Creating History

I am drawn to the view, by whomsoever expressed, that we make our own history, we are not victims of it, even when it appears so. This includes Karl Marx, who suggested that we do not make history in conditions of our own choosing. It therefore includes also Raya Dunayevskaya, in her rescue of humanism from the ravages of post-Marx Marxists. It also includes Cornelius Castoriadis and his view of History as Creation and The Imaginary Institution of Society, from a post-Marxist viewpoint. There are others with whose work I am not familiar enough to cite them.

You will note that this also relates to writers who were writing about political action and creativity, so that my view of history and my view of political action have tended to coincide. The one feeds into the other and has done for me for over 50 years. If I have a generally libertarian view of politics, it is matched by a libertarian view of history, while in both cases aware of the collective nature of human society (I am not an individualist). As human beings we are essentially creative, even when it looks different. This infuses my concept of ‘history from below’, which goes beyond the idea of studying history as if from the lower ranks of society, though it includes that. It comes out in my concept of radical family history, both as a way of understanding the world and as a practice for historians.

I am prompted to these thoughts having just read The Future of History, by John Lukacs, (Yale University Press, New Haven & London, 2011). It is not that he directly addresses the issues in which I am interested, but the honest appreciation he makes of the limits of history, the limits of the surviving record, while pleading for all historians to fight for the profession (which includes so-called amateurs like myself) and for meaningful standards, including readability. There are elements of what he says with which I might disagree, but that in no ways is a criticism[1]. He is also a self-confessed ‘reactionary’ or ‘conservative’, while I see myself as ‘radical’ – but that makes his views all the more interesting, not least when I find myself often in full agreement. I hope he will not therefore mind if I describe the work as entertaining, by which I mean stimulating and enjoyable in equal measure. It is a work worth returning to and allowing his critique to work on one’s consciousness and inform one’s practice.

As a primarily family historian, I am all too aware of the limitations of the records from which I and my co-conspirators have to work. These become less and less adequate, the further one travels back in time. It is, to say the least, a challenge and not merely from a technical, genealogical point of view. It is an even bigger challenge for me to then suggest that this is a way of testing the theory that we make our own history in the sense described above. Just how does that actually work? How can we, as historians, demonstrate that the theory is more than an unproven hypothesis? When the thinkers I mention above talk about history as creation, what exactly do they have in mind? What kinds of verifiable records are there to prove the hypothesis? Or is it just abstract theorising? Sometimes when you read their work it seems like that, not least because of their selection of relevant illustrative events.

As a professed ‘radical family historian’, however, I am not positing an abstract theory: I am testing it to destruction. What sort of family history can I and others of my ilk write and what will it demonstrate? Some have written excellent histories of their own particular family lines and the reader can see how some of the characters shaped their immediate world, while being equally shaped by it (I have mentioned these in previous posts). The balance from one individual to another might vary considerably – some of us are passive and it is the passivity that helps shape our own history and, to some degree, that of the world around us (think of those who can’t be bothered to vote in elections, for example, or pour scorn on others who do try to bring about social change). I have suggested elsewhere that comparative, parallel family histories might offer insights on social change or specific facets of everyday life. My own aim is to use the history of those who took up and bore the name ‘Bashforth’ over three centuries, how they spread around the world, how their fates differed and can be compared, how they ‘created history’ and in what sense. What I can show (let alone prove) with that approach is as yet an open book, with lots of blank pages. One thing I am sure I will find is that ‘radical family history’ is a concept, not a methodology.

[1] I think he describes social history in terms that are too narrow and, while I concur with his view that some of the subjects that are studied and written about by academics in the field of cultural history may seem bizarre (pp 86-87), his list is rhetorically selective (and therefore unworthy) and fails to appreciate the way in which historians today are concerned with the history of ‘everyday life’.

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Review: ‘The Secret History of My Family’, parts 2 and 3

Watching further episodes of the BBC family history series ‘The Secret History of My Family’, it is possible to discern that something more nuanced and interesting may be trying to break away from the demands of the TV’s need for a specific story-cum-message.

The first episode was clunky in its approach to the issue of class as a ladder that one may or may not climb. The second episode continued with the narrow idea that social mobility meant moving up the class ladder, but brought in a story line centred on convergence as lower class people made good, while well-to-do families fell on hard times. It was perhaps best illustrated by the woman from one side who got a job as a bus driver, while one from the other side became a lorry driver. What all had in common was the experience of having to ‘make shift’ to survive in the world, whether escaping from the workhouse or trying to rescue the former country house. It was easier to empathise with the human aspects of the stories. However, there remained one glaring omission. What happened to the mother and the four children who did go into the workhouse? Deafening silence.

The third episode focussed on two families from Salford descended from a period of gang warfare in the 1890s, and the descendants of the magistrate who condemned their forebears to the local jail. It was hard to feel much empathy for the young thugs trapped in the narrow culture of the time and place. At least there was no disguising the resentment and anger, the confining narrow horizons of working class life, and disputed ideas of what constituted justice, legal and social. Alongside the refrain of the importance of kinship and family in working class solidarity (a mixed blessing as some of us might recall) there was once again the concept of ‘make shift’, of ‘make do’, of improvisation, of ‘getting on in the world’. This has nothing to do with climbing the class structure ladder, but everything to do with wellbeing, material and cultural. While one line of descent from the magistrate did exceedingly well, another was characterised by male desertion of the family, leaving the women to pick up the pieces and ‘make shift’. There was, however, the rather clunky contrast of the two different experiences of family life – working class family built on the extended kinship network, middle class based on putting professional life before personal and emotional needs. It was moving, and it may tell us something about the UK’s political class and their incompetent attempts to take up the ‘family life’ refrain, but it was a little too crudely drawn. There needed to be a closer examination of the narrowness of working class family life, rather than seeing it uncritically as a ‘good thing’. It was hinted at but not as strongly drawn out as it might have been.

As the series has progressed, it has brought to the fore aspects of history as everyday life. If the characters keep uttering phrases such as ‘make shift’, then they are echoing Michel de Certeau and what he defines as ‘bricolage’, the ‘do-it-yourself’ attitude to life of the majority[1]. They may not make history in the sense that political decision-makers imagine themselves doing, but they do make history in the sense that they create the world in its finer details. It is a different sort of history, a true ‘history from below’, though one that nevertheless links to the political counterpart represented by those movements that have eschewed the cult of ‘leadership’ such as syndicalism, feminism, and the libertarian socialism of no longer fashionable thinkers such as Cornelius Castoriadis[2]. Family history is proving one way into this radical form of history, for too long below the horizon of most historians.

 

[1] Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, (University of California Press, 1988)

[2] See for example: Cornelius Castoriadis, Philosophy, Politics, Autonomy: Essays in Political Philosophy, (Oxford University Press, 1991) or World in Fragments: Writings on Politics, Society, Psychoanalysis and the Imagination, (Stanford University Press, 1997)