What is radical history? Some thoughts based on a comparison of British and Irish historiographical trends
Is radical history just a history of radical movements, or is it a history that examines radical potentialities? Must radical history be left-wing, or can it embrace other ideological positions also? What differentiates radical history from concepts such as history from below? Is radical history still radical when it becomes an accepted part of historiography? Is radical history rooted in contemporary concerns? Must radical historians also be political radicals? All can be considered derivatives of a broader philosophical question: what is the purpose of history? Keeping in mind this central question, this paper will approach how we might consider what constitutes radical history through comparing and contrasting historiographical trends in Britain and Ireland. Britain’s radical history as traditionally understood as a history of the working class and of labour, has arguably established a well-respected position within historiography since the 1960s. It has expanded in recent decades to include others who had hitherto been neglected from historical research such as women and racial minorities. Beginning with the pioneering research of the Communist Party of Great Britain Historians’ Group, and continuing with the New Left, the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, and the History Workshop, amongst many others, at each stage this has been driven by scholars who were also political radicals. Today, despite a recent resurgence in the history of the elite, the history of ‘ordinary’ people is a mainstream area of study. Can it still be described as radical history? By contrast, the study of labour history broadly construed has yet to develop beyond a niche interest in Irish historiography. Women’s history, although growing, is in a similar position. The main area of research and debate continues to be the history of Irish republicanism. This is understandable, considering the modern Irish state was founded due to the republican movement, and issues surrounding republicanism continue to play an important role in both polities on the island. However, is the study of radical movements necessarily radical history? Does not radical history set out to challenge mainstream and elite historiography? Does radical history then, ultimately come down to the political objective of the historian, rather than the topic of study? Related to this, if some history is considered radical because it is challenging the status quo in historiography, then is all history therefore political? It is hoped that by comparing the differing historiographical contexts of Britain and Ireland it will be possible to highlight some common features of what constitutes radical history as a concept internationally.
About David Convery
David Convery is an Irish Research Council Postdoctoral Fellow at the Irish Centre for the Histories of Labour and Class at NUI Galway, where his research topic is ‘The British Working Class and Ireland, 1922-1945: Identity, Representation, and Postcolonialism’. He has previously researched on the history and memory of Irish anti-fascists in the Spanish Civil War, and is the editor of Locked Out: A Century of Irish Working-Class Life (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2013).