Lord Asa Briggs (1921-2016) & the future of labour history

In Uncategorized on March 22, 2016 by kmflett

Lord Asa Briggs (1921-2016) and the future of labour history


For some reason the Guardian obituary of Asa Briggs who has died at 94 while admitting he was a bit of a lefty somehow managed to gloss over his specific relationship with labour history

I didn’t know and never met Briggs but I certainly did know some of the Marxist historians with whom he was associated in the 1950s and 1960s including Christopher Hill, E.P. Thompson and particularly John Saville.

Briggs edited two volumes of Essays in Labour History with Saville (1960) and presided also in 1960 over the founding the Society for the Study of Labour History.

I’m pleased to say that the Society is still very much with us as are conferences organised by it and its journal Labour History Review.

Even so labour history in 2016 is hardly what it was in the 1960s.

I was in the British Library this week looking at the 1994 re-print of Royden Harrison’s Before the Socialists. Harrison was the first co-editor (with Sidney Pollard) of the SSLH bulletin. In his 1994 introduction to BFS first published in 1965, he argues that the 1960s were in effect very much the moment of labour history.

For reasons which are too obvious to bang on about (Thatcher and Blair..) labour history is not currently the most sexy of academic subjects.

As the organiser of the socialist history seminar at the Institute of Historical Research I get very few seminar proposals (perhaps a couple a year) in the broad area of labour history

That is partly because the subject is unfashionable but also partly (see EP Thompson’s Homage to Tom Maguire) because radical and socialist history has broadened out and moved on itself.

On that it is the 40th anniversary (Spring 1976) of the first issue of History Workshop Journal itself still published and now with a lively website too.

I’ll have more to say on some of this but for now we should at least raise a clenched fist to the role that Lord Asa Briggs played in putting labour history on the political, historical and academic map.


One Response to “Lord Asa Briggs (1921-2016) & the future of labour history”

  1. a) It might help further the discussion if you were to offer a definition of “labour history”. In a sense, surely, almost all socialist history is labour history, since it relates to the position and struggles of the working class. If you want to offer a more restricted defintion, it might give us some clues as to the subject’s value.
    b) It is my imprerssion that, with the general shift rightwards in the academic milieu, many labour historians now find themselves working in Business Studies departments. This does not necessarily affect the quality of their work, but it may well affect how their work is labelled.
    Your views on these topics would undoubtedly be illuminating.

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