Can History be Radical?

This post was contributed by Dr Onni Gust, lecturer in colonial and postcolonial history at the University of Nottingham, and member of the Raphael Samuel History Centre – a research and educational centre, of which Birkbeck is a partner, devoted to encouraging the widest possible participation in historical research and debate.

On 30 June – 3 July 2016, the Centre will commemorate the 20th anniversary of the death of the socialist historian Raphael Samuel, along with the fortieth anniversary of the journal he helped to found (History Workshop Journal), with the Radical Histories Conference.

DCF 1.0

Here, Dr Gust gives an insight into some of the central themes to be grappled with at the London-based the conference.

In 1961, towards the end of the war of Algerian Independence against France, Franz Fanon published The Wretched of the Earth In this indictment of the psychological impact of European colonial power, Fanon called on his African brothers not to follow the path set by Europe but to start “a new history of Man.”  In this history, Europe’s crimes would be accounted for, but the overall aim would be to “create the whole man” as opposed to the “pathological tearing apart of his functions and crumbling of his unity” that European imperialism had engendered. Fanon’s vision for humanity lay in the creation of new concepts that would enable unity rather than division and inequality. History lay at the core of that radical reinvention of humanity.

Fanon’s was a polemic designed to provide inspiration and to galvanize those in the midst of a brutal and bloody war against French imperialism. His death in 1961, the same year that Wretched of the Earth was published, freed him from grappling with the realities of governing a newly-formed post-colonial nation and from the difficulties of researching and writing a redemptive and inclusive history.

Those who survived and have inherited the legacies of anti-colonial resistance, have born the burden of enacting the agenda that Fanon so powerfully laid out. That agenda was inseparably tied to the desires and disillusionments of mid twentieth-century socialism. Together, and in mutual constitution, socialism and post-colonialism looked to history as one mode through which a more equal and humane future could be enacted.

The radical potential of history

As a project of decolonizing and democratizing historical knowledge, History Workshop was a key forum in which that vision of a more humane and inclusive ‘people’s history’ was enacted. Yet the heyday of History Workshop, which ran concurrently with the emergence of ‘Subaltern Studies’ in India and post-colonial history more generally, also marks the growing disillusionment with post-colonial and socialist alternatives and the rise of an apparently inescapable neo-liberalism.

How far has the hope that was placed in the promise of history been lost, too? Has the faith in the power to right the wrongs of the past and build a more equitable future through the rewriting of history dissipated? Since the early ‘90s, post-colonial critique has cast significant doubt on the radical potential of history as we understand it (whoever ‘we’ are) to effect liberation.

The promise and potential of histories of subalterns – be they peasants, the proletariat, the enslaved, the racialized, gender and sexual minorities or the disabled – to open up agency now appears, at least in the academy, to be somewhat naïve. Gayatri Spivak’s critique of the Subaltern Studies project of recovering ‘subaltern’ voices in the archive ultimately determined that subaltern subjectivities were always mediated and compromised by the structures of state power that conditioned the historians’ access to the documents themselves.

In 2000, Dipesh Chakrabarty’s Provincialising Europe argued the power of history to effect agency was compromised from the very outset by its form. The narratives to which any subaltern history must fit inevitably referred back to a framework that emerged simultaneous to European-imperial structures of power. Anjali Arondekhar’s fabulous critique of the search for dissident sexualities in the colonial archives built on these positions to show how the archives simply reflected the fantasies, ‘perversions’ and paranoias  of its own elite. Taken together, these histories and critiques seem a far cry from the hope offered by Fanon’s revolutionary vision.


Yet at the same time as the academy (much of it emanating from the US institutions) appears disillusioned with the possibilities of historical knowledge as integral to liberation, history proliferates beyond its bounds. Local community archives, oral history projects, maybe even the trend for genealogy, rejuvenates a field outside of the parameters of academic knowledge.

Are these micro-projects, often based on the assertion and recovery of forgotten, or lost identities in the past, part of Fanon’s vision? Or do they merely fragment and therefore undermine the ‘whole man’ that Fanon believed was integral to the post-colonial world? What is their relationship to the history that those of us in the academy are trying to create, under the pressure of REF deadlines, funding parameters and a demand by administrators to teach subjects and approaches that are perceived to be marketable to students?

Do any of our histories really reconfigure hegemonic narratives or are we complicit in creating side-shows that act as charades of democratic knowledge? Where and how do such hegemonies conglomerate? The nation? The tenuous remains of Europe? The networks of global capital?

In many ways, the very title of ‘Radical Histories/Histories of Radicalism’ encapsulates this unsure and indecisive moment. The forward slash implicitly invites the questions of ‘where’ and ‘why’ and ‘how’ radical history can take place in neo-liberal times. The series of papers, exhibitions, films and performances, I have convened with colleagues under the broadly-conceived title ‘Radical Movements’ appear, as a group, to invite speculation rather than certainty.

What visions and templates of change did actors in the past – from Kashmiri Communists, to Transatlantic Anarchists, to ANC activists in London – hold for their own futures?  How do we navigate the increasingly precarious work conditions of academics in higher education and the housing crisis that, structurally, are parts of the same problem? What is the history, and the future of radical booksellers and what does it mean to historicize the miners’ strike?

In broaching these questions, the contributors to ‘Radical Movements’ hover between the historicisation of radicalism and the construction of radical history.

About the Radical Histories Conference (30 June – 3 July)

The conference will feature a weekend of discussion, celebration and debate bringing together activists, community historians, students, teachers, writers, artists, practitioners of history, from inside and outside universities. The programme will include film screenings, theatre, song, dance, walks and talks, stands, exhibitions, caucuses and debates.

Find out more


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