Raphael Samuel

Raphael Samuel

Raphael Samuel, the son of Jewish parents, was born in London in 1934. He was educated at King's Alfred's School and at Balliol College, Oxford, where he was taught by Christopher Hill.

His mother, Minna Nerenstein, was an active member of the Communist Party of Great Britain. Samuel joined as a young man and later recalled: "Like many Communists of my time, I combined a powerful sense of apartness with a craving for recognition, alternating gestures of defiance with a desire to be ordinary and accepted as one of the crowd. If one wanted to be charitable, one might say that it was the irresolvable duality on which British Communists find themselves impaled today." This view was criticised by his friend, John Saville in his book, Memoirs from the Left (2003): "I do not deny the validity of Raphael Samuel's own personal history, especially in his younger days... The historian in him, however, might have acknowledged that it was a very unusual story, typical of some, perhaps many, Jewish comrades but not in any way relevant to the working-class militants who were joining the Communist Party at the time that Raphael was growing up in the 1940s."

After the war he joined forces with E. P. Thompson, Christopher Hill, Eric Hobsbawm, A. L. Morton, John Saville, George Rudé, Rodney Hilton, Dorothy Thompson, Edmund Dell, Victor Kiernan and Maurice Dobb to form the Communist Party Historians' Group. In 1952 members of the group founded the journal, Past and Present. Over the next few years the journal pioneered the study of working-class history.

During the 20th Party Congress in February, 1956, Nikita Khrushchev launched an attack on the rule of Joseph Stalin. He condemned the Great Purge and accused Joseph Stalin of abusing his power. He announced a change in policy and gave orders for the Soviet Union's political prisoners to be released. Pollitt found it difficult to accept these criticisms of Stalin and said of a portrait of his hero that hung in his living room: "He's staying there as long as I'm alive".

Khrushchev's de-Stalinzation policy encouraged people living in Eastern Europe to believe that he was willing to give them more independence from the Soviet Union. In Hungary the prime minister Imre Nagy removed state control of the mass media and encouraged public discussion on political and economic reform. Nagy also released anti-communists from prison and talked about holding free elections and withdrawing Hungary from the Warsaw Pact. Khrushchev became increasingly concerned about these developments and on 4th November 1956 he sent the Red Army into Hungary. During the Hungarian Uprisingan estimated 20,000 people were killed. Nagy was arrested and replaced by the Soviet loyalist, Janos Kadar.

Samuel, like most members of the Communist Party Historians' Group, supported Imre Nagy and as a result he was expelled from the Communist Party of Great Britain after the Hungarian Uprising. As John Saville pointed out: "I still regard it as wonderfully fortunate that I was of the generation that established the Communist Historians' group. For ten years we exchanged ideas and developed our Marxism into what we hoped were creative channels. It was not chance that when the secret speech of Khrushchev was made known in the West, it was members of the historians' group who were among the most active of the Party intellectuals on demanding a full discussion and uninhibited debate."

Samuel became a tutor at Ruskin College in 1962. John Prescott was one of his mature students: "He would turn up with his hair all over the place, in a style of dressing that was all his own... He arrived with bags full of poems and bits of papers and references and he would pull one out when he wanted to make a point. He made me do something I thought I'd never do. Not just write an essay - that was difficult enough for me - but use the experience of poetry to illustrate a point. Until then I had thought poetry was about them and not us." Another former student recalled: "I came to Ruskin knowing I could not write an essay, and left Ruskin sure that I could write a book".

In 1967 Raphael Samuel established the History Workshop movement. He also played a major role in the life of the History Workshop Journal that began publication in 1975. As Mervyn Jones has pointed out, Samuel was dedicated "to a special kind of history; rooted in left-wing politics, and aiming to rediscover the lives of the millions overlooked by historians of big names and big events."

Keith Fleet has argued: "Raphael Samuel was one of the most prominent historians in the country to support history from below ­ the attempt to actively recover the history of ordinary people and their movements. In many ways this was a step forward from the sometimes rather rigid orthodoxies of more mechanical Marxist histories."

Books published by Samuel include Village Life and Labour (1975), Miners, Quarrymen and Saltworkers (1977), People's History and Socialist Theory (1981),East End Underworld (1981), Culture, Ideology and Politics (1983), Theatres of the Left: 1880-1935 (1985), The Lost World of Communism (1986), The Enemy Within: The Miners' Strike of 1984 (1987), Patriotism: The Making and Unmaking of British National Identity (1989), Patriotsm: Minorities and Outsiders (1989), The Myths We Live By (1990), Theatres of Memory (1996) and Island Stories: Unravelling Britain (1997).

In 1995 Samuel created the Raphael Samuel History Centre in East London University. The historian, Gareth Stedman-Jones, has argued: "The extent of his empathy was exceptional. No one charted more exactly the ways in which the Industrial Revolution had increased the extent of toil in every branch of Victorian industry... His insights were the product of an omnivorous intellectual appetite, which crossed disciplines and periods: Samuel wrote with the insights of a literary critic, the acuity of an anthropologist and the wit of a political journalist. Up until his last hours he remained passionately engaged with the future of history, both of his own many projects and those of the many friends and admirers whom he had helped to inspire."

Raphael Samuel died of cancer on 9th December 1996.

Primary Sources

(1) Raphael Samuel, New Left Review (1985)

Like many Communists of my time, I combined a powerful sense of apartness with a craving for recognition, alternating gestures of defiance with a desire to be ordinary and accepted as one of the crowd. If one wanted to be charitable, one might say that it was the irresolvable duality on which British Communists find themselves impaled today.

(2) Carolyn Steedman, Radical Philosophy (March, 1997)

Raphael Samuel's lasting memorials will be the work he inspired in the generations of students he taught at Ruskin College, Oxford, from 1962 to 1996, and History Workshop, in its protean forms of annual conferences, local networks and federations - which spread across Europe and Scandinavia - and its eponymous journal. A loose coalition of worker-historians and full-time socialist researchers was what he called it...

The standard charge against the history Samuel inspired was of a fanatical empiricism and a romantic merging of historians and their subjects in crowded narratives, in which each hard-won detail of working lives, wrenched from the cold indifference of posterity, is piled upon another, in a relentless rescue of the past. When he was himself subject to these charges, it was presumably his fine and immensely detailed accounts of the labour process that critics had in mind. But it was meaning rather than minutiae that he cared about. If, as Gareth Stedman-Jones suggested in his Independent obituary, Raphael Samuel charted better than anyone else the desperate increase of hard labour in every branch of industry and manufacture brought about by Victorian industrial capitalism (on the land as much as in the factory), then it was because the details inscribed the meaning of that toil, those lives, to those who lived them.

(3) Gareth Stedman-Jones, The Independent (March, 1997)

Raphael Samuel brought to the writing and popularisation of history a seemingly inexhaustible energy and creativity. He was also an inspired teacher and the author of books and essays, which have expanded beyond recognition the intellectual and imaginative ranges both of English history and of the writing of history itself.

But he was not only a teacher and a writer; he was also an organiser and a prophet, a close, and sometimes uncanny reader of "the signs of the times". He preached and practised a new vision of popular history: a democratic history which put the everyday lives of ordinary people at the heart of a large and even sweeping history of the nations of Britain over the last two centuries.

Samuel gave new meaning to the idea of history as an experimental art, inventing the History Workshop (a term he borrowed from one of his heroines, Joan Littlewood, founder of Theatre Workshop) first as a local and then as an international movement. The extent of his empathy was exceptional. No one charted more exactly the ways in which the Industrial Revolution had increased the extent of toil in every branch of Victorian industry, but no one could have acknowledged more generously the contribution of Tory antiquaries in Early Hanoverian England to the writing of national history. His cast of historical actors ranged from Catholic priests ministering among the post-famine Irish poor, the proletarian Gladstonian roughs of Headington Quarry through South Wales village Bolsheviks in the 1920, to the mobsters of the Edwardian East End underworld.

His insights were the product of an omnivorous intellectual appetite, which crossed disciplines and periods: Samuel wrote with the insights of a literary critic, the acuity of an anthropologist and the wit of a political journalist. Up until his last hours he remained passionately engaged with the future of history, both of his own many projects and those of the many friends and admirers whom he had helped to inspire.

(4) John Prescott, Genuine Love of Others, The Guardian (11th December, 1996)

Raphael Samuel opened my mind when I was a student in the 1960s. Until I went to Ruskin and met him, my education had come from correspondence courses, which I used to complete in a 14-bunk cabin after 20 hours' duty as a seaman on a liner. To move from that to two of you in a college room with a tutor was an experience, but Raph was never my image of a tutor.

He would turn up with his hair all over the place, in a style of dressing that was all his own and that was brilliant captured in the photograph of him which the Guardian published yesterday. He arrived with bags full of poems and bits of papers and references and he would pull one out when he wanted to make a point.

He made me do something I thought I'd never do. Not just write an essay - that was difficult enough for me - but use the experience of poetry to illustrate a point. Until then I had thought poetry was about them and not us.

He had this tremendous understanding of the inner inferiority that mature students have in a society that tells them they've missed out. He not only understood what was inside the student, he unlocked it and channelled it into written and verbal debate. There wasn't an ounce of superiority in him. In those tutorials he was often as much the student as the lecturer. He learned from you and you learned from him. He was fascinated by other people's experience.

I remember once that I did a mock exam while I was at Ruskin. I had a terrible time. I was so frustrated that I couldn't say what I wanted that I stormed out. Raph chased me down Walton Street, but he couldn't catch me. When I got back there was a note on my desk in that big hand writing of his telling me not to worry and to come and have a talk and a cup of coffee. He was always supportive like that.

(5) Mervyn Jones, The Times (11th December 1996)

After the death of E.P.Thompson in 1993, that of Raphael Samuel is the gravest loss to the profession of history - but to a special kind of history; rooted in left-wing politics, and aiming to rediscover the lives of the millions overlooked by historians of big names and big events.

Thompson and Samuel had much in common. Both learnt their trade in adult education, not in the universities. Both left the Communist party in 1956 to devote themselves to the New Left, which sought to free the spirit of socialism from the dark record of Stalinism and also from the pragmatism of social democracy. in a speech in 1988, at a conference (or reunion) of "The New Left 30 Years On", Samuel recalled: "We were all forward-looking and iconoclastic, breaking with age-old shibboleths".

He came from a Jewish family with roots in the East End of London, and spent his boyhood a wartime evacuee in Buckinghamshire and then in Hampstead Garden Suburb, where he went to the progressive King Alfred's School. After his parents were divorced (his father was a solicitor), Raphael was brought up by his mother Minna Keal, a gifted composer, with close links to his uncle, the historian Chimen Abramsky. Minria Keal. Abramsky and Abramsky's wife were active and dedicated communists and the boy was initiated into the faith - though that word is unjust to the intellectual sophistication of scholarly Marxism.

Samuel was born to be an historian and was already in a Communist historians' discussion group as a precocious schoolboy. He had the vital quality of living at the same time in the past, the present and the future.

Everything interested him, from public health to colonial rebellion and from street lighting to street fighting. Up to the end of his life he would argue as fervently about the tactics of the Chartists as about the destruction of the Labour Party (as he saw it) by Tony Blair.

(6) Keith Flett, Socialist Review (January, 1997)

Raphael Samuel was one of the most prominent historians in the country to support history from below ­ the attempt to actively recover the history of ordinary people and their movements. In many ways this was a step forward from the sometimes rather rigid orthodoxies of more mechanical Marxist histories. It fed in directly, too, to the resurgence of socialist ideas after 1968 and to the birth of the women's movement in which the History Workshop Conference of November 1968 played a central organising role.

Samuel could be fiercely critical of socialists with whom he disagreed. Debate has raged, for example, about whether a series of articles he wrote about the Communist Party in the 1940s and 1950s in New Left Review under the title "The Lost World of British Communism" was an attempt to write an affectionate history from below of what it had been like to be a CP member before 1956 or an attack on any kind of left wing political activism.