Socialist Principles and Historical Studies

Tim Galsworthy

The university is characteristically conceived as a fundamentally left-wing space, with the long-haired student central to the modern iconography of dissent. Before I came to study History at the University of Bristol I envisioned my time here following the plot of Starter for 10, not just in terms of appearing on University Challenge and having success on the relationship front but also in terms of political protest; I envisaged myself shouting and screaming for endless good causes, and expressing my hatred of Thatcher an awful lot! After two years, and the election of worryingly right-wing Tory government, my (typical wishy-washy liberal) optimism has waned somewhat. The election result on May 7th has led me to pause and reflect on just how my socialist beliefs have intersected with my historical studies, and whether my left-wing conceptualisation of Bristol University is actually shared by my peers.

A cursory glance at the units found on Bristol’s History course would seem to belie the idea that it is a left-wing discipline. The study of the British Empire or the Tudor period in mandatory first year units seems a world away from radicalism. Yet that is from just a cursory glance, my socialism has taught me to always look below the surface and beyond the obvious. Yes we study the British Empire, but we focus an awful lot on the economic criticisms of imperialism. Moreover, we study seemingly un-socialist topics with a particularly left-wing stance, thanks to the advances of ‘new political History’. Whilst studying the Tudor period we study Henry VIII and Elizabeth I yes, but we also delve into the world of Tudor rebellions. These rebellions are now interpreted by the majority of the academic community not as spasmodic anarchy but as markers of political agency, an avenue for my plebeian ancestors to voice their displeasure before the days of the ballot box or the picket line. Fundamentally our undergraduate study encourages us to look at such ‘history from below’, to consider how the 99 per cent have stories to tell too. History teaches us that politics belongs to the people not just the powerful, an overtly left-wing projection for me. Yet perhaps I am being overly polarising here, after all is it truly that revolutionary to believe that the 99 per cent have a voice and a history too?

Within the somewhat left-wing framework that historical studies afford us I have always found myself drawn to the left-wing figures of my specific courses. This attraction to radical historical actors- whether it was John Brown and Frederick Douglass when I studied the American Civil War, or Abbie Hoffman and Herbert Marcuse when I studied Sixties America- is my socialism expressing itself in my studies. I always assumed others were drawn to such militants too, especially given the popularity of both these units, and shared at least a semblance of my liberalism. But assumptions are so often wrong.

In every class I have undertaken I have mocked and criticised right-wing politics and parties, the Tories and UKIP especially, and these positions have received little defence. Yet May 7th has made me realise that Tories among students are like Tories in the general public – they are a silent but dormant force. Anyone who was with me at the Student Union for the Election results will agree that a sizeable number of Tories seemed to come out of nowhere. The University of Bristol is found within the notably progressive Bristol West constituency, which has just elected the brilliant Labour MP Thangam Debbonaire, and thus students are certainly socially liberal in terms of equality issues. Yet I fear Bristol students are much more conservative on economic matters.

The 2015 Election has disheartened many on the left, including myself, given the rise of a very right-of-centre Tory government and the disheartening successes of Nigel Farage’s collection of crackpots. But if historical studies can offer a socialist anything it is hope. Being left-wing certainly makes us critical purveyors of the past- challenging the ‘Saint’ Bob Geldof narrative of Band Aid, or questioning the liberalism of Kennedy’s Camelot- but it makes us hopeful prospectors too. I myself turn to Attlee’s victory in 1945, or Radical Reconstruction in the nineteenth century, or the anti-fascists who opposed Franco and Mosley as sources of optimism and inspiration. We can dream that 2015 might be such a watershed in future blogs, as the beginning of the end of the right’s ascendancy.


Leave a Reply