A Critique of Radical History

The wrong end of the telescope

The revolutionary left bases its outlook on the concept that ‘the emancipation of the working class is the task of the working class itself’, however one defines the term ‘working class’[1]. Any other sort of ‘left’ is not revolutionary because they substitute some other agency as the motive power of change.

In practice however the revolutionary left tends to focus only on one small segment of the working class at any one time: ‘the most advanced section of the working class’, those engaged in immediate class conflict with employers, the State or their agents. Such struggles tend to be short-lived, intermittent and ephemeral, so there is little continuity from one struggle to another. The revolutionary left seeks to mitigate this by acting as ‘the memory of the working class’ and by recruiting individuals from out of these struggles into one or other of the organisations of the revolutionary left as they make the step into a broader radical consciousness arising out of their experience of struggle.

The focus on these sections of the working class by the revolutionary left is parallelled among radical historians researching and studying ‘history from below’. They study those activities of the working class at the point where they break into public consciousness through acts of riot, rebellion and revolution or through the creation of their own independent institutions – societies, unions, clubs, parties, campaigns, and so on.

The revolutionary left bases much of its raison d’être on capturing the records of these incidents and institutions of the working class, analyzing them, presenting their lessons to new audiences, thus keeping the flame alive. The work of radical historians and the work of the left are therefore intrinsically linked by a common approach, though their purposes may overlap rather than be the same. What both fail to do is to recognize that the social phenomena with which they engage is predominantly a minority of the working class. Not only that, but even within that minority, the activity under scrutiny does not itself dominate the lives of the minority. The members of box clubs and early friendly societies did not spend all their working days thinking about these organisations – they got on with earning a living, raising a family, engaging in the myriad aspects of everyday life. So what the revolutionary left and radical historians study, the practical emergence of new social imaginaries among the working class, was and remains a small and often ephemeral part of the daily life of a minority of the class. Rarely does it engage large numbers, even less a majority of the class, even at times of revolution.

Does it matter that attention is not paid to the great majority of the working class who did not and do not generally become involved? I would argue that it does. I would argue that this wider aspect of working class life is the most important feature of life we should engage with as both revolutionaries and as social historians. I would argue that the apparently passive majority, which often as not includes an even larger majority among women, is the most important group in society at any period. If we do not understand these people and do not understand how they think and make their decisions, then we cannot understand how consciousness can change or be changed, or the factors that promote such change. Similarly we need to understand, for the minority of activists, how they negotiate the activist side of their lives with the other parts of their everyday existence. Otherwise, we are looking down the wrong end of the telescope and the effect is to write the vast majority of working class experience out of history.

By way of example, when the radical left has placed its attention on studies of the Great War in the UK it has tended to concentrate on war resisters, strikers, mutineers and the like. They have not sought to understand the 25% or so of men who volunteered in the first few weeks of the war. They have not sought to understand those who held back from volunteering until inveigled into registration by the Derby scheme of 1915 or were press-ganged in 1916 through conscription. They have not sought to understand the consciousness and experience of those at the front who soldiered on despite appalling conditions, who used their grit and determination simply to survive the attrition, and who (more or less) willingly continued in their part. They have not sought to understand the families at home, especially the women, unless they engaged in rent strikes or the like. In other words the revolutionary left failed to understand the majority experience and consciousness of the working class, whose consciousness was the reason why there was no revolution in the UK before, during or after the war. Yet it is their thought processes, outlook and decisions that are crucial. I would argue that the revolutionary left, and more than a few radical historians, have been and still are blinded by a form of revolutionary romanticism.

Among historians one of the reasons for not paying sufficient attention to the majority (except in a very superficial way) is that these people are the most difficult with which to engage, as they tend not to leave any records. There are historians who have become recently aware of this fault, not necessarily for radical reasons, but simply because they have also noticed the missing legions. Carolyn Steedman, for example, in her book Masters and Servants noted that historians such as EP Thompson, in his seminal Making of the English Working Class, concentrated on the most organised sections of the West Riding working class and missed the vast numbers of farm and domestic servants, especially the women, many of whom were also employed on the fringes of the textile industry. More recently David Kynaston in his ongoing trilogy about post-WW2 Britain has relied heavily on the testimony of very ordinary people recording their daily lives, in which the ‘great events’ appear, if at all, on the margins of their lives.

Involve yourself in radical campaigning in a neighbourhood (as I have done) and it is amazing that however much publicity you generate, however much you knock on doors or leaflet the streets, you can turn up at a public meeting a year later and there will be people who have missed the fact that you have been campaigning all that time and wonder why the cause is about to be lost! This is not a new phenomenon. This is normal.

For me, history and revolutionary politics are totally intertwined. I interpret the modern world with the benefit of historical knowledge. I study and research history in order to better understand the world, now and then. The more I engage with the historical experience of the working class, the more it makes sense of my own experience – including all the faults, doubts, fears and hesitations. In fact it is these negative sensations that have kept me in touch with the majority of the working class (however defined), so that I can not exclude them by focussing only on those engaged directly in struggle. Indeed I believe that the real story of the working class struggle is the day to day grind of earning a living in a capitalist world, with all the pressures on time, energy, relationships, and the need to engage with life in its wider aspects, at least wider than the occasional moment of class conflict. Life is not, generally, about strikes, riots and revolutions, however much the revolutionary in me would like it to be. If we have to understand anything about the working class, it has to be their capacity to endure, and it has to be that ‘whatever it is’ that finally undermines the tendency to fortitude and replaces it, not with despair and apathy, but with the capacity to revolt. The first step is to understand the well springs of endurance.


[1] Personally I make a distinction between the working class in itself and the working class for itself. The former consists of all those people who are obliged to earn their living through wages, salaries and welfare benefits or are dependent on others who do. It excludes all those who earn their living through ownership and control of the means of production – land, capital and, crucially, the right of others to work. The working class for itself exists only when the vast majority of its membership becomes conscious of a shared interest in overthrowing and expropriating those who own and control the means of production. It is the working class in its first sense above that I have used in this essay. While the vast majority of its members are simply wage, salary and benefit earners, there is a significant segment that sees itself as somehow not part of the working class or has an ambiguous relationship. Generally speaking this can include the self-employed craftsman or small shopkeeper, the lower ranks of management and supervision (especially professional experts within these groups), professionals and agents of the State (including police, army, teachers, social workers). They often identify themselves as middle class or possess a separate consciousness that distinguishes them from the majority of the working class and sets them in conflict, even with their own communities. They also can change and be won over during the process by which the working class becomes conscious for itself.

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