Revolutionary guide

Christopher Hill's work brilliantly began the task of recovering the English revolutionary and republican tradition, writes Mike Macnair

Christopher Hill, who died on February 24 at the age of 91, was probably the best known and most influential of the school of Marxist historians associated with the old CPGB which emerged around and after World War II. The struggle to disprove Hill’s arguments, or to find some way of marginalising them as old-fashioned, still occupies the energies of a considerable body of academic historians.

Both Hill’s fame and the slightly scandalous character of his historical ideas come mainly from his textbook The Century of Revolution (first published in 1961, widely used in schools in the 1960s and 70s and still in print) and from the central organising idea of this book. This is that the state and social order under which we live in Britain did not grow gradually and organically out of the medieval order, but was created by the revolutionary overthrow of the prior state and class order in the 17th century. Hill argues that the 17th century saw a social revolution in the full sense: the mobilisation and entry onto the political stage of masses of ordinary people, the overthrow of the old and constitution of a new - capitalist - state, and the radical transformation of economic and social relations, politics and culture.

What makes these ideas so scandalous is the idea that what has happened once can happen again. In the 1670s and 1680s the proto-Tory and Tory Party of Order’s great fear was that “Forty-One [1641] is come again”; and ever since this party, and since the 1690s the state has struggled to suppress the memory of “Forty-One”. Hill’s ideas and books, themselves reflecting the (deformed) influence of working class politics in British society between the 1930s and 1970s, reopen the old wound and offer a standing refutation of the “thousand-year constitution”, the “natural conservatism of the English” and all the other garbage.

Hill’s life

Hill spent most of his life as an academic at Balliol College, Oxford, traditionally the most leftwing of the Oxford colleges. He seems to have joined the Communist Party as an undergraduate there; after graduating he spent a year in Russia (1935), then lectured at Cardiff for two years before returning to Balliol in 1938 as a fellow. In 1940 he published an extended essay, The English revolution 1640, outlining the basics of his Marxist interpretation.

In World War II, though starting as an infantryman, he moved successively into military intelligence and secondment from there to the foreign office - one of the numerous not very well publicised examples of the willingness of the CP, from 1941, to support the war effort and of the British state to make use of CPers.

After the war, he returned to Oxford, but continued to be actively involved in the Communist Party, including in the development of the Party historians’ group, which included several later well known academic historians. He was considerably involved with work in the Workers’ Educational Association, and in 1947 published a book on Lenin and the Russian Revolution.

In 1949 he co-edited a collection of 17th century revolutionary materials under the title Good old cause. As did a good many others, he broke with the Party in 1957, after the Soviet intervention in Hungary and the rejection by the CPGB of a minority report on Party democracy. From 1955 he produced a steady stream of books on 17th century history, continuing to do so both after his election as master of Balliol in 1965 and after his retirement in 1978, most recently Liberty against the law (1996).

All in all he produced at least 26 monographs, as well as numerous articles. All his books are both highly readable and challenging.

Interpretation of the revolution

The fundamental core of Hill’s ideas was laid down in The English revolution 1640, though they were developed in detail, elaborated and nuanced in his subsequent work. At the risk of grossly oversimplifying, a crude summary is as follows.

In the 16th century - possibly starting earlier, but certainly from the dissolution of the monasteries - the feudal economy started to dissolve into a capitalist economy through large-scale enclosures and ‘improvements’, which tended to the dispossession of the peasantry and the production of a proto-proletariat. At the same time there was a substantial expansion of trade and manufacture. The monarchical-absolutist state resisted these developments, which were both inconsistent with its ideology and tended to undermine its actual power. So did the state religious hierarchy, and a sector of the landowning class which remained feudal in character.

On the other hand, the new economy (and in particular the emergence of print and vernacular literature) produced in the plebeian masses as well as in the proto-capitalist landowners and merchants an increasing demand for liberty, which took the form initially of general protestantism, and then of ‘puritan’ religious dissent from the state church. From the early 17th century these trends increasingly collided, leading to abortive sessions of parliament, and in 1638-41 the monarchical-absolutist state fell into open revolutionary crisis.

Old feudal forces coalesced on the royalist side; bourgeois or proto-bourgeois on the parliamentarian side. The fact that the result was a revolution, rather than a defeat, arose from the extreme wing of the parliamentary leadership being willing to base themselves on and mobilise broad plebeian masses (in large demonstrations in London, in the London-trained bands, and ultimately in the New Model Army). This enabled the parliamentarians in the end to win the civil war (1641-48). But this, in turn, threw up proto-proletarian movements, in particular in the late 1640s and early 1650s the Levellers and the Diggers, and in the late 1650s the Quakers. Feeling the situation getting out of its control, what was now a united capitalist class of capitalist landowners and merchants/manufacturers restored the monarchy, but under important limitations which meant that it could not now act independently of parliament. The parliamentary monarchy was born.

Though Hill’s interpretation was a radical departure for English academic history, it combined elements not wholly new to the socialist movement. There was episodic reference back to the 17th century radicals by socialists in the late 19th and early 20th century, after the main thread of continuity had (after the mid-19th century failure of Chartism) been broken.

England had remained a puzzle for Marx and Engels. While at times they had interpreted Toryism as representing a feudal rentier class and Liberalism as representing the bourgeoisie, in Capital itself Marx saw the emergence of the proletariat through the enclosure of land and the poor laws, and of capitalist political economy in the 17th century author, William Petty, which strongly suggested dating English capitalism to this period.

And Trotsky, in some of his writings on Britain in the 1920s, had identified the parliamentarist leaders, including Oliver Cromwell, as examples of a revolutionary tradition with which British communists could identify. However, The English revolution 1640 - and subsequently Hill’s later work - pulled these threads together in a single, coherent Marxist interpretation of the origins of the capitalist state in England, and from Century of revolution brought them to a far wider audience than the Marxist left could reach directly.

Bourgeois critics

Bourgeois political-academic criticism of Hill’s arguments has been since the 1960s a major element of academic historical ‘output’. One of the most powerful elements of this work has been the deconstruction, by a series of PhD theses, articles, and books, engaging in micro-studies, of the class alignments Hill constructed to explain the revolution with ‘improving landlords’ and merchants on the parliamentary side, and ‘feudal landlords’ on the royalist side.

The critics, commonly called ‘revisionists’, have succeeded in disproving such a simple class alignment of forces. But when it came to what to put in its place, what appeared was a massive explanatory failure: the micro-histories run into the sand, as, most clearly, in Anthony Fletcher’s The outbreak of the English civil war (1981), which takes 440 pages to narrate, without explaining the event.

In practice the bourgeois historians fell back on a variant on the explanation offered in the moderate royalist Earl of Clarendon’s History of the rebellion, written shortly afterwards. In this view the regime was inherently stable, and there were no long-term causes of the civil war, but King Charles I was stupid and as a result factionalists, scheming for personal power, broke up the regime and let in the lower orders. This caused a catastrophe, from which the country fortunately recovered in 1660. The Tory presuppositions of this view should be obvious.

Another, explicitly Tory, attempt has been made by JCD Clark in his English society 1688-1832 (1985) and Revolution and rebellion (1986). For Clark the events were really about theology (which Hill claims was a way of thinking about social order): the heretical demagogues were defeated in 1660, which left behind an absolutist state like those in Europe, and the demagogues only managed to break down the virtuous old order and let in the unwashed masses to wreck the state in 1828-1832. Few have been willing to take this view very seriously.

The manifest failure of revisionist interpretations has led to a revival in new forms of the old ‘Whig interpretation’, in which medieval England is also portrayed in capitalist terms, so that the civil war loses the class content Hill attributed to it. One of the most vigorous examples of this argument is Alan Macfarlane’s Origins of English Individualism (1978). If we accept that England was “individualistic” and to a greater or lesser extent a market society from the 13th century at the latest, as Macfarlane argues (the medievalists are by no means all convinced), the civil war turns into a purely political event, as the old Whig-liberal historians had argued: a struggle over the constitution.

One of the better versions of this account is Jonathan Scott’s England’s troubles (2000), which links the political crisis to the European context and to ‘state-building’. But this latter element comes close to ‘mandarin history’, the view of history from the lofty viewpoint of the senior foreign office civil servant, as a teleology leading up to the modern bureaucratic state.

Marxist responses

Marxist historians have been forced in one way or another to respond to the bourgeois academics’ criticisms. Hill himself, in his later writings, focused more and more on the revolutionary movement of the masses in the civil war, Commonwealth and Protectorate, and on the survivors of this movement and their experience after its defeat in 1660. His The world turned upside down (1972) is still his best selling book at Amazon; his last book, Liberty against the law (1996) explores popular resistance to the ruling class’s cult of law into the 18th century.

An early Tory critic of Hill, HR Trevor-Roper, had argued that Charles I’s regime was simply the first of the absolutist monarchies to fall, and that it did so because it lost the legitimacy to raise taxes. Perry Anderson’s Lineages of the absolutist state (1975) offered an elaborate response to this critique by identifying the absolutist state as the last phase of feudalism, within which capitalism developed.

The major Marxist responses to the later revisionists have been offered by Ellen Meiksins Wood in The pristine culture of capitalism (1991) - largely a direct critique of the contradictions in the views of Clark and Macfarlane - and by Robert Brenner in Merchants and revolution (1993). Brenner’s book is paradoxical. On the one hand, in the main body he meticulously documents links in the early 17th century between landowner opponents of the crown, religious radicals and a group of merchants outside the guild corporate structures, and shows how these links take concrete political shape in the formation of the ‘extreme’ party in the parliamentary opposition. In his postscript exploring the larger theoretical issues too, he shows how landowners not immediately tied into state patronage were driven into opposition to the crown by their changed class position. In this sense he supplies the class link which the revisionists claimed to have eliminated from Hill’s account. On the other hand, Brenner accepts the claim that the rise of capitalism in England is fundamentally late medieval and that (as Macfarlane had argued, though not going as far as Macfarlane) it has deep roots in the nature of English society in the central middle ages. There are grave difficulties in this view.

Moreover, Brenner’s radicals are fundamentally conspiratorial politicians. The mass radicalisation, the little people taking charge of their history that Hill documents, have ceased to be political actors in Brenner’s revolution, which has been returned to the hands of the ‘political classes’.

Back to the subversive Hill?

The revolution of the 17th century is our history. Wherever we or our ancestors were born, we live under the state and social order created by the 17th century revolution. This state pretends that its lineage stretches far back into the middle ages; it pretends that the overthrow of the state is ‘un-English’. This is the big lie at the heart of British politics. It is our history as communists, democrats and partisans of the self-emancipation of the working class.

There is a thin red thread that runs from the mid-17th century radicals, through the lower-class London rebels of the later 17th century, through the early 19th century “prophets, revolutionaries and pornographers” of Iain McCalman’s Radical underworld (1993), to Chartism. This thread has been partially suppressed by the ascendancy of Labour-loyalism in the 20th century. Christopher Hill’s work brilliantly began the task of recovering the English revolutionary and republican tradition. To the end of his life he remained focused on the struggles of the broad plebeian masses. For all the subsequent criticisms, his work may still be our best guide to our revolutionary past.