Raymond Williams Exposed the Ruthless Class Oppression Behind Our Literary Traditions

Fifty years ago, socialist writer Raymond Williams’s The Country and the City challenged preconceptions about the gap between rural and urban life. His book exposed the realities of class exploitation — and imagined the abolition of the country-city divide.

Oil painting by William Linnell showing a corn harvest in Surrey, England, 1860. (WAVE: The Museums, Galleries and Archives of Wolverhampton / Getty Images)

Raymond Williams was a twentieth-century British socialist intellectual and writer. Born in 1921, he grew up in Pandy, a rural, working-class Welsh community near the English border, before gaining a state scholarship to study at Cambridge University.

He fought in an anti-tank regiment in World War II, taught for fifteen years in the Workers’ Educational Association, and became lecturer in English at Cambridge in 1961 (and professor of drama from 1974). Having worked at Cambridge until his retirement in 1983, Williams died in 1988.

He was a self-described “Welsh European,” and we can understand much of his work as a theoretical transposition of his formative experiences of the “border country” of his youth: a site of national, class, geographical, linguistic, and social complexity that defied easy categorizations. His upbringing also enabled him to see English culture and the English ruling class from the outside — as a dominant provincialism.

Selective Traditions

His characteristic method was to recover the historical complexity underlying ideologically prevalent concepts such as “culture” or “society.” This enabled him to challenge what he called “selective traditions” that attempt to shape the present and suture it to a limited, often highly inaccurate version of the past that serves to ratify the dominant social order.

In The Country and the City (1973), now fifty years old, Williams traces the origins and trajectories of simplistic images of the country and the city that continue to dominate our imagination today: the country as “nature” or an innocent idyll (rather than a place of work), but also as wild, backward, and uncivilized; the city as bastion of civilization, learning, and modernity, but also as hotbed of corruption, crime, and alienation. Against these images Williams reinstates the real, complex history, from the dawn of English agrarian capitalism in the late Middle Ages to the global anti-colonial revolutions of the 1950s and ’60s.

It is thus much more than a work of literary criticism: it is a history of “English literature” that contains a social and cultural history of modern England (as opposed to Britain) told via the shifting relations and perspectives of the country and the city. Williams understood these not as unchanging essences, but as ever-shifting, interconnected nodes within a whole capitalist society and, ultimately, an imperial world-system.

Crucially, Williams shows repeatedly that this history is not over. We are still living it, and the symbolic forms to which it has given rise continue to inform — quite literally — our conceptions of the past, present, and future of the world around us.

The Pastoral Mode

The very idea of the countryside, for example, is inseparable from the literary mode of the pastoral. As traditionally understood, the pastoral is a poetic or dramatic mode that idealizes country life, usually in opposition to the life of the city or the court, featuring shepherds who (in George Puttenham’s famous 1589 definition) “insinuate and glaunce at greater matters.” As Williams shows, however, this “traditional” pastoral began as a highly selective aristocratic sixteenth-century cultural adaptation of classical models that were substantially different.

In classical texts such as Hesiod’s Works and Days, Theocritus’s Idylls, and Virgil’s Eclogues and Georgics, notes Williams, the idealizing tone is never abstracted from the “whole of a working country life” and is in “living tension” with its negative aspects: land dispossessions, hard labor, blight, and war. Renaissance pastoral, by contrast, is a selective tradition in which the primary activities of the working year have been reduced to entertaining forms.

By the time of the country-estate eulogies of the seventeenth century and beyond (such as Ben Jonson’s “To Penshurst”), rural labor as such has been excised from the picture. In its place stand ideological images of a self-giving natural plenty — as in Thomas Carew’s couplet “And every beast did thither bring/ Himself to be an offering” — in harmony with a residually feudal, idealized moral order.

Only with the anti-pastoral writings of figures such as Oliver Goldsmith, Stephen Duck, William Cobbett, and George Crabbe — each offering partial rather than total critiques of agrarian capitalism — would the reality of rural working life break through the pastoral facade. The poetry of John Clare was then a powerful combination of both: the apotheosis of pastoral in and through an anti-pastoral condemnation of enclosure.

At the same time, Clare, like William Wordsworth, was integral to the development of a romantic sensibility for which “nature” became a principle of creation (as opposed to neoclassical order) and from which we could learn, in Williams’s words, “the truths of our own sympathetic nature.” Close observation of nature combines with an essential isolation and withdrawal that are, paradoxically, the precondition for the survival of a now poetically mediated community in the midst of factual dispossession.

Constructing Arcadia

Both pastoral and romanticism, in different ways, paved the way for the endless construction of golden ages, Arcadias, and Edens: idealized rural pasts (and, occasionally, futures) projected from a less than ideal present. Williams opens The Country and the City with a powerful critique of what he calls the “escalator” of the golden age — that ever-receding movement by which generation after generation locates the idealized “organic community” or rural idyll just back over the last hill, thereby ignoring the true socioeconomic history.

At the same time, he condemns those metropolitan socialists “who have inherited a long contempt, from very diverse sources, of the peasant, the boor, the rural clown.” Unlike them, Williams does not expose rural nostalgia merely as a way of rejecting the rural as such.

This contempt for the countryside — encapsulated, for Williams, in the phrase “the idiocy of rural life” in the Communist Manifesto (and later rejected by Karl Marx) — goes hand in hand with a view of socialism as the “progressive” completion of the capitalist enterprise. Incidentally, Williams seems to have been unaware that Marx and Friedrich Engels were likely alluding to the Greek term idiōtēs, meaning “someone isolated from the wider community and concerned only with his own private affairs,” although the word’s subsequent trajectory in English rather proves his general point.

Williams has nothing but scorn for this “powerful tendency,” stating that compared to it, “even the old, sad, retrospective radicalism seems to bear and to embody a human concern”:

Between the simple backward look and the simple progressive thrust, there is room for long argument but none for enlightenment. We must begin differently: not in the idealisations of one order or another, but in the history to which they are only partial and misleading responses.

Williams identifies two related “partial” responses. The first is the myth that “it is not capitalism which is injuring us, but the more isolable, more evident system of urban industrialism.” The problem with this view is that it abstracts industry from its systemic capitalist function and effectively elides the brutal rural histories of feudalism and agrarian capitalism.

The second is the risk of fetishizing the role of late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century enclosures while overlooking equally important factors in driving people from the land, such as rack-renting and short-lease policies. This leads to a romanticization of the commons, now recast as yet another pastoral golden age.

The ideological term “improvement” served as a justification for domestic enclosures and colonial primitive accumulation alike. In a powerful chapter, Williams reads Jane Austen’s novels as “a direct preoccupation with estates, incomes and social position, which are seen as indispensable elements of all the relationships that are projected and formed.”

The achievement of Austen’s unity of tone is premised upon a highly selective way of seeing: she focuses on one class (hence no class) within the walls of the country houses whose pleasing prospects were, in fact, funded by — among other things — violent enclosures, the slave trade, and colonial plantations. Austen saw land as an index of revenue and position, but she omitted the process of working it (just as the new, Dutch-inspired landscape art excised rural labor). Her novels seek to convert good income into good conduct.

Only with George Eliot and, most powerfully, Thomas Hardy would the English novel attempt to incorporate the realities of rural working-class life that Austen so artfully excised. In doing so, however, the very fabric of the novel, which had emerged with the bourgeoisie, threatened to tear at the seams.

Williams is acutely sensitive to the discontinuities of form and style that plague both writers: “The very recognition of conflict, of the existence of classes, of divisions and contrasts of feeling and speaking, makes a unity of idiom impossible.” Problems of style and form in the realist novel are linguistic representations of class struggle.

The New Metropolis

Charles Dickens invented a very different solution. He discovered a form that embodied the lived experience of the city of London. “As we stand and look back at a Dickens novel,” writes Williams,

the general movement we remember . . . is a hurrying seemingly random passing of men and women, each heard in some fixed phrase, seen in some fixed expression: a way of seeing men and women that belongs to the street.

The very rhythms of Dickens’s prose are kinaesthetic equivalents of a bustling London thoroughfare. What then emerges is Dickens’s ability to dramatize “those social institutions and consequences which are not accessible to ordinary physical observation” — black cloud, fog, or the Circumlocution Office are so many allegories of the impersonal forces of the law, the civil service, the stock exchange, or the trading houses.

The final chapters of the book trace the various subsequent writings of the city through the slums and organized labor of the nineteenth century (via Engels, Henry Mayhew, Elizabeth Gaskell, and George Gissing). They move on through the modernist metropolis in which Williams reads the cities of T. S. Eliot (negatively) and James Joyce (positively) as actualizations of prior lines of development (in the process undermining modernism’s claims to any absolute rupture with its literary forebears), before ending with the emerging “new metropolis” of what Mike Davis later dubbed the “planet of slums.”

“The New Metropolis” is perhaps the most powerful chapter of the book. Other than the earlier section on Austen, Williams only mentions the colonies and empire infrequently (leading some critics to accuse him of downplaying the role of empire). Yet “The New Metropolis” retroactively recasts the entire trajectory of the country-city relationship as having been intrinsically imperial from the beginning.

The chapter is a cool, hard-headed recognition of the role of the slave trade, colonial predation, and the systematic subjugation of global rural economies to British “metropolitan” requirements. Williams defends the multiple anti-colonial uprisings (not least that of Vietnam) and the right of colonized nations to truly independent development, pursuing his analysis to its logical conclusion:

When we look at the power and impetus of the metropolitan drives . . . we cannot be in any doubt that a different direction, if it is to be found, will necessarily involve revolutionary change.

A Social Process

Ultimately, the book argues that “the country” and “the city” have been less historical realities (though they are, of course, also realities) than ways of responding to a whole social process: the development and operation of the capitalist mode of production in all its guises (agrarian, industrial, financial, and imperial). This is why we should avoid framing possible solutions to the grave socio-ecological crisis of our own time in terms of the old, simplistic images.

We must avoid upholding agroecology, for example, as a neo-pastoral panacea for industrial agribusiness, abstracted from the question of land reform, while also refusing to write it off with metropolitan contempt as “rural nostalgia” or “romanticism.” Likewise, we can challenge those who celebrate the white heat of “clean” technology fueling an accelerationist urban socialism but who ignore the reality of imperial mineral supply chains, while avoiding an absolute rejection of all green technology as an extension of a failed industrial modernity. To remain trapped within the inherited images is to reproduce the blockages of the dominant responses.

One possible way forward lies in what Williams describes as “a formulation which is at once the most exciting, the most relevant and yet the most undeveloped in the whole revolutionary argument”: the gradual abolition of the country-city divide. Williams was writing 125 years after that idea was formulated in The Communist Manifesto; fifty years later, for historical and political reasons, the idea remains undeveloped. Yet to imagine the abolition of the country-city divide is to begin to find a way through the impasses of the inherited images toward a more variegated, and more truly historical-materialist, framing of the crisis.