History Workshop 25, People’s Histories, National Histories, was held between 8 and 10 November 1991. In celebration of the 25th anniversary of the first History Workshop, the event returned to Ruskin College for the first time since its departure in 1979. A 25th anniversary souvenir book ‘Collectanea’, was prepared for sale at this Workshop, which included reminiscences, documents, and commentary on the history of the Workshop.
Several plenary sessions were held throughout the weekend, including a session on The Collapse of Communism which reflected on major contemporary political events. In addition, the usual multiple discussion strands were held throughout the weekend. These included ‘English State-Formation, 8th – 20th Century’, ‘The National Question’, ‘Decadence or New Life? The Cultural Politics of the 1890s’, ‘People’s Art and Visual Culture’, ‘Racisms: Past and Present’, ‘The Co-operative Movement’, ‘Religion and Socialism’, ‘Green History’, ‘Masculinity’, ‘Anarchism’, ‘Consumerism, Culture and Society’, ‘Women Workers and Technological Change’, ‘Labour Party: A History from Below?’, ‘The Labour Party, the Nation and the State’, ‘Adult Education’, ‘History Writing and Community Publishing’, and ‘Teaching History in the 1990s’. Papers included The National Question in the USSR Today, Socialism and the Cult of Beauty, Intersections of Race and Gender in Medieval Literature, and Manners and Manliness in the Victorian Boys’ Story Paper.
A number of these themes represented long-standing interests of the Workshop movement, including the relationship between culture and politics, anarchism, women’s history, and adult education. However, some new preoccupations also featured, reflecting the post-Thatcherite intellectual climate. Subjects such as masculinity and nationalism had figured little in previous History Workshops, but were related to previous themes pursued by the movement. In particular, in its study of men in the context of a gendered society, the study of masculinity was couched as an outgrowth of feminist approaches to history. The study of nationalism was informed by the growth of nationalism in Central and Eastern Europe that accompanied the demise of the Soviet bloc, and reflected the Workshop’s longstanding interest in the historical context of contemporary events.
History Workshop had greatly altered between its beginning in 1967 and the 25th Workshop. At the first event, each of the three sessions was led by a professional historian. The professional historians were there in part to assert the credibility of the Workshop (especially with the Ruskin Principal) and to support the students. The subject matter, the Chartists, also represented a fairly orthodox choice in labour history. By the time of Workshop 25, the Workshop had become a large, multi-stranded event. The schedule featured an eclectic range of papers delivered by a diverse range of speakers across fifteen or twenty parallel sessions. New themes had been introduced, with subjects such as anarchism, adult education, and cultural studies becoming increasingly central to the Workshop’s identity. The development of women’s history and the linguistic turn, as well as the end of the Cold War and the ongoing collapse of the Soviet Union, meant that by 1991 the Workshop operated in a very different context to the one in which it had been born.