Issue 204 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published January 1997 Copyright Socialist Review

Obituary: Artisan of history

Keith Flett

Raphael Samuel, who has died aged 62, was a youthful member of the Communist Party Historians' Group in the 1950s when its leading members included Eric Hobsbawm and E P Thompson. However, he left the CP in 1956 and as a socialist historian he was very much a child of the `new left' and the upheavals of the 1960s.

Samuel studied under Christopher Hill at Balliol College, Oxford, in the early 1950s, but, unlike the older generation of Marxist historians, Samuel never sought academic advancement. His published work, usually under the banner of the History Workshop, was invariably a collaborative exercise, and for more than 30 years from 1962 he remained a tutor at Ruskin College, Oxford, encouraging mature trade union students to take an interest in historical research. History Workshop collections edited by Samuel, such as Village Life and Labour and Miners, Quarrymen and Saltworkers, opened up a focus on the history of ordinary working people, and the essays were usually written by `worker historians' often students of Samuel at Ruskin. So 13 History Workshop pamphlets including Stan Shipley's Club Life and Socialism in mid-Victorian London were published between 1970 and 1974. Shipley had been an AEU branch secretary in Walthamstow.

Perhaps ironically, shortly before his death Samuel was persuaded to take a long overdue and much deserved professorship at a new centre for the study of community in the East End of London at the University of East London.

Samuel was a key figure behind the rise of the History Workshop movement which began life at Ruskin College, Oxford, in 1966 as an informal seminar on the English countryside in the 19th century. The principal, Samuel has related, almost closed it down, worried that students were listening to each other rather than to the lecturers. History Workshop Journal followed in 1975. The Workshops in particular brought together large numbers of rank and file socialist historians committed to recovering the past from the viewpoint of ordinary people. Early sessions famously included topics such as `A Day With The Chartists' which sought to recreate the ideas, experiences and conditions that the Chartists had encountered. The Workshop in particular became very much a product, as Samuel recorded in People's History and Socialist Theory [1981], of the events and enthusiasms of 1968. Ruskin was out on strike days before the Paris events of May 1968.

Raphael Samuel was one of the most prominent historians in the country to support history from below the attempt to actively recover the history of ordinary people and their movements. In many ways this was a step forward from the sometimes rather rigid orthodoxies of more mechanical Marxist histories. It fed in directly, too, to the resurgence of socialist ideas after 1968 and to the birth of the women's movement in which the History Workshop Conference of November 1968 played a central organising role.

Samuel could be fiercely critical of socialists with whom he disagreed. Debate has raged, for example, about whether a series of articles he wrote about the Communist Party in the 1940s and 1950s in New Left Review under the title `The Lost World of British Communism' was an attempt to write an affectionate history from below of what it had been like to be a CP member before 1956 or an attack on any kind of left wing political activism.

He was nevertheless a great enthusiast for history and a great encourager of people engaged in socialist historical research. His energy and productivity knew no bounds, whether it was in organising meetings or producing articles.

With his untimely death socialists can make a preliminary attempt to draw a balance sheet of what Raphael achieved. The History Workshop movement, of which Samuel published a 25 year history in 1991, has declined and become, to an extent, sucked into academic respectability. In recent years it has dropped its masthead describing it as a journal of `socialist and feminist historians' as it has reflected the pessimism of some on the left about the prospects for change after the collapse of Stalinism. Certainly the early, welcome, focus on working class history and movements and direct links to political activity in the present have largely gone. Gone too is the commitment to `worker historians'. In its place has come a certain attraction to the ideas of postmodernism. Both the History Workshop where it still functions and History Workshop Journal, however, remain battlegrounds, in historical terms, for many of the ideas, good and bad, which are current on the left. Their influence, and that of Samuel, has been immense. Groups and publications inspired by them exist in many countries.

History from below as practised by Samuel and others has also met its limitations. In many cases it has led towards an interest in ephemera and detailed micro-histories which, while of interest to the historian, are certainly not about changing the world. Samuel himself in recent years became increasingly interested, as his 1994 collection of articles Theatres of Memory indicates, in recovering the popular history of culture, cultural objects and artefacts. Samuel saw this interest in heritage as a real living people's history, genuinely democratic and open to all. It is as a people's historian rather than as a socialist historian that he would probably wish to be remembered.

Even so socialist history in this country would have been and will be much the poorer without Raphael. He kept his commitment and his ability to argue to the end. I came across him at the Bishopsgate Institute, opposite Liverpool Street station, which was to be the centre of his new chair, weeks before his death.

Despite being terribly ill he found time not only to enquire into my own research but to have a spirited debate about whether Charles Bradlaugh's National Secular Society, formed in 1866, was a proto-Labour Party. That was Raphael, argumentative and passionate about his history to the end. He was and remained a real product of the 1960s with all the good and bad points that flow from that.


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