HIS 301 Chapter Notes - Chapter 3.1: Raphael Samuel, Mass Society
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~ Chapter Three: Radical Counter Currents ~
Part 1: Raphael Samuel
o The term “people’s history” has had a long career and covers an ensemble of different writings.
o Some have been informed by the idea of progress, some by cultural pessimism, some by
o The subject matter of “people’s history” varies too, even if the effort is always that of “bringing the
boundaries of history closer to those of people’s lives.”
o It’s sometimes focused on tools and technology, social movements, or family life.
o Today, people’s history usually entails a subordination of the political to the cultural and the social.
o But in one of its earliest versions, it was concerned rather with the struggle for constitutional
rights (work published in 1796).
o The term “people’s history” is one which could be applied, in the present day, to a whole series of
cultural initiatives which are to be found mainly, though not exclusively, outside the institutions of
o It has been enthusiastically adopted by such community-based publishing projects as the
“People’s autobiography of Hackney.”
▪ Here the emphasis has been on democratizing the act of historical production,
enlarging the constituency of historical writers, and bringing the experience of the
present to bear upon the interpretation of the past.
▪ A good deal of oral history work falls within the same ambit.
o “People’s history” is also a term which might be retrospectively applied to those various attempts to
write an archive-based “history from below” which have played such a large part in the recent revival
of English social history.
o “History from below” has found an increasing resonance in the research seminars, and one may note
a gravitational shift in scholarly interest from the national to the local or regional study, from public
institution to domestic life, from the study of statecraft to that of popular culture.
o People’s history, whatever its particular subject matter, is shaped in the crucible of politics, and
penetrated by the influence of ideology on all sides.
o In one version, it is allied with Marxism.
o In another with democratic liberalism
o In yet another with cultural nationalism
▪ The main thrust of people’s history has usually been radical, yet the Left can make
no proprietorial claim to it.
o The “people” of people’s history have as many different shades of meaning as the term has usages.
o They are always majoritarian, but the connotations vary according to whether the pole of
comparison is that of kings and commoners, rich and poor; or the “educated” and those some
▪ In one version of people’s history- radical-democratic or Marxist- the people are
constituted by relations of exploitation.
o The term also takes on quite different meanings within particular national traditions.
o The right-wing version of people’s history is characteristically a history with the politics left out,
devoid of struggle and ideas but with a very strong sense of religion and of values.
o It is apt to idealize the family and to interpret social relationships as reciprocal rather than
o Despite their obvious differences, the left- and right-wing versions of people’s history overlap at an
uncomfortable number of points.
o Both may be said to share a common heritage of romantic primitivism, celebrating the
natural, the naïve, and the spontaneous.
o Both share a common yearning for the vanished solidarities of the past and a belief that
modern life is inimical to them.
▪ But whereas for socialists the alienating force is capitalism, in the right-wing version
of people’s history it is characteristically such a-social forces as “individualism,”
“industrialism,” or “mass society.”
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