TM1 Workshop “History from below: Historiography between populism and democratisation”, 18-20 October 2021


Organised by ICAS:MP’s thematic module ‘History as a Political Category’ (TM1)

This workshop will attempt to put the emergence of “history from below” in perspective not as an effect of inner-academic expert discussions, but as a part and expression of historical cultures into which political questions have played an important role.

History from below: Historiography between populism and democratisation

In his programmatic essay “History from below”, which appeared in 1966 in a special issue of the Times Literary Supplement entitled “New Ways in History”, E.P. Thompson made a plea for a democratisation of history. In contrast to traditional political history with its focus on the state and its great men, but also as a corrective to a labour history that was fixated on parties and institutions, he called for a historiography that focused on the “common people”. In his view, they had both to be taken seriously as producers of history, and addressed as an audience beyond the walls of the academy.

The British “history from below” is probably the best-known variant of this new orientation, which began in the 1960s and increasingly focused on the culture of the subaltern classes and the everyday life of the “common people”. This historiographical shift was a global phenomenon that was not only to be found in Western Europe and North America, but also in the Eastern Bloc and the Global South, all of which categorisations are themselves open to closer scrutiny. The political impetus for the new perspectives were certainly decolonisation, the liberation of Indochina and the Vietnam War, and the Chinese revolution. In the political as well as in the historiographical field, liberation struggles led primarily by peasant classes sparked a lively interest in the culture of the subaltern classes and motivated an intensive dialogue between historiography and anthropology. This constellation opened up an international space of resonance that included history from below, Italian microstoria, West German Alltagsgeschichte (history of everyday life), but also postcolonial studies and an epistemologically oriented feminism.

Although the impulses to rewrite history “from below” were realised in different ways, they often moved within a (neo-)Marxist horizon of thought in which the critique and renewal of historiography was considered the key to social (if not revolutionary) change. In the context of 1968 and its aftermath, “history from below” thus conceived as a project of social emancipation extended its radius further to women, day labourers or children. It aimed to change not only the academic debates, but also the social practice of historiography, and ultimately society itself.

Today it has become conventional to describe this historiographical movement as an intra-academic “cultural” or “anthropological turn” that led away from static structuralist and diachronic approaches. In editorial practice, too, a clear distinction is often made between the academic and political components of this project. This, however, fundamentally misjudges the significance of an approach that was often rooted in social movements and placed the political function of historiography at the centre of its interests.

A reconstruction of the various varieties of “history from below” which ignores this connection between theory and politics, will necessarily lead to misunderstandings, shortcomings and false conclusions. A prudent reconstruction is also important because various of the approaches that were part of an emancipatory politics from the left in the 1970s have been taken up by right movements for some time now.

Our workshop will attempt to put the emergence of “history from below” in perspective not as an effect of inner-academic expert discussions, but as a part and expression of historical cultures into which political questions have played an important role. Following Walter Benjamin’s insight that “the events surrounding the historian and in which he takes part will underlie his presentation like a text written in invisible ink”, the workshop will use various case studies to shed light on different contexts and worlds of experience that motivated a shift in perspective “downwards” in the 1960s and 70s. It will also address the question of whether and to what extent the project has changed since the 1980s when the first steps towards integration into mainstream academic practice were made and after 1989 when the (neo)-Marxist horizon disappeared but social emancipatory projects still asked for a “history from below”, now often in new terms and under new social, economic and cultural conditions. The different links between the academic and the political dimensions and the specific impact of the “events surrounding the historian” (Benjamin) are therefore at the centre of this workshop. Such a critical work of reconstruction is the necessary starting point for questioning the social practice of historiography and its potential for emancipatory movements and democracy.

The workshop is organised by ICAS:MP in cooperation with the Leibniz Research Group ‘The Contemporary History of Historiography’ at the University of Trier, Germany.

It is planned to take place at Werner-Reimers-Stiftung at Bad Homburg v.d.H., Germany to be co-hosted by the Werner-Reimers-Stiftung, Germany, on the 18th to the 20th of October, 2021. However, given the uncertainties around Covid-19, the workshop might be hosted in a hybrid format, combining online and in-person attendance. The dates will remain the same.

Academic Conveners:
Brigitta Bernet,
Lutz Raphael,
Benjamin Zachariah,

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