Political activism, protest and counter-cultures

Explore the histories of alternative political thought, counter-cultural movements and social justice through Senate House Library’s collections.

Subject Librarian: Mura Ghosh
Email: Mura.Ghosh@london.ac.uk
Phone: 020 7862 8449

Subject Librarian: Argula Rublack
E-mail: Argula.Rublack@london.ac.uk 
Phone: 020 7862 8455

Schedule an online meeting to discuss your research or collection related enquiries.

Heisler Collection SHL

Political activism, protest and counter-cultures

Explore the histories of alternative political thought, counter-cultural movements and social justice through Senate House Library’s collections.

Subject Librarian: Mura Ghosh
Email: Mura.Ghosh@london.ac.uk
Phone: 020 7862 8449

Subject Librarian: Argula Rublack
E-mail: Argula.Rublack@london.ac.uk 
Phone: 020 7862 8455

Schedule an online meeting to discuss your research or collection related enquiries.

Collection Description

Many printed modern and special collections and archives at Senate House Library chart the history of left-wing, alternative and radical political movements. Of particular interest are the personal papers of Trotskyist activists (eg. Alan Clinton, Will Fancy, Juan Posadas).  

Furthermore, diverse aspects of the history and development of the working-class movement can be explored through the Heisler, Higgins/Richardson, Burns and Pelling collections, which in some cases include both archive and printed special collection material.  

Feminism and the history of women’s rights movements in Britain, Europe, United States, Commonwealth and Latin America are widely spread across the library, offering substantial depth and breadth of resources for research. 

Pacifism as a form of social and political activism in the earlier part of the twentieth century is another subject also well represented in the archive and special collections holdings at the library.  

Senate House Library also holds a wealth of material relating to queer culture and activism, from the literary to the campaigning for LGBT+ rights and equality. Of particular significance is the personal library of Jonathan Cutbill, a prominent LGBT campaigner and Britain’s foremost collector of books of LGBT relevance. 

Research into activist and protest movements using the Senate House Library’s collections requires, in many cases, an interdisciplinary and intersectional approach. Although categorized separately in the guides below, there are always multiple overlaps between the movements, be that on issues of political conviction, gender, race, class or sexual orientation.  

Locating and accessing material

Most modern materials on political activism, protest and counter-cultures are located within our open access collections throughout the 4th to 7th floors, and many also within our archives and special collections. Special collections and archive material must be ordered in advance and consulted in the Special Collections Reading Room

Start exploring the collections using our catalogue, which includes details of all our printed and electronic collections.  

A selection of e-resources and databases related to these topics is available through browsing the A-Z Databases list on our LibGuides platform. Primary source material from the Senate House Library’s own collections can be found on our list of Digitised UoL special collections and archives

Labour and trade unions

The history of the working classes and the labour movements in Britain, United States and Europe is strongly represented within the Library’s holdings, across many of our social sciences, history, special printed collections and archives. Both institutional histories of labour unions and other workers’ organisations, as well as social histories of the workers themselves are well represented. 

From its foundation, the Library has been collecting a wide range of primary source publications in this area, many unique and rare, in a variety of formats, including printed books, pamphlets, periodicals, broadsides, posters and other grey literature.  Early English and French socialist writings can be found in the Goldsmiths Library of Economic and Social Literature. There are vast holdings pertaining to the development of self-conscious political working class movements in the nineteenth century. John Burns Collection, for example, offers a lot to researchers interested in labour and socialist movements and the formation of trade unions up to the establishment of the Labour Party in the early twentieth century. 

The library of the Family Welfare Association, previously known as the Charity Organisation Society, holds material on many social questions that animated the Victorian society, with a particular focus on poverty and the Poor Law, the co-operative movement, and women’s trade union movements. Senate House Library also holds many publications printed by the Fabian Society, reflecting the output of its influential thinkers.  

The Pelling Collection holds an eclectic array of left-wing publications, from pamphlets, leaflets and newsletters to manifestos, party manuals and songbooks produced by the Communist Party, the Labour Party or the Red International of Labour Unions. 

Publications emanating from Marxist and Trotskyists groups feature prominently in the Richardson Collection, one of the best collection of its kind in the UK. The Library also has significant holdings of Trotskyist archival material.  

One of our largest and growing collection of left-wing and radical publications, the Ron Heisler Collection and Archives, holds a vast number of ephemera, spanning over two centuries. (View the Ron Heisler gallery.) There are very extensive holdings relating to strikes and other forms of labour protest during the rise of left-wing politics in the 1950s and 1970s. For researchers interested in the construction of gender and race within a class analysis beyond the history of the white male working class, this collection has much to offer, and includes some uncommon publications from the women’s movement. 

Senate House Library has enormously rich holdings in these topics for the Commonwealth and Latin America, giving a unique perspective on the relationship between trade unions and the fight against colonialism. A substantial proportion of this material was published in the countries of origin, and some are very scarce.  

Primary sources are complemented by vast holdings of secondary works, many interdisciplinary, about the social and cultural history of the industrial working classes, labour protest, the rise of mass politics, and especially the rise of socialism, including many works by Marxist historians. 

Below is a list of selected e-resources with relevant content: 

To discover clusters of material on specific topics, here are some suggested search terms (subject headings) you can use in our online catalogue:  

  • Cooperative societies 
  • Guilds 
  • Employee rights 
  • Equal pay for equal work 
  • Industrial relations 
  • Labor laws and legislation 
  • Labor movement 
  • Labor unions 
  • Socialism 
  • Strikes and lockouts 
  • Trade-unions 
  • Women in the labor movement 
  • Women labor union members 
  • Working class 

Protest and political campaigning

Protest and political campaigning is strongly represented across many of Senate House Library’s collections. 

The most significant resource the library holds is the Ron Heisler collection, containing books, pamphlets, journals, newspaper and ephemera related to numerous labour and radical political movements, including socialist, communist, anarchist, feminist, queer and many other radical and progressive political movements. The collection is particularly strong in its British holdings but also covers Africa, Australia, Canada, Europe, New Zealand, the United States, the West Indies and the former Soviet Union. A large proportion of the items were only published in small print runs, making it a rich source to find scarce material on a variety of political and protest movements. 

International protest and campaigning movements are well represented in the pamphlet and ephemeral collections held by Senate House Library. Political archives collected by the Institute of Commonwealth Studies extend to more than 270 boxes of material from over 60 countries, including current and former members of the Commonwealth and former British and European colonies. The material largely dates from the 1960s and 1970s and gives insight into processes of decolonisation and transitions to independence. Archival holdings gathered by the Institute of Commonwealth Studies complement these strengths, with a particular strength in anti-apartheid movement materials (for more information visit our guides on apartheid archives and on Commonwealth Studies). Senate House Library also holds around 4,000 political pamphlets and other ephemera from Latin America (for more information visit our guide on Latin American political pamphlets).  

A recent addition to Senate House Library is the Cartonera collection. Cartonera publishing originates from small grassroots cooperatives in Latin America, many of which are involved in social, ecological and digital activism.  

An overview of all resources related to protest and campaigning can be found on our A-Z Databases list.  

To discover clusters of material on specific topics, here are some suggested search terms (subject headings) you can use in our online catalogue:  

  • African American civil rights workers 
  • African American political activists 
  • African American women civil rights workers 
  • Anti-fascist movements 
  • Anti-imperialist movements 
  • Black power 
  • Civil rights movements 
  • Civil rights workers 
  • Decolonization 
  • Demonstrations 
  • Insurgency 
  • Labor movement 
  • Political activists 
  • Protest movements 
  • Pressure groups 
  • Radicalism 
  • Strikes and lockouts 
  • Socialism 
  • Student movements  
  • Women civil rights workers  
  • Women political activists 
  • Youth protest movements 

Feminism

Senate House Library has comprehensive holdings spanning the entire history of feminism in its broadest sense, comprising ideas and movements relating to women’s rights from the eighteenth century to the present day. 

Significant holdings of primary source material are available to researchers across many special printed collections and archives. Particularly strong is nineteenth and early twentieth century material relating to women-led campaigns against slavery and poverty, for the improvement of working conditions for women, women in trade unions, health crusades, educational reform, and the right to vote.  

Researchers can explore many of these topics as well as women’s own voices on these issues in publications held in the Family Welfare Association library, the Goldsmiths Library of Economic and Social Literature, and the John Burns Collection.  Correspondence and diaries of influential suffragettes and other social reformers can be found in the Booth Family Papers and De Morgan Family Papers

Women’s contributions to pacifism in the first and second world wars and in the later anti-nuclear movement are well represented throughout the Library, of particular note being the printed Playne Collection, the Caroline Elizabeth Playne Papers, and the Peace Pledge Union pamphlets 

The Library has extensive holdings of ephemeral publications, many of them scarce, from the women’s liberation movement, found primarily within the Ron Heisler Collection and Ron Heisler Archives of left-wing and radical publications, and within our general Pamphlet Collection. The fight for women’s rights to control their own bodies, contraception and abortion rights campaigns are also well represented in these collections and across the Library. 

Black and Asian feminism is a strong and growing area of collection development, closely linked with our vast Commonwealth and Latin American holdings. 

Many women’s only presses or publications by women collectives and women groups in the UK and from around the world, as well as many national histories of feminism, can be found throughout the Library. Feminist theory is represented in many interdisciplinary works found within our Philosophy, Social Sciences and Psychology Collections 

You can find more resources and blogs on these topics on the Senate House Library’s pages dedicated to the Rights for women: London pioneers in their own words exhibition season, July-December 2018.  

Below is a list of selected e-resources with relevant content: 

To discover clusters of material on specific topics, here are some suggested search terms (subject headings) you can use in our online catalogue

  • Abortion 
  • African American feminists 
  • Bisexual feminism 
  • Equal pay for equal work 
  • Feminism 
  • Feminists 
  • Lesbian feminism 
  • Reproductive rights 
  • Socialist feminism 
  • Suffrage 
  • Suffragists 
  • Suffragettes 
  • Women civil rights workers 
  • Women in politics 
  • Women political activists  
  • Women social reformers  
  • Women radicals 
  • Women’s liberation movement 
  • Women’s rights 

Gender and LGBTQ+ activism

Works by and about the LGBTQ+ community can be found across all Senate House Library’s collections, expressed in a variety of formats, both print and online, and covering all aspects of the humanities. Political and social activism is a key feature of many of the LGBTQ+ works held, sometimes expressly and directly so and other times more covertly, for instance life stories told in the pages of magazines. Works held have been produced via mainstream publishers, small presses, self-publishers, and activist groups and individuals.   

The following links are just some spotlights to help you begin your search amongst the extensive LGBTQ+ material held at SHL.  

Jonathan Cutbill Collection: recently acquired book collection from the late Jonathan Cutbill, one of the founders of Gay’s the Word Bookshop, our Bloomsbury neighbours  

Ron Heisler Collection: contains many works, often in pamphlet form, produced by and to support LGBTQ+ communities. This collection is from a radical, left-wing perspective, predominantly from the UK.  

Queer Between the Covers Exhibition: during 2018 Senate House Library held an exhibition and events season celebrating LGBTQ+ literature. The exhibition guide, blogs and the interactive online bookshelf can be found here.  

The following e-resources provide primary source material available for online research: 

To discover clusters of material on specific topics, here are some suggested search terms (subject headings) you can use in our online catalogue

  • Bisexual feminism  
  • Gay liberation movement 
  • Gay rights 
  • Lesbian activists 
  • Lesbian feminism 
  • Same-sex marriage 
  • Socialism and homosexuality 

Pacifism

Senate House Library has large holdings relating to the main conflicts and the associated peace and disarmament movements around the world in the twentieth century. 

Holdings on pacifism in the First and Second World Wars are particularly strong throughout the Library. The printed Playne Collection, the Caroline Elizabeth Playne Papers, and the Peace Pledge Union pamphlets offer notable primary sources on the subject. There are also many pamphlets relating to the League of Nations held as part of our large Pamphlet Collection. 

Ephemeral publications, some of them scarce, published by anti-nuclear activist campaigns, can be found primarily within the Ron Heisler Collection and Ron Heisler Archives of left-wing and radical publications. Women’s contribution to various peace campaigns is a particular strength of our collections. The library also has unique ephemeral publications and reports published in the Commonwealth and Latin America. 

You can find more resources and blogs on these topics on the Senate House Library’s pages dedicated to Writing in times of conflict exhibition season, July - December 2019. 

Below is a list of selected e-resources and online resources with relevant content: 

To discover clusters of material on specific topics, here are some suggested search terms (subject headings) you can use in our online catalogue

  • Antinuclear movement 
  • Conscientious objectors  
  • Disarmament 
  • Pacifism  
  • Pacifists  
  • Peace building 
  • Peace movements 
  • Peace societies 
  • Student pacifists 
  • Women pacifists 
  • Women and peace 

Communism

There are a wide variety of resources at Senate House Library that support the study of communism and communist thought.   

In our printed special collections the largest resource of around 50,000 items is the Ron Heisler collection with its focus on British and international labour and radical political movements, including communist movements.  

British labour historian Henry Pelling’s collection of around 800 British left-wing political pamphlets from the 1880s to the 1970s includes many that relate to the Communist Party of Great Britain.  

There are a further 1,500 items on socialism, Marxism and Trotskyist groups in the collection of the historian and Trotskyist activist Al Richardson. The printed collections of Al Richardson are complemented by vast archival holdings amassed in the combined papers of Al Richardson and Jim Higgins, another prominent Trotskyist activist and writer. Both collections cover British communist movements but equally display a strong international focus, including materials from Europe, North America, Latin America, Asia, Australia and New Zealand.  

Trotskyism as a branch of communism is especially well represented in the archives of Senate House Library. An overview of these is available through our subject guide to Trotskyist archive sources.   

E-resources to study communism in Britain available include: 

E-resources to study communism in North America include: 

E-resources to study communism in Latin America available through Senate House Library include: 

To discover clusters of material on specific topics, here are some suggested search terms (subject headings) you can use in our online catalogue

  • African American communists 
  • Communism 
  • Communist countries 
  • Communist parties 
  • Communists 
  • Propaganda, Anti-communist 
  • Propaganda, Communist 
  • Socialism 
  • Women communists 
  • Women and communism 

Suggest a book

We are always happy to review suggestions for new items to add to the collections.