Just a quick one today. The French British history and culture site Cercles has just published my review of Cal Winslow’s edited volume, E.P. Thompson and the Making of the New Left. You can download it here.
Just a quick one today. The French British history and culture site Cercles has just published my review of Cal Winslow’s edited volume, E.P. Thompson and the Making of the New Left. You can download it here.
The Historians’ Group of the Communist Party of Great Britain is historically significant for two main reasons. Firstly the historians involved in the Group became some of the most influential in contemporary British history, helping to pioneer the theory of ‘history from below’. Secondly, the historians involved in the Group were significantly involved in three major acts of rebellion within the Communist Party in 1956 as the Party went into crisis. The impact of those who were part of the Historians’ Group, such as E.P. Thompson, John Saville, Christopher Hill, Eric Hobsbawm, Maurice Dobb, Dona Torr, A.L. Morton and Raphael Samuel (amongst others), upon historiography is hard to deny. The recent celebrations of the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class are testament to this. However this post will deal with the second point and will explore the role that members of the Historians’ Group played in the rebellion against the Party leadership in 1956.
Until recently, there was not much written about the Historians’ Group, besides some work by Harvey Kaye and Bill Schwarz on the Group’s contribution to historiography, and Hobsbawm’s account of the Group, written in the late 1970s. As a prominent member of the Group and the author of (for a long time) the most comprehensive account of the Group’s activities between 1946 and 1956, Hobsbawm’s narrative had become definitive and widely accepted by those who have subsequently discussed the Group. Despite acknowledging that ‘the Group itself did not express any… collective views and was indeed increasingly split’ on the issue, Hobsbawm asserted, ‘the fact that many of the most vocal critics came from among its members is a matter of record’. By the time that Hobsbawm had his autobiography published in 2002, the equivocations had been removed. In Interesting Times, he wrote that in 1956, ‘the group emerged almost immediately as the nucleus of vocal opposition to the Party line’ and claimed that the Group ‘made the two most dramatic challenges to the Party’.
The three acts of rebellion described to by Hobsbawm were the publication of The Reasoner by Saville and Thompson, the publication of a letter signed by a number of historians in Tribune and the New Statesman and Christopher Hill’s involvement in authoring the Minority Report on Inner-Party Democracy for the 25th Special Congress of the CPGB held in April 1957. These acts have subsequently been referred to in most histories of the Group as important intervention in the communist discourses of 1956. For example, Adrià Llacuna has written that the events of 1956 ‘generated a virtually en bloc opposition from the ranks of the Historians’ Group… to the party’s position on the events’. Varying degrees of importance have been placed upon the three acts involving different members of the Historians’ Group, but despite this disagreement, most consider the publication of The Reasoner to be the most controversial act at the time, and also the one that had the longest effect, with Saville and Thompson’s The New Reasoner becoming one of the founding journals of the British New Left in the late 1950s.
Hobsbawm was chair of the Historians’ Group in 1956, but despite a motion passed by the Group in April of that year, in which ‘profound dissatisfaction’ was expressed at the Party’s ‘failure to discuss publicly the implications for the British Party of the 20th Congress [of the] CPSU’, the Group did not engage in organised action as a group against the CPGB leadership. Of the actions, by individual members of the Historians’ Group, Hobsbawm was only publicly involved in one of them, putting his signature to the New Statesman/Tribune letter. This letter, originally sent to the Daily Worker, stated:
We feel that the uncritical support given by the Executive Committee of the Communist Party to Soviet action in Hungary is the undesirable culmination of years of distortion of fact, and failure by British Communists to think out political problems for themselves.
However the letter also concluded with the line, ‘Not all the signatories agree with everything in this letter, but all are in sufficient sympathy with its general intention to sign with this reservation.’ Some critics, such as the Trotskyist Terry Brotherstone, suggest that this allowed Hobsbawm the necessary leeway to be a signatory of the letter, but not be held to its entire contents.
Brotherstone uses the words of Peter Fryer, the Daily Worker who quit the Party after learning that his reports from Budapest in October-November 1956 were being unjustly edited or ignored, to describe Hobsbawm’s protests during that year as having ‘all the force of a pop-gun fitted with a silencer’. Although Hobsbawm signed the letter that was published in the New Statesman and the Tribune, Brotherstone points to another letter by Hobsbawm published in the Daily Worker in early November 1956 that concluded with the sentence:
While approving, with a heavy heart, of what is now happening in Hungary, we should therefore also say frankly, that we think the USSR should withdraw its troops from the country as soon as this is possible.
As I have argued previously, Hobsbawm tried to negotiate the balancing act between maintaining his political and historical integrity through his relationship with those that left the Party and staying within the Party, which he believed was important for the health of British politics at the time. MI5 surveillance files showed that the Party leadership was highly critical of Hobsbawm’s position of being neither in nor out of the Party during this period. Dennis Dworkin has argued that Hobsbawm believed that, however seriously flawed, the CPGB was the only working class party in Britain ‘committed to revolution’ and might eventually re-establish itself as a political force. However Hobsbawm himself admitted that after the events of 1956, the Party had become so weak that despite his criticisms, the Party couldn’t throw him out and ‘didn’t want to anyway’.
In an interview with Tristram Hunt in The Observer in 2002, Hobsbawm stated that this decision to stay in the Party was not ‘out of idealisation of the October Revolution’, but stemming from a political awakening when living in Berlin in the early 1930s when Hitler rose to power. As Dworkin put it, Hobsbawm had joined the Party when anti-fascism and Popular Frontism were at its height and his deep personal attachment to this sense of solidarity and immediacy probably influenced his decision to remain inside the Communist Party. In Hobsbawm’s history of the Historians’ Group and in a number of other discussions of the Group, the Popular Front era (from roughly 1934 1939 then from 1941 to 1945) is seen to have a significant impact upon the Group’s politics and its relationship with the structures of the Communist Party. As John Callaghan has written, the Popular Front created a bigger and more pluralistic Communist Party and Hobsbawm, and others, have argued that this pluralism was reflected in the work of Historians’ Group.
According to Hobsbawm, the Historians’ Group believed that Marxist history was ‘not an isolated truth’, but the ‘spearhead of a broad progressive history… represented by all manner of radical and labour traditions in British historiography’. This drove the Group to engage with non-Marxists based on a flexible and open-ended reading of the Marxist view of history, with this dialogue eventually leading to the establishment of the journal Past and Present. In their history of the early years of the journal, Hill, Hobsbawm and Rodney Hilton argued that the journal was an example of the Historians’ Group attempting to bring the broad-based politics of the Popular Front era into the historical profession in the era of the early Cold War. Despite this, the Communist Party leadership viewed the Historians’ Group as a concentration of loyal and active party members, who drew little controversy or attention to themselves.
While Hobsbawm and several others have pointed to the Popular Front politics of the Historians’ Group as a positive influence upon their historical and political work, others have viewed it as having a negative impact upon the Group. David Renton and Sam Ashman have both proposed that the politics of the Popular Front era and the Second World War, with the emphasis on ‘national roads to socialism’, blunted the revolutionary nature of the Historians’ Group’s work, and there was a focus by many with the Group on the exceptional nature of English/British populism and the inherent radicalism of the English people.
In retrospect, Hobsbawm and others have portrayed this adherence to the principles of Popular Frontism and broad-based unity as evidence that while being loyal members of the CPGB, those in the Historians’ Group did not compromise their intellectual integrity and remained historians first and Party members second. As Madeleine Davis has written:
Associated with the somewhat looser intellectual discipline and populist imperative of the Popular Front period, the main representative of this ‘muffled’ or ‘premature’ revisionism is often thought to be the CPGB Historians’ Group, in whose histories can be seen a more sophisticated interrogation of social being than ‘orthodoxy’ strictly permitted…
However there was little dissidence amongst those in the Historians’ Group in the decade leading up to 1956. As Hobsbawm himself recognised in a letter to the Party journal World News in January 1957, writing:
We tell them that we do not give the USSR “uncritical support”, but when they ask us when we disagreed with its policy, all we can point to is Nina Ponomareva’s hats.
One explanation for this lack of controversy was that the Historians’ Group did little history of the twentieth century and therefore did not interfere in the history of the Soviet Union, which had to be negotiated carefully. This is only half the story, with members of the Group explicitly demonstrating their loyalty to Moscow and the Stalinist regime. For example, Thompson wrote in his biography of William Morris in 1955 (published in 1961 in the USA):
Twenty year ago even among Socialists and Communists, many must have regarded Morris’ picture of ‘A Factory as It Might Be’ as an unpractical poet’s dream: today’s visitors return from the Soviet Union with stories of the poet’s dream already fulfilled. Yesterday, in the Soviet Union, the Communists were struggling against every difficulty to build up their industry to the level of the leading capitalist powers: today they have before them Stalin’s blue-print of the advance to communism.
In a 1953 issue of the CPGB’s journal Modern Quarterly, published shortly after Stalin’s death, Christopher Hill wrote hagiographically about Stalin’s contribution to the Marxist theory of history. Hill called the former Soviet leader as ‘a very great and penetrating thinker, who on any subject was apt to break through the cobwebs of academic argument to the heart of the matter’ and a ‘highly responsible leader, who expressed a view only after mature consideration and weighting the opinions of experts in the subject’. He continued by stating:
His statements, therefore, approximate to the highest wisdom of the collective thought of the USSR.
He concluded the article with this claim:
Such was the final legacy to his peoples of the great Marxist thinker who had himself made history more effectively than any of his contemporaries: considered guidance on the practical measures necessary for the creation of a communist society… It was Stalin’s greatest happiness that he was able to contribute so largely to the creation of such a society, to know what he was creating, and to see that knowledge spread among the men and women who were joining with him in its creations. Humanity, and not only in the USSR but in all countries, will always be in his debt.
Even during the turmoil of 1956, those in the Historians’ Group who raised questions about the Party leadership’s reaction to Khrushchev’s Secret Speech and the invasion of Hungary were often at pains to stress that they were loyal party members pushed to take action. As Michael Kenny has shown in his history of the first New Left in Britain, when Thompson and Saville published The Reasoner, their original intention was to foster discussion inside the party about how to reform itself and encourage greater inner-party democracy. As Saville wrote in a letter to Yorkshire District Committee leader Bert Ramelson defending their actions:
It is necessary at the outset to emphasise that The Reasoner was conceived entirely in terms of the general interests of the Party… I am as firmly convinced as ever of the need for a Communist Party in Britain. Those who have sought to present it as an ‘opposition’ journal, aiming a destructive or factional attack upon the Party leadership, are entirely mistaken.
Before their production of The Reasoner, both Saville and Thompson had written in World News, calling for greater scrutiny of the Party’s past inability to criticise the Soviet Union. Thompson wrote a piece in late June 1956 titled ‘Winter Wheat in Omsk’, which claimed that the Communist Party had alienated themselves from the rest of the British labour movement and from the British people by ignoring the crimes of the Stalin era. In this, he wrote, ‘the British people do not understand and will not trust a Monolith without a moral tongue’. In his book on the British new left, Dworkin has written that Thompson’s article echoed the collective voice of the Historians’ Group, but the collective voice of the Group was more fragmented than Dworkin (and Hobsbawm) have argued. A letter from Christopher and Bridget Hill to World News stated, ‘We did not agree with most of what Comrade Thompson said, and we did not much like the way he said it’. Hill tried to push reform through the Party’s official channels and became a member of the Party’s Commission on Inner Party Democracy, set up after the 24th National Congress of the CPGB in April 1956 and the intra-party discussion over the ‘Secret Speech’. He only resigned from the Party after the Minority Report on Inner Party Democracy, which he co-authored with Daily Worker journalist Malcolm MacEwen and Peter Cadogan, was rejected at the CPGB’s Special 25th National Congress in April 1957.
The dissidence of certain members of the Historians’ Group during 1956 has led to Hobsbawm (and others) to claim that the Popular Frontism that permeated the Group’s membership had created a rebellious intellectual contingent within the Communist Party in the first decade of the Cold War – a retrospective attempt to portray the Group as a font of humanist integrity in opposition to the Stalinised leadership of the CPGB. However, as Lawrence Parker, Neil Redfern and Phillip Deery have shown, most of the dissent within the Communist Party in the decade after the Second World War was by hardliners within the Party who rejected the ‘reformism’ of The British Road to Socialism. Some intellectuals, such as Edward Upward, supported the criticism of the CPGB by the Australian Communist Party in 1948, which called out the ‘Browderism’ of the British party and maintained a strong allegiance to the Soviet Union.
Indisputably the British new left partially emerged out of the dissenting acts of those within the Communist Party, with several of those involved in the Historians’ Group (primarily E.P. Thompson, John Saville and Raphael Samuel) giving voice to discontent felt by many CPGB members – although Thompson spent more time with the Party’s Writers’ Group than the Historians’ Group. But while the rebelliousness of the first new left grew out of the intra-party rebellion that occurred in 1956, it is wrong to suppose that this rebelliousness predates this year. Up until 1956, those in the Historians’ Group were considered loyal and congenial members of the Communist Party and even when dissent started to emerge after the Twentieth Congress of the CPSU, those from the Group who dissented attempted to do so through official channels, such as through the letter pages of the Daily Worker and the World News. The mythology of the Historians’ Group as described by Hobsbawm and others suggests that an anti-Stalinist humanism bubbled just below the surface throughout the late 1940s and early 1950s, until the events of 1956 unleashed a torrent of dissent. It is more the case that those in the Historians’ Group who disagreed with the Party leadership were provoked into taking more and more radical actions as the year progressed and the leadership dug in its heels, only begrudgingly making any admissions of past errors. By the end of 1957, a large proportion of the Group had left the CPGB, including E.P. Thompson, Dorothy Thompson, John Saville, Christopher Hill, George Rudé, Rodney Hilton, Brian Pearce and Raphael Samuel, but these resignations came reluctantly and only after discourse within the Party was shut down. Although much romanticised, those within the Historians’ Group were not the vanguard of a humanist rebellion inside the British communist movement, rather they were loyal comrades hesitantly pushed further towards dissent over the course of a year and a half. As Bryan D. Palmer wrote, ‘The dissident communism of 1956 and the reasoner rebellion… thus served as midwife to the birth of the British Marxist historians’.
 Harvey J. Kaye, The British Marxist Historians (Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 1995); Bill Schwarz, ‘“The People” in History: The Communist Party Historians’ Group, 1946-56’, in Richard Johnson, et. al. (eds) Making Histories: Studies in History-Writing and Politics (London: Hutchinson, 1982) pp. 44-95.
 Eric Hobsbawm, ‘The Historians’ Group of the Communist Party’, in Maurice Cornforth (ed.), Rebels and Their Causes: Essays in Honour of A.L. Morton (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1978) p. 40.
 Eric Hobsbawm, Interesting Times: A Twentieth-Century Life (London: Abacus, 2002) p. 206.
 Adrià Llacuna, ‘British Marxist Historians and Socialist Strategy: Within, Beyond and After the Communist Party’, Twentieth Century Communism, 9 (2015) p. 151.
 Minutes of Historians’ Group meeting, 8 April, 1956, CP/CENT/CULT/06/01, Labour History Archive and Study Centre, Manchester.
 Tribune, 30 November, 1956, p. 3.
 Terry Brotherstone, ‘Eric Hobsbawm (1917-2012): Some Questions from a Never-completed Conversation About History’, Critique, 41/2 (2013) p. 276.
 Cited in, Ibid., p. 275.
 Ibid., p. 276.
 Dennis Dworkin, Cultural Marxism in Post War Britain (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1997) p. 50.
 Eric Hobsbawm, Politics for a Rational Left: Political Writing 1977 – 1988 (London: Verso, 1989) p. 200.
 ‘Man of the Extreme Century’, The Observer, 22 September, 2002.
 Dworkin, Cultural Marxism in Post War Britain, p. 50.
 John Callaghan, ‘The Road to 1956’, Socialist History, 8 (1995) p. 19.
 Interview with Eric Hobsbawm, in H. Abelove, et. al. (eds) Visions of History (New York: Pantheon Books, 1983) p. 33.
 Robert Gray, ‘History, Marxism and Theory’, in Harvey J. Kaye & Keith McLelland (eds) E.P. Thompson: Critical Perspectives (Oxford: Polity Press, 1990) p. 153.
 Christopher Hill, Rodney Hilton & Eric Hobsbawm, ‘Past and Present: Origins and Early Years’, Past and Present, 100 (1983) pp. 4-5.
 David Renton, ‘Studying Their Own Nation Without Insularity? The British Marxist Historians Reconsidered’, Science & Society, 69/4 (2005) pp. 559-579; Sam Ashman, ‘The Communist Party’s Historians’ Group’, in John Rees (ed.) Essays on Historical Materialism (London: Bookmarks, 1998) pp. 145-159.
 Madeleine Davis, ‘Edward Thompson’s Ethics and Activism 1956-1963: Reflections on the Political Formation of The Making of the English Working Class’, Contemporary British History, 28/4 (2014) p. 443.
 ‘Other Readers Say…’, World News, 26 January, 1957, p. 62.
 E.P. Thompson, William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary (New York: Pantheon Books, 1961) p. 760.
 Christopher Hill, ‘Stalin and the Science of History’, Modern Quarterly, 8/4 (Autumn 1953) p. 209.
 Ibid., p. 209.
 Ibid., p. 212.
 Michael Kenny, The First New Left: British Intellectuals After Stalin (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1995) pp. 16-17.
 Cited in, John Saville, ‘The Twentieth Congress and the British Communist Party’, Socialist Register (1976) p. 9.
 E.P. Thompson, ‘Winter Wheat in Omsk’, World News (30 June, 1956) p. 408.
 Dworkin, Cultural Marxism in Post War Britain, p. 48.
 ‘Forum’, World News, 18 August, 1956, p. 525.
 Lawrence Parker, The Kick Inside: Revolutionary Opposition in the CPGB, 1945-1991 (London: November Publications, 2012) pp. 15-43; Phillip Deery & Neil Redfern, ‘No Lasting Peace? Labor, Communism and the Cominform: Australia and Great Britain, 1945-50’, Labour History, 88 (May 2005) pp. 63-86.
 See the correspondence contained in the CPGB archival file, CP/CENT/INT/34/02, LHASC.
 Davis, ‘Edward Thompson’s Ethics and Activism’, p. 443.
 According to Willie Thompson, the editor of the Daily Worker, J.R. Campbell declared discussion of the 20th Congress to be closed as early as 12 March, 1956, only a few weeks after the Congress had ended in Moscow. Willie Thompson, The Good Old Cause: British Communism 1920-1991 (London: Pluto Press, 1992) p. 100.
 Hobsbawm, A.L. Morton and Maurice Dobb remained within the Party, with Morton and Dobb both maintaining their membership until their deaths. Hobsbawm stayed a party member until the Party dissolved in 1991.
 Bryan D. Palmer, ‘Reasoning Rebellion: E.P. Thompson, British Marxist Historians, and the Making of Dissident Political Mobilization’, Labour/Le Travail, 50 (Fall 2002) p. 214.