Anthony Iles and Tom Roberts take their cumbersome but memorable title from the great socialist historian and peace activist E P Thompson. They use it to capture ‘the necessary awkwardness of effecting transformation by writing history’ and their fine book discusses many different attempts to create ‘history from below’. A key focus is the rich flourishing of Marxist social history in Britain in the 1960s and 1970s, of which figures like Thompson and Eric Hobsbawm were only the most significant and famous exponents. Crucially, Iles and Roberts also discuss a range of figures and movements that have taken these ideas forward, especially through more critical discussion of gender, race and nationalism.
The book provides a unique, valuable and readable overview of different elements of the ‘history from below’ tradition. A central concern is with the remarkable body of work associated with the American labour historians, Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker, which has sought to recover the forms of motley resistances that shaped opposition to early forms of capitalist globalisation. They discuss figures such as Robert Wedderburn, the radical preacher and revolutionary, also a brothel keeper, who envisioned solidarities between the working class in London and Jamaica in the early 19th century and Olaudah Equiano, the freed slave and abolitionist who was a co-founder of the London Corresponding Society, one of the first popular radical organisations in Britain.
Some recent writing on the new left historians has risked preserving figures such as E P Thompson, Christopher Hill and Eric Hobsbawm in aspic. One of the vital things about this text is that, in the tradition of writers such as Thompson, it speaks to present political questions. In this way Iles and Roberts develop incisive critiques of writers such as Maurice Glasman, originator of Blue Labour, and Philip Blond, the so-called ‘red Tory’, who have mobilised radical traditions of Englishness to re-assert the importance of ‘flag, faith and family’.
They contend that such work ‘erases working class history of its antagonisms’. Instead this book asserts the importance and creative force of traditions of struggle in both the past and present.