After the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) disbanded at the end of 1991, a number of spinoffs continued in existence. Most of these had been splinters from the CPGB prior to its dissolution. Only two organisations, however, can claim a direct line of descent, namely Unlock Democracy, which retains nothing of its communist or socialist heritage, and the Socialist History Society. The latter was initially a mere retitling of the pre-existing Communist Party History Group, originally the Communist Party Historians’ Group. Such a group had been planned as early as 1938 but was then delayed until 1946 on account of the looming and then the actual Second World War. 2016 therefore marked effectively the seventieth anniversary of the Socialist History Society.
Historian Eric Hobsbawm, January 01, 1976 (Getty)
Numerous articles, as well as at least three published volumes, have, deservedly, been written concerning the Historians’ Group. In his article ‘The Communist Party and its Historians 1946-89’, David Parker notes, ‘… there came together a unique and high-powered group of communist historians who set out to tackle problems and areas of work which have been central to the concerns of the historical profession, students, teachers and readers ever since’. (Socialist History 12). Two names which tend to be omitted (at least until recently) in discussion of this galaxy of talent are Dona Torr and Betty Grant, nor have the Group’s two successor organisations been much featured.
Torr was never much in the limelight and died in 1957. Yet, by all accounts her fellow historians esteemed her highly and in 1954 published a collection of essays in her honour, Democracy and the Labour Movement. According to Dave Renton, ‘Perhaps the most influential member of the group was Dona Torr, but she is today one of the least well known’. Quoting one of her colleagues, he goes on to remark, ‘She was universally admired by the younger historians who gathered round her. It is rare to find a single text coming out of the 1940s without some note of appreciation for her.’ E P Thompson paid her a very emphatic tribute in the preface of his first published volume, the biography of William Morris: ‘I have felt that parts of the book were less my own than a collaboration I which her guiding ideas have the main part’.
Historian Christopher Hill (1912-2003), January 22, 1965 (Getty)
Harvey J Kaye, in The British Marxist Historians, argues that the theme and output of these participants was directed towards ‘class struggle analysis’, and this seems a fair judgement. The impetus for the formation of the collective was, after all, A L Morton’s 1938 volume, A People’s History of England. Morton’s focus was the historical nature of class struggle throughout British history. The political aim behind this was the project to establish a Popular Front against fascism, seen as the ultimate expression of monopoly capitalism. This front would necessarily embrace a much broader range of citizens from disparate class positions, without forgetting that the working class was nonetheless viewed as the central element in that projected alliance.
With a focus that was empirical rather than theoretical, the Group worked energetically, and constantly aimed to establish contact and initiate discussion with suitable organisations outside the CP orbit. it also developed new perspectives in the study of local history, and this was largely due to Betty Grant who worked assiduously in this area, and whose importance is only beginning to be recognised. (Andrea Bonfanti, ‘History as a Weapon: the Historians’ Group of the Communist Party of Great Britain’, BA dissertation).
Some of the CP’s cultural collectives, and the journals they published, particularly the Writers’ Group, found themselves at odds with the Party centre and were forced to amend or discontinue what they were doing. As Andy Croft describes in Opening the Books, the Cultural Committee commanded one of the Party’s most successful literary publications, Arena, to shift from being relatively culturally catholic in its output to constitute instead a ‘fighting journal of socialist realism’, and in consequence it soon folded. The Historians’ Group, lively though it was, avoided trouble of that kind. According to John Saville, that may have been because the Soviet regime, especially during the Cold War, had tight prescriptions regarding imaginative literature which the British CP had to take on board, whereas it was not much concerned with the pre-twentieth-century English history upon which the Historians’ Group concentrated.
Nevertheless, though a few of its members did have academic positions, the historians saw the context of their group’s labours not as an academic project but as contributing to their party’s ideological struggle to shift the British political culture. They projected the establishment of revolutionary socialist discourse as the dominant political stance of the British working-class movement. To this end they aimed to extend their vision also among the broader masses of the general population, all in line with the CP’s postwar perspective culminating in its new programme of 1951, The British Road to Socialism (replacing its 1930s For Soviet Britain). With this in mind the Group sought to institute discussion and dialogue with all manner of popular organisations, both formal and informal. One renowned aspect of this was the establishment in 1952 of the non-CP historical journal Past & Present, of which Group members were the principal initiators.
Disruption and regrowth
Following a successful and productive first decade, the Group was torn apart in the crisis year of 1956 over Khrushchev’s ‘secret speech’ in February denouncing Stalin’s criminality. This was followed in November by the Soviet military repression of the Hungarian revolution. A significant number of its members then or shortly after quit the Party, and consequently also its Historians’ Group, in disillusion. Most famously this included E P Thompson, Christopher Hill, John Saville, Victor Kiernan, and the then very young Raphael Samuel. These four, along with Eric Hobsbawm who did not leave, would go on to shake the world of English language historiography; other former and continuing members made major contributions to historical writing as well. (Coincidentally another Edward Thompson was a member of the Group and he likewise resigned in 1956. This was Edward Arthur Thompson, a classical and medieval historian).
Unquestionably with the upheavals of 1956-7 the glory days of the Group were over. With the remaining personnel and new members joining it from the Party’s partial regrowth, however, it was reconstituted with a slightly different name, becoming the History instead of Historians’ Group. This lasted until the CP disbandment in 1991.
Several of the former members went on to establish brilliant reputations as historians. Most notable perhaps was E P Thompson with his classic Making of the English Working Class, other major texts, as well as his political impact in the nuclear disarmament movement. Christopher Hill became the leading, if controversial, authority on the English Revolution, and Rodney Hilton (who rejoined the CP decades later) made major contributions to medieval historiography. It could be argued that it was Raphael Samuel who had the greatest future organisational impact at Ruskin College and with his role in the establishment of History Workshop. Of those who remained, despite their distress and dismay at the revelations and events of 1956, the only figure comparable to the most eminent of those who resigned was Eric Hobsbawm, most notably with his tetralogy of world history covering the period between the French Revolution and the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Party went through several diverse political phases in the sixties and seventies and disintegrated in the eighties; throughout other historians such as Noreen Branson, Leslie Morton, Maurice Dobb, George Thomson and George Rudé were far from insignificant.
The reconstituted Group had one regular publication, a single-subject pamphlet carried over from the Historians’ Group and going back to 1953, Our History. Titles included, Leveller Democracy – Fact or Myth; History and Social Structure on the East African Plateau; The Second Reform Bill. In the late seventies it attempted to add a supplementary title, Our History Journal, carrying diverse articles (the titles’ resemblance caused confusion among casual purchasers visiting the CP bookshop Central Books). The attempt to produce this new title as a printed text had to be abandoned after a few issues due to unsustainable costs, but it continued for a decade in cyclostyled and later desktop printed format.
The future of the Group and its publications faced much uncertainty when the CPGB transformed itself into the Democratic Left (which as an organisation proved abortive, except partially in Scotland). At the same time, after serious discussion, the decision of the History Group was to continue the collective as the rebranded Socialist History Society, now self-standing and open to all interested persons, with Hobsbawm (since his death Stan Newens) as its honorary president. The two regular publications were in 1993 amalgamated as Socialist History, now the Society’s central publication, in addition to various other activities.
Although the personnel of the Society could not hope to match the historiographical accomplishments of their predecessors in the original Group, in addition to the journals some substantial volumes have been produced by Society members. Among the most notable have been the biography of the miners’ leader Arthur Horner by Nina Fishman, who just before its publication died prematurely while Secretary of the Society. John Callaghan and Kevin Morgan, with many tittles including biographies of Harry Pollitt and Palme Dutt, are also renowned interpreters of aspects of the labour movement. And those mentioned are only the most eminent. In 1990 Mike Squires published a biography of the Communist MP Shapurji Saklatvala. Andy Croft’s A Weapon in the Struggle: The Cultural History of the Communist Party in Britain appeared in 1998. And 2004 saw Geoff Andrews’ final volume in the six-volume history of the CPGB begun in the mid-sixties.
On the left these are indeed challenging times around the globe and far from being the most hopeful. They are the contemporary culmination of processes which stretch back over decades and centuries. If the present realities are to be effectively faced and comprehended, historical memory, analysis and understanding are essential. The Communist Party historians addressed these issues in their own times; today a variety of organisations which includes their lineal successors, and of which History Workshop is not the least, are pursuing a similar project.
Willie Thompson grew up in the Shetland Isles during the war and postwar years. In Glasgow in 1962 he joined the Communist Party and remained a member until its disbandment in 1991. He is the author of The Good Old Cause: British Communism 1920-1991 (Pluto 1992), Postmodernism and History (Palgrave 2004), and Work, Sex and Power: The Forces that Shaped our History (Pluto 2015). He retired in 2001 from Glasgow Caledonian University as Professor of Contemporary History and now lives in Sunderland.