Raphael Samuel Capitulates to Relativism


The late Raphael Samuel, formerly of Ruskin College, is a revered figure on the Britsh Left, one of the founders of the ‘history from below’ movement, of the influential History Workshop Journal, and a key influence on the ‘public history’ historiography promoted by Ruskin College. It is surely significant then that this figure publically declared – at a conference in 1987 to discuss the New Left of thirty years previous – that he had no wish to live in a socialist society, and that what socialism meant to him was the ‘community’ of what might be called ‘the actually existing socialist movement'(see http://www.livejournal.com/users/david_murray/1451.html). Surely it is also unsurprising, as his own historiography is founded on the denial of any disticntion between history and myth, and thus deprives the present of any critical purchase on the past, and thus on itself. This is how he capitulates to rampant relativism:

He writes that:

The idea that the past is the plaything of the present … is only now beginning to impinge on the consciousness and disturb the tranquillity of professional historians. But it has been for some twenty years or more a commonplace of epistemological criticism … It is also a leitmotiv in commodity marketing and design, where a vast amount of ingenuity is devoted to giving brand-new products a look of instant oldness … The historian’s “reading” of the evidence could be seen as an essay in make-believe, a way of dressing up fragments to make them look like meaningful wholes … Or it could be seen as an exercise in the story teller’s arts, relying heavily on the expectation of continuity … the art of historical writing is that of making a master narrative out of chaos

(‘Hybrids’in SAMUEL 1994 p 429 &434)
What is remarkable about this passage is the seamless shifting between three claims, each of which it associates with a different practice. One would have thought – leastways, I would have thought – that a radical historian, such as Samuel; or indeed a radical of any sort would be suspicious of an idea which is common both to the advertising world and to their academic discipline. Apparently not.

But perhaps the values of marketing have infected his own practice. How else can we account for the sentence immediately preceding that on marketing? Perhaps for two decades this idea has indeed been a ‘commonplace’ of ‘epistemological criticism’ – but should it have been? Anyway, assimilating intellectual values to those of fashion is a recipe for banality. Something is now in fashion, but then in the future it will presumable be out of fashion. So how does one make a rational decision? Presumably, only by watching what is currently ‘in’. If a conservative cultural theorist wanted to parody that tradition and sensibility which has nurtured Samuel, then they could hardly invent better.

Indeed the very first sentence hands a loaded pistol to his own academic enemies. The word ‘plaything’ surely implies a shocking frivolity. And is it really only recently that historians have been aware of the plasticity of their material? Surely this was at the very forefront of the consciousness of the historians of the Stalinist dictatorship? And Samuel, of all people, was surely very well aware of this.

Perhaps I am being unfair. I have enjoyed Theatres of Memory. I have learnt much from it. I like his ironic, allusive style, I am awed by his scholarship. It flashes with insights; especially – for me – on the historians’ discovery of photographs in the 1960s. But … I cannot escape the feeling that one ‘reading’ of all this wit and this warm humanism is a kind of oblique retroactive justification for the Stalinist re-writing of history. Samuel himself encourages us to situate the historian and their work. So it should be borne in mind that the political route which Samuel has taken has similarities to that taken by many of his erstwhile comrades in the CPGB and their fellow-travellers. I am thinking of Marxism Today and of Laclau & Mouffe.

I suspect that the above reads like a puritan’s ranting. So, perhaps on a personal note, and so as to not sound like Commissar Zhadnov, I should point out that I like play, I like playfulness. I like stuff that overflows with interpretations and allusions and is a cornucopia of possibilities and readings. For me, one of the best things in the whole world is Babylon 5 . I have nothing in principle against playfulness in historical writing – but only if it has serious intent. Samuel’s own work is often an instance of this, such as ‘The Lost World of British Communism’. I suspect that for Samuel the intent is serious, and the emphasis on playfulness is a reaction against, and a provocation to, that tradition of historiography which formed him (see, for example his essay ‘The Eye of History’ op cit, especially p 317). Yet the meaning of what he writes carries some terrible possibilities.

A plaything is that which has no intrinsic direction or autonomy or values. It, he, (usually) her is something to be used as the player wishes: to use the analogy of reading a text with sexuality .. think of the sense in which ‘plaything’ is used in the discourse of sexuality … the past becomes the slave of the master, the historian. The past, of course, is in no position to give consent to this power-play.

Theatres of Memory indexes seven references to George Orwell. Not one of these refers to what must surely be the nightmare for anyone who takes seriously the notion of the past as a ‘plaything’ – the re-writing of the history by The Ministry of Truth in Nineteen Eighty Four.

An oblong slip of paper had appeared between O’Brien’s fingers… It was the photograph. It was another copy of the photograph of Jones, Aaronson and Rutherford at the Party function in New York, which he had chanced upon eleven years ago and promptly destroyed … [O’Brien puts the photo into a ‘memory hole’]

‘But it did exist! It does exist! It exists in memory. I remember it. You remember it’

‘I do not remember it,’ said O’Brien.

[Winston is told to repeat the Party slogan on historiography]

‘Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past’

[Winston asserts that the past exists in memory, O’Brien replies]

‘We, the Party, control all records, and we control all memories. Then we control the past, do we not?’ (Part Three, Ch II, p 196)

At the risk of over-interpreting: It seems to me that for Samuel to nowhere refer to the idea expressed in that Party slogan is symptomatic of a denial of his own . Further – a denial of the continuance of one of the practices of that past into his own present, and indeed in his own present nuanced renunciation of that past.

Samuel’s own view of the constructed nature of historical work is expressed in here:

The historian’s “reading” of the evidence could be seen as an essay in make-believe, a way of dressing up fragments to make them look like meaningful wholes … Or it could be seen as an exercise in the story teller’s arts, relying heavily on the expectation of continuity … the art of historical writing is that of making a master narrative out of chaos (op cit p 434)

There is a difficulty posed by the equivocation of ‘could be seen’. Yes, of course it ‘could be seen’ as this, that or the other. But could it reasonably, or plausibly be so seen? Leaving this aside, as being academic politesse: The assumption behind the first sentence is the notion that ‘meaningful wholes’, continuity in history and events-into-narrative are all artefacts of the work of historians (by analogy with Freud’s theory of dream meaning, perhaps it could be called ‘the history-work’). Samuel does not argue for this notion. Perhaps, for him, it appears utterly commonsensical.

But is it so? In 1974 the British state suffered a major defeat by organised labour. It became a priority for the Conservative Party to reverse that defeat. The essentials of the strategy for a future defeat of the miners’ was set out in The Carrington Report. In the early 1980s a programme of pit closures was began. This culminated in the great strike of 1984 – 5. This time the state was prepared to use any means to defeat the miners. The miners had engaged their enemy on its own terms and had no strategic plans on the level of Carrington’s proposals. Despite massive support they suffered a catastrophic defeat.

In what sense is the above sketch (or some improved version of it) an imposition of meaning onto a meaningless object (there should be a better term for this – ‘inert’, ‘mute’..)?

Surely ‘dressing up fragments to make them look like meaningful wholes’ would be something like coming across a random assemblage of objects and then constructing a story as to how they got to be there – there probably is some sort of game, for fun or therapy, which does just this .

There is certainly a case for seeing a similarity between the craft of the story-teller and of the historian. As Samuel points out, the institutional connection between works of literature and of history was once far stronger than it now is. Certainly even many modern history books, popular and ‘serious’ intend to be, and are, ‘good reads’. Yes, of course there is an ‘expectation of continuity’: Here is Trotsky, as a young man addressing the St Petersburg Soviet in 1905; now it is 1939, he is in his study in Mexico, struggling with his assassin. Is there not a real continuity between these two events? Indeed, the story which links these events has about it a ‘fantastic’, a nightmarish, quality – but it is not the fantasy of magical realism, but of the horror which engripped those who made the Russian Revolution.

But there are events which we intuitively feel should somehow be connected, yet we cannot find that connection. In October 1962 a glamorous American president takes the world to the edge of war with the USSR; just over a year later he is shot as he travels in a motorcar, his brains spattered over his wife’s dress. How are those events connected? Are they connected? Any connection is certainly not clear, yet it is easy to feel the force of the urge to make a connection – hence the vast proliferation of conspiracy theories .

The conclusion of this extract makes the same point even more strongly: … the art of historical writing is that of making a master narrative out of chaos. Samuel’s sensitivity to the Ancient Greek resonances of words (see the opening discussion on memory in the Preface to this book) must surely suggest that he is not using the word ‘chaos’ in any casual sense, but in the strict sense of:

Chaos was the original void of existence (although sometimes described as being a confusing, shapeless entity which was later ordered, creating the cosmos)

The mutation of Greek cosmology into Judaeo/Christianity transformed this into the notion of Chaos being ordered by the master-narrator, God . This actually posits an uncanny tension in RS’ position: on the one hand he wishes to dethrone ‘the historian’ in the sense of the professional as being like the theoretical scientist who uses the data generated by underlings to produce grand theories ; yet, on the other hand, he regards any historian (defined functionally as one who does historical work) as being the one who produces order out of chaos.

Given the resonances which this image of the ‘master-narrator’ must carry for Samuel, it is surely bizarre to apply it to any and every act of historical narration. History deals with the actions of persons, individually and in collectivities of many sorts, with and against each other. One of the constitutive features of human action is that the actors make sense, more or less, of what they do. The narration of human action is not something imposed after the fact on inert matter; it is already there in the action. Therefore, it is a mistake to claim that the category of chaos is applicable to the object of historical work. Of course, particular events may be more or less ordered, more or less disordered. A battle seen from above may appear as a sequence of the interactions of blocks of soldiers. Seen from the viewpoint of the individual soldiers it may well be a ‘chaotic’ melee.

It may be that I am here making a ‘Kantian point’ about order of a certain kind being embedded in deep features of our apparatus for grasping the world. Further, that this is so in a stronger way for the human than for the physical world. This is because the objects which the historian grasps are – in some sense – of the same kind as the historian themself. It may be, I do not know enough of Kant to be sure.
The most charitable construction which I can put on this quote is that it is a rhetorical device to emphasise that the nature of history and of memory is

…… so far from being merely a passive receptacle or storage system, an image bank of the past, is rather an active, shaping force; that it is dynamic – what it contrives symptomatically to forget is as important as what it remembers. (op cit p x)

But who now claims that historical work is ‘a passive receptacle or storage system’? I have not been able to find RS naming or citing those who do. It is, at best, odd to build a case, a position, an argument against a phantasmal opponent. At worst, it is a trick and a sham.

What argument does Samuel have, in the position which appears to inform Theatres of Memory, against O’Brien’s ‘collective solipsism’ ? None, so far as I can see.

Worse, in discussing the ‘unofficial’ sources of ‘historical knowledge’ he claims that ‘television ought to have pride of place in any attempt to map the unofficial sources of historical knowledge’ (op cit p 13). He nods approvingly at several sources which are clearly misleading, and even downright lies. He refers to ‘children’s theatricals’, mentioning Saxons vs. Normans and Roundheads vs. Cavaliers (op cit p 5). Why no mention of Cowboys vs. Indians? This is a ‘theatrical’ derived from the kind of TV and movie works which he approvingly refers to for the preceeding. Yet he must have known – and I’m sure knew far better than do I – that this genre is a systematic inversion of the historical truth.

Perhaps the most astonishing indictment of the epistemological nihilism which he appears committed to is the following:

In any archaeology of the unofficial sources of historical knowledge, the animators of the Flintstones, the stone-age family who were rehearsing the rudiments of palaeolithic living for 1960s TV viewers .. surely deserve, at the least, a proxime accessit.[whatever that may be – there is a curious condescension in awarding some untranslated Latin prize or whatever to a piece of Hollywood dreck] (op cit p17)

In what sense is ‘knowledge’ to be derived from a work which presents humans as the contemporaries of dinosaurs? . But, even worse – it is a striking popular example of that mechanism of bourgeois ideology which Marx dissects in the Introduction to the Grundrisse as generalising the capital/wage-labour relation into an eternal and necessary feature of any societal formation (see, especially p 85).

Here again, Samuel has produced a parody of ‘radical’ history more savage than any which could be constructed by its avowed enemies.



(1) As well, no doubt, as a reaction to the dour seriousness of the culture of the CPGB. See SAMUEL LWBC1, ps 29, 43-53.

(2) This is the connection between, on the one hand the Postmodernist doctrines of the end of the ‘master-narrative’ and the ‘death of the author’, and on the other the rant of their master – Nietzsche – on the ‘death of God’.

(3) Surprisingly, given his concern with ‘social forms of knowledge’ and his references to the role of antiquarians and amateurs (SAMUEL 1994, p 441) he has no references to astronomy, which has been said to be the only one of the physical sciences in which amateurs still play an important role. To do so would threaten his own levelling epistemology – in the sense that whilst empirical discoveries are still made by amateur astronomers, its ‘high level’ work is now done by professionals.

(4) I wonder what Tom Wintringham, author of People’s War, would have made of this traduction of a people’s militia? Again, what is astonishing is that Samuel must have known of this!

(5) Appears committed to: because Samuel himself – when writing as a practitioner of history, rather than a theorist of it – is perfectly well able to use the category of truth, for example: ‘Both lay and clerical institutions had recourse to forgery when their antiquity needed to be established’ (SAMUEL 1994, p 432)

(6) Given that Creationists often make this claim, such a falsehood cannot be defended as being harmless.



MARX 1857: Karl Marx, Grundrisse, trans. Martin Nicolaus, Penguin, 1973.

ORWELL 1949: George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty Four, Penguin, 1954.

SAMUEL 1991: Raphael Samuel, ‘Reading the Signs’, History Workshop Journal, No 32, Autumn 1991

SAMUEL 1994: Raphael Samuel, Theatres of Memory, Verso, 1994.

SAMUEL LWBC1: Raphael Samuel, ‘The Lost World of British Communism’, New Left Review, No 154, November/December 1985.

SAMUEL LWBC2: Raphael Samuel, ‘Staying Power: The Lost World of British Communism, Part Two’, New Left Review, No 156, March/April 1986.

SAMUEL LWBC3: Raphael Samuel, ‘Class Politics: The Lost World of British Communism, Part Three’, New Left Review, No 165, September/October 1987.


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