Review of A People's History of England, A.L. Morton

English History

Christopher Hill

Source: The Labour Monthly, Volume 20, Number 07, July 1938, pp.449-452 (1,572 words)
Transcription: Ted Crawford
HTML Markup: Mark Harris

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A People’s History of England by A. L. Morton. (Victor Gollancz. 8s. 6d. Left Book Club Edition, 2s. 6d.)

English history is in a bad way. There are innumerable specialist researchers, grubbing up their bits of detail, who have no conception of the extent to which their work is undermining traditional views; there are innumerable popularisers, purveying historical pornography; and there are a very few people who try to mediate between the specialist and the public, to bring real historical training and judgment to bear on the task of revaluing traditional views of history in the light of modern research. Many are coming to con¬clude that this can only be done satisfactorily if the past is studied with the apparatus of Marxism. Much of the detail unearthed of late years makes nonsense of old Whig interpretations, and is forcing Marxist conclusions on unwilling historians. The future of historical writing is with the Marxist.

Yet there are dangers in writing a Marxist history of England just now. So little conscious thinking has been done along these lines that there is a risk that the result might contain lots of Marxism but very little history -- might be a book that the academic historian can sniff at and disregard. The great triumph of A. L. Morton’s A People’s History of England is that the academic historian cannot pooh-pooh it. Although it modestly “makes no pretence of being the result of original research,” the book is in fact based on wide reading, and is written with extreme care to avoid overstatement, very revolutionary but unprovable hypotheses. The result is an exceedingly stimulating work which fulfils a double purpose. It is a very good introduction for the person who from being badly taught has acquired a distaste for history, as something irrelevant to urgent contemporary issues; it will be equally valuable in suggesting new and exciting ideas to students conscious of the defects, the class and nationalist bias, under which orthodox English history labours.

Morton’s caution is not the result of inadequate knowledge, but of knowing enough to be aware of the limits of what he knows. There is a confidence based on real understanding and insight in his judgments. “Magna Carta has been rightly regarded as a turning point in English history, but almost always for wrong reasons.” (p.83). “Both the chaos and the prosperity of the Fifteenth Century were equally real and arose from a common cause, the transition from feudal and bourgeois society” (p.133). One needs to be very sure of oneself to get away with remarks like that. Morton has a gift of clear exposition, an eye for the significant, which is most illuminating in the middle ages, the period to which Marxists have given least attention. He brings home as none of his predecessors have done the social importance, e.g., of the hide (pp.36-7); the influence of the introduction of. Roman Christianity on property; of the Crusades on municipal history, on trading relations between England and Italy; the importance of the monasteries in the latter; the economic basis of “maintenance.” He continually brings to the fore the connections between economic and social and religious history, normally slurred over. This is particularly well done in the transitional centuries in which one section of the feudal landowners still “looked to war and politics as their natural activity,” whilst others “were growing content to live on their estates and make the largest possible income from them,” notably by the wool trade (pp.95-6), later in the clothing industry. “They had a far greater community of interests with the merchants who also prospered from this trade than with the great barons” (p.98). This is emphasized as one of the fundamental peculiarities in English history, influential alike in the Hundred Years’ War and the Wars of the Roses, leading to the rise of this alliance of merchant and progressive gentry to influence under the Tudor monarchy, to the taking over of power in the civil war. Pointing out how these classes benefited from Henry VIII’s confiscations of monastic estates, Morton stresses the importance of anti-catholicism in their development¬ -- “The defeat of the Armada is a turning point in the internal history of England as well as in foreign affairs. It was the merchants, with their own ships and their own money, who had won the victory, and they had won it in spite of the half-heartedness and ineptitude of the Crown and Council.... The war with Spain, therefore, can best be understood as the first phase in the English Revolution …. It was a defeat for feudal reaction in Europe ... and the classes inside England which defeated Philip were exactly those which afterwards led the opposition to Charles” (p.197). Morton has as good a brief summary of the causes of the French revolution as is to be found anywhere. -- “Without colonies the State became top-heavy and was per¬petually on the verge of bankruptcy. At the same time the French bourgeoisie benefited, though to a less degree than their English rivals, from the general expansion of trade that followed the opening of the world to European exploitation and from the profits that even an unsuccessful war brings to this class. The result was a rising and ambitious capitalist class face to face with a discredited and bankrupt autocracy” (p.313).

In what will be for many readers the most interesting chapters of the book the author traces the growing consciousness of working-class struggle, from organised poaching to organised political and industrial action. He emphasizes what tends to be obscured by liberal historians -- that much of the “humanitarian” legislation of the Nineteenth Century was the product of working-class pressure and divisions in the ruling class. Tory landlords agitated for factory acts; liberal industrialists for “cheap corn.” The Education Act of 1870 “was urgently demanded by the requirements of industry” (p.407). It was because “pestilence could not be confined to the slums” that public health became a state concern (p.408). And it is no discredit to the genuine humanitarians that “profitable as the slave-trade proved during the Eighteenth Century, its suppression in the Nineteenth Century was even more profitable.” In the course of hunting down slaves the foundation of British power in West Africa was laid (p.467). The Factory Acts stimulated invention and concentration of capital, helped the larger concern to drive the smaller out of the market (p.370). The repeal of the Corn Laws had a similar effect on agriculture, increased efficiency capitalisation, profits (p.396). Meanwhile, accompanying these concessions came “the unobtrusive strengthening of the state apparatus” -- e.g., by the creation of a police force (p.373). Yet the author’s attitude to reformism is not merely negative. He correctly points out the advantages gained by the working class from even a limited extension of the franchise (pp.406-7) and is very sensible in assessing Cobbett’s rôle.

Morton describes the suicidal change in England’s exports from consumers’ goods to capital goods, and has some telling things to say on imperialism. “Ireland was important to the English ruling classes only as a source of cheap food; for the last hundred years, no matter what form the exploitation has taken, this has been its essence” (p.441). “The million and a half people who died [between 1845 and 1850] did not die of famine, but were killed by rent and profit” (p.442). The continuous connection between the most conscious elements of the English working class movement and the Irish revolutionaries is repeatedly shown. The progressive im¬poverishment of India under British rule is noted (p.449), and the change in policy towards the native rulers, who have been bought over since they headed the Mutiny of 1857. Similar tactics are illustrated from South Africa after the Boer War; “Boers and British together were only a small white minority in the middle of a negro population, and for this reason, once the supremacy of British Imperialism had been established, it was necessary to do all that was possible to conciliate the defeated” (p.472). Morton firmly rebuts the legend of German war guilt (p.501) and exposes the fact that “the invasion of Belgium came as a veritable godsend” to the rulers of Britain. Throughout he devotes serious attention to military technique and its influence on social history. “The decisive technical advance which had robbed the knight of his superiority was not ... the invention of gunpowder, but the longbow” (p.111). “The introduction of the hand gun coincides with the decline of the yeomanry in England” (p.112). “Wars were immensely profitable to the English financiers and contractors, and by adding to their wealth, consolidated the triumph of Whiggery” (p.282).

In fact, this is a book distinguished by realism, historical imagination, and many-sidedness. Vividly and attractively written, it is just what a people’s history ought to be. But it is not only that. Its vigour, independence and sanity make it a work from which the professional has a great deal to learn. One may wish to argue points of detail -- that is inevitable in “an essay in historical interpretation” on this scale. But for the achievement as a whole one can feel nothing but admiration. Its “interpretations” will have to be reckoned with, and are bound to have a great influence on all those interested in history whose minds are not closed by prejudice. That being so it is all the more regrettable that the book is marred by so many careless misprints.