‘The politics of defeat and the crisis of purpose in history’
Writing on debates surrounding the existence of the post-war consensus, Paul Addison suggested the key difference between ‘consensus’ and ‘anti-consensus’ historians had a relationship to the social worlds they grew up in: the former in a period of ‘social contracts’ between workers and capital; the latter in an ideologically polarized society in which ‘consensus’ was incomprehensible. This is as true of the historical discipline itself as of particular debates within it and current historical practice is often shaped by narratives of capitalism’s ideological triumph over its industrial and political challengers in the long 1970s. It is, as Zizek argues, easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. The death of ‘collectivism’ is manifested in current concerns to reimagine the working class and women, as examples, not as agents of social change but as deeply divided ‘rugged individuals’ and consumers. In such narratives, ordinary people become pawns in social and economic changes, unable to affect change, only to respond to it.
This paper will cite examples of these approaches and contend that rather than enriching our understanding of the complexities of the past, they are caught within a contemporary political frame of powerlessness and disillusionment which is transposed on to the past in ways which, as Zinn argues, will determine our lives and our futures. Following Zinn’s and other proponents of ‘history from below’, this paper will argue that we must recover the collectivist narratives of solidarity and sisterhood in ways which balance cultural history’s sensitivity to individual difference with a recognition of shared struggles, shared identities and social change. This approach does not only remain a fruitful one for enhancing our understanding of the past, it enables us to imagine new futures, and as Zinn notes, ‘at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction.’
About George Stevenson
I am third year PhD student at Durham University. My research, ‘Experiences of ‘class’ within the British Women’s Liberation Movement, c. 1968 – c. 1979’, investigates the role that class played in women’s political engagement and identities in and around the Women’s Liberation Movement. It considers how feminism related to ‘class politics’ and the Labour Movement; how working-class women taking industrial action constructed their identities in relation to class and gender; the socio-economic composition of the WLM and the difficulties this caused for creating a ‘mass’ movement; class tensions between women within the WLM and the problem of ‘sisterhood’; the importance of class experiences and transitions to feminists’ political perspectives; and what it meant to be a socialist/radical feminist in relation to class. In so doing, I note the continuing significance of class as an expression of social, economic and cultural difference and power, even within social movements which rejected it as a primary means of political identity. As a result of this research, I have become increasingly interested in why historians’ perspectives on past events and periods change and whether this owes as much to the political context of the present as to greater analytical sophistication.
Outside of this, I am a founding member and activist in the Durham University Campaign for the Living Wage. The Campaign is a coalition of Labour, Green, feminist and socialist groups (and independents) fighting for the implementation of the living wage at the University, which is in the top three in the country for the number of employees paid below this rate.