The writing of history, argued Douglas Hay, “is deeply conditioned not only by our personal political and moral histories, but also by the times in which we live, and where we live.” Whether we acknowledge it or not, all historians and writers “take stands by our choice of words, handling of evidence, and analytic categories. And also by our silences.”
It is these silences—within the historical record and the conscious or subconscious choices of many historians—that history from below seeks to recover. But what exactly is history from below? Who is below? Given that modern historians of any worth must consider the aims and methods of social history, as well as taking into account class, gender and race, is there still value in the label history from below?
Sometimes known as ‘people’s history’ or ‘radical history’, according to the Institute of Historical Research, history from below is history that: “seeks to take as its subjects ordinary people, and concentrates on their experiences and perspectives, contrasting itself with the stereotype of traditional political history and its focus on the actions of ‘great men’. It also differed from traditional labour history in that its exponents were more interested in popular protest and culture than in the organisations of the working class.”
For historian David Hitchcock, history from below is history which preserves, and which foregrounds, the marginalised stories and experiences of people who, all else being equal, did not get chance to author their own story. The recovery of voices missing from the historical narrative is a central purpose of history from below.
An active and world-renowned practitioner of history from below is Marcus Rediker, Distinguished Professor of Atlantic History at the University of Pittsburgh and author of many prize-winning books (my favourite, by a pinch, is The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic with Peter Linebaugh). For Rediker, history from below is a variety of social history that emerged in the New Left to explore the experiences and history-making power of working people who had long been left out of elite, “top-down” historical narratives. It is an approach to the past “that concentrates not on the traditional subjects of history, not the kings and the presidents and the philosophers, but on ordinary working people, not simply for what they experienced in the past but for their ability to shape the way history happens.” Finding and exalting the collective self-activity or agency of working people is paramount. As Rediker notes, “the phrase ‘history from below’ is a rhetorical assertion of political sympathy but also of how history happens.”
It would be wrong, however, to think that history from below ignores power relations or the powerful. As Geoff Eley argues, setting history from below against histories of “the bosses, bankers and brokers who run the economy” is to invoke a false antinomy. “Historians from below”, notes Rediker, “study power.”
In doing so, history from below (especially feminist work and studies of slavery and unfree labour) has expanded our understanding of the working class and working-class struggle beyond waged labour. Rediker’s own work on slavery and the revolutionary Atlantic is a case in point, for it includes the waged and the unwaged, those across the gender spectrum, and people of many different ethnicities and cultures. Previously overlooked forms of resistance to capitalism have joined the ranks of more traditional labour actions.
Those who have worked to this end includes the American historian Jesse Lemisch, who passed away in late 2018. In his preface to Lemisch’s Jack Tar vs. John Bull: The Role of New York’s Seamen in Precipitating the Revolution, Rediker writes that Lemisch helped to internationalise American history and to make its study more sophisticated “by adapting and popularizing the work of the British Marxist historians—Christopher Hill, Eric Hobsbawm, George Rudé, and especially E.P. Thompson, all of whom eschewed dogmatism, reductionism, determinism, and excessive abstraction in favour of a flexible, concrete humanism in the writing of politically-engaged history.”
Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class showed historian Ruth Mather “a new way of doing history, one which didn’t patronise working people, or subsume them in a narrative of progress, but instead constructed a story about thinking, feeling people with their own ideas about their lives and their own strategies for living them.”
Rediker argues that Lemisch went beyond these distinguished scholars in several respects: “If the British Marxist historians, along with the French historians Georges Lefebvre and Albert Soboul, had pioneered “history from below,” which made historical actors of religious radicals, rioters, peasants, and artisans, Lemisch pushed the phrase and the history further and harder with “history from the bottom up,” a more inclusive and comprehensive formulation that brought all subjects, especially slaves and women, more fully into the historian’s field of vision… by insisting that sailors and other workers had ideas of their own, he [also] made a point that many historians have yet to grasp—the history of the working class must be an intellectual as well as a social history.”
However there is more to it than simply the people we choose to write about (although they are crucial). In researching and telling history from below, the ‘how’ is just as important. This includes the methodologies we use, the sources we scour, and the narratives we employ to tell the story. Eley notes how history from below posits “a set of conceptual rules and protocols, methodologies and theoretical approaches, topics and fields, cautions and incitements, that allow the largest of analytical questions to be brought down to the ground.” Viewpoint is critical. Rediker, echoing George Rawick, notes that “if you write something in which an ordinary working person couldn’t see him or herself in that story, somehow you’ve failed. That’s a question of audience, of sympathy, of the subjects you choose to treat, and how you treat them.”
In this vein, Rediker believes all good storytellers (and good historians) tell a big story within a little story. In his own work “the big story has always been the violent, terror-filled rise of capitalism and the many-sided resistance to it from below, whether from the point-of-view of an enslaved African woman trapped in the bowels of a fetid slave ship; a common sailor who mutinied and raised the black flag of piracy aboard a brig on the wide Atlantic; or a runaway former slave who escaped the plantation for a Maroon community in a swamp.”
By emphasising resistance and the agency of everyday people, history from below has always challenged dominant historical narratives and the power relations they help to maintain. Which is why history from below remains as pertinent as ever. As Hitchcock notes, “history must be uncomfortable. If history allows you to be complacent, it is not doing its job.”
For Rediker, part of that work is teaching. He was recently the visiting professor at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, where he ran the hugely popular graduate course, “How to Write History from Below.” The course explored the key theories, methods, and issues in history from below, from its origin in the 1930s, through the New Left of the 1960s and 1970s, to the present.
As Marcus prepared for his stint in Hawai’i, he shared online the books that he thought were essential for anyone interested in learning how to write history from below. Thinking they would make a great reading list, I wrote to Marcus and, with his permission, they are reproduced here.
C.L.R. James, Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution, Vintage, 1938.
E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class, Vintage, 1963.
Christopher Hill, The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas in the English Revolution, Penguin, 1972.
Natalie Zemon Davis, The Return of Martin Guerre, Harvard University Press, 1983.
Carlo Ginzburg, The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976.
Joan Scott, Gender and the Politics of History, Columbia University Press, 1988.
Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation, Autonomedia, 2004.
Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, Beacon Press, 2015.
Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker, The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic, Beacon Press, 2004.
Marcus Rediker, The Amistad Rebellion: An Atlantic Odyssey of Slavery and Freedom, Penguin, 2012.
Julius Scott, The Common Wind: Afro-American Currents in the Age of the Haitian Revolution, Verso, 2018.
Originally published by Overland.