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Golden Years? 25 Years of History Workshop


Golden Years?

25 Years of History Workshop
Was there ever a golden age, in politics? Sooner or later, whichever may have seemed the golden years of our own personal
involvement are likely to become tarnished as we are forced to
see the faces then excluded, to hear the voices silenced then even as we mourn with guilty longing that sense of belonging
some of us once shared. Maybe so. But, nothing is more certain
than that there was a better time than this; a time when politics
was more colourful, more hopeful, more creative, more exciting
– a time when things moved very, very fast. And nothing so
illustrates this as the documents, memoirs, scribbled agendas,
private letters and miscellanea assembled to commemorate 25
years of History Workshop: Raphael Samuel (ed,) History
Workshop: A Collectanea 1967-1991, Oxford, Ruskin College, 1992, £15 pb. 0 9518609 0 9. I am glad that this material
has been put together to remind us of some of the transformations which have occured in the political and cultural life of the
Left over the last quarter of a century.

It is a controversial enterprise, of course. Old libertarian that
he remains, knowing he must end these 25 years as he began – at
breakneck speed, no time for consultation, toes trodden on, egos
neglected – Samuels commenced and completed the task within
the month, with just a little help from his friends. There is thus a
certain arbitrariness to whose memoirs appear: no comment, for
example, from Anna Davin, who along with Samuels was always so central to the project. Not sufficient evidence, some may
feel, of the bitter intensity of the struggles around expanding
traditional socialist agendas to include the lives and perspectives
of women, black people, other ethnic minorities, lesbians, gays
and … and the ever multiplying dissonances which occur as a
politics of identity begins to replace the idea of class unity as a
basis for collective action and emancipatory knowledge.

Yet the outcome of many of those struggles are clear enough.

They are most visible, not so surprisingly, in relation to women:

in the difference which sexual difference makes, once questions
of gender hierarchy are made central to any scholarly or political
project. How could it not be so? It was from History Workshop
itself, in 1969, that the very first Women’s Liberation Conference was planned in reaction to the dismissive laughter which
greeted the 23 year-old Sheila Rowbotham defending women’s
interest in paid work. It was at Ruskin College in 1970 (the
headquarters of History Workshop from 1967 to 1980) that the
conference was held. Its organisers were all passionate believers
in the idea that history matters: that we must look into women’s
consciousness and resistance in the past to plan a future which
does not exclude women’s interests or ignore women’s specific
Radical Philosophy 61, Summer 1992

exploitation and oppression. History matters, and History Workshop did play a significant part in the making, not just the
recording, of history.

In the beginning of History Workshop, in the time of the
growing grass roots working class militancy and student protest
of the late 1960s, was the appeal of the working man (and
woman, we might hear hastily added on). Mock him (and overlook her) in line with the political fashions of today, but the idea
of ‘history from below’, and the importance of recognising the
automony, the cultural and political resistance of those excluded
from power, got all its initial passion and inspiration from working class experience and struggle: Railwaymen’s Talk, Pit Life,
Working Men’s Clubs, Lancaster Mill Girls, Children’s Strikes,
Country Girlhoods, School and Community, were just some of
the early History Workshop pamphlet and discussion topics.

Quite extraordinary levels of energy, ambition and activity were
evident as History Workshop expanded nationally and regionally
throughout the 1970s, cropping up in ever new localities within
Britain (and very soon inspiring offshoots in Europe and North

During these years themes and theoretical perspectives diversified, especially after the publication of History Workshop
Journal in 1976, which remains distinct from the Workshop
organisation. Despite its initial interest in workplace experience
and class themes, the journal quickly took on board psychoanalytic and poststructuralist perspectives. This meant exploring
how these approaches call into question and fragment notions of
the self, subjectivity, memory and experience, as well as embracing all the broader points of contention around empire,
nation, race, religion, gender and sexuality, which challenge and
reject notions of the working class and labour movement as
essentially radical and progressive. Here as elsewhere, tensions
which began to wreak havoc and undermine personal confidence
throughout the whole of the British Left in the 1980s are memorably enacted and recorded in these pages. It was at the 17th
annual Workshop Conference, in 1979, that E.P. Thompson
furiously attacked Stuart Hall, and thundered against his and
other theoreticians role in promoting Althusser’s anti-humanist
rejection of the significance of individual action and direct
experience. Sharing the platform, Hall himself had earlier, more
calmly and more carefully, welcomed Thompson’ s book The
Poverty of Theory for its critique of Althusser’s ‘theoretical
terrorism’ , but nevertheless insisted upon the problematic nature
of ‘experience’ and ‘the necessity of theory, to put beside the
poverty of theoreticism’ .


These documents, however, are proof enough that the Left
has not simply tom itself apart. We can see that even as it faced
the ineluctable rise and triumph of the Right from the early
1980s, and the accompanying – if more gradual – decline of
confidence in the promise, and eventually (for many) even in the
meaning, of socialism by the late 80s, new issues of the autonomy and the specificity of marginalised identities, and the
source of people’s sense of place and belonging, do continue to
arise. The utopian rhetoric, however, is gone. And it is not so
easy today to find any articulation of shared goals or culture
which might unite us in struggling against the forces of a
transnational capitalism which is, after all, ever more powerfully
organised and successful in its exploitation of vulnerable peoples and shrinking ecological resources.

The overall importance of History Workshop for me is simply to see an institution of the Left continue to flourish, to put on
conferences which pull in hundreds of people, to inspire the
formation of new groups both in Britain and elsewhere, and to
engage in many of the major theoretical and political issues of
the day – most recently around nationalism, education and the
school curriculum. The Journal as well, always with its equal
numbers of women to men and other democratic practices and
procedures aiming to put women and (with not quite the same
success) race issues at the centre of their history, continues to
thrive. For the moment at least, however, as History Workshop
orchestrates debates between conservatives, liberals and erstwhile radicals, much of the passion and energy remains in
abeyance. We may still hear the odd old stalwart, like Francis
Mulhem, joke that it is time ‘to fire the canon’ rather than
support its perpetuation, but such passion seems more of an
individual stance than any collective call to action to which
others might respond.

History is not dead, though, and times do change. In bad
times such as these it is all the more important to keep recording,
and attempting to participate in, its changing. After all, we may
yet find what in most recent years we have been most lacking:

the political confidence to weave a language which can create
new hope and unity.

Lynne Segal

Issues of Identity in Contemporary ‘Yugoslavia’:

Antagonism and the Construction of Community
University of Kent at Canterbury 20-23 August 1992
Contact: Glenn Bowman, Rutherford College, University of Kent, Canterbury CT2 7NX
tel: 0227 764000 ext. 3180 ext 3177 (secretary) fax. 0227 475473 E-mail

Rethinking MARXISM

a journal of economics, culture, and society

Announcing an international conference …

Marxism in the New World Order: Crises and Possibilities
12-14 November 1992 University of Massachusetts-Amherst

Call for papers
Deadline for proposals is June 1 1992
Contact: Antonio Callari, Conference Co-ordinator, Economics Department,
Franklin and Marshall College, Lancaster PA 17604 Tel: (717) 291 3947 Fax: (717) 399 4413

Radical Philosophy 61, Summer 1992

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