Raphael Samuel was a founder of this Review, a constant friend and counsellor to its editors and an outstanding contributor. The articles he wrote for us proved to be landmark texts, amongst the dozen or so most important that we have published. The process of extracting them was laborious since Raphael was an obsessive reviser and re-drafter who loved trying out different versions. Having submitted a very decent draft of the first part of an article he would, instead of completing it, proceed to submit half a dozen further drafts, some almost imperceptibly different from what had gone before, but successively achieving a transformation. ‘This paragraph needs further thickening’, he would say of some already vivid or original passage. If one unwisely offered a mite of corroborative material he would eagerly note it down and use it to further embroider his argument, often in ways one had not at all intended. With the patience of colleagues at breaking point and printers’ deadlines grotesquely overrun, Raphael would turn in a new and utterly resplendent, now very much overlength, version of the still uncompleted article, which we would gratefully publish—accompanied by the inevitable promise of a sequel to follow. To our great loss, this is the last issue of nlr to be delayed by Raphael Samuel.
Raphael’s brilliant texts, culminating in his masterpiece, Theatres of Memory, allow one to reconstruct a personal sensibility and political agenda which was often at variance with those of his friends and comrades. While these writings could only have been written by someone shaped by the Communist Party Historians’ Group and New Left Marxism, they nevertheless implicitly challenged some of the central notions of progress, class formation and long, or short, revolution which animated the worldview of the Left. Notwithstanding a certain stereotype of the History Workshop project, Samuel’s own contributions often fell somewhat athwart the mainstream of ‘history from below’ or the construction of labour as a heroic protagonist. Samuel challenged the myth of Britain as workshop of the world and the schema of an industrial revolution by bringing out the huge importance of the nineteenth-century ‘penny capitalists’.footnote1 He recorded the life story of Arthur Harding in loving and meticulous detail; Harding was not a trade union organizer but a Barnardo’s boy from a classic Victorian London slum, the Jago, who
The poignant essays Samuel published in nlr on ‘The Lost World of British Communism’ in 1985–87 once again contrasted with earlier, characteristically anti-Stalinist, New Left writing; whereas the early New Left was defined by the break with Stalinism, Samuel, by the mid-eighties, saw communism as a doomed, flawed but noble faith. With out in any way belittling or extenuating the cruelties of Stalinism, he was fascinated by the stern virtues of the historical communist identity, polemically contrasting them with the shallowness of a more reasonable Euro-Communism which had foresworn Stalin’s crimes but lost its soul. Although—perhaps because—he left the Communist Party in 1956, when only 21 years old, his account of it is by far the most vividly realized we have.footnote4 By the age of ten he had imbibed his mother’s communist faith and fed it by quizzing his uncle, Chimen Abramsky, on the finer points of labour history and Bolshevik doctrine. He charted the advances of the Red Army on the Eastern Front on a bedroom wall map but also relished the foibles of the British comrades who functioned as a sort of extended family. Many of his fellow students at the private North London Progressive School he attended also joined the Communist Party, probably as a result of his example. In deference to the English milieu he was to call himself Ralph rather than Raphael in his communist and early New Left days. The progressive English nationalism espoused by British communists in the Popular Front epoch and war years was to make a lasting impact on Samuel’s outlook, even when later thoroughly qualified by appreciation of the different identities andhistories of the ‘four nations’ yoked within the United Kingdom. Raphael had been admitted to the Communist Party Historians’ Group when still a teenager. To Samuel a striking feature of the cpgb wasthe terms of relative equality it allowed between young and old, men and women, immigrant and native, workers and intellectuals, so longas they unswervingly subscribed to the faith—all of this in suchmarked contrast to the elaborate deference and rank of wider Brit-ish society. Raphael was a strong supporter of contemporary social
Samuel’s gripping evocation of ‘the Lost World’ was undertaken in no purely antiquarian spirit. Most of Samuel’s writing was prompted by what he saw as large but unstable shifts in political culture. Hoping to influence their outcome, he preferred writing articles in newspapers and magazines to writing books. When the ‘Gang of Four’ split from Labour in 1981, calling in support the shade of R.H.Tawney, Samuel wrote a series of polemical articles for the Guardian of a length and seriousness rarely seen in that paper. Though Raphael resisted political instrumentalization of the History Workshop movement, he was proud that some of those who played leading parts in Labour politics, such as Jack Jones, Peter Tatchell and Michael Foot, participated in History Workshop events; the successes of his former student John Prescott, now Deputy Leader, naturally pleased him.footnote6 Samuel’s three essays on ‘The Lost World’ were prompted by the divisions in the British Left of the mid-eighties and the controversies generated by Marxism Today and the Miners’ Strike. He abandoned long-mooted historical projects—a promised sequel to the Harding book never appeared—to mobilize his memories, his keen eye and his unrivalled ability to find a document, not necessarily literary in character, to make his point. Samuel was no Bennite but he had an even stronger distrust of the mentality of the modernizers, some of them ex-Bennites, who soon began to emerge triumphant from the crisis of Labour and the Left in the mid-eighties. Building on themes already present in his work, he elaborated in reaction a radical and patriotic conservationism that served equally to resist the heedless and philistine anti-collectivism of Labour and Conservative modernizers. Despite his unabashed enthusiasm for the local and the national, the international framework of his communist past was to stay with him, as he welcomed the emergence of barfuss historiker (‘barefoot historians’) in Germany, or offshoots of History Workshop in Latin America. He urged that abandoning ‘Imperial History’ was a mistake—one which would rob his Bengali neighbours in Spitalfields of a crucial point of reference.
Raphael believed that the wider Left was implicated in the crisis of communism, since it was also defined by progress, planning and the proletariat. Simply disavowing these touchstones was no good unless a new construction of the popular could be achieved—and if it could, perhaps these old notions would acquire a new valency. Raphael was fascinated by the popular and what he called ‘popularism’, something close to, but, perhaps, not the same as, ‘populism’. The popular stood in a difficult but perhaps necessary relationship to the apartness and exclusivity of the
Raphael’s concern for the popular emerges in his tender reference to those English socialists who pioneered bicycle clubs in the 1890s or to the exploits of British communists in the 1930s who organised collective rambles to assert rights of way in the Pennines (the ‘Kinder Scouts’). Before identity politics was discovered, Samuel was preoccupied with the forms of collective being that had always shaped class and political allegiance and without which no popular struggle could take place. One of hisarticles for ulr in the 1950s was a critique of the thesis of growing ‘classlessness’, while his projects for nlr included an investigation of the forms of political and social allegiance in the Britain of Macmillan’s ‘affluent society’. Thinking that such matters were too important to be left to sociologists and market researchers, Samuel assembled teams of New Left Club members to fan out into the New Towns to discover the world view of the new working and middle classes by means of an elaborate and open-ended questionnaire; I was amongst those taking part and it took me years to work through the implications of no more than half a dozen interviews. While Samuel was one of the first to challenge the narrative of labour’s forward march, his intense identification with the cause of the miners during the great strike of 1984–5 showed how distant he was from those distrustful of direct action by working people. However, he saw the collective heroism of the coalfield communities as itself requiring and displaying something very different from a pure class teleology. In this optic, popular movements were usually a response to the destructive challenge of capitalist advance; they affirmed forms of life which that advance was not capable of comprehending or valuing. In nlr13/14 Samuel co-authored an article on the failures of slum clearance and house-building whose ostensible conclusion was an indictment of the insufficiency of the Government’s efforts. But beneath this conclusion could be detected a sub-text, namely that even the unattained goals of the housing campaigns were perverted by a militaristic thinking which targeted the slums as spaces simply to be destroyed and cleared.footnote8
Samuel said to me in the eighties that what had most disoriented the Left was not changes in the working class, but rather the transformed physiognomy of the ruling and possessing classes. I think he meant that the ruling order should no longer be seen as something archaic, obstructing the dictates of progress, but rather as a gale of modernization, and that a