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New Left Review 75, May-June 2012

ronald fraser


Oral History and the Spanish Civil War

A recent contribution on the role of human agency in history—that is, of conscious, goal-directed activity—has suggested that three sorts of goals need to be distinguished for the purposes of historical inquiry. [1] Perry Anderson, Arguments within English Marxism, London 1980, pp. 19–21. This essay was given as a paper at the University of Valencia in 1987 and published in Spanish as ‘La política como vida diaria: la historia oral y la guerra civil española’ in Ronald Fraser, Las Dos Guerras de España, Barcelona 2012. The first, pursued by the overwhelming majority of people for the major part of their lives, are ‘private’ goals: cultivation of a plot, choice of a marriage, exercise of a skill, maintenance of a home. These are personal projects which are inscribed within existing social relations and typically reproduce them. Secondly, collective or individual projects which aim at ‘public’ goals: religious movements, political struggles, military conflicts, diplomatic transactions, commercial explorations, cultural creations. For the most part, these have not aimed to transform social relations as such but have pursued more local objectives, within an accepted, over-arching order. Finally, the ‘collective’ goal of changing the mode of existence as a whole, in a conscious programme aimed at creating or remodelling whole social structures; the American and French Revolutions are the earliest instantiations of collective agency in this sense. A preliminary qualification should be entered here: in some circumstances, private goals have modified existing social relations, as Eugene Genovese and Juan Martinez-Alier have shown for American slaves and Andalusian day-labourers; the women’s movement would be another example of private goals fusing into collective ones. That said, however, it remains true that only collective goals can radically change, as opposed to modifying, existing social relations.

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Ronald Fraser, ‘Politics As Daily Life’, NLR 75: £3

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