chapter  2
‘The people’ in history: the Communist Party Historians’ Group, 1946–56
Pages 52

The decision by the historians in the British Communist Party to organize themselves as a group in 1946 will probably appear as an excessively parochial and antiquarian subject for a chapter in a book written in 1981, when political problems of the day are so pressing. But I want to argue, first, that the historiography which emerged from this venture decisively reworked our notion of the past (so much so that for many today it now appears conventionally mainstream) and, second, that an integral dimension to the work of the Historians' Group was a securely founded conception of the politics of intellectual work. Furthermore what is most immediately striking is how many of today's leading historians were intellectually formed in the milieu of British Communism from the late 1930s to the early 1950s. Christopher Hill, Victor Kiernan, Rodney Hilton, Eric Hobsbawm, George Thomson, Royden Harrison, Raphael Samuel, Edward Thompson, Dorothy Thompson, Leslie Morton, George Rude - it is a formidable array. 'These were the people', writes Hobsbawm,

who would make their way ... through what memory recalls mainly as the dank, cold and slightly foggy morning streets of Clerkenwell to Marx House or to the upper room of the Garibaldi Restaurant, Laystall Street, armed with cydostyled agendas, sheets of 'theses' or summary arguments, for the debates of the moment. 1

The Group, it appears, had its own touch of romantic ardour. Fascism had been defeated, a radical and popular movement generated in the War symbolized the aspirations and potential for social reconstruction, and to these young Communists history mattered. Why it was that so many outstanding intellectuals were attracted both to the Communist Party and to the study of history is itself an intriguing question which I can only touch on here. But for anyone curious about the formation of history as a component in the national intellectual culture the role of the Communist Party in the 1940s must playa crucial part in any analysis.