Article by Amy Calladine. Edited by Hannah Lyons. Additional Research by Helen Midgley.
‘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 a friendship.’
History today is not what it used to be. A hundred years ago, the emphasis was wedged firmly on the exemplar of ‘great men’ and their exceptional lives. In the lecture theatre, book and classroom, the meta-narratives of military and political accomplishment meant history remained tethered to the life stories of the privileged few.
The crucial change came in the years after the Second World War as the bitter horrors of global conflict shattered illusions of comfortable consensus. Here, I will argue that the radical influence of the Communist Party Historians Group was intrinsic in driving forward some of the most significant shifts in post-war historiography, presenting a vigorous and vital challenge to the whiggish approaches outlined above. Most obviously, the central principal of ‘history from below’ represented a seismic shift from previous engagements with the past, widening the field of historical actors and paving the way for developments including gender history, subaltern studies and the democratisation of historical knowledge in the years which followed.
The group was formed in 1946 by a new generation of Marxist historians including Eric Hobsbawm, E. P. Thompson and Christopher Hill, along with non-academics such as A. L. Morton and Brian Pearce. The majority of founding members joined the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) as Oxbridge students in the 1930s and 1940s, believing in the central premise of socialism – a belief which crystallised after the global trauma of war and the perils of fascist dictatorship.
Focusing on economic and social conditions, the CPHG used a Marxist analysis to explode myth and deconstruct power. In choosing to focus on the radicalism and rebellion of the common people, a commitment to the history of marginalised groups was articulated, breathing new life into the functionalist materialism often associated with the genre.
At its height, between the years 1946-56, the group was organised into period-specific sections, a method which sought to encourage intellectual freedom and the popularisation of historical research. The CPHG thrived off a stimulating intellectual environment in which old models of thought were challenged with active and rigorous scholarly debate. In keeping with their belief in the democratisation of knowledge, many lectures were delivered from the new higher education establishments, breaking out of the crumbling corridors of academia and bringing history into the public realm.
One of the group’s most significant contributions to the landscape of history was in the creation of the scholarly journal Past & Present. Although not officially tied to the CPHG, and not an exclusively Marxist publication, its advent represented a significant milestone in the proliferation of social history. Even today it remains one of the world’s leading academic journals and stands as the vehicle for a rich variety of historical debates.
Interestingly, it was through self-conscious allusions to the plight of socialist protest that the group gained much of its radical reputation. This commitment to the state of contemporary society was one factor which made the CPHG seem so uniquely determined to illuminate the struggle against oppression, both past and present. Thompson himself was deeply involved in the ‘Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament’, a commitment which outlasted his formal membership and shaped his continual presence on the emerging New Left. It was more than just a shift in the academic arena. Hobsbawm, Thompson et al succeeded in redefining history as the study of humanity; something which one could both study objectively and care deeply about. Something which belonged to everyone as much as it belonged to no-one.
The glory days though were short lived. The ‘Hungarian Crisis’ of 1956, in which communist tanks brutally crushed a revolutionary liberation movement, cast a dark shadow over the CPHG. In addition, Khrushchev’s ‘secret speech’ on Stalinism, and the failure of the CPGB to oppose the invasion sparked growing disillusionment within the ranks of the historians group. Amidst the resignation of many prominent members, Eric Hobsbawm remained one of the only founding members to stay tethered to the organisation. Still, despite the relative short life of the original historians group, their influenced raged on into the unfolding century, both in the work of its ex-members and the development of related schools of thought,
The years from 1946-56 were crucial for the emergence of the new social history which remained a powerful influence in both public and professional circles. It would be easy to argue that without the unique, passionate and vigorous efforts of the CPHG, groundbreaking works like Thompson’s 1963 classic The Making of the English Working Class, or Sheila Rowbotham’s feminist stalwart Hidden from History would never have been written. Along with Past & Present, a host of publications including the groundbreaking History Workshop owe more than a cursory thanks to the Communist Party Historians Group. Their political commitment and intellectual brilliance enabled the past to be explored in a host of new ways. Far removed from the outdated regurgitation of great men and great lives, the CPHG proved the malleability of history through a blazing commitment to the value of the ordinary individual – past, present and future.