Brian Manning 1927-2004

The interpretation of history has always been contested. And the greatest polemics of historians are to be found precisely when they are arguing over revolutionary periods, such as that in England from 1640-1660. With the death, aged 76, of Brian Manning while on holiday in Italy, the most formidable champion of a Marxist understanding of the English Revolution has been lost.

Born in London, 1927, Brian Stuart Manning was a rebel from an early age. At his junior school in Chichester students were obliged to join the Boy Scouts, but Brian objected, on the grounds that it was a paramilitary organisation, and was the only person in the school not a Scout. From school he went to Oxford to read history, winning the prestigious Brackenbury Scholarship to Balliol College, Oxford.

It was at Oxford that Manning struck up the beginning of a life long friendship with the tutor Christopher Hill. Hill was the socialist historian who provided the most well-known and path-breaking inroads into a revolutionary understanding of the seventeenth century, and as such became the target of self-consciously conservative ‘revisionist’ historians, intent on belittling the role of class conflict in that period. For all Hill’s daring, witty and incisive writings, in many ways it was his younger colleague whose work more effectively took up the task of answering the views of the revisionists. More effectively, because by the time of the publication of Manning’s key work, The English People and the English Revolution (1976) revisionism was in full flow and indeed, in the climate of a retreat from the highly politicised early 1970s, would have swept aside a radical understanding of the era, but for the stubborn, precise, powerful work of Manning.

It helped that Brian Manning was an effective and entertaining speaker. His students from his time at Manchester University remember his lectures as being extraordinarily lucid. The excitement of his themes drew non-history students to Manning’s classes and helped nurture a tradition of radical historians.

The core ideas that Brian Manning advocated were formed to challenge the view that the English Civil War was no more than a conflict within the ruling class. He strove to show that at key turning points in the period 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 convincing portrayal of the intervention of the revolutionary London crowds in the 1640s makes The English People one of the classic works of Marxist history.

Politically Brian Manning’s views were shaped in London by the New Left of the late 1950s, a movement of radicals looking for an alternative to Labour and the Communist Party. He participated in the Partisan cafés and in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Manning was a central figure, along with Eric Hobsbawm, in the founding and launching of the journal Past and Present in 1952. Although closely associated with Communist historians, an early review showed him to be an opponent of both Russian and American imperialism.

Manning moved to a teaching post at the University of Manchester in 1959. An approachable and conscientious teacher, as well as a demanding one, he supervised an enormous number of undergraduate theses. In Manchester he was particularly prominent in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, meeting his wife, Noreen, who was secretary of the Manchester Committee for Peace in Vietnam. Both became active in the Committee of 100, and were arrested for invading an American air force base.

All this, together with a wild social life and his refusal to wear a gown, meant he was considered an unusual, maverick, and even dangerous and subversive colleague. He pressed repeatedly for syllabus reform, greater provision of tutorial teaching, better treatment of students and an end to professorial control of the department.

Manning moved to teach at the University of Ulster, Coleraine, in 1980 where, now separated from his wife, he entered a new phase of his teaching career, becoming Dean of Humanities. Politically he remained on the left, although news of his former activism astonished his new colleagues. He joined the Socialist Workers Party (Ireland) in 1992. Throughout his later 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 (1992), as so often the case with historians, allowed Manning to focus on his writing. His Revolution and counter-revolution on England, Ireland and Scotland, 1658-1660, 2003 showed that he was at the peak of his powers and in a position to appreciate the swing of the pendulum back away from the more extreme revisionism of the 1980s. He is survived by his only child, Toby Manning.

Brian Manning, born 21st May 1927, died 24th April 2004.

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