Cultural Marxism in Postwar Britain: History, the New Left, and the Origins of Cultural Studies

Cultural Marxism in Postwar Britain: History, the New Left, and the Origins of Cultural Studies

by Dennis Dworkin

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In this intellectual history of British cultural Marxism, Dennis Dworkin explores one of the most influential bodies of contemporary thought. Tracing its development from beginnings in postwar Britain, through its various transformations in the 1960s and 1970s, to the emergence of British cultural studies at Birmingham, and up to the advent of Thatcherism, Dworkin shows this history to be one of a coherent intellectual tradition, a tradition that represents an implicit and explicit theoretical effort to resolve the crisis of the postwar British Left.
Limited to neither a single discipline nor a particular intellectual figure, this book comprehensively views British cultural Marxism in terms of the dialogue between historians and the originators of cultural studies and in its relationship to the new left and feminist movements. From the contributions of Eric Hobsbawm, Christopher Hill, Rodney Hilton, Sheila Rowbotham, Catherine Hall, and E. P. Thompson to those of Perry Anderson, Barbara Taylor, Raymond Williams, Dick Hebdige, and Stuart Hall, Dworkin examines the debates over issues of culture and society, structure and agency, experience and ideology, and theory and practice. The rise, demise, and reorganization of journals such as The Reasoner, The New Reasoner, Universities and Left Review, New Left Review, Past and Present, are also part of the history told in this volume. In every instance, the focus of Dworkin’s attention is the intellectual work seen in its political context. Cultural Marxism in Postwar Britain captures the excitement and commitment that more than one generation of historians, literary critics, art historians, philosophers, and cultural theorists have felt about an unorthodox and critical tradition of Marxist theory.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822396512
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 04/16/1997
Series: Post-contemporary interventions
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 336
Lexile: 1560L (what's this?)
File size: 449 KB

About the Author

Dennis Dworkin is Associate Professor of History at the University of Nevada, Reno.

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Cultural Marxism in Postwar Britain

History, the New Left, and the Origins of Cultural Studies

By Dennis Dworkin

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1997 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-9651-2


Lost Rights

A pivotal moment in the creation of a Marxist tradition of historical scholarship in Great Britain was the launching of the Communist Party Historians' Group in 1946. The core of the Group came from the radical student generation of the 1930s and early 1940s. They became Communists in large measure because of the movement's prominent role in the Popular Front against fascism. The group included Christopher Hill, Rodney Hilton, Eric Hobsbawm, Victor Kiernan, George Rudé, John Saville, and Dorothy and Edward Thompson (though Edward-Thompson played only a marginal role). It was also shaped by Communist scholars of an older generation who were not professional historians per se but were devoted historical materialists, most importantly the economist Maurice Dobb and the Marx scholar Dona Torr.

The Group's practice bore the imprint of two political moments. On the one hand, it conceived of itself as spearheading a Popular Front, a broad coalition of progressive historians combating reactionary tendencies in historiography. Its thinking was simultaneously constrained by the sectarianism already present in the 1930s but accentuated by the Cold War's polarization of intellectual and political discourse. The Group's members were relatively open-minded, considering that they were loyal Communist militants in the late 1940s and early 1950s. In spite of crippling illusions about Stalin's regime and the nature of their own party, they openly debated Marxist theory, critically examined numerous historical issues central to the study of British history, and, in conjunction with a few sympathetic non-Marxist historians, they launched the social history journal Past and Present. While the Group's world-view was steeped in Marxist dogma, it shared the same objectivist and empiricist assumptions about the nature of historical knowledge as did other professional historians. Such allegiances, however, were not easy to reconcile and led to internal conflicts.

In retrospect, the significance of the Historians' Group was as a kind of incubator for the development of British cultural Marxist historiography and historical theory. It represented a unique moment in the intellectual history of Marxism.


The Marxist historiographical tradition in Britain was rooted in Popular Front politics and the Communist culture of the 1930s. Founded in 1920 and consisting of dedicated militants, the British CP was a tiny organization consisting of no more than several thousand members that, because of its penetration into the trade union movement, exerted an influence belying its size. In the mid-thirties the Party was in flux, a consequence of the triumph of fascism in Germany and the destruction of the CP there. Following the lead of the international movement, the British CP reversed its disastrous "class against class" position, which failed to distinguish between social democrats and the extreme Bight, and launched a Popular Front against fascism that came to include progressives of all kinds. Most importantly, this new direction made possible Communist support of the Spanish Republicans. Of the approximately two thousand British volunteers in the International Brigade, about half were Communists. The British CP never became a serious rival to the Labour Party, but, owing to its shift in posture, it tripled its membership and progressively dominated the small revolutionary Left.

During the era of the Great Depression and fascist expansion, English intellectual culture for the first time became dominated by leftist ideas. What stands out are the flirtations with communism by poets W. H. Auden, Stephen Spender, and C. Day Lewis; fiction writer Christopher Isherwood; the technological humanism of Marxist scientists Hyman Levy, Lancelot Hogben, J. D. Bernal, J. B. S. Haldane, and Joseph Needham; the work of political writers such as John Strachey and Harold Laski; George Orwell's engagement with poverty in Down and Out in Paris and London and The Road to Wigan Pier and with Spain in Homage to Catalonia; the antifascist novels of Graham Greene; the economic writings of Maurice Dobb; and the populist historical work of A. L. Morton. Left-wing ideas were powerfully spread by Victor Gollancz's Left Book Club, which by 1938 had nearly 60,000 subscribers, a monthly newspaper Left News, and a national network of 1,500 Left discussion groups. One of the most striking features of this intellectual culture was its enrichment by the first radical student movement in England, drawn into politics by the Great Depression, the rise of fascism, and, most importantly, the cause of Republican Spain.

Communists were a minority of the student activists, but they took the lead in supporting Spanish Republicanism, organizing the antifascist movement in the universities and progressively dominating university socialist societies, the principal medium of agitation. Communist student intellectuals saw themselves as forming a column in a great international army, fighting to preserve freedom and democracy and to establish a socialist world. They viewed Marxism as an alternative to the decadence and emptiness of bourgeois thought. It contained a compelling analysis of the historical moment, a vision of the future, and a philosophy–dialectical materialism–that unified nature and history, thought and reality, theory and practice. Armed with this new way of understanding, the rising generation was convinced of the necessity of revamping whole intellectual disciplines corrupted by bourgeois ideology: literary criticism, the sciences, philosophy, history, and anthropology.

Before the 1940s the small amount of Marxist writing on British history that existed was closely related to the broader tradition of socialist and radical democratic historiography. Typically, it was the work of intellectuals and militants, some of whom were from working-class backgrounds, who offered a historical materialist reading of known accounts. A. L. Morton exemplified this type of historian. He had been a Party member since the late twenties and a correspondent for the Daily Worker. His A People's History of England, published by the Left Book Club in 1938, was founded on a Marxist conception of class struggle but roughly modeled on the historical work of the earlier radical democratic tradition, particularly J. R. Green's A Short History of the English People (1877).

Marxist historical writing produced in the academy during the thirties was not done by professional historians. It was written by a small number of scholars in other disciplines who used a historical materialist approach: classicists like Benjamin Farrington and George Thomson; the specialist of the German Reformation, Roy Pascal; the Communist scientists of the social relations of science movement; the Australian expatriate and archaeologist V. Gordon Childe; and the economist Maurice Dobb, who was already engaged in the historical research that culminated in the influential Studies in the Development of Capitalism (1946).

The first Marxists to establish themselves within the historical profession came from the student generation of the thirties. Hobsbawm and Kiernan, who attended Trinity College, Cambridge, were classmates of James Klugmann, who would later be a leading Party intellectual, and the Communist poet John Cornford, who died fighting in Spain. (Dobb was a don of the college.) Rodney Hilton and Christopher Hill were radicalized while attending Balliol College, Oxford. John Saville was active in the radical student milieu of the London School of Economics. Somewhat younger than the others, Edward Thompson got involved in Cambridge student politics in the years immediately before the war. With the exception of Thompson, these historians all joined the British CP in the mid-1930s, the years that saw the coalescing of the Popular Front. Their participation in this coalition had a profound impact on their vision of politics and history and deeply influenced their perspective on the proper relationship between theory and practice.

While some of the best-known English Marxists of the 1930s, such as John Strachey and John Cornford, came from upper-class families, more typically Party members originated from the more "protestant" sections of the working class–Sheffield engineers, Clydeside shipbuilders, South Wales and Scottish miners. Party intellectuals likewise tended to be from Nonconformist middle-class backgrounds. The Marxist historians from the thirties' generation were no different, the majority of them being from Nonconformist households steeped in liberal dissent.

Christopher Hill, for one, was the product of an affluent but sternly middleclass Yorkshire Methodist upbringing, one he remembered as being pious, serious, and deeply inscribed with a "puritan conscience." His father, a successful solicitor, led an austere life, forbade smoking and drinking at home, and (as one of Hill's friends at Balliol recalled) was a "strict, but genial puritan." Hill, who attended a grammar school and reached Oxford owing to a scholarship, acknowledged that his background played an indispensable role in preparing him for a Communist commitment. He also believed that becoming a Party member represented a decisive break with, and a reaction against, his past. Victor Kiernan was from a Congregationalist background and from Northern England. His father worked for a Manchester shipping firm, translating correspondence into Spanish and Portuguese. Kiernan developed an interest in history while he attended a grammar school in Manchester, and he gravitated toward communism as a result of the influence of Klugmann and Cornford in the Cambridge Socialist Society. He recalled that, given his background, joining the Party did not seem like a big jump. Similarly, Rodney Hilton's family, though "deliberately irreligious," had all the cultural characteristics of Nonconformity. Hilton was part of the mobile working class and a child of the Lancashire labor movement. His grandfather, a politically active weaver, had campaigned to abolish the House of Lords in 1884; his parents were involved in the cooperative movement and were members of the Independent Labour Party. Like Kiernan, Hilton developed a love for history while attending a Manchester grammar school, and he attended Oxford on the basis of a scholarship. He remembered that participants in the Balliol CP group were mostly from similar backgrounds, often being one or two generations removed from working-class families. "In fact it was not difficult for people with this sort of background to become Communists."

Eric Hobsbawm was a notable exception to this pattern. Like Hill, Hilton, and Kiernan, he attended an English grammar school and received a scholarship to study in a university, in his case Cambridge. Yet Hobsbawm was a second generation English citizen. His mother's family was Austrian, his grandfather emigrated from Russia to England in the 1870s, and Hobsbawm himself grew up in Vienna. He was one of the last products of the now largely extinct culture of Central European middle-class Jewry, a milieu that in his formative years was rapidly disintegrating. As he remembered it: "After 1914 there was nothing but catastrophe and problematic survival. We lived on borrowed time and knew it. To make long-term plans seemed senseless for people whose world had already crashed twice within ten years (first in the war, later in the Great Inflation)."

For a young and precocious Jewish intellectual trying to find a political identity in a fragmented world, the choices appeared limited. Liberalism was not worth considering, since it symbolized the world before 1914. To support nationalist or Christian parties was likewise out of the question. Hobsbawm remembered the choice as being between communism, or some other form of revolutionary Marxism, and Zionism, a Jewish version of nationalism often compatible with a revolutionary socialist commitment. Hobsbawm chose communism.

We did not make a commitment against bourgeois society and capitalism, since it patently seemed to be on its last leg. We simply chose a future rather than no future, which meant revolution. But it meant revolution not in a negative but in a positive sense: a new world rather than no world. The great October revolution and Soviet Russia proved to us that such a new world was possible, perhaps that it was already functioning.

Hobsbawm's family moved to Berlin in 1932, and he soon joined a Communist youth group at the age of fourteen. His commitment to communism would be renewed when he became involved in the radical student movement at Cambridge.


The idea of a Party Historians' Group was discussed before the war, but it materialized only in the aftermath of a conference held to discuss a revised edition of A. L. Morton's popular A People's History of England in 1946. The nucleus of the Group came from the student generation of the thirties. Some of them, as in the case of Hill and Kiernan, had already published historical work and had positions in universities. Hill was a fellow and tutor in modern history at Balliol College, Kiernan a fellow at Trinity (though soon to join the history faculty of the University of Edinburgh where he would remain for the whole of his academic career). Others like Hilton, Hobsbawm, and Saville were slightly younger and were preparing to embark upon academic careers. Raphael Samuel began attending group sessions while he was still a student at a secondary school. The Group also included intellectuals from an older generation. Dobb and Torr were especially influential on the Group's direction, but others of their generation were involved–Morton, Farrington, Alfred Jenkin of the British Museum, Thomson, and Jack Lindsay. Also, diverse intellectuals and militants, mostly older, attended group sessions because they loved history and were devoted Marxists.

The Historians' Group and the writings of the historians connected with it were products of the political climate. The Group was shaped by both the triumph of the Popular Front mentality and the distress produced by the Cold War.

Before the Second World War the Popular Front was a small but vocal protest movement on the periphery of mainstream politics. Its status was changed by the war. The English people's collective struggle for survival in a total war created an unprecedented unity and solidarity and perhaps even a partial and momentary breakdown of class barriers. As a result of their wartime experience, they came to believe that society would have to be restructured during peacetime. Such a belief produced the Labour victory of 1945, an electoral success which gave rise to expectations that the postwar reforms would produce a more egalitarian society. Accompanying the British people's shift to the Left during the war years was a change in their perception of Stalin, the Soviet Union, and the British CP. After the German invasion of Russia and the solidification of the Anglo-Russian alliance, the days of the Nazi-Soviet pact were swiftly forgotten. Owing to its close relations with the Soviet Union and the overall shift in the climate of opinion, the British CP began to be taken more seriously. Although minuscule by European standards, the Party nonetheless claimed 65,000 members in 1942–the highest figure in its history. Communists might have been disappointed by their showing in the 1945 parliamentary elections, for the Party won only two seats. But several fellow travelers were returned as Labour candidates, and the CP continued to make inroads into the trade union movement.

After the war, then, Communists had good reason to be optimistic about the future, but their buoyant mood quickly dissipated. Both socialists and Communists were extremely disappointed by the Labour Party's performance in office, which, despite pushing through enduring social reforms, did little to disturb either the social structure or productive relations of British society. According to R. H. S. Crossman, "the postwar Labour government marked the end of a century of social reform, and not as its socialist supporters had hoped, the beginning of a new epoch." Moreover, as a result of the Labour government's evolving anti-Soviet foreign policy, a visible sign of the emerging Cold War, Communists found themselves relegated to a political ghetto, looked upon by the majority as the enemy within. In the 1950 general elections the Party lost both of its parliamentary seats, the first time since the mid-thirties that it was without parliamentary representation. By 1953 it had lost nearly 30,000 members–half the number it had claimed in 1942. The Cold War in Britain never reached the hysterical frenzy of its American counterpart, but it was stamped by the same red-baiting and blacklisting. Within the Left itself, the Labour Party and the trade unions launched campaigns directed at impeding Communist influence. While Communist academics rarely lost their jobs, they were unlikely to find new ones or receive promotions after 1948.


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Table of Contents

Contents Acknowledgments Introduction Chapter 1. Lost Rights Chapter 2. Socialism at Full Stretch Chapter 3. Culture is Ordinary Chapter 4. Between Structuralism and Humanism Chapter 5. History from Below Chapter 6. The Politics of Theory Conclusion Notes Selected Works Index

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