James Loewen has recently made a plea for more local history. In the final lecture of his CD “Rethinking Our Past,” Loewen quotes a Democratic politician named Tip O’Neill. O’Neill said “all politics is local.” O’Neill meant that all politicians had to make their decisions relevant to and justifiable to their constituents. In electoral politics, “local” means a political constituency – people in some ward, town, county, or state. Loewen argues that all major social changes and social movements in history had some impact in our towns and cities. This history should be documented, and it matters to the people who live in those locations If we think about the quote from O’Neill and compare historians to politicians we might say that historians should write with some constituency in mind. “Local” is not just about places, either. Geography isn’t the only way to define a political constituency. There are other constituencies. Categories of oppression such as race, class, gender, sexuality, disability and others can all be a sort of constituency. Social and political movements can also be a sort of constituency. Broadly understood, “local” history means the history of any constituency that someone belongs to, often a constituency that is not adequately talked about in history.

Loewen’s call is not really aimed at professional historians. Loewen’s main emphasis is that everyone can and should do history. Anyone can do the history of where they live, in relation to important past changes and movements. Local history is often understood as focusing on one specific place and the people who live there. Local history tends to be practiced by nonprofessional historians at least as much as by history professors and other professionals. Local history also tends to place a heavy emphasis on preserving and making available important historic documents related to the history of some area. As I said, we can understand “local” more broadly to refer to constituencies that are not just geographic. These elements of most local history can be important to other constituencies as well – nonprofessionals can and should do history, and people can and should emphasize preserving and making available documents important to a constituency.

As Loewen puts it, all history is local. This is arguable, but there is an important link between local history and radical history. Not all local history is radical history, but in an important sense all radical history is local history: all radical history is partial to one constituency. Loewen’s essay helps identify two different ways for radical history to orient toward constituencies. Radical history can orient toward constituencies as an audience for works of history, and radical history can orient toward constituencies in order to share the tools and excitement about doing history. In the first orientation, people make works of history available to other people to read or view. In the second, radical historians show what it means to produce works of history and how to do so.

There is much more to say about how to relate to people as audiences for history, I’m not going to get into that here. About sharing the tools of history-making and encouraging their use, Loewen’s lecture has good ideas on how to do this sort of work, including interesting ways to commemorate history publicly via ceremonies, walking tours, and alternative plaques and monuments. There is a great deal more to say here as well – someone really should write a history of times and ways and reasons that history-making has been spread among many people. We could also talk about different reasons why this sort of thing matters, about how trying to get people to make history differs from issues of audience for works of history, about how historical thought or thought about the past differs from other sorts of thought (the difference, say, between encouraging the reading and making of history and encouraging the reading and making of theory, a related but different prospect), and we could talk about different methods to use. I’d be up for all of those discussions.

For now, all I want to do is point out just one other example of how to do this and an example of an attempt to get more people to do their own local radical history. (I talked about this a while ago here.) There was an article a while ago in Anarcho-Syndicalist Review about how to do local radical labor history. It was called “How to find your local Wobbly history” by Robert Helms, with an emphasis on the revolutionary union the Industrial Workers of the World. The gist of the article was this: go to a good library, preferably a university one. Get some books on the Industrial Workers of the World. Look up your town in the index. Write down: dates, companies where agitation was happening, any names. Then go to the public library, look at old newspapers on microfiche, look for the day after the dates you wrote down previously. You will likely find detailed reports of events that no one alive knows about, including names of participants and addresses of events. Then go check out these addresses. Helms said he went to several old union hall sites, and two were still standing. In one, the current occupants had found some old handbills in the basement, and had them framed on the wall.

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