Sunday, November 09, 2014

A.L. Morton - A People's History of England

A.L. Morton's A People's History of England is an extraordinarily readable Marxist history. Arthur Leslie Morton was a Communist Party activist and chair of the influential Communist Historians Group. His book became a sort of unofficial history book for the CPGB, though it has none of the mechanical Marxism that sometimes mars the later writing of that organisation.

Unlike other popular histories of England, such as GM Trevelyan's English Social History, Morton is concerned with the lives and struggles of ordinary people. This doesn't mean he ignores other factors of history, but he is most concerned with the way that society changes. Morton plays particular attention to the changing economic situation and how this alters wider society. For instance, take how Morton explains the changing role of cavalry  during the Thirty Years War,

"This new cavalry was unarmoured and mounted on lighter and swifter horses. It relied on the speed of its impact and on pistol fire to break the formation of the enemy. This is the cavalry of the Thirty Years' War and of Rupert and his cavaliers, a cavalry that, though it was mainly composed of gentlemen and their followers, reflects the structure of society in an age of transition between feudal and bourgeois."

But, he notes that while the changes in military technique arise from social changes, they in turn, react back upon society. "War became industrialised, employing more complicated instruments and involving more complicated financial arrangements." Gunpowder and firearms required money and industry and towns. Thus the new weapons were in the hands of a new class, which meant "Feudal wars, growing into national wars, transcended the organising capacity of the feudal system and hastened its decline."

On occasion, Morton's focus on economics can be misdirected. Discussing the War of the Roses he suggests that

"The war was in form a battle between rival gangs of nobles, but underlying the struggle was another real though hardly apparent issue... The Yorkists drew most of their support from the progressive South... The ultimate victory of the Yorkists was therefore a victory of the most economically advanced areas and prepared the ground for the Tudor monarchy of the next century with its bourgeois backing."

Whether this is historically accurate or not, it seems like a vision of historical change being inevitable, driven by economic development, rather than a more complex process.

But this occasionally lapse shouldn't undermine what is actually a very subtle work of history, shot through with humour and insight. Take Morton's comments on the development of the system of political parties in the English Parliament,

"The long life - 1661 to 1678 - enjoyed by the Cavalier Parliament gave full opportunity for the professionalising of politics, for the growth of the beginnings of organised political parties acting under recognised leaders and the for the beginning of that undisguised corruption that developed into a system in the Eighteenth Century and makes many of the detailed changes of policy and alignment so complicated, and, on the love view, so insignificant."

Morton is at his absolute best when explaining how the gradual and minor changes that take place within the economy, have cumulatively enormous social and political impacts. The way that, between 1688 and the mid-18th century, society was "relatively stable" but

"beneath the surface, the streams of gold poured into the City, their level growing higher year by year, till the time when the flood burst out, transformed by some magic into mills and mines and foundries, and covered the face of half of England, burying the old life and wars for ever... the Industrial Revolution."

Such examples of quantitative change bursting through into qualitative change are the thoughts of an author whose Marxism is part and parcel of their thinking, rather than a mechanical device to be applied like an sledge-hammer to crack a nut.

And Morton never fails to forget to acknowledge and celebrate the struggles of the ordinary English man and woman, whether they were the peasants revolting in 1381 or 1450, or the strikes that built the new unions. Morton mentions have forgotten movements, one of the few historians to even notice the general strike of 1842 for instance, or the Midlands Revolt of 1607.

Morton describes the writings of William Cobbett, the radical political writer and thinker. Despite the limitations of Cobbet as a thinker, Morton celebrates his writings and his newspaper, the Political Register 

"written in an English prose so clear that no one could ever mistake his meaning, was the first to denounce every act of oppression and was felt by thousands all over England to be an amplification of their own voice.... [Cobbett] was not an even-tempered man, and he raged furiously against the lanlords, thithe-owners and bankers, and against 'the Thing', the whole conspiracy of the rich against the poor."

They are fine words to write of William Cobbett, but in truth, they are also words that could be applied to AL Morton as well. His Peoples' History of England has educated and inspired tens of thousands of workers in the three-quarters of a century since it was first published and it deserves to be read again to inspire a new generations.

Related Reviews

Vallance -  A Radical History of Britain
Gluckstein - A Peoples' History of the Second World War
Linebaugh - The London Hanged
Purkiss - The English Civil War: A Peoples' History

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