Gwyn Alf Williams at a protest outside Merthyr Tydfil Public Library, c. 1981. Via: Guardian Witness
Gwyn Alf Williams at a protest outside Merthyr Tydfil Public Library, c. 1981. Via: Guardian Witness

Today marks the 91st birthday of Professor Gwyn Alfred Williams. Born in Dowlais in 1925, he became perhaps the most iconic Welsh historian of the twentieth century and certainly the only one around whom a cult ever developed. Viva Gwyn the students of York University would shout in the heady days of the late-1960s. Although he began his research career as a medievalist, producing fine study of medieval London, which as Geraint H. Jenkins notes in his obituary-essay is sometimes regarded as Gwyn Alf’s best book, a prize essay, and a more popular analysis of King Arthur, the bulk of his writing focused on the crucial period of revolution and radicalism that followed the American Revolution. Into this group falls his Artisans and Sans-Cullottes (1968), The Merthyr Rising (1978), The Search for Beulah Land (1980), and numerous essays. A third strand of interest lay in intellectual history with work on Gramsci and the Spanish painter Goya being the most readily available. Finally, and unavoidably, there was his most widely read work – When Was Wales?

All of these strands inform, it seems to me, a discrete intellectual project and it is this which I want to consider in today’s blogpost. For although Gwyn Alf Williams was iconic in his own time, like Raymond Williams his status as an intellectual has grown immeasurably since his passing two decades ago. There are clear reasons for this, which I shall come back to towards the end, but suffice it to say at this juncture that his political instincts are key. But where to begin in unpicking his intellectual focus: the obvious place is with chronology and there can be little doubt that the 1790s are the most important. His writing on the Madoc myth, on the Atlantic Revolution, on France, and on Wales’s first generation of organic intellectuals, is all located in that decade. And it is from there that he weaves together his other work on Merthyr, Friendly Societies, and nineteenth and twentieth century Wales.  This was when, as he points out in The Search for Beulah Land, political Wales came into being and a plethora of new words entered the Welsh language for the first time: Republican in 1800, patriot in 1778, regicide in 1775, and constitution in 1810. Objectivity only arrived in 1828.

It is often the case that historians of modern Wales look for turning points in an effort to construct chronological models akin to those of the grand narratives of Britain and Europe. 1714 (the death of Louis XIV), 1815 (the Battle of Waterloo and the fall of Napoleon), 1914 (the outbreak of the First World War), 1917 (the Russian Revolution), 1945 (the end of the Second World War), 1991 (the fall of the Soviet Union), and so on. So in Wales we have 1868 and the Liberal ascendancy, 1900 and the victory of Keir Hardie in Merthyr Tydfil, 1966 and Plaid Cymru’s first MP in Carmarthen, and 1999 and the establishment of the Welsh Assembly. Other dates of significance are 1831 and the Merthyr Rising, 1898 and the establishment of the South Wales Miners’ Federation, 1910 and the Tonypandy Riots, and so on and so forth. What Gwyn Alf Williams did was set out the channels along which Wales might have travelled intellectually in the nineteenth century had it not been knocked onto a different course altogether by the sinking of the collieries in the Rhondda in the 1870s and 1880s. These intellectual currents could be absorbed into the Merthyr of Dic Penderyn (as he put it in 1966) but were far more difficult to absorb into the steadily Anglophone Wales of Tonypandy and A. J. Cook. To say nothing of Arthur Horner.

This work has its origins in Gwyn Alf’s period at York University between 1963 and 1974, a time that was bookended on the one side by a lectureship at Aberystwyth and on the other by a professorship at Cardiff. He had already signalled his interest in Gramscian thought a few years earlier with an article in the Journal of the History of Ideas on ‘egemonia’ and organic intellectualism. (The concept would be put to the test in his pamphlet on Rowland Detrosier in 1965.) And it is from this intellectual base that he focused his attention on popular radicalism in the Age of Revolutions and the ideas that sustained it. It became, in the first instance, Artisans and Sans-Culottes. Here, several years before Pocock made his plea on the subject, all four nations of the United Kingdom were woven together alongside France, with the effects of this new intellectualism refracted through local implications. ‘In Welsh-speaking Wales’, he notes in anticipation of later work, ‘the first faint tremor of anything remotely resembling “politics” dates from the ballads of the American war’. And it is a work, at least in the English passages, as much about Sheffield as it is London: ‘For there was power in Sheffield, an intransigence, a sense of identification with a local community, which were rare’. He would just as readily write the same sentence of Merthyr a decade later.

But why Sheffield? On its own terms, Sheffield was an important emerging industrial city with a steadily Liberal politics, rather like Bristol or Manchester, so it’s an understandable focus for someone based in Yorkshire. Moreover, it isn’t very difficult for South Walians to be beguiled by Yorkshire, there is a similar rambunctious attitude and a virtue made of dissent. There are the mountains and the close-knit communities. And there is the same lilted accent. (He says, knowingly.) But that aside, whenever a South Walian turns their mind to studying Yorkshire they’re really looking at home from a different angle. What Sheffield is really about is Merthyr Tydfil.  Gwyn Alf’s home town provided the theme of his first scholarly publication in 1959 – although then he called them the Merthyr Riots – and would be the central focus of his writing about Wales thereafter, with an article on the insurrection (as he now called it) in 1961, on the Merthyr of Dic Penderyn in 1966, on Merthyr’s early trade unions in 1972, and finally The Merthyr Rising in 1978. There wasn’t a great deal in Merthyr Tydfil or indeed South Wales in the 1790s, and so Sheffield and Yorkshire made up for it.

By the 1970s, the intellectual and political context of Wales was changing. Llafur, the Welsh Labour History Society, had come into being in 1971, and Gwyn Alf delivered the inaugural lecture – Merthyr 1831: The Government and Trade Unions. It was published the following year, the very first article in the society’s journal Llafur. The industrial conflicts of the decade, which began in 1969 with the Surfacemen’s Strike (known to some of the as the October Revolution) and concluded in 1974 with the fall of the Heath government, fuelled a sense of a world in which organised labour was finally in a position to improve British society for its benefit. True to his Gramscian roots, and very much in keeping with the purpose Llafur, Gwyn Alf sought to tease out of earlier phases of Welsh and European radicalism models of how to sustain a popular intellectual movement replete with its own organic thinkers. True to form, he contributed a vital essay to the first volume of History Workshop on the Madoc legend, and was a frequent participant in the History Workshop movement. He also published his work on Goya and Gramsci and translated Paolo Spriano’s work on Italian factory councils.

Gramsci is everywhere in Gwyn Alf’s writing in the 1970s, which is quite remarkable when it is considered that the availability of Gramsci in English was extremely limited at that time (not that his bothered Gwyn Alf who read it in the original) – the British Library records just 20 items in English published before 1979, with half published after 1973.  He concludes his History Workshop article on Madoc with this flurry, for instance:

Gramsci talks a lot about organic intellectuals, about folklore, ‘common sense’; he tells us more than anybody else, I think. But he doesn’t tell us enough. If we could penetrate to the reality of the Madoc myth in that particular human complex Wales at that particular moment of historical experience and perception of experience, we’d be feeding where the corn of history is green, to quote another Cambro-Briton.

Welsh scholars, today, are used to thinking of Raymond Williams as, in his own words, a ‘Welsh-European’, and making much of it, but this is an aphorism surely appropriate to Gwyn A. Williams too. More than any other historian of modern Wales in the twentieth century his is a scholarship absolutely in tune with the intellectual currents of European radicalism. Like the similarly European Gwyn Thomas, Gwyn Alf focused his attention on the Mediterranean whilst Raymond Williams wandered across the continent all the way from Harold Laski to Roland Barthes to Georg Lukacs, from Henrik Ibsen to Berthold Brecht to Anton Chekov, from Jean-Paul Sartre to the Frankfurt School. Raymond Williams and Gwyn Alf Williams, of course, joined Plaid Cymru and eventually funnelled their intellectual projects through the Welsh nationalist left; Gwyn Thomas, on the other hand, was a virulent opponent seeing that kind of nationalism as the intellectual equivalent of eating rusks. It is of little surprise that of the three, Gwyn Thomas has faded the most in recent years. His politics are unpalatable to many of the current cohort of Welsh intellectuals. (Not me, as readers of the blog will appreciate!)

Now, the irony is, that rather than being understood as a serious ‘Welsh-European’ intellectual, Gwyn Alf’s reputation has tended to be built on his popular work from the 1980s, most especially When Was Wales? Written to accompany the television series The Dragon Has Two Tongues, the book insists on seeing Welsh history not as a continuity but as a series of transformations – course corrections, if you will – that follow serious crises or ‘brutal ruptures’. It is an exposition of the Marxian theory of history replete with dialectical form. The Welsh only emerge in his view somewhere between the 6th and the 8th Century CE, and without the Romans they may not have emerged at all. This fragility provides a vitality to the book, and it brings together, if somewhat problematically, all of the intellectual strands present in Gwyn Alf’s writing in the previous two decades. And if there is any doubt as to the European influences, turn to the index. France, Germany, the Netherlands, Ireland, Italy, Slovkia, the Soviet Union, Spain, and Europe itself. Unfortunately, in his post-1979 pessimism, Gwyn Alf came to consider that ‘the Welsh, like the Slovaks in Austria-Hungary, had disappeared into the dominant partner’. It’s not hard to see why the book provides so much fuel for current Welsh commentators, but it is one riddled with contradictions.

One of the great challenges for Gwyn Alf’s intellectual project was the second phase of industrialisation in Wales in the 1870s and 1880s. This was a major break point and, as I suggested earlier, shunted Wales onto a different set of tracks. In the 1830s it was still possible to imagine an almost entirely Welsh-speaking community, with the gentry elite and emergent middle classes continuing to communicate bilingually as they needed to, and as they had done for centuries. But by the 1930s that was all but extinguished and Welsh was replaced by English in the most populous parts of Wales – Glamorgan and Monmouthshire. In 1800, Cardiganshire had a larger population than Monmouthshire. In 1900, Monmouthshire’s population was nearly four times bigger. Whatever the intellectual threads present in Wales in Gwyn Alf’s favoured decade of the 1790s, by the 1890s they were of a distinctly different character. To accommodate both means twists and turns that cannot comfortably be encompassed by the narrowing of nationalist sentiment. If we follow Gwyn Alf to his final work, Fishers of Men, his posthumous autobiographical sketches, we’re back on the European territory and the contradictions have disappeared. Admittedly this book is of a very different character to his academic scholarship, but internationalism is very apparent in this description of J. S. Williams’s funeral in Dowlais in 1938:

He had no religion, so they naturally gave him a Church of England funeral. There were crowds there, including Dowlais Spaniards. You could tell they were Spaniards. They wore brown boots and red ties and never spoke to the curate. And they gave him a Communist funeral, red flags and all. We all sang the Internationale.

That commitment to left internationalism was always more vital than the gymnastics required to fit a towering intellectual tradition into something much smaller and more narrowly defined. But then, this was the funeral of an organic intellectual. Jack Williams had studied at Coleg Harlech and taught for the National Council of Labour Colleges, and read Lewis Jones’s Cwmardy out in Spain during his service with the International Brigades.

If The Dragon Has Two Tongues and When Was Wales has established posthumous Gwyn Alf’s reputation as a pre-eminent historian of Wales, I want to suggest in concluding that this robs him of an even greater legacy. This is not to deny his obvious engagement with what he would have considered his nation and its history, but it is to refocus attention on the themes of organic intellectualism, the to-ing and fro-ing of ideas from Europe and the Americas, and the outward internationalism of the radical people of the western two peninsulas of Britain. Above all it is, I think, to bring coherence to Gwyn Alf’s intellectual project that was always more Turin than Tregaron.