Christopher Hill and the Recovery of History

Against the Current, No. 104, May/June 2003

Ellen Meiksins Wood

IF ANY GROUP of Marxist intellectuals has ever transformed a whole discipline, its influence reaching far beyond the theoretical and political boundaries of Marxism, it’s the British Communist Party Historians Group.

Founded in 1946, this remarkable group included, among other supremely talented historians, Christopher Hill, Maurice Dobb, Rodney Hilton, Eric Hobsbawm, Victor Kiernan, George Rude, Edward and Dorothy Thompson, and Dona Torr. There aren’t many of them left — though Hobsbawm, Saville, and Dorothy Thompson are still active — and it’s hard to imagine that we’ll ever see their like again.

This brilliant group came together in the course of discussions about an essay on the English Revolution of the 17th century by Christopher Hill. Written (very fast, said Hill) in 1940, when he was 28 and serving in the army, it was the work, as he describes it, of “a very angry young man, believing he was going to be killed in a world war.”

It was intended, he said in an interview, as his last will and testament. Instead, it was only the beginning of a long and distinguished career that transformed the study of 17th-century England, a moment so important in the history of modern Europe that even specialized studies of the period had effects much further afield.

In later years, the anger may have subsided, but the radicalism did not. Hill liked to quote Marx’s reply to an acquaintance who suggested that, as one grew older, one became less political and radical: “Do you? Well, I do not!”

Nor did Hill, who died on February 23 of this year at the age of 91, a Marxist from beginning to end.

Hill never disguised his political commitments or his membership of the Communist Party (until he left, after the 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary, having attacked the party’s lack of democracy), and his scholarly work was always informed by those commitments. Yet he spent much of his academic career as Master of Balliol College, Oxford — which must surely be one of the great mysteries of British academic life.

For much of that time, too, he dominated the field of 17th-century English history, and remained its principal reference point throughout his life. The field has for some time now been effectively taken over by the so-called Revisionists, who have reduced the English Revolution to just another contingent event in the wrangles among elite factions. But even their ideas were shaped in response to Hill’s work.

A “Bourgeois Revolution”?

The curious — or maybe not so curious — thing is that the main thrust of the revisionist challenge has been directed against an interpretation of the English Revolution which Hill himself had more or less abandoned, or at least substantially modified, long before.

In his early essay, The English Revolution 1640, Hill presented the Revolution as a “bourgeois revolution” in a more or less orthodox sense: a struggle between a rising, forward-looking bourgeoisie of merchants and industrialists and a declining, backward landed aristocracy.

He certainly never gave up the conviction that the period was a revolutionary one, and not just another moment in the smooth progress of the English constitution. But in some of his later work, such as Reformation to Industrial Revolution (1967), he suggested that it was a bourgeois revolution in a different sense — not that it was the expression of a class struggle between a rising capitalist class and a declining aristocracy, since there was no such clear class division in 17th-century England, but rather that the Revolution had removed certain obstacles to already substantially developed capitalist relations.

There were moments when Hill came very close to repudiating the old idea of “bourgeois revolution,” though he never went explicitly beyond redefining the concept to mean not a struggle between capitalist and feudal classes but any political transformation that, with or without the intentions of the participants, created more favorable conditions for capitalist development.

This is pretty much where the concept now stands among Marxist historians, to the extent that it still stands at all.

The Revisionists have directed their fire at what has been called the social interpretation of the English Revolution, but the “social interpretation” they have in mind is one that no serious Marxist historian has held for some time, including Hill himself — the old idea of “bourgeois revolution” in its classic sense.

Other Marxists, notably Robert Brenner, have developed another social interpretation. This starts from the premise that there was indeed no clear class division of the kind required by that old idea, and that the landed aristocracy itself was already well advanced down the capitalist road, but demonstrates how the revolutionary events of the 17th century were nonetheless grounded in the prevailing social property relations. (See especially the Conclusion to Brenner’s Merchants and Revolution, Verso 2001.)

Two Revolutions in One

It hardly needs saying that Hill’s pioneering work has inspired these fruitful developments in Marxist historiography. What may not be so obvious is that his alternative to the old “social interpretation” went far beyond, and was far more positive than, any retreat from the old “bourgeois revolution.”

Much more important was the direction in which he took his own work. His central argument about the English Revolution — as elaborated, for instance, in his classic textbook The Century of Revolution (1961) — was that there were, in fact, two revolutions in one.

There was the one all the historians talk about, in which the monarchy was, for a time, overthrown and which eventually consolidated, in the so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688, the supremacy of Parliament.

Then there was another revolution, the real class struggle which took place within the Revolution of the 1640s, between propertied classes and the mass of small producers, farmers, craftsmen, and laborers.

That second revolution created an unprecedented ferment of radical ideas and practices. The dramatic explosion of popular radicalism was also a major factor in uniting the propertied classes against the second revolution and behind the restoration of the monarchy. In other words, this was a genuine class struggle.

If, in that struggle, the subordinate classes lost, they nevertheless left an extraordinary legacy of radical and democratic ideas which lives on to this day.

Much of Hill’s most important work was devoted to that revolution within the revolution, recording and interpreting the actions and ideas of radical popular movements — not only the Levellers and especially the Diggers, but many less well known radical religious sects. No single book, for instance, has contributed more to our understanding of popular radicalism in any time or place than Hill’s wonderful The World Turned Upside Down (1972).

The study of these popular struggles brought Hill closer to Marx’s own conception of class struggle, as between exploiters and exploited, than did the old notion of bourgeois revolution as a conflict between rising and falling propertied classes (however much the latter figures in Marx’s own work and the Communist Manifesto in particular).

It was in the work of Hill and his comrades that class struggle in the Marxist sense truly came into its own as the subject of history. In that respect, it laid a foundation for the highly creative Marxist history that has been written since then under the influence of the CPGB Historians Group.

But more than that, they, and Christopher Hill in particular, took history away from the dominant classes and gave it back to the people.

ATC 104, May-June 2003