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Carolyn Steedman

Raphael and Alison dancing, c1990From Radical Philosophy, March/April 1997

Raphael Samuel was born in London, to a Jewish Communist family and died of cancer in the city of his birth, on 9th December 1996. Education at the progressive Kind Alfred's School (Hampstead Garden Suburb) and at Balliol College, Oxford, where he was taught by Christopher Hill, contributed to his intellectual formation, but the insistent and febrile energy that he brought to the practice and teaching of history - indeed, to its very reshaping in the post-war years - was forged in a Communist childhood and teenage membership of the Communist Party Historians' Group. The domestic asceticism of this upbringing, combined with the narrative richness of the Marxist historiography he learned from the Party he left in 1956, was notably described in a series of pieces on 'The Lost World of British Communism', published in New Left Review in the mid-1980s - the first English contribution to the new vastly overcrowded terrain of autobiographical criticism to be written by a man (NLR, 154, 156, 165).

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. 'It started in 1967, at Ruskin College…as an attach on the examination system and the humiliations which it imposed on adult students' (HWJ9). History Workshop was a practice of progressive education as much as it was of history. Raphael Samuel retained a lifelong admiration for child - (or learner -) centred education, and for the Communist teachers he met in his youth. He was perfectly willing to listen to elaborate arguments about progressive education as the final - conservative - resting place of post-Wordsworthian English romanticism, but he believed not a word of them. His conviction sent mature students who had left school at fifteen - unable to write an essay, as John Prescott recalled of his pre-Ruskin self-straight into the archives, to learn from the fragmented recorded of the unconsidered of the earth what a democratic and socialist practice of history might be. Like Raymond Williams and Edward Thompson, he produced his historical work in interaction with working-class adult returners to education - a peculiarity of English education history and English historiography that awaits its historian.

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.

Historians of feminism in Britain conventionally cite History Workshop as one of the origins of an indigenous wo