Professor Brian Manning

Marxist historian of the English Civil Wars and student of Christopher Hill

Wednesday 12 May 2004 00:00
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The Marxist historian Brian Manning, Professor of History at Ulster University from 1980 to 1992, and before that a lecturer at Manchester University, established over four decades a place among historians of the Civil Wars or (rather) the English Revolution.

Brian Stuart Manning, historian: born London 21 May 1927; Assistant Lecturer in History, Manchester University 1959-62, Lecturer 1962-74, Senior Lecturer 1974-80; Professor of History, Ulster University 1980-92 (Emeritus), Dean of Humanities 1984-88; married 1962 Noreen Bamber (one son; marriage dissolved); died Bellagio, Italy 24 April 2004.

The Marxist historian Brian Manning, Professor of History at Ulster University from 1980 to 1992, and before that a lecturer at Manchester University, established over four decades a place among historians of the Civil Wars or (rather) the English Revolution.

He was born in 1927 in London, the second son of L.V. Manning, a sports journalist. From Hurstpierpoint he went, after National Service (1946-48) as a Scholar to Balliol College, Oxford, achieving a First in Modern History in 1952. A burgeoning interest in the mid-17th century was fostered by his tutor and research supervisor, Christopher Hill. Manning?s doctoral thesis tackled the phenomenon of the armed war-weary Clubmen of the South-west.

At Manchester University from 1957, Manning proved a skilful and stimulating teacher, whether in formal lectures, or, more relaxed, in seminars. His special subject on the Civil Wars was always fully subscribed. Socially he was popular with students, ready to join them for a pub pint or two (later, Bushmills). The university establishment was unhappy about his impatient - some thought, arrogant - pressure for syllabus reform and reduction of professorial power.

Outside, Manning was prominent in North West CND and the Committee of 100, an effective platform speaker at demonstrations. Through CND he met and in 1959 married Noreen Bamber. They had one son, Toby. (The marriage was later dissolved). During most of Manning's years at Manchester, family life was spent in a cottage in North Wales. With masterly organisation of academic and extra-mural commitments he could commute and still enjoy Snowdonia.

In 1980 he was appointed Professor of History at Ulster University and Chair of the department. Here again he was on friendly terms with students, winning their Union support for a merger with the Polytechnic. As Dean of Humanities he pressed hard for faculty research funds. Syllabus reforms of the kind advocated at Manchester were now spreading across the whole range of universities. Manning promoted a module on revolution, which long after retirement still thrives, though under somewhat different auspices. As at Manchester he lived away from the university environs at Portstewart, Londonderry ? in a house with fine views over the bay to Donegal. There, in retirement, he cultivated interests in art and music; he was on a tour of Italian lakes and gardens when he died in a fall after a heart attack at Bellagio above Lake Como.

Revisionist historians have spoken of "a school of Christopher Hill". There was none. No good teacher makes clones. The contributors to Hill's Festschrift ( Puritans and Revolutions, 1978) took many lines. Manning was clearly the only "real" Marxist among Hill's pupils.

Hill came to Marxism in the hectic 1930s, Manning to his through a deepening interest in radicalism coinciding with his CND activities. Unlike Hill he was never a member of the Communist Party, but passed from Labour into the Socialist Workers. However, he did take part in the discussions in the 1950s of the CP Historians' Group, whose founding members included Hill, E.P. Thompson, Rodney Hilton and Eric Hobsbawn. He was on the first editorial board of Past and Present, the left-wing "journal of scientific history", long since open to a diversity of persuasions, periods, places and problems. Manning went on to join the discussions of the London Socialist Historians Group and the Socialist Workers Party summer schools. Much, but not all, of his occasional writing was in International Socialism Journal and Socialist Review.

An article on the legacy of Christopher Hill shows him sharing a view of the essential interdependence of past and present, and of the significance of social and cultural connections beyond the economic. A list of priorities was shared, too, but each gave an individual twist to them.

For Manning the Civil Wars were from the start much more than a conflict within a ruling class. His books all elaborate on that perception in narrative, analysis and interpretation. His first, after a collection of articles - The English People and the English Revolution (1976) - met with a mixed reception, including a "formidably destructive" review in the Times Higher Education Supplement. Unperturbed, he went on to engage with his critics, notably those triumphal revisionists who thought they were killing a (surely imaginary) "prevailing" Marxist orthodoxy.

After 1649: the crisis of the English Revolution (1992), concentrating on a "middling sort" of people, came two short books, Aristocrats, Plebeians and Revolution (1996) and The Far Left in the English Revolution (1999) - the "presentism" of the latter title a red rag to bullish revisionists. Finally, Manning arrived at Revolution and Counter-Revolution in England, Ireland and Scotland, 1658-60 (2003), a foray into the fashionable area of "the Atlantic Archipelago".

It all adds up to a body of consistent argument, too consistent perhaps to persuade outside the Marxist milieu. It is too soon to assess his legacy.

Ivan Roots

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