Social History comes to Warwick

Thursday, 9 August, 2018 - 11:30

WISER, the Governing Intimacies Project, the Department of History at the University of Johannesburg and JIAS invite you to a seminar presented by Carolyn Steedman.

Venue:  WISER seminar room, 6th Floor Richard Ward Building, Main Campus

Participants should please read the paper in preparation for the event.

Abstract:   Why might the story of social history at Warwick be worth telling, yet again? Why ask about social history at an English Midlands new university rather than–say–one of the many redbrick economic history departments that became `social and economic’ in the years after the Second World War? `The Warwick Centre for Social History’, `E. P. Thompson’, and `The Files Affair’ are caught together in a perpetual menage à trois of the historical imagination; that’s why. In the myths and stories that sustain social historians’ identity–the sense of who we are and why we do what we do–there was a battle, long ago that we have to keep remembering again and again, though at this distance of time we’re as uncertain about interpretation as was William Wordsworth contemplating his Solitary Reaper. The story goes something like this: at the brand new University of Warwick, a Centre for Social History was established; this had something–or a lot, depending on your perspective–to do with Edward Thompson, who had been appointed to the Warwick History School in 1965, two years after the publication of The Making of the English Working Class. Early in 1970 there was a series of student occupations of the Warwick Registry. Students protested at the continued reluctance of the University to grant the them autonomous control of a Students’ Union building. During the second occupation of the Registry, in February, students opened administrative files in one of the Registry offices and found letters and other documents suggesting that surveillance was being carried out against certain university staff, and that there had been political profiling of prospective Warwick students. E. P. Thompson was telephoned at his house in Leamington Spa (seven miles from the University); he drove in; the papers were copied and distributed among University staff. Thompson published a burning piece of polemic on the background to `The Files Affair’ in New Society on 19th February. That particular `social-history-at-Warwick’ story ended with Thompson resigning from Warwick. He left in September 1970, but left behind his legacy in a Centre for the Study of Social History. Told that way, with that end-stop, the story is about the meeting of an institution with a great historian. Forty years on, some former student participants in the Registry Occupation now remember how their own politics of everyday life–attempts to change the food available in the Students’ Union, its opening hours, domestic arrangements in halls of residence–were appropriated to a much grander narrative of the secret state, the inner workings of local capitalism, and political and industrial espionage. The story can then be used to understand Thompson’s obsession with finding the roots of the surveillance state. None of these versions have much to say about the social history with which Thompson’s reputation is so closely linked, or about the exclusions and obfuscations of disciplinary formation in one utopian university, between about 1965 and 1975. This chapter provides yet another, different story, to add to all the ones we possess. 
Carolyn Steedman is Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Warwick. Her trilogy (she likes to think of it as a trilogy) on working-class life in the long English eighteenth century (Master and Servant, Labours Lost, and An Everyday Life of the English Working Class) was published between 2007 and 2013. Retired now, she’s free to write `not-history’: Poetry for Historians was published earlier this year, and the manuscript of History and the Law. A Love Story has been sent out to readers. Next up will be something on Arnold Wesker’s reconfiguration of the Luddite Rebellion (1812-1818), in a radio play, in the 1960s.