A look at what was left

Popular Radicalism in 19th-Century Britain
July 12, 1996

The Society for the Study of Labour History was established three and a half decades ago to encourage the study of the field at a time when conventional modern history courses generally regarded the history of any one below the rank of stockbroker to be a minor branch of economic history. From the beginning the society stressed that labour history was not simply the history of organisations and institutions, but must include a range of subjects relating to the labouring classes, male and female, young and old.

The enormous explosion of labour history and social history during the past few decades has established the subject in all its aspects as an essential branch of history, but this very success has brought a number of problems. A great deal of social and labour history has neglected the study of power relations in society. Moreover, since the concept of class is one of conflict or mediation, it makes no more sense to study the lower classes in isolation than it does to study only the goings-on of the upper and powerful classes.

These considerations make John Belchem's contribution to the series Social History in Perspective of particular value. It is an account of the political dimension of popular movements in the 19th century, but is in no way a return to a concept of politics that takes no account of the the pressures which existed outside the structures of conventional politics and which cannot be easily subsumed within them. Although it is concerned with the critical and radical protests against the established structures it takes into account the politics of those within the pale of the constitution as well as of those outside. It is by far the best account we have had of political radicalism, and in its narrative and the notes and reading list which accompany it, it provides a valuable guide through the various theories and controversies which have arisen around such questions as the nature of class, the importance of language and rhetoric, and to a degree, although here perhaps less than might have been desired, the issues of gender within the popular political movements of the century. A valuable chapter explores the radicalism of the 18th century when for a time there was a coalition between the artisan and working population and a radical bourgeoisie. The book goes on to study the years of alienation between the middle and working classes of the Chartist period and to the post-Chartist emergence of popular liberalism. The emergence of the Labour party comes only at the very end of the story, and is rightly seen as a 20th-century phenomenon.

In a text of fewer than 200 pages that covers more than a century there will be passages and generalisations with which some readers will disagree. But the notes and the advice on further reading are clear and well-organised.

This is a much-needed text that will help to bring order to a subject which is facing something of a crisis of over-production. It will be of enormous value to students, teachers and all who work in the field of labour and social history.

Dorothy Thompson is the author of Queen Victoria: Gender and Power.

Popular Radicalism in 19th-Century Britain

Author - John Belchem
ISBN - 0 333 56575 4
Publisher - Macmillan
Price - £10.99
Pages - 222

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