History Workshop Journal (HWJ) was founded in 1976, as an outgrowth of a series of 'history workshops' held at Ruskin College, the Oxford trades union college where Raphael Samuel was a history tutor. Samuel, who died in 1996, was a lifelong socialist with a passion for popular history. The presiding spirit of the History Workshop movement, as it became known, Samuel dedicated himself to inspiring a love of history outside its traditional academic venues. 'History', he wrote, 'is too important to be left just to professional historians.'
The workshops, which began in 1967, were lively, participant-led events that drew on what Samuel described as a 'fluid coalition of worker-students from Ruskin and other socialist historians'. Rooted in Britain's long tradition of progressive adult education (including the Workers Educational Association, the Trades Union Congress Educational Department and university extramural departments), by the mid 1970s the workshops had become major festivals of history, attracting several thousand participants. While the themes explored varied widely, the events were primarily a showcase for history seen from a non-elite perspective, 'history from below' as it was dubbed. In the early years this meant primarily working-class history but over time, after some controversy, it expanded to include the new women's history, for which the History Workshops were the primary seedbed.
The first editors of HWJ – Sally Alexander, Susan Bullock, Anna Davin, Alun Howkins, Andrew Lincoln, Tim Mason, Raphael Samuel, Stan Shipley, Gareth Stedman Jones and Anne Summers – were all History Workshop activists. The launch 'manifesto' issued for the journal in 1975, reproduced in the editorial for the first issue,(1) called for the democratisation of history, its deprofessionalisation and politicisation.
Our journal will be dedicated to making history a more democratic activity – and a more urgent concern – by reaffirming the unity of teaching and scholarship, learning and life. We believe that history is a source of inspiration, a means of understanding the present and the best critical vantage point from which to view the present.
The journal was subtitled 'a journal of socialist historians', with the 'editorial collective' – as it was, and is, known – declaring itself committed to a socialist standpoint, 'neither prophetic nor exclusive', which would inform both the journal's content and its presentation. Aiming to 'attack vigorously those types of historical enquiries which reinforce the structures of power and inequality in our society', HWJ firmly pinned its banner to a class-based history which, while not strictly Marxist, was clearly informed by Marxist principles.
This radical approach extended into a sharp critique of the academy, with the editorial in the first issue attacking the exclusivity, fragmentation and 'competitive individualism' of university history. High standards of historical scholarship were defended not for their own sake but in the service of 'social purposes'. Theoretical investigations were to be undertaken, again not out of intellectual dilettantism but as part of an oppositional engagement with 'bourgeois' ideas. Throughout it was made plain that the journal's intended readers were also envisaged as its writers and critics, with its audience imagined as no academic elite but as the broad reading public (the 'socialist historians' of the journal's subtitle), who were urged to shape the journal through their contributions, and to use it as a medium of radical enquiry, debate and publicity. Annual readers' meetings were instituted, which in the early years were lively, argumentative occasions but over time dwindled into a few people chatting over a pint and were eventually abandoned.
A second editorial in the first issue, written by Sally Alexander and Anna Davin, discussed the place of feminist history in HWJ, criticising the male bias of leftwing history, and setting out an agenda for a history of women and sexual divisions directly inspired by second-wave feminism. Written at the height of the Women's Liberation Movement, this was a strikingly confident statement of intellectual entitlement which, like the first editorial, made the case for an overtly partisan history: 'we are arguing for a political perspective in historical writing, a suggestion which must disturb every academic vigilant in pursuit of the value free. But it is only by seeking and recognising political relevance in history that we can bring it more directly into the battle of ideas'.
Six years later another editorial, even more militant in tone, announced the inclusion of 'feminist' on the journal's masthead, where it remained until 1995 when the entire subtitle, 'a journal of socialist and feminist historians', was deleted.
The editorial which announced the abandonment of the subtitle (issue 39, spring 1995) was very brief, revealing virtually nothing of the long and sometimes fierce discussions which led to this decision. It simply stated that since the last revision to the masthead (that is, the addition of 'feminist' in 1982) political conditions had changed 'almost out of all recognition', with the result that some contributors and editors no longer identified with the 'socialist and feminist' descriptor, and the collective did not wish such people to feel excluded from their project.
The editorial went on to reassert the journal's commitment to 'use historical knowledge and analysis ... in the interests of political change' without specifying what sort of change was meant – a silence that elicited a howl of protest from some readers, angry at what they saw as a betrayal of the socialist cause and also at the editors' failure to consult them on the decision. 'Isn't HWJ about democratic political practice ... if so how come us rank and file supporters don't get a say in this?', one reader wrote. Two decades earlier, at the height of the History Workshop Movement, this question would have had real bite, but by 1995 the popular constituency to which the journal had once held itself accountable had pretty much evaporated. HWJ, one of its leftwing critics mourned, was becoming 'just another academic journal'.
In 2008, has HWJ become 'just another academic journal'? There is plenty of evidence to suggest that it has: the journal is published by Oxford University Press (originally it was self-published; then from 1983 until 1990, when it went to OUP, it was published by Routledge Kegan Paul, an independent press); most of its contributors and editors (although not all) teach in universities; much of its content (although again not all) could comfortably fit into in any high-quality history journal.
Most important, perhaps, most of HWJ's current editors no longer conceive of its project in such clear-cut political terms as the original editorial collective did. (Of the 10 founding editors, five remain, with 20 additional editors recruited over the journal's 32 years.) Most of the reasons for this lie outside the journal itself. The collapse of a popular Left; the near-demise of the adult education movement (where many of the journal's early editors acquired their historical education); the disappearance of organised feminism: from the late 1980s these changes combined to leave the journal politically stranded.
Other developments, some of them much more positive, have been important too: the huge expansion of higher education, which undercut the journal's anti-elitist critique of university history; the incorporation of many types of history, especially women's history – to which HWJ once gave near-exclusive coverage – into the academy; the emergence of new radicalisms – the gay and green movements, anti-racial and postcolonial politics – that did not easily fit under the socialist-feminist banner.
The changing composition of its editorial collective has also changed the journal, with the recruitment of younger editors with no personal experience of the History Workshop Movement and the particular radicalisms that it fostered. With time, inevitably, old loyalties and allegiances have given way to new ideals, and also – to some degree – to new pressures, as the competitive ethos ratchets up within the universities. (No British academic journal, however dissident in outlook, can remain untouched by the Research Assessment Exercise.)
Yet HWJ, in its own eyes at least, remains a flagbearer for a politically-engaged history, for history-as-critique. A look at the journal's contents confirms this, with special features – such as 'History on the line', which explores the writing and teaching of history in situations of political conflict; 'History at large', reporting on public uses of history; and 'Historic passions', where contributors describe their historic loves and obsessions – that aim to reach well beyond the bounds of mainstream academic journalism. The choice of leading themes in some recent issues – 'Black arts in Britain',(2) 'Rethinking the English Revolution',(3) 'Remembering 1956',(4) 'Remembering 1807: histories of the slave trade'(5) – signals the journal's continuing commitment to history seen from the vantage point of the disfranchised, the colonised, the dissentient, the maverick. Other recent features – on history and memory, periodisation, the history of dreams, 'historicising the global' – are reminders that HWJ has always been theoretically adventurous (perhaps the strongest example of this is the journal's ongoing interest in the relationship between psychoanalysis and history).
Finally, the journal's eye-catching covers, painted by the artist Bernard Canavan, are a visual statement of its continuing ambition to reach a wide readership, to appeal – as Raphael Samuel once put it – to 'the researcher, the archivist, the curator, the teacher, the 'do-it-yourself' enthusiast, the local historian, to family history societies and industrial archaeologists, to the novelist and the story teller, the film-maker and the caricaturist' – to all, in short, who care about the past and what the present makes of it.
Barbara Taylor is co-director of the Raphael Samuel History Centre at the University of East London. She has been an editor of History Workshop Journal since 1981.