British Labour History: Movement Historians or Academic Historians?
In the early days of the Australian Society for the Study of Labour History, its journal published a symposium on ‘What is Labour History?’ in which the distinguished economic historian, John La Nauze, writing as a self-confessed ‘sniffy’ academic, nonetheless hoped that Labour History did not succumb to ‘professional’ jitters and exclude the writings of labour movement activists. The tension that La Nauze was alluding to, between history as it is practiced and understood in the labour movement and as it is pursued as a career by academic historians through teaching and research, is endemic to labour history. In fact, it could well be that the best way to understand the history of organizations of labour historians is in terms of how they resolve that tension, especially for comparative purposes. In the volume under review, two of the studies show labour history societies resolving the tension by privileging the labour movement, a third shows a society focussing on academics, and the fourth sidesteps the issue.
Approaching the book in this way, I wonder about the editors’ criteria for inclusion. It cannot be the right to celebrate a golden jubilee, for only the Society for the Study of Labour History (SSLH) formed in London is fifty years old. The other societies included were formed in 1961 (Scotland), 1971 (Wales) and 1973 (Ireland). So why relegate to one paragraph the regional labour history societies, especially the North East (formed in 1967) and the North West (formed in 1973)? Neglecting the latter also excludes discussion of its close relationship with the Working Class Movement Library in Salford, which is not just a marvellous repository ‘capturing the stories and struggles of ordinary people's efforts to improve their world’ but a vigorous promoter of labour history through its bookshop, exhibitions and lectures. When I first visited in the 1970s it had already existed for nearly 20 years. As well, in the last decade groups of radical historians in Manchester and Bristol have revived grass-roots labour history with web sites, pamphlets, and a democratic approach linking the study and making of history. Why exclude their inspirational efforts? Or those of the organizations of socialist historians in Britain who carry on the work of the ex-members of the Communist Party Historians’ Group who did so much to form the SSLH?
But let us look at what this anniversary volume does cover. John McIlroy writes at length about the SSLH, Robert Duncan provides a short sketch of the Scottish society, Deian Hopkin and Emmet O’Connor contribute substantial essays on the societies in Wales and Ireland, and the editors carry the story of the SSLH forward from McIlroy’s ending date in 1985. There are similarities in the stories they tell: the impetus to organization given by the need to discover and preserve labour records, and by the expansion and growing professionalization of academic history; the relationship with the labour movement; the publication of a journal; the progress of the subject in the academy; and the challenges mounted by feminist and other radical histories and by post-modernism. But there are dissimilarities too, and these point to the significance of the tension between history-work in the labour movement and academic labour history.
In Wales, as Deian Hopkin shows in a fascinating chapter, labour historians were able combine the nationalist politics of Welsh language and culture of the 1970s with class politics to produce a Society with strong roots in the progressive community. Alongside left-wing academics and adult educators, trade unionists from the militant and locality-oriented National Union of Mineworkers were active on its committee, which explicitly rejected ‘an elitist academic approach’. The organization attracted a broad social base, promoted labour history in the school curriculum, secured Arts Council support for strongly attended week-end schools, and at its peak in 1979 had almost 1800 members. As the union movement retreated in the 1980s it lost members, but its importance continued to be recognised by local history societies, museums and archives. In 2001, to reflect the non-academic initiatives of the Society and its commitment to what Raphael Samuel called the democratisation of historical production, members changed its title to ‘Llafur: Welsh People’s History Society’. Since then its membership has been rising.
In Ireland, labour history is neither a grass roots movement nor an intellectual presence in Irish historiography, but it does have state support. In a revealing chapter, Emmet O’Connor explains how this strange situation came about. Although the nationalist focus of Irish politics and culture marginalizes the Labour Party and makes ‘class’ a suspect category, the Irish state, operating on quasi-corporatist lines, offers a compact to ‘social’ forces. The official trade union movement accepts, and in return receives funding for not-too-threatening projects. Thus, twenty years ago, Beggar’s Bush, the headquarters for Irish labour history was opened: library, archives, museum, lecture hall and committee room. The downside is that the Society has to function as a bureaucratic arm of the labour movement, devoting most of its time to ensuring that the state’s embrace continues. Yet in terms of finding a balance between the movement and the university spheres, this is another model that works. Membership, after a decline in the 1980s, is increasing and its annual Saothar (Labour) attracts articles from worker-historians as well as academics.
As John McIlroy’s essay on the SSLH takes up almost two-thirds of this volume, and as it features the work of Asa Briggs, John Saville, Eric Hobsbawm, Edward Thompson, Royden Harrison and others of the ‘great and good’ who established labour history as an academic field, there is much of interest in it. It contains a lively, and carefully documented account of the intellectual and political context in which the Society was formed, and of labour history as an intellectual project. Much of the chapter is devoted to the latter, and as a survey of its place in the development of social history and its response to the changing political culture of Britain in the 1960s and 70s it will be hard to beat. I would strongly recommend it to students contemplating a career in labour history, and indeed as a refresher course for their teachers. We should be particularly grateful to McIlroy for reminding us of Hobsbawm’s lofty aims for labour history - and of the field’s failure to achieve them.
Hobsbawm could rightly claim that the founding fathers had transformed labour history into an academic field, but they had not transformed ‘history proper’. By the 1990s, as McIlroy shows, far from being an accepted part of mainstream university history, labour history was ‘no more than a subfield of economic or social history or of industrial relations’. As for the intellectual ambition of the ‘great and good’ first generation of British labour historians to write a history of the working class that would reinvent social history as total history, ‘a way of writing the history of movements and societies as integrated wholes’, how you would do that without writing about the class structure of capitalism as a whole was never explained. McIlroy fails to mention that Gareth Stedman Jones made this criticism as early as 1967, and Humphrey McQueen repeated it in the introduction to A New Britannia in 1970. Not surprisingly, no book emerged from Britain’s labour history community to survey the role of the class structure in British history. In Australia, the founders of labour history resented criticism from the left (speaking now from personal experience), particularly if it pointed to the neglect of theory, and that was probably true in Britain. In fact, McIlroy reports that the founders were uninterested in theory and had limited curiosity about the definition of the field and its limits.
Notwithstanding this lacuna, McIlroy is right to conclude that the literature of British labour history is ‘an extraordinary achievement’. But, the SSLH as an organization with a commitment to building on the history work of the labour movement as well as to its professional agenda? Here the story McIlroy tells (in spite of himself) is one of failure. In the years he covers, the Society’s ‘public mission and heterogeneity of membership’ declined. The founding fathers not only refused to publish a scholarly journal, they fended off radical proposals to improve links with the labour movement. So, a few years later they were outflanked by the appearance of History Workshop to cater for the ‘people’s history’ of the radical left and Social History for the ‘new history’ of the professional mainstream; SSLH membership dropped. Moreover, as a professional body the SSLH was hardly credible. When Thatcherism began its forward march, the SSLH, which had ‘never seriously sought to achieve institutional purchase’ on state funding bodies, had to watch helplessly as labour history courses, studentships and staff positions disappeared. Meanwhile, the intellectual challenges to labour history gathered strength, but the SSLH’s Bulletin gave its readers only ‘a limited sense’ of what gender history and the linguistic turn meant. Worse, in 1980 the editors of the Bulletin decided to attack History Workshop for bringing ‘direct democracy’ into the practice of history and for elevating working class experience over scholarship. This was not how good history was produced, the editors opined; it required training in the craft of history by professionals. A conservative La Nauze could not have been sniffier than that. The result: consternation among the members of the SSLH and the fall in membership not reversed. Today History Workshop continues as a major journal, attracting both a general and a professional readership, but the circulation of Labour History Review (belatedly launched in 1990), and therefore membership of the Society, is barely 200.
McIlroy, and perhaps the other editors, seem to assume that the only labour history worth talking about is the academic project carried on by professional historical scholars. That is an acceptable way of understanding labour history, but not a very hopeful one on the evidence of this volume. Moreover it ignores the different routes taken by the Welsh and Irish labour historians, not to speak of the efforts of radical historians in other parts of Britain. It seems to me that if one focuses on the history of organizations of labour historians, as this volume wants to do, one cannot avoid the conclusion that labour history is more than a professional project, and that its history does not start or end with developments in the academy. This applies as much to its intellectual as to its political significance. Indeed, if labour as a political force continues to decline, the future of labour history may well rest with a broader radical movement than labour.