2001 ASSLH Conference – Postmodernism, history and class

Keynote address

Neville Kirk
Department of History, Manchester Metropolitan University


Postmodernism has challenged historians to reconsider three issues: the role of “culture”—of language, subjectivity and meaning—in history; patterns of popular thought and action, such as those of class and populism; and, most fundamentally, the continued viability of “doing” traditional, modernist history, complete with the latter’s pursuit of the truth by means of a dialogue between concept and evidence… A fruitful way out of the impasse is to re-engage and further develop the realist study of “culture” and “structure”, in the manner of Edward Thompson, Raymond Williams and Pierre Bourdieu. Transcending the dualism of consciousness and action, we will build upon current historical and sociological work which avoids the trap of reductionism, setting class into dialogue with a range of other structured identities and practices, such as gender, race, nation and “sense of place”.


The purposes of this paper are twofold: to take stock of the positive and negative effects of postmodernism upon history; and tentatively to suggest some ways of transcending the current debilitating division between, on the one hand, studies of “culture” (consciousness, representation and discourse) and, on the other, of action and “structure”/ “experience” (both perceived and hidden). I suggest that within both the process of transcendence and the resulting synthesis of a reinvigorated and non-reductionist engagement of “culture” and “structure”, lies the main hope for social and labour history’s renewed vitality and sense of academic and public purpose.

My central concern rests with the application of postmodernism to historical studies, especially in the form of the “linguistic turn” within modern British history, rather than with an evaluation of the postmodernist body of thought as a whole.1 Much time and effort, of course, have already been spent in consideration of the relative strengths and weaknesses of “modernist” history and its postmodernist alternative, indeed adversary.2 My purpose here is not to undertake the tiresome and unrewarding task of simply reworking all this old ground. However, at the beginning of the new millenium we have perhaps gained sufficient time, distance and understanding to be able sufficiently to “step back”, in order productively to review a number of issues and debates which have, after all, engaged and divided postmodernist and modernist scholars for some two decades.

One tends, for example, to forget that the two most important essays marking the birth of the “linguistic turn” in English history, Gareth Stedman Jones’s “The Language of Chartism” and “Rethinking Chartism” appeared, respectively, “out of a seminar on Chartism held in the summer of 1977” and in a book of essays on class, first published in 1983.3 In 1984 Frederic Jameson famously critiqued postmodernism as the “cultural logic” of a late capitalist system obsessed with immediacy or presentism, and the imagery, superficiality and consumerism characteristic of the extensive commodification of life in general.4 My own and Dorothy Thompson’s respective critiques of Stedman Jones’s denial of class in Chartism and his narrow and formal approach to Chartist language, first appeared in 1987.5 In the same year and subsequently, Joan Scott pioneeringly challenged historians more fully to explore questions of historical meaning and the construction of gendered subjectivity by means of the Foucauldian-inspired study of discourse, difference and power.6 The early 1990s witnessed the dramatic interventions and the loud declarations of faith in the superiority and novelty of postmodernism by Patrick Joyce, James Vernon and Anthony Easthope, and an equally loud retort against the false and doomed “descent into discourse” by Bryan Palmer and others.7

By the mid 1990s the pros and cons of postmodernism had already been intensively and extensively debated in history books and in leading historical journals, such as Social History, Past and Present and History Workshop Journal.8 It was thus somewhat late in the day that Richard Evans set himself up, in The Defence of History, first published in 1997, as one, if not the, leading defender(s) of the modernist notions of historical patterns, objectivity and truth in the face of the postmodernist challenge of Joyce, Keith Jenkins and others rooted in micro narratives, subjectivity, relativity and even (for Jenkins) history as “naked ideology”.9 Yet the strength of the response to Evans’s defence suggests that debate is far from exhausted.10 Even now, in 2001, new calls go out to expose “traditional” areas of history and their equally “traditional” teachers and students to the bracing winds of postmodernism.11

What follows below is an overview of the strengths and weaknesses of the postmodern “linguistic turn” and some brief suggestions concerning the way forward. 


There is no doubt that postmodernist history possesses some strengths. For example, as against certain kinds of positivist history and structuralist social science, the “linguistic turn” has concentrated our minds upon the ways in which social life is represented and shaped by language rather than simply given in underlying and even hidden structures, and especially material structures and processes. As such, the “linguistic turn” has required us further to consider the role of the “cultural factor” in history, especially in the form of words as expressive of ideas and stories about power, authority and identity.

At the general level, the “linguistic turn” invites us to rethink the issue of the construction of meaning in social life. For example, the extent to which “interests” and social groups, including “classes”, are not simply “given” in underlying structure, but are constructed within discursive systems. (The latter embodying a host of institutional and social practices as well as linguistic utterances?) Furthermore, in its stated intention to pay proper attention to the issues of subjectivity and qualitative historical assessments and evaluations, the “linguistic turn” has promised a safeguard against excessive quantification and a defence against structural reductionism. Moreover, as Joan Scott, Anna Clark and others have observed, the postmodernist emphasis upon representation has provided an undoubted and much needed boost to the study of identity, and especially gender, among historians.12

These strengths, however, are greatly overshadowed by the large number of problems and weaknesses evident in the “linguistic turn”.

Problems: re-inventing the wheel?

Problems manifest themselves in relation to two broad areas.

First, notwithstanding its frequent claims to methodological and substantive innovation, the “linguistic turn” has not pioneered the anti-reductionist study of language, subjectivity, identity and consciousness in modern British history. For example, two of the most influential figures within the “traditional”, if materialist, modernist tradition—the “socialist- humanist” Edward Thompson and the “cultural materialist” Raymond Williams—rooted their work most firmly in anti- reductionism. Their opponents were both Stalinist base-superstructure reductionists and mainstream economic historians who tended simply to “read off” people’s ideas, values and so on from their economic circumstances. Thus, as we all know, Thompson claimed that the “making” of the English working class between the 1780s and 1830s owed as much to agency as conditioning, as much to the constitutive powers of working people themselves as to the birth of the factory system, and was as much a product of culture and politics as economics. As such, both in The Making of The English Working Class and his later work, Thompson paid very careful attention to language—seen as a means of communication, both spoken and written, and symbolic and non-symbolic—and to “the people’s” “habits and customs” as well as experiences/structures. Williams’ definition of, and attention to “culture” was equally wide (ie anthropological) in character. Like Thompson, Williams identified and located cultural practices at all levels of society. The overriding aim of these two scholars was to engage “culture” and “structure”, agency and conditioning, in non- reductionist ways, rather than pave the way for the advent of postmodernist “culturalism”.13

Within this latter context it is both ironic and instructive to recall that during the pre-postmodern days of the 1970s, Thompson and like-minded historians were mistakenly labelled “culturalists” by Richard Johnson, Stuart Hall and others on the self-styled “structuralist” (ie strongly Althusserian-influenced) Left.14 In the changed “postmodern days” of the 1990s the charge raised against Thompson by Joyce and others was no longer “culturalism”, but indeed its very opposite. Thus according to Joyce, Thompson, notwithstanding his theoretical attachment to the importance of culture, had, in practice, employed a mechanistic “contraption of causes and stages” rooted in the primacy of “productive relations”, themselves beyond discourse, with culture coming “at the end of things, not the beginning”.15 Such is the changing nature of academic fashion!

Similarly, there exists a well established and highly respected tradition of work in Britain upon the subjects of women and gender which owes little or nothing to the influence of postmodernism. For example, the influential figures of Sheila Rowbotham and Dorothy Thompson situate themselves firmly in the tradition of socialist-feminism rather than postmodernism.16 Furthermore, the growing interest in Britain in the subjects of race and ethnicity owes much to the non-postmodernism foundations and structures erected by John Rex, Peter Fryer, Robert Miles, Colin Holmes, Kenneth Lunn and others.17

Second, in highlighting the issue of subjectivity in history, both the “linguistic turners” and postmodernists in general, raise as many, indeed more, problems and questions than they answer. For a start there appears to be disagreement among postmodernist historians concerning the role of agency. For example, notwithstanding his own “linguistic turn”, Gareth Stedman Jones has accused Foucault and many of his followers of a “determinist fix”, whereby historical actors become the more or less passive expressions of omnipotent discursive systems. (Foucault being seen as having adopted the emphasis of his teacher, Althusser, upon people as passive bearers of structures.) One of those followers, Patrick Joyce, has argued in his most recent book, Democratic Subjects (1994), that “Meanings make subjects and not subjects meanings”.18 


Moreover, it is at times difficult to know whether postmodernist historians are simply saying that the “subjective factor” is important in history or whether they are further extending this claim to embrace the full-blown anti-realist position that there is nothing beyond subjectivity. If they are adopting the first position, to raise, for example, questions concerning the active role of the historian in the selection of the facts, the partial nature of the latter and so on, then they are simply joining a very long list of historians in debating age-old questions of subjectivity, objectivity and truth. If, as a leading postmodernist historian, Alun Munslow, has very recently stated in relation to the issue of subjectivity, “None of this is to deny the reality of the past or to become amoral or relativist or to slip into the denial of the data. It is, rather, to recognise that history is a complex linguistic process, and that the truth of the past cannot be revealed by the analysis of its traces alone”,19 then one wonders what all the fuss is about. In his quoted persona, Munslow would appear to be reinventing the wheel.

However, if, as seemingly argued by other postmodernists, such as John Host and Keith Jenkins,20 the preoccupations, self-interest and ideological dispositions of the historian are seen to exert more or less absolute power over the construction of history, then the writing of the latter becomes little, if anything, more than “presentism”. In effect history largely becomes the historian’s own story, projected back into the past, often under the guise of an investigation of past matters largely extraneous to the historian’s personal concerns.

I have two basic and closely related objections to this latter position. First, it falsely affords no priority to the determinate properties of the historical evidence, of, for example, the ways in which the discovery of new and unexpected evidence forces the historian to modify or even reject his or her hunches, views or full-blown theories. There is no sense of engagement, of grappling with complex, contested and awkward pieces of evidence which reveal all manner of unintended meanings. Second, as a corollary, one is tempted, indeed duty bound, to ask whether Host and Jenkins have ever spent much time in the archives undertaking the required kind of primary-based research and the setting and re-setting of new and evolving questions to the unfolding evidence demanded by the discipline.

Finally, in relation to the issue of subjectivity, we encounter the often-stated postmodernist argument that there exists nothing beyond the study of discourse in history. I suggest that this argument is, at the very least, highly problematical. As we will see in the epistemological weaknesses section below, it falsely conflates language and reality and substitutes an equally narrow and unconvincing form of reductionist idealism for the economic reductionism it seeks to overthrow.


These are seen in the narrow, formal, and often superficial and largely decontextualised approach to the study of language and meaning; in epistemological confusions, contradictions imprecisions and inconsistencies; in the thin and unconvincing nature of the case against class; and generally in the highly contested nature of the findings of “linguistic turners”, combined with the tendency of some of the leading lights of the “turn” impatiently to dismiss rather than constructively to engage criticism.

1. The approach to language

Stedman Jones, Joyce, Vernon and those historians influenced by the “linguistic turn”, such as Eugenio Biagini and Jon Lawrence,21 have largely associated the term discourse with language rather than an ensemble of linguistic utterances and social practices and relations.22 Notwithstanding the undoubted interest of Vernon and Joyce in symbolic means of representation and communication (such as banners, art, theatre and iconography) and their often illuminating and innovatory insights into such matters,23 the “linguistic turners”, furthermore, have predominantly identified language with the printed word. Despite Joyce’s and Vernon’s interests in broadside ballads and dialect literature, the printed word, in turn, has been mainly associated with expressions of public-political and official ideas, rather than with unofficial languages and demotic forms of speech.24

For example, it has been the languages of mainstream and radical politics, especially Chartism, radicalism and Liberalism, as expressed in official publications of the various movements and organisations and the written thoughts of their leaders, which have commanded most attention.

Three main consequences have ensued. First, there has been a strong tendency simply to reproduce, as historical “truth”, the official languages and ideas studied, whether as expressed in the Northern Star or Liberal and Conservative publications or the written thoughts of John Bright and Gladstone. Second, these official languages have not been sufficiently set within their wider societal contexts in order to tease out the various ways in which they were received. Third, a substantial body of research has conclusively shown that the processes of linguistic usage and reception involved contestation, complexity and changes of meaning and interpretation to degrees not revealed by the rather formal, one-dimensional and fixed approach of the “linguistic turners”.

For example, Stedman Jones, Joyce and Biagini offer a predominantly radical-Liberal notion of “the people”—to mean a consensual alliance of workers, employers and other “productive” and “progressive” members of society standing against mainly landed and commercial “parasites” and reactionaries. Yet in the context of the crisis-ridden years of the 1830s and early-mid 1840s, rather than the “golden” years of mid-Victorian “consensus”, the very same notion of “the people” assumed a far more threatening and class specific and far less consensual meaning. The Chartists often used the languages of “the people”, the “working class (es)” and the “industrious” or “producing” “class(es)” or “people” interchangeably. However, in so doing they did not demonstrate, as claimed by Stedman-Jones, Joyce and Vernon, the enduring hegemony of a traditional, radical-“populist”, if at times class-inflexed, way of thought.25 For example, in 1838 and 1839 “the people” comprised predominantly working-class people flocking to the Chartist banner at torchlight meetings on the moors and arming and drilling. This “people” articulated and mobilised fierce opposition not only to aristocratic and reactionary Tories and capitalist middlemen, but also to “progressive” middle-class Liberals, including “productive” employers, who were perceived to have politically abandoned the them in 1832 and who were systematically behaving towards them in ever more “treacherous”, “deceitful” and “dishonourable” (ie oppressive and exploitative) political, economic and cultural ways. Indeed, it was in this very context that the class-based independence which underpinned Chartism, took root in the manufacturing districts and elsewhere in the country.26

Furthermore, as participants in a mass movement, engaged in struggle, the Chartists used language tactically and strategically in order to mobilise and sustain the support of various constituencies for “the cause”. At times it made sense to refer to “the people”, at others to “the producers” or “workers”. However, neither the authorities nor the Chartists themselves had little doubt that the main support of the movement lay among the “working class (es)”, the artisans, the factory workers and others. The Chartists constructed and used language with reference to concrete social, economic and cultural and experiences, and with political and other goals in mind.

The aim was not was to engage in a fine intellectual exercise linguistic construction, a fact which is insufficiently registered in postmodernist accounts of the movement. Finally, it should be noted that there is more than ample scope and reward for historians and other scholars willing further to research the contextualised engagements and varied meanings of “class” and “populism” in nineteenth-century England and beyond.27

The “linguistic turners” narrow approach to language and their predominant acceptance of the meanings of words at their face values (ie words meaning simply “what they say”), also produce very partial and in many ways misleading conclusions. For example, Patrick Joyce’s very favourable picture of John Bright presented in Democratic Subjects is largely based on an uncritical reading of Bright’s own record and evaluation of his life and sympathetic sketches and portrayals by others. Fuller reference, both to Bright’s many and varied thoughts and actions and to a wider range of contemporary and subsequent perceptions of him, would undoubtedly have produced a more balanced and less idealised picture, integrating both language and behaviour, subjectivity and structured experience. For example, Joyce makes little attempt seriously to engage with the “popular” view, long expressed and remembered in his home town of Rochdale, that the Liberal image of Bright as the “standard bearer of the people” sat uneasily with his opposition to the Ten Hours Bill and his “tyranny” as a leading mill owner in the borough.28

Finally, narrowness and partiality are compounded by the practice, on the part of at least some of the “linguistic turners”, to understand and explain political languages and political events and processes mainly or even solely in political terms. For example, the causes of Chartism’s rise and decline were, pace Stedman Jones, arguably as much “social” as “political” in character. Yet an awful dread of “economic reductionism” has effectively deterred Stedman Jones and others of the “Cambridge school” from properly linking politico-linguistic and wider “social” factors and causes in their accounts of modern British politics.29

In sum, the “linguistic turners” employment of a narrow, formal and largely decontextualised approach to the study of language has resulted in a failure adequately to reveal the meanings of words in their full richness and complexity over time and place.

2. Epistemological defects

The epistemological statements and claims of the “linguistic turn” are unconvincing for the following reasons:

First, as observed by Richard Price and Richard Evans, the superiority of postmodernist methodology and epistemology over traditional “modernist” and realist historiography is far more asserted (sometimes in the manner of impatient and condescending triumphalism) than demonstrated.30

Second, in theoretically conflating language (as the expression of ideas) and reality, postmodernist historians erect an unsatisfactory idealism in which the linguistic representation, idea, or interpretation of something becomes that very something itself. In effect, ideas, representations, interpretations and meanings of past and present reality, on the one hand, are falsely conflated, on the other, with the very existence of that reality. For example, Joyce confusingly maintains that in “handling the real”, the meanings of poverty and insecurity also “inevitably construct it”.31 Yet I fail to see how he can logically have it both ways. One surely cannot handle something that has a “real”, presumably independent, existence, and yet simultaneously construct it, or bring into “real” existence. Joyce’s practice constitutes a familiar idealist sleight of hand in which the notion of existence has been improperly collapsed into that of interpretation.32 As a long list of sociologists and historians have conclusively demonstrated, poverty has a past and present existence independent of the meanings and interpretations attached to it. Similarly, social relations in general possess a structured existence beyond consciousness.33 Moreover, in line with the precepts of postmodernist idealism, language and ideas are not, at least at the level of theory, contextualised and set into engagement with material and other structures. 

Third, in practice, however, Joyce, Vernon, Stedman Jones and Munslow simultaneously make claims to “truths” (for example, the triumph of “populism” over “class”) which are based not only upon language expressive of ideas, but also upon wider observed social practice, especially at the level of political behaviour and affiliation. Most prominent in this regard for the “linguistic turners” was the the enduring attachment of “the people” not only to the ideas, but also the institutions and practices of radical liberalism and Liberalism.34 In such confused and contradictory ways does the referential and realist usage of language seep into, indeed saturate, the “linguistic turners” supposedly watertight anti- realist and anti-referential philosophical structure.35

Fourth, to further compound the sense of confusion and contradiction, Joyce and Vernon do not deny the importance of subjecting their work to a process of verification, of “discriminating accurate from inaccurate data, and tenable from untenable arguments”.36 For historians the process of verification has traditionally involved what Edward Thompson termed “the disciplined historical discourse of the proof” residing in “a dialogue between concept and evidence, a dialogue conducted by successive hypotheses, on the one hand, and empirical research on the other”.37 According to Thompson and many other historians, this never-ending dialogue produces provisional and limited rather than fixed and absolute truths, the limits of historical truth being determined by the questions posed, the evidence surveyed and the availability and adequacy of existing paradigms of knowledge. Developments in all these areas produce new truths which, nevertheless, like older truths, are cicumscribed by their own contexts and points of reference. In sum, historical truth is contextual, conditional and developmental, if not necessarily in a linear kind of way.38

Now, while accepting the principle of verification and opposed to the notion of “relative chaos in which anything goes”, Joyce and other postmodernist historians are of the opinion that the epistemological question concerning historical truth is “insoluble”. Joyce thus paraphrases Easthope’s argument that we are too closely involved in the very process of history to be able to stand back from our own subjectivity and make objective, truthful statements about the past and the present. Thus “There is…no position available from which to inspect and assess the possible validity of the correspondence or non-correspondence between our own discourse and the real”.39 So registering his manifest impatience with the whole truth issue, Joyce proceeds rapidly to distance himself from “the status of epistemological arguments” in favour of considering “their effects: the ideology or rhetoric of ‘the real’”. 40

In terms of the criteria of epistemological rigour, precision and consistency, Joyce’s position is far from convincing. For a start, neither Joyce nor the other “linguistic turners” move beyond the widely accepted denial of absolute historical truth to even consider the strengths and weaknesses of the notion of provisional and limited historical truth outlined above.

Moreover, the sin of omission is compounded by the extremely brief, weak and contradictory nature of Joyce’s case concerning verification. Thus, in terms of the criteria and procedures employed by historians to “test” the validity of arguments, Joyce simply and vaguely notes that there exist “widely different protocols obtaining in different areas”, and quotes Easthope’s belief that “logic” depends on “consensus and social construction”.41 In sum, there is to be no rigorous and unending dialogue between “concept and evidence”. To do so would be to betray the the faith of postmodernist, anti-realist theory!

Yet, once again, practice is at odds with theory. For not only Joyce, but all the “linguistic turners”, do, as noted earlier, in practice offer truth claims based not simply upon discourse, but also upon practice. However, as further noted above, there is only the narrow engagement between political languages/ideas and political practices. Any notion of the wider engagement of the “political” and the “social”, of political economy, is sadly lacking. Once again, therefore, full engagement and contextualisation are significant by their absence. The upshot is a form of politico-linguistic idealism set against the backdrop of political behaviour and action.

3. Empirical weaknesses

Notwithstanding all the observed conceptual huffing and puffing, and the thousands, if not millions, of words expended upon critiques and defences of postmodernism, it is very rarely observed that the empirical results of postmodernist history, in the specific form of the British “linguistic turn”, have been narrow, often insubstantial, and largely unconvincing.

The empirical case in favour of the “linguistic turn” rests, above all else, upon the supposed triumph of “populism” over “class” among modern British workers. Yet I am not persuaded by the arguments in favour of this case. I will briefly turn, once again, to the example of Chartism, which has been at the centre of debate, to register both my disagreement and counter claim in favour of class.

It is true that Stedman Jones did identify, in a very detailed, interesting and challenging way, a language of political exclusion within Chartism which was not the class-based language of Marxism/revolutionary socialism. (It should also be noted that Stedman Jones did not claim the observed language to be the only language of the movement.42) However, Stedman Jones has not, either in the 1970s and 1980s or subsequently, set his observed language into engagement with the other languages of Chartism. Patrick Joyce and James Vernon also derived “populist” conclusions from Chartism and other expressions of early- and mid-Victorian popular radicalism. Yet their sweeping conclusions, at least with respect to the languages of Chartism, are based upon very thin evidence indeed. They, too, have failed to engage and fully to contextualise the languages of “class” and “populism”.43

Now, while we may freely admit that Chartism was primarily a political movement (in itself, hardly a startling admission), it does not, therefore, follow that Chartism was either only or predominantly a political movement of “the people” rather than a “class”. As noted earlier, the language of the early and mid-Victorian “people” assumed, in practice, many meanings, including class-based ones. Furthermore, a long line of historians have convincingly shown not only that the origins, rise and demise of Chartism were underpinned by a wide range of grievances and aims—both “political” and “social” in character—but also that the languages of class consciousness and class conflict were central to the movement.44 The fact that the Chartist language of class comprised a systemic, if experientially-based political, social cultural and moral-economic critique of “dishonourable” employers, “parasitical” landowners, and the “exclusive”, “exacting”, “oppressive” and “deceitful” actions of mainstream politicians and the state, rather than full- blown Marxian socialism, does not detract at all from the fact of class. The latter, while failing the “true” test of Marxism, nonetheless undoubtedly existed in the Thompsonian sense of the word, as expressing common or similar interests in opposition to other groups, interests and classes. Moreover, it was a feeling of class which issued from and pervaded all aspects of life and struggle rather than simply “the economic”. I rest my case in the far more capable words of the leading authority on Chartism, Dorothy Thompson. “I find it difficult to believe”, writes Thompson,

that anyone who has worked in the archives and has studied the published and unpublished language of the Chartists can fail to see that the idea that above all united them into a nation-wide movement was the belief that there was a profound unity of interest between working people of all kinds.45

In the post Chartist period this “profound unity of interest” greatly loosened. Formerly united groups tended to pull apart and the working class generally became more fragmented. However, as seen in a considerable body of historical literature, the language of class was still to be found, if far less vociferously and extensively, in the affairs of trade unionism and workplace struggles, in the tensions within Liberalism and in the dogged persistence of working-class independence in the Co-ops and elsewhere. While of growing national significance, inter-class radical-liberal “populism” did not sweep all before it and wipe the historical record clean of class. Moreover, the late nineteenth- century crisis of competitive capitalism would precipitate the strong “revival of class”.46


As demonstrated most recently in the fruitless exchanges in ILWCHs “Scholarly Controversy: Farewell to the Working Class” (57, Spring 2000), there is little point in further attempting to bring postmodernist and realist historians together in an attempt to establish common ground. Given the magnitude of the conflicting theoretical and substantive issues separating these two groups of historians, it is better that they go their own future ways. There are already strong signs that those who have taken the “linguistic turn” have found their “true” homes in intellectual history, cultural studies or political history defined largely in terms of the study of the languages and ideas of politics. As for realist social and labour historians, we could usefully make renewed efforts more extensively and firmly to take on board EP Thompson’s, Raymond Williams’s, and Pierre Bourdieu’s advice to transcend the dualism of “culture” and “structure” by means of the close and non-reductionist engagement of consciousness, action and experience. In the process we must, in the words of Marc Steinberg, “analyze both the material and social dynamics of how people act collectively and the processes of culture and consciousness by which groups come to envision a changed world”. Discourse—as “a powerful mediating force in the structuring of group consciousness”, but neither the creator of consciousness nor the master of the historical subject—will constitute an integral part of this analysis.47 So too will social class, but social class not as “master narrative” but in a more modest and respectful engagement with the notions of nation, race, gender and “sense of place”. What we loose in terms of immediate precision and certainty, we gain in the transcendence of frozen orthodoxies and a renewed and more open-ended sense of historical purpose, richness and pattern.


1 For a stimulating and convincing attempt by a historian to challenge the epistemological credentials of postmodernism see Richard Price, “Postmodernism as Theory and History”, in John Belchem and Neville Kirk (eds.), Languages of Labour, Aldershot 1997, Ch. 1.
2 See Richard J. Evans, In Defence of History, London 1997.
3 Garth Stedman Jones, “The Language of Chartism”, in James Epstein and Dorothy Thompson (eds.), The Chartist Experience, London 1982, Ch. 1;idem, “Rethinking Chartism”, in English Working Class History 1832-1982, Cambridge 1983, Ch. 3. his Languages of Class: Studies in
4 Frederic Jameson, “Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism”, New Left Review, 146 (July-August 1984), pp. 53-92; idem,Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, London 1991. See also David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity, Oxford 1989.
5 Neville Kirk, “In Defence of Class”, International Review of Social History, vol. 32, Part 1 (1987), pp. 2-47; Dorothy Thompson, “The Languages of Class”, Bulletin of the Society for the Study of Labour History, vol. 52, no. 1 (1987), pp. 54-7. For subsequent work see Kirk, “History, Language, Ideas and Post-Modernism: A Materialist View”, Social History, vol 19,no. 2 (May 1994), pp. 221-240; Thompson, “Chartism and the Historians”, in her Outsiders: Class Gender and Nation, London 1993, Ch. 1.
6 Joan W. Scott, “On Language, Gender and Working Class History”, International Labor and Working Class History, 31 (Spring 1987), pp. 1-13; idem, Gender and the Politics of History, New York 1988.
7 See, for example, Patrick Joyce, Visions of The People: Industrial England and the Question of Class 1848-1914 Cambridge 1991; idem, “The Imaginary Discontents of Social History”, 18,1 (January 1993), pp. 81-5; James Vernon, Politics and The People, Cambridge 1993, Introduction; idem, “Who’s Afraid of the ‘Linguistic Turn’?”, Social History, 19, 1 (January 1994), pp. 81-97 ; Anthony Easthope, “Romancing The Stone: History-Writing and Rhetoric”, Social History, 18, 2 (May 1993), pp. 235-49 ; Bryan D. Palmer, Descent Into Discourse: The Reification of Language and the Writing of History, Philadelphia 1990; Christopher Norris, Uncritical Theory: Postmodernism Intellectuals and the Gulf War, London 1992.
8 In addition to the references in footnote 7, see, for example, Keith Jenkins, On “What is History?”, London 1995; Alun Munslow, Deconstructing History, London 1997; the contributions by Joyce, Stone, Kelly and Spiegel to “History and Post-Modernism”, Past and Present, CXXXI (May 1991), CXXXIII (November 1991), CXXXV (May 1992); Patrick Joyce, “The End of Social History”, Social History, 20 (January 1995), 73-91; Raphael Samuel, “Reading The Signs”, History Workshop Journal, xxxii (Autumn 1991) and “Reading The Signs; part II”, HWJ, XXXIII (Spring 1992); Joyce Appleby, Lynn Hunt and Margaret Jacob, Telling the Truth About History, New York 1994.
9 Evans, In Defence, pp. 252-3
10 See the revised edition of In Defence of History, London 2001, especially pp. in which Evans answers his critics.
11 “Editorial” and Andy Croll, “”People’s Remembrancers in a Post-Modern Age: Contemplating the Non-Crisis of Welsh Labour History”, Llafur8,1 (2000), pp. 3-4, 5-17.
12 Joan W. Scott, “The ‘Class’ We Have Lost”, ILWCH, 57 (Spring 2000), pp. 69-75; Anna Clark, The Struggle for the Breeches:The Making of The British Working Class 1780-1850, Berkeley 1995; idem, “The Rhetoric of Chartist Domesticity: Gender, Language and Class in the 1830s and 1840s”, Journal of British Studies, 31 (Jan. 1992), pp. 62-88.
13 See the Preface to Edward P. Thompson, The Making of The English Working Class, Harmondsworth 1968; idem, Customs in Common, London 1991, Introduction; Raymond Williams, Marxism and Literature, Oxford 1977, II; Christopher Prenderga (ed.), Cultural Materialism: On Raymond Williams, Minneapolis 1995.
14 Richard Johnson,”Edward Thompson, Eugene Genovese and Socialist-Humanist History”, HWJ, issue 6 (Autumn 1978), pp. 79-100; Dennis Dworkin, Cultural Marxism in Postwar Britain: History the New Left and the Origins of Cultural Studies, Durham, USA, 1997, Ch. 6.
15 Patrick Joyce, Democratic Subjects: The Self and the Social in Nineteenth-Century England, Cambridge 1994, pp. 3-4.
16 Sheila Rowbotham, A Century of Women: The History of Women in Britain and the United States, London 1997; Dorothy Thompson,Outsiders, Introduction.
17 See, for example, the essays in Kenneth Lunn (ed.), Hosts Immigrants and Minorities: Historical Responses to Newcomers in British Society, Folkestone 1980; idem, “A Racialized Hierarchy of Labour? Race Immigration and the British Labour Movement, 1880-1950”, in Peter Alexander and Rick Halpern (eds.), Racializing Class and Classifying Race, Basingstoke 2000; Peter Fryer, Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain, London 1984; Robert Miles, Racism, London 1989.
18 Gareth Stedman Jones, “The Detrminist Fix: Some Obstacles to the Further Development of the Linguistic Approach to History in the 1990s”,HWJ, issue 42 (Aut. 1996), pp. 19-35; Joyce, Democratic Subjects, p. 13.
19 In debate with Richard Evans in Guardian Education, 6 Feb. 2001, p.15.
20 John Host, Victorian Labour History: Experience Identity and the Politics of Representation, London 1998; Jenkins, On “What is History?”. Host and Jenkins would appear to be playing the game of daring to be more “postmodern” than the “postmodernists.”
21 Eugenio F. Biagini, Liberty Retrenchment and Reform: Popular Liberalism in the Age of Gladstone 1860-1880, Cambridge 1992; Jon Lawrence,.Speaking for the People: Party Language and Popular Politics in England 1867-1914, Cambridge 1998.
22 See Ali Rattansi, “Western Racisms, Ethnicities and Identities in a ‘Postmodern’ Frame”, in Ali Rattansi and Sally Westwood (eds.), Racism Modernity and Identity: On the Western Front, London 1994; Neville Kirk, “The Continued Relevance and Engagements of Class”, Labour History Review, 60,3 (Winter 1995), p. 12 n. 9.
23 Vernon, Politics, Chs. 6, 7; Joyce, Visions, Part IV.
24 John Belchem, “’An Accent Exceedingly Rare’: Scouse and the Inflexion of Class”, in J.Belchem and N.Kirk (eds.), Languages of Labour, Aldershot 1997, Ch.5; idem, “Reconstructing Labour History”, Labour History Review, 62,3 (1997), 318-23; and the “Review Feature”, “Class and Discourse: The Continuing Debate”, in Labour History Review, 64,1 (1999), pp. 62-73.
25 Stedman Jones, “Rethinking Chartism”, pp. 110-15, 134- 7,143,150-58; Joyce, Visions, Introduction; idem, Democratic Subjects, pp. 10-11; Vernon, Politics, Part III, Conclusion; Eileen Janes Yeo, “ Language and Contestation: the Case of ‘the People’, 1832 to the Present”, in Belchem and Kirk (eds.), Languages, Ch. 2; Kirk, “The Continued Relevance”; idem, “Class and the “Linguistic Turn” in Chartist and Post-Chartist Historiography”, in Neville Kirk (ed.), Social Class and Marxism: Defences and Challenges, Aldershot 1996, pp. 89-93, 100-114
26 Thompson, “The Language of Class”; idem, The Chartists: Popular Politics in the Industrial Revolution, Aldershot, 1984; Kirk, “The Continued Relevance”.
27 For example in relation to workers’ consciousness in latenineteenth and early twentieth-century Australia. See, for example, Mark Hearn, “Mates and Strangers: The Ethos of the Australian Workers Union”, in David Palmer, Ross Shanahan, Martin Shanahan (eds.), Australian Labour History Reconsidered, Unley, South Australia, 1999, pp. 18-37; Russel Ward, The Australian Legend, Melbourne 1984; Robert W.Connell and Terence H. Irving, Class Structure in Australian History, second edition, Melbourne 1992, pp. 184-6; Bruce Scates, A New Australia: Citizenship Radicalism and the First Republic, Cambridge 1997.
28 John Cole, Rochdale Revisited: A Town and its People, Vol. II Littleborough, 1990, pp. 41-44.
29 Neville Kirk, Change Continuity and Class: Labour in British Society, Manchester 1998, Chs. 2,4,8; Stedman Jones, Languages, Introduction.
30 Price, “Postmodernism”, 11-13; Evans, In Defence, pp. 12-14,200-23, Ch. 8
31 Joyce, Democratic Subjects, p. 12.
32 Terry Eagleton, Ideology: An Introduction, London 1991, p. 219.
33 Connell and Irving, Class Structure, pp. 1-6.
34 See the references to Stedman Jones, Joyce and Vernon in note 25. For the nature of popular Liberalism see Eugenio F. Biagini and Alastair J. Reid (eds.), Currents of Radicalism: Popular Radicalism Organised Labour and Party Politics in Britain 1850-1914, Cambridge 1991, Chapter 1.
35 However, it must be remembered that there did not exist uniformity of anti-realist and anti-referential assumptions and stated intentions among the “linguistic turners”. For example, in “Rethinking Chartism”, Stedman Jones did not intend “to imply that the analysis of language can provide an exhaustive account of Chartism, or that the social conditions of existence of this language were arbitrary”. Furthermore, “It is not a question of replacing a social interpretation by a linguistic interpretation, but rather it is how the two relate, that must be rethought” (p. 95). See also his statement in the “Determinist Fix” (HWJ, 42, 1996, p. 27) that there there exist social processes which are “not encompassed-or at least not sufficiently or adequately encompassed-by the languages and discourses of the past”. However, I claim that in practice, Stedman Jones did afford primacy to the politico-linguistic over the socio-contextual, and that insufficient engagement between these two levels produced partial and somewhat misleading conclusions about Chartism and class. See Kirk, “In Defence of Class”.
36 See, for example, Joyce, Democratic Subjects, p. 9.
37 Dorothy Thompson (ed.), The Essential E.P.Thompson, New York2001, p. 447.
38 Thompson, The Essential, pp. 447-9.
39 Joyce, Democratic Subjects, pp. 8-9.
40 Joyce, Democratic Subjects. p. 9.
41 Loc. cit.
42 Stedman Jones,”Rethinking Chartism”, p. 95, n. 10.
43 For the empirical weakness of Joyce’s case in relation to Chartism, see Neville Kirk,”Setting the Standard: Dorothy Thompson, the Discipline of History and the Study of Chartism”, in Owen Ashton, Robert Fyson and Stephen Roberts (eds.), The Duty of Discontent: Essays for Dorothy Thompson, London 1995, pp. 30-1, n. 35. Vernon’s Politics and the People contains only brief and scattered references to Chartism.
44 See, for example, Thompson, The Chartists; Paul Pickering, Chartism and the Chartists in Manchester and Salford, London 1995; Owen Ashton, Robert Fyson, Stephen Roberts (eds.), The Chartist Legacy, London 1999; John K. Walton, Chartism, London 1999.
45 Thompson, Outsiders, p. 36.
46 For the mid- and late-Victorian periods see Kirk, “Class and the ‘Linguistic Turn’”, pp. 16-19; idem, Change, Chs. 4,8; Antony Taylor, “Commemoration, Memorialisation and Political Memory in Post-Chartist Radicalism: The 1885 Halifax Chartist Reunion in Context”, in Ashton, Fyson and Roberts, Chartist Legacy, pp. 255-85.
47 Marc W. Steinberg, Fighting Words: Working Class Formation Collective Action and Discourse in Early Nineteenth Century England , London 1999, xii-xiii, 14-22. Steinberg’s “dialogic perspective” usefully explores the ways in which “material experiences and their discursive representations exist in a larger interactive and dynamic system that is social life”. Following Mikhail Bakhtin, Steinberg fruitfully highlights the relational, multivocal and frequently contested aspects of discourse.