Why Raphael Samuel Matters

Raphael Samuel, one of Britain’s most brilliant historians of the popular classes, was a contemporary of E. P. Thompson and Stuart Hall but never enjoyed their level of fame. He practiced a form of history from below that gave agency to the working class.

Nineteenth-century illustration of Bradley Coal Mine, near Bilston, England. (Universal History Archive / Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

It is perhaps a unique feature of British intellectual culture that its greatest Marxists have more often been essayists than authors of lengthy theoretical treatises. The self-contained responses to a specific political or historical problem, or the witty corrective to dominant orthodoxies, are well suited to a nation whose intellectual elite are as closed and coherent as Britain’s. When E. P. Thompson wrote “The Peculiarities of the English,” his breathless polemic seeking to correct a dismissive attitude to the radicalism of his country’s history found in the work of the Marxist writers Perry Anderson and Tom Nairn, he was pitting himself against two thinkers whom he knew personally and who edited a journal to which he, too, had contributed.

More recently, in an exchange with the Dutch historian Luuk van Middelaar in the letters pages of the London Review of Books, Anderson responded convivially to accusations of gaps in his knowledge by inviting his interlocutor to discuss issues further “over a glass of wine.” In such an environment, “the Bildungslücke is easily remedied.” It is the essay’s role as a preliminary response to an issue — think of the much-repeated remark that essay means “attempt” — that has tied it so intimately to the closed English sodalities of the twentieth-century academic left. There the messy business of political clarification can be carried on in an almost familial setting.

The English historian Raphael Samuel, whose newly collected essays, Workshop of the World: Essays in People’s History, have recently been published by Verso, always existed awkwardly within this context. Four years the senior of Anderson, and from the same intellectual milieu that produced figures like Thompson, Stuart Hall, Tariq Ali, and the communist historians Christopher Hill and Eric Hobsbawm, his work sought to turn the essay into a window into the lives of the popular classes.

Workshop of the World, across its various guises, paints a picture of the streets, factories, chapels, clubs, offices, and slums of England that formed the culture and practices of the country’s working class, from the coal miner and the seamstress to the office clerk. Samuel’s “vast erudition and the depth of his historical understanding was not used to build new professionalised historical structures,” the collection’s editor, John Merrick, writes in the essays’ introduction, “but to tear them down”:

If there was an animating spirit of his work it was a deep faith in the ability of ordinary people to become the custodians of their own histories. His mission was the democratisation of historical knowledge.

The six essays, compiled in the collection, display Samuel’s talents for fusing theory and praxis, Marxism and anthropology, grand theoretical narratives and oral history into one surprising coherence. Merrick opens the collection by making the case for Samuel as a theoretician rather than historian. In “People’s History,” the first in Workshop of the World, Samuel offers something like a critical manifesto for his project, pitting “living history” against both bloodless Marxist economic theory and eccentric English antiquarianism.

The Workshop Movement

This became a concrete project in Samuel’s History Workshop movement and the History Workshop Journal, founded in 1976. Samuel launched the movement from his position as a tutor at Ruskin College, Oxford, a trade union satellite of “official Oxford,” tellingly named after the decidedly anti-Marxist and utopian socialist John Ruskin. In methodology, content, and practice, Samuel’s workshop movement would be a practice in “history from below,” eschewing a macro focus on capitalism as a mode of production in favor of a micro account on relations of production. By 1991, looking back on a successful two decades, he defined the Workshop movement as:

The belief that history is or ought to be a collaborative enterprise, one in which the researcher, the archivist, the curator and the teacher, the “do-it-yourself” enthusiast and the local historian, the family history societies and the individual archaeologist, should all be regarded as equally engaged.

In a way, the History Workshop intervention is understandable as a reaction against his youthful embrace of both British orthodox communism and academic history at Oxford. Samuel was born to middle-class Jewish parents in London; his mother Minna was a composer and a committed cadre of the Communist Party of Great Britain, while his uncle Chimen Abramsky was a professor of Jewish studies and specialist in the history of the First International (1864–1876).

Samuel himself engaged with politics in London from his teenage years, and went up to study at Balliol College, Oxford, as a somewhat precocious, and very orthodox, Communist activist. He struck many as an eternal kind of Oxford undergraduate, pretentious, dogmatic, brilliant, charismatic, and fully formed. In his obituary of Samuel, Stuart Hall claimed that: “practically nothing of significance happened in Oxford without Raphael being in some way indirectly involved in it.”

The Old, New, Left

At the time, in the 1950s, Balliol College was the center of left-wing activity at the university, with Christopher Hill teaching a Marxist inflected history and organizing the Communist Party Historians Group and the journal Past & Present. Samuel, despite his brilliance, would find himself sandwiched with Hall, the philosopher Charles Taylor, and others between the grandees of the prewar left — Hill (1912–2003), Hobsbawm (1917–2012), Thompson (1924–1993), and Raymond Williams (1921–1988) — and the second wave of the New Left lead by Anderson and followed by the 1968 generation.

Unlike his younger peers who reacted against the Prague Spring and elders who organized against fascism and fought in World War II, Samuel started his political life as a committed orthodox communist, only abandoning the party for an independent form of socialism when the USSR invaded Hungary to crush the Imre Nagy government in 1956. The essays in Workshop of the World should be seen as an attempt to reinject an account of the experiences of the majority into a communism and Marxism that, in their Soviet forms, had become increasingly mechanistic.

In 1957, Samuel, alongside Hall and Taylor, founded the nondogmatic socialist Universities and Left Review (ULR), reacting against the paradigm shifts of the Suez Crisis, the Hungarian revolution, and Nikita Khrushchev’s rejection of the excesses of Stalinism. Hall would write of the moment that “these events were as significant to us as 1968 was to become to a later generation.” In 1959–1960, the ULR would merge with Thompson’s dissident communist journal the New Reasoner, forming the nucleus of the long-running New Left Review.

Under Hall’s short-lived editorship (1960–1962) Samuel would produce tightly focused political and sociological pieces on British politics. These essays functioned almost as vox pops, exploring topics such as British slums, working-class Tories, and English voting patterns. Importantly, Samuel’s work is qualitative, if not journalistic, in affect. His style seems to be an attempt to navigate a middle path between Marxist economics and New Left theory.

In his NLR essay “‘The Deference Voter” (1960) Samuel headed to the then working- and middle-class London suburb of Clapham to interview working-class conservative voters. Here, he displays what will become a characteristic feature of the History Workshop movement, an abstract hypothesis backed up by the thoughts and feelings of living subjects. Samuel brings the proverbial “Man on the Clapham omnibus,” a stand-in for an ordinary Brit, to life, illustrating his rationale for voting Conservative which, unsurprisingly, is ignored by reductive theories of false consciousness:

I think the Conservatives are made for the job of government. They’re mostly men with money, and they’ve got more money sense. They understand it more. And there are the different universities and colleges they’ve gone to. It all helps, that sort of thing.

Beyond the hard facts of production, distribution, and consumption, Samuel glimpsed sociological phenomena through the feelings and peculiar personal details of his subjects. In “The Deference Voter,” most of his interviewees were under no illusion about their own economic and social situation. However, perhaps irrational feelings of mutual obligation and clientelism toward the gentry, often inherited from parents born in the countryside, prevailed when set against urban class consciousness. In Samuel’s hands, historical objects become dynamic and often contradictory sociological subjects.

Lost Worlds

Consequently, Merrick’s Workshop of the World introduces the reader to five essays displaying Samuel’s power as a curator of a vast array of primary sources that serve an animating function for his subjects. We find Samuel detailing everyday life through oral histories, the popular press, trade magazines, government investigations, letters, charity reports, and trade union literature. For the Workshop of the World, it is the accumulation of nineteenth-century printed material, beyond the “great” texts of the universities and the canon, that provide the historian with a key to the lost worlds of working-class Britain.

These essays were mostly written at the end of the British New Left moment and the beginning of Thatcherism in the 1970s and 1980s. In Workshop of the World, Samuel chronicles a rural Oxford quarrying community, itinerant English workers, the continuation of craft practices, tool work and artisanship during the mechanized industrial revolution, the social world of early socialist activists, and the microcosmic enclaves of working-class Irish Catholic backstreet chapels and rectories.

All these essays are resurrections of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century life, rather than clinical dissections. Indeed, Samuel’s work can overwhelm the reader with the cumulative details it gathers from primary sources. In Workshop of the World, we get an almost pointillist prose: filled with granular details that make up a whole. For instance, in the essay that lends its title to the collection, “Workshop of the World: Steam Power and Hand Technology in Mid-Victorian Britain” (1977), Samuel pushes an anti-Whig history of the British industrial revolution, claiming that the rise of mechanized and steam powered production was a contested and nonlinear process.

Yet it is the background detritus of factories, manufacturing yards, and cottage workshops that accidentally dominate Samuel’s theoretical foreground. In his attempt to argue for the continued economic and sociological relevance of hand power and artisanship during the industrial revolution, Samuel also brings his subjects to life. His point about the continued power of the artisan is quickly proven, but the essay powers on, opening up the lifeworld of the nineteenth-century working class. Describing the process of industrial bread baking at scale, we are told that:

This process is usually carried on in some dark corner of a cellar, by a man, stripped naked down to the waist, and painfully engaged in extricating his fingers from a gluey mass into which he furiously plunges alternately his clenched fists.

While more focused essayists might have only included details that bolster their argument, Samuel allows himself to wander intellectually. We also find out that journeymen bakers, in the vast cellars of the production process, use “planks to take their naps on” and find “sacks to serve as pillows.” This process of excavation and illumination of primary sources continues across many of Workshop of the World’s essays such as “Headington Quarry: Recording a Labouring Community,” “Comers and Goers,” and “The Roman Catholic Church and the Irish Poor.”

In Samuel’s essay on Catholicism and working-class Irish life in Britain, he argues that the sectarian enclaves of church influence in cities like Manchester, London, Liverpool, and Birmingham were as much about secular solidarity as faith: “the Church served as a nexus of communal solidarity, the very means by which, amidst the deprived conditions of their exile, a national identity among the Irish was preserved.”

This is an interesting enough argument. However, the real value of Samuel’s research is apparent in the details of the relationships between Catholic priests and Irish workers that emerge in the process. We see a priest, Father Sheridan, ministering to a Soho congregation of Irish poor in the 1880s. On a weekly basis Sheridan would gather together St Bridget’s Confraternity — a Catholic women’s group. Yet, the subject of the meetings tended not to the religious, but the comedic:

This evening [I] read the skit by Lover in Father Phil’s collection. It took very well, but yet I fancy things can be made to take as well as twenty times better if I were to study them beforehand and read them acting partly the while — giving a romantic recital. Attendance is very good, something like 70, I fancy.

Samuel also describes how lapsed members of a priest’s congregation would turn up drunk in the middle of night, pledge sobriety, and then be seen drinking again by the afternoon. This was a cycle that might recur for decades. “The priest’s interventions,” he notes, “were frequent, and urgently renewed, but they seem to have carried no expectation of permanent moral reform . . . [there was] a resigned acceptance of the unchangeable necessities of life.”

It is Samuel’s essays that disinter the lives and cultural world of many of the people who underwent the most profound transformations of industrial capitalism that contain real power. There are other pieces, on the intellectual life of early socialists and historiography, that fail to achieve the same effect. Nevertheless, Workshop of the World may yet serve to reestablish Samuel’s reputation. Rightly, Merrick has attempted to cast Samuel as a socialist essayist of equal rank to Hill, Thompson, Hobsbawm, Williams, Nairn, and Anderson. If this case is to be made, no greater evidence can be marshalled than the unique world-building effect of his writing on our understanding of history and the working class.