Obituary: A True Leveller

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Alex Callinicos pays tribute to the life and work of Brian Manning.

The last time I saw Brian Manning was at Marxism 2003 last July. He was speaking, together with John Rees, at a memorial meeting for Christopher Hill, the great Marxist historian of the English Revolution of 1640-60. Now we must mourn Brian himself, another outstanding Marxist student of that revolution, after his sudden and tragic death on holiday in Italy in April.

The names of Brian Manning and Christopher Hill will in any case always be linked together. Hill developed the first serious Marxist interpretation of the English Revolution in a pathbreaking essay first published in 1940. He was one of a group of brilliant historians (others were Edward Thompson and Eric Hobsbawm) who rallied to the Communist Party during the 1930s and pioneered the study of history 'from below' - that is, from the perspective of the oppressed and exploited ignored in official academic history.

Brian, born in 1927, belonged to a slightly younger generation than Hill, under whom he studied at Balliol College, Oxford, in the late 1940s and early 1950s. He also never joined the Communist Party - I remember him saying that he had never cared for Oliver Cromwell, who reminded him of Stalin.

This remark captured the essence of Brian's approach to 17th century history. The English People and the English Revolution (1976), the first of what proved to be a trilogy, is the most sustained and detailed attempt that has so far been made to trace the role of the artisans and apprentices of London and the smallholding peasants of the English countryside during the political upheavals of the 1640s. The dialectic that it uncovers between the divisions at the top of English society and the intervention from below of these people of 'the middling sort' has been supported by later studies, for example Robert Brenner's Merchants and Revolution.

The English People and the English Revolution appeared when history from below was at high tide thanks to the radicalising impact of the students' and workers' struggles during the great upturn of 1968-76. In subsequent decades the tide receded intellectually and politically. One symptom of this reaction was the effort of so called 'revisionist' historians to rubbish the social interpretation of the English Revolution. They reduced the crisis of the 1640s to a scrimmage among the upper classes that got out of hand.

Hill never recanted his Marxism, but the writings of his later years widened considerably beyond their original focus on the English Revolution. Brian was the most prominent professional historian to continue to defend and seek to develop Hill's original insight - that historical materialism was uniquely well equipped to illuminate the political and ideological conflicts that led to the execution of Charles I, and the rise and fall of what is still Britain's only republic.

Brian doesn't seem to have been fazed by this lonely task, which he pursued at the universities of Manchester and Ulster, and after his retirement when he continued to live in the north of Ireland. Small in stature, he had the spirit of a lion. Legend has it that he once decked an obnoxious colleague in the senior common room (something that many academics dream of, but usually don't have the nerve actually to do).

At the end of the 1980s Brian started to attend and speak at the Marxism week of discussion organised by the Socialist Workers Party every July in London. What drew us together was a shared commitment to the Marxist theory of history and an enthusiasm for the English Revolution. (Some of us - John Rees, for example - have always found it hard to distinguish between the two: there was a plan in 1994, as far as I remember never executed, to take a minibus to the battlefield of Naseby to gloat over the destruction of Stuart power by the New Model Army 350 years earlier.)

Brian now found himself part of a community that took the Marxist interpretation of the English Revolution as seriously as he did and was willing to argue the fine points about it, and about the other great bourgeois revolutions, till the cows came home. But the attraction was more than intellectual. Brian had been an active member of the Labour Party and of CND in his younger years. A socialist passion shines through all his scholarship. Soon he joined the Irish Socialist Workers Party.

Brian's involvement in the revolutionary socialist movement was a big step for a distinguished academic historian of an older generation than the overwhelming majority of its members. But, behind a somewhat stern exterior, Brian was a modest and very likeable man. Every year he would travel from the north of Ireland to speak at Marxism in London, never claiming a penny of the expenses to which he was entitled. He had a nicely dry sense of humour that could ease the most austere discussions of agrarian class relations in 17th century England.

I would like to think that we gave Brian something in return. Perhaps we offered him an audience that helped to stimulate the productivity of his last years. His trilogy continued with 1649: Crisis of the Revolution (1992) and concluded with Revolution and Counter-Revolution in England, Scotland and Ireland 1658-60 (2003). Both books were published by Bookmarks, which also republished The English People and the English Revolution. In these and other works Brian Manning enormously enriched the Marxist understanding of English history. He will not be forgotten.


There will be a meeting to remember Brian Manning's contribution to Marxist history at Marxism 2004.