More on Christopher Hill

Ed George edgeorge at
Fri Mar 14 03:20:46 MST 2003

While I'm here, here is the obituary I have written on Hill for the
British journal Workers' Action.


'We Still Have Much to Learn from the Seventeenth Century' [1]

Following as it does from that of Rodney Hilton last June, the recent
death of Christopher Hill at the age of 91 marks the passing of another
important member of that remarkable levy of twentieth-century British
Marxist Historians (prominent in whose ranks stand, amongst others,
Maurice Dobb, Eric Hobsbawm, Victor Kiernan, George Rudé, Dorothy
Thompson, E P Thompson, Raphael Samuel, John Saville and Raymond
Williams). [2]  Hill, however, uniquely among this pantheon, was able to
win an unprecedented hearing and an acceptance within mainstream academe
on his own terms as a serious historian in his own right; unlike, for
example, E P Thompson, who shunned the pursuit of academic glory,
preferring in its place a lifelong commitment to active politics (for
which he deservedly won the respect of generations of footsoldiers of
the left), or Hobsbawm, whose florescent reputation these days is rather
more of the Sunday-supplement variety.  In fact, such was Hill's
mainstream prestige within British - or rather English - academia that
his interpretation on his speciality subject - seventeenth-century
England, or, to put it another away, the English Revolution and civil
war - although not nowadays accepted as the near orthodoxy it once was,
is still for many entering the fray of debate around this period a
necessary starting point, even if a starting point from which to develop
a critique.  Thus any assessment that is drawn up of Hill's intellectual
career must take account of both of the elements that make up the
double-handed adjective 'Marxist historian': how did Marxist theory
affect Hill's work, and to what degree was he as a historian successful
in developing a Marxist account of English-British history within a
non-Marxist, if not actively anti-Marxist, academic milieu?

Born into a northern English Methodist family, Hill began to read
history as an undergraduate at Balliol College, Oxford, where he was to
remain, with the exception of one year in Moscow in 1935, and two years
teaching in Cardiff, for his entire academic life, finally successfully
standing for the position of Master, which he held from 1965 to 1978. 
By graduation, he had already joined the Communist Party: he was to
remain a member until the exodus precipitated by the crisis of 1956,
finally leaving in 1957.

In 1940, Hill published the short work _The English Revolution 1640_, in
which he argued that

'the English Revolution of 1640-60 was a great social movement like the
French Revolution of 1789.  The state power protecting an old order that
was essentially feudal was violently overthrown, power passed into the
hands of a new class, and so the freer development of capitalism was
made possible.  The Civil War was a class war, in which the despotism of
Charles I was defended by the reactionary forces of the established
Church and conservative landlords.  Parliament beat the King because it
could appeal to the enthusiastic support of the trading and industrial
classes in town and countryside, to the yeomen and progressive gentry,
and the wider masses of the population whenever they were able by free
discussion to understand what the struggle was really about.' [3]

Who were these classes that fought the revolution, and what propelled
them towards conflict?

'England in 1640 was still ruled by landlords and the relations of
production were still partly feudal, but there was this vast and
expanding capitalist sector, whose development the Crown and feudal
landlords could not for ever hold in check.  [...]  There were really
three classes in conflict.  As against the parasitic feudal landowners
and speculative financiers, as against the government whose policy was
to restrict and control industrial expansion, the interests of the new
class of capitalist merchants and farmers were temporarily identical
with those of the small peasantry and artisans and journeymen.  But
conflict between the two latter classes was bound to develop, since the
expansion of capitalism involved the dissolution of the old agrarian and
industrial relationships and the transformation of independent small
masters and peasants into proletarians.' [4]

Curiously, for he was never to state it again in such terms, this is the
model of the English Revolution that Hill is remembered for.  In
substance, however, Hill was not saying anything dramatically new.  The
notion that the Revolution had occurred as a result of prior economic
development, and that its leading force had been a social layer in some
sense capitalistic - the 'gentry' - had already been established by R H
Tawney.  Tawney, a Christian socialist and social democrat, had
effectively laid down the outlines of what was to be known as the
'social interpretation' of the revolution, an interpretation which broke
from the dominant interpretation of previous English historiography,
chiselled out in the nineteenth century by S R Gardiner, and maintained
in the twentieth by G M Trevelyan, that the revolution was purely an
ideologico-political event.  In his The Agrarian Problem in the
Sixteenth Century, written in 1912, Tawney had argued that the
redistribution of monastic lands in the sixteenth century had unleashed
an aggressive rural capitalism; the 'rise of the gentry' thus triggered
was in turn in part predicated on a collapse in the fortunes of the
aristocracy, who stood thus exposed and historically anachronistic.  The
Civil War was nothing more than a process of readjustment, a political
settling of socio-economic accounts, whereby the imbalance between the
declining aristocracy and rising gentry at the level of the state could
be corrected, and it was this latter force, for good or ill (and for
Tawney it was a mixture of the two), that had triumphed with the
settlements of 1660 and 1689. 

Thus in essence all that Hill had done that was new was to restate
Tawney's social interpretation with explicit Marxist terminology.  For
Hill, what had happened in seventeenth-century England was specifically
a bourgeois revolution, in which a social class based on capitalist
social relations, temporarily allied with a more or less plebeian mass,
pitched itself against and overthrew an outmoded, historically
regressive class of feudal aristocrats.  The comparison Hill made here
with France was telling.  Equally telling was Hill's assertion that

'The seventeenth-century English revolution changed the organisation of
society so as to make possible the full development of all the resources
of that society.  A transition to socialism will be necessary to win the
same result in England [sic] today.' [5]

(Interestingly enough, Hill's essay was the subject of a most
unfavourable review in the New Statesman at the hands of none other than
George Orwell, who saw in Hill's account the heavy hand of what he,
Orwell, called 'official Marxism' (and what many others would label
'Stalinism').  'A "Marxist" analysis of any historical event tends to be
a hurried snap judgement based on the principle of cui bono?' Orwell
snapped.  'Something rather like the "realism" of the saloon-bar cynic
who always assumes the bishop is keeping a mistress and the trade union
leader is in the pay of the boss.' [6])

But the fundamental difficulty with Hill's (and Tawney's) interpretation
is that, in the light of the wave of 'revisionist' historiography which
it provoked, it was to be proved empirically false in practically every
respect.  Most damagingly, it has subsequently been impossible to
sustain the notion that there existed two distinct social classes - of
'gentry' and 'nobles' - either prior to or during the Revolution.  What
can be determined is the existence of a single socio-economic elite of
large landowners, both ennobled and not - and there was much social
traffic between the two categories - whose incomes came in major part
from the leasing of property.  Moreover, the upper layers of the elite
did not suffer economically prior to the Revolution in the way that it
had been previously imagined: rather than there being a 'decline of the
aristocracy', the last quarter of the sixteenth century and first half
of the seventeenth was a period of agricultural improvement in which
both rents and food prices rose to the benefit of the whole elite, be
they 'nobles' or 'gentry'.  It is fair to say that, after the assault of
the revisionist historiography of the 1950s and 60s, the 'social
interpretation', in both its social-democratic (Tawney) and Marxist
(Hill) guises, lay in ruins. [7]  Indeed, as Tawney himself was
subsequently to comment on the Civil War: 'Was it a bourgeois
revolution?  Of course it was a bourgeois revolution.  The trouble is
the bourgeoisie was on both sides.'

What was Hill's response to this state of affairs?  Curiously, it was
one of effective retreat.  Although a great deal of what he subsequently
wrote is indeed of real value (taken on its own terms, his 1972 study of
radical ideas within the revolutionary movement _The World Turned Upside
Down_ for example is a wonderfully fascinating book, even if it is true
that, and this is symptomatic of Hill's difficulties, that the ideas
dealt with are done so if not outside of the realm of social
consciousness then at least separated from their roots in the dynamics
of the social - economic - relations that produced them), it lacks the
earlier intention of explaining and interpreting the motor forces of the
Revolution: not only did Hill not restate the outline interpretation
developed in _The English Revolution 1640_, he did not seek to develop
it in the light of the revisionist critique either.  He simply abandoned
it; as he turned his attention away from the study of classes in the
revolution, he concentrated on the role of ideas, with a special
fixation on the conception of Puritanism ('The Civil War was largely
fought by Puritans,' as he would subsequently write [8]).  In fact, the
closest that Hill would get to addressing the concerns he first raised
in 1940 was during a BBC talk given in 1973:

'I certainly think it was a revolution [...].  I would see the English
Revolution of the seventeenth century as clearing the path for the sort
of economic development which made the industrial revolution happen in
England first.  [...]  I would think of what happened in the seventeenth
century as being, in a Marxist sense, a bourgeois revolution.  I don't
think the two classes lined up to fight [...].  There were members of
all classes on both sides.  But what I think I understand by a bourgeois
revolution is not a revolution in which the bourgeoisie did the fighting
[...] but a revolution whose outcome is the clearing of the decks for
capitalism.' [9]

However one takes this assessment (and for my money it is both circular
and question-begging: that a bourgeois revolution 'clears the decks' for
capitalism is surely to state the obvious, but why and how this would
come about if the 'bourgeoisie' remained marginal to proceedings surely
merits more discussion) it is clear that it marks a significant shift
from the position of 1940.  All the more strange, therefore, that -
whatever other merit Hill's work may contain - he never successfully
pursued this central problem of historical methodology. [10]

Croce once famously remarked that 'all history is contemporary history',
and we can read more than one inference into this aphorism.  It is
noticeable that, with the exception of the The English Revolution 1640
and his first major research work Economic Problems of the Church
(1956), all of Hill's significant published work was undertaken after
his break with the Communist Party.  Could it not be the case that the
unworkable model developed earlier was abandoned alongside his party
membership?  That Hill discarded the 'official Marxism' demanded by the
Party when he was no longer obliged to propagate it?  

Even though unfortunately all we can do here is speculate as to the
nature of Hill's thinking on this matter these are not idle questions. 
The failure of the 'social interpretation' of the English Revolution has
had a deleterious effect not only on the study of history itself but on
the reputation of Marxism as a serious tool of historical analysis. 
While the Tory Anglicans of the 1950s only sought to debunk the concept
of social class as a tool of analysis of the English Revolution, the
punk Thatcherite generation which followed (Conrad Russell and J C D
Clarke in the van) has questioned whether the whole idea of an English
'Revolution' itself is a myth.  Since it is clear that for both Hill and
Tawney their interpretation of the past was also designed to serve as an
analogy for the future the stakes raised by these debates are high.  But
it is also clear that any attempt to resurrect the notion that class
struggle and social revolution are the levers of social change will
necessarily have to begin with a rejection of the model of the English
Revolution advanced by Hill.  It is thus sad to conclude that while in
its marginalia we can find useful and interesting insights, at the heart
of Hill's work all we see is a gaping methodological void. Now this, for
a Marxist historian, is indeed a most disappointing legacy.


[1] Christopher Hill, _The English Revolution 1640_ (London, 1955), (3rd
edition), 62.

[2] It is interesting to note - and sad that it has been largely
unreported - that Hill's wife, Bridgit Hill, who died in August last
year, was a respected and well-published historian in her own right. See
her obituary in _The Guardian_ (13 August, 2002).

[3] _The English Revolution 1640_, 6.

[4] Ibid., 26-7.

[5] Ibid., 19, n. 3.

[6] _The Guardian_ (9 March, 2003).

[7] It is not possible here to go into more of the details of these
debates.  For further reading both of the most satisfying summary
accounts come from the pen of Robert Brenner: see the Postscript to his
_Merchants and Revolution_ (Cambridge, 1993) and the article 'Bourgeois
Revolution and Transition to Capitalism' in A L Beier et al (eds.) _The
First Modern Society_ (Cambridge, 1989).

[8] _Intellectual Origins of the English Revolution_ (Oxford, 1965),

[9] _The Listener_ (4 October, 1973), 448-9.

[10] Space precludes a textual analysis of the different
characterisations of the Revolution that Hill deployed, a task however
already skilfully performed by Brian Manning in 'God, Hill and Marx',
_International Socialism_ 59 (Summer 1993). 6

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