Radical political movements today are often articulated via references to historic struggles in the past. Activists look to lost comrades and lost friends, to generations of forebears that can offer powerful examples for the present. Finding friends in the past provides emotional sustenance and historic legitimacy for radical movements, and uncovering radical pasts is a way of disrupting histories and narratives that insist on the marginalisation of certain stories. Study of these pasts can reveal the agency of ordinary people, the brutality of elites, and the victories achieved – as well as defeats suffered – by past radical movements.
John Charlton, Laura Forster, and Theo Williams will discuss what radical history means to them in their work on labour history in the north east, transnational political activism in the nineteenth century, and Pan-Africanism and anti-imperialism. How might radical histories inform the radical movements of today? Can academic history be ‘radical’? What role do regional historical societies and community organisations play in preserving radical pasts? The panellists will consider all of these questions and more as they explore the uses of radical history, its limitations, and its futures.