Thursday, 12 January 2017

Comment: Historians and the World of Post-Truth

From London Socialist Historians Group Newsletter 60 (Spring 2017)

Historians and the World of Post-Truth

Particularly since Donald Trump won the US Presidential Election there has been much discussion of ‘post-truth’ and a related issue, ‘fake news’, the latter being focused on the social media site Facebook. The general idea is that Trump and his associates said what they felt like and what they thought would play well to without the slightest regard to whether or not it was true or had any relationship to reality.

The same approach was apparent during the UK Brexit referendum campaign, from the side of the political right. Michael Gove denigrated the value of ‘experts’, that is people who actually know something as opposed to those who just have an opinion or make it up. More recently hard right Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg has told BBC Newsnight that experts are in the same category as soothsayers. One reaction to this is to revisit the regulation of the media proposed by the Leveson Report. But the post-truth world of stories, myths and lies goes far deeper and wider than that. One way, from the left, that an effective challenge can be built to post-truthers, is through historical research and publication.

Of course academia has plenty of both but that is hardly going to reach to many of those who are inclined to go along with reactionary ideas. This year sees the 40th anniversary of the first publication of History Workshop Journal, which at the recently published issue 82, leading with new research on the Tolpuddle Martyrs, is still going strong. It is also the 20th anniversary in December of the untimely death of Raphael Samuel, a key founding figure behind the History Workshops held at Ruskin College in Oxford and the Journal as well. The first History Workshop day event held at Ruskin in March 1967 was called a ‘Day with the Chartists’. It heard from socialist academics like Dorothy Thompson who were researching the subject but the emphasis was on what the participants could discover themselves. The idea in this case was to look at what the Chartists had been doing in their own local areas, to check original sources of evidence, for example in local record offices, and to understand from their own experience what the Chartist challenge to capital had been in the 1840s.

The Journal when it was launched placed a similar emphasis on grassroots research. There were reports about labour history to be found in archives and perhaps most of all a fascination with what working people had done politically in previous times and how. Samuel himself was invariably immersed in the details of the history of the lives of workers. His classic study of Victorian industry and labour, Workshop of the World, available free online, is notable for its large number of footnotes.

The Workshop and Journal spawned a series of pamphlets which were and remain classic studies of the detail of aspects of working class history. For example Stan Shipley’s Club Life and Socialism in mid-Victorian London uncovered the history of working men’s clubs, particularly in areas like Homerton, and how their activities formed part of the basis of the socialist movement’s development after the demise of Chartism in the 1860s. History Workshop Journal is now arguably a little more academic in style and the link to worker historians is gone. However it helped to inspire a network of left-wing history groups across the UK that carry on the tradition of researching and remembering the realities of working class life and politics. In the age of post-truth remembering reality is important.

Keith Flett

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