Thursday, 19 May 2016

Comment: History Workshop at 40

[From London Socialist Historians Group Newsletter 58 (Summer 2016)]

History Workshop at 40

It is 40 years since the first publication of History Workshop Journal, in Spring 1976. A major conference is planned in London at the end of June on radical histories, although it has been a while since the magazine was at the forefront of a movement of radical historians.

Even so 40 years ago the Journal could fit into a framework of more or less annual History Workshop conferences as well numerous local Workshop events and meetings. Behind it in part was the organising zeal of Raphael Samuel who sadly died 20 years ago this coming December.

I was a mere rank and file participant in History Workshop, although to be fair to Ralph he did on occasion mention me at conferences in a friendly way. I wrote critical letters to the Journal from time to time and if you have access to the online archive you can review these in all their didactic glory.

My view was that the Journal and movement were backsliding, moving into academic positions and preparing to abandon the masthead description of explicit commitment to socialism. I was mostly right of course but that didn’t really help matters.

There is no organisation or framework of socialist and feminist historians at the moment that can mobilise the interest and numbers that those early issues of History Workshop Journal and the Workshops did. That is now itself a matter for historical investigation.

There is something to be said for thinking about whether the approach to history that is to be found in the early issues of the Journal is not something that is worth returning to. The kind of long essays that Raphael Samuel produced in the early issues such as the Workshop of the World and Comers and Goers about the Victorian market (which actually appeared in a volume on Urban History) painstakingly researched in the British Library and elsewhere (I often saw him in the old North Library at Bloomsbury with a huge piles of books) and which looked at labour and the labour process, are rarely encountered nowadays.

As I wrote in a brief appreciation of the late Asa Briggs as convenor of the socialist history seminar at the Institute of Historical Research, while I find no shortage of suggestions for papers those that focus on what might be termed ‘labour history’ are few in number (but not non-existent).

It is the relationship between historians and the labour movement that was symbolised by Ruskin College (and perhaps still is) that is important here. That means, and this is still at least to some extent the case, that arguably the most interesting socialist and feminist history is written not by pure academics (though research is an essential part of useful history) but by activists who are also historians.

The two inform each other as they certainly did in the early days of History Workshop Journal. The potential is there with anticapitalist and Occupy movements for the same thing to happen again, though no doubt, as the famous William Morris quote from News from Nowhere suggests, not quite in the same way.

Contributions and criticisms are welcome

Keith Flett

Registration is now open for the Radical Histories Histories of Radicalism conference from 30-June-3 July in London

Edited to add: Felix Driver has edited a special virtual edition of History Workshop Journal with a collection of articles by Raphael Samuel - see here, while for one 1981 critical reflection on the History Workshop movement by Norah Carlin, see here.

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