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 2015-www.wsws.org/en/articles/2015/08/21/reco-a21.html
[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
[4] en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomason_Collection_of_Civil_War_Tract
[5] www.lrb.co.uk/v06/n18/conrad-russell/losers
[6] Heaven Taken by Storm: Christopher Hill, Andrew Marvell and the Dissenting Tradition The first annual Christopher Hill Memorial Lecture https://www.versobooks.com/blogs/4311-heaven-taken-by-storm-christopher-hill-andrew-marvell-and-the-dissenting-tradition