Christopher Hill

Ed George edgeorge at
Mon Mar 3 09:19:31 MST 2003

Writing on the death of Christopher Hill last week, Bob Gould drew an
arresting comparison between, on the one hand, Hill and the other
members of the Communist Party Historians' Group, especially E P
Thompson, who together 'spearheaded the struggle for an accounting with
Stalinism in Britain', and, on the other, Eric Hobsbawm, 'the keeper of
the Stalinist secrets, much to the detriment of the latter. Aside from
the question of the validity of the label 'Stalinism' (about which I
have already contributed to this list), I think Bob is off-beam in
painting the British Marxist historians in such a positive light, and in
demarcating Hobsbawm as he does.

What is the basis for Bob's criticism of Hobsbawm, against whom the
record of Hill appears so much more positive? In a nutshell, that he
refused to tear up his Communist Party card during the exodus of 1956-7,
that he cosied up to - or allowed himself to be cosied up to by - the
establishment, and that he went on to play a role which helped the
right-wing in the labour movement. But there is very little real
difference here: being 'Master' of Balliol college hardly amounts to
resisting the temptations of the attentions of academe, and while Hill
indeed leave the Party - albeit a little belatedly, and not so as to
engage in politics in another way - Hobsbawm, by his own account,
remained a party member in name only, and effectively ceased to operate
as such in any real sense. In fact, one could argue that the truer to
his convictions - the more honest - was indeed Hobsbawm, in that he did
maintain an engagement with politics proper: his popular-frontist
'Forward March of Labour Halted?' intervention, although reprobate - at
the time scabbing, even - showed a willingness to dirty his hands in
mainstream political debate in the workers' movement, to put his money
where his mouth was, so to speak, in a way that Hill never did before
1957 as much as after.

But this aside. The main emphasis of the assessments of Hill on his
death, understandably enough, have not been focused so much on his role
as a Communist than on his position as a 'Marxist historian', pioneering
or otherwise. Compared in this light, Hobsbawm and Hill are pretty much
of a piece. Both ultimately remained trapped with the confines of a
Marxism characterised by a vulgarised materialist conception of history,
a national-'Marxist' interpretation of historical processes, and a
dogmatic schematism of the prospects for future historical
transformation. If you read, for example, the chapter on the French
Revolution in Hobsbawm's Age of Revolution, and compare it with Hill's
interpretation of the seventeenth-century English revolution to be found
in, for example, The English Revolution 1640 or The Century of
Revolution 1603-1714, you will see that the two accounts are largely
identical: painting a picture of a rising revolutionary bourgeoisie
overthrowing an historically superannuated feudal class structure. Yet
as I have pointed out more than once on this list, this interpretation
has been thoroughly discredited  as much empirically as theoretically by
subsequent work; and that given Marxism's claims to be a science of
history, and that the likes of Hill and Hobsbawm are seen to have stood
in the front rank of Marxist historiography, this very discrediting as
been fashioned into a stick of considerable clout with which to beat
Marxism of all colours. Rather than pioneering Marxist historiography,
then, all Hobsbawm, and Hill with him, managed to do was to further
besmirch the reputation of Marxism as an effective tool of historical
enquiry and exposition through associating their good names to a rigid
and dogmatic model of historical change which was incapable of standing
up to the scrutiny of verified and verifiable evidence.

Of course, both Hill and Hobsbawm retreated somewhat from their earlier
conceptions in later years, but this did not take the form of a critical
process of self-examination but an increasing scepticism towards and
drawing away from Marxist theory itself. If this process is more evident
with regard to Hobsbawm than it is in the case of Hill, this is only
because the former has been able to travel further along the same road.
Whatever positive elements there may be in the work of both historians,
therefore - and I am not arguing that their work is without merit (it
should not need pointing out that if one could only study the work of
those one agreed with then Marx would not have written Capital), our
judgement must be tempered by the recognition that, in the first place,
the early - 'pioneering' - interventions of both Hill and Hobsbawm were
marked by an undue attachment to fanciful dogma, an that, in the second,
hey were both equally completely unable and unwilling to effect the
subsequent necessary correctives to their earlier errors.
But when we turn to E P Thompson, we have to make an entirely different
judgement. Unlike both Hill and Hobsbawm, Thompson worked outside
mainstream academia, in the field of adult education; and unlike Hill
and Hobsbawm, he refused to let himself be suckered by the pursuit of
academic glory. (Incidentally, another outstanding figure - grotesquely
under-rated by the soft-Marxist left that so revere Thompson - who spent
his formative years in adult education is of course Raymond Williams.)
And, again unlike Hill and Hobsbawm, Thompson tempered his theoretical
interventions with a genuine and life-long commitment to activism. And
not only that, on leaving  the Communist Party (effectively expelled),
Thompson sought seriously to build around a genuine attempt to rethink
Marxism. However, appalled at the schematic dogmatism that had up to
that point passed itself off as Marxism for him, he ended up by throwing
the baby out with the bathwater and embraced a 'Marxism' gutted of any
scientific content, a weakness that stands out clearly in his most
important theoretical works: for example, in The Making of the English
Working Class, it is evident in Thompson's central tautological thesis
that the working class was present at its own making. Thompson's pursuit
of this idea is founded on his misgivings over the mechanical way in
which Communist Party orthodoxy had presented the relationship between
class consciousness and a class's structural position vis-à-vis the
means of production. But Thompson's solution to this problem was to deny
any determining role whatsoever to structural position, a view which led
to his later tantrum directed against Althusser to fall so flat, for it
was precisely on this question that Althusser could not be challenged -
at least within the confines of Marxism. But it should be noted that
Thompson's rejection of scientific Marxism was itself predicated on the
vulgarisation of core Marxist theoretical tenets wreaked by people like
Hill, Hobsbawm, et al (borrowing heavily from vulgarised Second
International thinking) in the first place. And although it is to
Thompson's eternal credit that he remained faithful to the principle of
political activism to the end - his contribution to the 1980's British
peace movement was enormous and heroic and cannot be gainsaid - his lack
of theoretical rigour led him at this point to develop and embrace the
peculiar and ahistorical explanatory concept of 'exterminism' - rather
than imperialism - to account for our present period in human history.
So whatever positive assessment we can make of Thompson's life and work
- and it is a qualitatively more favourable one than that we can make of
wither Hobsbawm or Hill - we have to temper our judgement with an
appreciation of these central weaknesses in his outlook. Perhaps,
indeed, Thompson himself was aware of the caesura in his concepts, for a
good deal of his work is stamped by an unwarranted and otherwise
difficult to explain anger and bitterness: what else, for example, can
explain the very vituperative tone of Poverty of Theory, or the
childlike insistence with which he pursued his vendetta against the
(post-Thompson) New Left Review?

Why should all this have been so? Fundamentally, as I have tried to
explain, the Marxism that predominated within the twentieth-century
Communist Parties was a very peculiar kind of Marxism indeed, and that
deployed not only by the Marxist Historians of the British Communist
party but also that by historians of a similar stamp elsewhere - Albert
Soboul in the French party, for example, or Manuel Tuñon de Lara in the
Spanish - was characterised by precisely this dogmatic, pre-dialectical
and fundamentally nationalistic outlook. In this theoretical model,
socialism in one country was transformed effortlessly not only in
capitalism in one country but even feudalism in one country; and the
consequent  historical account of the global process of transformation
from feudal to capitalist modes of production - operating on different
levels and with more than one temporal rhythm - collapsed into a series
of national 'experiences'. This approach is as visible in Hill's oeuvre
as in Hobsbawm's (and others), and where it is not (as in the case of
Thompson) the damage thus done resulted in a break from Marxism itself
properly understood.

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