History is the new punk
The international History From Below network is a diverse community of historytellers, historical agitators, artists, independent archivists, history groups, political archaeologists etc. It was founded 2012 in Barcelona to reflect a growing worldwide movement of historical activism and public interest in radical history, and to build an alternative, non-academic resource for the production and transmission of oppositional forms of history. As radical history becomes increasingly popular, more and more activists – from squatters and footballers to curators and birdwatchers – are making the transition to historians, merging past struggles, new technology and street culture to build new and surprising narratives.
History from below is essentially the study of the non-elite; the exploited classes in a social order, the forgotten voices of the anonymous men and women ignored by the official histories, and thus a critique of dominant and elite versions of the past. However, rather than the passive ‘of below’, we have the active ‘from below’ which denotes that history is being made by these people rather than merely being done to them. Making is thus the history of self-organisation and resistance in the face of oppression, dispossession and poverty.
“History is or ought to be a collaborative enterprise, one in which the researcher, the archivist, the curator and the teacher, the ‘do-it-yourself’ enthusiast and the local historian, the family history societies and the individual archaeologist, should all be regarded as equally engaged.” – Raphael Samuel
History from below began in the 1960s as an academic initiative in North-Western European universities; institutions from which the majority were excluded. However, the exclusivity of the academy was challenged in the 1970s by for example the History Workshop movement in England, and the Dig-where-you-stand movement in Sweden, which both attempted to democratise the study, practice and production of people’s and workers’ own histories. The History Workshop mass gatherings of academics, trade unionists and community historians were described by one participant as being like ‘rock festivals without the mud’.
Forty years later the immense devolved power of internet resources, new technology and social media presents both numerous opportunities for research and the dissemination of historical information in many diverse forms. International collaboration made possible by this new technology is helping to re-invent and take the ideas of history from below forward: adding more diversity, play and creativity in order to revise and invigorate a somewhat tired discipline; developing new tools and techniques for sharing knowledge and communicating radical history in new and unceremonious ways to a wider audience – including tourists, youths and local communities – as well as to inspire people to begin their own historical practice.
International collaboration also restrains the dominant ‘history from below in one country’ as it helps practitioners to understand history in a wider context instead of merely via local fragments; not through making simplistic analogies but through understanding repeated cycles and patterns of struggles. From these international collective observations we can recognise connections, draw inspiration from the courage and imagination of past actors (for better outcome in today’s struggles), and help to raise questions that encourage others to delve further into histories from below. We want to celebrate past victories, instead of just mourning the defeats.
History as subculture and self-organised do-it-yourself practice is about ‘commoning’ and ‘levelling’; promoting the sharing of scholarly resources and countering the idea that history is solely the province of professional historians. We aim to find new practices and arenas for radical history beyond the austere mood and sensibility of the academic lecture and conference. Mixing working class militancy with the emotive force of street art and theatre, dry GPS data with the excitement of international solidarity, and humour with benign social history, the network wants to promote a new generation of DIY historians from below, and hopefully also make way for the next.
▪ 17 September 2011: very first idea, hatched over a beer in Barcelona by Mike Durruti (36)
▪ 23-24 October 2012: first meeting, Facultat de Geografia i Història, Universitat de Barcelona
▪ 15 June 2013: first public presentation, Unofficial Histories #UH13, MMU, Manchester
▪ 25-26 October 2013: second meeting, Stiftung Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, Berlin
▪ 1-2 November 2014: third meeting, Hydra Bookshop, Bristol
▪ 11 May 2015: History is the new punk, public lecture, MMU, Manchester
▪ 5-6 June 2015: six contributions to #UH15, International Institute of Social History, Amsterdam
The HFB network – still in beta – is meant to be a resource and community organizing tool for
historical activists around the world; an international platform for meeting, sharing work, collaborating, developing new ideas, and finding new and larger audiences. We are interested in promoting new and innovative ways of researching and presenting radical history.
Network curators: Peter Box and Roger Ball
Text above by Peter and Roger, with thanks to David Rosenberg and Ian Gwinn
Web and graphics by Luc, Peter and Théo