**This essay originally appeared in a collection published by Lawrence & Wishart in 1978 entitled Rebels and Their Causes: Essays in Honour of A. L. Morton. With their permission, Verso is publishing it online for the first time.
The present record, based on memory, on consultation with several old friends and on a substantial collection of materials, does not claim to be an actual 'history' of the Historians' Group of the Communist Party, and it covers only the years between 1946 and 1956. Nevertheless it may be of some interest even to those who do not happen to have belonged or who still belong to it. For the Historians' Group played a major part in the development of Marxist historiography in this country, and for reasons which are even now difficult to understand, the bulk of British Marxist theoretical effort was directed into historical work. It played some part in the development of British historiography in general. Finally, members of the group also had a significant role in the discussions which rent the Communist Party after the Twentieth Congress of the CPSU in 1956-7, and in the genesis of the various New Lefts which followed.
The present paper therefore attempts to rediscover not merely what the Group did, but also to ask and answer some questions about its rather unusual role in the ten years after the Second World War. It was not formally set up as a group until after the war. If I remember correctly, it grew out of a conference organized to discuss a planned new edition of A. L. Morton's A People's History of England in which both the author and the Party wished to embody the results of discussions among Marxist historians since the date of first publication (1938). These less formal discussions had begun as Christopher Hill recalls, with meetings in Marx House and Balliol in 1938-9 which led to the production of Hill's essay on the English Revolution in 1940. They were, it appears, organized by Robin Page Arnot – the oldest Marxist historian alive in Britain and fortunately, at the time of writing, still very much on the active list. A number of people contributed to Hill's text, and several – the late Dona Torr and Douglas Garman and (pseudonymously) the still active J. Kuczynski debated the booklet after publication in Labour Monthly. The actual Historians' Group, formally established after the war, is still in existence. However, the years between its foundation and the crisis of 1956-7 form a self-contained period, and this is the subject of my memoir.
There was no tradition of Marxist history in Britain, though there was a powerful tradition of radical and labour-oriented history, of which Cole and Postgate's The Common People (1938, new edition 1946) was then the most recent example. (In fact, one of the earliest tasks of the Group in 1946 was a critical discussion of this then influential work.) For practical purposes, little Marxist history written in English before the 1930s was available, and the shortage of such work even in the 1930s is indicated by the fact that P. C. Gordon Walker's article on the Reformation in the Economic History Review was widely referred to as Marxist. Foreign Marxist work in translation was also not widely known or available, with the exception of some Russian work (M. N. Pokrovsky, Theodore Rothstein), among which Hessen's 1931 paper on ‘The Social Roots of Newton's Principia’ ought to be singled out, because of its influence not only on potential Marxist historians but also on potential Marxist natural scientists. There were also some works from the heyday of pre-1914 German social-democracy (Kautsky on Thomas More, Bernstein's Cromwell and Communism). However, the basic texts on which we based our attempts at a materialist interpretation of history were the writings of Marx, Engels and Lenin themselves. Many of these had been far from readily accessible before the wave of publications in the mid-1930s, which produced Dona Torr's edition of the Selected Correspondence of Marx and Engels and other works.
When the student generation of the 1930s, who provided the main stock of the Group, began to produce Marxist historians, a few. re atively senior intellectuals were already Marxist, or beginning to draw closer to Marxism. Though none of them were actually historians by profession, like all Marxists they were drawn to history and contributed to it. The most eminent, the archaeologist and pre-historian V. Gordon Childe, does not seem to have influenced us greatly to start with, perhaps because he was not associated with the Communist Party. The most flourishing group, the Marxist classicists (e.g. Benjamin Farrington, George Thomson) were rather remote from the interests of most of us, though Thomson's Aeschylus and Athens (1940) was much admired and discussed. (The Group organized a critical discussion of this work and its successor, probably in the early 1950s, with contributions from social anthropologists – including a now famous name in the field – archaeologists and philologists.) However, the major historical work which was to influence us crucially was Maurice Dobb's Studies in the Development of Capitalism which formulated our main and central problem. This crucial work was not published until 1946. A. L. Morton's People's History has already been mentioned. Thus little work by senior Marxists was available, and some of it (e.g. Roy Pascal's neglected study of the German Reformation of 1932) was not widely known.
Since CP members then segregated themselves strictly from schismatics and heretics, the writings of living non-Party Marxists made little impact, though C. L. R. James' Black Jacobins was read, in spite of the author's known Trotskyism, and some of us could not but notice that such books as Arthur Rosenberg's Birth of the German Republic (London-Oxford, 1931) were Marxist in their interpretation of imperial Germany. Actually, we would have probably suffered anyway from the extraordinary provincialism of the British in the 1930s who, communist and non-communist alike, paid next to no attention to most of the brilliant minds present among them as refugees from Nazism. Karl Korsch, Karl Polanyi and Frederick Antal, to name merely a few who were Marxist or Marxist influenced, made virtually no impact here in that decade. If anything, membership of the CP drew our attention to some foreigners who would otherwise have been entirely overlooked (e.g., for those who could read German, Georg Lukács), and to foreign communists who took an active part in British discussions during their emigration (e.g. Jürgen Kuczynski).
The main pillars of the Group thus consisted initially of people who had graduated sufficiently early in the 1930s to have done some research, to have begun to publish and, in very exceptional cases, to have begun to teach. Among these Christopher Hill already occupied a special position as the author of a major interpretation of the English Revolution and a link with Soviet economic historians. Others who had published before 1946 or were just about to publish included Brian Pearce, then a Tudor historian, V. G. Kiernan, whose encyclopedic knowledge had already produced a book on the diplomacy of imperialism in China, James B. Jefferys, already a post-doctoral nineteenth-century economic historian whose wartime industrial experience had made him, among other things, the author of what is still one of the best trade union histories (The Story of the Engineers, 1945) and F. D. Klingender the art-historian, whose contacts with the group were not to be close. One or two of the most prominent pre-war Marxist historians of this degree of seniority had already by 1946 moved away from association with communist groups and will not be mentioned as they are entitled to retrospective privacy.
The older products of the 1930s were soon joined by a group of students who were slightly junior in professional terms, though after six years of war comparatively mature. No very sharp line separated those who had actually begun some research before 1939 from those who had merely graduated, and this intermediate stratum – R.H. Hilton, Max Morris Oater eminent in the National Union of Teachers), John Saville, E.J. Hobsbawm - contained some who immediately established themselves as active and leading members of the Group. The minds of several had been broadened by work or war-service abroad, notably in India (Kiernan, Saville, Pearce) and this, as Kiernan recalls, safeguarded us against excessive provincialism and concentration on contemporary history. The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, for instance, or even medieval agrarian history, were by no means purely academic for those who had experience of and an interest in pre-capitalist or incompletely capitalist societies.
A modest, but for practical purposes unnoticed, generation gap separated this group from the intake of post-war students, which diminished over the years of the Cold War, though recruitment (especially from Balliol) never quite ceased. Most of these new members reached the group as post-graduates, but the last and youngest of the pre-1956 recruits, Raphael Samuel (now of Ruskin College and 'History Workshop') actually began to attend meetings as a schoolboy. However, this was not yet a time when all people with a serious interest in history automatically envisaged a university career, since openings were few, except in university-linked adult education departments into which a number of the ablest went, e.g. the late Henry Collins, Lionel Munby (both ex-Oxford), E. P. Thompson and – no longer in the CP after the war – Raymond Williams (both ex Cambridge). An even larger number became schoolteachers, at least for a time. For those not already in academic posts before the cold-war blacklisting began in the late spring of 1948, the chances of university teaching were to be virtually zero for the next ten years. Nevertheless, a core of Marxist historians with university and adult education jobs existed, and this, as John Saville rightly suggests, probably helped the group to maintain a solid continuity over the difficult years which followed.
With all these students and ex-students were joined a miscellaneous group of (generally older) people who had little in common except Party membership and a devotion to Marxism and history. Some of these took part in the work of the group with unshakeable loyalty and assiduity, e.g. Alfred Jenkin, its long-time treasurer, now retired to his native Cornwall from the British Museum. Others were constantly available, e.g. Jack Lindsay, whose encyclopedic erudition and constantly simmering kettle of ideas let off steam in discussions ranging from classical antiquity to the twentieth century. For some the Group was, if not exactly a way of life, then at least a small cause, as well as a minor way of structuring leisure. For most it was also friendship.
These were the people who would make their way, normally at weekends, through what memory recalls mainly as the dank, cold and slightly foggy morning streets of Clerkenwell to Marx House or to the upper room of the Garibaldi Restaurant, Laystall Street, armed with cyclostyled agendas, sheets of 'theses' or summary arguments, for the debates of the moment. Saffron Hill, Farringdon Road and Clerkenwell Green in the first ten post-war years, were not a sybaritic or even a very welcoming environment. Physical austerity, intellectual excitement, political passion and friendship are probably what the survivors of those years remember best – but also a sense of equality. Some of us knew more about some subject or period than others, but all of us were equally explorers of largely unknown territory. Few of us hesitated to speak in discussion, even fewer to criticize, none to accept criticism.
History, like love, is something about which all of us think we know something once we are old enough. Moreover, history is a valued component of the labour movement, since its ideological tradition and continuity largely rest on the collective memory of old struggles. History is the core of Marxism, though some recent schools of Marxists appear to think otherwise. For us and for the Party, history - the development of capitalism to its present stage, especially in our own country, which Marx himself had studied - had put our struggles on its agenda and guaranteed our final victory. Some of us even felt that it had recruited us as individuals. Where would we, as intellectuals, have been, what would have become of us, but for the experiences of war, revolution and depression, fascism and antifascism, which surrounded us in our youth? Our work as historians was therefore embedded in our work as Marxists, which we believed to imply membership of the Communist Party. It was inseparable from our political commitment and activity. Eventually this very sense of unity between our work as historians and communists led to the crisis of 1956-7, for it was among the historians that the dissatisfaction with the Party's reactions to the Khrushchev speech at the Twentieth Congress of the CPSU first came into the open. In the event many of the most active and prominent members of the Group left or were expelled from the Party, though fortunately the personal relationships between those who went and those who stayed were not, on the whole, disrupted. Though the Group continued – and in recent years has undergone a revival – 1956 undoubtedly marked the end of an epoch.
This break was particularly dramatic, precisely because in the years 1946-56 the relations between the group and the Party had been almost entirely unclouded. We were as loyal, active and committed a group of Communists as any, if only because we felt that Marxism implied membership of the Party. To criticize Marxism was to criticize the Party, and the other way round. Thus one of our ablest members, Edmund Dell, announced his disagreements with the Party by means of a number of theses about dialectics, which the Group discussed at a special conference on 6-8 January 1950. He did not think that a belief in dialectics 'assists the practising historian and the practising politician, and may confuse them'. He did not think 'dialectics' actually described 'the nature of change'. However, the sting of these theoretical observations lay in the tail:
The testing of a social theory in practice is rendered difficult by the complexity of the evidence. It might, however, be of value to review the political decisions of the Communist Party at crucial moments during the last ten years. Whether one felt that the size and variety of the errors made in this period are the result of too slight an understanding of Marxism or of too dogmatic an adherence to it will no doubt depend on one's view of the upshot of this discussion.
Dell left the CP soon afterwards - he had not convinced the rest of us - and entered upon what has since proved to be a distinguished but non-historical career. During this period he was exceptional, though later other ex-members of the Group, notably the medievalist Gordon Leff, were to combine criticism of the CP with that of Marxism. However, the bulk of the Group members who left in 1956-7 continued to regard themselves as Marxist.
From the Party's point of view we were almost certainly the most flourishing and satisfactory of the numerous professional and cultural groups which operated under the National Cultural Committee. Organizationally, though not a basic unit (branch) of the Party, we were virtually self-sufficient. We had a chairman, secretary and committee (15 strong in 1952; later divided into a smaller working and a larger 'Full' committee); we raised such subscriptions and donations as were necessary to finance our activities, organized fares-pools for our meetings and more or less ran our own affairs. The core of the group consisted of the 'period sections', ancient, medieval, 16-17th century and 19th century, and the Teachers' Section, numerically strong but fluctuating in its activity. During the early 1950s local branches of the group were set up - in Manchester, Nottingham and Sheffield- largely on the initiative of one dynamic member who campaigned tirelessly for local history and launched the Group's Local History Bulletin in October 1951. This eventually turned into Our History, the cyclostyled bulletin of the Group published, with varying degrees of regularity, from October 1953 and in a more elaborate form since 1956. (At the time of writing it has reached issue 67.) The branches of the History Group, backed by local Party and union organizers with an interest in history and, as so often, active as amateur historians themselves were to popularize our history, especially in the labour movement, including of course our Party', i.e. to study
the facts of their own local history, particularly the record of the local Labour and other progressive movements, and seeing that these facts are used in every possible way to illustrate the nature of the class struggle and to revive the old militant tradition (Local History Bulletin 12 January 195s?).
The regional branches did not spread widely, though at one time there appears to have been a tendency—of which I have no recollection myself—to transfer most of the Group's work to such local units. In fact, their activities fluctuated and faded. The Group remained London–centred, though its members, local and imported, took their message throughout the country, particularly on such historically significant occasions as the anniversary of 1649, which led to a good deal of public activity. However, at least two conferences were held in the provinces: one in Nottingham (1952) on 'The History of the British People's Opposition to War' at which the present writer vaguely recalls giving the introductory talk, another in Birmingham (1953) on 'Nineteenth-Century Radicalism'.
We were or tried to be good communists, though probably only E. P. Thompson (who was less closely associated with the Group than Dorothy Thompson) was politically important enough to be elected to his District Party Committee. The Party seemed quite satisfied with our work. For reasons considered below, we felt little constraint. The one field in which we did, was admittedly central for a group such as ours: the history of the British labour movement itself. To investigate and popularise this was, naturally, a major task for those of us with modern interests. Apart from personal work, we soon set out (inspired by Dona Torr) to produce an ambitious collection of documents, of which four volumes appeared in 1948-49: The Good Old Cause 1640-1660 (ed. C. Hill and E. Dell), From Cobbett to the Chartists (ed. Max Morris), Labour's Formative Years (ed. J. B. Jefferys), and Labour's Turning Point (ed. E. J. Hobsbawm). That the series was not continued was partly due to a lack of suitable authors, partly to the relative lack of success of the last two of these volumes. They were designed for a public of trade union and adult education readers, which did not take them up, and for a public of students which did not yet exist. But it was also due in part to the difficulty of dealing with the history of the movement since the foundation of the Party in 1920 which, as we all knew, raised some notoriously tricky problems.
In fact, the Group, with the full support of the Party, set about the preparation of a Marxist history of the movement. We even organized a weekend school in 1952 (or 1953) at the Netherwood guest house near Hastings, haunted by the ghosts of progressive reunions of the past, as well as, some claimed, by more orthodox parapsychological phenomena. There historians and party functionaries united to discuss this history, as expounded by old cadres like John Mahon (1918-1926), Jack Cohen (the General Strike), Idris Cox (1926-1945) and John Gollan (post-1945) under the chairmanship of James Klugmann. Since the British CP is a family-sized organization, we knew several of them, though as officials and sometimes friends, rather than as remembrancers and analysts of past struggles. Others some of us met for the first time: Horace Green (of the Northeast), Bert Williams (of the Midlands), Mick Jenkins (of the East Midlands). Some stick in the mind more than others: Marian Ramelson, a marvellous person who later wrote a fine book on women's struggles, Frank Jackson, an ancient, stubborn, droopy-moustached building worker whose loyalties and—sometimes sectarian—memories went back to the days of the SDF, George Hardy, whose career as a craftsman had taken him from the North Sea coast through Canada to the USA, and through the IWW to Comintern organizing in the Pacific. For us as historians it was a memorable and instructive experience.
But it did not allow us to write the planned book. The gap between what historians thought it necessary to write and what was regarded as officially possible and desirable to write at this stage—or even much later—proved too large. The history eventually written by A. L. Morton and George Tate (historian of the London Trades Council) merely covered the period from 1770 to 1920 (1956). The same problem was to prove insoluble in 1956 when, following the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and under some pressure from its historians, the Party prepared to write its own official history, which is still in progress. There was a sharp division of opinion in the Commission which discussed this project under the chairmanship of Harry Pollitt. (The Group was represented on it by E. J. Hobsbawm and Brian Pearce.) The view of the historians was clear, though Pearce, soon to join a Trotskyist group, was much more critical of the CP's past record. Given that anti-communists were giving publicity to their version of Communist Party history and that the facts, however inconvenient, were perfectly well known to anyone interested in the subject, it was mere ostrich-policy to conceal them. They had to be discussed frankly from our point of view; and in any case the only useful kind of history was a serious, and if necessary critical, or self-critical, assessment of the Party's past policies, successes, and failures. The point was accepted, at least in theory, by R. Palme Dutt, who later attempted such an assessment of the policy of the International himself, though in a rather cursory manner. On the other hand, Pollitt and some others, for reasons which are quite comprehensible, seemed unenthusiastic about any history other than what might be called the regimental variety, which maintained the spirit of the militants, especially in difficult times, by the memory of past sacrifices, heroism, and glory. The Group was not to be associated with the actual history of the CP which has, at the time of writing, reached 1929. However, it and the present phase of the historiography of labour movements in the communist period, which permits of a great deal more elbow-room for critical discussion, lies well beyond the years with which this memoir deals.
Yet the problem of party-history was quite exceptional. On the whole, we did not feel any sense of constraint, of certain matters being off limits, nor did we feel that the Party tried to interfere with or distort our work as communist historians. This may appear surprising, for during those years of ultra-rigid Stalinism and Cold War, the Party line (wherever it originated from) was only too likely to extend deeply into matters which at first sight had no evident relation to politics such as (in the Lysenko period) genetic theory; and history, even in its remoter periods, was much more directly linked with politics. Politics then often insisted a priori on the 'correct' interpretation, which it was the business of Marxist theory to 'prove', i.e. to confirm. There is no doubt that we ourselves were apt to fall into the stern and wooden style of the disciplined bolshevik cadres, since we regarded ourselves as such. Our arguments were sometimes designed a posteriori to confirm what we already knew to be necessarily 'correct', especially in our discussions on Absolutism and the English Revolution. I do not know how many old members will now be satisfied, on rereading the Group's 'State and Revolution in Tudor and Stuart England' (Communist Review, July 1948) with the results of these discussions. Some had mental reservations even then, and recall the arguments stimulated by our chief doubter, V. G. Kiernan, with greater satisfaction than the agreed conclusions. Yet the net result of our debates and activities was enormously to widen rather than to narrow or distort our understanding of history. What is more, we did not feel the constraints of the orthodoxy so signally tightened in the Stalin-Zhdanov-Lysenko years as much as some others, though perhaps our political leaders were more aware of it.
There are a number of reasons why, by and large, our work as historians did not suffer more from the contemporary dogmatism. First, it must always be remembered, that even during the most dogmatic Stalinist period, the authorized versions of Marxist history were concerned with genuine historical problems, and arguable as serious history, except where the political authority of the Bolshevik Party and similar matters were involved. While this patently made it a waste of time to debate, say, the history of the Soviet Union—except to discover new citations with which to embellish official truth—it left substantial scope for genuine analysis over the greater part of the human past. Indeed, the debates of Soviet historians could be reasonably integrated into such a discussion, and the work of some of them which survived from earlier periods (such as that of E. A. Kosminsky on feudal England) or was published during these years (such as B. F. Porshnev's study of popular risings in France) was respected and influential outside Marxist circles, even when not accepted. Moreover, communist intellectuals were encouraged (if they needed any encouragement) to study the texts of Marx and Engels as well as of Lenin and Stalin; nor was there (according to Stalin himself) an obligation to accept all of them as literal truth. In brief, the received orthodoxy both of historical materialism and of historical interpretation, was not—except for some specific topics mainly concerning the twentieth century—incompatible with genuine historical work.
Second, there was no 'party line' on most of British history, and what there was in the USSR was largely unknown to us, except for the complex discussions on 'merchant capital' which accompanied the criticism of M. N. Pokrovsky there. Thus we were hardly aware that the 'Asiatic Mode of Production' had been actively discouraged in the USSR since the early 1930s, though we noted its absence from Stalin's Short History. Such accepted interpretations as existed came mainly from ourselves— Hill's 1940 essay, Dobb's Studies, etc.—and were therefore much more open to free debate than if they had carried the by-line of Stalin or Zhdanov.
Third, the major task we and the Party set ourselves was to criticise non-Marxist history and its reactionary implications, where possible contrasting it with older, politically more radical interpretations. This widened rather than narrowed our horizons. 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. We knew that the small group of Marxist academics was isolated. This very isolation enforced a certain unsectarianism on us, since many of our colleagues would have been only too ready to dismiss our work as dogmatic oversimplification and propagandist jargon, had we not proved our competence as historians in ways they recognized and in language they could understand. Outside the Party there was then no intellectual public which took Marxism seriously, or even accepted or understood our technical terminology. Yet we also knew that the isolation of the cold war was artificial and temporary. As one of us wrote during this period in an article attempting to sum up our attitude:
Marxists ... believe that their method alone enables us to provide a successor to the old 'Liberal-Radical' view of British history which will be adequate in science and scholarship, while giving the citizens of this country a coherent picture of our national development and answering their questions. Non-Marxists would probably agree that such a new view must be influenced by and indebted to Marxism.
In a sense, we saw ourselves as continuing the major national tradition of history, and many non-Marxists as prepared to join in this task with us.
Therefore, communist historians—in this instance deliberately not acting as a Party group—consistently attempted to build bridges between Marxists and non-Marxists with whom they shared some common interests and sympathies. The first major effort of this kind was perhaps the 'Past and Present' series of Studies in the History of Civilization, which lasted—flourished is perhaps too strong a word—for some years after the war under the editorship of Benjamin Farrington (with the assistance of Gordon Childe, Bernard J. Stern of the American Marxist journal Science and Society, and Sydney Herbert of Aberystwyth.) It published an exceptionally interesting and neglected series of small volumes by both Marxist and nonMarxist authors. I cannot recall any involvement of the Group as such in this project. A few years later, in the totally unpropitious climate of 1952, the late John Morris nagged and bulldozed some members of the Group to launch the review Past & Present as a deliberately constructed common forum for Marxists and non-Marxists, specialist and non-specialist historians. Gordon Childe, Dobb, Hill, Hilton, Hobsbawm and Morris, together with two eminent non-Marxist scholars, the late Professors A. H. M. Jones and R. R. Betts, formed the nucleus of the team which started what has since become one of the leading historical journals in the world, and had already laid the basis of its later reputation by 1956. The non-Marxists resisted considerable pressures to withdraw from its Board (to which at least one eminent non-Marxist succumbed), and a special word of thanks is due to those non-Marxist historians who, knowing the views of the majority of the editors, were nevertheless willing to brave the cold-war boycott by contributing to its early issues. Past & Present was never the responsibility of the Group or under Party authority, and considerable efforts were made to maintain its independent status, which was never once challenged or even queried by the Party. In short, we were as unsectarian as it was possible to be in those years.
Fourth, the official leadership of the Party concerned with 'culture' was very well disposed to us, partly no doubt because our loyalty and militancy were not in any doubt prior to 1956, partly because the Group flourished, but also because the functionaries concerned, notably Emile Burns, James Klugmann, Douglas Garman and Sam Aaronovitch were genuinely interested in our work and gave it their active support. Finally, it is worth mentioning a certain old-fashioned realism which never left the British Communist Party. Thus, like other communists during this period, we discussed the theory of the increasing pauperization of the working class (6 June 1948).
‘Absolute pauperization’ was then strongly maintained by Jurgen Kuczynski (whose History of Labour Conditions in its first version had been published in Britain during the war), but was publicly doubted by Maurice Dobb. Though hesitant to criticize a view which appeared to many to have Marx’s own authority, it seems clear that most of us found it impossible—unlike the French CP in those years—to maintain that the workers were wars off than in 1850, and therefore saw no necessity to do so as Marxists. I can recall no objection to our view from the Party. This, did not, incidentally, prevent us from strongly criticizing the optimistic views about the impact of the Industrial Revolution in the early nineteenth century which were then gaining ground. In fact the ‘standard-of-living debate’, now well-known to historians everywhere, grew out of the Group’s decision to reopen this question. The present author and John Saville were asked to draft a suitable article, though in the end Saville’s part was limited to critical comments on the draft for which Hobsbawm bears responsibility, and which was published in the Economic History Review in 1957.
The 1930s and 1940s were a period which attracted able intellectuals to Marxism, and the Communist Party was therefore fortunate to possess a pool of promising historians. When, in 1954, Lawrence and Wishart published a volume of essays in honour of Dona Torr (Democracy and the Labour Movement, ed. John Saville, with the advice of George Thomson, Maurice Dobb and Christopher Hill), which was also designed as a sort of shop-window for the work done by members of the Group, the results were by no means discreditable. If, to the work there published by Hill, S. F. Mason, Ronald Meek, Henry Collins, John Saville, Daphne Simon, E. J. Hobsbawm and Victor Kiernan, we add the work of others published elsewhere – E. P. Thompson, Rodney Hilton, A. L. Morton, George Rude, not to mention our seniors, the balance-sheet of British Marxist history was even more satisfactory. The Bibliography issued by the Group (1956?) did not distinguish between Marxist and 'near-Marxist' work, but a brief analysis of its 18 pages yields results which speak for themselves:
Work by historians associated with the Group 1946-1956
1945 and before
in CP journals
in other journals
This calculation is evidently not intended to measure the work of the Group as such. Several of its most active members were teachers, who did not write much or at all, while others were engaged in local research and activities directly linked to the labour movement. It simply indicates that the Group contained a vigorous nucleus of people who tried to translate its Marxist discussions into historical research and publication. This lends some interest to the debates in which the Group engaged, and which are, for most of the members of that period, what they chiefly remember about it.
Given the academic and educational interests of the bulk of its members, it was natural that the group should initially organize its discussions around particular books or projects for books - Morton's own history and Cole and Postgate have already been mentioned. Significant academic works which seemed to require specific discussion, continued to mobilize us. Thus Powicke's King Henry and the Lord Edward appears to have been discussed by the Medieval Section among other matters on 21-22 July 1947—in the rooms of the St Pancras CP in Camden Town—while the appearance of H. R. Trevor-Roper's The Gentry and Pennington and Brunton's Members of the Long Parliament moved the 16-17th Century Section to organize a special meeting on these works on 3-4 April 1954. However, in the nature of things, the Group and its Sections tended to discuss large and general themes.
The incompleteness of the Group's records, and the unfortunate habit of not dating all its documents, makes it impossible to reconstruct its various debates chronologically. It seems that the classicists and medievalists united early to consider the decline of antiquity and the transition to feudalism (January 1947, and again 24-6 September 1948), while the nature and breakdown of feudalism produced conferences based initially on Dobb's Studies (21-22 July 1947) and later (March 1952, July 1952) stimulated by the well-known Dobb-Sweezy controversy of 1950 (published by Jack Lindsay in 1954, with a further exchange and additions by Takahashi, Hill and Hilton). However, the major debates were those which primarily focused on the 16th-17th century. There were two major sessions on the problem of Absolutism, accompanied by theses and countertheses, translations of relevant Soviet debates and elaborate minutes (1947-January 1948), which resulted in a formal statement of the Group's views in the Communist Review. Another conference dealt with agrarian problems in 16th- and 17th-century England (September 1948) with papers by Hilton, E. Kerridge, M. E. James, Allan Merson and K. R. Andrews. The debate on the English bourgeois revolution and ideology—a subject close to Hill's heart then as later—led to a series of discussions which began in September 1949 (with papers by Dobb, Hill and S. Mason), continued in March 1950 in the direction of science and the comparative analysis of Protestantism. This in turn produced a conference on the Reformation (September 1950). In later years the activities of this section seem to have been less intensive or less well recorded.
The other major group, the 19th Century Section, was consistently less international and comparative in outlook. For practical purposes it confined itself to Britain, and largely to a number of well-polished questions which amounted to variations on the theme of the nature and roots of reformism in the British labour movement. The problem of 'absolute pauperisation', as already mentioned, was discussed quite early (1948), settled to our satisfaction and ceased to preoccupy us.
On the other hand, some years later the Section returned to the problem of the 'labour aristocracy' which had also been discussed in 1948, this time in the context of various debates on Reformism and Empire, which also took it into the field of labour ideology, 1875-1918, and to the Birmingham conference on nineteenth-century Radicalism. The other theme which seems to have preoccupied the section was that of the development of the modern state apparatus, both central (1950) and local. As for the no-man's land between the Group's two most flourishing sections, we simply had nobody who knew much about it, until George Rude, a lone explorer, ventured into the period of John Wilkes. (He may have taken the initiative in getting us to organize our only conference on eighteenthcentury Britain.) Hill sometimes ventured forward from the seventeenth century, Henry Collins was pressed to venture backwards from the Corresponding Societies of the 1790s; but the gap remained.
Yet the most ambitious effort of the group mobilized members of all sections except the classicists. This was a project on the entire history of British capitalist development, long prepared and discussed in a week of intensive sessions at Netherwood in July 1954. It was, it seems, suggested by Dona Torr, who watched over it like a benevolent abbess. Something like thirty of us took part in the discussions of seventeen papers at one time or another, including at least two outside contributors invited along for their expertise, Raymond Williams and Basil Davidson. (As we concluded from this as from other experiences, we were particularly weak on the history of the empire and colonial exploitation, Scottish, Welsh and Irish history, and 'the role of women in economic life'.) To judge by the papers, which are in my possession, we took enormous pains over this conference. In a sense, it was a systematic attempt to see where we had got in eight years of work, and where Marxist history ought to go next.
Almost a quarter of a century has passed since this attempt to draw the map of capitalist development - including the white spaces - and both history and Marxist history have been transformed in the period since 1954. It is therefore not surprising that the debates of the time have long been overtaken. When A. L. Morton gave his pioneer paper on 'The Role of the Common People in the History of British Capitalism'—it was much admired—we could hardly suspect that 'history from below' would, some twenty years later, be one of the most flourishing fields of study.
Our knowledge has become far greater: thus we then discussed the Industrial Revolution essentially on the basis of inter-war or even pre-1914 research, since the topic then attracted surprisingly little attention. Entire new historical fields have since been opened up—urban history, historic demography, not to mention the great fashionable catch-all of 'social history'. Labour history was only just beginning—thanks largely to the work of communist historians of our generation—to advance beyond the point reached before 1939 by Cole. And so on.
Yet, looking back over these now ancient papers and minutes, what is striking is how many of our questions remain at the core of Marxist, or indeed general, historical debate. This is partly because Marx's basic questions remain central to any historical analysis of capitalist development: in the early 1950s antiMarxist historians would have preferred to eliminate the Industrial Revolution from history, but it simply couldn't be. It is also partly because we avoided cutting ourselves off as Marxists from the rest of historical science: Dobb's Studies which gave us our framework, were novel precisely because they did not just restate or reconstruct the views of 'the Marxist classics', but because they embodied the findings of post-Marx economic history in a Marxist analysis. In some ways, therefore, the historians who were then isolated and provincial were some (though not all) of those whose work was taken up in Britain for anti-Marxist purposes, whereas we were—in spite of disagreements—part of a general movement against 'old-fashioned' politico-constitutional or narrative history. 'Namierism', against which we polemised, had enormous prestige among our British academic colleagues, but the present writer can recall being taken aside by Fernand Braudel in Paris, on our first meeting in the 1950s, and asked: 'Do tell me, who exactly is this Namier that my English visitors keep talking about?' A third advantage of our Marxism—we owe it largely to Hill and to the very marked interest of several of our members, not least A. L. Morton himself, in literature—was never to reduce history to a simple economic or 'class interest' determinism, or to devalue politics and ideology.
Nevertheless, it would be absurd to suggest that our 1954 debates are today more than an interesting document in the intellectual history of British Marxism. Their suggestions have been embodied in (and perhaps through the influence of) the subsequent work of some of those who took part in them—and some of the later themes and views of several who have since published works they had not then even thought of can be traced back to the Netherwood school.
Two of our conclusions have since borne evident fruit: 'There were some contested questions on which we could contribute, e.g…. the Hayek view on early industrial revolution', and 'We are in a position to throw new light and to suggest new syntheses on certain problems, e.g. the common people.' Others have not. 1956 intervened before we could get much further with our project to produce a volume of essays under the suggested title 'Some Marxist Contributions to the Study of British Capitalist Society', and the revision of the Marxist view on the English bourgeois revolution in the form of a larger work has not been carried out collectively, though a large number of books by Hill now supplement the relatively slim production of 1954. The plan to hold a general school for Marxist historians 'every few years' did not survive 1956. On the other hand, the other perspective outlined in 1954, to 'carry discussions beyond the Party' and to draw non-Marxist historians into discussions with Marxist ones, has undoubtedly been realised, if in ways unpredicted by us then. It is probably impossible today for any non-Marxist historian not to discuss either Marx or the work of some Marxist historian in the course of his or her normal business as a historian, and, given the increase in the number of Marxists, it is much harder today to avoid discussing history with them than it was when Churchill and Eisenhower presided over the English-speaking world. To some extent this is certainly due to the work of the Group: of the thirty or so historians who took part in the discussions at Netherwood, probably at least twenty-five wrote or at least edited books in due course.
Then came 1956. The Group survived the storms of that traumatic year and the loss of many—perhaps most—of its most devoted and publicly known members (e.g. the great majority of the contributors to Democracy and the Labour Movement), but its later history cannot really be compared to that of the years 1946-56, especially since it was to be many years before a new generation of Marxist historians were once again to be attracted to the Communist Party in any numbers. This is not the place for an account of the crises and conflicts which shook the British CP in 1956-7, but one question must nevertheless be faced: why were communist historians, whether or not they subsequently left the party, so prominent among the critics of the official party attitude at the time? For there can be no doubt that they were. The Group's Full Committee (which met on 8 April 1956, a few days after the British Party's Congress had concluded without any public discussion of the Stalin issue) rebelled against the official spokesman sent to address them and passed some sharply worded critical resolutions. So far as I can recall, after this the Group itself did not express any further collective views, and was indeed increasingly split, but the fact that many of the most vocal critics came from among its members is a matter of record. The three most dramatic episodes of 'opposition' - the Reasoner, the publication of a letter by a number of intellectuals in the New Statesman and Tribune, and the Minority Report on Party Democracy at the Twenty-fifth Congress of the CPGB, were all associated with communist historians (Saville, Thompson, Hilton, Hill, Hobsbawm, among others), who were therefore also publicly attacked as a body by various loyalists. These disputes are now themselves part of history, and need not be revived here.
It was no doubt natural that the historians, as probably the most consistently active and flourishing group of communist intellectuals—unlike the scientists, it had not been shaken by the Lysenko affair, unlike the literary intellectuals, only marginally affected by the debates over Christopher Caudwell—should enter the debate. It felt itself to be a major target of the attack on unstable and doubting intellectuals which some official spokesmen and loyalists launched immediately after the Twentieth Congress; and unjustly so, since it consisted overwhelmingly of people who had survived the exodus of temporary communists after 1939 and the erosion of the years after 1945. This sense of resentment is reflected in the meeting of 8 April 1956, but does not explain why criticism seems to have been even more widespread among the historians than in other groups.
The fact is that historians were inevitably forced to confront the situation not only as private persons and communist militants but, as it were, in their professional capacity, since the crucial issue of Stalin was literally one of history: what had happened and why it had been concealed. Moreover, as the discussions immediately made clear, the suppression of Soviet history could not be divorced from the question why other parts of contemporary history had not been confronted—not least such hotly disputed episodes in the history of the British CP as the 'Third Period' and 1939-41. (Both of these were raised at the meeting of 8 April.) Indeed, and even more fundamentally, such failures raised the general question of how Marxists ought to confront contemporary history and contemporary reality. As one critic put it at the same meeting: 'We have accepted Soviet articles on contemporary history in a way we did not for earlier centuries. We stopped being historians as regards the history of the CPSU or current affairs, or became cynical like (…). Must become historians in respect of present too.' Moreover, the failure to be historical was not merely retrospective. As another critic argued, it was not enough simply to welcome what the CPSU had done at the Twentieth Congress: 'We do not know, we can only endorse policy – but historians go by evidence.' And, as the principal critic put it, Khrushchev's attack on the 'cult of personality' was not really an analysis of the phenomenon. We did not even know whether what was said about Stalin was correct or not, so long as we only took it on authority.
These were not, of course, merely matters of professional conscience, though naturally this was important to historians. They were drawn into the centre of the debate because historical analysis was at the core of Marxist politics. It may be suggested that they found themselves so largely among the critics because the—probably inevitable—reaction of the Party leadership appeared to deny this. It was natural that Party leaders—not only in Britain—were tempted to minimise the disruption their parties faced by playing down the significance of the crisis. Business must go on as usual, or as near to usual as could be expected. Nothing had fundamentally changed, the Khrushchev revelations must be 'kept in perspective', and if the party only managed to keep its head and surmount this latest among the many shocks it had undergone and absorbed over the years, it would continue to progress.
Yet even if historians could appreciate the motives of the party leadership and perhaps sometimes even recognize the short term legitimacy of their tactic, it was difficult to approve it. Surely, as the chief critic pointed out at that initial meeting—more than six months before the Daily Worker recognized the existence of a crisis in the Party—this was 'the most serious and critical situation the Party was in since its foundation'? Surely, we were at a turning-point in the history of the communist movement? Surely, whatever the short-term prospects, the long-term prospects of the movement required the very frank and self-critical analysis of what had gone wrong—including our mistakes as British communists—which the official tactic once again seemed to avoid, but which was now actually possible, perhaps only for a short moment? Surely what was at issue was not simply what happened in Eastern Europe, but the future of the Communist Party and of socialism in Britain?
Whether these views were right or wrong, and to what extent, are no longer questions of burning interest—indeed, time has answered some of them. In any case this is not the place to conduct general inquest into that traumatic year in the history of the British Communist Party. At all events when it ended the Historians' Group had been decimated. However, as already noted, the great bulk of those who left the Communist Party (and therefore the Group) during that period have continued to work as Marxist historians, unlike most of the brilliant and now immensely distinguished and influential young historians who left the Communist Party of France during the equivalent period. And, fortunately, the friendship and comradeship of the years before 1956 survived the tensions and disputes of the time and the more permanent divergences of political allegiance. 1956 disrupted the history of the Historians' Group as an organized unit within the Communist Party, but not the development of Marxist history in Britain or the relations between those who, whatever has since happened to them, look back without regret on their years in the Group.
What did the Group achieve during the first ten years of its existence? Many of its routine internal activities are no longer of any interest, except to specialists in the history of one phase of the British Communist Party: the committee meetings, reports and other organizational labours which fill so much of the time of political activists, but are justified only by the results achieved by organization. Nevertheless, these labours should not go unrecorded, if only in justice to those who, like Daphne May and others, bore the brunt of them. The work of the Group depended on them. Again, much of what we did was absorbed into the texture of Party life and activity, and cannot realistically be separated from both: pamphlets, articles in the Party press, propaganda, talks to meetings and conferences and the like. Much of the historians' work was of this kind—a pamphlet on press freedom by E. P. Thompson, a lecture and leaflet on Robin Hood by Rodney Hilton, material for a Tees-side school on labour history by the editor of the Local History Bulletin. Such things may or may not have had some measurable effects—on a local campaign, on the development of individual activists—but to trace them, even if this were possible, is as pointless as to try to identify the effect of one man's spade or one day's watering on a vegetable patch. Still, something may have been achieved. Thus Hill writes retrospectively:
I think that the celebration of 1640—and especially of 1649—did something for the Party in giving it confidence in a non-gradualist tradition to an extent that it is difficult for the younger generation perhaps to realise.
There remain the results of the Group's work which can be identified, though obviously in most cases not measured: its effects both on its members and, through their individual and collective work, on the interpretation and teaching of history. The individual and collective aspects cannot be separated, 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 or 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 subjectmatter, 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 or 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 achievements, it may be useful to suggest some things we failed to do. For obvious reasons we failed to make much of a 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 concentrate excessively on the nineteenth and twentieth century labour movement. We never doubted that the study of ancient philosophy (Farrington, Thomson), of early Christianity (Morris), of Attila (Professor E. Thompson) or medieval peasants (Hilton) was as 'relevant' as that of the Social Democratic Federation or the General Strike. Again, in our work on general capitalist development we were probably 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 serious concern with plebeian ideology—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 work, 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 which they have written, as well as through other works. In this respect, A. L. Morton pioneered the way with his People's History, which still remains the only Marxist attempt to write the entire history of Britain (or rather England). Fifth, the journal founded in the worst days of the Cold War by a group of Marxist historians, Past & 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 Morton's desire to consult other Marxist historians for the second edition of his People's 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 to the middle-aged and ageing survivors of the Historians' Group of 1946-56, wherever their paths have since taken them.
 Particularly with Christopher Hill, John Saville and Victor Kiernan, who commented on an earlier draft, but are not responsible for what I have written.
 This in spite of the prominence—and the intellectual distinction—of Marxist economists in the 1930s, such as Maurice Dobb, the early Eric Roll, H. W. Dickinson and John Strachey, and the strikingly impressive group of Marxist natural scientists of the period, headed by J. D. Bernaland J. B. S. Haldane. Incidentally both Dobb and Bernal themselves also produced historical work of very great importance.
 John Saville would perhaps lay more stress on the historical writings produced by British communists during the 1930s than the present author.
 Among them may be mentioned Mick Jenkins, Horace Green and Bill Moore of Sheffield, whose 'Sheffield Shop Stewards in the First World War' has since been reprinted in a selection of Our History studies, Lionel Munby (ed.), The Luddites and Other Essays (London, 1971).
 R. P. Dutt, The Internationale (London, 1964).
 See, for example, Daphne May, 'Work of the Historians' Group', Commumst Review, May 1949, which is taken from a report to the Group. Any one of us would, as officials of the Group – Daphne May was its Secretary – have written in the same manner.
 On looking through the files of the Communist Review it is notable that the numerous contributions by members of the group in 1948 and especially 1949 cease in and after 1950, though not in the more intellectual Modern Quarterly and its successor, the Marxist Quarterly.
 A leading member of the Indian CP still used this Marxian concept in a book as late as 1952 (cf. E. M. S. Namboodripad, The National Question in Kerala); certainly without heterodox intentions.
 As the Party's National Cultural Committee put it in November 1947: 'Direction of attack against our real enemies "to kill our enemies not cure our friends".' And again: 'Must learn to discriminate between the leaders of certain reactionary trends and those misled by them, so that our attack is in the right direction.
 E. J. Hobsbawm, 'Where are British Historians Going?', Marxist Quarterly, II/1, 1955, p. 25.
 History by Gordon Childe, From Savagery to Civilization by Grahame Clarke, The Growth of Modern Germany by Roy Pascal, Feudal Order by Marion (Molly) Gibbs, Plough and Pasture by E. Cecil Curwen, Writing and the Alphabet by A. C. Moorhouse, The Decline of the Roman Empire in the West by F. W. Walbank and Men, Machines and History by Sam Lilley. Two of the authors were active in the Group.
 I would mention the late Max Gluckman, W. G. Hoskins, R. S. Lopez, G. C. Homans, Jean Seznec and Asa (Lord) Briggs. In return the Marxists were particularly careful not only to dissociate the journal from exclusive Marxism (cf. Preface to the Group's 'Bibliography of Marxist and NearMarxist Historical work Available in English' (first edition duplicated, c. 1956), but also to give the non-communist Board members an individual veto over the choice of articles. In 1958 the membership of the Board was broadened, as we had always intended it should be, and Marxists (some of whom had by then left the CP) were no longer in the majority.
Dona Torr was a powerful influence on several of the young Marxist historians, though not equally close to all. She was the editor of the Selected Correspondence of Marx and Engels (1934). Her published work does not do justice to her impressive erudition, and she never completed what was to have been her major book, Tom Mann and His Times (vol. I, 1956; fragments from vol. II, edited by E. P. Thompson, were published as 'Tom Mann and His Times 1890-1892' in Our History, 26-7, 1962).
 For various reasons, the figures have a slight margin of error. CP journals are: Communist Review, Modem Quarterly, Marxist Quarterly. Pamphlets have not been included. Contributions to volumes are counted as 'articles'. British Marxist historians not associated with the Group but listed in the Bibliography published 5 books before 1945, 13 between 1946 and 1956. Their contribution to the articles after 1946 was very much smaller. Reviews are not counted.
 Elaborate minutes of the thirteen sessions were kept (by Alf Jenkin, Edwin Payne, Louis Marks and Victor Kiernan) and compressed, with the help of the speakers, into a 30-page report which was subsequently distributed. The main organizational burden fell on Diana St John.
 At least two active members of the group were in contact with the French 'Annales' school, as well as with some French Communist historians.
 Hill's paper on ideas and literature, 1660-1760, was particularly admired.
 The Minutes of this Meeting, attended by 19 out of the 34 possible members of the 'Full Committee', are in my possession.
 Cf. John Saville, 'The Twentieth Congress and the British Communist Party' in The Socialist Register, 1976, p. 7.
 The official speaker, as summarized in the Minutes of8 April: 'Some jolted and may leave us, but ultimately situation will be more favourable - Soviet Union's corrections and perspective - new possibilities. Need for discussion of doubts and problems, but positively and in balanced way and historical perspective. Everything likely to settle down again in six months.'
 However, the Group contained people who pursued private researches into the history of the British communist movement and public ones into that of the USSR, but at the time this work remained in the shadows.
 I think the majority of the contributors to the Essays in Labour History, ed. Asa Briggs and J. Saville (1960), were or had been associated with the Group.
 R. C. Richardson, The Debate on the English Revolution, 1977, p. 98.
 An earlier Cambridge attempt, recalled in T. E. B. Howarth, Cambridge between the Wars (London, 1978), came to nothing. It was to have been edited by Roy Pascal. In addition to the contributors mentioned by Howarth - H.J. (now Sir John) Habbakuk, Vice-Chancellor of Oxford and Edward Miller, now Master of Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge - V. G. Kiernan and Michael Greenberg were involved. E. J. Hobsbawm, though mentioned in Howarth, was not. Oxford Marxist historians knew nothing of this project, which proves that there was no national coordination of Marxist historians at this date (probably 1937-8). Why the plan foundered – at least two chapters were drafted – is unclear.
 Three members of the original editorial board are still associated with it, as well as some later arrivals also associated with the Group in 1946-56.