Intellectual history

Classes and Masses in the History of Political Thought: 13th Annual London Graduate Conference

By guest contributor David Klemperer

By David Klemperer

The history of ideas has something of a reputational issue. Within the world of historical scholarship, it is all too commonly seen as irredeemably elitist and idealist – narrowly focused on small groups of canonical intellectuals and ignoring the broader social reality of their eras. With these criticisms in mind, the London political thought graduate committee chose “Classes and Masses” as the theme for our 2022 annual conference: we wanted to bring social context and mass politics into the foreground of the history of political thought. We also wanted to bring in contributions from students outside of the history of political thought as traditionally conceived – those who might not see themselves as intellectual historians but whose research nonetheless engages with the formation, articulation, and diffusion of political ideas.

The result was a conference that featured an impressive array of disciplines, approaches, and methodologies – ranging from political theory and ideology studies, through “Cambridge-school” intellectual history and “new” political history, to social history, cultural history, and subaltern studies. Notably, the presentations drew on a highly diverse range of sources – not just the usual books, journals, articles, and letters, but also sociological research archives, prisoner manifestos, pedagogical manuals, and police reports of pub conversations. Although varying widely in geographic and temporal scope, many papers addressed some shared core themes: examining how ideas and intellectuals operate within mass politics; showing how ideas have been shaped by social context; and exploring the different languages through which class and other social divisions have been expressed.


This was certainly no return to crude socio-economic determinism. After opening the conference with Manic Street Preachers song “The masses against the classes” – the title of which is a quotation from William Gladstone – Gareth Stedman-Jones used his wide-ranging introductory address to lay out how the interplay of class division and mass participation was central to nineteenth-century politics. His argument, however, was that class conflict was more about constitutional doctrines than capitalism, with the proletariat defined by political exclusion rather than economic exploitation. Likewise, in her address on the mass politics of Garveyism, keynote speaker Adom Getachew drew on Adam Przeworksi to insist that both classes and races must be understood as effects, not causes, of political struggle. She argued the task of historians is to investigate how these categories were constructed intellectually and through cultural practice.

Ideas then, are not epiphenomenal. But nor do they constitute a sphere apart. What both speakers provided was an insistence that ideas are central to politics, and that they must be studied as part-and-parcel of its rough-and-tumble. Ideas operate at all levels of society, and not merely through an elite standing above it.


Indeed, a key theme that emerged from the conference was the idea that we can and should approach political thought as a mass phenomenon. Perhaps most notable in this regard was Rebecca Goldsmith’s paper on vernacular languages of class in the English town of Bolton in the interwar period. Arguing that we can and should “place official political language and everyday speech in the same analytical frame,” she drew on Mass Observation archives to reconstruct the “informal political thought of the masses” as related to class politics. At the same time, there was a distinct lack of emphasis across the papers on traditional canonical figures: to give one arresting example, although several presenters addressed Marxism, not one focused on Marx himself: instead, participants discussed the ideas that emerged from Marxist mass movements.

Successive speakers creatively engaged with issues of how ideas were transmitted within political movements, and how these processes of transmission reshaped them: Emily Evans called our attention to the importance of political pedagogy, arguing that Rosa Luxemburg’s experience at the German Social Democratic Party’s cadre-school shaped her intellectual project, and that her economics textbooks should be accorded a central place in her corpus; Edoardo Vaccari’s paper on 1930s Italian socialism emphasized how exile journals functioned as sites of intellectual collaboration for decentralized underground resistance networks; Molly Carlin showed how manifestos smuggled between prisons came to provide the foundations for the “incarcerated class” as a political identity in the post-war United States. Most explicitly, Julia Damphouse used her presentation on anti-colonial attitudes within the German Empire’s working classes to challenge the notion that such ideas were purely the product of downwards transmission from intellectual elites.

Some papers honed in directly on this question of how intellectuals related to political movements: Tanroop Sandhu’s discussion of Shapurji Saklatvala and Rajani Palme Dutt explored how these anti-colonial Marxist activists exiled in London conceived of their place both within the broader struggle for Indian independence, and within international communism; Nick Garland meanwhile examined how Labour Party-aligned intellectuals in 1970s and 1980s Britain imagined the “radical intelligentsia,” demonstrating how both social democratic revisionists and the New Left ultimately ended up sharing a similar conception of progressive politics – one in which an educated middle-class strata would provide leadership to a mass working class base.


Beyond mass movements, several participants highlighted how concrete socio-economic context can be key to making sense of intellectual constructs. For instance, Sam Harrison’s brilliant dissection of the constitutional distinction between “active” and “passive” citizens in the French Revolution demonstrated the importance of understanding the internal economic migration, and the concurrent changes to the social composition of France’s urban centers, that occurred over the eighteenth century; by examining precisely who was and was not included in various Revolution-era franchises, he made a boldly revisionist case for seeing suffrage restrictions on so-called “passive citizens” as based not on horror of poverty, but on suspicion of the geographically mobile. Similarly, by showing how François Guizot’s liberalism was rooted in a unique historical analysis of how France’s social structure had evolved, Madeleine Rouot’s paper successfully presented the nineteenth-century politician as more anti-authoritarian than traditionally assumed.

Perhaps most striking in this regard was Matteo Rossi’s paper on the famous and influential idea of the United States as a “classless society.” Tracing the origins of this notion to the writings of political economists in 1820s and 1830s Philadelphia, he reconstructed the social and political context of the city in the era to show how it was developed as a specific political response – to the egalitarian claims of radical agitators in a period of heightened labor unrest. The concept of “classlessness” was thus a product of intense class conflict, and we should therefore see it not as a neutral term of analysis, but as a deliberate ideological weapon in the hands of the opponents of the nascent trade union movement.


A final key theme of the conference was that many papers explored the different rhetorical means through which social divisions have been expressed – the various “languages of class” (as Gareth Stedman-Jones entitled his 1983 book). Joan O’Bryan and Madeleine Rouot both emphasized the significance of (often speculative) historical “origin stories”: the former in the case of second-wave American feminists who provided creative accounts of humanity’s division into sex-classes; the latter in the case of François Guizot, who sought to explain the historical significance of the aristocracy. More surprisingly, Rida Vaquas set out how twentieth-century German catholic socialist Walter Dirks developed a concept of the proletariat that was above all theological, and largely expressed through a Christian language of suffering.

Importantly, several papers drew attention to how ethnic or place-based identities frequently served as an ideological proxy for class, and to the political impacts that this could have. Adom Getachew’s keynote discussed how Marcus Garvey assigned Africans the status of the “universal race,” essentially taking over the role of the “universal class” assigned by Marx to the proletariat. Rebecca Goldsmith meanwhile showed how in 1930s Bolton, rhetoric of local experience and regional identity proved to be the most politically effective languages of class politics for the local Labour Party; crucially, they proved to have far more electoral resonance than overt appeals to economic status. Most dramatically, Tom Musgrove’s account of British responses to the Macedonian “Folk War” in the early 1900s showed how socialist “experts” on the Balkans came to equate a national conflict between Greeks and Bulgarians with urban-rural class struggle, ultimately leading them to justify ethnic cleansing as progressive.

Taken together, the papers at the conference (of which those discussed here are only some!) highlighted the historical plurality of how class has been articulated and the persistent importance of social divisions to political thought. They also showed the value of engaging with social context, and the utility of considering how ideas function within the framework of mass politics. But perhaps most importantly, this conference demonstrated the importance of an outward-facing approach to the history of political thought.  The most productive conversations are to be had through looking beyond our disciplinary boundaries, and by engaging with the wider historical community to put different methodologies and focuses into dialogue. This conference has served as an example of what can achieved when we do so.

David Klemperer is a PhD candidate at Queen Mary University of London, researching the political and intellectual history of interwar French socialism. He is a member of the Organising Committee for the Annual London Graduate Conference in the History of Political Thought, and a Contributing Editor at Tocqueville21. He writes here in a personal capacity. He can be found on Twitter at @dmk1793.

Edited by Tom Furse

Featured Image: 13th Annual London Graduate Conference poster.

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