History has always been a battlefield. With the tragic death of Brian Manning while on holiday in Italy, the left has lost its most formidable champion of a Marxist understanding of the English Revolution of 1640-1660.
Brian Manning studied under Christopher Hill at Oxford University. Hill was a socialist historian who developed a path-breaking revolutionary understanding of the 17th century. But in many ways it was Brian Manning whose work most effectively defended that Marxist account of the revolution from its right wing critics.
By the time Manning’s key work, The English People and the English Revolution, was published in 1976 these critics were in full flow. In the climate of retreat from the highly politicised early 1970s, the radical understanding of the era would have been swept aside but for the stubborn, precise, powerful work of Manning.
It helped that Brian Manning was a very convincing speaker. His students from his time at Manchester University remember his lectures as extraordinarily lucid. The excitement of his themes drew non-history students to Manning’s classes and helped nurture a tradition of radical historians.
At the heart of Brian Manning’s work was his desire to challenge the view that the English Civil War was no more than a conflict within the ruling class. He showed that at key turning points it was popular activity of the masses that shaped events.
Much of his work is necessarily technical, with detailed dissections of the social forces at work in England at the time. But his vivid portrayal of the intervention of the revolutionary London crowds in the 1640s makes The English People a classic work of Marxist history. Politically Brian Manning was formed by the New Left in the late 1950s. This was a movement of people looking for an alternative to both the Labour and the Communist parties. He was part of the CND movement and served on the editorial board of the journal Past and Present, which became the key voice of Christopher Hill and Communist historians.
Although supportive of Communist historians, Manning was as opposed to Russian imperialism as US imperialism. This allowed him to appreciate the work of Karl Marx without having to distort that work to apologise for dictatorial Eastern European regimes.
After a spell in the Labour Party, in 1980 Manning moved to teach at the University of Ulster, where he later joined the Irish Socialist Workers Party. Throughout his career he supported the annual Marxism conferences in London and Dublin, and made several important contributions to the International Socialism journal.
He also regularly attended and spoke at the London Socialist Historians Group. Retirement from teaching, as so often with historians, allowed Manning to focus on his writing.
His Revolution and Counter-Revolution in England, Ireland and Scotland 1658-1660, published last year, showed that he was at the peak of his powers. His loss is all the more cruel for this, although the strength of his work provides an unshakeable basis for the revolutionary interpretation of the 17th century to grow and flourish.