Saturday, 5 November 2011

A Bourgeois Revolution by Christopher Hill


This essay was first published in Three British Revolutions, 1641, 1688, 1776 Ed J A Pocock (Princeton U.P 1980) and contains within it a change in Hill’s 1940s position on the English bourgeois revolution. Some historians both hostile and friendly to Hill have seen this essay as Hill repudiating his previous estimation of the bourgeois revolution. I do not agree with this supposition. In fact, the older Hill got, the more he understood the complex problem associated with an explanation of the transformation of Britain from a feudal society into a capitalist one.

Hill begins this essay with a defence of his method and integrity. Throughout his career Hill was accused of being dogmatic, a “Rolodex” historian and only using sources that fitted in with his Marxist assumptions.  My own understanding of Hill is that while he was a Marxist, he was none of the above. He was an excellent historian, and like all historians, he was always revising his understanding of the English revolution.  This attitude is best summed up by this quote from Hill

“The historian should not stay on the surface of events; his or her interest should not be limited to State Papers, Acts and Ordinances, decisions of judges and local magistrates... He or she should listen--carefully and critically--to ballads, plays, pamphlets, newspapers, tracts...to every source that can help him or her to get the feel of how people lived and in what ways their sensitivity differed from ours... The historian must listen to alchemists and astrologers no less than to bishops, to demands of London crowds; and he or she must try to understand the motivation of rioters, whether they are labelled anti-Catholic or anti-enclosure rioters or simply food rioters”. The English Bible and the Seventeenth-Century Revolution (London, 1993), pp436-437.

The central theme of this essay as the title suggests is, was there was there a bourgeois revolution? Hill in this article observed that it was tough to offer a precise definition of bourgeois revolution. 'The Marxist conception of a bourgeois revolution, which I find the most helpful model for understanding the English Revolution,' he wrote, 'does not mean a revolution made by the bourgeoisie'. There was no self-conscious bourgeoisie which planned and willed the revolution. But the English Revolution was a bourgeois revolution because of its outcome, though glimpsed by few of its participants, 'was the establishment of conditions far more favourable to the development of capitalism than those which prevailed before 1640'. 'A Bourgeois Revolution?’ op cit, pp110, 111, 115, 134.

Hill’s original essay tackling the bourgeois revolution was written in 1940. The article stands on its own merit but you feel that Hill was not entirely satisfied with what he wrote and his intention was to revise it and take the subject matter further after all he did write it while he still serving in the army and as he said it was the work of “a very angry young man, believing he was going to be killed in a world war.”

The 1980 essay is a confirmation that in later life Hill never repudiated his previous position he attempted to reformulate certain thoughts. In 1967 he wrote Reformation to Industrial Revolution (1967), while still retaining the idea that it was a bourgeois revolution he sought to give the term a clearer approximation. He intimated that the revolution was not as clear cut as he had thought and neither was a chemically pure as had been written on. After the entire bourgeoisie in its various forms did fight on both sides. But he is clear on the fact that the revolution made a path for further and rapid capitalist expansion.

With a few reservations, I think Hill is correct when he says that the 1640 “bourgeois revolution” was not “consciously willed by the bourgeoisie”. This is not to say that the revolution did not have its thinkers or that philosophy played no part in the revolution. At the heart of Hill’s position is that he believed that the actions of the leading figures of the revolution were to some great extent empirical.

Having said that” he was sensitive enough to his historical sources to detect the social currents that brought people of diverse social backgrounds into struggle against the king and well-grounded enough in history to identify new and revolutionary ideas in the curious and archaic guise in which they appeared—as the ideologists of the revolution ransacked the Bible and half understood historical precedent for some kind of theory to explain what they were doing”. "These the times ... this the man": an appraisal of historian Christopher Hill by Ann Talbot 25 March 2003

Hill’s work was clearly ground breaking he defined the mid-seventeenth century crisis as a revolution. His definition of the revolution that the rule of one class was replaced by the rule of another still stands the test of time despite a ferocious attack by the revisionists.

As Ann Talbot said “Most of all, he was sufficiently astute to realise that when the people execute their king after a solemn trial and much deliberation, it is not the result of a misunderstanding but has a profound revolutionary significance entailing a complete break with the feudal past. Although the monarchy was later restored and the triumphant bourgeoisie was soon eager to pretend that the whole thing had been a ghastly mistake, no monarch sat quickly on the throne after that event until quite late in Victoria’s reign”.

While Hill maintained that the bourgeoisie was barely conscious of its actions his writing imbues a recognition that revolutions are not solely made by a tiny elite. In the case of the 1640 revolution the mass of the population were involved and that a change in the consciousness of that mass of people did change. This change was in distorted form reflected in the writings of the Levellers

A considerable part of Hill’s essay concerned itself with the Land question. His emphasis examining economic changes which contributed to the English revolution are an anathema to most modern day historians. According to Hill in his 1940 essay

“The northern and western parts of England remained relatively untouched by the new commercial spirit radiating from London and the ports; but in the south and east many landowners were beginning to exploit their estates in a new way. Both in the Middle Ages and in the seventeenth century the first importance of an estate was that it supplied a land owner (through his control over the labour of others) with the means of livelihood. But over and above this, the large estates had in the Middle Ages maintained with their surplus agricultural produce a body of retainers who would on occasion act as soldiers, and so were the basis of the political power of the feudal lords. Now, with the development of the capitalist mode of production within the structure of feudalism, many landowners began either to market that portion of the produce of their estates which was not consumed by their families, or to lease their lands to a farmer who would produce for the market. So landowners came to regard their estates in a new light: as a source of money profit, of profits that were elastic and could be increased. Rents used to be fixed at levels maintained so long that they came to be regarded as “customary,” as having existed “from time immemorial”; so did the many extortionate legal charges which feudal landowners extracted from the peasantry; but now they were being “racked up” to fantastically high levels. This was in itself a moral as well as an economic revolution, a break with all that men had held right and proper, and had the most disturbing effects on ways of thought and belief.”

Hill paid considerable attention to the radicals of the English revolution of groups such as the Levellers and Diggers, and he was correct when he said that while these were the most conscious revolutionaries, they were second in importance to Oliver Cromwell as a revolutionary force. Again in this essay Hill would have appeared to have revised his previous position on the Levellers.

Hill justified this revision by saying that “Some will think that I overemphasise the importance of the defeated radicals at the expense of the mainstream achievements of the English revolution. Yet without the pressure of the Radicals, the civil war might not have transformed into a revolution: some compromise could have been botched up between the gentry on the two sides- a “Prussian path”. Regicide and Republic were no part of the intensions of the original leaders of the Long Parliament: they were forced on the men of 1649 by the logic of the revolution which they were trying to control.”

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