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THE GENERATIONS OF SOCIAL HISTORY

12
Geoff Eley

As a recognized specialism, social history is still
young—dating in most countries only from the 1960s.
Of course, as a dimension of historical writing, social
history has always been there. The classics of historiography may all be read for their social content. During the later nineteenth century, most European
countries produced some indications of what ‘‘social
history’’ might be in universities, by private individuals, and in alternative institutional settings like labor
movements, where socialist parties quickly developed
an interest in the archives of their own emergence.
Specifically social histories were rarely produced inside
the newly established academic discipline of history
as such. The dominance of nationalist paradigms
meant that statecraft and diplomacy, wars, armies, empire, high politics, biography, administration, law, and
other state-focused themes occupied the agenda of
teaching and scholarship to the virtual exclusion of
anything else.

school such as Gustav von Schmoller (1838–1917),
or sociologists like Max Weber (1864–1920), produced historical work of enormous importance, but
again from outside the historical profession per se.
A similar narrative applied to Britain, where a
liberal cohort—Henry Thomas Buckle (1821–1862),
James Bryce (1838–1922), Edward Augustus Freeman (1823–1892), John Robert Seeley (1834–1895),
and others—celebrated the English political tradition,
reinforced by Lord Acton (1834–1902), who founded
the English Historical Review (1886) and conceived
the Cambridge Modern History. Otherwise, pre-1914
British historiography’s achievements were in the medieval and Tudor-Stuart periods, in religious history,
landholding, and law. Bryce set the tone when inaugurating the English Historical Review: ‘‘It seems better
to regard history as the record of human action. . . .
States and Politics will therefore be the chief parts of
its subject, because the acts of nations . . . have usually
been more important than the acts of private citizens.’’
Seeley concurred: ‘‘History is not concerned with individuals except in their capacity as members of a
state’’ (quoted in Wilson, ‘‘Critical Portrait,’’ pp. 11, 9).
After 1918 openings occurred toward social history in Britain and Germany, partly with the founding
of new universities less hidebound with tradition, such
as the London School of Economics (1895), Manchester (1903), and Frankfurt (1914), partly as academic history consolidated itself as a discipline. In
Britain the specialism of economic history helped,
generating large empirical funds for later social historians to use, managed analytically by the grand narratives of the industrial revolution and the rise of national economies. The founding of the Economic
History Society (1926) and its Economic History Review (1927) encouraged the practical equivalent of the
German historical school of economists before 1914.
R. H. Tawney (1880–1962) laid the foundations of
early modern social history in a series of works—The
Agrarian Problem in the Sixteenth Century (1912), Tudor Economic Documents (edited with Eileen Power;
1924), Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (1926),

GERMANY AND BRITAIN:
SOCIAL HISTORY OUTSIDE
THE HISTORICAL PROFESSION
In Germany the new national state of 1871 wholly
ruled the professional historian’s imagination. Bismarck’s role as the architect of German unification
and the related processes of state-building inspired
histories organized around statecraft, military history,
and constitutional law, first under Leopold von Ranke
(1795–1886) and his contemporary Johann Gustav
Droysen (1808–1884), and then under Heinrich von
Treitschke (1834–1896). Other contemporaries, such
as Karl Marx (1818–1883) and Jacob Burckhardt
(1818–1897), had no presence in this official Imperial German context. Karl Lamprecht (1856–1915)
opened his work toward the social sciences, psychology, art history, and the study of culture, precipitating
the Methodenstreit (conflict over methodology) in
1891, but without shifting the protocols of the discipline. Likewise, leading economists of the historical

3

SECTION 1: METHODS AND THEORETICAL APPROACHES

Business and Politics under James I (1958), and his famous monographic article, ‘‘The Rise of the Gentry’’
(1941). ‘‘Tawney’s century’’ (1540–1640) was constructed with comparative knowledge and theoretical
vision. Land and Labour in China (1932) was another
of his works. In this broader framing of social and
economic processes, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism
was the analogue to Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic
and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904–1905).
The main early impulse toward social history
was a left-wing interest in the social consequences of
industrialization. Like Weber, Tawney was politically
engaged. A Christian Socialist, Labour Party parliamentary candidate, advocate of the Workers’ Educational Association, and public intellectual (especially
via The Acquisitive Society [1921] and Equality [1931]),
he practiced ethical commitment in his scholarly no
less than in his political work. Sometimes such work
occurred inside the universities, notably at the London School of Economics under Beatrice (1858–
1943) and Sidney Webb (1859–1947), and political
theorist Harold Laski (1893–1950), as well as Tawney. It reflected high-minded identification with what
the Webbs called the ‘‘inevitability of gradualness’’—
the electoral rise of the Labour Party, but still more
the triumph of an administrative ideal of rational taxation, social provision, and public goods. The Webbs’
great works—the nine-volume history, English Local
Government from the Revolution to the Municipal Corporations Act (1906–1929), plus The History of Trade
Unionism (1894) and Industrial Democracy (1897)—
adumbrated the terrain of a fully professionalized social history in the 1950s and 1960s.
The Webbs were linked to the Labour Party
through the Fabian Society’s networks, peaking in the
LSE’s contribution to public policy, social administration, and the post-1945 architecture of the welfare
state. Equally salient for social history’s genealogies
was the Guild Socialist G. D. H. Cole (1889–1959),
teaching at Oxford from the 1920s, in the Chair of
Social and Political Theory from 1945. The radical
liberal journalists and writers John (1872–1949) and
Barbara Hammond (1873–1961), also should be
mentioned. Their trilogy, The Village Labourer, 1760–
1832 (1911), The Town Labourer, 1760–1832 (1917),
and The Skilled Labourer, 1760–1832 (1919), presented an epic account of the human costs of industrialization beyond the administrative vision of the
Webbs. Their precursor was the radical Liberal parliamentarian and economic historian J. E. T. Rogers
(1823–1890), who countered the dominant constitutional history of his day with the seven-volume History of Agriculture and Prices in England (1866–1902),
which—like much pioneering economic history from

12
GEORGE DOUGLAS HOWARD COLE
(1889–1959)
G. D. H. Cole taught successively philosophy, economics,
and social and political theory at the University of Oxford,
and emerged between his first book, The World of Labour;
A Discussion of the Present and Future of Trade Unionism
(1913), and the 1920s as a leading British socialist intellectual. His ideas of Guild Socialism were shaped by
the labor unrest of 1910–1914 and World War I, and
informed his many histories of socialism, trade unionism,
and industrial democracy, extending from A Short History
of the British Working Class Movement 1789–1925
(originally three volumes, 1925–1927), to the multivolume History of Socialist Thought (1953–1960). His coauthored The Common People, 1746–1938 (1938) with
Raymond Postgate remained the best general account of
British social history ‘‘from below’’ in the 1960s. Essays
in Labour History, 1886–1923 (1960), edited by Asa
Briggs and John Saville, which brought together Britain’s
best practitioners of the field of the time, was a memorial
to Cole.

Marx to Tawney—assembled rich materials for the
social history of the laboring poor.
A true pioneer for such work was Rogers’s
younger Oxford contemporary, John Richard Green
(1837–1883), who left the Anglican clergy to become
a historian in 1869. Eschewing the classical liberal
celebration of a limited English constitutionalism, soon
to be translated onto imperial ground by J. R. Seeley’s
Expansion of England (1884), Green’s inspiration was
a popular story of democratic self-government, realized in his Short History of the English People (1874).
He rejected ‘‘the details of foreign wars and diplomacies, the personal adventures of kings and nobles,
the pomp of courts, [and] the intrigues of favourites’’
in favor of the episodes of ‘‘that constitutional, intellectual, and social advance, in which we read the history of the nation itself.’’ The Short History counterposed the ‘‘English people’’ to the ‘‘English kings
[and] English conquests,’’ or to ‘‘drum and trumpet’’
history. It established a line of popular history outside the universities, running through the Hammonds, and the Irish histories of Green’s wife Alice

4

THE GENERATIONS OF SOCIAL HISTORY

Stopford Green (1847–1929), to A People’s History
of England (1938) by the Communist Arthur Leslie
Morton (1903–), which drew inspiration from the
antifascist campaigns for a popular front. Like Cole’s
work in labor history, and Tawney’s in the sixteenth
and seventeenth centuries, this bridged directly to
social history post-1945 in its concern with ordinary
people, with the broader impact of social and economic forces like industrialization, and with its political engagement.

12
HANS ROSENBERG (1904–1988)
Hans Rosenberg’s career became paradigmatic for the
West German social history of the 1970s. His approach
mirrored that of his contemporary Eckart Kehr—passing
from the liberal history of ideas (in Rosenberg’s earliest
publications in the 1930s), through concern with deep
structural continuities of the German past, to a model of
the socioeconomic determinations of political life. His
classic Bureaucracy, Aristocracy, and Autocracy: The
Prussian Experience, 1660–1815 (original German edition, 1958) was followed by influential essays on the
Junkers, Probleme der deutschen Sozialgeschichte
(1969), and a social explanation of Bismarckian politics
by cycles of the economy, Grosse Depression und Bismarckzeit: Wirtschaftsablauf, Gesellschaft und Politik in
Mitteleuropa (1967). Each work had a long gestation,
going back to an essay of the 1940s. His conception of
economic conjunctures and their founding importance for
politics was first explored in Die Weltwirtschaftskrisis von
1857–1859 (1934). As he said in Bureaucracy, Aristocracy, and Autocracy, his work ‘‘approaches political, institutional, and ideological changes in terms of social history, and it does not reduce social history to an appendix
of economic history’’ (p. viii).

THE INCLUSIVENESS OF DEMOCRACY:
THE IMPORTANCE OF DEMOCRATIC
POLITICAL CULTURE TO THE
ORIGINS OF SOCIAL HISTORY
Social history began in political contexts effaced by
subsequent professionalization. Women in particular
disappeared from the historiographical record. One
exception was Eileen Power (1889–1940), at the London School of Economics from 1921, whose works
ranged from Medieval English Nunneries c. 1275 to
1535 (1922) and The Wool Trade in English Medieval
History (1941) to the popular Medieval People (1924).
More typical was Alice Clark (1874–1934), who attended the LSE as a mature student, pioneered the
study of women’s work before the industrial revolution in Working Life of Women in the Seventeenth Century (1919), and then left academic life for social activism. Clark destabilized the progressivist account of
industrialization by showing its narrowing effects on
women’s work and the household economy, in ways
that ‘‘startle in their modernity’’ (Sutton, ‘‘Radical
Liberalism,’’ p. 36). Dorothy George’s London Life in
the Eighteenth Century (1925), Ivy Pinchbeck’s Women
Workers and the Industrial Revolution, 1750–1850
(1930), and the contributions of Beatrice Webb and
Barbara Hammond in their famous partnerships all
retain their pioneering status. As Billie Melman shows
in ‘‘Gender, History, and Memory,’’ this reflected
both women’s social and educational advance and the
political conflicts needed to attain it. By 1921, 91
percent of the British Historical Association were
women, and 64 percent of the 204 historical works
published between 1900 and 1930 by women born
between 1875 and 1900 were in social and economic
history. This work was linked to political activism,
through Fabianism, the Labour Party, and feminist
suffrage politics before 1914.
The importance of left-wing politics—identification with the common people—to early social history was even clearer in Germany. The foundations
were firmer, through German sociology’s pioneering

achievements before 1914 and in the Weimar Republic, the labor movement’s institutional strengths, and
the intellectual dynamism in Weimar culture. The
works of Gustav Mayer (1871–1948), the Engels biographer (1934), remain classics, especially his essay
‘‘Die Trennung der proletarischen von der bu¨rgerlichen Demokratie in Deutschland 1863–70’’ (1911).
Mayer’s career was blocked by nationalists at Berlin
University in 1917. He was appointed to a position
in the department of the history of democracy, socialism, and political parties under the changed conditions in 1922, and entered exile in Britain in 1933.
Weimar democracy was a limited hiatus between pre1918’s exclusionary conservatism and Nazism after
1933, in which space briefly opened for alternatives
to the nationalist state-focused historiography established post-1871.
One dissenting nexus surrounded Eckart Kehr
(1902–1933), who died while visiting the United

5

SECTION 1: METHODS AND THEORETICAL APPROACHES

States. His Battleship Building and Party Politics in
Germany 1894–1901 (1930) drew heavily on the social theory of Marx and Weber and related politics to
socioeconomic structures, reinforced by a series of essays (later collected as Economic Interest, Militarism,
and Foreign Policy [1965]). Kehr’s associate Hans Rosenberg (1904–1988) also fled the Third Reich for
the United States in 1936, eventually returning to
Germany in 1970. They and others were rediscovered by West German social historians in the 1960s,
and reinstated as the precursors of a long-interrupted
tradition.
Just as vital in the 1920s was the flowering of
German sociology, with a cohort of young exiles after
1933. Hans Speier (1905–) studied with Emil Lederer (1882–1939) and Karl Mannheim (1893–1947)
in Heidelberg, worked at a Berlin publishing house,
had links to the German Social Democratic Party’s
Labor Education department and the city’s social services, and was married to a municipal pediatrician. His
book on white collar workers, translated as German
White-Collar Workers and the Rise of Hitler (1986),
went unpublished until 1977. Speier taught at the
New School for Social Research in New York, joined
by his former teacher Lederer, whose studies of white
collar workers went back to 1912. Hans Gerth (1908–
1978), whose 1935 study of Enlightenment intelligentsia was eventually republished in 1976, went to
the University of Wisconsin, and introduced Max
Weber’s works into English, while his coeditor of
the famous selections From Max Weber (1948), C.
Wright Mills, spread Speier’s influence via his own
classic White Collar: The American Middle Classes
(1951). Like the work of Kehr, Rosenberg, and other
dissenting historians, this critical sociology was recovered by West German advocates of social science
history in the 1970s. It traveled back to its country
of origin via the post-1945 traditions of U.S. social
science.
Until 1933 German and British historiographies developed roughly in parallel. In neither society
were university history departments open to social history, with its connotations of popularization and political dissent. German conditions were better, given
the extra supports for marxism and progressivism in
the labor movement. But the disaster of Nazism in
1933–1945 scattered the progressive potentials into
an Anglo-American diaspora, including younger generations yet to enter the profession, such as Eric
Hobsbawm (1917–), Sidney Pollard (1925–), and
Francis L. Carsten (1911–1998). With the conservative restoration of academic history after 1945, social history made little progress in West Germany
before the 1970s. In Britain, by contrast, the foun-

dations were being assembled. The democratic patriotism of World War II then moved some historians
away from the narrower state-focused work dominant
in the profession.
Similar trajectories occurred elsewhere in Europe too. The potentials for social history coalesced
in the initiatives of reform-minded sociologists, or
in the internalist histories of labor movements, but
with little imprint on academic history, where statecentered perspectives stayed supreme. This was true
in central Europe (Austria, Czechoslovakia), the Low
Countries, and Scandinavia, as well as Germany and
Britain. Sweden, with half a century of virtually uninterrupted social democratic government from the
1930s, was a classic case. The progressivist public culture brought together converging traditions of historical work, sustaining the social history departures
of the 1960s—on the one hand, the pioneering investigations of reform-driven social expertise (in demography, family policy, public health, and so on);
and on the other hand, the popular institutional histories of the labor movement.
Elsewhere, the shoots were destroyed by fascism
and dictatorship (Hungary 1920–1944, Italy 1922–
1945, Portugal 1926–1974, Spain 1939–1975, most
of eastern Europe from the mid-1920s and early
1930s), by Nazi occupation in World War II, or by
Stalinization of Eastern Europe after 1948. Some national historiographies were disastrously hit. In Poland
the signs were vigorous after 1918, with new universities, new chairs of history, new journals, and a general refounding of intellectual life under the republic.
Beyond the older military, constitutional, and legal
historiography, freshly endowed with resources under
the new state, Polish historical studies saw the establishment of economic history by Jan Rutkowski
(1886–1949) and Franciszek Bujak (1875–1953),
new explorations in cultural history, and the first
moves to specifically social history (as elsewhere, in
medieval and early modern studies of landholding and
religion). As such, Polish historiography showed similar potential to Germany and Britain. But Nazism
obliterated these, by the most brutal wartime deprivations, destruction of libraries and archives, erasure
of prewar institutional life, and the physical liquidation of the intelligentsia, including the profession of
historians. After 1945 institutional supports were recreated remarkably fast by reestablishing the universities and founding research institutes, only to be
compromised once again by Stalinization. This reemphasized democracy’s importance for social history
in both the political changes of 1918 and the longerrun influence of labor movements and other progressive factors of intellectual life.

6

THE GENERATIONS OF SOCIAL HISTORY

of E´mile Durkheim, and the ideas of Maurice Halbwachs about collective memory. The influence of the
economist Franc¸ois Simiand (1873–1935) was key.
In 1903 he disparaged traditional histoire ´eve´nementielle (history of events), and attacked the historians’
three ‘‘idols of the tribe’’—politics, the individual,
and chronology. Simiand’s essay appeared in a new
journal, Revue de synthe`se historique, founded in 1900
by the philosopher of history Henri Berr (1863–
1954), which opened a dialogue with social science.
Among Berr’s younger supporters were Lucien Febvre
(1878–1956) and Marc Bloch (1866–1944), who
joined the Revue in 1907 and 1912 respectively.
Febvre’s dissertation, Philippe II et la FrancheComte´ (1912), was palpably indifferent to military and
diplomatic events. He located Philip II’s policies in
the geography, social structure, religious life, and social changes of the region, stressing conflicts between
absolutism and provincial privileges, nobles and bourgeois, Catholics and Protestants. He inverted the usual
precedence, which viewed great events from the perspective of rulers and treated regional histories as effects. Region became the indispensable structural
context, for which geography, economics, and demography were all required. Appointed to Strasbourg
University in 1920, Febvre met Bloch, who rejected
traditional political history under Durkheim’s influence before the war. In 1924 Bloch published The
Royal Touch, which deals with the popular belief that
kings have the ability to heal the skin disease scrofula
by the power of touch, and its relationship to conceptions of English and French kingship. This remarkable
study freed historical perspective from simple narrative time, reattaching it to longer frames of structural
duration. It practiced comparison. It also stressed
mentalite´, or the collective understanding and religious psychology of the time, as against the contemporary ‘‘common-sense’’ question of whether the king’s
touch actually healed or not.
These twin themes—structural history (as against
political history or the ‘‘history of events’’), and history of mentalities (as against the history of formal
ideas)—gave unity to the Febvre-Bloch collaboration.
In his later works Febvre switched to studying the
mental climate specific to the sixteenth century, in
Martin Luther: A Destiny (original French edition,
1928), and especially The Problem of Unbelief in the
Sixteenth Century: The Religion of Rabelais (original
French edition, 1947). Bloch, conversely, shifted from
the archaeology of mind-sets to the archaeology of
structures in French Rural History: An Essay on Its Basic
Characteristics (original French edition, 1931), and
Feudal Society (original French edition, 1939–1940).
With his holistic account of feudalism, combining

THE ANNALES PARADIGM IN FRENCH
HISTORY: THE SOCIAL SCIENCE MODEL
One case of social history’s institutionalization inside
academic history was France, where key interwar departures established unbroken lines of continuity down
to the 1970s. Certain underlying conditions enabled
this to happen. One was the well-known centralization of political culture, higher education, and the
administrative state in France, where access to central
resources, the levers of intellectual patronage and prestige, and the metropolitan matrix of knowledge production in Paris gave the academic elite far more
power to set the terms of discussion than in the more
dispersed intellectual cultures of Britain, Germany,
and elsewhere. From early in the twentieth century,
the E´cole Pratique des Hautes E´tudes (founded 1868)
dominated scholarly research, and the new sixth section dealing with the social sciences after 1947 quickly
overshadowed the older fourth section responsible for
history and philology.
The French Revolution’s place in the country’s
political life was inherently encouraging to social history, given popular insurrection and the presence of
the masses in 1789–1793. From Albert Mathiez
(1874–1932) to Georges Lefebvre (1874–1959) and
Albert Soboul (1914–1982), the Revolution sustained a strong line of social-historical research lacking
in Britain until Christopher Hill revived study of the
English Revolution in the 1950s. Lefebvre, in Les paysans du Nord pendant la Re´volution francaise (1924)
and The Great Fear of 1789: Rural Panic in Revolutionary France (original French edition, 1932), and
Soboul, in The Parisian Sans-Culottes and the French
Revolution, 1793–4 (original French edition, 1958),
produced innovative and inspiring classics of social
history. Ernest Labrousse (1895–1988) pioneered the
quantitative study of economic fluctuations. He situated 1789 in an economic conjuncture, for which
the history of prices and wages, bad harvests, and unemployment gave the key (La crise de l’e´conomie francaise a` la fin de l’Ancien Re´gime et au de´but de la Re´volution [1944]). His general model (comparing 1789,
1830, and 1848) worked upward from price movements and the structural problems of the economy,
through the wider ramifications of social crisis, and
finally to the mishandling of the consequences by
government.
As in Britain and Germany, an early impulse to
social history came from economic history or sociology, but with greater resonance among historians. For
The Great Fear, which concerns peasant uprisings in
the first phase of the French Revolution, Lefebvre read
the crowd theories of Gustav Le Bon, the social theory

7

SECTION 1: METHODS AND THEORETICAL APPROACHES

analysis of the ‘‘mental structures’’ of the age with its
socioeconomic relations for a picture of the whole environment, Bloch departed radically from prevailing
work. He insisted on comparison, making Europe,
not the nation, the entity of study. He exchanged conventional chronologies (like reigns of kings) for epochal time, or the longue dure´e. He shifted attention
from military service (the dominant approach to feudalism) to the social history of agriculture and relationships on the land. He moved away from the history of the law, landholding, kingship, and the origins
of states in the narrow institutional sense. All these
moves came to characterize ‘‘structural history.’’
In 1929 Bloch and Febvre made their interests
into a program with a journal, Annales d’histoire ´economique et sociale. The journal quickly acquired prestige, as Febvre and Bloch moved from Strasbourg to
Paris. But it was after 1945, with the founding of the
sixth section for the social sciences of the E´cole Pratique des Hautes E´tudes, with Febvre as president,
that Annales really took off, tragically boosted by
Bloch’s execution by the Germans in June 1944 for
his role in the Resistance. His indictment of French
historiography’s narrowness now merged into enthusiasm for a new start, denouncing the rottenness of
the old elites, who capitulated in 1940 and collaborated with the Nazis under Vichy. The change of name
to Annales: ´economies, socie´te´s, civilisations (1946) signified this enhanced vision. The sixth section also
placed history at the center of the new interdisciplinary regime, in a leadership among the social sciences
unique in the Western world. Sociology, geography,
and economics were key influences for Bloch and
Febvre, now joined by structural anthropology and
linguistics, including Claude Le´vi-Strauss (1908–),
Roland Barthes (1915–1980), and Pierre Bourdieu
(1930–). The term histoire totale (total history) now
became identified with Annales.
Febvre’s assistant was Fernand Braudel (1902–
1985), his heir as president of the sixth section
(1956–1972) and director of Annales (1957–1969).
Braudel’s career was framed by two monuments of
scholarship—The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II (original French
edition, 1949), researched in the 1930s, and the threevolume Civilization and Capitalism, 15th–18th Century (original French edition, 1979). In these great
works Braudel schematized the complex practice of
his mentors, distinguishing three temporalities or levels of analysis that functioned as a materialist grand
design, shrinking great men and big events into the
sovereign causalities of economics, population, and
environment. Braudel’s causal logic moved upward
from the structural history of the longue dure´e (land-

12
ANNALES, 1950–1970
Attempts to replicate Braudel’s Mediterranean included
the twelve-volume Seville et l’Atlantique (1504–1650)
(1955–1959) by Pierre Chaunu (1923–), and the threevolume La Catalogne dans l’Espagne moderne. Recherches sur les fondements e´conomiques des structures
nationales (1962) of Pierre Vilar (1906–). With Pierre
Goubert (1915–) and Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie (1929–),
demography then surpassed price series and economic
cycles as the main technical concern, in Beauvais et le
Beauvasis de 1600 a` 1730: Contribution de l’histoire
sociale de la France du XVIIe sie`cle, two volumes (1960),
and The Peasants of Languedoc, two volumes (original
French edition, 1966) respectively. A collective project
managed by Francois Furet (1927–1998) on Livre et
socie´te´ dans la France du XVIIIe sie`cle (1965–1970) applied quantification to patterns of ancien re´gime intellectual life, extending literacy into the statistical study of
book production, reception, the sociology of the reading
public and the provincial academies, content analysis,
and so forth. It corresponded to Febvre’s last work, prepared for publication by Henri Jean Martin, The Coming
of the Book: The Impact of Printing 1450–1800 (original
French edition, 1958). Robert Mandrou (1921–1984)
cleaved more to ‘‘historical psychology,’’ dissecting the
‘‘mental climate of an age’’ in various works, including
An Introduction to Modern France: An Essay in Historical
Psychology (original French edition, 1961), and Magistrats et sorciers en France au XVIIe sie`cle, une analyse
de psychologie historique (1968). The independent scholar
Philippe Arie`s (1914–1984) pioneered cultural histories
of the early modern era converging with Annales. His
Centuries of Childhood (1960) was one of the most influential works of history in this early postwar time.

scape, climate, demography, deep patterns of economic life, long-run norms and habits, the reproduction of social structures, the stabilities of popular
understanding, the repetitions of everyday life), through
the medium-term changes of conjunctures (where the
rise and fall of economies, social systems, and states
became visible), to the faster moving narrative time of
l’histoire ´eve´nementielle (human-made events, the familiar military, diplomatic, and political histories Annales wanted to supplant). In this thinking, the ‘‘deeper

8

THE GENERATIONS OF SOCIAL HISTORY

level’’ of structure imposed ‘‘upper limits’’ on human
possibilities for a particular civilization, and determined the pace and extent of change. This was the
historian’s appropriate concern, from which ‘‘events’’
were a diversion.
Braudel’s rendering of Annales ideals realized
the goal of Green’s Short History of the English People—the dethroning of kings—but divested of all
progressivist or ‘‘whiggish’’ narrative design. This uplifting quality was exchanged for a very different
model of progress, rendering the world knowable
through social science (economics, demography, geography, anthropology, and quantitative techniques).
Annales history became counterposed to the historiography of the French Revolution, where progressivism and the great event remained alive and well.
Mentalite´ solidified into an implicit master category
of structure. Braudel’s project was imposingly schematic. His works were ordered into a reified hierarchy of materialist determinations, locating ‘‘real’’ significance in the structural and conjunctural levels,
and reducing the third level to the most conventional
and unanalytic recitation of events. Reciprocity of
determination—so challenging in Bloch’s work on
feudalism—disappeared. Major dramas of the early
modern age such as religious conflict startled by their
absence. But Braudel’s magnum opus on the Mediterranean had few parallels in the sheer grandiosity
of its knowledge and design.
In social history’s comparative emergence, Annales had a vital institution-building role, with (uniquely
in Europe) long continuity going back to the 1920s,
establishing both protocols of historical method and
understanding, and a cumulative tradition of collective discussion, research, training, and publication. Interdisciplinary cohabitation with the social sciences
was essential, with history (again uniquely) at the center. Quantification was hard-wired into this intellectual culture: ‘‘from a scientific point of view, the only
social history is quantitative history,’’ in one characteristically dogmatic statement (Franc¸ois Furet and
Adeline Daumard in 1959, quoted by Iggers, New
Directions, p. 66). As it emerged into the 1960s, these
were the hallmarks—history as a social science, quantitative methodology, long-run analyses of prices, trade
and population, structural history, a materialist model
of causation. Certain key terms—longue dure´e, mentalite´, and of course histoire totale—passed into historians’ currency elsewhere.
Under Braudel Annales became a magnet for
‘‘new’’ history in France. Until the 1970s, it was
mainly known in English for Bloch’s Feudal Society
(translated 1961), although Philippe Arie`s’s maverick
history of childhood also appeared in English (1962).

Its influence extended into Italy, Belgium, and eastern
Europe, especially Poland, where many connections
developed. Annales also opened dialogues with historians in the Soviet Union.

BRITISH MARXIST HISTORIANS:
POPULIST SOCIAL HISTORY AFTER
WORLD WAR II
National historiographies move on varying times, with
the dynamics of intellectual cultures and traditions,
institutional pressures, and local debates, as well as the
external exigences of national politics and contemporary events. While Germany experienced the catastrophe of Nazism, severing the shoots of historiographical growth, and France enjoyed institutional
continuities around French Revolutionary studies and
Annales, Britain experienced modest sedimentations
of social-historical work. George Macaulay Trevelyan
(1876–1962), Cambridge Regius Professor of Modern History from 1927, maintained the popularizing
tradition with his classic English Social History: A Survey of Six Centuries, Chaucer to Queen Victoria (1942),
and also trained John Harold Plumb (1911–), a major
influence on British social history between the 1950s
and 1970s. In the 1950s a wider archipelago of activity appeared—with the economic historians Hrothgar
John Habakkuk (1915–), Max Hartwell (1921–),
and Peter Matthias at Oxford; George Kitson Clark
(1900–1975) and Henry Pelling (1918–) at Cambridge; A. E. Musson (1920–) and Harold Perkin at
Manchester; Arthur J. Taylor and Asa Briggs (1921–)
at Leeds; F. M. L. Thompson in London. Asa Briggs
was especially influential, through his early research
on Birmingham and more general works like Victorian
Cities (1963), and in the pathbreaking local research
edited in Chartist Studies (1959) and Essays in Labour
History (1960). Perkin occupied the first university
post in social history (Manchester, 1951), took up the
first professorial chair (Lancaster, 1967), and published the key general history, The Origins of Modern
English Society, 1780–1880 (1969).
Thus Britain saw the gradual accrual of a scholarly tradition, borne by an array of economic historians, pioneers like Briggs, the social policy nexus at
the London School of Economics, and the networks
of labor history (solidified by the Society for the Study
of Labour History and its bulletin in 1960). The
Communist Party Historians’ Group (1946–1957)
had disproportionate impact in social history’s great
1960s expansion. Its members came to the Communist Party (CPGB) via antifascism, and most left in
the crisis of communism in 1956, which ended the

9

SECTION 1: METHODS AND THEORETICAL APPROACHES

Group’s existence. Very few taught at the center of
British university life (at Oxbridge or London). Some
were not historians by discipline, like the older Maurice Dobb (1900–1976), the Cambridge economist,
whose Studies in the Development of Capitalism (1946)
focused an important discussion. Others had positions
in adult education.
These British marxist historians included Eric
Hobsbawm (1917–), Christopher Hill (1910–), Victor Kiernan (1913–), Rodney Hilton (1916–), George
Rude´ (1910–1993), John Saville (1916–), Dorothy
Thompson (1923–), Raphael Samuel (1938–1996),
and E. P. Thompson (1924–1993). Their collective
discussions shaped the contours of social history in
Britain, with international resonance comparable to
Annales. University history departments gave them
few supports. Rude´ and E. P. Thompson secured academic appointments only in the 1960s, Rude´ by
traveling to Australia. The main impulse came from
politics, a powerful sense of history’s pedagogy, and
broader identification with democratic values and popular history. A leading mentor was the nonacademic
CPGB intellectual, journalist, and Marx scholar, Dona
Torr (1883–1957), author of Tom Mann and his
Times (1936), to whom the Group paid tribute in
Democracy and the Labour Movement (1954), edited
by John Saville.
The Group aimed for a social history of Britain
to contest official accounts, inspired by A. L. Morton’s
A People’s History of England (1938). Some members
specialized in British history per se—Hilton on the
English peasantry, Hill on the English Revolution, Saville on labor history, Dorothy Thompson on Chartism. Others displayed extraordinary international range.
Hobsbawm’s interests embraced British labor history,
European popular movements, and Latin American
peasantries, plus the study of nationalism and his unparalleled general histories, from The Age of Revolution, 1789–1848 (1962), through The Age of Capital,
1848–1875 (1975), and The Age of Empire, 1875–
1914 (1987), to The Age of Extremes, 1914–1991
(1994). Kiernan was another remarkable generalist,
covering aspects of imperialism, early modern state
formation, and history of the aristocratic duel, as well
as British relations with China and the 1854 Spanish
Revolution. Rude´ was a leading historian of the French
Revolution and popular protest, with The Crowd in the
French Revolution (1959), The Crowd in History (1964),
and his collaboration with Hobsbawm, Captain Swing
(1969). Two others were British historians with huge
international influence—Raphael Samuel as the moving genius behind the History Workshop movement
and its journal; and E. P. Thompson through his great
works, The Making of the English Working Class (1963),

Whigs and Hunters: The Origin of the Black Act (1975),
and Customs in Common (1991).
This British marxist historiography was embedded in specifically British concerns. Several voices
spoke the languages of English history exclusively—
Hill, Hilton, Saville, the Thompsons. The broader
tradition was intensely focused on national themes, as
in E. P. Thompson’s famous ‘‘The Peculiarities of the
English’’ (1965) and first book, William Morris, Romantic to Revolutionary (1955), or the cognate works
of Raymond Williams (1921–1988), Culture and Society (1958) and The Long Revolution (1961). British
concerns were strongest in two areas. The Group decisively shaped labor history, in Hobsbawm’s foundational essays in Labouring Men (1964), Saville’s
influence (institutionalized in the multivolume Dictionary of Labour Biography from 1972), and after
1960 in the Labour History Society. Labor history in
Britain was linked to specific questions about the presumed failure of the labor movement to follow Marx’s
development model. It also shaped the history of capitalist industrialization in Britain, most notably through
the standard of living controversy between Hobsbawm and Hartwell in 1957–1963 over whether industrialists had improved or degraded living standards
of the working population. Saville’s Rural Depopulation in England and Wales, 1851–1951 (1957) was a
counterpoint to the mainstream accounts of G. E.
Mingay, English Landed Society in the Eighteenth Century (1963), and F. M. L. Thompson, English Landed
Society in the Nineteenth Century (1963). Several classics addressed this question, from E. P. Thompson’s
The Making of the English Working Class, and Hobsbawm and Rude´’s Captain Swing, to Hobsbawm’s
general British economic history, Industry and Empire:
From 1750 to the Present Day (1968).
In other ways, the marxist historians were the
opposite of parochial. Rude´ worked with Lefebvre and
Soboul; Kiernan practiced an eclectic version of global
history; Hobsbawm maintained wide connections with
Europe and Latin America; Thomas Hodgkin (1910–
1982) and Basil Davidson (1914–) vitally influenced
African history, again from the margins in adult education and journalism. Hobsbawm interacted with
Braudel and other Annalistes, and with Labrousse, Lefebvre, and Soboul. Internationally, Hobsbawm and
Rude´ transformed study of social protest in preindustrial societies. Rude´ deconstructed older stereotypes
of ‘‘the mob,’’ using the French Revolution and
eighteenth-century riots in England and France to analyze the rhythms, organization, and motives behind
collective action, specifying a sociology of the ‘‘faces
in the crowd.’’ Hobsbawm analyzed the transformations in popular consciousness accompanying capital-

10

THE GENERATIONS OF SOCIAL HISTORY

itor and instigator was the ancient history historian
John Morris (1913–1977), joined by Hobsbawm,
Hill, Hilton, Dobb, and the archaeologist Vere Gordon Childe (1892–1957), who were all marxists, plus
a group of distinguished non-marxists, including ancient history historian A. H. M. (Hugo) Jones (1904–
1970), Czech historian R. R. Betts, Tudor-Stuart historian D. B. Quinn (1909–), and generalist Geoffrey
Barraclough (1908–1984). From the start, contacts
with Europe were good, including eastern Europe
(with early articles by the Soviet historians Boris Porshnev and E. A. Kosminskii, and the Czechoslovaks
J. V. Polisensky and Arnost Klima), and France (not
only Lefebvre and Soboul, but also Annales). In 1958
the board was broadened to lessen the marxist dominance, with early modernists Lawrence Stone (1919–)
and John Elliott (1930–), medievalist Trevor Aston
(1925–1986), archaeologist S. S. Frere (1918–), and
the sociologists Norman Birnbaum and Peter Worsley.
The subtitle changed to a ‘‘Journal of Historical
Studies.’’
In its first twenty years, Past and Present made
vital contributions to the rise of social history. One
was internationalism, for it brought European work
into English, aided by its editors’ political networks,
direct exchanges with France, and the 1950 International Historical Congress in Paris and its new social
history section. Secondly, like Annales, it urged comparative study of societies within an overall frame of
arguments about historical change, posed at the level
of European or global movements and systems. This
commitment, which crystallized from the agenda of
the Communist Party Historians’ Group, recurred
in the annual conference themes from 1957—early
modern revolutions, the general crisis of the seventeenth century, origins of industrialization, war and
society 1300–1600, science and religion, colonialism
and nationalism. Thirdly, it opened interdisciplinary
conversations with sociologists and anthropologists,
encouraged by marxist acceptance of the indivisibility
of knowledge, again paralleling Annales. Fourthly, social history went together with economics, whether
via the Annaliste master category of structures, or via
marxism and the materialist theory of history. Academically, where social history was disengaged from
the ‘‘manners and morals’’ mode of popularizing, or
projects of ‘‘people’s history,’’ it was coupled to economic history, as in departments of economic and
social history created in some British universities in
the 1960s.
‘‘Social history’’ meant understanding the dynamics of whole societies. It was the ambition to connect political events to underlying social forces. In
1947–1950 the Communist Party Historians’ Group

12
RICHARD COBB (1917–1996)
Richard Cobb was a contemporary of the British marxist
historians, and trained under Georges Lefebvre with
George Rude´ and Albert Soboul. He taught in Aberystwyth, Manchester, and Leeds (1953–1962) before moving to Oxford. He exercised legendary influence in the
1960s as an inspiringly original social historian, with a
penchant for reckless bohemianism. His Les Arme´es re´volutionnaires: Instrument de la Terreur dans les de´partements, avril 1793 (flore´al An II), two volume (1962,
translated as The People’s Armies, 1987) was followed
by Terreur et Subsistances, 1793–1795 (1965), A Second Identity: Essays on France and French History (1969),
and The Police and the People: French Popular Protest,
1789–1820 (1970). In Leeds he was a friend of E. P.
Thompson, whose article ‘‘Moral Economy’’ began as an
intended collaboration with Cobb on grain riots. If social
history implied identification with the common people,
Cobb was one of its most charismatic practitioners. Traumatized by 1968, he shed this stance. The later works—
Reactions to the French Revolution (1972), Paris and its
Provinces, 1792–1802 (1975), and a string of mainly
personal writings—became ever more idiosyncratic and
suffered as a result. But he re-created the world of the
1790s with remarkable eloquence, knew the archives like
the back of his hand, and inspired a generation of French
Revolutionary specialists — Colin Lucas, Peter Jones,
Gwynne Lewis, Olwen Hufton, Alan Forrest, Martyn Lyons, William Scott, Richard Andrews, Colin Jones, Geoffrey Ellis, and others.

ist industrialization—in studies of Luddism and pre–
trade-union labor protest; in Primitive Rebels (1959)
and Bandits (1969), concerning ‘‘archaic’’ protests in
agrarian societies (social banditry, millenarianism,
mafia); and in work on peasants and peasant movements in Latin America. He pioneered the conversations of history and anthropology, and redefined politics in societies without democratic constitutions or a
developed parliamentary system.
The Communist Party Historians’ Group’s biggest step was the new journal, Past and Present (a
‘‘Journal of Scientific History’’), launched in 1952 to
preserve dialogue with non-marxist historians when
the Cold War was otherwise closing it down. The ed-

11


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