Communist Party Historians Group - Origins
An extract from Jonathan's White's Making Our Own History, on the origins and mission of the CPGB's Historians Group, the precursor of the Socialist History Society.
The attempts to build a popular or ‘People’s Front’ in Britain were a key battle ground for Marxists. A critical dimension of this work was the cultural front, in which Communists and sympathisers worked hard to build an anti-fascist ideological unity by through cultural production that emphasised the need to defend civilisation and hard-won political liberties against fascism. Part of this work was reintepreting or ‘reclaiming’ the British past as a complex series of class struggles that had produced a radical and democratic tradition around which popular resistance to fascism as the latest form of tyranny, could be built. May Day marches and historical pageants were organised around seminal events in the building of democratic government and social progress: Simon De Montfort’s revolt and the formation of Parliament, the Chartists and so on. In 1938, A.L. Morton’s People’s History of England was published, presenting a still-compelling vision of English history through a Marxist historical understanding. Morton’s book summarised the existing state of historical knowledge about English history and ensured that it addressed every well-known historical event. But this familiar story was articulated through Marx, Engels and Lenin’s historical understanding, wearing its theoretical basis exceptionally lightly and written in beautifully clear and simple prose.
Alan Merson, a founding member of the Historians Group, later noted, in A People’s History, ‘The development of the productive forces and of class relations, the reflection of the class struggle in the conflict of institutions and ideas are not treated separately, but woven into the texture of the story: and in the process many political events which have always appeared accidental or inexplicable acquire a meaning’. Two years later Christopher Hill, Margaret James and Edgell Rickword published The English Revolution 1640, which even more than A People’s History presented the Civil War as a class struggle between the rising English bourgeoisie and the residual feudal classes.
After the war, and under the auspices of the National Culture Committee, the Communist Party Historians Group began meeting formally and self-consciously continued the approach learned in the years of the People’s Front. As Eric Hobsbawm later recalled, ‘Both we and the Party saw ourselves not as a sect of true believers, holding up the light amid the surrounding darkness, but ideally as leaders of a broad, progressive movement such as we had experienced in the 1930s’.
During the Cold War, with tis proscriptions and blacklists of Communists, such an approach was vital if Marxist historians were to have any influence. This is part of the reason that the CP historians focused on conducting empirical work and writing in clear prose that could appeal to academic and non-academic audiences. There was, as Hobsbawm said, ‘no intellectual public which took Marxism seriously, or even accepted or understood our technical terminology’. P.32 Communist historians had to win recognition and supporters by proving themselves as historians within a hostile intellectual realm.
Yet it would also be wrong to under-emphasise the importance of the work of Marxists in the Soviet Union. For all the emphasis on the domestic radical tradition, the CP’s historical and education work did draw on the emerging science of Marxism in the USSR. From 1930 onwards, the CPGB made a serious effort to improve party education and naturally turned to the work going on in the USSR. The first texts on dialectical materialism were translated shortly after the ‘New Turn’ in 1930, but most significant was the publication of Stalin’s Dialectical and Historical Materialism in 1938. This may not have been an important event to the Historians Group but for all its flaws, its clarity of exposition meant that it was very easily incorporated into Party education work, forming a regular element of party education courses from the 1940s onwards.
As we’ve already seen, the sheer scale of its publication was amazing, but from 1952 onwards, Maurice Cornforth supplemented it with his three volume series Dialectical Materialism, which contained a stand-alone volume on historical materialism. The basic conceptual vocabulary of Soviet historical materialism was, therefore, a regular feature of Communist Party education courses from the 1940s onwards.
Similarly, the work of the Historians Group was organised in a way strikingly similar to that of the Bolshevik Society of Marxist Historians. Sections were formed around themes like ‘the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries‘, ‘ancient history’, or the nineteenth century. Discussions were convened, papers brought forward and then ensued collective discussion and robust argument with a view to producing collectively agreed positions. Like the SMH in the Soviet Union, the work of the Historian’ Group was seen to be part of a holistic challenge to bourgeois ideological domination of education in Britain. Reporting on Group work in 1949, Daphne May wrote that its purpose was to ‘enable us to discuss with other Marxist historians working in the same field fundamental problems of history. The argument and criticism should enable us to improve the quality of our individual writing and teaching and – more than that – help us to make really creative contributions to Marxist theory’. ‘We ought therefore always to be seeking ways of making our historical work politically useful’. Alan Merson similarly stressed that the work of the group was seen to be part of a wider cultural effort to challenge bourgeois historical consciousness wherever it was rooted: ‘‘Comrades who might hesitate to think of themselves as historians can make a valuable contribution to Marxist history by studying the past of their own town or their own union. The isolation of ‘specialist’ from ‘public’ is indeed a characteristic of bourgeois science which Marxism must overcome by the development of collective Socialist forms of work’.
The group had also read and were aware of the work of Soviet historians. Christopher Hill and Brian Pearce read Russian and were familiar with the debates over Pokrovsky’s work. Translations of papers from Soviet historians were brought to the attention of the Group and some deference was shown by some to the need to not be out of step with the settled views of Soviet historians – though as we’ve seen the monolithic quality of these is easy to exaggerate. Even at the height of the period of ideological orthodoxy under Stalin, Hobsbawm claimed, the Group did not feel under external pressure to reach certain conclusions, providing they were not addressing the position of the Bolskevik Party. Hill, Rodney Hilton and Maurice Dobb were in touch with and deeply influenced by Kosminsky and Hill had visited Russia and been introduced to the work of Anghangelsky and other Soviet historians.
If the published output of the Historians Group are triumphs of popular accessible and empirically rich historical scholarship, the records and papers of these internal collective Group discussions show an intense engagement with Marxist concepts and formed part of a collective effort, alongside Marxist intellectuals across the Communist movement, to develop and popularise the theoretical and empirical basis of historical materialism.
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