Monday, 27 January 2020

Book Review - History in the Making (2001)

Stephen Woodhams, History in the Making (Merlin, 2001)
Written By: Keith Flett
Date: October 2001
Published In LSHG Newsletter Issue 13: Autumn 2001  

I was born on 31st October 1956 at the height of the crisis over Suez and the Russian invasion of Hungary. I heard E.P Thompson speak on a number of occasions and later came to know his partner Dorothy Thompson. Raymond Williams, by contrast, I heard speak only once and that was near to the end of his life.

Why does this matter? Simply because Stephen Woodhams has written a fascinating book which attempts to put the work and activism of Edward Thompson, Raymond Williams and others in a wider political, cultural and social context. However, how you view the book, I suspect, will depend very strongly on whether you were there at the time - in which case no doubt you will have strong views of your own - or, as I did, you came along later.

Woodhams charts the role of historians and literary critics associated with the Communist Party of Great Britain from the Popular Front period of the mid-1930s through to the mass resignations from that party in the wake of the events of 1956, and the subsequent birth of a new left.

In a sense the book is really about the 20 years pre-history that led to the birth of the new left around CND, the New Reasoner, Universities and Left Review and eventually New Left Review. It is also about the changing role and policies of the Communist Party from the 1930s to the 1950s. Finally Woodhams includes a useful analysis of Raymond Williams's practice as a literary critic.

The dominant theme of the book, however, remains an attempt to contextualise the intellectual and political development of Thompson and Williams. While some interviews with people active at the time would have been useful, basing his research very largely on secondary material, Woodhams provides some very useful insights. In particular he draws the distinction between what Williams called a “structure of feeling” but what for Thompson was a “way of struggle”. He suggests though, that in the wake of 1956, Thompson recognised that Williams’ decision to distance himself from the certainties of the CPGB after 1945 had proved a broadly correct path.

Woodhams comes from a CPGB background and while this often helps to provide useful insights, many readers of this Newsletter will be irritated by his criticisms of George Orwell - essentially for being a premature anti-Stalinist. Others may feel that the missing people in the book are those who, while part of the broader New Left, were shouting “No Bombs, No Bosses” by the early 1960s and taking their politics from Trotsky rather than Moscow. In this sense David Widgery's The Left in Britain 1956-1968 is a useful companion to Woodham's book.

In general however the book is a very interesting exercise in trying to track down the pre-history of the new left which developed after 1956. Woodhams is pessimistic about the chances of another new left appearing in 2001. We may disagree, but the book is worth a read to see how the process worked last time around

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