Monday, 27 January 2020

Capital comes to Penge (2008)

Capital comes to Penge
Written By: Martin Spence
Date: January 2008
Published In LSHG Newsletter Issue 30: Lent 2008  

The existence of a London Socialist Historians Group implies the existence of Socialist Historians, which in turn implies the existence of Socialist History. But if Socialist History exists, what is it? What defines it?

We might define Socialist History by its subject matter, as the history of socialist ideas, movements, parties, and states (if any). But this would surely be a narrow, artificial position, running the risk of abstracting socialist experience from the wider world. What’s more, if we were to define Socialist History in this way, it would allow conservatives, post-modernists and others to become “Socialist Historians” simply by virtue of writing about socialist subjects. It implies that if David Irving wrote a book on the relationship between the German Social Democrats and the German Communists during the rise of Nazism, he would become a Socialist Historian. Is this what we intend? I don’t think so.
Socialist History is surely defined not by its subject matter, but by its approach. It is history made by historians who are – or who aspire to be – socialist. It is history conceived and constructed from a distinctively socialist viewpoint. And in practical terms, given the history of socialist ideas and the intellectual traditions available for us to draw upon, this means that it is likely to be broadly Marxist.
Certainly this was my approach to the making of Penge. My subject matter was an unremarkable urban landscape. I started from the conviction that this could best be understood as a capitalist landscape, as the outcome of decades of capitalist development. I wasn’t sure at first exactly how the argument might develop: I wasn’t sure how I might point to a railway line or terrace of houses and demonstrate their specifically capitalist provenance. But I was convinced that an approach informed by Marxist concepts and tools of analysis was worth a try.

Now that the writing is done, and the book is published, I would highlight two lessons from my experience.

Firstly, don’t get trapped by conventional disciplinary boundaries. I quickly realised that Penge’s emergence as a capitalist railway suburb could only be explained by referring to London’s emergence as a capitalist world-city – but to attempt to write a brief history of London seemed presumptuous to say the least. The insights of two non-historians - Lefebvre (“sociologist”) and Harvey (“geographer”) – came to the rescue, suggesting lines of approach that helped me through.

Secondly – and if this contradicts the first point then so be it - don’t scorn good old primary sources in good old archives. While researching the enclosure of Penge Common, I spent hours poring over the original hand-written minutes of the Battersea Vestry in Wandsworth Local History Library. These include instances of fence-breaking by parish officials, written up by the participants themselves. Without this primary source, the story could not have been told.

No comments:

Post a comment