People's History and Socialist Theory (Routledge Revivals)
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People's History and Socialist Theory (Routledge Revivals)

Raphael Samuel, Raphael Samuel

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People's History and Socialist Theory (Routledge Revivals)

Raphael Samuel, Raphael Samuel

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About This Book

First published in 1981, this book brings together different types of work by numerous fragmented groups in the field of Marxist history and puts them in dialogue with each other. It takes stock of then recent work, explores the main new lines, and looks at the political and ideological circumstances shaping the direction of historical work, past and present. The scope of the book is international with contributions on African history, fascism and anti-fascism, French labour history, and the transition from feudalism to capitalism. It also incorporates feminist history and gives attention to some of the leading questions raised for social history by the women's movement.

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Information

Publisher
Routledge
Year
2016
ISBN
9781317206910
Edition
1
Papers
fig0019

People’s history

1 People’s History or Total History

Peter Burke*
In the short space I have at my disposal I want to say three kinds of thing. The first will be historiographical – when did people’s history begin? The second will be an attempt to assess the achievement of people’s history in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The third will be a similar assessment of people’s history as it is practised today.
The idea of people’s history goes back to the later eighteenth century. In the classical tradition of Greece and Rome, which was revived at the Renaissance, history was regarded as a ‘noble’ literary genre, like epic and tragedy. Epic, tragedy and history were all supposed to be concerned with the great deeds of great men. To mention ordinary people was generally considered to be beneath what was called the ‘dignity of history’. An example of what this view meant in practice is the following: the Roman emperor Vitellius was deserted in his last moments by everybody except his cook. When the Roman patrician Tacitus came to write about this episode in his history, he could not bring himself to write the word ‘cook’. He referred rather more vaguely to ‘one of the meanest’ in the emperor’s household. Given this idea of what was ‘dignified’, people’s history, and social history in general, simply could not develop.
It’s true that classical historians, notably Herodotus, and Renaissance historians, too, were interested in what they called the ‘manners’ or customs of different peoples. They were aware that the way in which (say) the Scythians behaved was different from the way in which the Greeks behaved, and so on. But they did not realise that these customs changed over time. They were aware that law and language changed over time, that new laws were made and that new words came into use, but they were not aware of changes in what we would call ‘society’. I say ‘what we would call society’, because, until the middle of the eighteenth century, the word ‘society’ in its modern sense did not exist in any European language, and without the word it is very difficult to have any conception of that network of relationships which we call ‘society’ or ‘the social structure’. It was only in the middle of the eighteenth century that a few writers, notably in Britain and in France, began to discuss changes in manners, changes in customs, and changes from one type of society to another.
Voltaire’s Essay on Manners, for example, is concerned with changes in the European way of life from Charlemagne’s day to his own. Voltaire was interested in chivalry, trade, costume and so on and he finds a place in his essay for the introduction of table linen. He was descriptive rather than analytical, but what was lacking in Voltaire in this respect was to be found in other writers of the time, such as Turgot, Adam Smith and William Robertson, who all distinguished four stages in the history of mankind according to the dominant ‘mode of subsistence’, hunting, pastoral, agricultural and commercial. (Marx’s debt to these eighteenth-century thinkers will be clear enough.) In Scotland in particular, a group of intellectuals were concerned with what they called ‘the history of civil society’ or ‘the civil history of mankind’, in other words, social history. The phrase that they coined at this time, ‘feudal system’, shows their awareness of the interconnections between the economic, political and military organisations of the Middle Ages, and the leading ideas of the time, such as chivalry.
At much the same time (and this was surely no coincidence), came the discovery of popular culture by a group of German intellectuals, the most famous of whom were J.G. Herder, who coined the term ‘popular culture’, and the brothers Grimm, who were assiduous collectors of folktales. Middle-class enthusiasm for popular culture, for what came to be called ‘folksongs’, ‘folktales’, and all forms of ‘folklore’, spread rapidly across Europe in the late eighteenth century.
In the early nineteenth century we find the first histories with the word ‘people’ in their titles. One of the first was the History of the Swedish people by E.G. Geijer, another was the History of the Czech People by Palacky. These books were obviously part of the early nineteenth-century movements of national self-discovery. It is interesting to find that both Geijer and Palacky, when they were students, had gone round their respective countries collecting folksongs. There is a link between that kind of cultural interest and their ambition to write a history which would not be just a history of the government but a history of the whole people. In Germany there was Zimmermann, who wrote about the German Peasant War (see Bob Scribner’s contribution, below, p. 242). In Russia, the poet Pushkin planned to write a history of Pugachev, the leader of a peasant revolt of the seventeenth century. (The Tsar’s comment on this scheme is notorious: ‘Such a man has no history.’) In France there was Michelet. In England there was Macaulay; the famous third chapter of the History of England he published in 1848 is an early English example of people’s history, and of course later on J.R. Green wrote his Short History of the English People. But the English were a little backward in this respect compared to the Swedes and the Czechs.
So much for a brief, schematic and oversimplified account of the early history of people’s history. How successful was it? The writers I have mentioned were pioneers; voyagers in uncharted historical waters. It isn’t surprising that the history they wrote was not entirely satisfactory. From Voltaire onwards, they tended to begin with a manifesto saying that history was not concerned with war and politics alone, but with the daily lives of the whole people. In practice, however, all these historians tended to devote much of their space to a conventional narrative of political and military events, and only every now and then did they include a chapter about ‘the state of the people’. They did not make very much effort to relate these state-of-the-people chapters to the narrative chapters. I don’t think anyone before Marx and Engels had a very acute awareness of the need to relate structures and events to one another.
Another weakness in this group of historians was the ambiguity in the term ‘people’, as they used it. Who are the people? Sometimes the term is used to refer to the whole population, but not always. Sometimes the aristocracy is excluded from the people, and sometimes the inhabitants of the towns. For Herder, who coined the term ‘popular culture’, the people (Das Volk), did not include what he called the urban ‘mob’. For Herder and his friends, the people par excellence were the peasants, because they were untainted with foreign ways and lived close to nature. The concept ‘people’ had nationalist and sometimes even racist overtones. In Bohemia, Germans and Jews lived among the Czechs, but Palacky and others saw them as foreign to the history of ‘.the Czech people’, defined by the use of the Czech language. In other words, the Romantic nationalist historians had a tendency to tiieat the people as a kind of club, a club to which not everyone was admitted. We are the people. They are not.
In the work of these early nineteenth-century historians, as in the work of Thucydides and Livy, the historical epic rode again. This time, however, the hero was collective; not Pericles or Scipio, but ‘the people’. The people were seen in an idealistic light, whether they were collectively creating folksongs, or enduring or resisting oppression by ‘Them’ – the foreigners, the aristocracy, or whoever. The counterpart of the idealised people was the villainous non-people. And so, like the Annals and Histories of Tacitus, written by a Roman patrician for Roman patricians, or the Chronicle of Matthew Paris, written by a monk for monks, this Romantic people’s history is obviously time-bound. It belongs quite clearly to an era of wars of national liberation (the Greek revolt, the Serb revolt, the Polish insurrection, etc.), and also to an era of an alliance between bourgeoisie and workers against common enemies (think of the 1830 revolution in France, and the struggle for the Reform Bill in England). The term ‘people’ was a useful one for papering over the cracks in that alliance. It expressed an ideology.
In short, despite its many merits, the people’s history of Geijer and Palacky and the other writers of the early nineteenth century suffered from serious limitations. It may be contrasted with what has been called ‘total history’, a term which was coined a few years ago by the great French historian Fernand Braudel. In a sense total history is an impossibility. All historians have to select from the evidence surviving from the past before they can write, and they make their selection according to what they consider important, in other words according to their values, the values of the group to which they belong. Braudel would not deny this. He uses the phrase ‘total history’ to express an ideal. He believes – I am translating him rather freely – that we should be trying to write a history which deals with all the activities of all sorts of people, not a history restricted either to one kind of human activity, such as politics, or to the activities of one social group, such as middle-class adult males. Because life is short we have to tolerate some degree of specialisation, a division of historical labour by which different people study different fragments of the past, but this is only a temporary expedient, and we should not lose sight of our ultimate aim of fitting the pieces into a whole.
Judged by these standards, I fear that the people’s history practised today suffers from serious limitations, no less than Romantic people’s history. It is of course quite different in some respects from Romantic people’s history. It is much more concerned with the relationship between events and structures. It no longer idealises the bourgeoisie. But it has inherited ideas and assumptions from Romantic people’s history, ideas and assumptions which are, to put it mildly, counter-productive.
The term ‘people’ remains ambiguous. It is often exclusive. When I call it exclusive I mean that in people’s history as it is practised today, some people are considered as more ‘people’ than others; the proletariat, perhaps, or the ‘democratic classes’ (a somewhat misleading term), or people with radical views. This exclusiveness is an invitation to confusion, to assuming that everyone (the people in one sense of the term) shares the views of a particular group, large or small (the people in another sense). It’s possible to find this kind of confusion in some of the very best people’s history written in Britain today. To quote only two examples, and to take examples only from works which in other respects I admire intensely, works by Edward Thompson and Christopher Hill. Edward Thompson’s Making of the English Wohking Class comes quite close to excluding working-class Tories from the people. As for The World Turned Upside Down, it deals alternately with radical ideas and with the ideas of ordinary people, so that an incautious reader may very well be led to equate the two. However, in seventeenth-century England, not all ordinary people were radicals and not all radicals were ordinary people.
The epic approach to people’s history still survives. The work of Edward Thompson, Christopher Hill and Raphael Samuel has this epic quality, a quality which is one of their great virtues. They and others have restored human dignity to ordinary people in the past. At the same time, this epic approach involves some very grave dangers. It’s terribly easy to slide into a view of history as essentially a struggle between virtue and vice; a Whig or Romantic view of history. The signs have now been reversed, and the bourgeoisie, once the hero of the epic, has become the villain of the piece, but the basic structure of interpretation is the same.
I should like to conclude by suggesting that whatever group you take as the hero of your epic – bourgeoisie or proletariat, or the blacks, or womanhood – the result is always mystification. A history constructed round heroes and villains makes it impossible to understand how the past happened as it did. The value of the study of history is surely that it reminds us of awkward truths, such as the truth that not everyone on our side – whatever that side is – is necessarily good or intelligent, and that not everyone on the other side is necessarily bhd or stupid. We need to place ourselves in historical context, just as we need to place the Romantic historians and Tacitus in historical context. That means that we ought to spend some time looking at our own prejudices.
To end on a personal and a controversial note, I should like to say that (although I consider myself a socialist and a historian), I’m not a socialist historian; that is, I don’t believe in socialist history. I believe that to use history as a weapon in political struggle is counter-productive. One comes to believe one’s own propaganda, to overdramatise the past, and hence to forget the real complexity of the issues at any time. One comes to idealise one’s own side, and to divide human beings into Us and Them. I don’t believe in idealising any group, whether it is as small as the fellows of my college or as large as the proletariat. And so I should like to give two cheers for people’s history; the first for showing us the social structures underlying political events, and the second for giving ordinary people back their human dignity. My third cheer is reserved for total history, a history in which the distinction between Us and Them is at last obliterated.

Note

* Peter Burke teaches at Emmanuel College, Cambridge. Author of Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe, London 1978; Venice and Amsterdam: A study of seventeenth-century elites, London 1974; History and Sociology, London 1980. An associate editor of History Workshop Journal.

Further Reading

Burke, Peter, ‘The Discovery of the People’ in Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe, London 1978.

On Herder

Pascal, Roy, The German Sturm und Drang, Manchester 1953.

On folklore

Dorson, R. The British Folklorists, London 1968.
Cocchiaro, G., Populo e Letteratura in Italia, Turin 1959.

On Annales history

Braudel, Fernand, Capitalism and Material Culture, London 1973.
Le Roy Ladurie, E., The Territory of the Historian, Hassocks 1979.
Burke, Peter, A New Kind of History, London 1973.
The Review, 1, nos 3-4, winter-spring 1978, special issue on Braudel.

2 The Changing Image of the Scottish Peasantry, 1745-1980

Ian Carter*
Until the end of the eighteenth century ruling class attitudes to the Scots peasantry were universally hostile. Peasants were sub-human, mere beafets of burden who produced rents upon which a gentleman might live in comfort. When, under the influence of the Scottish Enlightenment’s brief efflorescence, ideas of scientific agriculture began to circulate in genteel circles, then the peasantry moved from being simply irrelevant to being positively awkward. With their unaccountable preference for doing things in time-hallowed ways, they represented a major obstacle to the rational – and, for landlords and proto-capitalist farmers, highly profitable – reorganisation of agriculture. This attitude clings on in some historians’ work, as we shall see.
Two events complicated this simple picture of class prejudice. The first was, in the literary sense, cultural: the romanticisation first of the highlands and then, by extension, of all rural Scôtland. The key figure here was Scotland’s last novelist of European stature: the high Tory Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832). In Roh Roy the outlawed cattle thief, hitherto regarded as a murdering robber who should be strung up from the highest gibbet, became a romantic bandit. The highland mountains and glens, hitherto gloomy and dangerous obstacles to the establishment of safe communications and profitable trade, became picturesque. The trappings of the highland culture proscribed after Culloden became, under Scott’s influence, immensely chic. Highland estate owners – educated in England and domiciled in Edinburgh – trawled up and down the New Town’s streets dressed in full kilt and sporran to attend the elegant meetings of the (aristocratic) Edinburgh Highland Society. More...

Table of contents

  1. Cover
  2. Title
  3. Copyright
  4. Original Title
  5. Original Copyright
  6. Contents
  7. Foreword
  8. EDITORIAL PREFACES
  9. PAPERS
  10. DEBATES
  11. AFTERWORD