The Practice of History

Reflections on the Radical Histories/Histories of Radicalism conference

About a month ago, I attended the Radical Histories/Histories of Radicalism conference put on by the Raphael Samuel History Centre at Queen Mary University of London to mark 20 years since Samuel’s death.

This is a somewhat belated report, but I want here to reflect on some of the key themes that I saw arising from the conference. Admittedly the conference’s remarkable eclecticism makes any kind of overall summary difficult. The programme featured standard sessions of conference papers and plenaries, but also topical roundtables, public history presentations, walks, music performances, workshops, and an exhibition space. All of this was only fitting for an event held in memory of Raphael Samuel, and indeed in some respects the conference felt like the physical embodiment of Samuel’s sprawling, eclectic, voraciously curious writings. There is a politics to this eclecticism: in the summative plenary Alison Light reported a plea that had been made to her for ‘more chaotic conferences’ as a form of resistance to the straightjacket of the neoliberal university. Something of the radical inclusivity that Samuel sought to foster in his own work, in all its untidiness, was on display at the conference, as was a willingness to engage in self-critique regarding ways in which inclusive practices fell short.


So any neat overarching summary is out of order. Instead, I want here to reflect on one of the conference roundtables, on history as a tool of political struggle, as it was in this session that a number of the major themes of the conference were theorised and, as it were, writ large. What I mean by this is that radical history is inherently a matter of politics, and foregrounding that politics and critically examining its relationship to the ‘historical’ in ‘radical history’ is to confront the nature of radical history head-on.

Two papers in this session especially were concerned with problems of the relationship between contemporary politics and historical ‘truth’, or at least the past as the historian would reconstruct it following professional best practice. Onni Gust—with apologies to Gust for the following no doubt crude summary of a highly nuanced and carefully articulated paper—spoke on the difficulties of using transgender history as a tool of trans politics. The historical impulse of trans activists, Gust argued, is often to use history as means of saying ‘We exist’. This is history, in Nietzsche’s terms, in the monumental mode. For professional historians, however sympathetic, such monumentalism is often unsatisfactory, as the historian is bound to point out that historical precursors that look similar to modern non-binary trans identity, such as hermaphrodism, are not quite the same thing. What then, is the historians’ role? Gust described having given a paper at a non-binary trans conference that outlined this problem and suggested that rather than digging up apparent precursors, the historian’s role was to articulate how modern trans identity had come into being in the present: not ‘We exist’ and always have, but ­a history of becoming, something like—I use my own words here —‘This is how we have come to exist in the here and now’. According to Gust, this proposal was welcomed by the historians present, but got a rather cooler reception from non-historian activists at the conference. How then can historians contribute to political struggle while maintaining standards of historical rigour?

Similar issues were raised by Laura Schwartz in a paper on responses to the film Suffragette (2015). The film was widely criticised for its all-white cast, and led to considerable debate among both popular commentators and feminist scholars. A photoshoot organised by Time Out London featuring the lead cast wearing white T-shirts bearing the slogan ‘I’d rather be a rebel than a slave’—a line taken from a speech by Emmeline Pankhurst—provoked particular controversy for the apparent equivalence it drew between the political disfranchisement of white women in Britain and the enslavement of Africans in the Atlantic slave trade. Again, there is the problem of monumentalist narratives here, in this case coming unstuck when they clash with crosscurrents in contemporary emancipatory politics: the film’s heroic feminist narrative seemed to bring with it a disturbing blindspot regarding race, a dangerous incapacity to deal with problems of intersectionality.

The cast of Suffragette in the Time Out photoshoot (c) Mary Rozzi
The cast of Suffragette in the Time Out photoshoot (c) Mary Rozzi

My immediate reaction to both papers was a note of cautious optimism, to believe that there is a valuable role for historians to play as cultural translators. In a sense, the political-historical problems described in both papers were ones of context. In the case of Suffragette, one task for historians is to outline the ubiquity of the language of slavery in nineteenth and early twentieth-century British radical politics, and the need to understand that language in its own terms, as Ana Stevenson has done. Indeed, immediately prior to the roundtable I had seen a paper on late-Victorian anarchism in which reference was made to ‘capitalist slavery’. It is only when this language is decontextualised and transposed into a twenty-first century culture acutely sensitive to the racial legacies of the Atlantic slave trade that this language strikes an off note (and here it is also worth remembering that to classicists ‘slavery’ has entirely different implications again). Perhaps then the role of the historian is also to historicise the present—to recognise contemporary currents of thought and to work within, or at least alongside, them. Time Out’s response to the criticism was just such a plea for awareness of historical context—but predicting the likely response to a quote referencing slavery, decontextualised by being placed on a t-shirt in a magazine shoot, should have required only some awareness of one’s own context.

In a sense, what I am suggesting here is only to back up Gust’s original proposal: that rather than offering heroic narratives of hard-won victories and noble defeats—or simply of the fact of existence—the historian’s role is to provide narratives of becoming: how X came into being. Doing so allows us scope for sophisticated engagement with unpalatable aspects of otherwise admired precursors—in the case of the suffragettes, for example, if they are not held up so much as moral exemplars to be admired and imitated, we can engage with them without either reproducing or needing to be embarrassed by their complicity in structures of imperial and racial domination. Something of this more nuanced relationship to difficult histories is summed up in a quote from James Baldwin used in Gust’s talk: ‘To accept one’s past—one’s history—is not the same thing as drowning in it; it is learning how to use it. An invented past can never be used; it cracks and crumbles under the pressures of life like clay in a season of drought.’

To propose such a posture before the data of the past is in a sense to question the very idea of radical history, a questioning embedded within the dual title of conference. Are ‘radical histories’ and ‘histories of radicalism’ the same thing? As I understand the terms, ‘radical histories’ may be many things—radical politically, methodologically, epistemologically, etc.—while ‘histories of radicalism’ incline more towards celebratory, monumental framing, and tend to appeal to historians to the extent that that radicalism mirrors their own politics. Both Gust’s and Schwarz’s papers spoke to this duality of history as monument and history as process. It was highly refreshing to attend a conference in which the political was front and centre, in which no-one was concerned with cultivating historians’ usual professional mythology of history as in some sense ‘objective’ or apolitical. Yet ‘radical histories’ suggest constructions of the past that are nuanced, complex and contradictory, and which may not offer the same support to the political as ‘histories of radicalism’, at least not so unequivocally.

Yet here I should also like—and this is very much in the spirit of the conference—to enter a note of self-critique, and to return to the question of inclusivity. In the Q&A following the roundtable, one questioner made a plea for ‘celebratory narratives’, highlighting that we should question who does and who does not have ‘the privilege of enjoying moral ambiguity’. If one’s life is pretty comfortable, it was pointed out, then one has that privilege; many of those who are by rights radical history’s core constituency do not. Gust had pointed to a version of this problem: a history of trans ‘becoming’ required engagement with the ideas of Judith Butler, Derrida, Foucault, etc. If historians cannot communicate their ideas without presupposing audience familiarly with such theory, then the problem seems to lie with historians rather than with their audiences. To consider the same problem in light ofSuffragette and the word ‘slavery’, understanding the relevant contextual changes requires some awareness of the contingency and malleability of the meaning of words—if not with Saussurean linguistic theory itself, then at least with the general approach to language that it has bequeathed to the humanities. The understanding that the meanings of words are contextual and contingent may be one of the most basic tools in the historians’ professional kit, but it is all too easy to forget that many non-historians do not think in this way at all. The onus, surely, is on historians to find better ways to communicate with non-specialist audiences, rather than entertaining the expectation that they will meet us within the confines of our disciplinary niches.

So what might such ‘celebratory narratives’ look like, and how might they be used? One example came from a presentation on the ‘Local roots/global routes: the legacies of British slave-ownership’ project’, an exemplary public history project bringing together researchers from UCL, archivists from Hackney Museum and Archives, secondary school teachers, and community groups. One of the project team’s significant finds in the Hackney Archives was a letter from 1791 describing young people in Hackney giving up sugar in protest over the slave trade. Speakers on the panel for this project described school students’ particular excitement over this finding—it was a locally grounded detail that they could relate to, about people just like themselves who had made a sacrifice and a stand for what they believed was right. Amid the complex, violent, unheroic history of the Atlantic slave trade, it was a small act that could be admired and perhaps emulated. There are dangers here of course: the sometimes celebratory memorialisation of Britain’s efforts to abolish the slave trade that overlooks its original centrality to that trade comes to mind. But on the small scale at least, if a detail like that letter fires students’ imaginations and encourages them to engage with histories that they would not otherwise, so much the better.

It won’t do to end on too upbeat a note. The roundtable I have described offered more questions than answers, and that is how it should be. Celebratory narratives have their limits, and perhaps the point here is just that they should not be written off entirely, that as historians we should understand that they are sometimes the best way to communicate with an audience. Nor should we pretend that their appeal is only to non-historians, as the ‘histories of radicalism’ half of the conference title suggested. Some admixture of the celebratory and the critical would seem necessary if historians are to practice inclusivity while maintaining professional standards. How one achieves this remains an open, and a tantalising, question.

This post originally appeared at Joel Barnes’s personal blog occational musings. HWO thanks Joel for allowing us to reprint it here. 

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