The People Speak is a compendium of speeches, stories, letters and songs that express radical dissent throughout British history. The People Speak project first appeared in the USA, cofounded by historian and activist Howard Zinn and Anthony Arnove. Following the success of the US book and film, Arnove embarked on a UK version, working with actor Colin Firth and historian David Horspool. The book spans British history from 1066 to the present, covering conflicts as diverse as republicanism, struggles against English colonialism, suffrage, race, class, workers’ rights, and gender and sexual equality. Here Anthony discusses the aims of the book, the writing process and what is next for the project.
I was surprised by Colin Firth’s involvement in this project. As an actor who has made his name playing aristocratic characters – the king of England, Mr Darcy and an eminent human rights lawyer – he doesn’t seem the obvious choice as a collaborator on a book collating the radical voices of the common people. Is Colin a secret socialist? How did he come to be involved in this project?
People tend to put actors in a particular box. In my experience working with a number of actors, as well as musicians, they never fit in them well. Colin certainly does not.
I met Colin when he was working on a documentary about racism, capital punishment, and the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal, so I was aware from our first meetings that he was a politically engaged, knowledgeable, and thoughtful person.
A little while after we met, Colin came to a staged reading in New York based on a book Howard Zinn and I put together called Voices of a People's History of the United States. The book is a primary source companion to Howard's book A People's History of the United States and is the model for the one Colin and I have just published with Canongate, The People Speak. Colin came to a few more of these readings and later also saw the documentary Howard and I worked on together, also titled The People Speak.
Howard and I always hoped the Voices project would be extended to other countries, and after The People Speak aired in 2009, we started talking to people about doing versions of the staged readings and the documentary, as well as the book, in other countries. We immediately thought of approaching Colin to bring the project to the UK. We knew of Colin's appreciation of the project, and also I had enjoyed the chance to direct with Colin an event at the Ritzy Brixton in which we pulled together an evening of readings of US voices connected to the themes in the documentary I mentioned earlier, In My Prison My Whole Life, which also screened that night. So Colin and I already had some actors excited about the project and eager to explore the history of the UK through this lens.
I'd have to let Colin decide how to label his politics, but I don't think there is anything secret about them. He's taken public stances on many issues, and supported some important causes, as has his remarkable partner, Livia Firth.
Can you explain the influence of Howard Zinn’s work on the project?
Howard's work is really the origin of the project — and inspiration for it. Howard had the idea for a book that would gather together the songs, speeches, poems, letters, petitions, and other documents of people's history. And he also had the idea for our first reading in public of selections from these dramatic moments in the history of dissent and protest, which took place in early 2003 in New York City, with a terrific cast, including Kurt Vonnegut, Patti Smith, Marisa Tomei, Danny Glover, and James Earl Jones. Howard has a profound sense of how to make history come alive for people — and give them a sense of their own active role in it.
Howard was not alone in this. His work was inspired by other historians, of course, and in turn inspired new work that we could draw on for our Voices book. But his work was also profoundly influenced by the social movements he observed and took part in, such as the many civil rights struggles of the 1960s.
So, even though we lost Howard in 2010 — Howard's ideas informed every aspect of the People Speak UK documentary and book, which is in part why we dedicate the book to him.
There is a huge amount of material in the book – the first extract dates from 1066 and you bring us all the way up to 2011 – and I’m guessing there was much more that was excluded. Firstly, how did you go about finding the material?
Yes, painfully, we had to leave a lot of great material on the cutting room floor. I hope some day we can make some of it available through an educational web site or DVD or perhaps an enhanced book edition with supplementary materials. We'd also still love to find a way to make the film we made for History Channel in the UK available to people. (The US DVD is available but the UK one is not.)
We had the great fortune of being able to work with a terrific group of actors and musicians for our original London performance of UK selections, which was the basis of the documentary broadcast on History Channel. That process helped us pare down our first group of readings, around sixty in total, whereas we now have more than 200 in the finished book. That experience was invaluable. Not only did we see the pieces brought to life by some very talented artists, but some of our actors and musicians brought new ideas for readings into the conversation and helped expand our selections.
At the end of that stage in the project, we were aware of how few of the readings were able to make it into the one-hour television version and of still others we had wanted to stage and film but couldn't within the scope of one day.
So when Jamie Byng, the publisher of Canongate, approached us about publishing a book, we saw it as a chance to broaden our scope and include more texts. We also worked with historian David Horspool, who helped to fill in some gaps, especially in the earliest periods we cover, where he brought some very exciting documents to our attention that Colin and I hadn't come across in our earlier research.
A number of great writers, researchers, and academics also gave us invaluable advice, among them Mike Marqusee and Neil Davidson.
Following on, how did you choose what to include and exclude? Were there any specific selection criteria? For example, there are some hard-core radials in here that advocate for the use of violence to achieve their political goals. Did you debate whether to exclude that kind of material or was it an anything goes approach?
Our process started with selecting readings that we felt were dramatic and might speak to audiences today.
We came across many readings on aspects of peoples history that were interesting but, in the end, were rather dry or written or spoken in a language that would seem opaque to contemporary readers.
And we wanted readings, whenever possible, that came out of a context where something very real was at stake for the person speaking or writing them. People in our book were hung, exiled, jailed, vilified for their words and deeds. Some of the readings in The People Speak are a person's last words from the gallows, eloquently defying their executioners.
Any selection process in history telling will necessarily reflect the personal interests and concerns of the writer — or editors, in our case. We make no pretence that ours is an objective history. We open with a scene from a Monty Python film party to signal that, but also because it has something sharp to say about nationalism, class, monarchy.
In terms of people advocating violence, we don't shy from the fact that the history of the British Isles and of the empire, a story we try to include, is one fraught with violence. So, yes, we have voices of people who speak out against the violence of the state, with its powers of execution and its powers of war making, and others who say that certain forms of violence may be necessary to end certain forms of oppression, as a result of what the state and people in positions of power will do to destroy any threat to their position and privilege. We have still others in the book who passionately argue that nonviolent strategies are the only ones that can effectively dismantle oppressive power structures. This is an old debate, and one that continues.
More interesting to me than the question of violence and nonviolence in the abstract is the issue of "radicalism." The term "radical" is one often used to dismiss someone as being beyond the bounds of acceptable political expression. But I think to be radical is best understood as getting at the root of a problem. And throughout our book you encounter voices of people, such as Emmeline Pankhust, whose views were radical in the context of her time but now seem commonsense. Women should have the same voting rights as men. People were tortured and jailed for holding that view. Many women laboured years and never saw that right achieved in their lifetimes.
In case after case, we see that radicals are the people who, through their boldness, risk-taking, creativity, have been most decisive in expanding the freedoms we have today — and who have given us the best tools for making sure, first, that they are not taken away, and, second, for winning new freedoms for people. Ultimately we worked on this book because we hoped it would provide what the Welsh socialist Raymond Williams called "resources of hope," ideas for those who are not just interested in reading about history but in taking part in trying to make it.
I like this idea of “resources for hope”. It can be discouraging on the radical left to see waves of activism and then for it to fall away again having made little impact on the status quo. You include some very recent speeches against the cuts to public services we’ve been experiencing in the UK. Are you hopeful that the left in this country (and other parts of the world) can be revitalised and provide a challenge to neoliberal orthodoxy?
I am hopeful. In the broad scope of history, I feel a very strong case can be made that resistance to oppression and exploitation, far from being an aberration, is deeply rooted in our collective human experience. No matter how much we are inculcated with the perverse forms of capitalist individualism and competition in our schools, our media, in other dominant institutions, people embody a set of completely contrary values: solidarity, concern for others, self-sacrifice, commitment to justice. Worldwide we see rebellions, some quite significant, against neoliberal orthodoxy. And more and more, it is harder to see why advances in technology that should mean we can work less and have more fulfilling lives actually mean the opposite. In an era when vast inequality in income, in health, in opportunities for education, meaningful employment, and creative expression, should be a relic of the past, we see them increasing. I firmly believe the centre cannot hold. Shelley was right when he wrote in "Masque of Anarchy," which we include in our collection, "Ye are many, they are few." The percentage of people who actually benefit form the existing order of things is a smaller and smaller percentage. And the overwhelming majority of the world's population who ate being screwed over by the existing state of affairs can, through collective action, turn the tide.
You've mentioned several times the dramatic aspect of the project. The book was launched with readings by famous actors, including Colin Firth, Emily Blunt, Vanessa Redgrave and Ian McKellan. Do you see any contradiction in having the speeches and songs of the voiceless and powerless being read by people who have quite a substantial platform in modern society?
I would reject the term "voiceless." These people very much had a voice, as we document throughout the book. They often were suppressed or marginalized or persecuted, but they had a voice — an eloquent, meaningful, historically visionary one. So our project is not about “giving voice to the voiceless," a phrase that honestly makes me cringe whenever I hear it. (I also am no fan of the common reference to activists as "tireless." No one is tireless, and that is an inhuman standard to hold people to, especially given the long-term and challenging nature of any work for social change.) The reason actors and musicians of the calibre of Ian and Emily are drawn to these voices is that they are remarkably eloquent, and the speeches we have asked them to read speak to their own interests and passions. And honestly they do a brilliant job. But that said, we have organized readings with school students and community organizers that are extremely powerful in their own right, as well. It's a gift to hear these words spoken by Ian McKellan or sung by The Unthanks. But there is a tremendous eloquence of the words and power in hearing them read in any collective setting by anyone who cares to bring them to some public setting to be shared with others. Part of what we find is especially compelling about this project is that it brings people together for a very social experience in a world where we are more and more atomized and cut off from each other, and cut off from the past.
I was curious as to why gender and sexual equality movements were grouped together. Equality for the sexes and equality for people of different sexual orientation are two separate issues. Grouping the two issues together seemed to me to do a disservice to both of them. For example, the last explicitly feminist speech in the book is from 1971, but feminists are campaigning to this day. Why did you make this decision?
The groupings were an imperfect attempt to deal with the fact that when we first organized the book chronologically, it was rather intimidating to contemplate the prospect of starting in the 12th century and fearing people would feel fatigue at the thought of having to read through a few hundred pages of material that might seem more challenging. And we also wanted to disrupt the standard teaching of history as one damn thing after another. We wanted to give people more license to find intersections between movements, to jump around in the book, and make their own connections. I hardly think we did a disservice to either movement by grouping them together, but we certainly did not intend to wall off any movement from the other or to suggest that each did not have their own dynamics and power. I think that's a rather narrow reading of our intent. But as Colin says in his introduction, this also not an attempt to create the definitive collection of voices of dissent. We'd be thrilled if more such collections are published and other texts are put forward, read, staged, debated.
An excellent television production of The People Speak has just taken place in Australia. Given the distance, we weren't directly involved, but the team there adapted our format. I hope to be involved directly in a live production and ideally also a television version for Ireland, a performance in Scotland, and a live event to be filmed for television in Italy. At various points, we have discussed productions in South Africa Spain, Germany, and France, but so far none of those has gotten beyond the initial stages of looking for funding and broadcast or theatrical partners.
Finally, do you have a personal favourite in the book?
It's not really possible to pick just one. My favourite title of a single reading is Richard Overton 1646 pamphlet An Arrow Against All Tyrants and Tyranny, Shot from the Prison of Newgate into the Prerogative Bowels of The Arbitrary House of Lords, and All Other Usurpers and Tyrants Whatsoever. I am also partisan to some of the remarkable Irish voices, which have a particularly acute eloquence and defiance. But it's a bit like asking what's your favourite Bob Dylan song.
Anthony Arnove is the author of Iraq: The Logic of Withdrawal, editor of Iraq Under Seige and The Essential Chomsky, and coauthor, with Howard Zinn, of Voices of a People's History of the United States and Terrorism and War. He is the codirector of The People Speak with Chris Moore and Howard Zinn.