Influence and its causes - an overdue aside.

Hinrich Kuhls kls at
Sun Nov 12 11:58:16 MST 2000

A week ago [6.11.2000] Louis Proyect wrote:

>Not only do Hobsbawm, Hill and Thompson fail to live up to the example of
>T.A. Jackson, they seem to have forgotten the lessons imparted by A.L.
>Morton, the Dean of British Communist historians, who gave the proper
>emphasis to Ireland. In the seventeenth century, Morton--unlike
>Hobsbawm--sees the connection between English success and Irish failure.

>More to the point, it is seems curious to bracket out discussion of the
>conquest of Ireland when discussing the rapid growth of England and its
>well-fed urban population at the very time hunger and depopulation were
>occurring in Ireland. This problem seems to be endemic among historians who
>prioritize "internal" explanations for the early rise of England. In E.J.
>Hobsbawm's article on "The Crisis of the Seventeenth Century" in Trevor
>Aston's "Crisis in Europe: 1560-1660", Ireland receives about as much
>attention as it gets from Ellen Meiksins Wood.
>Could this inattention be attributed to the influence of British Stalinist
>historians on the New Left Review where Wood served as an editor and where
>Brenner still serves?

>[D]espite the scholarly peccadilloes of Wood and
>Brenner, they remain on the side of the working class.

There remain the results of the Group's work which can be identified,
though obviously in most cases not measured: its effects on its members
and, through their individual and collective work, on the interpretation
and teaching of history. The individual and collective aspects cannot be
seperated, for the Historians' Group of 1946-56 was that rare, possibly
unique, phenomenon in British historiography, a genuinely cooperative
group, whose members developed their often highly individual work through a
constant interchange among equals.

It was not a 'school' built round an influential teacher or book. Even
those most respected in the Group neither claimed to be authoritative nor
were treated as such, at least by the numerically dominant nucleus of the
Marxists of the 1930s or earlier vintages. None of us enjoyed the authority
of prestige which comes from outside professional recognition, not even
Dobb whose position in the academic world was isolated. Fortunately the
Party invested none of us with ideological or political authority. We were
united neither by common subject-matter, style nor set of mind - other than
a desire to be Marxists. And yet it is certain that each of us as an
individual historian, amateur of professional, as teacher or writer, bears
the mark of our ten years' 'seminar' and none would be quite the same as a
historian today without it.

Before trying to summarize our achivements, it may be useful to suggest
some things we failed to do. For obvious reasons we failed to make much
contribution to twentieth-century history at the time, though the positive
side of this abstention was that the Marxist historians of 1946-56, unlike
the newly radicalized generations of the late 1960s, did not conentrate
excessively on the inieteenth and twentieth century labour movement.

We never doubted that the study of ancient philsophy (Farringdon, Thomson),
of early Christianity (Morris), of Attila (Professor E. Thomson) or
medieval peasants (Hilton) was as 'relevant' as that of Social Democratic
Federation or the General Strike. Again, in our work on general capitalist
development we were propably too reluctant to query such orthodoxies as had
been established (e.g. in the USSR during the attacks on Pokrovsky).
Curiously enough we were not, on the whole, very strong on the economic
side of economic history, and our work probably did not advance as far as
it might have done for this reason. It would be wrong to look back upon our
work with other than rather qualified self-satisfaction.

On the other hand, our achievements were not insignificant. First, there is
little doubt that the rise of 'social history' in Britain as a field of
study, and  especially of 'history from below' or the 'history of the
common people', owes a great deal to the work of the members of the group
(e.g. Hilton, Hill, Rude, E.P. Thompson, Hobsbawm, Raphael Samuel). In
particular the actions of social movements - the theory underlying the
actions of social movements - is still largely identified with historians
of this provenance, for the social history of _ideas_ was always (thanks
largely to Hill) one of our main preoccupations.

Second, the members of the group contributed very substantially to the
development of labour history.

Third, the study of the English Revolution of the seventeenth century was
largely transformed by us; and though this is largely due to Hill's
'dominant position in the field of Revolutionary studies today', Hill
himself would be the first to agree that the debates among Marxist
historians on the Revolution and on his owrk, from 1940 onwards, played a
part in the development of his views. The historiography of the English
Revolution today is by no means predominantly Marxist; on the other hand,
but for the Marxists it would certainly be very different.

Fourth, members of the group have influenced the general teaching of
history through the often very popular general textbooks wich they have
written, as well as through other works. In this respect A.L. Morton
pioneered the way with his Peoples' History, which still remains the only
Marxist attempt to write the entire history of Britan (or rather England).

Fifth, the journal founded in the worst days of the Cold War by a group of
Marxist historians, Past and Present, has become one of the leading
historical journals in the world. Though it was never Marxist in the
literal sense, and even dropped its sub-title 'a journal of scientific
history' in 1958, the initiative, and to some extent the general stance of
the journal, originally came from the Marxists, and their contribution to
it was therefore crucial, at least in the early years when it established
its standing.

These are not negligible achievements. They justify recalling the ten
fruitful years which began with Leslie Mortons's desire to consult other
Marxist historians for the second edition of his Peoples' History. At all
events, if no one else reads this memoir with interest or profit, one thing
is certain: it will recall a part of their past of the middle-aged and
ageing survivors of the Historians' Group of 1946-56, wherever their paths
have since taken them.

Eric Hobsbawm:
The Historians' Group of the Communist Party,
in: Rebels and Their Causes. Essays in Honour of A.L. Morton (ed. by
Maurice Cornforth), London 1978, p. 21-47 (p. 43-45).

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