Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Luk√°cs

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

James D Young - Socialist and Historian


I have posted a quick tribute to the late Scottish socialist historian James D Young, with whom I was fortunate enough to have some brief correspondence with sometime before his sad recent passing, on behalf of the London Socialist Historians Group on their blog - my condolences to his family, friends and comrades. 

Speaking of socialism and history, I recently came across a quite amusing interview with Terry Deary of the Horrible Histories fame, and one thing he said stuck out memorably:
"I don't want to write history," he says, firmly. "I'm not a historian, and I wouldn't want to be. I want to change the world. Attack the elite. Overturn the hierarchy. Look at my stories and you'll notice that the villains are always, always, those in power. The heroes are the little people. I hate the establishment. Always have, always will."

This is wonderful sentiment in many ways - and no doubt helps explain's some of the power and popularity of Deary's series. But it raises the serious question - can one be a radical or socialist and a historian? This is where it is critically important to remember the long rich tradition of radical, socialist and Marxist historiography that exists. Young - briefly a member of Tony Cliff's 'Socialist Review Group' (later the International Socialists/SWP) from 1955 until the early 1960s - (there is a PDF of an article he wrote in 1995 on 'Socialist Review and Libertarian Marxism' here) and a lifelong activist stands firmly in this tradition of socialist historiography.  For all one might wish to quibble at time with some of the finer details of Young's arguments, his life and work is testament to the fact that it is possible to both hate the ruling class and capitalist system with a vengeance, wish to see its downfall and also make a contribution towards that end by producing provocative, thought-provoking and often pioneering historical writings.

It is to be hoped that at some point someone will create a page about him up on Wikipedia/the Marxist Internet Archive which will allow more people, in time, to properly get some sense of his life and work, but for now it might suffice to simply quote the words of Ray Challinor - his friend and another late great socialist historian - who described Young simply as 'a socialist in the same mould as Hal Draper, a believer in socialism-from-below, [who] feels his duty is to recount the past struggles of working people to create a new society.' There are doubtless many socialists and historians who will feel they owe a certain debt to Young for undertaking his duty with such passion, energy and resolve over the course of his life.

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