Monday, 27 January 2020

Conference report: The 150th Anniversary of the 1848 Revolutions (1998)

Conference report: The 150th Anniversary of the 1848 Revolutions
Written By: Keith Flett
Date: October 1998
Published In LSHG Newsletter Issue 4: Autumn 1998 

Socialist and radical historians gathered at Manchester Metropolitan University on September 9th for a conference, jointly organise by the London Socialist Historians and Northern Marxist Historians Groups, to mark the 150th anniversary of 1848.

The Conference aimed to present new historical research on the events of that year, rather than to simply rehearse old positions and arguments.

In a concluding summary, the veteran socialist historian John Saville (Hull) argued strongly that it was the task of historians to expose the myths of history. He pointed out that the, largely successful, attempts to write the British 1848 out of the history books reflected a historical practice that was still going on. In particular he pointed out that the best-selling book on the history of Europe by Norman Davies contained only four references to Neville Chamberlain and supposed that appeasement of Hitler as a policy had general support. More recently a book by Ross McKibbin on class and culture in England between 1918 and 1951 had contained no references to British support for the Government side in the Spanish Civil War or the hunger marches in the 1930s.

Other speakers included the author of a recent book on the French revolutionary Babeuf, Ian Birchall (Middlesex), who gave a paper on the June Days workers’ uprising in France in 1848. He underlined that Marx and Engels’ view of the event, while being good politics, could now be shown to be bad history. John Belchem (Liverpool), the author of a number of works on Chartism, highlighted the role of Irish radicals in the events of 1848 and how the State and the media had demonised the Chartists as ‘aliens’ on this basis. He argued that, as middle class radicals developed new and more respectable forms of ‘pressure from without’ such as indoor, ticketed meetings, Chartists, who remained committed to ‘members unlimited’, could easily be labelled as the ‘other’. John Saville noted that the uniformity of press hostility to Chartism in 1848 was the most sustained he had ever come across. Belchem also noted the significance, perhaps understated by historians, of the Crown and Government Security Act, which focussed not just on the written word but also the spoken in limiting the Chartist challenge.

The Conference, a modest success, underlined the importance of critical socialist history in the late 1990s. not only did the speakers critically examine the history of 1848 with new research undermining some established orthodoxies, but there was an important lesson for the present day too. John Saville in particular underlined how official society continues to determine what is and is not history to suit its own purpose. Socialist historians have a vital role in recalling and analysing the bits of history that are left out or glossed over. He argued that historians of Chartism need to be a lot more polemical in pursuit of this goal.

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