been recorded".
He received his M.A. from Trinity College in 1946 and then served as a tutor in adult education at the University of Oxford for the next 14 years. In 1951 he was recalled to the army as a reservist to fight in the Korean War. He refused to go, and registered as a conscientious objector.
Written some of his most important books, Williams was invited to return to Cambridge as a Professor of Drama in 1961 and also worked as a book reviewer for the Manchester Guardian for some following years. Retired from Cambridge in 1983, he spent his last years in a village where Loyalties (1985) and called People of the Black Mountains (1989) were written. He published five novels and was working on a multivolume work of historical fiction when he died unexpectedly in 1988. Merryn Williams, poet and author, deposited a collection of his father's papers at Swansea University in 2007.
Williams was not a real "critic" of mass media but a producer himself. Preface to Film (1954) appeared because Williams and the other author were disappointed not being able to make a film. He also has some practical suggestions about how the media could be organized. He believes that big corporations should not own newspapers or other broadcasting media and the media should be organized independently.
Culture and Society (1958) was the first and immediate success of Williams which was followed by The Long Revolution (1961). He became a popular author among the New Left and also a well known book reviewer for the Manchester Guardian newspaper. Because of these books, Williams was invited to return to Cambridge as a Professor of Drama in 1961.
Williams was a regular book reviewer for the Manchester Guardian, in most of his working life. Only after writing The Country and the City (1973), he had some television programs based on that book. Williams also taught at Cambridge University for some years, but he was a professional writer for more than forty years.
Television: Technology and Cultural Form (1974) was created when he served as a visiting Professor of Political Science at Stanford University, a committed socialist interested in the relationships between language, literature, and society. Williams' most useful theoretical contributions can be Devasting of technological determinsm. In Television-Technology and Cultural Form (1974), Williams showed how current programming strategies helped to cloud our understanding of society, but he also pointed out the democratic potential of new developments in the mass media. His analysis is weakened, however, by his impossibly naive belief that that control of the media is decided by a process of debate or negotiation. He pays lip-service to the importance of 'wider social struggles' but essentially we are back to the radical manifesto; 'There is no solution...but to make local communications ownership and control subject to open and democratic local process, with specific provisions against financing, salary payments and consultancies from outside commercial bodies (Nineham,1996).
Perhaps, the most complicated work of Williams is Marxism and Literature (1977) which is mainly suitable for specialists, but it also sets out his own approach to cultural studies, or in his own words cultural materialism. The book was originally written as a response to the pressure on Williams to make a more theoretical position against criticisms on him being a humanist Marxist.
It is a fundamental misunderstanding to consider Williams' work centred on the idea of community. Williams has a deeply modernist imagination of a world. He analyzes drama and the novel as related concepts to cultural forms in which people attempt to make sense of global forces beyond their control and frequently fail to understand what is happening so deeply to their lives (Williams, 1977b). Williams' criticizes theories of culture and ideology of Marxism mostly because they are inadequate to mixed and confused reality of modern life.
Williams (1977c) has always considered cultural materialism, a Marxist theory "Latent within historical materialism is ... a way of understanding the diverse social and material production ... of works to which the connected but also changing categories of art have been historically applied; I call this position cultural materialism." So, cultural production is a human activity in which culture must be understood both in its own terms and as part of its society and cultural studies can be a wide approach to the arts and even politics.
It is important to note that there is a characteristic voice in Williams' writing, but he is always engaged in a dialogue or debate. So the focus can mainly be on what he is saying. The complexity in Williams' voice is because he often recognizes some validity in other positions and arguments then makes his own position. But Williams is actually more radical. He tried moderate politics for a long time but it did not work. So becoming older, he became more revolutionary.
His book Culture (1981) is also a further development of some key arguments, especially about aesthetics. Williams' position about other writers on culture and society like George Orwell, Marshall McLuhan is a bit surprising, even though he was affected by some other writers like George Steiner and Pierre Bourdieu.
He retired from Cambridge in 1983 and spent his last years in Saffron Walden when Loyalties (1985) was written. This novel is about a fictional group of upper-class radicals attracted to 1930s Communism. Meanwhile, he was working on another novel called People of the Black Mountains (1989) which is a historical book about people who might have lived in a part of Wales he came from. The book was completed in Williams' middle ages by his death in 1988. It was prepared to publish in two volumes by his wife, Joy Williams.
In his last decade of life, Williams made important links with debates in feminism, peace, and ecology social movements, and changed his position from pure Marxism. In Resources of Hope: Culture, Democracy, Socialism (1989) he concluded that because there were many different societies in the world, there would be not one, but many socialisms.
WilliamsÂ wrote just some little pages directly related to education during his career, and is not often known as an educational thinker. But there are a lot of writings on Williams' cultural roots and early educational experiences, his thoughts on adult education and lifelong learning, his concern with informal education and public pedagogy, and his general thinking about the transformative power of culture, perhaps his greatest contribution to pedagogy in the widest sense.
For Raymond Williams, adult education was a unique opportunity to the world of new communications media and pedagogy. "There is no necessary opposition between (education) through the small group and the use of such new media as broadcasting and television. We all live at different levels of community, and a healthy culture needs a corresponding scale and variety of institutions. Broadcasting helped adult education both directly and indirectly; Television, at worst, has not harmed it" (Williams, 1993, pp: 220).
Williams has written a lot about the cultural forms of mass media in which news and opinion are different. He argues about the important role of the mass media and the ability to judge the conservative effects of it.
Raymond Williams was to become one of the Britain's greatest post-war cultural historians, theorists and polemicists. He approaches mass media not from the distance of the critic but as an active participant: someone who works in culture.
He was a man who was ahead of his time. He was doing cultural studies even before the term had been invented. In his successful life, he wrote more than 650 publications. But it never led him to forget the Welsh village where he grew up.
He was a theorist of literature who himself wrote novels; an historian of drama who was also a playwright; and a commentator on TV and the mass media who himself regularly contributed to the medium in a variety of ways.