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Has the World Ever Been Thus? The Politics of Defeat & the Crisis of Purpose in History

Last week, we launched a Graduate Online Symposium which would tackle the question of What is Radical History?  In the first post, Diarmaid Kelliher, Tank Green, and Luca Lapolla examined this question in light of the recent graduate conference they organized. In our next instalment in our Graduate Online Symposium on Radical History, George Stevenson explores how radical history might be developed to address the ‘crisis of purpose’ in history.

Image from Oregon History From Below
Image from Oregon History From Below

Writing on debates surrounding the existence of the post-war consensus, Paul Addison argued that the key difference between ‘consensus’ and ‘anti-consensus’ historians was generational. Those arguing in favour of consensus grew up in the shadow of the Second World War and the notion that national unity and compromise could overcome class, or indeed, other social differences.(1) In contrast, the younger ‘anti-consensus’ group of historians grew up in a society polarized by ideology and mired in industrial strife.(2) Thus, whilst older generations of historians perceived the 1945-79 period as something of a ‘truce’ in the class war, younger historians saw ‘consensus’ as a ‘myth’.(3) The wider point to take from this example is that an individual’s political experiences and outlook shape the history they write. For an important period of the mid-twentieth century, this resulted in the development of historical approaches focused on previously neglected social actors, such as the working class, women and people of colour. In what became known as ‘history from below’, these groups were seen not only as the subjects, but also as the agents of historical change.

However, the symbolic defeats of the ‘Left’ in the 1970s and 1980s in the economic and political spheres see us in a very different period now. It is a period in which, as Slavoj Zizek has argued, our culture finds it easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.(4) The discipline of history has not escaped: histories of transformation have been replaced by continuity, the collective replaced by the individual, solidarity replaced by difference, and agency replaced by apathy. Lost to the historical imagination is the question of whether things could have been different, whether another world was possible. Instead, the history of ‘it was ever thus’ leaves us devoid of political alternatives and conveys acquiescence.

Using examples from histories of post-war Britain, I’ll argue that rather than enriching our understanding of the complexities of the past, a range of histories have emerged that transpose a narrative of powerlessness and disillusionment on to the past in ways which, as Howard Zinn argued, will determine our lives and our futures if left unchecked.(5) Following Zinn’s and others’ examples, I will suggest that radical historians must recover the approaches of ‘history from below’ and combine them with cultural history’s sensitivity to individual difference to construct a complex but powerful recognition of shared struggles, shared identities and social change.

A narrative of defeat?

The coming to power of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government in 1979 has been seen as a seismic shift in British politics, economics and society. Colin Hay has noted how this period saw the rise of a New Right narrative that has formed the basis of a new economic and political consensus that even the recent financial crisis has been unable to unpick.(6) Moreover, traditional forms of economic struggle have witnessed particular decline with the defeat of the 1984/5 miners’ strike understood as the final moment at which an alternative future was possible. Meanwhile, trade union membership sits at half of its 1970s peak and the Labour Party has seemingly accommodated to the market realities of modern capitalism.(7) In line with these developments, Jon Lawrence and Florence Sutcliffe-Braithwaite have argued that understandings of class as a political identity, rather than as only a socio-economic or cultural description were successfully flattened by Thatcherism.(8) It seems, then, that capitalism has transcended its role as an economic system and become an absolute ideological construct within which there is no possibility of systemic change.(9) In this era of ‘capitalist realism’, political agency is obsolete.

1945 and the Apathy School

The first example is found in historical revisions of Labour’s 1945 General Election win by Steven Fielding, Peter Thompson and Nick Tiratsoo – deigned the ‘apathy school’ by James Hinton – and their book, England Arise, published in 1995. Their research utilised data from the British Institute of Public Opinion and Mass Observation to challenge ‘romantic’ views of the election, thereby committing to the methods of ‘history from below’ and fulfilling the critical function of history.

This approach led to the conclusion that the electorate in 1945 was not radicalized by the war, the Labour Party or the Beveridge Report, but subject to ‘widespread disengagement and pre-emptive cynicism.’ (10) However, implicit in the argument for the British people’s apathy even at a ‘radical’ election was the idea that if it was true then, perhaps it always will be.(11) A brief perusal of the evidence for apathy demonstrates that Fielding et al.’s analysis seemed to be more reflective of their political present than the past.

Although the turnout for the 1945 election was not exceptionally high, in 1950 and 1951 – the end of Labour’s period in office – voter turnout peaked at 83.9 and 82.6 per cent respectively.(12) This illustrates the important distinction between apathy and cynicism conflated in Fielding et al.’s analysis: the people in 1945 were cynical towards parliamentary politics but this changed once the elected government had delivered promised reforms and the population mobilized either for or against its continuation. That people were not apathetic is also shown by Fielding et al.’s finding that the most popular topics of conversation in the period included housing, strikes, equal pay, income tax, shortages, healthcare, pensions, welfare and the Beveridge Report.(13) However, in an analysis that suggested the apathy school would see only a discussion of the Communist Manifesto as ‘political’, these topics were dismissed as ‘relatively trivial personal problems and not the big issues of the day’.(14) Thus, within the paradigm of capitalist realism, even a critical approach and ‘from below’ methodology can result in the imposition of the dominant political narratives of the present on to the past.

‘Rugged individuals’

A second example develops this point: class analysis. From the 1950s to the mid-1970s, class analysis focused on the relationship between class position and class consciousness. Its organizing principle, linked to its Marxist and Weberian forebears, was the question of how economic and political inequalities of power translated into political action and class struggle. Its lessons were seen as instructive for contemporary political action and situated the agency of the working class as the motor of social change. However, this approach was beset by problems of determinism and blindness to difference that fatally undermined its explanatory potential and saw it superseded by new approaches; most recently by the turn towards cultural forms of class analysis informed more by Foucault and Bourdieu than Marx and Weber.

A number of the outstanding practitioners within this cultural school of analysis have reconsidered the role of class in social identity in the twentieth century. They have utilised interview and survey data to build an impression of British society from below but one that again stands in stark contrast to the perspectives of the traditional proponents of history from below. Mike Savage, for example, has argued that intellectual advances enable us to perceive the ‘ordinary individualism’ of the British working class that was missed by earlier researchers due to their concern with collectivist notions of identity.(15) Similarly, Jon Lawrence has argued that instrumentalism and privatism were always present in working-class culture and ‘flourish[ed]’ once the ‘debilitating constraints of insecurity, poverty and class snobbery’ had been removed by rising living standards.(16) The British working class were only communal and collectivist when it was necessary for survival.(17)

However, there are two problems for the politics of history. Firstly, focusing on continuity robs us of explanations of social change and returns us to the notion that our current society was ever thus. Mass political mobilization and radical change is not possible because it is not in the character of ‘the people’. Secondly, when mobilizations do occur, political consciousness becomes a method of tactical differentiation by individuals and groups for strategic benefit, rather than a deeper identification.(18) Political identities are not therefore reflections of an external structure, or ‘position’, but ‘claims for recognition’ in the context of cultural difference between individuals within a group or between groups within society.(19)

The problem is that this dismisses examples of collectivist identities in the period apparent in a range of strikes that transcended their specific and sectional demands. Whether it was equal pay strikes, worker and community demands for the right to work, the integration of race into the class struggle, or brave opposition to the crushing power of the state, workers, feminists, black activists, gay activists and the Left frequently came together in solidarity to demonstrate that collectivism was as embedded in British culture as strongly as individualism. Emphasising an instrumental and privatised working-class culture makes the defeats of ‘the left’ in the 1970s and 1980s inevitable due to British people’s inherent antipathy to collectivism. The particular historical circumstances of these defeats are thereby lost.

Reflections on the process

But what of my own failings? I research the British women’s liberation movement’s relationship with “class” and “class politics” from the late 1960s into the early 1980s. The research was to focus on the WLM’s problems of attracting working-class women to feminism and how these problems resulted from the movement’s middle-class composition, attitudes and tactics. My motivation for critiquing the WLM in this way was that such an analysis would help to overcome these issues in future movements. Beyond this delusion of grandeur, there was another flaw. I had situated my research within a ‘developmental’ narrative of feminism, a ‘Whig’ story of progress in which the second-wave, divided by class, race, sexuality and anything else you could think of, was simply bad, the third-wave better, and the current fourth wave therefore best of the lot.

But as I deepened my research, it became clear that the WLM’s relationship with class and class politics was not a story of failure but of engagement and solidarity. Across the entirety of Britain, liberation groups and individual feminists supported the political struggles of working-class women. They offered women’s strikes publicity in their magazines and newsletters, provided theoretical analysis of women’s importance to class struggle, donated to strike funds and placed themselves alongside working-class women on picket lines. Thus, even if class, like race, may have divided political and personal identities, it rarely divided the many actual struggles which took place in the same way as the destructive tensions between white feminists and women of colour.

Moreover, there was also a strong theoretical and activist current within the WLM that was frustrated by the limited horizons of traditional class politics and aimed to ‘advance’ class struggle into different areas that the Labour Movement had little interest in.(20) For the WLM class struggle also took place in the home and the community. This demonstrated both the importance of class to British second-wave feminism and enabled the inclusion of many working-class women excluded from traditional labour struggles.

Thus, despite problems, which I haven’t ignored in my research, the concerns and struggles of working-class women were embedded in the WLM. And as the story I was telling through my research began to change, I started to question whether I had also been a practitioner of ‘it was ever thus’ history. I’d told myself that I was rescuing lost causes, highlighting the potential for radical and collective political action but in reality I was disparaging those causes, diminishing that potential. I was creating a story of feminism that fit sweetly with its critics and ran counter to my own political beliefs.

The purpose of history

So what did I learn from this process? By definition, radical historians are as interested in the present and the future as they are in the past, so with that in mind we must consider what story we wish to tell in our historical research. The issue, it seems, is one of emphasis: if, for example, both ‘individualism’ and collectivism have been embedded in our identities and social world then to focus exclusively on the aspect which produces disenchantment, isolation and political stasis seems the poorer choice against an approach which emphasises agency, solidarity and the potential for social change. This does not require the dismissal of concerns with continuity, difference and apathy, which add complexity and nuance to our accounts, but it is about making sure we do not lose sight of the main purpose of radical history: to show that our world was not ‘ever thus’, that it has been changed before, and most fundamentally, that it can be changed again.

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

What is Radical History by Tank Green, Diarmaid Kelliher and Luca Lapolla

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


(1) Paul Addison, ‘British Historians and the Debate over the “Postwar Consensus”’, in Wm. Roger Louis (ed.), More Adventures with Britannia (London, 1998), p. 262.
(2) Ibid.
(3) Ibid.
(4) Slavoj Zizek in Astra Taylor (Dir.), Zizek! (2005).
(5) Howard Zinn, ‘What is Radical History?’
(6) Colin Hay, ‘The Winter of Discontent Thirty Years On’, Political Quarterly, 80:4 (October-December, 2009), p. 552.
(7) Huw Beynon, ‘“Still too much socialism in Britain”: The legacy of Margaret Thatcher’, Industrial Relations Journal, 45:3 (May, 2014), pp. 214-233.
(8) Jon Lawrence and Florence Sutcliffe-Braithwaite, ‘Margaret Thatcher and the decline of class politics’ in Ben Jackson and Robert Saunders (eds), Making Thatcher’s Britain (Cambridge, 2012), pp. 132-148.
(9) Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is there no alternative? (London, 2009).
(10) Steven Fielding, ‘What did “the people” want? The meaning of the 1945 General Election’, Historical Journal, 35:3 (September, 1992), p. 639.
(11) James Hinton, ’1945 and the Apathy School’, History Workshop Journal, 43 (Spring, 1997), p. 266.
(13) Steven Fielding, Peter Thompson and Nick Tiratsoo, England Arise: The Labour Party and popular politics in 1940s Britain (Manchester, 1995), p. 39.
(14) Ibid.
(15) Mike Savage, ‘Working-class identities in the 1960s: Revisiting the Affluent Worker Studies’, Sociology, 39:5, p. 931.
(16) Jon Lawrence, ‘Class “Affluence” and the study of everyday life in Britain, c. 1930-1964’, Cultural and Social History, 10:2, p. 289.
(17) Ibid.
(18) Fiona Devine and Mike Savage, ‘The Cultural Turn, Sociology and Class Analysis’, in Fiona Devine, Mike Savage, John Scott and Rosemary Crompton (eds), Rethinking Class: Cultures, Identities and Lifestyles (Basingstoke, 2005), p. 14.
(19) Ibid.; Rosemary Crompton, Class and Stratification 3rd Edition (Cambridge, 2008), p. 25.
(20) Jenny Clegg and Francis Bernstein, ‘Marxist-Feminist and Marxism-Leninism (or from socialist women to Marxist Feminists)’, Birmingham Women and Socialism Conference, 1974, p. 101.


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