The Practice of History

Radical History Graduate Online Symposium: What is Radical History?

In an essay in his book The Politics of History (1970), Howard Zinn asked the question: what is radical history? In March of this year, with support from Birkbeck and the Raphael Samuel History Centre, a group of postgraduate students and early career researchers came together to try and offer some responses. We wanted to encourage discussion about how a politically informed engagement with the past, explicitly of the left, might be done. We felt it was important to provide the space for relatively junior researchers to have this discussion, while acknowledging the tensions between radicalism and academic conferences. By referencing Zinn in the conference title, we hoped to encourage a critical engagement with traditions of radical historiography. We sought to think both about what we can learn from these traditions and how a radical history might look different now, forty-five years since Zinn posed his question.

The conference was also a result of a desire to discuss difficult questions around objectivity, what distinguishes history as radical, and the political usefulness of history. Although there was an inevitable preponderance of historians, researchers in geography, sociology, literary criticism and international relations broadened the discussion significantly. The sessions will be available to listen to in their entirety on the conference website, but in this History Workshop Online special series running over the month of June, four contributors to the conference will be discussing their own takes on radical history. In this introductory post, we want to give a sense of the overall discussion during the conference, provide a context for the upcoming series of posts, and offer some thoughts on just what radical history might look like today.

The conference in action, by Mike Jackson
The ‘political commitment’ session of the conference. Photo by Mike Jackson

The first parallel sessions of the conference were ‘Radical historiographies’ and ‘Urban and rural workers’. In the former, David Convery (NUI Galway) compared British and Irish historiographical trends. He argued that it is not sufficient to research radical groups or just attack the status quo to be a radical historian, as ‘what defines radical history is its context: what sort of society it’s being presented in, what is the prevailing historiography like in that society, and what sort of person is the historian’. Amy Tobin (York) and Hannah Proctor (Birkbeck) spoke about ‘history from deep below’, they examined how palaeontology, geology and archaeology have been used to justify the domination of people over nature, and over each other. However, as represented by the cases of the Great Wall of Los Angeles or the Pergamon altar, Amy and Hannah reminded us that the past can also be re-appropriated for radical intervention. Rob Waters (Birkbeck and Queen Mary) concluded with a paper on Peter Fryer’s seminal Staying Power (1984) and investigated Fryer’s project of ‘thinking black’ and its relationship to the radical political blackness of the time. Rob highlighted the differences between Fryer’s belief in blackness and black history as being rooted in suffering and resistance, which therefore made it inherently radical, and more recent scholarship which has engaged with some of the complexities Fryer’s project overlooked. The session highlighted the extremely varied historiographies which, considered critically, offer significant resources for radial historians today.

Pablo L. Álvarez (KCL) began the session on urban and rural workers asking ‘where is my grandmother in the history of art?’, arguing that rural subjects, women in particular, have been excluded as historical protagonists. Part of the task of radical history, then, is to challenge such exclusions. His rich considerations of the construction of city and country, culture, and patriarchy concluded with insights from Silvia Federici’s Caliban and the Witch (2004) on the disciplining of rural women. Duncan Money (Oxford) discussed white European miners in the Zambian Copperbelt in the early twentieth century who were militant trade unionists, and also racist. This was used to question how we identify radical subjects, whether radicalism is historically contingent, and to suggest the risks of histories which offer only snapshots of individual’s lives. This highlights the need to be cautious about overly celebratory accounts of radical history which, in searching for heroic figures, can ignore the complex reality. Paul Griffin (Glasgow) also touched on ‘white labourism’ in his discussion of Red Clydeside. Highlighting the strengths of more explicit considerations of space, the paper suggested the usefulness of a conversation between labour history and labour geography. Paul pointed to the way in which a ‘working-class presence’ was established in particular places and sites in early twentieth-century Glasgow, but also highlighted the broader connections made between ‘Red Clydeside’ and elsewhere that can be lost in a narrow focus on the city. All three contributions pointed in different ways to the importance of a radical history that is attuned to the diversity and complexity of the past, while suggesting that thinking about labour and class is still crucial for this task.

George Stevenson (Durham) opened the session on ‘political commitment’, questioning whether ‘the politics of defeat’ has led historians to emphasise individualism over collectivity, and undermine the possibility of social change as a result. Dominic Davies (Oxford) proposed his methodological reading practice called ‘infrastructural reading’. This approach interrogates physical embodiments of empire – railways, telegraphs, roads, bridges and so on – as represented in colonial literature at the height of the British empire in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. It seeks to think about infrastructure in the text and its strong connection to the infrastructures of the text (social, economic and geographic), the way this relates to the capitalist world system, and how it in fact reflects anti-imperial resistance. Finally, Ben Bethell and Guy Beckett (Birkbeck) presented the History Acts group, which is interested in developing relations between activists and historians by creating joint projects, developing networks, and providing practical support. While the political relevance of history was a thread throughout the day, this session engaged explicitly with how our political commitments might have a methodological impact on the way we approach the past. It also encouraged debate about how useful relationships between political activists and historians might be, with some in the room arguing social movements did not need academics to record their history, while others maintained that there was potential for a fruitful relationship between what are of course not necessarily discrete groups.

The second panel of this session was ‘The state and authority’. First, Michael Weatherburn (Imperial) analysed changes in the British workplace since 1916 and the growth of ‘big management’, and how these were then exported to other sectors of society, such as the education system. Ben Taylor (KCL) reconstructed the history of the British surveillance state and underlined the role of radical history in ‘remind[ing] us that the times we live in are far from exceptional but the power sought by the state may certainly be’. Jacob Ramsay Smith (Queen Mary) closed the panel by comparing the post-1857 British suppression of the Indian mutiny with the recent ‘war on terror’, highlighting that knowledge of the past should inform present policies. These contributions unmasked some of the strategies used by the state and its authoritarian institutions to oppress subaltern groups in general, and especially those who rebel against them.

In a session on ‘social movements and protest’, Miranda Iossifidis explored the relationship between radical history and political myth through consideration of the “We Want to Riot, Not To Work” pamphlet on the 1981 Brixton uprisings. Miranda suggested a sociology of political myth centrally concerned with how historical narratives are used in the present, rather than whether or not these narratives could be considered empirically true. The discussion of memory and myth was usefully taken up by Garikoitz Gómez Alfaro (Brighton), who gave an overview of theorizing about the politics of conceptualizing time. Garikotiz used examples of trauma in Spain and the Zapitistas’ indigenous time as examples of conflict with hegemonic time. Rowan Tallis Milligan (Oxford) presented research on squatting in London in the decade after 1968. She argued that the distinction between squatting for need and squatting as a political act has been overemphasised; and that, as all squatting challenges private property, it is inherently political. Rowan drew on the importance of recounting this history to her current involvement with squatting in London. While the three papers were quite disparate, this sense of thinking about the way the past is invoked in social movements and protest now was present in them all, and is important for understanding the uses of radical history.

The ‘Radical education’ panel opened with Alison Ronan (independent) using two early twentieth-century Christian-pacifist radical educational projects to underscore the differences between how education has been used – as a way of approaching people as individuals who are innately good and developing their potentialities – and the problematic neoliberal marketisation of education in the present day. Victoria Russell (Birkbeck) investigated the work of late eighteenth / early nineteenth-century English intellectual radicals who challenged binary notions of gender and biological sex in order to promote the idea of the psychological androgyne. Victoria noted that science is still engaging with the questions of her subjects, and concluded that diversity and the right to be different needs protecting. Finally, Ruth Mather (Queen Mary) presented on a radical feminist historian intervention project in schools. The project challenged curriculum bias, asked young people to consider intersectional effects on women’s lives, opened up narratives, and got the young people discussing how the past affects the present. What each paper highlighted, was the tendency of radicals to engage with education as a way of enacting social transformations.

The closing session was a roundtable with Becky Taylor (lecturer in History, Birkbeck), Mike Jackson (secretary of Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners, LGSM), Robbie Shilliam (reader in International Relations, Queen Mary), chaired by Matt Cook (Professor of Modern History, Birkbeck).

Becky opened the debate stating her position of contrariety towards radical history. She explained her decision to keep her academic research and activism separate so as not to compromise her politics, and pointed out the contradiction of being a radical academic when working in neoliberal universities, thus perpetuating the neoliberal agenda. However, she concluded by highlighting the necessity for activists to connect back to previous histories, which requires historians to research and write histories of radicalism to construct a better future. In his commentary, Mike drew on his experience as an activist to assert that collective unity is the only way to be successful. He also stressed the importance for activists to archive their own material, such as leaflets and minutes, to give their radical histories a greater chance of reaching the public instead of being punished with invisibility for challenging the status quo. This is exactly the case of the LGSM experience, which was recently adapted into the film Pride also thanks to the documents that Mike had preserved. Finally, Robbie strongly refused the idea of radicalism as only resistance or fighting, as ‘most struggles are about defending something from being destroyed’. He maintained that ‘if we want radical history, we can’t just be against. We have to be against/for [and] ultimately struggle for epistemic justice’. The ensuing debate touched on themes like how some see a necessity to compromise, the overwhelming presence of contemporary historians, and the possibilities of doing radical history outside academia.

It would be a stretch to say that Zinn’s question, ‘What is radical history?’ came close to being tidily answered in this one-day conference, but the event was rich with suggestions for ways to write radical history and ways to be radical historians. Is radical history an approach to historical work – the sheer act of engaging one’s politics with one’s scholarship? Or, is it about the subject/s of one’s research – that the actors one is studying were considered radical in their day? As Robbie Shilliam expertly summed up, it seems that radical histories and histories of radicalism are not the same thing. Three other points raised during the day stood out for us. Firstly, the importance of not inserting marginalised people into pre-existing narratives but instead having a commitment to the radical reconceptualisation of more inclusive narratives. Secondly, that ‘radical histories’ are inherently a challenge to the status quo in that by rejecting the notion of the privileged observer, they challenge narratives which maintain current inequities. And finally, as Tim Cooper (chair of the social movements panel) suggested, perhaps we should be thinking about critical histories rather than radical ones. With this comment, Tim was not pointing to the standard empirical critical method of historians, but rather to the need for an explicit acknowledgement that, to some extent, critical history needs to do something different, i.e. to contribute to the resurrection of a revolutionary subjectivity.

Perhaps one of the most important exercises of radical or critical history is to turn that critical gaze onto our own historical projects. The lack of representation of people of colour presenting papers at the conference was a major disappointment, and a telling absence. Additionally the papers were almost exclusively about Europe and/or Europeans. This just adds more urgency to the #whitecurriculum campaign which sprang out of UCL, and the excellent work of Dr Nathaniel Adam Tobias Coleman with his emphasis on the need for #educationalrepair (click here to join the discussion). The recent History Matters conference at the IHR, organised by Prof. Hakim Adi, Dr Olivette Otele and others, also sought to explain and understand the lack of engagement with academic history by people of African and Caribbean heritage. Furthermore, there was a disproportionate representation of men, little discussion of histories of sexualities, and a predominate focus on the twentieth century. As such, whilst recognising that some things are out of our control, we would think much harder about how to redress these imbalances were we to organise another conference.

These omissions point to the need for historians – in whichever discipline they find themselves – to engage more widely and rigorously with radical and/or critical histories, and to explore more fully how they understand the term. One of the most positive things about being a researcher is the ability to see omissions and silences as opportunities for further study, so we would urge all historians to keep thinking and talking about the relationship of history to politics – including its uses and abuses. We need to continue our commitment to the recovering of silenced and marginalised voices, but also encourage a wider participation of different voices in the present day. If we view historical knowledge as potentially emancipatory, then it becomes paramount to rescue it from neoliberalism in order to, as Tim Cooper also said, make an intervention in the here and now so that we might reopen the possibilities of the future. In the end, perhaps we cannot claim to have moved much further than Howard Zinn’s article in terms of answering the question, but we can certainly affirm that a knowledge of history is vital to fully understanding the present; and given the nature of the wildly inequitable, neoliberal twenty-first century, the history that we learn and use, need and must, be a weapon.

Please take a look at the other articles in our Radical History Graduate Online Symposium:

Has the World Ever Been Thus? The Politics of Defeat and the Crisis of Purpose in History by George Stevenson

Teaching on a Moving Train: Curriculum Bias & Radical Curriculum Change by Ruth Mather


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *