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.
#228 Climate Revolutions ● Transitioning beyond climate and Covid-19 crises ● Conservation without colonialism ● Prisons, profits and punishment ● Surveillance capitalism in India ● The uses of comedy ●Simon Hedges ● Book reviews ● And much more!
And you choose how much to pay for your subscription...
Suchandrika Chakrabarti reviews Wendy Liu's proposals to reclaim technology's potential for the public good
Connor Beaton reviews Daniel Finn's account of the politics and personalities which drove the IRA
As apocalypse rhetoric spreads during Covid-19, James Hendrix Elsey explores what 'the end of the world' really means under racialised capitalism – and what comes next
The BBC hit drama shows the complexities of class mobility, but can’t avoid class and gender stereotypes, says Frances Hatherley
Mask Off offers a toolbox of explanations and arguments to question and challenge toxic masculinity, writes Huw Lemmey
Radical publishing houses are under existential threat - just as people look for ways to fill their time. Siobhan McGuirk and K Biswas select lockdown reads from our favourite booksellers