Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Sheila Rowbotham - Lessons in liberation: the top 10 books of radical history

History began for me with my mother’s tales of Alfred burning the cakes and Robert the Bruce and the spider. Next came Henrietta Elizabeth Marshall’s Our Island Story – more kings, a few queens, some religious martyrs and the Empire. I gazed at the illustrations and wondered about lives long ago. One rainy day on a seaside holiday in 1957 aged 14, I bought Rosalie Glynn Grylls’s William Godwin and his World. A good bargain at 5s, it introduced me to Mary Wollstonecraft and the English Jacobins. It proved to be the opening through which I stumbled towards the historical perspectives of those who had opposed the status quo.

While at university in the early 1960s, the iconoclastic historian of the French revolutionary army, Richard Cobb, plunged me into studies of the crowd. I read Eric Hobsbawm, EP Thompson and Christopher Hill, whose writings were turning history upside down. Gradually, I realised that since the 19th century, the labour movement had awakened interest in what earlier generations of workers had done and thought, and campaigns for women’s suffrage had resulted in both chronicles of emancipation and research into the lives of poor women.

It became evident that participation in rebellion fostered new ways of seeing the past. As early as 1909, the anarchist Peter Kropotkin produced a history of the French revolution that focused on popular action rather than on leaders. When the women’s liberation movement started in the late 1960s, I began looking for the women, as well as men, who had been hidden from history. Fifty years on, I am still at it. The following books are drawn from a great host of books I admire

1. The Black Jacobins by CLR James (1938) James, an exploratory Trotskyist who loathed imperialism, racism and class power in equal measure, writes graphically about the 1791 slave rebellion in the French colony of San Domingo (later Haiti) led by Toussaint L’Ouverture. With calls for the French revolutionaries’ liberty and equality to apply to the colonised, they overcame the whites who enslaved them, a Spanish and a British invasion and then the army sent by Napoleon Bonaparte. The memory of this revolt and of its historian have proved resilient. When I mentioned L’Ouverture and James to a Haitian cab driver in New York I was given a free ride!

2. Primitive Rebels by Eric Hobsbawm (1959) Packed with bandits, mobs, anarchic millenarians and wandering journeymen, this delighted me as a student. Hobsbawm, being a sage member of the Communist Party, warned against their utopianism, but I took to them like a fish to water.

3. The Making of the English Working Class by EP Thompson (1963) A wonderful treasure trove of stories about working class people rescued from the condescension of posterity, this book also presents a dynamic perspective of class and class consciousness which has influenced left history in many countries. I loved it in 1963 and love it still – though I do think he was a bit mean to the Methodists!

4. The Women Incendiaries by Edith Thomas (1963) Richard Cobb had told me about Thomas’s participation in the Union des Femmes Françaises during the Resistance which left her familiar with barricades. The action and ideas of women teachers, book-binders and button-makers in the 1871 Paris Commune spring from the archives onto her pages, along with the tributes of the poets and the merciless contempt of the Commune’s suppressors. The Women Incendiaries triggered my first book, Women Resistance and Revolution(1972).

5. Woman’s Body, Woman’s Right: A Social History of Birth Control in America by Linda Gordon (1974). A new movement was demanding a new history that could encompass women’s work in the home, sex, bodies, pregnancy, caring for children. Reproduction was being politicised. Gordon’s pioneering approach to birth control made the connection to the political, social, economic and cultural self–determination that feminists were demanding. (It was revised and updated as The Moral Property of Women in 2002.).. read more:

The Almond Trees by Albert Camus