Virtual Special Issue

Virtual Special Issue: The State

This virtual special issue of History Workshop Journal tells the histories of states in their interlocking national, international, local, and archival dimensions, and as political and legal contestations of sovereign power. 


Jane Caplan and Becky Taylor

Francis Galton’s fingerprints from his Finger Prints (1892)

The years since the first issue of History Workshop Journal in 1976, coinciding with the fiscal crisis of the welfare state, have seen not so much the dismantling of the bureaucratic-corporatist state as a process of redefinition and restructuring. Despite the ideology of the ‘limited state’, this has enhanced the exertion of state power as much as it has narrowed its perspectives and hollowed out its functions. Powered by the market-driven principles of neoliberal governance and the New Public Management, and accelerated by the collapse of state socialism after 1989, this process has reimagined the relationship between ‘state’ and ‘society’. We have seen the principles of the self-regulating market pervading social and political relations and shrinking the social state into a starveling simulacrum of itself; but at the same time these developments have bloated the centralized apparatus of regulation, policing and security in their broadest sense.  Yet in the first half of 2020, the rapid spread of Covid-19 across the globe exposed unforgiving holes in the ideology of the market – facilitated by hyper-mobility, the reluctance of some Western governments (and segments of their populations) to condone pre-emptive restrictions, and the shocking insufficiency of emaciated public institutions to match the scale of the crisis.  Suddenly the limitations of the ‘limited state’ seem dangerously obvious.

At the moment, historians have mostly confined themselves to identifying and parsing the historical precedents and contexts for understanding the present crisis – histories of epidemics, economic upheavals, the politics of systemic crisis.  Historians’ reckoning with the entanglement of these themes in the Covid-19 crisis will come in due course, and it is a sure bet that the role of the state – indeed, the very identity of the state – will figure prominently in this account.

The present situation offers an opportune moment to consider how the history of the state has featured in HWJ in the past five decades.  Given the prominence of the state in post-war life and HWJ’s own socialist credentials, it is surprising that the history of the state was not among the most prominent themes covered by the journal in its early years.  Older editors present at collective meetings in the late 1970s and 1980s can remember discussing the puzzling absence of the state in our repertoire of submissions and publications. We believed in principle that class power and class relations were not matters of social and labour history alone, and that the politics of the state as the instrument of class power and locus of contestation deserved just as much attention from radical historians.  This seemed especially true at a time when the British central state was simultaneously exerting administrative power and facing democratic pushback under Thatcher and her tory successors – but our article log did not reflect this conviction.  As in classical marxist theory itself, ‘the state’ loomed in the background as a necessary presence, but was not itself the star player in radical historians’ research.

In this sense, HWJ was not the immediate beneficiary of other radical scholars’ interest in historicizing and theorizing the state that was clearly discernible in the 1970s and 1980s.  Preceded by a now classic text, Ralph Miliband’s The State in Capitalist Society (London 1969), exemplary titles include Perry Anderson, Lineages of the Absolutist State (1974) and Philip Corrigan and Derek Sayer, The Great ArchEnglish State Formation as Cultural Revolution (1985). These were brisk surveys that offered much scope and many starting-points for historical research.  But during this time HWJ continued to reflect the left’s more self-evident and profound commitment to social and labour history.  It was symptomatic of this prevailing preoccupation that even Tim Mason’s important essay in HWJ 11 (1981) on the workers’ opposition in Nazi Germany was a study of resistance within the social relations of production on the shop floor.  Despite the fact that Mason (a founding HWJ editor) had a profound sense of the political, his article was situated firmly within the framework of class conflict, and touched only loosely on the political dimension of working-class resistance to National Socialism.

Editors may have deplored this neglect of the state, but were unable to conjure out of thin air the coverage we thought it deserved in these early years. The curve of articles selected for this VSI reflects this stark fact.  Of our twenty choices, only four come from the forty issues up to 1995. But thereafter, the thirty issues between 2006 and 2020 account for no fewer than twelve of our choices.  By that time, the editors of this VSI were spoiled for choice and found it hard to keep our selection within the allocated length.

This curve suggests that something happened among radical historians over recent years to shift their attention towards the state.  Crucially, ‘the state’ has been historicized in novel ways, carrying it beyond the classic treatment of modern state formation as a determinate historical development.  Beyond this, historians have increasingly conceptualized the state as itself a continuous process that is constantly being worked and reworked as its manifold business is conducted and its citizens adapt to, manage and contest its demands.  With this optic, the state is not an institutional site or historical destination, but the continuous sum of actions and relations in time. The classic point of reference for many historians – including several of the authors in this collection – has been Philip Abrams’s brilliant essay, ‘Notes on the Difficulty of Studying the State’, which was first given as a lecture in 1977 but was not published until 1988 (Journal of Historical Sociology, vol. 1, March 1988, pp. 58-89).  The attraction of Abrams’s analysis for historians is that he demystified and de-reified ‘the state’, exposing it not as a self-sufficient institutional actor but as an ‘ideological project…an exercize in legitimation, in moral regulation… and politically organized subjection…a message of domination – an ideological artefact attributing unity, morality and independence to the disunited, amoral and dependent workings of the practice of government’.

This decomposition of the state anticipated the arguments of Benedict Anderson’s endlessly influential Imagined Communities. Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism (1983), and echoes Michel Foucault’s characterization of the state as ‘a composite reality and a mythicized abstraction’.  In these and other works, ostensible unity and stability were dissolved into the disparate practices and institutions through which identity, authority, and power are produced and reproduced.  By the 1990s and early 2000s, historians interested in ‘the state’ were beginning to integrate these ideas with Foucault’s claim that modern ‘disciplinary power’ exceeds the state: that power finds its characteristic locus not at the centre but in the peripheries, and its characteristic form in the creation of self-governing subjects.  Arguably, it was this shift in thinking that enabled historians to understand power as an everyday, socialised, gendered, and embodied phenomenon.  It encouraged social historians (who remain the bread and butter of HWJ’s contributors) to engage more closely with ‘the state’ in its new clothing, less imposing but more intricately woven.

Going through the back issues of HWJ was therefore an exercise in charting this expanding and diversifying engagement with ‘stateness’ in its different forms and manifestations.  Whether explicitly or implicitly, many of the pieces we selected find common cause with Veena Das and Deborah Poole’s argument in Anthropology in  the Margins of the State (Oxford/New Delhi 2004): that any analysis of the state is inadequate without bringing marginal practices, places, and languages into the conversation.  Echoing a familiar convention of social history, many articles focus more on the micro than the macro and approach the state sideways or from the bottom up. They use a house, an individual, a shipment of contraband, a sequence of correspondence to lay bare not only the workings of a state and its expressions of power, but also how these might variously be challenged, actively contested, or appropriated and used against the state by those who were apparently under its thumb.

We have arranged our selection in seven loosely articulated thematic sections, inviting readers to see how the topics assigned to one section are in dialogue with others elsewhere.  The articles are wide-ranging chronologically (from the 16th century to the near present), geographically (from Britain and Europe to continental and overseas empires), and focally (from the largest operations of power to its most local manifestations). They tell the histories of states in their interlocking national, international, local, and archival dimensions, and as political and legal contestations of sovereign power.

Making State Powers

‘States and Powers’ shows how familiar terms in the history of the state have been re-envisioned in recent work, at the local, national and imperial scales.  Jonathan Healey’s ‘The Fray on the Meadow’ (2018) defamiliarizes the history of state formation by looking not at the slow accretion of institutions but at a dynamic ‘moment of government’ in 16th-century England.  Crucial in the Tudor state’s projection of its power was the ability of its agents to embody authority in person, not symbolically but in a dramatic act of physical force.  Johan Mathew’s ‘Smoke on the Water’ (2018) shows, through the career of a spectacularly ingenious smuggler of ethnically ambiguous identity, the role of privilege in accessing the functions and support of European colonial states, despite claims to bureaucratic impartiality. His essay also exposes how the racialized ‘Janus-faced’ colonial state could be used against itself and its own pretensions to demarcate colonialists from the colonized, in no small part because, as its agents on the ground understood, states are never simply unified entities but are multiform and porous. Lucy Riall’s ‘Elites in Search of Authority (2003) contests the conventional but superficial imagery of ‘weak’ state and ‘traditional’ society in 19th-century Sicily. Instead, Riall shows that a state that was infrastructurally limited was able to rely on more hidden political mechanisms to exert its authority, while elites built new networks of clientelism to protect their interests.

Imperial and Colonial States

‘Imperial and colonial states’ assembles three very different articles published between 1979 and 2015. Shula Marks and Stanley Trapido’s 1979 article, ‘Lord Milner and the South African State’, takes us far beyond the formal and military consequences of the Boer War to consider the role of the economy and ‘experts’ –  here in relation to the mining industry – alongside that of the individual in driving the construction of an imperial ‘conquest’ state.   Their work reminds us that colonial states sit alongside more obviously interventionist states, notably communist states and (local) welfare states, in their attempts to shape the populations under their rule.

Vieda Skultans’s (1997) discussion of residents’ memories of deportation and collectivization in north-east Latvia is a sideways look at a different kind of empire – the Soviet Union – and different forms of intervention. Their oral testimonies associated the process of Sovietization with arbitrariness, unreasonableness and injustice, and with an impersonal and distant state. Informants articulated this alienation via the vocabulary of failed harvests and serfdom: a tactic which subverted top-down narratives of the rolling out of socialism across the Baltic states, and which demonstrates the disjuncture between state intention and on-the-ground experience.

Another insight into the importance of individual actors in challenging the workings of empire comes from John Munro’s essay (2015) which casts its gaze on the early years of the cold war. Munro considers the United States’ global anti-communist drive as not only an integral part of its broader imperial project, but also one which operated ‘at home’, having profound, and largely negative, effects on its domestic Black radical movements. He shows how the United States’ Black freedom struggle was framed, by both activists and their opponents alike, as part of a deeply subversive and wider anti-colonial movement which sought to attack the very roots of their state’s racial-capitalist ambitions.

The Local State

At the other end of the scale, three articles on ‘The Local State’ also explore it as a site of both power and contestation. Jerry White’s essay on the erosion of a century-long tradition of strong local democracy in England (2005) is a pungent exposure of the advance of central state power since 1945.  If the evisceration and immiseration of local government is most commonly associated with the Thatcher government and its tory successors since 2010, White reminds us that Whitehall’s capture of previously local control began with infrastructural nationalization and the NHS, the flagship achievements of the 1945 Attlee government.  Vinita Damodaran explores the complex and perhaps unexpected relations between colonial power, indigenous agency, and private-property claims by focussing on contests over tribal land rights in one district of Chotanagpur (East Bengal) since the 1830s (2013).  Damodaran concludes that the present-day Indian central state is proving more helpless than the colonial administration in protecting local rights against the predatory power of multinational corporations.  The boundary between society and the state is also probed by Mark Finnane in the context of the asylum in late 19th-century Ireland (1985).  Finnane revises the model of the disciplinary state extending its institutional and carceral reach by showing how Irish families used the asylum (unlike the workhouse) as an often temporary site of relief from family members deemed deviant or awkward.

The Gendered State

Among the earliest and most durable themes in the new feminist history from the 1970s have been two state-centered issues: revisiting women’s suffrage, and developing a gendered critique of the English welfare state. Pat Thane’s pioneering article (1978) explores the long-term implications of the fact that, from the 1834 poor law onwards, policy-makers treated the two-parent family headed by a male breadwinner as the norm. Married women were assumed to be men’s dependents, despite their often considerable contributions to household income; the particular needs of single women and mothers were hidden. Despite later welfare reforms, this false stereotype continued to obscure the needs of women who did not fit it.   Jill Liddington and Elizabeth Crawford’s ’Women do not Count’ (2011) offers another example of  the mechanisms by which states see or make invisible their populations, but shows how these tools might be turned back on states through forms of resistance. British suffragettes’ campaign to persuade women to boycott the 1911 census spoke of their determination to see their exclusion from the franchise mirrored in their invisibility from the state.

Feminist historians have been slower to turn their attention to the international arena, but Susan Pedersen’s article explores the complexities of women’s roles in the creation of a new layer of state-sponsored international governance, the League of Nations (2008).  Women’s organizations lobbied the League for the adoption of progressive and humanitarian principles, and two women joined the League’s Permanent Mandates Commission.  But Pedersen debunks any idea that these feminists were by instinct anti-imperialist. She suggests rather that paternalist governance in the Mandates was, with few exceptions, treated as consistent with ‘women’s work’ of education and social reform.

The Hands-On State

We have chosen to highlight the fact that the state also has a literal ‘hands-on’ power to touch and even violate the bodies of its subjects in a pair of case-studies in English history: on the physical experience of stop and search between 1660 and 1750 and on public resistance to the fingerprinting of ‘respectable’ citizens in the interwar period (2010).  Jonah Miller situates police stop and search in the broader gendered culture of male physical authority, which gave women suspects no protection against routine violations of their bodily privacy by male agents of the state – police constables searching for stolen goods (2019).  The less intrusive but still stigmatizing practice of fingerprinting is discussed by Edward Higgs in his account of the British Treasury’s proposal in the interwar period to adopt large-scale fingerprinting as a means of protection against fraud in state benefit payments.  Its failure was due to the deep-seated popular association, ignored by Treasury officials, of physical identification with criminality and policing.


Although we identified ‘contests’ as a separate organising category, it will already be abundantly clear that almost every one of our selected articles deals in one way or another with conflict and the state: between different scales of government; between different state actors; and between subjects/citizens and the multiple levels of the state.
But this section explores more explicitly confrontational clashes between states and subjects or citizens. Subversion, as James Scott’s Weapons of the Weak (New Haven 1985) made clear, can take many forms, particularly in authoritarian and violent systems. Jonathan Waterlow’s essay (2015) on laughter in Stalin’s Soviet Union explores state-sanctioned humour under a dictatorship. Even as the state aimed to ‘kill with laughter’ its enemies and ‘correct with laughter’ its loyal but erring citizens, it was ‘unpredictable and capricious’ in enforcing this, and the borders of acceptability were dangerously fluid.

We find a different form of invisibility at work in the infiltration by members of CND’s Committee of 100 into the British state’s secret nuclear bunker.  Based on personal testimonies, Sam Carroll’s essay shows how the four ‘Spies for Peace’ aimed to expose the government’s disingenuous presentation of the dangers of nuclear attack (2010). It also is a demonstration of the personal risks activists face, even in self-defined liberal democracies, when they seek to confront state-driven secrecy and hypocrisy.

The Archive

This feeds into our final selection of articles, which pick up an issue that has a double significance to historians as both object and means of historical knowledge: the relationship between archives and states.  States and historians cannot be said to be natural partners.  States are the authors and jealous first guardians of their own records, most of which are released and converted into historical archives only after some decades, if at all.  We have already seen that one way for historians to subvert states’ controlling tendencies is to employ oral histories and personal testimonies, but historians have also become adept both at reading along and against the grain of the archive, and wrestling archives from reluctant authorities. Articles by Megan Vaughan (2009) and David Anderson (2015) depict contrasting bottom-up and top-down uses and abuses of British colonial archives, and expose intense competitions for the control of access and meaning.  Vaughan’s close-up study of  Mr Mdala, a clerk in the interwar Nyasaland administration with a limitless appetite for improving colonial governance prior to independence, is made possible only because his exhaustive correspondence with the authorities has been preserved in the colonial archives.  At the other end of this spectrum of colonial power is Anderson’s chilling exposé of the deliberate and illicit withholding of the archival evidence of the dirty war fought by the British against nationalists in Kenya in the 1950s.  Documentation that was not destroyed in situ was flown back to Britain by the Colonial Office and sequestered in a secret archive whose existence was denied until 2010.   Another case of incriminating evidence – the archival residue of state paranoia and bureaucratic excess in the German Democratic Republic – is disclosed in Stefan Wolle’s essay on citizens’ access to the astonishing 170 km of surveillance files collected by the Ministry of State Security (1992).  Finally, a usually unspoken challenge confronting historians in the archive is discussed by Jane Caplan in her essay on the literal illegibility of written records (2009).


The Virtual Special Issue includes free access to all of the articles below for a period of 6 months.

Making State Powers

The Fray on the Meadow: violence and a moment of government in early Tudor England
Jonathan Healey | 85 (2018)

Elites in Search of Authority. Political Power and Social Order in 19th-century Italy
Lucy Riall | 55 (2003)

Smoke on the Water. Cannabis Smuggling, Corruption and the Janus-faced Colonial State
Johan Mathew | 86 (2018)

Imperial and Colonial States

Lord Milner and the South African State
Shula Marks & Stanley Trapido | 8 (1979)

The expropriated harvest: Narratives of Deportation and Collectivization in north-east Latvia
Vieda Skultans | 44 (1997)

Imperial Anticommunism and the African American freedom movement
John Munro | 70 (2015)

The Local State

From Herbert Morrison to command and control: the decline of local democracy and its effect on public services 
Jerry White | 59 (2005)

Indigenous agency: customary rights and tribal protection in Eastern India, 1830-1930
Vinita Damodaran | 76 (2013)

Asylums, Families and the State
Mark Finnane | 20 (1985)

The Gendered State

Women and the Poor Law
Pat Thane | 6 (1978)

‘Women do not count, neither shall they be counted’: Suffrage, Citizenship and the Battle for the 1911 Census
Jill Liddington and Elizabeth Crawford | 71 (2011)

Metaphors of the Schoolroom: Women Working the Mandates System of the League of Nations
Susan Pedersen | 66 (2008)

The Hands-On State

The touch of the state: Stop and search in England, c.1660-1750
Jonah Miller | 87 (2019)

Fingerprints and citizenship: the British state and the identification of pensioners in the interwar period
Edward Higgs | 69 (2010)


Sanctioning Laughter in Stalin’s Soviet Union 
Jonathan Waterlow | 79 (2015)

Danger! Official Secret: the Spies for Peace: Discretion and Disclosure in the Committee of 100
Sam Carrol | 69 (2010)

The Archive

Mr Mdala writes to the governor: Negotiating colonial rule in Nyasaland
Megan Vaughan | 60 (2005)

Poisoned Society. The Stasi File Syndrome
Stefan Wolle | 33 (1992)

Guilty Secrets. Deceit, denial and the discovery of Kenya’s “Migrated Archive”
David Anderson | 80 (2015)

Illegibility: reading and insecurity in history, law and government
Jane Caplan | 68 (2009)

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