History from below: Historiography between populism and democratisation?
In his programmatic essay “History from below”, which appeared in 1966 in a special issue of the Times Literary Supplement entitled “New Ways in History”, E.P. Thompson made a plea for a democratisation of history. In contrast to traditional political history with its focus on the state and its great men, but also as a corrective to a labour history that was fixated on parties and institutions, he called for a historiography that focused on the “common people”. In his view, they had both to be taken seriously as producers of history, and addressed as an audience beyond the walls of the academy.
The British “history from below” is probably the best-known variant of this new orientation, which began in the 1960s and increasingly focused on the culture of the subaltern classes and the everyday life of the “common people”. This historiographical shift was a global phenomenon that was not only to be found in Western Europe and North America, but also in the Eastern Bloc and the Global South, all of which categorisations are themselves open to closer scrutiny. The political impetus for the new perspectives were certainly decolonisation, the liberation of Indochina and the Vietnam War, and the Chinese revolution. In the political as well as in the historiographical field, liberation struggles led primarily by peasant classes sparked a lively interest in the culture of the subaltern classes and motivated an intensive dialogue between historiography and anthropology. This constellation opened up an international space of resonance that included history from below, Italian microstoria, West German Alltagsgeschichte (history of everyday life), but also postcolonial studies and an epistemologically oriented feminism.
Although the impulses to rewrite history “from below” were realised in different ways, they often moved within a (neo- )Marxist horizon of thought in which the critique and renewal of historiography was considered the key to social (if not revolutionary) change. In the context of 1968 and its aftermath, “history from below” thus conceived as a project of social emancipation extended its radius further to women, day labourers or children. It aimed to change not only the academic debates, but also the social practice of historiography, and ultimately society itself.
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