What is Libertarian History? Part 1: The History of History Itself - Liz Willis

From Black Flag, Issue 232, 2010/11, pp.28-29.

Submitted by Fozzie on April 11, 2020

There are a number of historical contexts which might be expected to attract a libertarian historian looking for a research topic, those times when significant numbers of people did appear to be acting collectively to take control of their lives and inaugurate a fairer, non-authoritarian form of society: the Paris Commune of 1871, workers’ councils in the Russian Revolution, Spain 1936-37, and Hungary 1956 spring to mind. A lot of good work has been done on these and there is room for plenty more, not only to draw the lessons – that what was achieved once could be possible again; what went wrong and why – but as a corrective to the disinformative history that the opponents of libertarianism tend to propagate. In the case of Spain, there are still books being produced which manage almost entirely to ‘disappear’ the anarchists.

It has been well observed that history is written by the winners, and libertarians have not won in the long run (yet), although the proposition is less tenable now that your actual working historians are a comparatively large and varied set of people and many amateurs have access to a range of resources for research and communication. Historians of medicine sometimes tell the story of the brain surgeon who said ‘I think I’ll take up history when I retire’ to a historian, who replied ‘Good idea. I’m retiring soon too, maybe I should take up brain surgery!’ It doesn’t quite work, though: while taking the point that history can claim to be a serious occupation rather than a hobby and a bit of study and training in techniques is likely to be useful, it isn’t really rocket science, or brain surgery, and there is some sense in the idea that anyone can decide to do it. This article will look at some ways in which it has been done, and at some of those who have done it, and consider whether a case can be made for a distinctive libertarian contribution to the theory of the subject as well as to its content.

Rebels and Pioneers

While much of recorded history has indeed been for and about the winners – powerful ancient rulers and imperial conquerors seeking to justify and consolidate their dominant position (and denounce their opponents), medieval chroniclers generally supporting the status quo in church and state – a parallel, contrasting view of the past subsisted in popular memory, transmitted by oral tradition, in stories, songs and rhymes, to emerge as a unifying theme in times of rebellion. The Peasants’ Revolt (1381) repudiated the idea that class divisions were divinely ordained ‘When Adam delved and Eve span’; the Diggers of the 17th century ‘English Revolution’ saw their actions as a reassertion of ancient rights, invoking a pre-Conquest age of communal ownership and shared work on the land. Subsequent movements have looked to both of these, not for the historical accuracy of their alternative myths, but for their rejection of the dominant ideology and vision of a different way of life.

The modern kind of history, old-fashioned as it may appear from some points of view, can be traced to the 18th century, located among cultural developments in the wake of the Enlightenment. Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is the celebrated blockbuster archetype. Less well known, one of the few women writers whom Mary Wollstonecraft could regard with approval or as any kind of inspiration, Catherine Macaulay (1731-91), produced an eight-volume History of England and was famed, or notorious, in her time as a prominent ‘Bluestocking’, daring to appear openly intellectual in defiance of social expectations1 . As well as the slights and slanders that went with this territory she came in for personal attacks when, as a widow, she married a noticeably younger man. With the irrationality of dominant-male ideology, her reputation as a writer suffered too. Recent commentators have been more generous, hailing her as the first (noteworthy) English woman historian and a proto-feminist who advocated equal liberties for all. She is said to have based her writings mainly on primary source materials, unusually for the time, and to have had a political, rather than a moral, purpose; her work was popular in revolutionary America and France.


Wollstonecraft herself (1759-97) showed an awareness of history in her Vindication of the Rights of Woman and an ability to look at it in her own way, from her take on the ‘half-civilised Romans’ to her analysis and rejection of patriarchal authority, tyrannical rule, and supposedly ‘natural’ gender roles and values. When she reported on the French Revolution – bringing her intelligence to bear on events which were affecting her and her friends, at a time when her personal life was in turmoil – she was at pains to explain the social and economic background and recognised the deep causes of the repellent violence of the Terror.


Revolutions and uprisings are naturally a favourite subject for libertarians as for socialists (and some reactionaries). Kropotkin wrote about The Great French Revolution; a signed copy with an inscription to one of the professors is, or was in 1968, on an open shelf in Aberdeen University library, available to be borrowed by students and shown to the local anarchist group (we did return it). His aim and that of libertarians generally would have been to contest the prevailing historiographical preoccupation with guillotines and massacres, in order to understand the process, including the class realities involved. While underlining the power of collective action, it was also necessary to acknowledge the double dangers of authoritarian revolutionary leaders and post-revolutionary repression.

Those themes were even more forcefully present when it came to writing about the Russian Revolution of 1917. The members of the French Convention in 1792 had consciously made a break with the past to the extent of declaring Year I and inaugurating a new calendar; the Bolsheviks brought only a slight change in dates (from ‘Old Style’ to new) but were otherwise insistent on their historical mission. The theory of dialectical materialism was taken to justify their seizure and retention of power, and rapid elimination of opponents (including anarchists) of the left and centre as well as right. If history did not support their claim to embody the will of the masses, then history was at fault. Their version did not go uncontested and in the long run the suppression of unacceptable facts was not final2 .

George Orwell later denounced the rewriting of history and perversion of collective memory as practised by totalitarian regimes in the fictional but well-grounded 1984 and Animal Farm; his Homage to Catalonia made a major contribution to preserving the truth about events in Spain. For the most part, however, it was left to less widely published, committed writers and publishers such as, in Britain, Freedom Press, or later Solidarity, Cienfuegos, and currently AK Press, to document the libertarian content of revolutions and the fate of anarchist activists.

... and all that

Much of what many normal (non-revolution-minded) people still think of as history – kings and queens, battles and so on, boring stuff laced with scandalous or comic anecdotes by way of light relief – was familiar enough in the early 20th century to be thoroughly satirised in 1066 and All That (W J Sellar and R J Yeatman, 1930), still a fun read even if getting the full flavour depends on ‘common knowledge’ which is now far from common. It ended, fans may remember, with America becoming ‘top nation’ and history coming to a full stop. The focus was obviously on Britain, especially England; other countries had their own national myths equally crying out for debunking.

Ellen Wilkinson

Ellen Wilkinson – ‘Red Ellen’ of Jarrow fame, trade union activist, Labour MP and Minister – realised ‘how little real history’ had been on offer when she went to Manchester University as a student at in 19103 . Such feelings would have been shared by most of those at the receiving end of formal education at all levels, over many decades. Gradually the situation improved in several respects. Received wisdom was contested; ‘social history’ – including vast swathes of human experience, work, culture and almost anything to do with women – no longer relegated to occasional chapters, footnotes and brief asides, diversions from considerations of serious (men’s) business like running countries and waging wars. Even if the Academy remained dominated by patriarchal attitudes and authoritarian assumptions there were contexts where different approaches could be explored: evening classes for ‘self-improvement’, public libraries, books and magazines, political groups.

In schools, whether or not pupils were turned on to history probably depended a great deal on the inspirational or off-putting style of individual teachers and the chances of passing exams (Formula: when discussing an event apply the formula ‘causes, course, results’; if a personality, say who they were, what they did, why they were important), rather than the content of the curriculum. Traditional teaching had its uses, at its best inducing analytical habits of thought, and equipping students to organise their ideas and develop their own interests. (It also managed to convey a sense of chronology, something which seems to be lacking in latter-day episodic what-it-was-like to be a Roman/Viking etc. methods in use at junior levels.)

Despite pretensions to (social) scientific status, the initial attraction was often, and remains, akin to that of literature, and there’s nothing necessarily wrong with liking a good story. Why should the devil have all the best tunes or the ruling class the best stories? – as long as reality is allowed to get in the way when it has to. In the words of G M Trevelyan, "The poetry of history does not consist of imagination roaming at large, but of imagination pursuing the fact and fastening upon it..."4 . Similarly, even outright fiction can have a place in stimulating appreciation of conditions in the past, but should not be confused with actual evidence. In the higher echelons of academe the narrative mode might have been deemed inferior to the study of documents and the compilation of statistics but it persists through successive fashions, controversies and ‘turns’.

August 2010.

P.S. It would have been apt to mention here the celebrated passage from Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey (first published 1818) , chapter 14, where three of the main characters discuss history: "The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars and pestilences, in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all – it is very tiresome: and yet I often think it odd that it should be so dull, for a great deal of it must be invention". (The discussion continues for several paragraphs). – LW.

What is Libertarian History? Part 2: History Turned on its Head by Class

  • 1Jane Robinson, Bluestockings: The remarkable story of the first women to fight for an education. Viking, 2009; pp. 6-7.
  • 2Maurice Brinton, 'The Bolsheviks and Workers’ Control, 1917-21: The State and Counter-Revolution'. Solidarity, London, 1970. Reprinted in 'For Workers’ Power', edited by David Goodway, 2004.
  • 3Biography at http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/ (search for Ellen Wilkinson).
  • 4G M Trevelyan (1876-1962): inaugural lecture, Cambridge, 1927 (much quoted).