August 2019

The History Workshop, Campus Politics, and Our Contemporary Struggles for Equality

"In effect, the History Workshop Journal editors were reviving a longer legacy of solidarity between atomized elements of the working class; between university students and teachers, historians and the public, and campus workers and trade unions. Throughout the twentieth century, these groups allied in the face of existential threats."

by Kyle Kern

In their inaugural 1976 issue, the editors of the History Workshop Journal voiced their concern “at the narrowing of the influence of history in [British] society, and at its progressive withdrawal from the battle of ideas,” a statement that likely resonates with contemporary historians as we recognize once again the disparity between the goals of our community and the material conditions of the working class.[1] By establishing this journal, the editors attempted both to express dissatisfaction with prevailing historical and political consensuses and, most importantly, to breach boundaries in the construction of historical scholarship, particularly those between the laboring classes and the academy (as well as the broader public). It was, in their words, an act of solidarity with “the working historian.”[2] 

“Bob Gilding delivering a paper at the fifth meeting of the History Workshop in 1971.” Courtesy of the History Workshop Archive, Bishopsgate Institute.

HWJ was an outgrowth of its namesake, a series of annual conferences established in 1966 by social historian and New Left veteran Raphael Samuels at Ruskin College, an institute of adult education affiliated with the British labor movement for decades. Emerging primarily as a vehicle for history from below, a method of social history that emphasizes direct examination of the lives and shared culture of working people and non-elites, History Workshop sought to transcend traditional demarcations in the production and study of history by establishing a conference that both showcased their chosen methodology and made space for non-academics typically without access to professional conferences.[3]

In effect, the History Workshop Journal editors were reviving a longer legacy of solidarity between atomized elements of the working class; between university students and teachers, historians and the public, and campus workers and trade unions. Throughout the twentieth century, these groups allied in the face of existential threats. Not only did organized working class movements galvanize historians, other scholars, and students to tell the stories of marginalized voices, but so too did academics reinvigorate their critiques regarding the inferior status and material conditions of working people. These critiques were represented in the New Left’s attempts to cut a path between the Stalinization of the Communist Party of Great Britain and the social democracy of the British Labour Party in the 1950s and furthered through the Gramscian cultural turn in academic Marxism in the 1960s. Academics associated with the History Workshop Journal also grew more closely aligned with the goals of British trade unionism from mid century to present. Academics like those affiliated with HWJ used their close examinations of working class lives to make adjustments to broader economic and political critiques by reflecting on the left’s previous ideology and practices, learning from their successes and mistakes, and re-configuring these ideas into a newly realized synthesis.

“A public advertisement for the first History Workshop.” Courtesy of History Workshop Archive, Bishopsgate Institute.

Indeed, History Workshop conferences were characterized by a disregard for social boundaries, as well as a lack of formality, spirit of improvisation, and a DIY ethic.[4] They featured papers by academic and independent historians, students, organizers, trade unionists, and other workers.[5] And their attendees listened to live music, enjoyed theater performances, and watched films. In effect, this decentralized structure and focus on public engagement gained traction across England, in the United States, and in South Africa.[6] New meetings spawned, representing a significant and meaningful extension of education against the grain, a continuation of the New Left’s goals to bridge gaps between intellectuals and workers.[7] For the Workshop, the production of history was too exclusionary, the presentation of scholarship rife with pretension, and the chosen methodologies alien to the broader public.

In practice, scholars affiliated with the History Workshop played an important role in the reconfiguration of Marxist historical materialism throughout the twentieth century by expanding their methodology to the realm of culture and everyday life, analyzing new types of sources, and prioritizing the participation of those typically outside the production of history.[8] Indebted to the work of New Left historians like E.P. Thompson and Christopher Hill, History Workshop sought to understand the role human agency played in class conflict while addressing the occasional rigidity of historical materialism’s top-down approach.[9] Though still largely concerned with the conflicts between the laboring and bourgeois classes, History Workshop associates chose to primarily focus on the daily lives and shared culture of working peoples, opening space for the use of oral histories, material culture (including found and household objects), and local histories to give voice to the working classes.

“Sign-up sheet for History Workshop 4, 1969.” Courtesy of History Workshop Archive, Bishopsgate Institute.

The History Workshop’s role in the production and proliferation of women’s history as a distinct mode of study is an especially significant scholarly reconfiguration, with historians like Sally Alexander and Anna Davin playing key roles in the early Workshop and its journal, as well as in the development of Britain’s first conference of Women’s History at the 1967 History Workshop.[10]

Though still indebted to the materialist readings of Marxist historians, workshop affiliates like Sheila Rowbotham did not shy away from critiques of gaps in Marxist scholarship. Rowbotham, influenced by E.P. Thompson, re-contextualized the history of revolutionary movements by applying feminist theory, illustrating women’s roles in significant historical events and denouncing previous works that muffled these voices.[11] The workshop’s commitment to a previously neglected emphasis on the lives of women (especially in socialist histories) is effectively summarized in the first issue of the History Workshop Journal, with Alexander and Davin declaring that “women are workers too.”[12]

The History Workshop meetings’ decline in frequency and relevancy throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s was largely congruous with the firm institutionalization of neoliberal economics and the changes in the working class that accompanied de-industrialization, especially the expansion of adult education outside of trade union-affiliated colleges and universities. More generally, their degeneration was representative of a broader decline of the global left leading up to the twenty-first century, changes accompanied by methodological shifts in academic history away from social history, and the various crises in academic Marxism. Though the History Workshop’s empiricism and occasional hostility toward historical theory (most notably that of Louis Althusser) have been brought under appropriate scrutiny, historians who prioritize underrepresented groups are indebted to their reinterpretations, chosen modes of engagement, and sources.[13] Even as its political ambitions were thwarted by broader structural changes in European politics, the History Workshop’s legacy is preserved through its role as an incubator for various scholarly methodologies.

“Raphael Samuels with Jean McCrindle, London 1956.” Courtesy of Alison Light and the Raphael Samuel Estate.

Facing an increasingly hostile political environment, affiliates of the History Workshop continued to draw knowledge from the European left’s past successes and failures until the Workshop’s dissipation in 1994, attempting to recontextualize those lessons in their contemporary period to varying degrees of efficacy. As the founder and spiritual guide of the History Workshop, Raphael Samuel was well equipped for this task, given his time in various factions on the British left. Samuel’s worldview was a prism constructed by Ruskin College’s principled working class education and the Marxist-humanism of the New Left (along with their sensitivity toward working class cultural exchange). [14]

In effect, Samuel was influenced simultaneously by an engagement with twentieth century left-wing political projects and the left’s persistent imagination of a more just and democratic world.[15] Whereas Samuel’s dissatisfaction and anxieties around the twentieth-century left bore fruit in the form of a radical scholarship, our current climate necessitates a renewed sense of militancy, one informed by the evolving composition of the working class and supported by an aggressive and unyielding solidarity among campus workers.

Union membership in the United States after 1983,” Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The imperative for change in working conditions under neoliberalism, exacerbated by an increase in university reliance on part-time labor and a decrease in the living standards of those employees, has provoked sizable responses on both public and private university campuses across the United States. The modern-day tenor of this campus class-conscious organizing has taken the form of direct action, predominantly stemming from part-time faculty, graduate students, and other campus workers. Adjunct and contingent faculty, now a majority of instructors in colleges and universities, have embarked on new organizing campaigns, including contingent faculty at Fordham University and adjunct faculty at the University of South Florida. New union campaigns have accompanied direct actions and wins from existing faculty unions. Adjunct professors at City University of New York have fought for an increase in pay-per-course to $7,000 to keep instructors out of poverty in one of the most expensive cities in the country.

“The University of Illinois – Chicago’s Graduate Employees Organization 13 days into a three-week strike.”

In spite of the downward trend in trade union membership, graduate students have undertaken union organizing campaigns consistently over the past thirty years (notably the University of California and California State University systems, as well as universities in Illinois, Iowa, and Michigan). After the 2016 NLRB’s decision to recognize graduate student workers at private universities as employees, both private and public universities have become the sites of direct action and militant unionism. Graduate student workers at the University of Chicago engaged in a three-day strike to demand voluntary recognition for their union from their University. Student workers at the University of Illinois – Chicago went on strike for nearly three weeks over pay raises and unnecessary and expensive fees for graduate students. Not limited by their geography, graduate students have continued to fight for workplace equality in states with so-called ‘right to work’ laws on the books, with students at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill, Emory University, and Louisiana State University putting their livelihoods at risk by organizing trade unions.

While the organization of campus trade unions continues to prioritize the elevation of workers’ material conditions in the forms of livable wages and benefits, current iterations importantly address the varying needs among different groups of workers, using campus union organizing to address issues of representation and workplace equity for all who labor in academia, not just cis-gendered white men. For instance, graduate student organizing efforts have included calls for third-party arbitration and grievance procedures against sexual harassment. As women, trans, and non-binary activists often stand at the center of these actions, their demands have pushed campus movements toward greater inclusivity,  a view of economic justice that appropriately addresses the needs of many kinds of workers. With assistance from a tradition of radical scholarship, a striking and necessary evolution of previous iterations of campus activism reveals a small light in a very dark period for the working class and their members and allies in the university system.

“University of Chicago’s Graduate Students United rallying for the recognition of their union, June 3, 2019.”

The economic precarity of not just part-time instructors and graduate student workers, but the entirety of the working class, has continued to invigorate university campuses with the ideological fervor supposedly silenced forever by the “end of history.” Contemporary emphasis on the profitability of higher education has in many ways cauterized the path by which radical forms of democracy asserted themselves on university campuses throughout the twentieth century, an attempt to substitute the intrinsic value of university education with the supposed rationality of the free market. However, movements for the rights of workers on college and university campuses have risen to capably confront this, revealing what Mark Fisher described as the enormous opportunity in “the long, dark night of the end of history.”[16] While radical pedagogy continues to imbue our current struggles with historical precedence, its intersection with direct, militant campus action has created a new potential not fully realized by groups like History Workshop. Though the scholars affiliated with History Workshop were profoundly shaped by aspirations to defend and expand the rights of workers, their efforts to use their role as historians to achieve these goals ultimately did not impose the lasting change they desired. And while their attempts were admirable, a contemporary sense of urgency on university campuses presents a meaningful distinction between those who struggled during the emergence of western neoliberalism and those currently within its clutches. This suggests that, perhaps, we may be on the cusp of an incredible moment of campus solidarity, one informed by our past attempts and re-cast in the guise of our current conditions. It also implies that, should we maintain our trajectory, we may see the line between boundary pushing scholarship and the vanguard of campus organizing continue to blur until any distinction between them is rendered meaningless.

Kyle Kern is an organizer and graduate student of History at the University of Central Florida. His research explores the intersections of antiquity and modernity, particularly applications of Roman aesthetic in Italian fascism. His other interests include critical theory, Marxism, gender, and the European far-right. Kyle lives in Orlando, Florida with his husband, dog, and cat. He can be found on Twitter and YouTube @laborkyle.


[1]  “Editorial,” The History Workshop, no. 1 (Spring 1976): 1; notable members of the first HWJ editorial collective included Gareth Stedman Jones, Sally Alexander, Alun Howkins, and Raphael Samuel.

[2] Ibid., 3.

[3] For a review of relevant scholarship, see E.P. Thompson, “History from Below,” Times Literary Supplement (April 7, 1966); other distinguished scholars who utilized history from below include Christopher Hill, Rodney Hilton, and Eric Hobsbawm.

[4] Raphael Samuels, “Afterword: History Workshop, 1966 – 80,” in People’s History and Socialist Theory, ed. Raphael Samuels (London: Routledge, 1981). 

[5] Student participation in the History Workshop, while present throughout the entirety of its existence, was most typical of its early years, changing with time to the disappointment of other Workshop participants, including trade unionist and working class historian Andy Durr.

[6] For a look into the Massachusetts History Workshop, see James Green, “The Massachusetts History Workshop: ‘Bringing the Boundaries of History Closer to People’s Lives,’” History Workshop Journal, no. 50 (Fall 2000): 246-265; the South African History Workshop is a noteworthy iteration of this movement deserving of a much larger treatment I am unfit to give; for a helpful survey, see Philip Bonner, “New Nation, New History: The History Workshop in South Africa, 1977-1994,” Journal of American History, vol. 81, no. 3 (Dec. 1994): 977-985.

[7] John Saville and E.P. Thompson, “Editorial,” New Reasoner 1 (Summer 1957): 1.

[8] This is not to detract fromWorkshop participants’ relationship with anarchism and left-libertarianism, particularly Samuel; see Raphael Samuel, “Utopian Sociology,” New Society (October 1987); History Workshop’s evaluation of Marxism involved various disagreements regarding the validity and viability of structuralism; see Richard Johnson’s defense of structuralism in Richard Johnson, “Edward Thompson, Eugene Genovese, and Socialist-Humanist History,” History Workshop Journal, no. 6 (1978): 79-100; for a response, see Keith McClelland, “Towards a Socialist History: Some comments on Richard Johnson, ‘Edward Thompson, Eugene Genovese, and Socialist-Humanist History,’” History Workshop Journal vol. 7, no. 1 (Spring 1979): 101-115.

[9] An approach famously summarized by E.P. Thompson in The Making of the English Working Class, 2nd edition (New York: Vintage Books, 1968), 12; “I am seeking to rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the ‘obsolete’ hand-loom weaver . . . from the enormous condescension of posterity.”

[10] Sophie Scott-Brown, The Histories of Raphael Samuel: A Portrait of a People’s Historian (Canberra, Aus.: ANU Press, 2017), 124.

[11] Sheila Rowbotham, Women, Resistance and Revolution: A History of Women and Revolution in the Modern World (New York: Vintage Books, 1974).

[12] Sally Alexander and Anna Davin, “Feminist History,” in History Workshop Journal, no. 1 (Spring 1976): 5.

[13] EP Thompson himself posed criticism of the Workshop in “Recovering the Libertarian Tradition,” Leveller, no. 22 (1978); see also David Selbourne, “On the Methods of the History Workshop,” History Workshop Journal vol. 9, no. 1 (Spring 1980): 150-161.

[14] For a useful summary of EP Thompson’s outsized influence on History Workshop, see Dennis Dworkin, Cultural Marxism in Postwar Britain: History, the New Left, and the Origins of Cultural Studies (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1997), 182-189; as Gramsci’s work became available in English translation, his concept of cultural hegemony became a fixture for the British New Left, see Antonio Gramsci, “The Intellectuals,” in Selections from the Prison Notebooks, eds. and trans. Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith (New York: International Publishers, 1971), 3-14.

[15] This imagination is best summarized by Rosa Luxemburg’s famous statement in The Junius Pamphlet, “. . . either transition into socialism or regression into barbarism.”

[16] Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?, (London: Zero Books, 2009), 80.

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