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

From Black Flag issue 233.

Submitted by Fozzie on April 11, 2020

Previously: What is Libertarian History? Part 1: The History of History Itself

Revolutionary Theory

For committed marxists who came into the system, the real and earnest, especially economic type of history was preferred among the growing number of options and specialisations, and it was obligatory to fit political events into the appropriate categories.

Two Trotskyist students going into a history exam: one (not a Trot swot) calls to the other, ‘Was 1848 a bourgeois revolution?’ The other indicates affirmative: sorted. Or up to a point – they may not pass but at least they can write something, more than likely involving the conclusion that what the revolutionaries needed was correct leadership.

The Communist Manifesto (K Marx and F Engels, 1848) begins with the assertion that "the history of all hitherto-existing society has been the history of class struggle." This proposition was of course more complicated and nuanced than might at first appear, and was elaborated at considerable length in the foundation texts of marxism into a system purporting not only to explain the past but to understand the present and predict the future. So marxist historians and students knew where they were and had a structure to apply as universally as possible: pre- history, feudalism, rise of the bourgeoisie, industrial capitalism; forward to the proletarian revolution, socialism, and the withering away of the state.

You don’t have to buy into the whole marxist package to find elements of this analysis useful, perhaps essential tools of the trade in many historical contexts, but it begs questions that may present themselves to libertarians particularly and suggest alternative or supplementary approaches. What about authority relations generally: people against the state, dissent from dominant ideology, issues of gender, race... ? Some of the subtler and less rigid proponents of marxism could accommodate such elements, even if it took a while for them to get around to doing so, and much ingenuity was devoted to the shoe-horning of examples from multifarious epochs and locations into the overarching framework. The insistence on that framework was the problem, as analysed by, for one, Paul Cardan (a.k.a. Cornelius Castoriadis). Apart from taking issue with the prediction of successive crises leading inevitably to the final collapse of capitalism, he sought in a text published by Solidarity in 1971 as History and Revolution: a revolutionary critique of historical materialism to restore the primacy of human agency, the power of collective action to shape events instead of being stymied in advance by ‘objective’ economic conditions, immutable laws and pre-determined stages of development.

1960s and after

In the high cold-war era any mention of capitalism, class struggle or even classes, especially in terms like ‘bourgeoisie’ and ‘proletariat‘ was often enough to brand someone as an unsound, subversive lefty, acting as a red rag to respectable academics entrenched in university establishments. Such suspect concepts were discouraged by the ranks of ‘bourgeois empiricists’ who would examine closely, for example, the opposing sides in the ‘English’ Civil War or the factions in the French Revolution and discover so much disparity within them that it seemed they were not really sides or factions at all – not only refusing to see the wood for the trees but asserting that so many differences between individual trees meant there couldn’t possibly have been any wood.

Meanwhile other things were happening. E H Carr famously argued in What is History? (1961) that historians’ pretensions to absolute objectivity, to be simply researching and conveying ‘the facts’, were illusory, and that there was always an element of bias in selection and presentation. The solution was not to give up trying to be objective but to recognise the influences working in the other direction. This book, written up from Carr’s Trevelyan Lectures, became the classic introductory text to the theoretical side of their subject for a generation or two of history students, at least.

Another change was that the ‘Whig interpretation’ of history – roughly, the view of steady progress and successful reform, and judgments of significance based on whether and to what extent events contributed to this – was challenged on various fronts, not only because academic fashions change but because developments such as the women’s movement and other liberation struggles meant an increasing number of people were realising how much had been written out of history as they had been taught it. For many, of course, the realisation was far from new, but from the 1970s there was a fresh dynamism in the expansion of ‘alternative’ and subversive histories, together with an awareness of formerly neglected episodes such as mutinies, anti-colonial struggles and anti-war activism. Bringing out the relevance of these to contemporary society was an important part of the process.

To take a few prominent examples, Sheila Rowbotham uncovered the hidden history of women, with special reference to resistance and revolution; Raphael Samuel’s History Workshop celebrated the labour movement; E P Thompson influentially described The Making of the English Working Class. Perhaps rather little of this was of a self-proclaimed libertarian persuasion but the overall tendency was in the direction of wider participation and diversity in theory and practice. A great deal of it eventually became integrated or co-opted into academic respectability, with more or less resistance from historians of the old school (sometimes in more sense than one), but that establishment too was changing. The scope of studies could be expanded into international comparisons or conversely adopt a regional, local, or even family and personal focus, while approved research topics and papers could range from the inter-disciplinary to ever more specific specialisation. By the early 21st century a group of British historians were considering What Is History Now? under the chapter headings: social; political; religious; cultural; gender; intellectual; and imperial1 .

Then we have on the one hand the increasingly esoteric reaches of post-modernism, leaving no metaphor not unpacked and no concept undeconstructed (Quote from a conference: ‘It doesn’t matter whether it really happened’), and on the other the popularity of the sillier type of television history restoring royalty to centre stage and endlessly mentioning the war, but let’s not go there just now.

Towards a Conclusion

‘Celebrate our history, avoid repeating our mistakes’, the slogan of the Radical History Network of North-East London (RaHN)2 suggests two important elements of a libertarian history project. A third might be the effort to understand what our history has been up against, in particular the behaviour of those in power, ‘What’s bin did and what’s bin hid’ by the state to pre-empt or counter any revolutionary threat, or the routine disregard of people’s lives and liberties in the alleged ‘national interest’. This thread is recommended for those with a taste for detective work; the National Archives open new files all the time, and Freedom of Information requests can sometimes dig out more. The results can include useful exposés and demonstration of fallacies and distortion in official versions of events, and may sometimes show the effectiveness of protest and persistence of dissent, as well as many bureaucratic absurdities.

The ‘celebration’ endeavour – of past struggles, movements, groups, lives, ideas – can be pursued in a variety of contexts according to choice, interest and access to resources. The point is not to claim that ‘our history’ was all brilliant; accentuating the positive is fair enough, but not to the exclusion of the negative, even if the latter often seems to have received more than its fair share of attention already. If past mistakes and flaws are denied, they can hardly be avoided in future. Nor is all struggle, dissent or revolt equally relevant. Just as looking at A Century of Women (Rowbotham, 1999) can cram an uncomfortable assortment between the same covers, so the idea of ‘rebel’ can concoct a marvellous hodge-podge3 .

Without attempting to draw up a table of tick-boxes to assess the libertarian credentials of historians and their work , the foregoing bits and pieces may suggest some criteria. Easier, perhaps, to say what libertarian history is not: productions featuring the glorification of militarism, adulation of heads of state and national heroes, denunciation of popular movements or denial of their existence and so on, not hard to spot. Libertarians will probably tend to let other pens dwell on the fads and foibles of the ruling class, or on its guilt and misery for that matter, and are not likely either to indulge in the game of making up counter-factual, what-if tales, wishful thinking for reactionaries.

On the positive side, those who are aware of authority relations in all sorts of contexts (in all hitherto-existing society?) and can perceive the plight of history’s underdogs will have insights to offer; they will be well placed to interpret and comment on generally neglected subjects and sources. They may be professionals or not but will not be holed up in ivory towers, preferring to make their work accessible and to interact with others, not least those involved in current struggles, and not forgetting the need to document those struggles too.

Liz Willis, August 2010.

  • 1David Cannadine, ed. “What Is History Now” Palgrave, 2002.
  • 2http://radicalhistorynetwork.blogspot.com
  • 3David Horsfall, The English Rebel: One Thousand Years of Trouble-making from the Normans to the Nineties. Viking 2009/ Penguin 2010.