Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Some thoughts on Christopher Hill

(This is a slightly revised essay from an earlier posting)

It is perhaps pertinent to start this brief and critical appreciation of the British historian Christopher Hill with his trip to the Soviet Union made in 1938. In many ways his 8 month stay defined him as a historian and had a profound influence on his work. It would be remiss of me also to be critical of fact despite 1938 being the high point of the murderess Show Trials or purges (The third such trial of old Bolsheviks was on during his stay, Hill makes no mention of the judicial execution of all the leaders and supporters, family members and friends who lead the Russian revolution throughout his long career.

Hill took on board Soviet historians take on the English revolution firstly that it was a bourgeois revolution that it saw the beginning of the transition from feudalism to capitalism and secondly they put important emphasis in the role played by land ownership in exposing class relations. He was critical of their shortcomings which were largely because many sources had not been translated into Russian. Hill was to incorporate many of the conclusions of the Soviet historians into his own work. Hill also acknowledged in his essay Soviet Interpretations of the English Revolution that “The interest of their work lies much more in their reinterpretation of familiar facts than in any startling contribution to our knowledge of the detailed history of the period. They treat the civil war as a conflict of classes.

The class in possession was the old landed aristocracy and the landed church, sheltered behind the landed power of the crown. Attack came from the bourgeoisie, opposed to the royal fiscal policy and restrictions on commercial and industrial development, and from the progressive country gentry, interested in the development of capitalist estate management, anxious to “improve " the backward estates of church, crown and unprogressive landowners. They had capital to invest: the national wealth would be increased if they could invest it freely. Behind them stood a peasantry prepared to fight against the remnants of feudalism and, in London, the small masters prepared to fight for free trade”. Hill also absorbed the Soviet historian’s position on the Levellers”.

The Soviet historians were very clear on the class position and therefore limitations of the Levellers. For them “the Levellers represented the independent artisan masters and peasants, with limited environment, lacking capital to expand yet struggling against sinking to wage labourers, continually battered in the hopeless economic struggle. Hence their Puritanism, their biblical demands for the rights of the poor and humble. Always at the critical moment, however, they deserted their leaders to follow the merchants who supplied them with raw materials, products and political ideas”. Hill further makes the point that a” more elaborate class analysis of the conflicting groups is worked out in two articles by A. I. Angarov.1 the levellers, he considers, stood for “simple commodity production." They hoped that the destruction of the monopoly companies protected by the old regime would be followed by the triumph of small-scale production over large. This “Levelling “of property in land was the basis of their political egalitarianism. They saw that capitalist undertakings in land meant the breaking up of small properties, and therefore opposed rising capitalism as well as feudalism. But they failed to appreciate the inevitability of the squeezing out of small-scale commodity production under capitalism1 " Constitutional projects of the Independents and Levellers," in Revolyutfsya Prava, i929, No. 4, and "The class struggle in Cromwell's army," in Sovietskoye gosudarstvo i revolyutsiya prava, I 930, No. 4.

Even early in his career Hill was extremely aware of the importance land ownership played in the revolution. He cites the research work of Professor Arkhangelsky on the agrarian legislation of the period.'It must be said that Hill was critical of this particular historian. According to Hill “Arkangelsky examined the fate of lands affected by the civil war- those of bishops, deans and chapters, crown and delinquents. Pointing out that the last were mostly those of the nobility and gentry of the backward north and west of England, and that the estates of church and crown were notoriously " unimproved " and economically backward, he postulates that in the desire of the moneyed class to invest its money in land, and to cultivate the land to the greater national wealth, we have at least a contributory factor helping to bring the civil war about. Many of these estates were heavily mortgaged, but where owners refused to sell it was exceedingly difficult in the then state of debtors' law to compel them. The unfit were surviving and excluding those whose fitness was proved by fortunes amassed in trade.

Though the immediate cause of land confiscations may have been fiscal there is, he thinks, this deeper social factor underlying. At least the fiscal necessity was opposed for class reasons by the landlords, whilst the moneyed men who were interested in access to the land did their best to exploit the fiscal necessity. The class struggle for Arkhangelsky is not between landed gentry and bourgeoisie, but between crown, church hierarchy and the economically backward landlords, on the one hand, and the progressive elements in town and country”.

Despite the relentless assault by the revisionists on any historian who attaches importance to a study of socio economic relations during the Civil war they have not had it all their own way. A recent short article on thehistorywomanblog has one female historian sticking her head above the parapet. In her article on the 400th anniversary of James Harrington she says

“Power is founded on property. Few people nowadays would deny this doctrine. The political philosopher James Harrington formulated it in the mid-seventeenth century. Living in per-industrial England he still considered land, not money, the most important form of property. The social group that held most of the country’s land also held the largest amount of power. In early modern England this was the monarch and his nobility, including the bishops. However, from the reign of Henry VII onwards, and especially through the Reformation and the dissolution of the monasteries and sale of Church lands, power relations began to change. Over time, the King (or Queen) and nobility lost land and power in favour of the next social group, the gentry and the commoners, represented in the lower house of Parliament. By the early Stuart period the power balance had been upset so badly that struggles between the King and the House of Commons led to a breakdown or ‘dissolution’ of the government in the English Civil War. Anyone trying to reconstruct the English government in the aftermath of the war would therefore have to create a new superstructure that took into account the changed power relations”.

Her argument was immediately attacked by Christopher Thompson a Senior Research Fellow in the Humanities Research Institute of the University of Buckingham who said I am afraid that these assertions about the transfer of land between the nobility and gentry. The peerage in 1601 may have held less land than in 1558 but it still held more than in 1534. By 1641, the much enlarged peerage had far more land in its hands than in 1601. This is true even using Lawrence Stone's highly improbable figures. The English Civil War or Revolution was preceded by a notable shift in landed possessions towards the peerage and by the rise of "aristocratic constitutionalism".

On a broader note Professor Thompson has attacked the work of Christopher Hill and Brian Manning as outdated and refuted by the growing list of revisionist historians.

In a recent correspondence Thompson’s makes the point “It is almost forty years since the work of Marxist historians like Christopher Hill, Brian Manning and their sympathisers exercised (along with the less determinist views of Lawrence Stone) major influence upon the historiography of the English Revolution. In Oxford colleges and at the IHR in London, younger historians like Conrad Russell, Kevin Sharpe, John Morrill and others were already reacting against their work and preparing to develop their own hypotheses in what has misleadingly come to be called "revisionism”.

Despite this John Morrill was forced to acknowledge Hill’s place in 17th century study his tribute in 1989 - "If we can be sure that the 17th century changed England and Englishmen more than any other century bar the present one, we owe that recognition to him more than to any other scholar" - shows how, even in relative eclipse, Hill remained the central point of reference in 17th-century studies”.

I think revisionism is a correct term to use to describe a number of historians who have since the 1970s sought to overturn the influence of Hill and Manning’s work. In fact if you look at any of the current historians they tend to define their own analysis in opposition to Hill and Manning. There is a current fixation with the ‘history from above school’ with practitioners such as John Adamson (see the Noble Revolt) is one example of this. Another Conrad Russell in his Origins of the English Civil War sought to explain the civil war from the standpoint of the Nobility not from any socio economic changes. Jim Holstun described Russell’s book as a “manifesto for historical revisionism”. Holstun went on to point out that Russell sought another way to explain the social changes that were taking place in the English revolution. That historian's should concentrate on the upper yeomanry, the middling sort of people. Russell would often make the remark that he was not conversant with the terms feudalism and capitalism.

Thompson does not mention Mark Kishlansky whose major work is on the New Model army also rejects the role of Marxist ideology and presented a one sided view of the struggle inside the army. He dismissed the struggle was over ideology when he says ‘Much has been written about the ideology of the army, but most of it misconceived. A principle reason for this has been historians have assumed that the lowly social origins of many of the officers created a commitment to radical ideology. This is false on both factual and logical grounds. There were men of low birth among the new Model’s officers, and much has been made of Pride the drayman and Hewson the cobbler more still might be made of obscure officers like Spongers and Creamer whose surnames suggest backgrounds in trades and service. The army also contained a Cecil, a Sheffield, and three colonels who were knights. Yet careful study of the armies social origin, which lends support to the view that they were more traditional in nature (of solid status in rural and urban structures) still does not meet the real objections to existing interpretation- the fallacy of social determinism’.

Although not agreeing with Adamson conclusions or his method of history his book is well written and you have to admire the scholarship and work load (his notes run for over 200 pages). But unfortunately this type of old school writing on the 17th century is becoming rare. Not all but many of the latest books have very simplistic explanations and appeal to prejudices engendered by the current right wing atmosphere both in history and politics. Too many writers have been blinded by the boom in the stock market and have been taken in by the mantra that the collapse of the USSR meant the end of history and more importantly an end to critical thought. The current unsightly ‘scandal’ over Orlando Figes is an example of the current atmosphere in Soviet historiography.

Before I go any further one point must be tackled. A number of historians both on the left and right of the historical spectrum describe Hill and Manning as belonging to the Marxist wing of 17th century English Civil War historiography. The word Marxist is banded around to fit anyone who upheld even the slightest belief in socio-economic determinism.

I do not know Professor Thompson well enough to vouch for his historical reading habits for all I know he has read Marx extensively but his loose use of the term Marxism is just careless but from the little I have been able to glean from him I bet he has a hostility to the Marxist premise of a dialectical relationship between politics and economics as Nick Beams said in a recent “One of the most frequently employed caricatures of Marxism is the claim that it argues that ideology is just a cover for the real economic motivations of social actors.

Accordingly, Marxism is “disproved” by the discovery that individuals act, not according to economic motives but on the basis of powerful ideologies. For example, the right-wing British historian Niall Ferguson maintains that since no business interests on either side of the conflict desired World War I—it served the immediate economic interests of neither—its origins cannot be said to lie within the capitalist economic system. It should be noted, in this regard, that no business or financial interests want recession either. But recessions nevertheless occur, and they arise from the contradictions of the capitalist economy. Marxism does not deny that historical actors are motivated and driven into action by their ideological conceptions, and it does not claim that these ideologies are simply a rationalisation for the real economic motivations. However, it does insist that it is necessary to examine the motives behind the motives—the real, underlying, driving forces of the historical process—and to make clear the social interests served by a given ideology—a relationship that may or may not be consciously grasped by the individual involved” . In that spirit I will examine C. Hill’s work.

Hill is the most identifiable historian with the label Marxist because of his membership of the Communist Party. Without going into detail of the history of the British CP this was a Stalinist party that abandoned any link with orthodox Marxism in the late 1920s. So in strictly political terms Hill was closer to Stalinism than Marxism. This is not to belittle Hills work as a historian. While handicapped by his association with the CP he was one of the finest historians of his generation. Whose work despite the protestations of Professor Thompson has and will still attract deep interest from lay people and students who are looking for answers to our current political malaise in the history of the 17th century, or are just interested in this fascinating period of English history.

As Ann Talbot said in her extraordinary obituary of Christopher Hill when she was describing the group of historians that were part of the Marxist Historians Group “There is something Jesuitical about the relationship of these historians to Marxism. They seem to have been capable of partitioning their minds and pursuing a scientific Marxist approach to history up to the point where the Stalinist bureaucracy drew the line, like the Jesuit scientists who would pursue their investigations as far as the Church authorities permitted, but no further. It was an approach that was further encouraged by the extreme specialisation of academic life that enabled them to concentrate on very narrow areas of history that never brought them into direct collision with the bureaucracy on political questions”.

In Professor Thompson’s blog post he makes the point that younger historians have reacted against Hill and were preparing their own analysis. In earlier correspondence Thompson said “Most academic historians, of whom I am one, do not accept or endorse a 'class explanation' of the struggles of the 1640s in England or the British Isles. This is why figures like Christopher Hill (my old doctoral supervisor), Brian Manning, etc., are rarely cited in the literature nowadays”.

To put this more succinctly again quoting Talbot “What fundamentally separates Hill from his detractors is not that they have turned to new sources, but that they have rejected his conclusion that a bourgeois revolution took place in the mid-seventeenth century. The prevailing academic orthodoxy is that there was no bourgeois revolution because there was no rising bourgeoisie and that people from all social classes can be found on either side of the struggle. Even Cromwell, it is argued, can better be understood as a representative of the declining gentry rather than the rising bourgeois. He and those around him aimed not at revolution, but wished merely to restore what they believed to be the ancient constitution of the kingdom. The whole unpleasant episode could have been avoided if only Charles II had been a little wiser”.
Hill’s analysis of the Civil War has still a contemporary ring to it. Although I am biased he was historian that stood “head and shoulders above his detractors and his books deserve to be read and reread”. Like all good books they should be read with a critical eye as Talbot said “his great historical insights and innovations are the product of his time.

It must be said that that the century in which Hill studied in are with certain provisos not dis-similar to our own. As Martin Kettle said in his obituary “Hill was an undergraduate during the period of the great depression, the hunger marches, the New Deal, Hitler's rise (he visited the Weimar Republic before going up to Oxford), and the first (favourable) impact of Stalin in the west. He was a regular attendee at GDH Cole's Thursday Lunch Club, where, as he once put it, "I was forced to ask questions about my own society which had previously not occurred to me."

Kettle also quite perceptively explains one of Hill‘s great traits as a historian was his ability think outside the box, capable of abstract thought and to quote Kettle “Hill's explorations were in no way bound by traditional or preconceived theories. The single, most striking and controversial aspect of his method was the way in which he subtly identified intellectual connections, currents and continuities between the most unlikely pieces of evidence - from scraps of court records to Paradise Lost and Pilgrim's Progress. His use of literary sources was one of his most fascinating characteristics”. In certain historical quarters the use of literary sources are frowned upon. Certainly when I did my degree essays were downgraded because of it.

According to one writer “Hill had plenty of friends in academia, of course, though he did not create a school of history. He preferred to encourage students to think for themselves, and those he had inspired with a zeal for 17th-century studies ranged over almost every aspect and attitude. But they agreed in rejecting pomposity, orthodoxy and pedantry. They had learnt that in history the poorest mattered collectively as much as the greatest, and that power, wealth and even genius must be judged by their effect on the many”.


1. Soviet Interpretations of the English Interregnum C Hill 1938 Economic History Society Vol 8 No2

2. Property and Power: On James Harrington’s 400th Birthday. Thehistorywomansblog.

3. Ann Talbot "These the times ... this the man": an appraisal of historian Christopher HillBy Ann Talbot

25 March 2003

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