Sunday, 4 August 2019

The study of history is in decline in Britain:A Reply

One of the most annoying things about the Economist magazine is not having the authors byline on its articles. It seems the only exception to this rule is the articles written by Bagehot who happens to be dead and dead a long time.

A recent article by this author called The study of history is in decline in Britain is a very right-wing evaluation of the state of historical study in this country. The author correctly notes that England is moving through one of its most difficult historical moments. Bagehot bemoans the fact that England “ is losing its skill at interpreting the past”.

I do not agree with Bagehot’s evaluation, which looks likes a ruse to cover the Economist’s increasingly right-wing position over Brexit. While warning against right-wing populism, the Economist’s real fear is that the crisis will provoke a response in the working class. It is also important to challenge his pessimism. A more optimistic evaluation of the state of historical study comes from the mind and pen of Margaret Macmillan in her excellent book The Uses and Abuses of History. For the Macmillan the historian's role no matter where they are “ must do our best to raise the public awareness of the past in all its richness and complexity”.

The article begins with a political summation of this situation, stating” Whatever you think about recent events in Britain, you cannot deny that they qualify as historic. The country is trying to make a fundamental change in its relationship with the continent. The Conservative Party is in danger of splitting asunder and handing power to a far-left Labour Party. All this is taking place against the backdrop of a fracturing of the Western alliance and a resurgence of authoritarian populism”.

It is true that after two on the and a half years after the 2016 referendum vote to leave the European Union (EU), the British ruling elite “is mired in crisis”.  However I prefer a more Marxist presentation of what is going on as Chris Marsden points out “The dominant pro-Remain faction is desperately manoeuvring to either overturn the result or at least secure a deal preserving tariff-free access to the Single European Market on which it depends for 40 per cent of trade and London’s role as a centre of financial speculation. The pro-Brexit faction, led by right-wing Tories and the sectarian thugs of the Democratic Unionist Party, resists all entreaties to compromise. They believe the EU can be forced to accept the UK’s terms through an alliance with the Trump administration in Washington. Such an arrangement would free Britain to strike unilateral trade deals internationally and refashion Britain as a Singapore-style free trade zone in Europe based on crushing levels of exploitation. The working class has no interest in backing either right-wing faction.[1]

Bagehot’s somewhat simplistic and right-wing evaluation of the political situation allows the writer to call into question any other study of history that does not deal with the elites of any given century. Bagehot is of the firm opinion that the study of history should be by the elites for the elites. As he states “ A scholarship to read history at one of the ancient universities was both a rite of passage for established members of the elite and a ticket into the elite for clever provincial boys, as Alan Bennett documented so touchingly in his play “The History Boys”. Prominent historians such as A.J.P. Taylor and Hugh Trevor-Roper were public figures who spoke to the nation about both historical and contemporary events”.

Bagehot makes another point that “ the study of history has shrivelled” and the number reading it at university has declined by about a tenth in the past decade”. Even if you take the figures cited by Bagehot at face value and some have not you have to ask yourself what is the reason. It is not that there is a decline in the interest in history; it is because of the severe difficulty of getting a decent job with a history degree. As Brodie Waddell on his blog[2] states the chance of getting a job in academia with a PhD has become extraordinarily hard. Once in, things are not much better as universities have in many ways become intellectual prisons.

There is one point that I agree with, and that is  Bagehot’s complaint about the over specialisation and that “the historical profession has turned in on itself. Historians spend their lives learning more and more about less and less, producing narrow PhDs and turning them into monographs and academic articles, in the hamster-wheel pursuit of tenure and promotion. The need to fill endless forms to access government funding adds the nightmare of official bureaucracy to the nightmare of hyper-specialisation”.

Much as I would like to blame the government as Bagehot does there is a much more political reason for this slide into obscure historical study. Bagehot would not agree, but this specialisation has occurred because of the turn away from “Grand Narratives” in the study of history. One of the most critical “Grand Narrative” has been the study of history using a historical materialist method or as it is sometimes called the Marxist method. One of the by-products in the decade's prolonged attack on Marxism has been to move away from any historical study that smacks of Marxism.

Led by a large number of revisionist historians the attack on any Marxist conception has almost become a new genre. Like Bagehot, these revisionists bemoan “History from below” with its studies of the "the marginal", "the poor" & " every day". They believe that history study should be about the haves and not the have nots.

To conclude you have to ask yourself why has the Economist commission this article in the first place. The reason is that there is a real fear now taking place in ruling circles that the growing economic crisis is leading to a growing radicalisation around the world. The universities have always been at the forefront of the attack on Marxism. The Economist article is crude in its attempt to stifle any study of an alternative to capitalism.

[1] The Brexit crisis and the struggle for socialism-By Chris Marsden -23 January 2019-

Friday, 2 August 2019

Geoffrey Parker, Global Crisis: War, Climate Change and Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century,Yale University Press, 2014, 904 pages.

"Nature and Nature's laws lay hid in night, / God said 'Let Newton be!' and all was light.

Alexander Pope

“This summer of the King’s being here was a very strange year in all His Majesty’s three kingdoms if we duly consider the heavens, men and earth. I conceive the heavens were offended with us for our offence committed to one another for, from Mayday till the 15th of September, we had scarce three dry days together. His Majesty asked me whether that weather was usual in our Island. I told him that in this 40 years I never knew the like before.”

John Oglander

This is a door stopper of a book which runs to over 600 pages. The central premise is that the weather played the most crucial part of the wars and revolutions that plagued the 17th-century.
It is true that the weather in the 17th century has given Parker some ammunition for his theory. 

The diaries of the rich and famous such as Pepys and John Evelyn recorded a large number of “extreme weather events”.Pepys and Evelyn referred to prolonged droughts, terrifying and summers and winters so cold or hot the likes of which had never been seen before. Parker describes this period as a ‘Little Ice Age’. This ice age saw temperatures plummet to levels not seen since the last glaciation 13,000 years ago.

Historians, both new and old, have portrayed the 17th century as a time of tremendous political turmoil that stretched across Europe and Asia. It is not for nothing that Eric Hobsbawm described it as The General Crisis of the European Economy in the 17th Century.

The century began with the Thirty Years War which devastated large swathes of Europe and destabilised many European governments. This murderous war devasted vast areas of Germany. Civil wars and revolutions in both France and England occurred. The century also saw the disintegration of the Spanish empire. One commentator described it as ‘one of the epochs when every nation is turned upside down’. To describe and understand this century, both Hobsbawm and Hugh Trevor-Roper popularised the term ‘the General Crisis’ to describe the events of the 17th Century. To my knowledge, they did not call it the generally bad climate crisis.

Geoffrey Parker book while acknowledging this as a time of crisis, divorcees the material base of this crisis from its superstructure. This is despite his monumental researches and bibliography and the source list of nearly 150 pages.

Parker’s book is filled with cataclysmic events, while it is undeniable that these events were made worse by extreme weather events.I do not agree with Parker’s theory and is many respects could be interpreted as a reactionary and retrograde theoretical position.

In his essay Equality, the Rights of Man and the Birth of Socialism the Marxist writer David North points out “Until the early seventeenth century, even educated people still generally accepted that the ultimate answers to all the mysteries of the universe and the problems of life were to be found in the Old Testament. But its unchallengeable authority had been slowly eroding, especially since the publication of Copernicus's De Revolutionibus in the year of his death in 1543, which dealt the death blow to the Ptolemaic conception of the universe and provided the essential point of departure for the future conquests of Tycho Brahe (1546-1601), Johann Kepler (1571-1630) and, of course, Galileo Galilei (1564-1642).

Intellectually, if not yet socially, the liberation of man from the fetters of Medieval superstition and the political structures that rested upon it, was well underway. The discoveries in astronomy profoundly changed the general intellectual environment. Above all, there was a new sense of the power of thought and what it could achieve if allowed to operate without the artificial restraints of untested and unverifiable dogmas.

He continues “religion began to encounter the type of disrespect it deserved, and the gradual decline of its authority introduced a new optimism. All human misery, the Bible had taught for centuries, was the inescapable product of the Fall of Man. But the invigorating scepticism encouraged by science in the absolute validity of the Book of Genesis led thinking people to wonder whether it was not possible for man to change the conditions of his existence and enjoy a better world.The prestige of thought was raised to new heights by the extraordinary achievements of Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727) who, while by no means seeking to undermine the authority of God, certainly demonstrated that the Almighty could not have accomplished his aims without the aid of extraordinarily complex mathematics.Moreover, the phenomena of Nature were not inscrutable but operated in accordance with laws that were accessible to the human mind. The key to an understanding of the universe was to be found not in the Book of Genesis but in the Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica. The impact of Newton's work on intellectual life was captured in the ironic epigram of Alexander Pope: "Nature and Nature's laws lay hid in night, / God said 'Let Newton be!' and all was light."

Not everyone saw the light. In his groundbreaking book Leviathan, the philosopher Thomas Hobbes concluded that the life of man is ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’. Despite his pessimism, Hobbes is a significant figure in the 17th century. Hobbes played a vital role in the development of materialist philosophy. Hobbes was a writer clearly influenced by European political and philosophical developments, and they, in turn, influenced his philosophy; it was a dialectical arrangement.

The writer Jonathan Israel has also suggested that the Fronde in France and the Masaniello rising in Naples was just as important in terms of their impact on Hobbes as the English revolution. The international character of the English revolutionary movement was the product of processes that can be understood and not the blind working out of climatic changes. These can be traced to the beginnings of the Enlightenment, which according to Israel was “the unprecedented intellectual turmoil which commenced in the mid-seventeenth century,” and was associated with the scientific advances of the early seventeenth century, especially those of Galileo. These scientific advances gave rise to “powerful new philosophical systems” producing a profound struggle between “traditional, theologically sanctioned ideas about Man, God, and the universe and secular, mechanistic conceptions which stood independently of any theological sanction.”

Parker mentions Hobbes on numerous occasions and is very selective in his use of the philosopher to back his theory up. Hobbes materialist outlook is somewhat overlooked by Parker. As the Marxist writer, Ann Talbot states, Hobbes “ describes the life of man in a state of nature as “solitary, poore, nasty, brutish and short.” The state of nature was the condition into which human society fell when civil society broke down. For Hobbes, the state of nature was not an abstract, theoretical construct; it was something that existed in large parts of Europe and could cause him to alter his travel plans“.[1]

The historian's Debate

Despite Parker’s book being published in 2013, he has been working on this thesis since the 1970s. The debate over the General Crisis theory had been rumbling since the early 1950s carried into the 60s and 70s and to this day has still not been resolved. It was by all accounts  “ an intense and occasionally acrimonious debate among historians as to what caused the political catastrophes of the 17th century – whether, indeed, anything one could call a “general crisis” had taken place”.

This debate was not over whether the weather was responsible for the period of wars and revolutions. The debate started with a two-part article published by the Communist Party historian Eric Hobsbawm in the 1950s. His thesis of a general economic and political crisis was challenged by Hugh Trevor-Roper, who put the turmoil down to a conflict between society and the state.

It is hard to disagree with Hobsbawm premise of a “ General Crisis”. It was not meant to the last word on the subject but to start a debate. Hobsbawm returned to the subject with a second paper. Hobsbawm seemed to be following the advice of Spinoza who said: “the order and connection of ideas is the same as the order and connection of things”.

Hobsbawm’s the “general crisis” -like many ground-breaking essays provoked significant controversy from a number of historians who opposed the emphasis on the social and economic origins of the revolutions that were carried out throughout Europe. Also, a number of historians which included the Dutch historian Ivo Schöffer and Danish historian Niels Steengsgaard who refused to believe that there was any “general crisis” at all.

Eric J. Hobsbawm's essay, which was printed in two parts in 1954, as The General Crisis of the European Economy in the Seventeenth Century" and "The Crisis of the Seventeenth Century, sought to present a Marxist analysis of the transformation from a feudal society to a capitalist one in the 17th century. This transformation was held responsible for the revolutions, wars and social unrest that took place throughout Europe. Hobsbawm put forward that most of the social and economic structures associated with capitalism had grown and developed during the "long sixteenth century." He believed that feudal “elements fatally obstructed growth” of capitalism. He clearly believed that a revolution was needed to clear away the feudal rubbish in order for a new capitalist system to develop. The most pronounced expression of this process was to be found in England.

Hobsbawm writes, “It will be generally agreed that the I7th century was one of social revolt both in Western and Eastern Europe. This clustering of revolutions has led some historians to see something like a general social-revolutionary crisis in the middle of the century. France had its Frondes, which were important social movements; Catalan, Neapolitan and Portuguese revolutions marked the crisis of the Spanish Empire in the I64os; the Swiss peasant war of I653 expressed both the post-war crisis and the increasing exploitation of peasant by town, while in England revolution triumphed with portentous results. Though peasant unrest did not cease in the West - the “stamped paper " rising which combined middle class, maritime and peasant unrest in Bordeaux and Brittany occurred in 1675, the Camisard wars even later- those of Eastern Europe were more significant. In the i6th century, there had been few revolts against the growing enserfment of peasants. The Ukrainian revolution of I648-54 may be regarded as a major servile upheaval. So must the various " Kurucz " movements in Hungary, their very name harking back to Dozsa's peasant rebels of I5I4, their memory enshrined in folksongs about Rakoczy as that of the Russian revolt of I672 is in the song about Stenka Razin. A major Bohemian peasant rising in i68o opened a period of endemic serf unrest there. It would be easy to lengthen this catalogue of major social upheavals - for instance by including the revolts of the Irish in 164I and 1689.”

A different approach to the “general crisis” debate was taken by Hugh Trevor-Roper, who opposed Hobsbawm’s Marxist approach and put forward a theory that sought to explain the crisis from a Court versus Country standpoint. This also provoked heated discussion. Historians such as Roland Mousnier, J. H. Elliott, Lawrence Stone, E. H. Kossmann and J. H. Hexter who in a paper,[2] expressed all sorts of differences with Roper. An example of the heat generated came from the Italian Marxist historian Rosario Villari, who said: "the hypothesis of imbalance between bureaucratic expansion and the needs of the state is too vague to be plausible, and rests on inflated rhetoric, typical of a certain type of political conservative, rather than on effective analysis.”

He also accused Trevor-Roper of denying the importance of the English Revolution. Villari believed that "general crisis" was part of a Europe-wide revolutionary movement. Along similar lines propounded by Hobsbawm.

Roper wrote not from the standpoint of a Marxist but he agreed with Hobsbawm that in the early part of the 17th century in Western Europe there was a substantial number revolutions which led to numerous break-down of monarchies and governments the cause was “a complex series of demographic, social, religious, economic and political problems “English Civil War, the Fronde in France, the Thirty Years' War in Germany and the disputes in the Netherlands, and revolts against the Spanish Crown in Portugal, Naples and Catalonia, were all expression of the same problems”. Roper rejected the Marxist analysis of the crisis as a struggle of a rising capitalist class, which sought to replace the old Feudal system.


It is complicated, to sum up, a book that runs for over 600 pages. It would take a better historian than me to defeat Parker’s theory. Unlike the previous debate, it would appear that the publication of this book has not been substantially challenged in academia.It is hard not to see the book as an attack on the historical materialist approach to history that has been the hallmark of revisionist historiography that has dominated university life for the last few decades if not more. Having said that the book is well written deeply researched, and Parker argues his point well. I just do not agree with it.

[1] The ghost of Thomas Hobbes-By Ann Talbot -12 May 2010-
[2] Discussion of H. R. Trevor-Roper: "The General Crisis of the Seventeenth Century."
Roland Mousnier, J. H. Elliott, Lawrence Stone, H. R. Trevor-Roper, E. H. Kossmann, E. J. Hobsbawm and J. H. Hexter-Past & Present-No. 18 (Nov., 1960), pp. 8-42

Monday, 29 July 2019

Research Visit to the Raphael Samuel Archive

The purpose of today's visit is to work on a project that I started well over three years ago. I completed a foundation course for a Masters at Birkbeck. Part of that project was a 10000-word dissertation. I choose Samuel as a subject; hence, the study at the Bishopsgate Institute, where the Samuel archive resides.

Call it pride, but I thought the foundation course was a little below my pay grade, so I did not complete the dissertation. I am therefore cleaning up this project either by doing the dissertation which I know I will hate or doing a series of articles for my blog, which I know I will love.

Upon arrival, I had found that the archive all 900 boxes of it had been renumbered. Yes, you heard me 900 boxes. I think it would take a professional historian working around the clock a whole year to work the archive.

Samuel saved every scrap of paper and sometimes trawling through his archive is, at times a little tedious. However, there some gems waiting to be found. One such gem is finding out the extent these historians who spent time in the Communist Party read Leon Trotsky. Christopher Hill certainly did, and so did Samuel who mentions the History of the Russian revolution by Trotsky on one of his numerous scaps of paper.

A point made by Sophie Scott Brown, who wrote a fascinating biography of Samuel[1]is that Samuel deliberately cultivated an image of being an outsider when it came to academia. A study of the first ten boxes contained in the archive tends to puncture that myth. Samuel was invited to numerous conferences and was asked to contribute articles for academic journals and other media.

[1] The Histories of Raphael Samuel: A portrait of a people's historian

Sunday, 28 July 2019

Some Thoughts on The BBC slanders the English Revolution: a reply by Alan Woods –22 July 2019

There are several things  I would like to take issue with in Alan Wood's extraordinary long attack on the BBC or more precisely its Channel Four documentary titled: ‘Charles I, Downfall of a King’.

Wood begins his polemic with this opening paragraph,I did not believe that it was possible for the low esteem in which I hold modern academics in general, and bourgeois historians in particular, to sink any lower than it already was. However, that belief was misplaced. I have just had the misfortune to watch a three-part series put out by BBC Channel Four with the title: ‘Charles I, Downfall of a King’. I now hold the intellectual qualities of our modern historians at a slightly lower level than those of Mr Bean. At least Mr Bean can be mildly amusing at times, but our self-appointed intellectuals lack even that redeeming virtue”.

Woods talks about “experts and self-appointed intellectuals”. I am not up on the libel laws of Britain, but Wood needs to reign in his scattergun approach. The historians appearing on the programme were all professional historians and have written several books on the subject. Woods is writing his first book on the subject, so a little humility would not go amiss.

The second thing to comment on is Woods disdain for modern academia. There are ways of polemicising about the general level of thought in academia. Unfortunately, Wood’s way is not a very good one. Also, it is one thing to attack the political bias of the historians that took part in the programme; it is another to dismiss their contributions to an understanding of the English revolution. The majority of those historians taking part have written thoughtful books on the subject. Those historians who have written narrative-driven books such as Charles Spencer are well worth a read.

If wood would like to view how an orthodox Marxist tackles modern academia, he could do no worse than consult the writings of David North, the quote below is taken from his lecture Eighty Years of the Fourth International: The Lessons of History and the Struggle for Socialism Today[1].

Under the subtitle, The impact of academic attacks on Marxism North writes “Of course, young people cannot be blamed for their limited knowledge of the revolutionary upheavals of the past century. From whom and from where are they to acquire the necessary knowledge? The capitalist media indeed will not dispense knowledge that may contribute to the overthrow of the existing social order. However, what about the universities, with their many learned professors? Unfortunately, the intellectual environment has been for many decades deeply hostile to genuine socialist theory and politics. Marxist theory—rooted in philosophical materialism—was long ago banished from the major universities.

Academic discourse is dominated by the Freudian pseudo-science and idealist subjectivism of the Frankfurt School and the irrationalist gibberish of post-modernism. Professors inform their students that the “Grand Narrative” of Marxism is without relevance in the modern world. What they actually mean is that the materialist conception of history, which established the central and decisive revolutionary role of the working class in a capitalist society, cannot and should not be the basis of left-wing politics”.

Before moving on to other things, it is worth a comment on the title of Wood’s polemic. Woods believes that the BBC has slandered the English revolution. Slander is a strange word to use. Maybe Wood is preparing a libel action against the BBC, or he has not been paying too much attention to the many BBC history programmes which have all been written very conservative standpoint. Woods is correct in that the BBC has shunned this subject up until now, but this has been the response by other media such as cinema and commercial television.

Woods does make a correct point that “Our historians do not like to talk about this because it contradicts everything we have been led to believe for decades, and indeed centuries. Now, at last, they finally decided to talk about it because the present crisis in Britain has upset all the old comforting illusions. We are living in the most turbulent period, probably in the whole history of Britain – certainly for a very long time. Moreover, if we are to seek some point of reference in history for events that are unfolding before our eyes, it is impossible to ignore what occurred in this country in the stormy years of the 17th century”.

I do agree that Hilton should have made more of Rees. However, this is the BBC, what do you expect. One criticism I have made, and it is in my review[2] is that the historians who contributed to the programme went into it blind, not knowing the historical bias of the programme.

Wood correctly states that the programme was the product of the current postmodernist trend in history. This trend in history as in many subjects glorifies irrationalism, through the cultivation of backwardness and religious prejudice against the search for objective truth. My problem with Wood on this matter is that he has given the programme importance it does not merit. The BBC four programme does not constitute slander or betrayal of the English revolution it is what it is a very conservative history programme why elevate it to world-historical importance it does not have.

Wood’s finishes his over eleven thousand word polemic saying “With the honourable exception of John Rees, the self-styled ‘experts’ in this series cannot conceal their spiteful attitude towards long-dead revolutionaries. This extreme vindictiveness can hardly be explained by the events that happened so long ago. Behind it lies an unspoken fear that revolution can recur in our times”.

It is not surprising that Wood announced at the end of his article that he is writing a book on the English revolution. It is hoped that his scattergun approach to history is reigned in and that his attitude towards revolution is re-examined. Wood’s record on the subject of revolution is not a very good one as his support for Hugo Chavez would imply.

Woods wrote in his glowing obituary of Chavez. “ Hugo Chávez is no more. Always a fighter, Chávez spent his last months in a life and death struggle against a cruel and implacable enemy – cancer. He fought bravely to the very end, but finally, his strength gave out. On Tuesday, March 5, at 4.25 pm the cause of freedom, socialism and humanity lost a great man and the author of these lines lost a great friend”[3].

However, a more orthodox Marxist assessment of Chavez would be “Chavez’s nationalist rhetoric, his government’s diversion of revenues from the country’s protracted oil bonanza to pay for social assistance programs and its forging of extensive economic ties to China earned him the hatred of both Washington and a fascistic ruling class layer in Venezuela. They did not, however—as both he and his pseudo-left supporters claimed—represent a path to socialism. Chavez was a bourgeois nationalist, whose government rested firmly on the military from which he came and which continues to serve as the crucial arbiter in the affairs of the Venezuelan state”.[4] The moral of this article is that people living in glass houses should not throw too many stones.

[3] A tribute to Hugo Chávez-
[4] Hugo Chavez and socialism-8 March 2013-

Tuesday, 23 July 2019

Review: A Glorious Liberty-the ideas of the Ranters-A.L.Morton-Past Tense-2007.

If there was ever a group of people that needed rescuing from historical obscurity it was  the 17th-century radical group the Ranters. It is clear that without the intervention of the historians around the Communist Party of Great Britain, especially Christopher Hill and A L Morton groups like the Ranters would have been consigned to a few footnotes of history.

Morton is well known for his work A People’s History of England. It was the founding book of the Communist Party Historians Group (CPHG). As Ann Talbot writes “the Communist Party sponsored a form of “People’s History”, which is typified by A.L. Morton’s People’s History of England in which the class character of earlier rebels, revolutionaries and popular leaders was obscured by regarding them all as representatives of a national revolutionary tradition. This historical approach reflected the nationalism of the bureaucracy, their hostility to internationalism and their attempts to form an unprincipled alliance with the supposedly democratic capitalists against the fascist Axis countries. People’s history was an attempt to give some historical foundation to the policies of Popular Front—the subordination of the working class to supposedly progressive sections of the bourgeoisie and the limiting of political action to the defence of bourgeois democracy—which provided a democratic facade to the systematic murder of thousands of genuine revolutionaries, including Trotsky. It was the approach that Christopher Hill was trained in, along with E.P. Thompson, Rodney Hilton and Eric Hobsbawm, who were part of the Marxist Historians Group and came under the influence of Maurice Dobb and Dona Torr.[1]

The pamphlet A Glorious Liberty is taken from A L Morton’s book The World of the Ranters[2] Despite working under the domination of the Stalinist bureaucracy’s ideological straightjacket Morton, who was probably the world’s leading authority on the Ranters sought to make an objective assessment of the Ranters who up until then had mostly been described as “madmen”. In historical terms, the Ranters had a short shelf life. They came to life towards the end of the civil war and changed their political and social form into the Cromwell Protectorate.

According to Morton “The Ranters formed the extreme left wing of the sects which came into prominence during the English Revolution, both theologically and politically. Theologically these sects lay between the poles of orthodox Calvinism, with its emphasis on the power and justice of God as illustrated in the grand scheme of election and reprobation, with its insistence upon the reality of Hell in all its most literal horrors and upon the most verbal and dogmatic acceptance of the Scriptures, and of antinomianism with its emphasis upon God’s mercy and universality, its rejection of the moral law, and with it, of Hell in any but the most figurative sense, and its replacement of the authority of the Scriptures by that of the inner light. The political views of the Ranters were the outcome of this theology. God existed in all things: I see that God is in all Creatures, Man and Beast, Fish and Fowle, and every green thing, from the highest Cedar to the Ivey on the wall; and that God is the life and being of them all, and that God doth really dwell, and if you will personally; if he may admit so low an expression in them all, and hath his Being nowhere else out of the Creatures.[3]

Like many of the radical groups during the English revolution, the Ranters were a relatively new phenomenon. It is open to debate how new their ideas were. Morton was able to trace their antecedents down through the centuries.

Joachim of Fiore in the twelfth century was identified as one source of Ranter inspiration. “The Ranters, like Joachim of Fiore and the Anabaptists of the Reformation, proclaimed the coming age of the Holy Spirit, which moved in every man. The key difference from orthodox Calvinism or Puritanism is that in those more orthodox creeds, the workings of the Holy Spirit were closely tied to the Holy Word — that is, the Bible. For the Ranters and other Inner Light Groups, however, all deuces were wild. The Ranters pursued this path, too, to pantheism: as one of their leaders declared: "The essence of God was as much in the Ivie leaf as in the most glorious Angel."[4]

One exciting aspect of the Ranter storyline is their associations with other radical groups like the Levellers. Both groups took part in a revolution, and some of their leaders were soldiers in the New Model Army. The social base for both movements was similar. There were, however, significant religious and behavioural differences.

One significant difference was that the Ranters appealed far more than the Levellers to the lower sections of the population. In class terms, this would have been a very embryonic working class.

They appealed to the “poorest beggars, “rogues, thieves, whores, and cut purses”. These are “every whit as good” as anyone else on earth. Morton explains “ In Coppe and Clarkson, in Foster and Coppin there is, in different degrees and forms, a deep concern for the poor, a denunciation of the rich and primitive biblical communism that is more menacing and urban than that of Winstanley and the Diggers. Like the Diggers, and unlike Lilburne and his followers, they were ready to accept the name of Leveller in its most radical implications, but with the difference that for them God himself was the great Leveller, who was to come shortly “to Levell with a witnesse, to Levell the Hills with the Valleyes, to lay the Mountaines low”. It is hardly accidental that the Ranters began to come into prominence soon after the Leveller defeat at Burford and would seem to have attracted a number of embittered and disappointed former Levellers. Where Levelling by sword and by spade had both failed what seemed called for was a Levelling by miracle, in which God himself would confound the mighty by means of the poorest, lowest and most despised of the earth”.[5]

Coupled with their appeal to the poor was their attack on the rich.” The rich, Foster declared, grudge the poor even a piece of bread, but “all things are the Lords” and he is coming shortly to bring down their pride, who “because of your riches have thought yourselves better than others; and must have your fellow-creatures in bondage to you, and they must serve you, as work for you, and moyle and toyle for you, and stand cap in hand to you, and must not displease you, no by no meanes”.Coppe, who like Foster drew much of his imagery from the Epistle of St. James, addressed himself to the poorest and most depressed strata of society, at a time when the slum population of London was suffering terrible hardships as a result of the wartime dislocation of trade and industry".

Like many of the radical groups, their appeal was not only to the poor but to the leaders of the revolution, namely Cromwell. Cromwell was acutely aware of the dangers of these groups posed. If a broad section of the population could have been provoked into carrying out large scale riots over many issues such as high food prices, low wages and hunger it would have posed a grave danger to the regime.

While most social and economic conditions were favourable to the Ranters, they had no real means of carrying through their program. Although many Ranters had served in the New Model Army, many were pacifists at heart. As this quote from Morton’s book brings out  “And maugre the subtilty, and sedulity, the craft and cruelty of hell and earth: this Levelling shall up;Not by sword; we (holily) scorne to fight for anything; we had as live be dead drunk every day of the weeke, and lye with whores i’th market place; and account these as, good actions as taking the poor abused, enslaved ploughmans money from him... we had rather starve, I say, than take away his money from him, for killing of men.[5] .

Ranters pacifism was an integral part of their philosophy according to Morton “It came partly from the nature of their theology, with its emphasis on the inevitable coming of the new age of liberty and brotherhood. God, they felt, was abroad in the land and they needed only to proclaim his purpose. However, it came also from the precise political situation in which Ranterism developed. In February 1649 when A Rout, A Rout was written, Charles had just been beheaded and the Council of State was in effective control. In the two parts of Englands New Chains Discover’d we can sense the feeling of the Levellers that they had been outwitted and betrayed. In a few weeks, their leaders would be in prison: in a couple of months their last hope would be destroyed at Burford”.Already a sense of defeat, that something had gone wrong with the expectation of a New England was in the air. It was in this situation, with the left in retreat and the turning point of the Revolution already passed, that the Ranters became prominent. With ordinary political calculation failing. Many people began to look for a miraculous deliverance”.

J C Davis

Not every historian welcomed Morton’s resurrection of the Ranters. Morton knew that it was effortless for some politically motivated historians to dismiss the Ranters as “madmen” or lunatics. Morton’s work on the Ranters came under severe attack.

Unsurprisingly this attack came from the right and took the form of a full-frontal assault calling into question the very existence of the Ranters. Leading this assault was the very conservative historian J  C Davis. It is no surprise that Davis’s book Fear, Myth and History: The Ranters and the Historians was Kenneth Baker education secretary under Margaret Thatcher’s favourite book. According to Davis, the Ranters were impossible to define and what they believed in, he writes "There was no recognised leader or theoretician and little, if any organisation. The views of the principal figures were inconsistent with each other"[6].

The debate over the Ranters did not generate the same kind of heat as other more higher profile historian’s spates. The importance of this did force Christopher Hill into battle. Hill reluctantly wrote a reply to Davis. 

“I must declare an interest. This book attacks Norman Cohn, A. L. Morton, myself and others for believing in the existence of the Ranters. 'Ranters' put forward antinomian and libertine views at the height of the English Revolution. Suppressed in 1651, they continued to exercise some influence into the 18th century. Professor Davis recognises that contemporaries believed there were people whom they called Ranters. However, he wishes to restrict them to three or four individuals. Anything more was the creation of hostile pamphleteers. It was not an easy negative to prove, not much easier to disprove. Some, including the present reviewer, may think neither exercise worth while. But lest anybody should take Professor Davis's book too seriously, it may be worth stating some arguments against his case. Professor Davis starts from what he calls a 'paradigm' of Ranter beliefs, allegedly drawn from other historians. But it is a very selective paradigm. It excludes some beliefs which contemporaries thought characteristic of Ranters - mortalism, for instance, the belief that the soul dies with the body, which Bunyan thought 'the chief doctrine of the Ranters'. It also excludes Ranter subversion of the traditional subordination of women, which outraged Bunyan even more. Davis argues that if we are to be convinced of the existence of Ranters, we must find 'a sect with clear leaders, authoritative tests on entry, and controls over numbers' (43). Of course, he cannot find them”.[7]


It is a shame that this debate has gone cold. It is hoped that modern-day historians return to this subject and start to give it the treatment it deserves. Nigel Smith has started this process with his collection of Ranter writings[8] and the work carried out by  Ariel Hessayon is worth looking at (see, Abiezer Coppe and the Ranters,

As Hessayon writes “Yet that is not the end of the matter since there remains much to be done. With the partial exception of Coppe, we still need detailed accounts of the Ranters’ reading habits and possible influences on their thought. Moreover, we await research on the lesser-known individuals that comprised ‘My one flesh’, together with a reconstruction of their social networks. The same may be said of members of several other spiritual communities, notably those clustered around Sedgwick and those named in News from the New-Jerusalem. We also require meticulous studies of Bothumley, Coppe  (particularly after 1648), Coppin, and Salmon. So it is fair to suggest that despite all that has been said about them, there is another book on the Ranters still to be written”.

[2] The World of the Ranters: Religious Radicalism in the English Revolution – 12 Jul 1979
by Arthur Leslie Morton
[3] The World of the Ranters: Religious Radicalism in the English Revolution – 12 Jul 1979
by Arthur Leslie Morton
[4] [The article is excerpted from An Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought (1995), volume 2, chapter 9: "Roots of
[5] "a glorious Liberty"the ideas of the Ranters-A L Morton
[6] Fear, Myth and History: The Ranters and the Historians-Davis 
[7] The Lost Ranters? A Critique of J. C. Davis Author(s): Christopher Hill Source: History Workshop, No. 24 (Autumn, 1987), pp. 134-140
[8] A Collection of Ranter Writings: Spiritual Liberty and Sexual Freedom in the English Revolution

Tuesday, 16 July 2019

Review: The Experience of Defeat: Milton and Some Contemporaries by Christopher Hill, Verso, 2016

“Innocence, Once Lost, Can Never Be Regained. Darkness, Once Gazed Upon, Can Never Be Lost.” ― John Milton

Wretched Catullus, stop being a fool,
and what you see has perished, consider perished.
Blazing suns once shone for you.when you would always come where the girl led,a girl beloved by us as no girl will be loved.
There when those many playful things happened,things which you wanted, nor was the girl unwilling,truly, blazing suns shone for you.Now, now she is not willing; you, powerless, must not want:do not follow one who flees, do not live miserably,
but, endure with a resolute mind, harden yourself.


“We develop new principles for the world out of the world’s own principles. We do not say to the world: Cease your struggles, they are foolish; we will give you the true slogan of struggle. We merely show the world what it is really fighting for, and consciousness is something that it has to acquire, even if it does not want to”.

Karl Marx, Letter from the Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher to Ruge (1843)

The Restoration, which again established Charles II as king of England in 1660, has been covered by historians prodigiously but nearly always from the standpoint of the victors. The vanquished have had very few champions. In this book, Christopher Hill sought to redress this anomaly.

Hill primarily focusses on the radical groups such as the Levellers, Ranters and Diggers that fought to push the English revolution further than the bourgeoisie wanted it to go. The explanation for the demise of the radicals mentioned above and others is a hugely contested issue. As we shall see later on in this review, Hill’s Marxist analysis of this process came under sustained critique. Some ignored the book or just attacked Hill for merely being a Marxist historian.

Hill the Marxist

Hill was enough of a Marxist to realise that with significant political defeats comes a reconsideration of values. These reconsiderations usually take two directions.

Those who were in the vanguard of the revolution, such as the writer John Milton were enriched by the experience of defeat. Milton despite threats on his life defended until the very end of his life the revolutionary thought that had guided his life and used it as the basis to train future generations in other words Milton’s was “improving man’s condition in this world, not the next”.

The second group which included the Quakers, capitulated, went backwards and politically renounced the revolution and searched for a “new word”. In The Experience of Defeat, Christopher Hill explored these occurrences as a social process and not down to individual weaknesses.

Hill was able in the publication of this book to draw upon well over forty years of experience to still, argue that this period of defeat was an essential learning curve for any future revolutionaries.

For Hill, the English revolution was the first of the great European revolutions. It was caused by significant social, political and economic changes that occurred in English society during the previous century. The 17th century saw the rise of a new social group, the bourgeoisie. Correctly Hill rejected the concept that the defeat of the revolution was down to the weakness of this or that individual he saw the defeat of the revolution as a social process. In many ways, his understanding, although he would not have seen it because he never acknowledged having read Leon Trotsky, there are similarities between Hill and Leon Trotsky’s approach.

Trotsky himself was familiar with gaining and losing power. Many historians have explained Trotsky’s loss of power and his defeat to Stalin due to his vanity or weakness in political infighting. Trotsky opposed this facile explanation. Of course, there are differences between the Russian revolution and the English revolution, but we are talking about social processes here that are similar.

As the Marxist writer David North explains “Trotsky explained that he saw his life not as a series of bewildering and ultimately tragic episodes, but as different stages in the historical trajectory of the revolutionary movement. His rise to power in 1917 was the product of a revolutionary upsurge of the working class. For six years his power depended on the social and political relations created by that offensive. The decline in Trotsky’s personal political fortunes flowed from the ebbing of the revolutionary wave. Trotsky lost power not because he was less skilled a politician than Stalin, but because the social force upon which his power was based—the Russian and international working class—was in political retreat. Indeed, Trotsky’s historically conscious approach to politics—so effective during the revolutionary years—placed him at a disadvantage vis-à-vis his unscrupulous adversaries during a period of growing political conservatism. The exhaustion of the Russian working class in the aftermath of the Civil War, the growing political power of the Soviet bureaucracy and the defeats suffered by the European working class—particularly in Germany—were, in the final analysis, the decisive factors in Trotsky’s fall from power”.[1]

There is no doubt that Hill’s fascination with the radical groups of the English revolution stemmed from his political persuasion. From the very start of his career as a historian, Hill argued that England had undergone a bourgeois revolution.

It is true that this book covers some of the same ground as the groundbreaking The World Turned Upside Down, published in 1972 but this is an entirely different type of book which attempts to draw the lessons of revolution for future generations. At the end of the book, he asks the same question as John Bunyan, “Were you, doers or talkers, only? What canst thou say?”

The defeat of these radicals must have knawed at Hill. It must have perplexed the losers as well. Why was the “new presbyter is but old priest writ large,’ or why the Saints had visibly failed to reign”.

Hill was one of the few historians who understood the difficulty these revolutionaries faced when mounting a revolution as Hill says “I think it is right to say that the revolution wasn’t planned. One of the things that should be made more of is that no one in England in the 1640s knew they were taking part in a revolution. American and French revolutionaries could look back to England, the Russian revolutionaries had an ideology of revolution based on English and French experience, but no one in England could draw on such experiences. The very word revolution emerges in its modern sense in the 1640s. So that the English revolutionaries are fumbling all the time, they have not got a Rousseau or a Marx to guide them. The examples of the Netherlands and the French Huguenots were discussed in the 17th century as religious or nationalist revolts. The only text they could look to was the Bible, but of course, the bible says such different things that you can get any theory out of it so that it proved totally unsatisfactory. One of my arguments in my new book is that it was the experience of its uselessness as an agreed guide to action in the 1640s and 1650s that led to its dethroning from its position of absolute authority. That was a major problem for the English revolutionaries; they had no theory to start from.[2]

Hill lets the revolutionaries and their supporters speak. John Cook, Charles I’s prosecutor, said that ‘we would have enfranchised the people if the nation had not more delighted in servitude than in freedom.’ This attempt to blame the general population for the defeat of the revolution was a popular theme of the defeated. One that the revisionist historians jump upon to say that 17th-century England was a less revolutionary society than it is sometimes made out to be.
Another accusation that was not without foundation was of a sell-out by the leaders of the revolution. A charge frequently levelled at Cromwell and the grandees. One of Cromwell’s major opponents Major General Lambert said  ‘the world’s mistake in Oliver Cromwell’.

Thomasson Tracts

When this book was published, Hill suffered numerous criticisms. One prominent critic accused him of only using published sources but as Ann Talbot points out “If later historians have made far greater use of unpublished manuscript sources, this to some degree reflects the extent to which Hill made the published sources his own so that they have had to look for new material.[3]
Conrad Russell, in his review of the book, does make a valid point not about Hill in particular but the difficulty most if not all historians have in using the Thomasson Tracts[4].

Russell writes “perhaps the biggest historiographical question the book leaves behind it is a problem of how to put the Thomason Tracts into perspective. The Thomason Tracts, like Shakespeare, are a phenomenon so big that there is a risk that it may overshadow everything around it. As an archival phenomenon, indeed, it has no parallel in the previous history of the world. A collection in which Hobbes and Milton rub shoulders with doggerel, scandal sheets and ephemera is something so striking that it must be given a central place in the interpretation of the period.

Yet even something so immense as the Thomason Tracts must be read in context, and it is very hard to know-how to do this. The great dearth of archives (extending even to private estate documents) deprives us for the years 1642 to 1660 of much of the material we are used to relying on for the previous and subsequent periods. When this fact is set beside the fact that the censorship deprives us of any equivalent printed material for the years before and after the Thomason Tracts, we have a real risk that the Tracts may upstage the rest of the evidence, or perhaps, more subtly but no less dangerously, a risk that, in trying to prevent them from upstaging the rest of the evidence, we may not give them the importance they deserve”.[5]


Russell derided Hill for his belief that there was a ‘sell-out’ of the revolution. Russell believed that “there was no such thing as the radical cause.”. Others criticised Hill because he placed Milton not only in a literary context but as an essential player in the revolution. Hill “had failed to prove his contention that Milton was engaged in a conscious or unconscious dialogue with the Revolution’s “radical underground.”

Russell consistently challenged Hill. Many times his hostility like many revisionists stemmed from their opposition to Hill connecting his left-wing politics and historical research. This hostility to Hill’s politics was the theme of Justin Champion’s lecture.

He writes “In 2014, a special issue of the journal Prose Studies was published which aimed to interrogate the legacy of Christopher Hill’s World Turned Upside Down, and in particular to ‘consider damaging flaws in the conceptualisation of the book and in its underlying methodology’. The premise of that assault was based on Hill’s first historical crime: that he was an avowed Marxist. Combined with that was a second complaint, (according to the charge sheet) that he constructed histories on the basis of printed sources alone, rather than the golden standard of archival research. In the revisionist account of Hill’s work, these two aspects of criticism have tended to be collapsed into one complaint: that his scholarship was shoddy, and bent to his deeper Marxist commitments at the expense of empirical fact. Here, I will challenge both the accuracy and coherence of these uncharitable and hostile charges.[6]


What conclusions can be drawn from Hill’s book The Experience of Defeat? Hill ends the book with these words: ‘In 1644 Milton saw England as “a nation of prophets”. Where are they now?’.

Despite the hostility towards this book, it is a valiant attempt to answer the above question but as Ann Talbot possess “What any serious reader interested in history or politics wants to know is, when we read Hill’s books are we reading the work of an apologist for the Stalinist bureaucracy or of someone who was genuinely struggling to make a Marxist analysis of an aspect of English history? It has to be said that this is a complex question”.

[1] Leon Trotsky’s place in history-By David North -21 August
[2] John Rees and Lee Humber-The good old cause an interview with Christopher Hill- From International Socialism 2 : 56, Autumn 1992, pp. 125–34.Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
[3] "These the times ... this the man": an appraisal of historian Christopher Hill- 2003
[6] Heaven Taken by Storm: Christopher Hill, Andrew Marvell and the Dissenting Tradition The first annual Christopher Hill Memorial Lecture