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.