The Long Revolution

Wendy Wheeler

It seems to me that we are living through a long revolution, which our best descriptions only in part interpret. It is a genuine revolution, transforming men and institutions; continually extended and deepened by the actions of millions, continually and variously opposed by explicit reaction and by the pressure of habitual forms and ideas. Yet it is a difficult revolution to define, and its uneven action is taking place over so long a period that it is almost impossible not to get lost in its exceptionally complicated process.


In naming the great process of change the long revolution, I am trying to learn assent to it, an adequate assent of mind and spirit. I find increasingly that the values and meanings I need are all in this process of change. If it is pointed out, in traditional terms, that democracy, industry, and extended communication are all means rather than ends, I reply that this, precisely, is their revolutionary character, and that to realise and accept this requires new ways of thinking and feeling, new conceptions of relationships, which we must try to explore.

Raymond Williams

In Culture and Society, Marxism and Literature, and The Long Revolution, Raymond Williams attempted to set out the nature of the cultural dialectic initiated with modernity. The great idea of the men of the Enlightenment was that the world should be made a better place through the application of reason. With this, a clear mind, dedicated to the organisation of the world on scientific principles, would render human life both happier and more just. This rationalisation, however, proved itself a double-edged sword inasmuch as, whilst materially and politically generally progressive, its implementation in all spheres radically undermined all those human practices, evolved over millennia, which, though non-rational, are very much a part of fully human needs: most notably, perhaps, those belief systems through which social and community life is organised, and which, similarly, made tolerable the awful consciousness of human mortality.

II It has been the gravest error of socialism, in revolt against class societies, to limit itself, so often, to the terms of its opponents: to propose a political and economic order, rather than a human order.

Raymond Williams

From identifying this tension, in Culture and Society, between the calculable and incalculable aspects of human life as these were expressed by writers and critics from the late eighteenth century to the mid-twentieth century -- which can be summarised as the tension between utilitarian and romantic philosophies -- Williams went on to do two things. One was to suggest, in The Long Revolution, that modernity must be viewed as a huge revolution in the ways in which human beings think about themselves and their cultures; the other was to try to describe what a wholly ‘human order’ might consist in, and how it might be possible to pursue its languages in order to give hegemonic voice to that order.

For Williams, and I think this is absolutely right, the ends of modernity cannot be viewed as what we have now. Nor are they to be found in techno-Benthamism, or in government as protector of capital and educator of conformist labour with ‘transferable skills’. The path that we are taking today, in which turbo-capitalist values are seen to trump all other values, would have appalled Williams. But, equally, these ends are not written in the stars. Williams politics led him to understand that the ends of a ‘human order’ are something we must fight for. They are contingent, and no-one must rest from their particular political understanding in willing and acting towards the ends they desire and feel to be right.

III Social forms are evidently more recognisable when they are articulate and explicit...Many are formed and deliberate, and some are quite fixed. But when they have all been identified they are not a whole inventory even of social consciousness in its simplest sense. For they become social consciousness only when they are lived, actively, in real relationships...And this practical consciousness is always more than a handling of fixed forms and units. There is frequent tension between the received interpretation and practical experience...There are the experiences to which the fixed forms do not speak at all, which indeed they do not recognise. There are important mixed experiences where the available meaning would convert part to all, or all to part...Practical consciousness is almost always different from official consciousness.

Raymond Williams

The tools Williams tried to develop, and offer, can be found in two ideas. Firstly, his idea that cultures consist of dominant, residual and emergent forms (discourses and practices) allows us to think about the ways in which change always contains a sort of continuity. For example, where they exist, modern political convictions very clearly often carry the structures of feeling which would once have been expressed through religion. Our use of the word ‘sectarianism’ demonstrates this. A keen attention to semantic change in all the forms of our symbolic life, to the ways in which forms and experiences can become buried in others, apparently detached from their earlier meanings, seemingly residual but, in part, perhaps, living on in transformed ways, but still pulling with them some of their earlier feeling tones, can help us to understand the movements in a culture. In understanding dominant culture at the beginning of the twenty-first century, we might think of global capital as a form of global feudal despotism. Countering it would, thus, involve a renewal of what we once called ‘the sacred’ akin to the renewal of the Reformation in the sixteenth century. Williams, I think, was trying to find his way towards a materialist, embodied and enworlded, politics of the sacred which would be capable of addressing the fact of what Jonathan Rutherford has called modernity’s ‘excess of world over word’. This means giving symbolic life to the details of our human experience which capitalist modernity suppresses or ignores, or only names in very simple, reductive or partial ways. Creativity, for example, lies at the heart of human being. Creative labour upon the world is a source of great joy. But modern forms of work and production tend to distance the worker from, or simply not have space for, the fullness of labour’s creation. This truth, (known, of course, long ago) means that for some to be able to be creative, many others must become like human tools. Recreation, then very often takes the form of types of labour (sport, DIY, gardening, etc.) in which our labour is all our own, because such creative work on and in the world is joyful.

Secondly, and relatedly, Williams was keen to articulate the ways in which our lived experiences, in their richness of detail, are seldom recognised in what he called the ‘official’ languages of modernity. He believed that the work of the long revolution was to give voice to, and make hegemonic, those human experiences which are altered, squeezed out and made silent in the ‘official’ languages of modernity. Attending to these political tasks of our everyday life involves great honesty and great bravery. For Williams, the revolutionary spirit resides in daring to know that the things which seem individual and particular and very difficult are, actually, shared by millions -- and in giving these things a voice and a narrative in a creative way. Modernity’s words, its utilitarian languages of observable fact, do not do justice to a human order which consists of more than this.

IV At one level we can oppose art to science, or emotion to reason, yet the activities described by these names are in fact deeply related parts of the whole human process. We cannot refer science to the object, and art to the subject, for the view of human activity we are seeking to grasp rejects this duality of subject and object: the consciousness is part of the reality, and the reality is part of the consciousness, in the whole process of our living organisation. Coleridge spoke of ‘substantial knowledge’ as that intuition of things which arises when we possess ourselves as one with the `whole.

This realisation, the capacity for ‘substantial knowledge’, is the highest form of human organisation, though the process it succeeds in grasping is the common form of our ordinary living. At a less organized level, we fall back on what Coleridge called ‘abstract knowledge’, when we think of ourselves as separated beings, and place nature in antithesis to the mind, as object to subject, thing to thought, death to life.

The antithesis of nature to the mind, ‘as object to subject’, we now know to be false, yet so much of our thinking is based on it that to grasp the substantial unity, the sense of a whole process, is to begin a long and difficult revolution in the mind. (R. Williams, The Long Revolution, Hogarth, 1992 [1961], p23)

As Williams recognised in his 1982 New Foreword to Culture and Society, this ‘ecological’ way of thinking had made vast strides since 1958 when the book was first published. It remains one of the most potent ways of motivating people and, in recent years, has been joined by the science of complexity which realises that all ‘live’ systems -- societies, languages, institutions and so on -- cannot be understood in any reductively deterministic way; they are non-linear complex systems. What this means is that ‘meaning’ (social understandings, for example) is a result of complex interactions between groups of individuals. Because meaning belongs to the system (a social group, for example) rather than to the individual, activity at any point produces reverberations throughout the system. These reverberations (feedback loops) are also felt at their source, which is changed by them. In other words, what we see in ‘ecological’ thinking and complexity theory is a properly complex model of dialecticism as a conversation between very many people. The semantic root of conversation is ‘to keep company with’. In other words, a conversation is the complex interaction of a living community. Recognising this consists in what Coleridge called ‘substantial knowledge’.

Living in this way involves putting a premium on human creativity: the non-alienated labour of recreation. The politics which flow from it involve rejecting unwholesome labour, and exploring all the ways in which human beings manage to reclaim the expenditure of good labour in, and on the world, as their own. Inasmuch as capitalist economies rely upon creativity and the social conditions in which it can be supported, the deracinating turbo-capitalism of the past twenty years may well be cutting itself off from the ‘oxygen’ it needs to continue; there are some significant signs that managers of capital are coming to recognise this (.W.Wheeler, A New Modernity? Change in Science, Literature and Politics, Lawrence & Wishart, 1999). The outcome is a growing respect for the creative dynamics of complex systems (from human minds to human organisations and other ecologies), and this may well mean that, over time, the nature of capitalism, itself, will change. It is, after all a living system, and it, too, must be expected to adapt and evolve or die. As capital, and especially its managers, come to recognise that, in order to survive, it must leave untouched the non-utilitarian economies of creativity, use value and the gift, its own economy must subtly change also(See Lewis Hyde, The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property, Vintage, 1999 [1979]).

The current protracted crisis cannot, and will not, last. Its direction, however, is contingent. People of good will, surely, will set their energies towards pushing the terrible juggernaut towards the kinds of conscious widescale reflexivity which is characteristic of intelligent living systems. This will allow the system to survive, but in doing so it will also radically change both the system and what it must count as profit.

Wendy Wheeler is Reader in English and Critical Theory at the University of North London and the author of A New Modernity? Lawrence and Wishart 1999


Balancing Acts

The Hard Centre by Jeremy Gilbert

Technocrats or Intellectuals? By Geoff Andrews

The Spin Cycle: Truth and Appearance in Politics By Tim Bewes

The Art of Life By Jonathan Rutherford

The Long Revolution by Wendy Wheeler

From Signs of the Times to Signing the Times By Mark Perryman