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The historian and her group: Dona Torr and Marxist history

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Authored by Dr. David Renton
Published on 29th March, 2021 11 min read

The historian and her group: Dona Torr and Marxist history

Dona Torr was born in 1883. Her recently-deceased grandfather John Torr had been a merchant and for the last seven years of his life the Conservative MP for Liverpool. She was brought up in a large and newly-built Victorian mansion, at Eastham, in Carlett Park, on Merseyside. Her father William Torr, was the vicar of the parish and later Canon of Chester Cathedral. Her youngest brother William Wyndham Torr became a brigadier and later served as the UK’s military attaché to General Franco's government in Spain, while one of Dona’s first cousins, Rosita Forbes, became in the 1920s one of the first western women to explore the Islamic world, met Mussolini, and was a prominent Chamberlainite, i.e. pro-appeasement, Conservative.

Torr broke away from her parents at a young age, learning in Heidelberg and then studying English at University College London. At UCL, according to her friend the historian of empire, Victor Kiernan, Torr was an avid joiner. She helped to organise debates, was vice-president of the women’s committee, and on the board of the union magazine.

She became a member of the Labour Party in 1914 and held pacifist views. She was employed by the Daily Herald newspaper. In 1920, she became a founder member of the Communist Party of Great Britain. She wrote for the Communist paper, Workers' Life. She married another Daily Herald journalist and Communist, Walter Holmes, and from 1925 onwards was with him a member of the Party’s colonial committee, advising groups in India, Egypt, and elsewhere. 

Torr translated between German and English at the Fifth World Congress of the Communist International in 1924. Possibly as a result, she was invited to translate Karl Marx and Frederick Engels’ Selected Correspondence. The book containing this work was published in 1934. Written in lively, idiomatic English prose, it was widely-read and highly regarded. It did much to establish Torr’s significance as a scholar of Marxism, both within the Communist Party and outside. 

Torr was a loyal and active member of her party, who sustained her political duties even at a cost to her own writing. Fellow Communists remember her working in her branch, selling the Daily Worker, and delivering leaflets from her bicycle during the General Strike. Although in her writing she stepped beyond the limits of Communist politics and developed a socialist history that showed greater openness to complexity and nuance than the mechanical Marxism which dominated within the party, this is not how she would have seen her own work. Torr was part of the Party leadership and saw herself within the loyal mainstream of the party's politics. 

In 1936, Dona Torr published a short biography for the 80th birthday of Tom Mann, the trade unionist, advocate of revolutionary syndicalism and after 1920 Communism. Mann had had fifteen years of adult life before playing a leading part in the 1889 dock strike. Torr describes the values of the 1870s and 1880s, the politics in which he was formed, as a time in which “the great struggle for equal democratic rights” had been fought and not won, and “the conscious struggle of the working class against their exploiters” had not yet begun (Torr, 1936: 7). She was characterising, we might say, both the London of Mann’s adulthood, and the North West of her own youth.

The following year, she wrote a study-guide to accompany Frank Jellinek’s book for the Left Book Club, The Paris Commune of 1871. She wrote supplementary notes for a new edition of Marx's Capital: Volume One (1938). She translated Engels' The Origins of the Family, Private Property and The State (1940) and Marx's articles On China (1951). She edited two volumes of extracts from the Marxist classics, published as Marxism, Nationality and War (1940), also Marxism and War (1943) as well as translating Dimitrov's Letters from Prison, the story of the Bulgarian Communist charged with the Reichstag fire – but acquitted, to the fury of the Nazis.

Not all this work was of equal quality. Marxism, Nationality and War for example was intended as a primer to bolster the party’s then opposition to the Second World War. It appeared as the party was moving towards a more patriotic line of unqualified opposition to fascism and had to be rapidly forgotten following the German invasion of the Soviet Union. 

Dona Torr also contributed to the formation of the Communist Historians' Group. The distant origins of this group lay in work done in the 1930s, during the Popular Front, and in the run up to a proposed Chartist Centenary in 1939. By September 1938, a Marxist Historians’ Group had been founded, comprising initially Robin Page Arnott, Douglas Garman, and Torr. She was employed by the Communist book publishers, Lawrence and Wishart, and supported their publication of Christopher Hill’s pamphlet on The English Revolution: 1640 (1940).

The latter was controversial for the confidence with which it declared that the Civil War had been a bourgeois revolution which had ended, decisively, with the victory of the capitalist class. Such a position was distrusted, for it seemed to go further than anything Marx and Engels had said. Torr was later to tell other historians of her gratitude for Hill's “pioneer work in this sphere”, suggesting also that his victory was responsible for the atmosphere of greater intellectual freedom in which the historians' group flourished, “we all owe it to him in the first place and it was a victory for politics as well as theory” (Torr to Pearce, 1948).

In 1946, Torr attended the first meetings of the Communist Party Historians' Group. One of a few women Communist historians, she acted as a much loved patron to the younger members of the group. In 1954, E. P. Thompson brought out his biography of William Morris. It expressed his gratitude to Torr, “She has repeatedly laid aside her own work in order to answer my enquiries or to read drafts of my material, until I felt that parts of the book were less my own than a collaboration in which her guiding ideas have the main part. It has been a privilege to be associated with a Communist scholar so versatile, so distinguished, and so generous with her gifts" (E. P. Thompson, 1955). 

In 1954, Hill, John Saville and others contributed to a collection of essays, Democracy and the Labour Movement. The book was dedicated to Torr, and included these words written by Hill, “So fertile has she been of ideas that a whole school of Marxist historians has grown up around her, fostered by her unfailing interest and aid” (G. Thomson, M. Dobb, C. Hill and J. Saville, 1954:7-9). 

It could be said that Torr’s signal contribution to Marxist history was to strive for a group to which her ideas could be addressed. This method will be familiar to any longstanding political activist, but it is a different approach to that of the academic historian, for whom publication is a matter of individual achievement and subject to individual reward. 

What, then, did Torr gain – and lose – as a historian from her membership first of a party and then of a historians’ group? In John Reed’s Ten Days that Shook the World (1919), the American socialist tried to explain to leftists of Torr’s generation what they could learn from the Bolsheviks. He did so by invoking a dialogue he had heard in the last days before the revolution, between a radical student and a soldier. The former insisted on his radical politics and the heroism of his convictions. While the latter explained why he was supporting Lenin, by saying simply, over and over again, “There are two classes, don’t you see, the proletariat and the bourgeoisie” (New York: International Publishers, 1919). Reed’s message, and a point often made by the foreign adopters of Soviet Communism, was that the Bolsheviks won because of the clarity of their politics. To be a Marxist meant being for the proletariat and against the bourgeoisie. To a Marxist historian of the 1930s, the same injunction applied, you had to be for the working class, then and in the past, now and always. As a Communist, Torr acquired a sense of purpose, the belief that her cause could win.

Yet this project narrowed Marx and Engels, missing out all sorts of topics which had mattered a great deal to them. It shared Marx’s interest in economics and the production of life, it ignored those passages of Capital where he had written about the reproduction of generations of workers, or the references in his writing to ecological devastation, or to sex and sexuality.

We can see Torr chafing at the limits of orthodoxy in her private books, filled as those were with cuttings from Freud, Havelock Ellis, and different authors’ accounts of love, including sexual love (Renton, 2001: 236-245). Those notebooks are the most personal part of this collection.

On the death in 1941 of Tom Mann, the party asked Dona Torr to write Mann’s biography. She agreed. Yet the progress of the work was slow, delayed by the war and by the size of Torr’s ambition. The notes collected by Torr form the second, and major part of this archive. Torr saw the biography as a chance to tell the whole story of the labour movement from earlier times, in order to prove the necessity of the emergence of radical; leaders such as Mann. Despite the assistance of other historians who collaborated with her, including Hill, A. L. Morton, and Yvonne Kapp, only the first volume, Tom Mann and His Times appeared and that in 1956, not long before Torr’s death. 

We can see Torr using the biography to write back into Marxist history the sorts of politics that were missed out when Marxist was reduced to a tale of the growth of productive forces. The book is of significance for the attention it pays to the pre-Marxist sources of English radical thought, to the translators of the Bible into English, John Wycliffe and William Tyndale, to John Ball the inspiration for the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, to William Shakespeare and to the Leveller John Lilburne and the revolt of the 1640s.

With the first volume of Tom Mann and his Times complete, but the rest unfinished, Dona Torr died on 8 January 1957. Throughout her last months, the Communist Party was deep in crisis. Many of Torr's young charges, the party historians, resigned from the party. John Saville and Edward Thompson began a stencilled newsletter, The Reasoner, which was a bridge along which former Communists joined the New Left, which grew outside the CP and in opposition to the old party. However, Torr herself took no part in the debate. According to the Chartist historian Dorothy Thompson, Torr “was very ill, and couldn't understand the issues” (1998). 

The Marxist Historians’ Group could not survive the demise of the party. Yet even if Torr’s supporters were now outside the party, a younger Torr would have found it harder than they did to leave with them. Torr’s break with her own family had come at a cost, the party was a surrogate family to her. Kiernan recalls Torr hounding another historian Edmund Dell, as he drifted away from CPGB. “With all her kind-heartedness, she was decidedly strict over questions of Party discipline, in a way perhaps typical of those who came to the party from a remote starting-point, like Chester Cathedral. When Edmund Dell was dropping out, she presided over a small informal court of historians, and sounded rather unsympathetic, and insisted on the Party rules in full” (Victor Kiernan,1998). 

The theme of Torr’s life was that successful creative expression was a matter of collective and not individual achievement. And yet, under the pressure of outside events, her chosen groups could not be sustained. The tasks these pioneering historians set themselves would be left to others to complete, to the as-yet-unborn historians of the future.


D. Torr, Tom Mann (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1936), p. 7.

D. Torr to B. Pearce, 14 January 1948.

E. P. Thompson, William Morris (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1955).

G. Thomson, M. Dobb, C. Hill and J. Saville, 'Foreword', in J. Saville (ed.), Democracy and the Labour Movement: Essays in Honour of Dona Torr (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1954), pp. 7-9.

New York: International Publishers, 1919, chapter 7.

D. Renton, ‘Opening the Books: The Personal Papers of Dona Torr,’ History Workshop 52 (2001), pp. 236-245.

Interview with Dorothy Thompson, 23 September 1998.

Letter from Victor Kiernan to the author, 30 September 1998.

Authored by Dr. David Renton

Dr. David Renton

David Renton is a British historian, barrister, and author. Renton has written a number of books, including 'Fascism, Anti-Fascism and the 1940s' and 'Fascism: Theory and Practice'.

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