Thursday, 28 October 2010

Ideology, Absolutism and the English Revolution: Debates of the British Communist Historians, 1940-1956 (2008) David Parker-Part 1

This review is only a provisional look at David Parker’s book. It will be in four parts.

Before reading Parker’s book it is important for the reader to have a rudimentary knowledge of the writings of the British Communist Party and most importantly a firm grasp of the differences that occurred in the Soviet Communist Party between Stalin and Leon Trotsky. One of the main weaknesses of Parkers book which is well researched and useful is the fact that this debate largely passes him by.

A roll call of the names of the historians and significant intellectuals that occupied the British Communist Party Historians Group (CPHG) in the 1940 and 1950s shows the importance of this group. It is significant that in London’s National Portrait Gallery used to hang a painting which has been described as “of seven people arranged on either side of a low table in a book-lined study. They were historians, members of the editorial board of the journal Past & Present, which arose from the British Communist Party’s Historians’ Group”. Eric Hobsbawm, Edward and Dorothy Thompson, Christopher Hill, Victor Kiernan, George Rude, Raphael Samuel and Rodney Hilton to name but a few. The majority of these historians were moulded by the early strategic experiences of the 20th century, the depression during the 1930s and of course the Second World War.

The first seventy odd pages provide the reader with an introduction to the book. In this Parker attempts to give a picture of the relationship between the Historians group and the Communist party and its leading figures such as R Palme Dutt (See Document 1 1940 Amended Draft The English Revolution 1640). It is clear from Parkers book that there were significant differences not only between the historians on the class nature of the 17th Century English Revolution but also between the CP and the History group.

One major fault of the book is that you get no feel for the times the historians began writing in. It should therefore be noted that these historians and Hill in particular began writing their books and essays in the midst of the Purges instigated by Stalin against all the old Bolsheviks.

Trotsky one of the chief defendants described the trials 'It is time, my listeners, it is high time, to recognise, finally, that a new aristocracy has been formed in the Soviet Union. The October Revolution proceeded under the banner of equality. The bureaucracy is the embodiment of monstrous inequality. The revolution destroyed the nobility. The bureaucracy creates new gentry. The revolution destroyed titles and decorations. The new aristocracy produces marshals and generals. The new aristocracy absorbs an enormous part of the national income. Its position before the people is deceitful and false. Its leaders are forced to hide the reality, to deceive the masses, to cloak themselves, calling black white. The whole policy of the new aristocracy is a frame-up.' And “But it remains an incontestable historical fact that the preparation of the bloody judicial frame-ups had its inception in the “minor” historical distortions and innocent” falsification of citations. The bureaucracy found it indispensably necessary to adapt Bolshevism to its own needs. This could not be done otherwise than by corroding the soul of Bolshevism. To the revolutionary essence of Bolshevism the bureaucracy gave the name of “Trotskyism.” Thus it created the spindle on which to wind in the future its falsifications in all the spheres of theory and practice.

The Popular Front Policy pursued by the Stalinists was another millstone around the necks of the CPHG. The policy of the Popular Front would have a profound effect on the Communist Party History Group (CPHG). Yet again nothing is really mentioned by Parker of this.

Parker fails to mention that Leon Trotsky co leader of the Russian revolution wrote considerable amounts on this policy. His writings on Spain are some of his best. Trotsky on the popular front said”

From the standpoint of theory, the most astonishing thing about Stalin's Spanish policy is the utter disregard for the ABC of Leninism. After a delay of several decades - and what decades! - the Comintern has fully rehabilitated the doctrine of Menshevism. More than that, the Comintern has contrived to render this doctrine more 'consistent' and by that token more absurd. In Tsarist Russia, on the threshold of 1905, the formula of 'purely democratic revolution' had behind it, in any case, immeasurably more arguments than in 1937 in Spain. It is hardly astonishing that in modern Spain 'the liberal labour policy' of Menshevism has been converted into the reactionary anti-labour policy of Stalinism. At the same time the doctrine of the Mensheviks, this caricature of Marxism, has been converted into a caricature of itself.” The theoreticians of the Popular Front do not essentially go beyond the first rule of arithmetic, that is, addition: 'Communists' plus Socialists plus Anarchists plus liberals add up to a total which is greater than their respective isolated numbers. Such is all their wisdom. However, arithmetic alone does not suffice here. One needs as well at least mechanics. The law of the parallelogram of forces applies to politics as well. In such a parallelogram, we know that the resultant is shorter; the more component forces diverge from each other. When political allies tend to pull in opposite directions, the resultant proves equal to zero”. Continue "A bloc of divergent political groups of the working class is sometimes completely indispensable for the solution of common practical problems. In certain historical circumstances, such a bloc is capable of attracting the oppressed petty-bourgeois masses whose interests are close to the interests of the proletariat. The joint force of such a bloc can prove far stronger than the sum of the forces of each of its component parts. On the contrary, the political alliance between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, whose interests on basic questions in the present epoch diverge at an angle of 180 degrees, as a general rule, is capable only of paralysing the revolutionary force of the proletariat.” Civil war, in which the force of naked coercion is hardly effective, demands of its participants the spirit of supreme self-abnegation. The workers and peasants can assure victory only if they wage a struggle for their own emancipation. Under these conditions, to subordinate the proletariat to the leadership of the bourgeoisie means beforehand to assure defeat in the civil war."

It does not take a tremendous leap of faith to work out that the origins of the concept of history from below “instigated by the CPHG owes a lot to the Popular Front policy. That historians such as Hill, Rude etc. were influenced by it was clear.

Leslie Morton’s work a People’s History of England was the founding book of the group. From the beginning there was a contradiction between the avocation of the Popular Front politics and the historian’s group writing about democratic groups such as the Levellers in the vain of history from below. The CPHG group tended glorify an unbroken historical line of English Radicalism. This outlook portrays the English Working Class as inherently radical and therefore does not need a scientific perspective. A Leading member of the Group, Dona Torr, decided to position Tom Mann in her study Tom Mann and his Times, as a figure that “was a late representative in a story of England’s long running struggle. Which in many ways is reminisant of the Whig view of British history.

Ann Talbot writes “For the Communist Party sponsored a form of “People’s History”, which is typified by A.L. Morton’s People’s History of England in which the class character of earlier rebels, revolutionaries and popular leaders was obscured by regarding them all as representatives of a national revolutionary tradition. This historical approach reflected the nationalism of the bureaucracy, their hostility to internationalism and their attempts to form an unprincipled alliance with the supposedly democratic capitalists against the fascist Axis countries. People’s history was an attempt to give some historical foundation to the policies of Popular Front—the subordination of the working class to supposedly progressive sections of the bourgeoisie and the limiting of political action to the defence of bourgeois democracy—which provided a democratic facade to the systematic murder of thousands of genuine revolutionaries, including Trotsky. It was the approach that Christopher Hill was trained in, along with E.P. Thompson, Rodney Hilton and Eric Hobsbawm, who were part of the Marxist Historians Group and came under the influence of Maurice Dobb and Dona Torr”.

“There is something Jesuitical about the relationship of these historians to Marxism. They seem to have been capable of partitioning their minds and pursuing a scientific Marxist approach to history up to the point where the Stalinist bureaucracy drew the line, like the Jesuit scientists who would pursue their investigations as far as the Church authorities permitted, but no further. It was an approach that was further encouraged by the extreme specialisation of academic life that enabled them to concentrate on very narrow areas of history that never brought them into direct collision with the bureaucracy on political questions.”

“It is notable that of the Marxist Historians Group Hill wrote on the seventeenth century, Thompson on the eighteenth century, Hobsbawm mostly on the nineteenth century and Hilton on the Middle Ages. But none of them specialised in the twentieth century. In more recent areas of history, as in politics, the control of the Stalinist bureaucracy was too great to allow the free development of Marxist thought and whether deliberately or not they all avoided venturing into the modern arena. It is notable that E.H. Carr, who was never a member of the Communist Party but wrote on the history of the Russian Revolution and expressed a high regard for Trotsky, was for long periods unemployed and unemployable because his views clashed with those on both the left and right of British academic life”.

Despite their handicap it would be fair to say that the CPHG historians did try to examine “the early plebeian movements and utopian communists of the English revolutionary period as precursors of the modern socialist movement” This was done by the CPHG largely in the spirit of Marx who in 1847 said “The first manifestation of a truly active communist party is contained within the bourgeois revolution, at the moment when the constitutional monarchy is eliminated. The most consistent republicans – in England the Levellers, in France Babeuf, Buonarroti, etc. – were the first to proclaim these ‘social questions’.”

It was correct of the early Marxists to look at the early plebeian movements as precursors of modern socialist movement. What needs to be clarified is what a modern socialist movement is. The CPHG historians alongside numerous radical groups did have a tendency to glorify the spontaneous movement of the middling sort and to link it to working class struggles today as if there was some unbroken radical and democratic thread that would supersede the need for a scientifically grounded need for a revolutionary party.

Parker also attempts to establish what kind of ‘Marxists’ were the in the history group. He describes their attempt to apply orthodox Marxist theory i.e. Historical Materialism to a study of the English Revolution was no easy task. To explore these questions would take a book. It is a subject I will return to at a later stage.

Parker provides an extremely useful introduction to the subject with his sighting of major documents from the group. He reviews issues of methodology and the ‘empiricism’ of the group.

It is clear that the group’s use of Marx was mainly farmed from his work on historical materialism in Preface to the Contribution to the critique of political economy. The group relied heavily on Engel’s’ correspondence in the 1890s which was translated by Historians Group member Dona Torr.

The empiricism used by the group would largely stem from the influence of Stalinism and also a dash of English empiricism thrown in.

This methodology was confirmed by E P Thompson who described the groups approach as “Quaintly empirical. I am not condemning the all the work of the historians by raising this point that would be facile as they produced some of the most outstanding historiography of any generation but it does show the handicap they were working under.

David Parker’s collection of the internal discussions of the British Communist Party Historians Group in the 1940s-50s provides only a partial record of debates within the group you can get inkling on the tremendous ideological pressure that was exerted by the CPGB and the Soviet Communist party on the CPHG. Stalin’s theory of Socialism in a single country which ran contradiction to Trotsky’s development of International revolution would have a deep impact on the history writing and research of the history group. Stalin’s general writings also had a significant impact on the History group. Hill for instance sided with Stalin over the debate on Pokrovsky (This will be elaborated further in part 2).

Leon Trotsky asked the question "In what did Stalin’s own theoretical work express itself? In nothing. All he did was to exploit his fellow-traveller theorists, in the interests of the new ruling caste. He will enter into the annals of the history of “thought” only as the organizer of the greatest school of falsification. But for this very reason Stalin, more truly and completely than anybody else, expresses the ideological physiognomy of the new ruling stratum. Each theoretical formula of anti-Trotskyism (whether it involved Zinoviev, Bukharin or Pokrovsky) became at the very next stage an intolerable burden to the new masters of the situation. Official “theory” is today transformed into a blank sheet of paper on which the unfortunate theoreticians reverently trace the contours of the Stalinist boot. Retreating with seven league strides from its Bolshevik past, the bureaucracy at first devoured at each successive stage its own theoreticians. Nowadays that is no longer adequate. The bureaucracy cannot be reconciled with anything but the destruction of the entire old generation of Bolsheviks. Such is the consummation of the Soviet Thermidor!

The English Revolution has been written on quite extensively down the years by many of the great Marxist thinkers. So it gives the reader a chance to evaluate to what extent the CPHG applied orthodox Marxism to their studies of the English Revolution. It must be said that some did a better job than others.

Hill application of Historical materialism enabled him in the words of Ann Talbot identify “the mid-seventeenth century crisis as a revolution, which in the case of Britain overthrew the rule of one class and brought another to power. Secondly he recognised that revolutions are made by the mass of the population and that for a revolution to take place the consciousness of that mass of people must change, since revolutions are not made by a few people at the top although the character of their leadership is crucial at certain points. These achievements were considerable at the time and are of continuing relevance today, when historians increasingly reject any serious economic or social analysis and argue that revolutions are nothing but the work of a tiny group of conspirators”.

In 1850 Marx and Engel’s reviewed a pamphlet, titled why did the English revolution succeed? Marx and Engel’s “M Guizot finds it superfluous to mention that the subjection of the crown to parliament meant subjection to the rule of a class. Nor does he think it necessary to deal with the fact that this class won the necessary power in order finally to make the crown its servant. According to him, the whole struggle between Charles I and parliament was merely over purely political privileges. Not a word is said about why the parliament, and the class represented in it, needed these privileges. Nor does Guizot talk about Charles I’s interference with free competition, which made England’s commerce and industry increasingly impossible; nor about the dependence on parliament into which Charles I, in his continuous need for money, fell the more deeply, the more he tried to defy it.”

“The English class of great landowners, allied with the bourgeoisie – which, incidentally, had already developed under Henry VIII – did not find itself in opposition, as did the French feudal landowners in 1789, but rather in complete harmony with the vital requirements of the bourgeoisie. In fact, their lands were not feudal, but bourgeois property. On the one hand, they were able to provide the industrial bourgeoisie with the manpower necessary for manufacturing, and on the other they were able to develop agriculture to the standards consonant with industry and commerce. Thus their common interests with the bourgeoisie, thus their alliance with it.”

One of the most important points Marx and Engel’s that England passed from what amounted to a feudal country into the early stages of a bourgeois in the 17th century. This analysis was common coin amongst other Marxist thinkers of both the 19th and 20th century. In Karl Kautsky’s ‘Revolutions, past and present’ (1906), [and also in Trotsky’s Where is Britain going? (1926). Who wrote “In the England of the 1640s we see a parliament based upon the most whimsical franchise, which at the same time regarded itself as the representative organ of the people. The lower house represented the nation in that it represented the bourgeoisie and thereby national wealth. In the reign of Charles I it was found, and not without amazement, that the House of Commons was three times richer than the House of Lords. The king now dissolved this parliament and now recalled it according to the pressure of financial need. Parliament created an army for its defence. The army gradually concentrated in its ranks all the most active, courageous and resolute elements. As a direct consequence of this, parliament capitulated to this army. We say, “As a direct consequence,” but by this we wish to say that Parliament capitulated not simply to armed force (it did not capitulate to the King’s army) but to the Puritan army of Cromwell which expressed the requirements of the revolution more boldly, more resolutely and more consistently than did Parliament.

“The adherents of the Episcopal or Anglican, semi-Catholic Church were the party of the court, the nobility and of course the higher clergy. The Presbyterians were the party of the bourgeoisie, the party of wealth and enlightenment. The Independents, and the Puritans especially, were the party of the petty bourgeoisie, the plebeians. Wrapped up in ecclesiastical controversies, in the form of a struggle over the religious structure of the church, there took place a social self-determination of classes and their re-grouping along new, bourgeois lines. Politically the Presbyterian party stood for a limited monarchy; the Independents, who then were called “root and branch men” or, in the language of our day, radicals, stood for a republic. The half-way position of the Presbyterians fully, corresponded to the contradictory interests of the bourgeoisie – between the nobility and the plebeians. The Independents” party which dared to carry its ideas and slogans through to their conclusion naturally displaced the Presbyterians among the awakening petty-bourgeois masses in the towns and the countryside that formed the main force of the revolution”.

Perhaps the most important attack on the group and particularly Hill came from a number of Stalinist writers who were critical of Hill’s characterization of the English Revolution as ‘Bourgeois’.

The catalyst for this criticism was Hill’s publication in 1940 of The English revolution 1640. From the start Hill argued that the revolution should be termed bourgeois and had similar characteristics to the French revolution of 1789. From Hill “I use the word feudal in the Marxist sense, and not in the more restricted sense adopted by most academic historians to describe narrowly military and legal relations. By “feudalism” I mean a form of society in which agriculture is the basis of economy and in which political power is monopolised by a class of landowners. The mass of the population consists of dependent peasants subsisting on the produce of their family holdings. The landowners are maintained by the rent paid by the peasants, which might be in the form of food or labour, as in early days, or (by the sixteenth century) in money. In such a society there is room for small handicraft production, exchange of products, internal and overseas trade; but commerce and industry are subordinated to and plundered’ by the landowners and their State. Merchant capital can develop within feudalism without changing the mode of production; a challenge to the old ruling class and its state comes only with the development of the capitalist mode of production in industry and agriculture”.

Hill is the most identifiable historian with the label Marxist because of his membership of the Communist Party. Without going into detail of the history of the British CP this was a Stalinist party that abandoned any link with orthodox Marxism in the late 1920s. So in strictly political terms Hill was closer to Stalinism than Marxism. This is not to belittle Hills work as a historian. While handicapped by his association with the CP he was one of the finest historians of his generation.

Hill argument was sharply critiqued by German Stalinist Jurgen Kuchynski. Who wrote in the CP’s journal Labour Monthly? Kuchynski put forward Tudor England was already capitalist. In his book Parker quotes him describing Queen Elizabeth I was “the most prominent capitalist in capitalist bourgeois society” (p32).

He went to describe the 640 revolution somewhat bizarrely as an attempted feudal counter-revolution.


1) 1940-1956, Ideology Absolutism and the English Revolution: Debates of the British Communist Historians, 1940-1956.

2) mike.macnair(at)

3) Leon Trotsky --The Stalin School of Falsification-Foreword to the American Edition

4) Leon Trotsky Writings on the Spanish Revolution- Pathfinder Press.

5) Morton’s book was first published in the 1930s. The Communist Party Historians? Group first began to meet after the war to inform the argument of the second edition.

6) "These the times ... this the man": an appraisal of historian Christopher Hill Ann Talbot.

7) Marx- The Moralising Criticism and critical Morality. Source: MECW volume 6, p. 312;Written: at the end of October 1847;

First published: in the Deutsche-Brüsseler-Zeitung Nos. 86,87,90,92 and 94; October 28 and 31; November 11, 18 and 25, 1847.

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