History from Below Rises Again

Some fifty years ago, EP Thompson published ‘The Making of the English Working Class’, which is regarded as the foundation document of the concept of ‘history from below’, though there were other historians ploughing similar fields of research at the time. In the wake of the many post-modernist ‘turns’, the idea of developing an empirically-based view of the past from the angle of the marginalised, the dispossessed and the lower orders of society, fell somewhat out of fashion in favour of concentrating on (mainly middle-class) culture.

Thankfully, post-modernism as a self-referencing, exclusivist mindset has apparently run its course, and, equally thankfully, the many valuable insights that characterised post-modern thought at its best have been more or less seamlessly reintegrated with empirically based historical research and writing. There have always been continuities, since Raphael Samuel’s History Workshop Movement and its successor, Hilda Kean’s Public History courses and conferences based on Ruskin College, quickly absorbed the new ways of seeing things, and feminist historians (especially those with a socialist leaning) also kept the flame alive while maintaining their own critical stance.

In the past decade, a new wave of young academic historians has been exploring the insights to be gained from ‘history from below’ and its way of reading the past against the grain, though many would not wish to be labelled under this movement as they have equally absorbed the critical reference points from post-modernism. Nevertheless, several scores of them have begun to organise again around debating the continued value of the concept of ‘history from below’ and taking it on in new ways.

Check out the website ‘The Many Headed Monster’ . Here you will find a range of contributions taken from the two symposia that the network has organised and get an idea of the range of thinking that is going on.

It is to be hoped that this new wave of thinking does not confine itself to a small network of academics, but that they manage to break out of the institutional closet into the wider society. Here they will be able to meet up with and work alongside those of us operating in radical history groups, family history societies and local history societies of one sort or another. It was perhaps a fault of the earlier movement that, despite the best efforts of people like Thompson through the WEA and University Extra-Mural departments, it remained a largely institutionally based academic activity.

‘History from below’ needs also to be ‘history for below’ and ‘history by below’.