Arecent 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.footnote1 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.

How has oral history negotiated these three categories? For the most part, it has concerned itself more with the first, activity aimed at private goals, than with the latter two, which I will subsume under the heading of political involvement, revolutionary or otherwise. It has been suggested, not without reason, that for oral history this is an area fraught with danger. An editorial in History Workshop Journal has warned that:

the ‘political’ impinges on individual lives in very different ways from the ‘personal’. Its effects, though devastating upon society as a whole, are creeping, subliminal and unseen in the individual experience . . . memory can be a rich source of information for areas of personal experience; it is when the oral historian moves from the ‘personal’ into the ‘political’ arena that memory presents more of a problem. footnote2

Personal forms of activity, in consequence, are lived and remembered more sharply. This argument, I believe, is put forward from the experience of advanced bourgeois democracies over the past fifty years or so in which, with some exceptions—in France, for example: 1936, the Resistance, May 68—political involvement has fallen into the second category, seeking to attain public goals within the existing order. Conscious programmes aimed at remodelling whole social structures have, of course, existed; but they have not materialized as collective goals seriously challenging the bourgeois state.

In these societies, personal political involvement—which I take minimally to mean: individual recognition of the need to join in common cause with others to modify, change or overthrow the existing relationship of social forces, in pursuit of shared political goals—has generally been lived in a way different to daily life. If at times such involvement has been widespread, it has tended to be of lesser intensity or of shorter duration, or has been experienced over long periods but by smaller strata, than in some other social formations. Local goals, of great importance to those involved, are pursued; but by definition they are limited, segregated by ‘spaces’ of another, usually more immediate order of daily life whose tonic is set by the prevailing (‘accepted’) mode and relations of production. And when politics is reduced to casting a vote every so many years, then, a fortiori, its impact on daily life is further reduced.

This process, in which politics is lived discontinuously, presents great difficulties for political oral history. It is not what ‘ordinary’ people, the historically inarticulate—those who make and suffer history without their voices being heard in traditional historiography—experience as an intimate part of their lives; it is not what they can inform us about with the same authenticity as about their daily life. Memory, not only of the individual political experience but of the context in which it took place, is reduced. Past experiences which have little or no bearing on the present, or are ‘irrelevant’ because the situations on which they might have bearing are not being encountered, tend to be forgotten.footnote3 Discontinuity of experience, except in very dramatic circumstances, almost certainly adds to the loss.

Before we write off this category for political oral history, however, we should look at an area which lies at its extreme limit: the area formed when the political regime expressing the ‘over-arching’ order—the dominant mode and relations of production—enters a crisis. The old regime crumbles; a new one attempts to consolidate in its place to defend the existing order. Without as yet a serious challenge to the dominant mode taking shape, the fragility of the new regime may result in only partial acceptance of its legitimacy. Both dominant and dominated classes perceive that the new regime may not satisfy their interests. We are in a border area between categories two and three; events may spill over into the latter—partial acceptance or refusal of the regime leading to refusal of the dominant mode of production it stands for—or the new regime’s consolidation may contain this threat. Political involvement will depend in the long run on the direction—into or away from category three—that this uncertain equilibrium finally takes.