Dona Torr

Dona Torr

Dona Torr, the third daughter in the family of four daughters and two sons of William Edward Torr (1851–1924) and his wife, Julia Elizabeth Holmes, was born on 28th April 1883 at Carlett Park, Eastham. Her father, a clergyman, inherited the estate of Carlett Park in 1880, when he also became the vicar of Eastham. (1)

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. (2)

William Torr was later an honorary canon of Chester Cathedral. Her second brother, William Wyndham Torr, became a brigadier and served as British military attaché to government of General Francisco Franco in Spain. Scarcely anything more is known about her family. She seems to have kept her private self under a veil, and remained throughout a somewhat "reticent" figure. (3)

Torr studied English at University College London (UCL). At university, according to her friend the historian, 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. In 1914 she joined the Labour Party and was employed by the Daily Herald and married Walter Holmes, a fellow journalist at the newspaper. (4)

Dona Torr and Communism

On 31st July, 1920, a group of revolutionary socialists attended a meeting at the Cannon Street Hotel in London. The men and women were members of various political groups including the British Socialist Party (BSP), the Socialist Labour Party (SLP), Prohibition and Reform Party (PRP) and the Workers' Socialist Federation (WSF). It was agreed to form the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). Arthur McManus was elected as the party's first chairman and Tom Bell and Harry Pollitt became the party's first full-time workers. (5)

It later emerged that Lenin had provided at least £55,000 (over £1 million in today's money) to help fund the CPGB. Early members included Dona Torr and Walter Holmes. Other members included Willie Paul, Rajani Palme Dutt, Helen Crawfurd, A. J. Cook, Albert Inkpin, J. T. Murphy, Arthur Horner, Rose Cohen, Tom Mann, Ralph Bates, Winifred Bates, Rose Kerrigan, Peter Kerrigan, Bert Overton, Hugh Slater, Ralph Fox, Dave Springhill, William Mellor, Robin Page Arnot, John Ross Campbell, Bob Stewart, Shapurji Saklatvala, Ellen Wilkinson, George Aitken, Dora Montefiore, Sylvia Pankhurst and Robin Page Arnot.

Dona Torr became especially involved with the workers' struggle, acting as courier and pamphlet editor during the 1926 General Strike. Shortly after, she traveled to Moscow as a translator for the Fourth Congress of the Communist International. From the Marx-Engels Institute she translated the correspondence of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels into English, which was the starting point of a prolific career as a translator into English of primordial texts of Marxism. (6)

Dona Torr published The Selected Correspondence of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels 1846-1895 in 1934. It has been argued by her biographer: "Her edition, which came out in 1934, shines by the way it turns into idiomatic English the colloquial writing of two foreigners, both gifted writers, who spent most of their lives in England. The volume is moreover an invaluable storehouse of Marxist thinking." (7)

In 1936, Dona Torr published a short biography for the 80th birthday of Tom Mann, the trade unionist, advocate of revolutionary syndicalism and had played 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. (8)

The following year, she wrote a study-guide to accompany a book for Frank Jellinek for the Left Book Club, The Paris Commune of 1871 (1937). She wrote supplementary notes for a new edition of Marx's Capital: Volume One (1938). She translated Friedrich 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 Georgi Dimitrov book Letters from Prison (1943), the story of the Bulgarian Communist falsely charged with the Reichstag Fire. She also formed, along with Robin Page Arnott and Douglas Garman, the Marxist Historians’ Group. (9)

Communist Party Historians' Group

In 1946 several historians who were members of the Communist Party of Great Britain, that included Christopher Hill, E. P. Thompson, Raphael Samuel, Eric Hobsbawm, A. L. Morton, John Saville, George Rudé, Rodney Hilton, Dorothy Thompson, Dona Torr, Edmund Dell, Victor Kiernan and Maurice Dobb formed the Communist Party Historians' Group. (10) Francis Beckett pointed out that these "were historians of a new type - socialists to whom history was not so much the doings of kings, queens and prime ministers, as those of the people." (11)

The group had been inspired by A. L. Morton's People's History of England (1938). Christopher Hill, the group's chairman, argued that the book provided a "broad framework" for the group's subsequent work in posing "an infinity of questions to think about"; for  Eric Hobsbawm, it would become a model in how to write searching but accessible history, whereas for Raphael Samuel, who first encountered the book as a schoolboy, it was an antidote to "reactionary" history from above. According to Ben Harker: "Morton was an inspiration for a rising generation of Marxist historians who would come to dominate their respective fields." (12)

Torr became an important figure in the Communist Party Historians' Group. It has been argued she acted as a much loved patron to the younger members of the group. This included Christopher Hill, who promoted his pamphlet, The English Revolution: 1640 (1940). She told a friend that it was a "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". (13) John Saville argued: “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". (14)

Christos Efstathiou has argued that "Torr directed the Group's efforts towards a history of experience, not only of economic forces and political tumults." (15) Torr's intention was to link the struggles for democracy from the seventeenth century up to the First World War. As she pointed out: "It must be our task, our duty, to keep green the memory of our order, to record its struggles, to mark its victories, point to fresh conquests, and to gather from defeats the elements of success." (16)

Another member of the group she helped included E. P. Thompson. When he published William Morris, Romantic to Revolutionary (1955) he acknowledged the help Torr gave him: "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". (17)

Khrushchev's Speech on Stalin

During the 20th Party Congress in February, 1956, Nikita Khrushchev launched an attack on the rule of Joseph Stalin. He condemned the Great Purge and accused Joseph Stalin of abusing his power. He announced a change in policy and gave orders for the Soviet Union's political prisoners to be released. Harry Pollitt, General Secretary of the Communist Party of Great Britain, found it difficult to accept these criticisms of Stalin and said of a portrait of his hero that hung in his living room: "He's staying there as long as I'm alive". Francis Beckett pointed out: "Pollitt believed, as did many in the 1930s, that only the Soviet Union stood between the world and universal Fascist dictatorship. On balance, he reckoned Stalin was doing more good than harm; he liked and admired the Soviet leader; and persuaded himself that Stalin's crimes were largely mistakes made by subordinates. Seldom can a man have thrown away his personal integrity for such good motives." (18)

Khrushchev's de-Stalinzation policy encouraged people living in Eastern Europe to believe that he was willing to give them more independence from the Soviet Union. (30) In Hungary the prime minister Imre Nagy removed state control of the mass media and encouraged public discussion on political and economic reform. Nagy also released anti-communists from prison and talked about holding free elections and withdrawing Hungary from the Warsaw Pact. Khrushchev became increasingly concerned about these developments and on 4th November 1956 he sent the Red Army into Hungary. During the Hungarian Uprising an estimated 20,000 people were killed. Nagy was arrested and replaced by the Soviet loyalist, Janos Kadar. (19)

E. P. Thompson and John Saville, members of the Communist Party Historians' Group wrote in The Reasoner that they condemned the overthrow of Nagy and called on the executive committee of the Communist Party of Great Britain to "dissociate itself publicly from the action of the Soviet Union in Hungary" and to "demand the immediate withdrawal of Soviet Troops". They then stated: "If these demands are not met, we urge all those who, like ourselves, will dissociate themselves completely from the leadership of the British Communist Party, not to lose faith in Socialism, and to find ways of keeping together. We promise our readers that we will consult with others about the early formation of a new socialist journal." (20)

Most members of the Communist Party Historians' Group, supported Imre Nagy and as a result, like most Marxists, they left the Communist Party of Great Britain after the Hungarian Uprising and a "New Left movement seemed to emerge, united under the banners of socialist humanism... the New Leftists aimed to renew this spirit by trying to organise a new democratic-leftist coalition, which in their minds would both counter the 'bipolar system' of the cold war and preserve the best cultural legacies of the British people." (21)

Dona Torr refused to leave the Communist Party of Great Britain. It has been argued by David Renton that "Torr’s break with her own family had come at a cost, the party was a surrogate family to her." (22) Victor 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". (23) According to Dorothy Thompson, Torr “was very ill, and couldn't understand the issues” (24)

Dona Torr died at Edgware General Hospital, Hendon, Middlesex, on 8th January 1957 and was cremated six days later at Golders Green. On her death, Torr’s library was donated to the headquarters of the Communist Party of Great Britain in King Street. Torr's book, Tom Mann and his Times, was published in 1956. (25)

Primary Sources

(1) Luisa Marco Sola, Dona Torr, the first of the British Marxist Historians (4th November 2021)

The group was delimited thanks to the study of British Marxist historians. An Introductory Analysis, by Harvey J. Kaye. In it, Kaye detailed the group's contributions to the analysis of History: Maurice Dobb's to the debate on the transition from feudalism to capitalism; Christopher Hill's on the English Revolution; that of Erica Hobsbawum on the role of workers and peasants in world history; Rodney Hilton's on feudalism and the English peasantry; and, finally, that of EP Thompson on the formation of the English working class.

In this work, now classic, the group was given an identity and the importance it deserved as one of the most important historiographic schools of contemporary times was recognized. However, very strict limits were imposed and they left out one of the main promoters of the group: Dona Torr. But who was this intellectual?

Dona Ruth Anne Torr, born on 28 April 1883, was the daughter of William Torr, Vicar of Eastham and Canon of Chester Cathedral. She had three sisters and two brothers. She studied at University College London.

Her first job was as an archivist at the Daily Herald, where she met her future husband, the left-wing journalist Walter Holmes. In their long life together they shared ideas and militancy, as both were among the most prominent founding members of the Communist Party of Great Britain. She became especially involved with the workers' struggle, acting as courier and pamphlet editor during the general strike of 1926. Shortly after, she traveled to Moscow as a translator for the Fourth Congress of the Communist International. In fact, her main job was as a translator. From the Marx-Engels Institute she translated the correspondence of Marx and Engels into English, which was the starting point of a prolific career as a translator into English of primordial texts of Marxism. Her work focused especially on this function, that of making the great texts of socialism accessible to the English.

And we can affirm that their work at this point was a success. Although he was not satisfied with this and perceived the need to promote historical studies within the party. Thus, starting in 1936, he recruited and trained that group of intellectuals that we today call the Group of British Marxist Historians. All of them referred to her on various occasions to highlight her characteristic feature: her enormous generosity. He displayed it during the long years in which he was a shadow intellectual reference for these men who were trying to develop a new way of doing History based on Marxist analysis.

Regarding her own work as a historian, her unfinished biography of Thomas Mann stands out. It was a detailed biography of the great hero of the Labour Party, for whom Torr herself declared her unrestricted admiration. The first volume took him twenty long years of tireless and meticulous research. However, despite her enormous capacity for work, she did not show interest in new methodologies or revolutionary approaches. His approach to her character is canonical and, at times, even dogmatic.

In 1954, a collection of essays titled Democracy and the Labour Movement was published, edited by John Saville, and which included some of the historians whom Torr had trained. In its pages they acknowledged her debt to her. In July of that same year, they, her disciples, held a conference that she could no longer attend due to her delicate state of health. The participants agreed that a portrait of them would preside over all sessions.

From that moment, until his death in 1957, he lived through his toughest years. Fervent believer in the party as he was, he had the misfortune of having to witness its deepest crisis since its founding. Internal criticism of the Party's dogmatism had begun after Stalin's death in 1953 and, especially, after the Khrushchev Report of 1956 (in which the repressive brutality of the Stalinist regime was recognized). But these dissensions became irremediable disagreements after the Soviet invasion of Hungary. The events in Budapest in 1956 led in England to the departure from the party of several of the most important names in the group of historians. From that moment on, several of them affirmed their commitment to “socialist values” but without "the dogmatic perception of reality." For Donna, a staunch believer in the benefits of the game, it was an atrocious blow. She died shortly after, on January 8, 1957.

As his disciples pointed out, his main contribution had been to communicate to this group of intellectuals the true essence of his work, History. As Christopher Hill acknowledged in the preface to Democracy and the Labour Movement: "She made us feel History in our veins. History was not words on a page, it was not the deeds of kings and prime ministers, nor mere events. History was the sweat, blood, tears and triumphs of the common people, our people."

That is, he made these historians of heterogeneous origins and positions understand the very meaning of the historian's work, its profound essence. It is not something that we can consider, even remotely, a minor contribution.

References

(1) Victor Kiernan, Dona Torr: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (23rd September 2004)

(2) David Renton, Dona Torr and Marxist History (29th March, 2021)

(3) Bill Schwarz, Making Histories: Studies in History Writing and Politics (1982) page 67

(4) David Renton, Dona Torr and Marxist History (29th March, 2021)

(5) James Klugmann, History of the Communist Party of Great Britain: Formation and Early Years (1969) pages 38-50

(6) Luisa Marco Sola, Dona Torr, the first of the British Marxist Historians (4th November 2021)

(7) Victor Kiernan, Dona Torr: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (23rd September 2004)

(8) Dona Torr, Tom Mann (1936) page 7

(9) David Renton, Dona Torr and Marxist History (29th March, 2021)

(10) Emma Griffin, History Today (2 February 2015)

(11) Francis Beckett, Enemy Within: The Rise and Fall of the British Communist Party (1995) page 134

(12) Ben Harker, Arthur Leslie Morton: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (11th October 2018)

(13) Dona Torr to B. Pearce (14th January 1948)

(14) John Saville, Democracy and the Labour Movement (1954) page 7

(15) Christos Efstathiou, E. P. Thompson: A Twentieth-Century Romantic (2015) page 34

(16) Dona Torr, Tom Mann and his Times (1958) page 13

(17) David Renton, Dona Torr and Marxist History (29th March, 2021)

(18) Francis Beckett, Enemy Within: The Rise and Fall of the British Communist Party (1995) page 144

(19) Simon Hall, 1956: The World in Revolt (2015) pages 346-347

(20) E. P. Thompson and John Saville, The Reasoner (4th November, 1956)

(21) Christos Efstathiou, E. P. Thompson: A Twentieth-Century Romantic (2015) page 55

(22) David Renton, Dona Torr and Marxist History (29th March, 2021)

(23) Victor Kiernan, letter to David Renton (30th September 1998)

(24) David Renton, interview with Dorothy Thompson (23rd September 1998)

(25) Victor Kiernan, Dona Torr: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (23rd September 2004)