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Alun Howkins, The people's historian

Raphael with group, c1990From Red Pepper, February 1997

Raph Samuel's work and life has been central to the development of socialist ideas and organisations in Britain since the 1950s. The Soviet Union's suppression of the Hungarian uprising in 1965 led Samuel, along with some 5,000 others, to leave the British Communist Party. The invasion was catalyst to a growing pressure to democratise the party's structures and practices. Equally important was a growing unease with the party's failure to gain the mass support of working people.

In the debate in the late 1950s and 1960s these two elements came together powerfully, and Samuel was a key figure in both. Some people rejected any form of socialist analysis or took on the hard line Trotskyism of the Socialist Labour League. Others, like Samuel, sought a different and more popular road which moved away from the prescriptive state, party-led, models typical of the old communist and socialist parties.

Initially this found expressions through attempts to reach out to young working people through left clubs and coffee bars, most notably the Partisan in London's Soho, although there were clubs in many cities. Samuel was deeply involved in this movement, but it was through his own rediscovery of history in the early 1960s that he found a set of traditions and ideas, some from a wider world socialist movement but most from the historical practices of the British working class, which were to structure his subsequent socialist practice. These traditions centred upon the self-activity and creativity of working-class movements and groups, on their anti-authoritarianism and their internal democracy. In these new histories the emphasis moved away from the great and powerful to the rank and file. Gone were histories of Fabianism, of Labour government parties: in their place came the stories of everyday struggle, the shop floor committee, the social criminal and, slowly at first, the unwritten histories of women and children, of the family, the street corner and the pub.

From the beginning, for Samuel, and many of those who worked with him, history was a political project. His political course charts a search for a history which will inform and explain the present and point the way forward. Initially, these histories, and especially the History Workshop movement which began in 1956, spoke to the new anti-statist socialism of the late 1960s and early 1970s. The 1971 History Workshop meeting at Ruskin on 'Worker's Control in 19th century England' spoke directly to the growing power of rank-and-file and shop stewards' movements within the labour movement which found its most powerful voice in the 'flying pickets' of the 1972 miners strike. Also in the early 1970s, first on the edges and then at the core, women'' history and the emergent feminist movement forged itself a place within the Workshop movement. Here again the anti-authoritarian and self-organising models proved much more positive and welcoming than older versions of the political party, not only in content but also in form. What this history taught was that there were ways of doing things differently from how they were done in the social democratic and communist parties. These small scale, loosely structured and intensely democratic ways of organising were copied from the past, used in the present and projected into the future.

Raph Samuel was a central figure in all this. His firm political understanding was always tempered by a deep, intensely personal appreciation of the power of the self-activity of working people. This insistence of the power of the popular voice remains a constant, and sometimes u