Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 9 No. 1


Brian Manning (1927–2004)

THE cliché tells us that socialists are supposed to become more moderate as they age. Brian Manning avoided this fate with some panache. Having spent most of his adult life in the Labour Party, he moved into the orbit of the revolutionary left in the early 1980s, speaking regularly at the SWP’s Marxism summer school. By the mid-1990s, he was even paying subs to the party. Manning was no ordinary convert. He was already one of Britain’s most significant historians of the seventeenth-century revolution. With Christopher Hill’s death, he moved right to the head of the list.

Born in 1927 to a family of journalists, Brian’s father Lionel was an early sports correspondent, as was Brian’s brother J.L. Manning, a famous opponent of the McWhirter twins and of corrupt sports patrons of all stripes. Growing up in Chichester, the young Brian declined the opportunity to join the local scouts, as they were ‘a paramilitary organisation’. He was the only pupil in his school to refrain.

Having won a scholarship to Balliol College in Oxford, Brian Manning studied with Christopher Hill, before teaching first at King’s College London, then at Manchester University and finally the University of Ulster. He served on the editorial board of the journal Past and Present from 1952. Past and Present had been established as a ‘unity venture’ at the prompting of the Historians’ Group of the Communist Party of Great Britain. Manning was exceptional in that he held back from joining the party. One essay from 1957 – for a different publication – commented that ‘there can be no more coexistence between British socialism and American capitalism than there can be between British socialism and Soviet communism’.

Rather than joining the communists, Manning sided first with the New Left and then the Labour Party, playing a role in the Partisan cafés and in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. He adopted a grassroots perspective, and was frequently sceptical of the organising work actually done by the ‘celebrities’ in the movement. The decline of the New Left after 1960 narrowed the grounds on which an independent socialism could flourish. Manning’s interests turned elsewhere. By all accounts, he was a popular lecturer at Manchester University, with an audience that spanned the disciplines. His wild social life and refusal to wear a gown meant that some students treated him as an exciting maverick. Manning supported his students in arguing for syllabus reform, greater provision of tutorial teaching, better treatment of undergraduates and an end to the professorial control of the departments.

By 1964, Brian Manning was in Labour, urging Manchester students at one public debate with the International Socialists to give Harold Wilson a chance. His spirit of grassroots activism now expressed itself primarily in support for CND. On one occasion, he was arrested while demonstrating against a nuclear base in East Anglia. He was dumped, lost, on a country lane, and had to rely on the help of two Quakers who had guessed that the police might leave people in that way. On another occasion, Manning claimed to have attended a meeting to celebrate the escape of convicted Soviet spy George Blake in 1966. Tipped off that Blake might appear in person, the local constabulary made their way slowly towards the meeting. Years later, Manning could recall the speed with which the platform was dismantled and the tables turned round. By the time that the police officers entered the room, the found a dance in progress, and a grey-haired Quaker offering the new arrivals ‘Tea, constable?’ Both stories, Manning later suggested, showed that the radical legacy of the 1640s was not entirely spent.

Manning was a supporter of the Committee of 100, a small core of anti-nuclear protesters who took part in direct action against nuclear sites. It was through this campaign that he met his wife Noreen, a prominent activist in Manchester peace circles. A son Toby was born in 1966. The family moved to North Wales in 1969. He would work at his lectureship in Manchester during the week, returning at weekends and academic holidays. He was a keen gardener, an interest he maintained until the end, which came on a tour of Italian lakes and gardens.

Manning’s best-known work, The English People and the English Revolution, appeared in 1976. It presented revolutionary people struggling against the monarchy to victory despite the caution of their parliamentary leaders. The English People concentrated on the ‘middling sort’, a nascent group running from minor merchants down to artisans and journeymen. Contemporaries had described a new sort of people, who emerged on the backs of the victorious revolution, to became the leading authorities in many English counties during the 1650s. Manning took these sources at their word, arguing that the middling sort represented a recognisable social class. To concentrate on this layer was not to romanticise these groups as primitive socialists; if anything, it was to point out the potential tensions between their hegemony and the more radical supporters of the revolution, the agitators in the army, the Levellers and Diggers and the millenarian sects. In 1980, Manning left Manchester University to take up a professorship at the University of Ulster. Noreen remained behind.

At about the same time, and at the suggestion of Norah Carlin, Brian Manning began speaking at the Marxism events in London. To this new generation, Manning was an inspiration. He found in these meetings a camaraderie he had not known for years. Yet even as Manning acquired a public audience, his academic profile was on the wane. While some radical sources made their way onto reading lists in the early 1960s, this was less true 30 years later. Instead, seventeenth-century history came to be dominated by a new generation of scholars, fiercely hostile to all explanations based on class theory.

A second major study, 1649: The Crisis of the English Revolution (1992) focussed on the revolution at its height, the processes which culminated in the execution of the King, and their obverse, the defeat of the Leveller-led mutinies in the army at Burford and elsewhere. Into the 1990s, Manning explored again his own previous insistence on the part played by the ‘middle sort of people’. He was searching for new terms that expressed the divisions within the revolutionary camp.

Manning was suspicious of practice that was formally divorced from theory. Aristocrats, Plebeians and Revolution in England 1640–1660 (1996) and still more so The Far Left and the English Revolution set out the origins upon which Manning’s history was based. The best-known English socialist historians, Hill, Edward Thompson and their generation, had scrupulously avoided examining the explicit Marxist concepts such as accumulation, surplus, value and class. Manning returned to the theory, drawing on the work of writers such as Trotsky and Guérin that the communist historians preferred to ignore. Revolution and Counter-Revolution in England, Ireland and Scotland, 1658–1660 (2003) ended with the defeat of the Revolution and Monarchy back in place. Yet this was a diminished monarchy, one aware of its limitations and unable to return to the absolutism of previous years.

Manning’s unconditional support for extra-parliamentary campaigns sent his career in a different direction to that of Christopher Hill. While Hill was allowed a degree of establishment recognition, epitomised by his appointment as Master at Balliol, Manning’s career ended in a middling appointment at a provincial university. While Hill’s later works drifted into moderate territory, celebrating for example the influence of the Bible on the Diggers and the Levellers, Manning remained continually the advocate of the most intransigent of the revolutionaries. Manning always engaged with the ideas of his former tutor. Hill rarely returned the compliment. I have in my collection a book published by Manning in 2000, and sent as a present to Christopher Hill. The book was sold with Hill’s papers on his death, and despite the personal dedication appeared to have been left unread.

Following his retirement in 1992, Manning remained attached to Ulster by an Emeritus Professorship. He lived in a Unionist-voting county and was more than once delayed on journeys to attend the Marxisms in London and Dublin. Unusually among guest speakers, Manning never once claimed any expenses. He also addressed meetings of the London Socialist Historians’ Group, reminding younger researchers and activists of the republican tradition that had culminated in 1649. Beyond history, his greatest pleasure seemed to be an afternoon spent in the pub.

In the most recent years, Manning’s work began to secure an international reputation, as younger generations of socialist historians have begun to emerge, in America and elsewhere. One American historian of the English Revolution, James Holstun, has written that Manning’s five books ‘form the most comprehensive analysis of the dialectics of class struggle and revolt in the English Revolution, brilliant in their parts, and the whole greater than their sum’. Manning visited Italy regularly, and several of his publications appeared in Italian translation. He was travelling near Bellagio on Lake Como when he was caught up in a chance accident and died.

David Renton

Updated by ETOL: 30.10.2011