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Brian Manning

Radical historian of the English revolution

(26 June 2004)

From The Guardian, 26 June 2004.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Brian Manning, who has died aged 76, was a teacher who urged his students not to take notes, but to listen and think. As a historian, he applied ideas from the new left of the 1950s to the English civil war, exploring the English revolution to its roots. His career took him from Balliol College, Oxford, through King’s College London and Manchester University to a professorship at the University of Ulster.

Manning’s first major book, The English People and the English Revolution (1976), was, above all, a critique of that history which portrayed the revolution of the 1640s as a fluke, an ill-consequence of courtly intrigue. In later years, as 17th-century history came to be dominated by self-styled revisionists, fiercely hostile to explanations based on social theory, he had to campaign just to get his message heard. Yet he had also been sceptical of leftwing interpretations that stressed impersonal social forces, suggesting a “spirit of capitalism” waiting to be born.

Instead, Manning drew attention to what he saw as a recognisable social class – the “middling sort” of artisans, farmers and merchants – who became local powers in the 1650s and were potentially at odds with more radical supporters of the revolution, such as army agitators, the Levellers and Diggers and the dissenting sects. He showed that the unity implied in such republican terms as “the good old cause” masked continuing structures of inequality, from which plebeians had lost.

A second study, 1649: The Crisis of the English Revolution (1992), focused on the revolution at its height, the processes which culminated in the execution of Charles I, and their obverse, the defeat of the Leveller-led mutinies. Aristocrats, Plebeians and Revolution in England 1640–1660 (1996) and The Far Left and the English Revolution (1999) set out the intellectual origins upon which his history was based.

English socialist historians of the last half-century, like Manning’s mentor at Balliol, Christopher Hill (obituary, February 26 2003) had generally refrained from examining explicit Marxist concepts, such as accumulation, surplus or class. Manning returned to the theoretical sources, not from a desire to fit history into boxes, but to challenge the assumptions at the back of his own mind.

His father, Lionel, was a sports correspondent, and his half-brother, J.L. Manning, was to pursue the same career on the Daily Mail. After prep school in Chichester, Sussex, Manning himself went to Lancing College, winning the prestigious Brackenbury scholarship to Balliol. He was appointed to a lectureship at Manchester in 1959, and, in 1980, became professor at the University of Ulster, becoming emeritus upon his retirement in 1992.

From its foundation until his move to Manchester, Manning served on the editorial board of the journal Past and Present, which been set up in 1952, largely by Communist party historians, to elaborate “history from below” – the past as the story of generations of workers and peasants, women and men, struggling to make themselves and their world.

In a group dominated by Hill and his fellow communists, Manning was an odd man out, eschewing the CP and embracing instead the emerging new left. In one 1957 essay, he commented that “there can be no more coexistence between British socialism and American capitalism than there can be between British socialism and Soviet communism.”

By the mid-1960s, his activism was primarily expressed in support for CND, and it was within that milieu that he met his future wife, Noreen. Their son, Toby, was born in 1966, although Manning and Noreen separated before his move to Ulster.

To his study of the English revolution, Manning brought patient scholarship. His sources were drawn from the record of printed papers, petitions, pamphlets and newspapers. He let those sources speak to him with the optimism of their times. “I’ve reached December 1659 [just weeks before the return of Charles II],” he joked, “and I still can’t believe that the Restoration happened.”

Revolution and Counter-Revolution in England, Ireland and Scotland, 1658–1660 (2003) ended with the defeat of the revolution and the monarchy back in place. Yet this was a demystified monarchy, aware of its limitations and unable to return to absolutism.

Following Manning’s move to Ulster, he began lecturing at the Socialist Workers’ party’s annual Marxism summer schools in London. A frequent visitor to Italy, he took pleasure in pubs, cigars and the company of friends, and, in retirement, continued to address meetings of the London Socialist Historians’ Group. His son survives him.

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Last updated: 7.7.2012