Wednesday, 22 February 2012

On John Miller’s 1991 Interview with Historian Christopher Hill

I had intended just to post John Miller’s 1991 interview with Christopher Hill without comment. However, having listened to the Interview and read the following remarks by Chris Thompson on his blog I have decided to write something.

The first thing that strikes you about the Hill interview is his tremendous erudition and almost encyclopaedic knowledge of the English revolution. Miller was not a hostile interviewer, but he does bombard Hill with a series of critical and not so famous questions.

One of Miller’s first issues and probably his most insightful was why did Hill study the English revolution? Hill’s answer I must admit was a little reticent and defensive. I am sure the poet T S Elliot did play a significant role, but I feel Hill was disingenuous. Hill began his career in a tough time for someone deciding to be a historian let alone a Marxist one at that. The late 1930s saw the Great Depression, the Moscow Purges in the Soviet Union that saw the mass murder of millions of Communists including the state murder of the entire central committee that had led the Bolshevik revolution. The rise and fall of Italian and German Fascism. While it would have been hard for even the most politically astute person to orientate themselves at this time (Hill was, after all, no great shakes as a political theorist). It is then to Hill’s credit that he managed to produce such quality and quantity of historical writings on his chosen subject.

Hill’s answers to the questions are informative and incisive. They also indicate that Hill had not to any substantial extent revised his previous convictions on the English Civil War. He still believed that it was a bourgeois revolution. In fact, the older Hill got, the more accurate and precise became his analysis.

The interview begins with Miller attempting some counterfactual questions. Hill quite correctly avoids getting involved in the trap of “what if” school of history. Having said that Hill does not ignore the questions and answers them in his own inimitable style.

It is true that Hill in response to Miller’s probing as to whether a different outcome could have appeared had Charles 1 done things differently he did offer the possibility that a settlement between Parliament and the King which would have given England a constituent monarchy, would have seen parliament have more say over legalisation, a degree of freedom of the press and toleration of religious groups.

Hill was enough of a Marxist not to rule out the role an individual plays in the historical process. It is clear that the actions of Charles 1 played an integral part in the “long march" towards civil war. His vanity, stubbornness and sheer stupidity played their part, but he was part of a much deeper movement of historical forces.  As Hill said  “Marx himself did not fall into the error of thinking that men’s idea was merely a pale reflection of their economic needs, with no history of their own: but some of his successors, including many who would not call themselves Marxist, have been far more economic-determinist than Marx. It seems to me that anybody of thought which plays a major in history – Luther’s, Rousseau’s, Marx’s own takes on because it meets the needs of the significant group in the society in which it comes into prominence”.

It is true that the historical process that brought about the English revolution was not predetermined. Hill believed, and his answer to Miller’s question expressed his opinion that the revolution and its development could have proceeded in any number of given number of directions. But in the end, run the material political and economic changes expressed in the revolution would have come out sooner or later albeit in different forms. Also, the actions of any given character such as Charles 1 or for that matter an Oliver Cromwell represented in distorted constitute the struggle of classes, both characters pursued mutually different but in the end incompatible terms.

Hill expressed in his writings the fact that individuals, classes, even whole parties have socioeconomic interests and these are sometimes expressed through significant historical figures. But in the end “The breadth and nature of their activity are substantially defined by the laws of the capitalist mode of production”.

Some historians have criticised Hill for an overestimation of the political influence of radical groups such as the Levellers or Diggers. It is true that Hill paid substantial attention to the radicals of the English revolution represented by 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. At the time of the 1991 interview, Penguin had just re-published Hill’s The World Turned Upside Down. Hill’s work on the Levellers stands the test of time. I do not believe he overestimates their importance, and he correctly states that in the historical scheme of things the most important revolutionary was not John Lilburne but was in fact, Oliver Cromwell.

Hill justified this by saying that “Some will think that I overemphasize 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 intentions 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.”

As for the fact that Hill largely renounced his Marxist interpretation towards the end of his life, one writer recounted that “Hill gave a talk on radio marking the centenary of the publication of Marx’s “Das Kapital”. He ended it by recounting how Marx had accidentally come across some former comrades from the 1848 revolutions, many years later. They had become prosperous and one, reflecting on old times, indicated how he felt that he was becoming less radical as he aged. “Do you?” said Marx, “Well I do not.”