Monday, November 19, 2012

As Alan Saw It: Radical History, why it matters

As Alan Saw It: Radical History, why it matters

The study of radical ideas and events is the ultimate in “hidden history”, perhaps the final stage in the movement for the examination of the unofficial, the informal, the less well recorded side of the past. There is a tendency to accept the institutions and procedures of modern society as if they have always been there, pre-formed, in a pristine condition, but the reality is more like a struggle between those in power, anxious to hold onto it at any price, and insurrectionary forces, plus direct action, from  those below, challenging that power. Radical history aims to correct the illusion of accepted wisdom.

But does all this matter, many would ask? As well as the pursuit of truth, a more pressing reason concerns future development. The authorities within what has been described as representative capitalist society today will naturally wish to promote concepts of continuity, planned change and other conventional concepts that the school curriculum holds dear. Hence dissent and resistance to the powers-that-be are usually relegated to sanitised explanations, or nominal appearances.  

In the present “War against terror” the government have gone beyond traditional and customary bias. Today dissent is trampled on in an unprecedented way. Say a word out of place at a political conference, display placards opposing government policy, demonstrate without  police permission, try to give out leaflets on the streets of Haringey and you run the risk of prosecution under Terror Laws or similar repression. So the need for celebration of our past in all its diversity is even greater now.  

Risking repetition, it is worth examining briefly the extent to which modern society is indebted to  the informal, unofficial, un-sponsored activities of past dissenters. The right to vote was violently opposed for centuries by the autocrats in charge of Britain. The first recorded demands came from the common soldiers in Oliver Cromwell’s New Army, as expressed by  their “agitators” [shop stewards]. Their demands are in the Putney Debates. Centuries of repression and killings followed before the modern system was finally conceded. Thus it can be said that modern “democracy “ had its origin in  dissenting movements, and labour organisations like unions.        

The National Health Service - collective clinical provision for all without payment at the point of treatment - can be traced back to the pioneering mineworkers of the last century, who hired doctors, set up clinics, etc., in their locality. There was none of the charity, petty accounting or condescension that was characteristic of the age. The capacity of ordinary people to create bodies to meet their own needs, without the paid experts, cannot be better exemplified.

Even  “the beautiful game” came from the non-official working class practice. Despite recent attempts to hijack football  history by Lord Melvyn Bragg and co., close examination of their case reveals that the role of the bureaucrats came only in the regulation by Rule, a function that  they were very familiar with. Without so much as a penny of government or corporate funding, and beyond the care of a protective Board, the game was adapted, expanded and applied, all over the world. Not even a vanguard party in sight!! We can see the results on our televisions.

So to sum up: within the ranks of the unofficial, the dissenter and the “threats to society as we know it”,  may be found the ideas of  future improvements. History is still being made. Ignoring radical history is to be short sighted indeed and the local Radical History Network of NE London, or RaHN, caters for those with a stronger sense of perspective.

Extract (slightly edited) from Alan Woodward’s March 2009 draft entitled  No gods, no masters, no wars - an interim history of the Radical History Network of North East London.