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Raphael Samuel: Portrait of a People’s Historian
The British radical historian Raphael Samuel (1934-1996) was best known as a founding member of the first British New Left (1956-1962) and later as the moving spirit behind the History Workshop movement (1967-1991) and the History Workshop Journal (1976-). Samuel was closely associated with people’s history, sometimes known as ‘history from below’ or ‘socialist history.’ As a historian, he was driven by a belief that history was or should be a common social activity. Over the course of his life Samuel came to particularly embody the role of the ‘people’s historian’. The literature that surrounds Samuel presents a compelling, complex and controversial figure, precariously balanced between the claims of populism and those of social criticism, positioned in relation to both old and new forms of political influence. How best to understand Samuel as a historian? A romantic conscience keeper of the old New Left or an imaginative conceptual broker for the new New Left? A confused and nostalgic ex Marxist or a shrewd social critic and democratic educator?
This paper, presented as the pre-submission seminar of my PhD candidature, explores Samuel’s thought and practices of history as a dynamic, living process which continually sought to integrate and interplay the ethics and ideas of the various political and intellectual ‘moments’ through which he lived. The paper outlines how this process can be seen unfolding over the course of his life and discusses how these ideas and principles can be seen in application to his writing of history. Finally it suggests some of the ways in which a figure like Samuel offers a different perspective on contemporary debates about the role of the intellectual in public life.
Sophie Scott-Brown is an international PhD candidate in ANU's School of History where she is undertaking an intellectual biography of the British radical historian Raphael Samuel.