In Search of People’s History

Eric Hobsbawm

  • People’s History and Socialist Theory edited by Raphael Samuel
    Routledge, 417 pp, £10.95, January 1981, ISBN 0 7100 0765 5
  • British Labour History by E.H. Hunt
    Weidenfeld, 428 pp, £18.50, January 1981, ISBN 0 297 77785 8

When the Roman emperor Vitellius was deserted in his last moments by everyone except his cook, the aristocratic historian Tacitus could not bring himself to mention the actual occupation of so undignified a member of society. As Peter Burke points out in a friendly but sceptical contribution to People’s History and Socialist Theory, under such circumstances ‘people’s history’ was a contradiction in terms.

We are a long way from Tacitus, upon whom time has taken its revenge by making his work accessible chiefly to a mass public of what he would certainly have regarded as the lower orders by means of television serials about early Roman emperors. As the great Fernand Braudel observes, ‘the obscure history of everyman’ (l’histoire obscure de tout le monde) is ‘the history toward which, in different ways, all historiography tends at present’. Histories claiming to take ‘peoples’ (as distinct from top people) as their subject began to be written under appropriate titles in the early 19th century, era of revolutions and national revivals. The label has been particularly popular at times of romanticism and the militancy of intellectuals, such as before 1848 and today. But what exactly do those who write ‘people’s history’ think they are doing? What does the term mean?

In the case of the splendid package inspired and edited by Raphael Samuel, it clearly means, among other things, history written by a lot of people: about fifty named authors and a ‘collective’. It also means a history arousing the active enthusiasm of a great many more. About a thousand attended the History Workshop at which the papers were first presented. These occasions, which emerged from Ruskin College, Oxford in the later 1960s, are the nearest thing there is to a Durham Miners’ Gala for militant historians, both professional and, in unusually substantial numbers, non-professional: unique mixtures of learned conferences, political rallies, revival meetings and weekend holidays. They await their own historiographers, who will no doubt emerge from the Workshop itself, which has already generated an impassioned, learned and miscellaneous ‘journal of socialist history’ and a notable series of books, of which the present volume is the fifth. In the meanwhile, History Workshop, inspired and dynamised by Raphael Samuel in the intervals of teaching, politics and titanic erudition, has already helped to create the nearest thing on record to a voluntary levée en masse of historians.

To summarise the contents of People’s History and Socialist Theory is therefore rather like summarising a department store during the winter sales. It contains British, French, German, Italian, Scandinavian and American writers. It parades other ranks, NCOs and officers of various grades in the army of history (some of the latter claiming honorary guerrilla status). There are papers, ranging from the fairly concise to the summary, and reports of discussions ranging from the critical digest to skeletal minutes. There are useful bibliographies. Apart from the editor’s excellent prefaces and ‘Afterword’ summarising History Workshop’s intentions, the book contains a dizzying variety of surveys of trends and fields, reflections, musings, programmatic demands, questions and arguments.

Somewhere in these 417 pages readers may discover sketches for a major revaluation of utopian socialism (by Stedman Jones), significant new contributions to the debate on the origins of modern capitalism (by Hans Medick), a first-hand account of what history means for working coal-miners (by Dave Douglass), pioneer studies of the Scottish peasantry (by Ian Carter), an exploration into the politics of Hertfordshire villagers at the time of Wat Tyler (by Ros Faith), observations on George V’s Silver Jubilee as celebrated in Kenya (by John Lonsdale), a powerful dissection of the problems of writing the history of the Communist Parties (by Perry Anderson), and reference to an Italian cowherd who constructed his own version of the Odyssey because he found the original too long to memorise. There are sections on Capitalism, Socialism, Feminism, Religion, Oral Tradition, Fascism, Africa, Culture, Sexual Politics and a few other global topics. There are debates on and by Edward Thompson. There is probably no better way of discovering what younger radical historians are interested in and arguing about today than to read this stimulating miscellany, though much of it is not exactly for beginners.

What have all these in common as ‘people’s history’? Raphael Samuel, whose preface makes a gallant attempt to answer this question, appears to agree that it is chiefly a particular form of political interest or commitment. This is indeed obvious, because the term ‘the people’ itself combines the maximum of emotional resonance with the minimum of precision in defining the multiple and overlapping meanings it conceals. It is a badge, not a technical term. It indicates an option for subjects or citizens against governments, for the common man and woman against élite minorities, or for whatever section of the common man is supposed to stand for the committed populist’s values and aspirations. By the same token, it is not the badge of any particular strip of the political spectrum. Mussolini’s newspaper was The People of Italy and the ‘Study of the People’ (Volkskunde), which in Germany provides the name for what we should call a mixture of folklore research and cultural anthropology, was for much of its history far from identified with the Left. As Samuel notes very justly, ‘the left- and right-wing versions of people’s history overlap at an uncomfortable number of points.’

‘People’s history’ is therefore anything on which this badge can be pinned. Its strength and weakness today is that it is largely inspirational: a recovery of ancestors, a search for the village Hampdens and mute inglorious Miltons who can be shown to have been neither mute nor inglorious, a transformation of the past, through identification, into an everyday epic. Hence the notable attraction of local history and oral history. Its ‘main thrust ... in recent years has been towards the recovery of subjective experience’. This is important for the discipline of history, not only because it can mobilise surprising numbers of people in its practice, and because it incidentally implies ‘some sort of attempt to broaden the basis of history, to enlarge its subject-matter’ and ‘make use of new raw materials’, but because it demonstrates the force of the past as an essential dimension of human public and private life. The main justification for ‘people’s history’ might be that people and peoples need history, though unfortunately not necessarily, or even preferably, the work of serious historians. Not least, it provides historians with a defence of their subject against the attempts of social scientists, technocrats and others to eliminate it from education. Such attempts have been made – most recently in France – and any ammunition for the resisters is welcome.

The problem about this kind of history, as Samuel recognises when considering its uneasy relations with Marxism, is that it sacrifices analysis and explanation to celebration and identification. It encourages a vogue for antiquarianism, for ‘recovering the feel of the past’ and for a dislike of generalisation which in itself is no more satisfactory in red versions than in true-blue ones. New subject-matter and new sources are not enough. We all know that the history of railways begins when it is taken out of the hands of train-spotters and historic demography when it emancipates itself from the genealogists. More than emotional commitment and empathy are needed, even when they are combined with scholarship. Moreover, as Samuel himself notes, most of what can be annexed to ‘people’s history’ from past writing had far greater intellectual ambitions than to sink itself in the lived reality of the olden days.

In short, ‘people’s history’ is not much more than a statement of intent, indicating that historians are on the side of the people (however defined), wish to address a broad public, try to mobilise men and women to investigate their past, announce their commitment to a suitable cause, protest against ‘dry-as-dust scholarship’, or concentrate their attention on the history of common men and – in this instance, with much-needed zeal – women. It belongs to the history of ideology, and Samuel, critically supplemented by Peter Burke, has written a suggestive sketch of its varied fortunes.

However, it is neither a descriptive nor an analytical category, nor does it provide a particularly helpful perspective for historical research, though it may provide a valuable incentive to undertaking it. Here it simply provides a convenient roof under which a large number of historians of radical convictions can gather to display their wares, and their disagreements. They are wares of good, sometimes of outstanding quality. Fortunately, they contain plenty of attempts at interpretation, analysis and explanation as well as exercise in recovering the lived experience of the popular past. But the contributions to this fascinating volume have a unity of sympathies rather than of intellectual interests.

They also raise the interesting problem of how historical writing relates to political ‘relevance’: for History Workshop (in Samuel’s formulation) is for partisan truth and for making historians ‘more present-minded’. In this it does not differ, except in explicitness, from any other history. No major historian in this country, and probably elsewhere, has had other than strong convictions on politics and public affairs, and all major changes in the interpretation of facts or the direction of research have been inspired by historians’ experiences, preoccupations and debates as citizens. Yet if history is ultimately inseparable from politics, it must nevertheless in practice be separated from it. Even the most committed historian suspects, if he takes his subject seriously, that ‘history as a form of political activity invariably stands on the fringes of the political struggle.’

The quotation comes from Bob Scribner’s lucid and depressing paper on the German left-wing historiography of the Peasant War of 1524-5, traditionally a highly politicised subject. More depressing, perhaps, than it need be, since the author pays little attention to the left-wing historians who have quietly, though not crucially, contributed to the modern study of the war, and concentrates on the politicians, theorists, propagandists and popularisers who have, for almost a century and a half, played variations on the themes contained in Zimmermann’s three volumes of 1841-3, the only major work by a radical historian, as reinterpreted by Engels in 1850. Preoccupied ‘with theory at the expense of basic research’, and ‘with the problems of their own time’ which ‘dulled their historical perception’, they failed to update either their knowledge or their theory. Concerned with propaganda and political education, they neglected their job as historians, and in doing so largely failed their cause.

For ‘relevant’ history is not merely what can be used to mobilise or educate citizens, or provide arguments for current political debate. Most of the past cannot do so directly, since it deals with societies and situations very unlike the present. The ‘relevance’ of the French Revolution, that great magnet for committed historiography, no longer lies primarily in its use as a model for subsequent revolutionaries and anti-revolutionaries searching for current equivalents to Girondins, Jacobins, Sansculottes and Bonaparte, or even as a source of political legitimation for the Left. What keeps the debate about it alive are questions about its place in the transformation of pre-capitalist into capitalist society, about the nature, achievements and limits of major social revolutions in general, about the modus operandi of major social transformations, or about the heritage which it left behind and which still determines much of contemporary France. None of these are irrelevant to the present, but none lend themselves to direct identification or simple parallels.

Fortunately, most of the contributors to this volume try to write history rather than to conjugate present politics in the past tense. In fact, their ‘present-mindedness’ largely takes the form – to quote Samuel again – of seeing how ‘their own working practice is existentially limited and defined’ and of following ‘the invisible lines which connect their themes to the work of their predecessors’. They have thus, incidentally, produced a number of illuminating essays on historiography. This is not the least of the merits of People’s History and Socialist Theory.

Few branches of ‘people’s history’ have flourished more exuberantly in the past thirty years than ‘labour history’, a general title covering the study both of the working classes since the 18th century and of the political and social movements, organisations and ideologies associated with them. The latter have long been intensively studied. About the former we now know rather more than about the classes which employed them, though lately there have been welcome signs of a much-needed historical interest in the affairs of the bourgeoisie. The sheer pace and volume of research are such that general surveys of the field have lagged far behind. E.H. Hunt’s British Labour History 1815-1914 is much the best attempt so far to cover the 19th century.

All works in this field, however scholarly, are political. Hunt’s position is, by the standards of labour history, cautious and moderately conservative. More committed critics may be tempted to describe it as picking a careful compromise path between truth and error, but all readers will appreciate his impressive command of the now vast literature – to which he has himself contributed an indispensable volume on Regional Wage Variations 1850-1914 – and the fact that his book is the first to attempt a systematic synthesis both of the labour market, incomes and consumption and of the history of labour movements.

On labour movements he says little that will not be familiar to students. On the economic conditions of the working class he offers excellent and balanced discussions of a number of familiar topics such as the ‘standard-of-living debate’ and poverty, and of topics which have long called for brief coherent treatment, notably women’s employment and migration, and especially the Irish. Unlike most works of labour history, his study faces the problem of what trade unions have contributed positively to working-class living standards and negatively to productivity. In short, even those who do not accept his conclusions will agree that he has written a very useful book.

However, it is not as comprehensive as its title suggests. A great deal of labour history in the past ten years has been preoccupied with the actual labour process: what workers did and how work was organised in workshop, mine, factory, or on site. Much attention has been paid to the varieties and transformations of working-class ways of life and culture (in a vaguely anthropological sense). Increasingly, the language, ideology and modes of labour organisation have been investigated, not least in the light of pre-industrial traditions. We now know much about the cadre of labour activists. Readers will find little or nothing on such matters in Hunt’s book. The author’s bibliography on labour movements tails off notably after the middle 1970s. Moreover, not only the Scots and the Welsh will regret the rather cursory manner in which their countries have been treated. What Hunt does, he does well. But as the writings of History Workshop or the essays on Wales edited by David Smith under the title A People and a Proletariat show, there is more to labour history than is contained in this volume.