The founding figures of social history in Britain were the first editors of the journal Past & Present, launched in 1952. One part of the collective, distinguishing the journal from the majority of academic enterprises, was a small group of writers who belonged to a single generation and shared a common political heritage. They were Marxists, being members or fellow-travellers of the Communist Party of Great Britain. They were young, aged typically in their 20s or early 30s. Such figures as Rodney Hilton, Edward (E. P.) Thompson, Christopher Hill and Eric Hobsbawm are often said to have invented a new way of historical writing, 'history from below', in which the emphasis was put on radical movements, social classes and the campaigns of the dispossessed. Such were the forces which had made the world. These are often said to have been their first and most distinguished historians.
Of course, like all narratives, the above story has certain lacunae. It obscures the extent to which something like the social history of the 1950s and 1960s had already been written at previous times (it was anticipated in Britain by the work of earlier historians such as C. L. R. James, in the 1930s, or the Hammonds or the Webbs earlier) and in other places (an equivalent narrative of activist historians writing in France would start more than a century earlier with Gracchus Babeuf, and take in writers such as Jules Michelet, Jean Jaurs and Petr Kropotkin). It is true, however, that under the influence of Thompson, Hill and the others radical history had a popular audience and an influence, causing other historical traditions to look on in envy.
The British Marxist historians are best known for a series of defining works. Edward Thompson's 1963 book, The Making of the English Working Class, argued for a form of Marxism in which class difference was the product not simply of economic distinctions between people, but of a much broad category of human experience: 'Class happens', Thompson wrote, 'when some men, as a result of common experience (inherited or shared) feel and articulate the identity of their interests as between themselves, and as against other men whose interests are different from (and usually opposed to) theirs.'(1) Thompson humanised Marxism, breaking it from its link to Russia, making it acceptable to the 1960s young.
Christopher Hill's The World Turned Upside Down, published nine years later, was a sympathetic collective biography of the radical movements of the 1640s. In comparison to the Fifth Monarchy men, the Diggers, the Levellers and Agitators who had successfully led a revolution, culminating in the removal of King Charles's head, the student protesters and the workplace strikers of 1968–72 were but dilettantes. Hill's book, like Thompson's, sold tens of thousands of copies. It was even performed as a play at the National Theatre in London.
One further part of this generation's genius lay in a perhaps surprising capacity to build coalitions. On the first Past & Present editorial board, for example, as well the Marxists there were also recognisable Liberals and historical Whigs: including John Morris, the journal's first editor, and Geoffrey Barraclough, the contemporary historian. Alongside Thompson and Hill, one of the most widely read books of history to be published in this period was E. H. Carr's What is History? (1961). For Carr, in complete contrast to Thompson, history was last of all an interest in the activities of subaltern movements. Rather it was a story of grand contending powers. Carr himself enters the 'Marxist' pantheon primarily as a sympathetic historian of the Soviet Union. A former British diplomat and occasional contributor to The Times, there could have been no history that interested Carr less than history from below. And yet such was the moment that differences of this kind appeared not to matter. All was swept up together. There was a generation – an audience – at work.
Even at the period of their ascendancy, however, the British Marxist historians were a narrowly based set of people. Hilton, Thompson, Hill and Hobsbawm had all been members not just of the Communist Party but also of its historians' group. In the wake of the British invasion of Egypt and the Soviet invasion of Hungary, the Communist Party itself was split. Only Hobsbawm remained a member of the Party after 1956. Thompson became an activist first in the New Left and then in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND). Hilton and Hill were lost to political activity. Thompson admitted to awkwardness, becoming more pronounced over time, 'For one must', he wrote, 'to survive an unassimilated socialist in this infinitely assimilative culture make one's sensibility all knobbly – all knees and elbows of susceptibility and refusal.'(2) After 1956, there was no new Party to train a comparably talented set of younger historians.
Over time, Marxist historical writing began to lose some of its lan. Its appeal was diminished. Writing, which had been confident, became insular. A key moment was the late 1970s and early 1980s, a revealing title Hill's study of the Restoration of King Charles: The Experience of Defeat (London, 1984). Part of the problem was political. Within the Marx-ish coalition of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, there had always been different strands. In the late 1950s, it had of course been official Russian policy to catch up and overtake America within a decade. Twenty years later, those influenced more by E. H. Carr than E. P. Thompson were inevitably disheartened, as the Soviet Union entered into terminal decay, and as China adopted an economic model which had nothing in common with any recognisable socialist tradition.
A similar disenchantment affected many who believed that human liberation would be achieved by a global working class. Through the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, global economic production was reorganised on an unprecedented scale. Computerisation enabled production by smaller workplace units. Giant factories which had employed tens of thousands of people were able to maintain the same level of output, employing hundreds of people or less. Entire generations of skilled workers found themselves redundant. Work remained a defining feature of peoples' lives. Yet the collective consciousness of work had been changed. The idea that the route to human liberation could be found in the economy appeared discredited.
One further – and usually unacknowledged – part of the crisis was that history itself also had changed. To understand the contrast with the earlier period, we need to think back to the nature of the more friendly climate of the 1950s and 1960s. In Geoffrey Barraclough's Introduction to Contemporary History (London, 1964), the enduring theme of recent history is the victory of prosperity, peace and happiness. Such a way of looking at the world made perfect sense, of course, to those struck by the contrast between wartime experience and the twenty years which followed, in which more of the people worldwide were taken from poverty to something like wealth in a shorter time than ever before in history.
In contrast to Barraclough, of course, figures such as Thompson or Hill were relative catastrophists. Marxism is founded, among many other things, in a disbelief in the potential of capitalism to expand indefinitely in an uninterrupted fashion. But the intellectual climate in which Marxists flourished was one in which ideas of progress were pervasive.
For history to be seen as the queen of the arts, or even as any coherent subject at all, rather than merely the unfolding of distinct and unconnected catastrophes, it must have a theme. In so far as there has been a British tradition of historiography, it has typically been founded on diluted Whig theories of history. Thus the 'message' of the Modern History syllabus at Oxford University, still largely unchanged from when it was first written in the final decades of the 19th century, is that British history is an unfolding story of personal freedom, beginning with the personal charters given by the medieval Kings, taking in the failure of absolutist monarchy in the 17th century (in radical contrast to the rest of Europe), and with history reaching its endpoint in the glory of the modern British Parliament.
To its audience, the history of Thompson and Hill had a similarly upbeat message, save that rather than finding kings and queens as the carriers of progress, the historians gave that role (in Thompson's phrase) to 'the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the obsolete hand-loom weaver, the utopian artisan, and even the deluded follower of Joanna Southcott'.(3)
The peak year for the study of history in Britain at A-level was 1976, when 149,000 students took History or Economic History. The number fell by roughly two-thirds over the next twenty years. History declined in importance between the late 1950s and late 1970s, and has not shrugged itself out of its lethargy since. Decline has been a product of the vast proliferation of subjects taught at university. Decline has also happened because of the subject matter of history, because it is harder to believe that history has a purpose, or that British history in particular has a purpose. Marxist history could no longer be read as a critique of a naively optimistic mainstream when that mainstream was in the act of self-abnegation.
As for the last 10 years or so, Marxist historical writing has been reinvigorated on the basis of new writers often exploring the same periods but finding new interest in them. Hill's concern, the English revolution of the 1640s, is brilliantly discussed in Jake Holstun's Ehud's Dagger (London, 2001). In a series of books, Neil Davidson has unpicked the manoeuvring of interest behind the Act of Union. Other historians – Bryan Palmer, Chris Harman, Marcel van der Linden, Neil Faulkner – share the same schooling in intense political activism that characterised the Marxist historians of 50 years ago, if in their case the inspirations are different. There are several journals open to Marxist historians. New organisations such as the London Socialist Historians exist and meet. There is no prospect of history in Britain turning simply, overwhelmingly and gloriously 'red'. But even 50 years ago, there never was.
Dave Renton is an independent writer and historian