Wednesday, 25 January 2023

C Thompson's Reply to Michael Sturza

First of all, let me make it clear that I am not now and never have been a "revisionist". I am actually a critic of the work of Conrad Russell, work which I believe to be fundamentally wrong although not for the reasons Mr Sturza holds. Secondly, he will find in Valerie Pearl's 1961 book on the City of London from 1625 to 1643 careful research that shows that the violence in the streets of London reported in Royalist news books was more carefully controlled and organised than figures like Brian Manning or Christopher Hill believed.

(The fall of the Bastille in Paris is irrelevant in this context.) I have indeed read Mr Sturza's book which offers a commentary based on secondary works rather than original research into the sources for the early-1640s.   The protagonists on both sides in the events of the 1640s were drawn from all sections of English (and Welsh) society but this was not a "class-based" society in the Marxist sense at all. 

The English Civil Wars were 'un grand soulevement' - 'a great uprising' in English - more analogous to the revolt of the Low Countries post-1566/7, to the French Wars of Religion from 1562 to 1598 and the Frondes of 1648-1653 and the Revolt of the Catalans in 1640 rather than to any Marxist paradigm based on the Russian Revolution of 1917. Mr Sturza is perfectly entitled to elaborate his hypothesis but it has almost no credibility amongst contemporary academic historians. He may be surprised too to learn that I am not a reactionary in any sense.

Tuesday, 24 January 2023

Correspondence on Michael Sturza's The London Revolution 1640-1643: Class Struggles in 17th Century England

(As this critique of my review of Michael Sturza’s The London Revolution 1640-1643: Class Struggles in 17th Century England[1] is in the public domain I will publish it here and will reply to Sturza’s article which first appeared on Academia.EU at a later date.)

Christopher Thompson uses Livesey's favourable but somewhat misleading review of my book to launch an anti-Marxist diatribe rejecting the idea that social class analysis could possibly be credible. His flat denial of Revisionism's compatibility with Thatcherism, "This contention is completely untenable," is spoken like a true Revisionist and illustrates why he and I are mostly talking past each other.

It is not clear that Thompson has read my book. He simply repeats tired claims that various bourgeois historians have "proved" the case against Christopher Hill and Marxism. Thompson is right on one point at least: Hill did try to answer his Revisionist critics. It is Livesey who falsely ascribed to me the claim that he didn't. But Hill was unable to effectively defend the Marxist viewpoint due to the flaw in his analysis. This left him vulnerable to attacks by Revisionists, who took prodigious advantage of Hill's weakness to deny any revolution that ever took place in England.

The actual history of the period proves otherwise, despite Thompson's offhand dismissal that "mob activities and riots were much less important than figures like Hill or Manning, or Sturza supposed." One might ask whether the the fall of the Bastille, and the further role of the Sansculottes in the French Revolution, were also of such little import. After all, Paris was not all of France. Such attempts by bourgeois conservatives and Revisionists to deprecate mass action of the oppressed, and write social revolution out of history, are the signpost of their reactionary bias. Thompson is not the first to assert that because Christopher Hill made errors, Marxist class analysis is thereby invalidated. Readers of my book can decide for themselves.

[1]See my review at 

Friday, 20 January 2023

Remembering Christopher Hill

I first came across Christopher Hill in the Hilary Term (January to March) of 1963 when I attended lectures he gave in the dining hall of Balliol College, Oxford. These were based on the material he later published in 1964 in his book, Society and Puritanism in Pre-Revolutionary England. I was very surprised by his delivery of these lectures given in a rather flat, even-paced voice punctuated by copious quotations from printed sources and accompanied by an interpretation of this period in a form of soft determinism. Rather disconcertingly, every two or three sentences he would sniff as if to punctuate his remarks.

It was more of a surprise to me in October, 1965 when he was assigned as my supervisor by the History Faculty Board for my prospective work on the 2nd Earl of Warwick. At our first meeting, he enquired after my social background and about my watch, which was one of the very first to provide the date as well as the time, and what it had cost. I was then sent off to the upper reading room of the old Bodleian Library to begin working through the Reports of the Historical Manuscripts Commission and the State Papers Domestic which were on the open shelves. But that was really all the advice he offered on where to find he sources for my research. Unfortunately, he was not acquainted with the manuscript sources available in the Bodleian, in the Public Record Office then in Chancery Lane, London or in the Manuscript Department of the British Museum: he had heard of county record offices but had not, to the best of my knowledge, ever visited one. In a supervisor of a thesis on early to middle seventeenth century history, this was a serious handicap. The old saying that undergraduates were taught while postgraduates taught themselves was never more true than in my case.

I usually saw Christopher Hill in his office in Balliol once a term. He sat in a chair that hung by a chain from the ceiling and gently swung from side to side as he listened to what I had to report. But he remained resolutely silent even when I had nothing more to say. I found this silence rather alarming and only learnt later that it was apparently an old Oxford teaching technique aimed at encouraging pupils to be more forthcoming about their findings. Unfortunately, Christopher Hill knew very little indeed about the Stuart peerage and landowners and, unlike Hugh Trevor-Roper, the Regius Professor of Modern History, had few positive suggestions to offer about the direction of my research or the contents of my draft chapters. From that point of view, it was an unproductive process. Once a week in term time, on Monday evenings to the best of my recollection, postgraduates assembled in his room together with female undergraduates from St Hilda’s College invited by his wife, Bridget, met to consume a barrel of beer the Hills provided. I went to a couple of these but was so deafened by the noise that I stopped going.

The last time I saw Christopher and Bridget Hill was at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California in January, 1997 when I had the good fortune to hold a fellowship there. We were all refugees from bitterly cold weather in England. He was characteristically robust in denouncing the Prime Minister John Major’s government as “bloody awful”. There was little doubt either in my conversations with both of them that he had been wounded by the attacks of Mark Kishlansky and, much earlier, by Jack Hexter on his methods and findings. Bridget Hill confided to me that she was worried about his health since he had recently completed a new introduction to the Calendar of State Papers Venetian which she thought had taken a lot out of him. (On her own health problems of which I later learnt she said nothing.) By then, of course, he was in his mid-eighties and was treated with considerable deference by other scholars then at the Huntington Library. After that, apart from one or two letters I sent to their home in Sibford Ferris in Oxfordshire, our contacts ceased.


Chris Thompson 

Monday, 9 January 2023

On Nineteen Eighty-Four: A Biography (Books about Books) Hardcover – by D.J. Taylor- Abrams Press; 1st edition (October 31 2019)


"the day I joined the militia…he was probably a Trotskyist or an anarchist, and in the peculiar conditions of our time, when people of that sort are not killed by the Gestapo, they are usually killed by the GPU".

George Orwell

"All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others."― George Orwell, Animal Farm

"Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past." ― George Orwell, 1984

"If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever." ― George Orwell, 1984

D J Taylor's book is a useful but somewhat politically limited biography of George Orwell's novel Nineteen Eighty-Four.  Orwell's book and his previous masterpiece Animal Farm are correctly seen as "key texts necessary for an understanding of the twenty-first century." Taylor concentrates mainly on the making of the novel, trying to find out how and why Orwell wrote it.

Orwell took five years to write his last book and was already very ill during its gestation period. Written in seclusion on the windswept Isle of Jura, off Scotland's coast, he died less than a year after it was published in 1949. Taylor writes, "By writing about the terrors that obsessed him, he had got them out of his system. 1984 is a devastating analysis of the corruption of language and dystopian horror world…and more."

Taylor believes that Orwell's idea for 1984 came from his study of The 1943 Allied leaders' Tehran Conference, which according to Taylor, gave "his consciousness a decisive kick." Maybe it did, or perhaps it did not. But Taylor misses the point. Orwell's 1984 attempts to come to terms with Stalinism's betrayal of the Russian and Spanish revolutions. To give his book clarity and accuracy, Orwell carried out extensive research. One important influence was Yevgeny Zamyatin's We.[1] Orwell did not live to see how important the book would become. It sold over 40 million copies and is as contemporary today as when it was written.

Orwell died in January 1950. One consequence of his early death was that he could not defend his work or prevent it from being used by right-wing ideologues in Europe and the United States for their ideological crusade. As was said in the opening of this review, Taylor's biography of 1984 is useful but limited. The same can be said about his biography of Orwell despite winning the Whitbread Book Award in 2003.

Missing from both books is an accurate political evaluation of George Orwell himself. Orwell was part of a generation of workers and intellectuals who moved sharply to the left in the 1930s in response to the Depression, the rise of Nazism in Germany and the growing struggles of the working class. While Orwell looked to the Soviet Union for leadership, very early on, Orwell saw that the Stalin regime had nothing to do with Socialism and was betraying the ideals of the 1917 Revolution.

From the late 1930s onwards, he described himself as a Democratic Socialist, but he was mostly a centrist politically wavering between reform and revolution. He detested inequality and, on numerous occasions, favoured the revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist system. This sentiment was expressed in his book 1984, and Orwell's main character Winston had a broadly sympathetic and hopeful attitude towards the working class or, as he says, the "proles."

In the book, he believed the "proles were the only hope for the future. If there was hope, it MUST lie in the proles, because only there, in those swarming disregarded masses, eighty-five per cent of the population of Oceania, could the force to destroy the Party ever be generated." If only they could somehow become conscious of their strength needed only to rise up and shake themselves like a horse shaking off flies. If they chose, they could blow the Party to pieces tomorrow morning. The proles had stayed human. They had not become hardened. They had a "vitality which the Party did not share and could not kill…the future belonged to the proles."[2]

Orwell was never a Marxist but was influenced by Marxist writers such as Leon Trotsky. I have not been able to ascertain if Orwell read Trotsky's Revolution Betrayed, but he certainly knew what was in it. But as Fred Mazelis writes, "Orwell was always ambivalent about the genuine legacy of the October Revolution which Trotsky represented. His identification with the working class was based more on emotion and sentiment than scientific conviction. He associated with centrists like the Independent Labour Party in Britain and the POUM in Spain. The ILP called for "left unity," adapting to the Stalinists and criticizing Trotsky's merciless critique of Stalinism as "sectarian." In Spain, the POUM played a similar role, giving crucial support to the Popular Front government, which turned around and suppressed it. At the same time, the Stalinists assassinated the POUM leaders because they could not tolerate any independent left-wing working-class movement."

Orwell's Animal Farm was his second attempt at reckoning with Stalinism, his first being the book Homage to Catalonia. At 120 pages, the book Animal farm can be read on many levels. As John Newsinger points out, "The politics of the book were pretty straightforward: a capitalist farmer had been quite properly overthrown by the worker animals, and an egalitarian socialist system had been introduced on the farm. The pigs had then betrayed the revolution with the revolutionary Snowball (Trotsky) driven out and the dictator Napoleon (Stalin) establishing a murderous police state".[3]

Right-wing ideologues have attempted to portray the book as anti-revolutionary. Orwell refutes this slander saying, "I meant the moral to be that revolutions only effect a radical improvement when the masses are alert and know how to chuck out their leaders as soon as the latter have done their job. The turning point of the story was supposed to be when the pigs kept the milk and apples for themselves (Kronstadt). If the other animals had had the sense to put their foot down, then it would have been all right…What I was trying to say was, "You can't have a revolution unless you make it for yourself; there is no such thing as a benevolent dictatorship."[4]

Several short-sighted and stupid ideologues, both left and right, saw that the novel's police state had an uncanny resemblance to Stalin's USSR and accused Orwell of being an anti-communist but as Richard Mynick points out, "Orwell was too clear-sighted to conflate Stalinism with socialism (writing, for example, "My recent novel ['1984'] is NOT intended as an attack on Socialism…but as a show-up of the perversions...which have already been partly realized in Communism and Fascism."[5]

Despite having serious political differences with Leon Trotsky, there is no doubt that Orwell respected and was heavily influenced by the writings of Trotsky. As Jeffrey Meyers writes in his not-too-friendly essay on Trotsky and Orwell, "In May 1946 Orwell tried to persuade his publisher Fredric Warburg to publish the English edition of Trotsky's Life of Stalin (1941): "I have read a good deal of it, mostly the bits dealing with Stalin's childhood, with the civil war and with the alleged murder of Lenin" by Stalin. The earlier parts were "particularly interesting because they demonstrate the difficulty of establishing any fact about a public figure who has been a subject for propaganda. It might be worth trying to get a little more information about the circumstances of Trotsky's assassination, which may have been partly decided on because of the knowledge that he was writing this very book."[6]

To conclude, the discussion about Stalinism and the betrayal of revolutions has little interest for Taylor, which is certainly reflected in this book. His main concern is literature and culture. As Newsinger correctly points out, "Taylor's achievement in his volume is to construct an Orwell who is acceptable to the literary establishment, someone non-threatening, irredeemably one of them. As far as he is concerned, two of the major influences on Nineteen Eighty-Four were Orwell's rat phobia and the totalitarian horrors he had experienced at his prep school St Cyprian's!".[7]

It is not in the realms of possibility in this review to give justice to what was Orwell's legacy. His most important work concerned the question of what Stalinism was and how to fight it. His most important books satirized the Stalinist political regime and warned of the dangers of totalitarianism. If you ignore the rubbish about him being a reactionary defender of the status quo or even an anti-communist, a systematic study of his most important works reveals a far more nuanced and complex individual. He was very much a product of his time. An old Russian proverb[8] once said, "It sometimes happens to eagles that they descend lower than chickens, but chickens never succeed In mounting as high as eagles". George Orwell remains an eagle.



[2] 1984, George Orwell


[4] Letter to Dwight Macdonald,George Orwell

[5] A comment: Revisiting George Orwell’



[8]In criticizing Rosa Luxemburg Lenin once quoted two simple lines from a Russian proverb: “It sometimes happens to eagles that they descend lower than chickens but chickens never succeed In mounting as high as eagles”, and he added, “she was and remains an eagle”.

Sunday, 18 December 2022

Book Review-Red List: MI5 and British Intellectuals in the Twentieth Century-David Caute Verso, pp. 352, £20

David Caute's new book is a well-written and deeply researched account of the widespread British Secret Service's covert surveillance of British writers and intellectuals in the last century. Caute's work on official documents held at the National Archives shows the massive surveillance of anybody deemed a threat to National security. MI5 opened Letters, tapped phones, private homes were bugged, and hundreds of people were under constant surveillance by Special Branch agents.

Those watched included journalists, academics, scientists, filmmakers, writers, actors, musicians and, in some cases, the ordinary public. Caute lists more than 200 victims, but the figures will be much higher as more files are released to the National Archives.

MI5 spied on such prominent figures as Arthur Ransome, Paul Robeson, J.B. Priestley, Kingsley Amis, George Orwell, Doris Lessing, Christopher Isherwood, Stephen Spender, Dorothy Hodgkin, Jacob Bronowski, John Berger, Benjamin Britten, Christopher Hill, Eric Hobsbawm, Kingsley Martin, Michael Redgrave, Joan Littlewood, Joseph Losey, Michael Foot and Harriet Harman.

So wide-ranging was the surveillance that even Winston Churchill's cousin Clare Sheridan who was sympathetic to the Russian revolution, was investigated. According to writer Alan Judd, she was never a Communist, but "she got herself to Russia, lived in the Kremlin and sculpted busts of Soviet leaders, including Trotsky, Zinoviev, Dzerzhinsky and Lenin himself. She subsequently had a relationship with the pro-communist Charlie Chaplin and survived attempted rape by Mussolini. She travelled the world broadcasting anti-British views and was monitored by MI5 until they concluded that she was neither a spy nor a security threat but merely 'extraordinarily indiscreet' and had a passion for international mischief-making'. She was later reconciled with her cousin, spent time at Chartwell during the second world war and converted to Catholicism."[1]

MI5 was set up in 1909 and was tasked to look into "activities designed to undermine or overthrow parliamentary democracy by political, violent or industrial means". MI5 came into its own during the first world war. Its use of the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA) against perceived revolutionaries, pacifists, democratic socialists, and anti-war activists. Members of the Independent Labour Party, such as Fenner Brockwaycame in for special scrutiny.

MI5's task became especially acute when in 1917, the Bolshevik revolution occurred, which threatened to escalate into a worldwide revolution. The spectre of the socialist revolution haunts the secret service even today.

As Caute shows in his book, most people investigated and labelled subversive were no such thing. One such figure mentioned by Caute is the writer Arthur Ransome who, although was sympathetic to the Russian revolution and interviewed both Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky, was never a revolutionary as this quote from his book Six Weeks in Russia shows, "I should have liked to explain what was the appeal of the revolution to men like Colonel Robins and myself, both of us men far removed in origin and upbringing from the revolutionary and socialist movements in our own countries. Of course, no one who was able, as we were able, to watch the men of the revolution at close quarters could believe for a moment that they were the merely paid agents of the very power which, more than all the others, represented the stronghold they had set out to destroy. We knew the injustice being done to these men to urge us in their defence. But there was more to it than that. There was a feeling, from which we could never escape, of the creative effort of the revolution."[2]

In the post-war period, Caute's book shows that the CPGB (Communist Party of Great Britain) took up a large part of MI5's spying activity. All its leading cadre and large numbers of the CPHG (Communist Party Historians Group) were under constant surveillance. Caute believes the CPGB was not revolutionary and harboured no plans to overthrow capitalism.

According to the Trotskyists of the Socialist Labour League, who opposed Stalinism from the left, they were "a group of embittered doctrinaires without roots or perspectives or the ability to learn from their mistakes; a coterie of well-meaning university Dons and writers who have something to say on every subject except the class struggle taking place under their noses; not a party paying lip-service to Marxism but dominated by whichever faction happens to be in control in Moscow.[3]

Caute's study of the Communist Party Historians Group highlights a historian's difficulty in using and writing about these documents. It is not just a question of saying how and why people were spied upon, but any study must place the spy's actions in the social and political context of the time. As Madeleine Davis writes:

"The release of MI5 files on Thompson and Hilton added to those of prominent party intellectuals already available, provides a fresh set of primary sources for and a renewed opportunity to consider these issues in their context, while the Thompson material has extra significance given the continued embargo on his papers.14 These files present problems as sources for historians interested in the human subjects of surveillance rather than its techniques and policy contexts. The secret, partial and incomplete nature of the material, retention or redaction of documents, and the difficulty in many cases of cross-checking against other sources limits their usefulness.

Although some triangulation is possible against the CPGB's archive, awareness among prominent communists of extensive surveillance provoked counter-measures, including selective record keeping. It reinforced a culture of secrecy and mistrust. Thus while the volume of MI5 personal files now available has started to generate a significant literature drawing on both sets of primary sources, 15 investigation of the motives of those involved in the 1956 crisis needs also to draw on a substantial specialist secondary literature. Especially relevant is work emerging from the 'biographical turn' in communist historiography and work that examines both the CPGB's cultural analysis and the party's internal culture to illuminate the complex and contradictory reality of Zhdanovism's implementation and contestation in the British party."[4]

In the Chapter, The BBC Toes the Line Caute shows that MI5's vetting of BBC staff was well-known, but the spy agency's surveillance of independent television was not so much. In 1969, MI5 agents were particularly interested in Granada TV's World In Action. Although not a Trotskyist, one of the high-profile journalists, John Pilger, had a large dossier on him. MI5 concluded that there was "no evidence of a conspiracy" at the programme and reported that any interest from the Communist Party of Great Britain had "diminished." As one file claims. "Communists are less influential than Trotskyists, who, however, are too disunited to be able to execute a joint plan."

Caute's view of Trotskyism neatly dovetails that of MI5. Although a significant amount of time was spent by MI5 infiltrating many Psuedo left groups claiming to be Trotskyists, Caute, like MI5, thought the Trotskyist movement to be disunited. Perhaps this explains Caute's ideologically light-minded attitude towards state penetration of the Trotskyist movement and certainly accounts for its lack of coverage in his book.

In March 2000, an article appeared on the WSWS.ORG called Was there a high-level MI5 agent in the British Workers Revolutionary Party?. Caute does not mention anything about this grave matter. As the article's author David North explains: "A former agent for the British Security Service (known as MI5) has alleged in a sworn statement that the agency received reports from a high-level spy inside the Workers Revolutionary Party during the late 1960s. The ex-agent, David Shayler, is currently living in exile in France, where he has fled to escape prosecution for his exposure of state secrets. In his February 18 affidavit, Shayler asserts that the spy provided MI5 with reports of financial support given by John Lennon to the WRP. Shayler recounts that he was shown portions of an MI5 file relating to the agency's surveillance of Lennon, whose socialist and anti-imperialist sentiments angered the British ruling class. The affidavit states that the material "concerned Lennon's support for the Workers Revolutionary Party (WRP), a Trotskyist organisation. According to the file, a source in the WRP had reported that Lennon gave tens of thousands of pounds sterling to the WRP in the late 1960s and also provided some funds to the Irish Republican Army at around the same time."[5]

If David Caute has any information, he must publicise it. As North points out, all those committed to democratic rights in Britain and internationally must call for the identification of the MI5 agent inside the SLL/WRP. This is important not only to expose the individual (or individuals) involved but to educate a new generation of socialists about the dangers posed by state infiltration and provocation.




[2] Six Weeks in Russia in 1919 Paperback – 10 Sept. 2010

[3] Cited in Gerry Healy and His Place in the History of the Fourth International, David North (1991), Labor Publications, p. 30.

[4] Edward Thompson, MI5 and the Reasoner controversy: negotiating“Communist principle” in the crisis of 1956

[5] Was there a high-level MI5 agent in the British Workers Revolutionary Party?.

Sunday, 11 December 2022

Thomas Rainborowe – Dangerous Radical by Stanley Slaughter-CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform (19 May 2015)

 "I desire that those that had engaged in it should speak, for really I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live as the greatest he; and therefore truly. Sir, I think it's clear that every man that is to live under a Government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that Government; and I do think that the poorest man in England is not at all bound in a strict sense to that Government that he hath not had a voice to put himself under; and I am confident that when I have heard the reasons against it, something will be said to answer those reasons, in so much that I should doubt whether he was an Englishman or no that should doubt of these things."

Thomas Rainborowe

Stanley Slaughter's book Thomas Rainborowe -Dangerous Radical is one of the many forgotten books which litter the study of the English bourgeois revolution. Which is a shame because it is not a bad book. Unlike many historians, I do not believe its subject matter Thomas Rainsborough is a forgotten hero of the 17th century English revolution.

It must be said that Slaughter's job was not made easy by the scarcity of archival sources. NothingRainsborowe wrote has survived, and if it were not for his intervention in the discussion at Putney 1647, which elevated him to one of the foremost radical voices of the English revolution, he would have remained just another excellent military figure.

The English revolution produced many fine and brave individuals. Thomas Rainsborough was one of the best. He was an extraordinarily gifted soldier, and his expertise was as a siege master. Like many of his generation, he showed reckless courage in battle. Only Oliver Cromwell stood above him in military skill.

But as Slaughter's well-written and interesting biography states, he was best known for his radical politics. His radical politics were the main reason the Royalists assassinated him with the collaboration of presbyterian parliamentarians. As Ian Gentles writes : "Rainborowe continued to be a thorn in the side of the military grandees. In October and November he played a leading part in the army general council's debates at Putney on the Leveller Agreement of the People. He poured scorn on Cromwell and others who said of the projected constitution, 'Itt's a huge alteration, itt's a bringing in of New Lawes', commenting, 'if writinges bee true there hath bin many scufflinges betweene the honest men of England and those that have tyranniz'd over them' (Clarke Papers, 1.246). When the grandees sought to prolong the discussion of the army's engagements, Rainborowe insisted that they move on to address the Agreement of the People. When Ireton attacked the principle of universal manhood suffrage, Rainborowe took up the challenge in words that still ring in our ears after more than three-and-a-half centuries."[1]

The exact circumstances of his murder are still a bit murky, and many wild conspiracy theories still abound, such as Oliver Cromwell organising the murder. What is known is that the perpetrators of this murder were given free rein to carry out their deadly deed. Slaughter draws attention to the relative ease the royalist assassins were able to assassinate a leading player in the English revolution and escape unscathed without as much as a scratch back to Pontefract, passing through the lines of the parliamentary forces who were more hostile to the radical Ransborowe than they were to the Royalist they were supposed to be fighting.

It is perhaps an understatement to say that Rainsborowe was a controversial figure hated by Royalists and Presbyterians. It was his misfortune to serve in a parliamentary Navy that was, on the whole, Royalist in its political persuasion.

Not only were they hostile to Ransborowe's appointment, they were still politically loyal to the king and were opposed to Parliament's treatment of Charles Ist. They sided with the Presbyterians in Parliament in calling for the disbandment of the New Model Army :

THE DECLARATION Of the Navie, being THE True Copie of a Letter from the Officers of the Navie, to the Commissioners: With their Resolutions upon turning out Colonell RAINSBROUGH from being their Commander.

28th.May, 1648.


THese are to certifie you that wee the Commanders, and Officers of the Ship Constant Reformation, with the rest of the Fleet, have secured the Ships for the service of King and Parliament, and have refused to be under the Command of Colonell Rainsbrough, by reason wee conceive him to be a man not wel-affected to the King, Parliament and Kingdome, and we doe hereby declare unto you, that we have unanimously joyned with the Kentish Gentlemen, in their just Petition to the Parliament, to this purpose following, videlicet.

First, that the Kings Majesty with all expedition be admitted in Safety and Honour, to treat with his two Houses of Parliament.

Secondly, that the army now under the Command of the Lord Fairfax, to be forthwith disbanded, their Arrears being paid them.

Thirdly, That the known Laws of the Kingdome may be Established and continued, whereby we ought to be Governed and Iudged.

Fourthly, That the Priviledges of Parliament and the Liberty of the Subjects may be preserved.

And to this purpose we have sent our loving Friend Captaine Penrose, with a Letter to the Earle of Warwick, and we are resolved to take in no Commander whatsoever, but such as shall agree and correspond with us in this Petition, and shall resolve to live and dye with us, in the behalfe of King and Parliament, which is the Positive Result of us.[2]

As Ian Gentles correctly points out, not only was Rainsborowe one of the "most vivid actors of the English revolution" he was also one of the most important. It bewilders me that so few biographies exist, the most recent being Adrian Tinniswood 2013 book.[3] It is hoped that this will change soon.


[1] Rainborowe [Rainborow], Thomas (d. 1648) Ian J. Gentles


[3] The Rainborowes Hardcover – 5 Sept. 2013- Jonathan Cape

Thursday, 1 December 2022

The New Model Army-Agent of Revolution-by Ian Gentles--Yale University Press-400 Pages-19 Apr 2022

"The natural condition of mankind is a state of war in which life is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short" because individuals are in a "war of all against all"

Thomas Hobbes

"I would rather have a plain russett-coated captain that knows what he fights for and loves what he knows than that which you call a gentleman and nothing else."

Oliver Cromwell

When history moves with the speed of a cart-this is itself rationality and itself regularity. When the popular masses themselves, with all their virgin primitiveness, their simple crude decisiveness, begin to make history, to bring to life directly and immediately "principles and theories", then the bourgeoisie feels fear. And cries out that "rationality is receding to the background".

Vladimir Lenin

Ian Gentles new book is the definitive account of how the New Model Army became an armed party and was the motor force of the English Bourgeois revolution. The book is meticulously researched and extremely well written.

The military history of the New Model Army is well known, but where Gentles book differs is that it is a political history of the rise and fall of the world-famous 17th-century army. As the book title suggests, it was truly an "agent of the Revolution". While one of the most formidable fighting forces ever put together, it was also one of the most radical apart from the army led by Leon Trotsky after the Russian Revolution. Formed in 1645, it played a crucial role in the aristocracy's overthrow and brought to power one of the finest representative of the English bourgeoise. 

Leon Trotsky said of the New Model Army "the parliamentary army has converted itself into an independent political force. It has concentrated in its ranks the Independents, the pious and resolute petty bourgeoisie, the craftsmen and farmers. This army powerfully interferes in social life, not merely as an armed force, but as a Praetorian Guard and as the political representative of a new class opposing the prosperous and rich bourgeoisie. Correspondingly the army creates a new state organ rising above the military command: a council of soldiers' and officers' deputies ("agitators"). A new period of double sovereignty has thus arrived: that of the Presbyterian Parliament and the Independents' army.

This leads to open conflicts. The bourgeoisie proves powerless to oppose with its own army the "model army" of Cromwell – that is, the armed plebeians. The conflict ends with a purgation of the Presbyterian Parliament by the sword of the Independents. There remains but the rump of a parliament; the dictatorship of Cromwell is established. The lower ranks of the army, under the leadership of the Levellers – the extreme left wing of the revolution – try to oppose the rule of the upper military levels, the patricians of the army, their own veritably plebeian regime. But this new two-power system does not succeed in developing: the Levellers, the lowest depths of the petty bourgeoisie, have not yet, nor can have, their historic path. Cromwell soon settles accounts with his enemies. A new political equilibrium, and still by no means a stable one, is established for a period of years.[1]

Gentles, a leading authority, examines every aspect of the New Model Army. It killed a King and carried out pioneering military tactics occupying London three times, creating a republic and keeping Cromwell in power as Lord Protector until his death. The book has been expanded to 1660, which means it covers the expedition to the West Indies in 1655 and the Restoration in 1660, which, paradoxically, the NMA made happen.

The army was a hotbed of radical and religious ideas and beliefs. Gentles is no stranger to this subject. His new book is touted as a fully revised version of his 1992 work, but in reality, it is a different book.

As Gentles explains in an interview: "The first edition has been condensed to about half its original length. It assimilates much new research, particularly on the Levellers and army politics (by David Scott, John Rees, Rachel Foxley, Philip Baker, Elliot Vernon, Jason Peacey and others), as well as important new work on the army's military history by James Scott Wheeler, Glenn Foard, Andrew Hopper, Malcolm Wanklyn, Ismini Pells and others). The new edition adds chapters on the Protectorate (1653-9) and the Restoration (1659-60). It adds substantial new material to the chapters on Ireland and Scotland, extensively using the recently published correspondence of Cromwell's son Henry to illustrate the army's increasing dissatisfaction with the Protectoral regime. For Scotland, it illuminates the role of Robert Lilburne and George Monck in bringing that nation to heel, using a previously undeciphered manuscript to add vividness to the narrative of Glencairn's uprising in 1654. It also provides an in-depth, shocking account of the New Model's disastrous expedition against the Spanish Caribbean colony of Hispaniola, from which Oliver Cromwell never recovered his confidence. Finally, it provides a detailed, and significantly different interpretation of the army's role in the Restoration, explaining how that epochal event was brought about without bloodshed."[2]

As Gentles states, the book contains the latest historiography from the last three decades on the radical groups inside the New Model Army. He does not go along with the various revisionist historians who have deliberately downplayed the influence of groups such as the Levellers inside the army.

He writes, "The Levellers were very influential, despite what other historians have said. As early as March 1647, they hitched their wagon to the New Model Army, regarding it as their main hope for achieving their programme. The Leveller leaders spent a good deal of time at army headquarters in the mid-summer of 1647, striving to politicise it. In October and November, they virtually won over the Council of the Army, with the exception of the conservative Grandees, to back the Agreement of the People. A year later, when the army was desperately in need of political allies, the Levellers got it to adopt the Agreement of the People with the sole proviso that it be approved by Parliament. The decisive falling out between Leveller and army leaders did not occur until the spring of 1649, and even then, many officers remained supporters of Levellerism, which they labelled 'The Good Old Cause', up until the eve of the Restoration."[3]

As Gentles's book shows, the study of the NMA is integral to understanding how the English bourgeois revolution came about and succeeded. One surprising thing about the book is how little of Gentles' historiographical proclivities are in this book. He does not subscribe to a' Three Kingdoms' approach to the English civil war – as Jasmin L. Johnson wrote, contained within this approach 'is a tendency to bounce back and forth from country to country and from campaign to campaign, causing confusion and obscuring the effects that developments in one theatre of operations might have had on the others'.[4]

While Gentles is not immune to the siren calls of revisionist and post-revisionist historians, he places the actions of the NMA as part of a 'people's revolution. This tends to indicate that the influence of Marxist historians such as Christopher Hill and Brian Manning is not entirely dead.

As was said earlier, Professor Gentles is one of the few modern-day historians who does not downplay the influence groups such as the Levellers had inside the NMA. His new book offers a fresh insight into the complex relationship between Oliver Cromwell and Leveller leaders such as John Lilburne.

Gentles does not spend much time on military matters in this new book, and he acknowledges that Cromwell had no formal military training. Gentles, it seems, does not rate him highly as an army figure which is a little strange because if you read Royalist-supporting military historians like Peter Young, you get a much more accurate picture of Cromwell's military prowess.

Gentles believes that Cromwell's adventures in Ireland are a blot on his record and suggests that Cromwell's overriding concern in Ireland was the neutralisation of Royalist threat and that the attack on, and massacre of, Catholics was a by-product of that action. Cromwell's hatred for Catholicism was prevalent amongst the rising bourgeoisie of the 17th century. He further suggests that Cromwell played a key part in developing Irish nationalism.

Quite where the NMA fits into Gentles's belief that the leaders of the revolution belonged to a 'Junto' is not explored. The definition of Junto is a group of men united together for some secret intrigue', with the champion of this new historiography being John Adamson. The main theoretical premise of his book The Noble Revolt is to view the Civil War as basically a coup d’état by a group of nobles or aristocrats who no longer supported the King. According to Diane Purkiss, these nobles were 'driven by their code of honour. They acted to protect themselves and the nation. Names such as Saye, Bedford, Essex and Warwick move from the sidelines to occupy centre stage, as do their counterparts among Scottish peers. They, not the rude masses, plucked a king from his throne.

I recommend this book to general readers and more academically minded students, as it is intelligent and well-researched. It has extensive footnotes, a lengthy bibliography, and excellent pictures, and it deserves a wide readership and should be on every universities book list.


[1] From Chapter 11 of The History of the Russian Revolution (1931)



[4] Jasmin L. Johnson, ‘Review of Ian Gentles, The English Revolution and the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, 1638-1652’, H-War (February 2008)

Sunday, 20 November 2022

Diary of a Nobody 5

I am currently working on a review of Christopher Hill's The World Turned Upside Down. Although the conference to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of the book has been moved to February, it still gives me some more time to work on this review and other work by Hill.

The new Bob Dylan book just arrived called The Philosophy of Modern Song. Having just glanced inside, it looks stunning with Dylan's keen analytical insight into the modern song. I will review it for my website.

While there is a backlog of books I need to review, I will have to concentrate on some articles on the latest developments at Royal Mail. Management is hell-bent on destroying the pay conditions of thousands of postal workers and turning the company into an Amazon-style business with all that entails for the workforce, i.e. job cuts and redundancies. With Thirty thousand postal workers having already applied for early retirement, with more on the way, the CWU bureaucracy seems hell-bent on some shabby deal rather than mobilise postal workers against these attacks. Time for some independent rank-and-file committees to be established.

Early next year, I need to start some work on Stuart Hall. His Selected Writings on Marxism were published in 2021, and work on him is long overdue. When I did the first year of a pre-masters degree at Birkbeck, I researched him and his sidekick Raphael Samuel. Returning to the Bishopsgate Institute, where the Samuel archive is held, is a must.

Intend to do a short review of Show Me The Bodies, Peter Apps' excellent-looking book on the corporate murder of 72 people in the Grenfell fire.

I am near the end of Blake Bailey's biography of Phillip Roth. It is a superb read, and at over 900 pages long, it feels like I have lived with Roth all my life. Not sure I will review quite yet, and maybe do a bit more reading.

Given that most of the advertisements for my website go through Twitter, thanks to the megalomaniac Adolf Musk, I will have to look elsewhere to publicise the website and blog.


On Monday, 21 November 2022, Elliot Vernon will talk on "The Wall and Glory of Jerusalem": The message of sermons preached before the Lord Mayor and the City of London in the Commonwealth and Protectorate, 1649-1660. Part of Britain in Revolution series from Oxford University.

Christopher Hill and the English Revolution: 50 years after TWTUD- Sat, 4 February 2023, 09:30 – 17:00 GMT- Institute of Historical Research (IHR), School of Advanced Study Senate House Malet Street London WC1E 7HU


Monday, 7 November 2022

An Email from Christopher Thompson

I was interested to read or rather to re-read Ann Talbot’s reflections from March, 2003 on Christopher Hill’s life and career. This assessment had two aspects, one political dealing with his trajectory as a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain and admirer of the former Soviet Union until his departure after the Hungarian uprising of 1956 and a second considering his historiographical legacy and its influence on and importance for later historical work.

 As one of his former postgraduate pupils, I ought to begin by saying that I always got on perfectly well with him in personal terms in the late-1960s and again when I last saw him and his wife, Bridget, at the Huntington Library in California in January, 1997. By then, of course, his corpus of work had been overtaken by the so-called ‘revisionist’ revolt of the 1970s and by the assault on his methods by figures like J.H.Hexter and Mark Kishlansky.  It is with the second of Ann Talbot’s arguments that I most concerned here.

Hill’s academic career was centred on the University of Oxford apart from a very brief spell in University College, Cardiff and military and diplomatic service during the Second World War. In Oxford, he was one of a cohort of distinguished historians - people like Hugh Trevor-Roper at Christ Church College and then as Regius Professor; John Cooper at Trinity College; Lawrence Stone until 1963 at Wadham College; John Habbakuk at All Souls and later Jesus Colleges; Menna Prestwich at St Hilda’s College; the young Keith Thomas at St John’s College; Valerie Pearl at Somerville College; and rising doctoral researchers like Nicholas Tyacke, Michael Mahony, John Morrill, Blair Worden and many others – which meant that his voice was one amongst many. He was less of a dominant figure in Oxford than many have supposed.

Nor was he the first to raise a revolt against the Whig interpretation elaborated by T.B.Macaulay and G.M.Trevleyan. R.G.Usher had disputed in the mid-1920s the claims of rising Parliamentary power advanced by S.R.Gardiner and C.H.Firth while R.H.Tawney had, by 1940, elaborated an economic and social interpretation of the causes of the English Revolution or Civil War that precipitated the famous ‘storm over the gentry’ once it had been enthusiastically embraced by Lawrence Stone. Christopher Hill was thus not the only begetter of a Marxist or materialist approach to the events of the 1640s and 1650s. 

It was actually outside Oxford where Hill’s influence was chiefly felt in classes run by the Workers’ Education Association, in summer schools run by the Communist Party and, later, by the Socialist Workers’ Party (as Ann Talbot noted). On the European continent, especially in the countries controlled by the former Soviet Union, his articles, books and collections of essays were repeatedly translated and published. A casual trawl through eastern European and Russian websites reveals the lasting impact of his writings there. They are still cited in many of these countries as if they represented the latest scholarship on the English Revolution.

But it was not true to claim after Hill’s death that academic historians still defined their positions in relation to his works. Like Lawrence Stone, he had been superseded by later generations of historians. His interpretation of seventeenth-century events and figures had become much too predictable long before 1980. Since, moreover, the bulk of the surviving evidence from that period was and remains in manuscript form, his analysis lacked the fructifying nutriment of contact with original sources. That is not to belittle his achievements in his prime. He put arguments that needed to be challenged. He made claims that required refutation. He was an interesting observer of the past but not, in my view, a conclusively defining figure in twentieth-century historiography.

Thursday, 3 November 2022

"These the times ... this the man": an appraisal of historian Christopher Hill

In light of the major conference -Christopher Hill and the English Revolution I am republishing an obituary by Ann Talbot on the great historian.

The original can be found @

25 March 2003

Christopher Hill, the renowned expert on seventeenth century English history, who died on February 24 at the age of 91, lived through the great upheavals of the twentieth century. Its wars and revolutions moulded the mind of a historian who looked back from one revolutionary century to another, giving him a unique insight into his subject and his books a lasting value that few historians can claim.

Hill influenced the way in which an entire generation of students and general readers saw the English Civil War, and even when in more recent years with the fall of the Soviet Union his view that the events of the 1640s constituted a revolution has been widely rejected, academics still define their position on the period in opposition to his analysis. Within a week of his death, however, it was not just the value of his academic work that was being discussed in the press but his own political activity as a member of the Communist Party, when it was alleged that Hill had been a Soviet agent.

Hill seems to be a mass of contradictions. There is Hill the Master of Balliol College, Oxford and prestigious academic; Hill the popular historian who would give lectures at the Socialist Workers Party summer schools where masses of young people would crowd in to hear him speak about the seventeenth century revolution—and now we are told there is Hill the Soviet mole. If we are to draw a coherent picture out of all this, we have to see Hill in the context of his time. As his fellow Yorkshireman Andrew Marvell said of Oliver Cromwell, “If these the times, then this must be the man.”

Hill was himself part of an historical phenomenon. Born in 1912 the son of a well-to-do solicitor, he was educated at St. Peter’s School York. It was a privileged existence, but its apparent security was overshadowed by the great political and economic turmoil of the period. A child of five when the Russian Revolution broke out, Hill grew to maturity at the time of the abortive revolution in China, of the British General Strike of 1926 and the Great Crash of 1929. The 1920s saw mass unemployment and hunger marches. By the time Hill went up to Oxford in 1931, unemployment had risen to nearly 3 million. As one historian has said of the 1926 General Strike, “The class divisions of the country were starkly revealed, even if they did not spill over into violence.”

He was already expressing left-wing views as a schoolboy, although it has never been clear when precisely he joined the Communist Party. This was one of the areas of his life about which Hill was always reticent. At Oxford he came under the influence of Humphrey Sumner, an expert on Russian history who arranged for him to go to Russia for an extended stay in 1935. He came back fluent in Russian but never spoke about what he had done while he was there, pleading that he had been ill most of the time. In 1936 he became a lecturer at University College Cardiff, but in 1938 returned to Balliol where he remained until he retired as master of the college in 1978. His 40 years at Balliol were only briefly interrupted by his wartime service, during which he was seconded as an intelligence officer to the Foreign Office.

His period at the Foreign Office was another aspect of his life that he was reluctant to discuss. The historian Dr. Anthony Glees, a specialist in modern German history at Brunel University, now claims that he has discovered documents which show that Hill kept his membership of the Communist Party secret while he was working at the Foreign Office. Dr. Glees, who has not published the evidence to back up his allegations, claims that Hill acted as an agent of influence on behalf of the Soviet Union while he worked first as a liaison officer for military intelligence and then as head of the Russian desk at the Foreign Office. Glees considers it inconceivable that the Foreign Office would have employed Hill if the security services had known about his party membership. He told the London Times, “His failure to own up to his party membership was outrageous, sinister and highly suspicious.”

There is something more than a little artificial about this indignation. It would have been rather more surprising to find that Hill was not a member of the Communist Party by 1940, since so many young intellectuals of his generation were either members or sympathisers. Nor can it be assumed that such an orientation inevitably implied support for revolution. It was entirely possible in this period to be both a patriotic subject of his Britannic Majesty and a “friend” of the Soviet Union, as for example the Fabians Sidney and Beatrice Webb were. As Trotsky pointed out in his Revolution Betrayed, in the case of people like the Webbs, “Friendship for the Soviet bureaucracy is not friendship for proletarian revolution but on the contrary insurance against it” ( The Revolution Betrayed, Labor Publications, Detroit, 1991, p. 258).

There was a significant section of the British ruling class who saw in the Soviet Union their best hope of preserving Britain’s position in the world and preventing revolution at home. Hill’s selection for an extended stay in the Soviet Union and his secondment to the Foreign Office suggests that at an early stage in his career he was being groomed by a section of the ruling class who looked on the Soviet Union under bureaucratic control as just such an insurance against revolution.

Ever since the end of World War I, Britain had faced a thoroughgoing political, social, economic and intellectual crisis as the position it had held since the mid-eighteenth century as the leading world power was eclipsed by the rise of the United States. For a time it even seemed possible that the next major world conflict would be between Britain and the US, until the older power learned to accept its newly subordinate position. At the same time class relations that had been based on Britain’s position of world dominance, which had allowed the creation of a large labour aristocracy and trade union bureaucracy who worked with the Liberals to maintain social peace, were seriously destabilised by Britain’s relative decline.

With its rapid industrialisation, the Soviet Union seemed to offer a model of how Britain’s declining industries might be revived and its increasing weight internationally offered a potential counterbalance to the growing power of the US in world affairs. But most of all the example of the Stalinist bureaucracy impressed reformists like the Webbs as the means by which the working class could be brought under control.

If Hill had remained a civil servant or died in the war before he wrote his books, it is doubtful whether anyone would have been very interested in his political activities. He would have been one among many and would certainly not have rated any media interest. Guy Fawkes would still be the most famous old boy of St. Peter’s school. What makes his wartime political activities significant is the question of how it affects his reputation as an historian of seventeenth century England and that question was there to be asked long before the recent revelations.

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. Not everyone who was attracted to the bureaucratically degenerated Communist Party could be classified with the Webbs. The most gifted and outstanding representatives of the British intellectual elite, whether poets, novelists, scientists, musicians or historians, associated themselves with the Communist Party because the old institutions of church and state had lost their hold over the imaginations of the young while the Soviet Union seemed to embody all that was new, modern and progressive.

The Communist Party attracted minds of the very highest intellectual calibre, as can be seen from the fact that many of the developments that were made in biochemistry during the post-war period were prepared by the group around J.D. Bernal, J.B.S. Haldane and other biologists who were prominent supporters of the Communist Party at Cambridge. For minds of this order of brilliance, the Communist Party became a pole of attraction since despite its degeneration under Stalin it still retained vestiges of the immensely powerful intellectual heritage of Marx and Engels.

They could not pursue their intellectual work in isolation from the influence of the Stalinist bureaucracy, however. Despite the fact that the Cambridge biologists were all leading geneticists they accepted the fraudulent work of Lysenko because Lysenko had Stalin’s support. The influence of Stalinism on the historians was if anything even greater. The Cambridge biologists never adopted Lysenko’s theories in their own work, but historians associated with the Communist Party developed an approach to history that was directly influenced by the politics of the bureaucracy.

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.

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.

It is notable that of the Marxist Historians Group Hill wrote on the seventeenth century, Thompson on the eighteenth century, Hobsbawm mostly on the nineteenth century and Hilton on the Middle Ages. But none of them specialised in the twentieth century. In more recent areas of history, as in politics, the control of the Stalinist bureaucracy was too great to allow the free development of Marxist thought and whether deliberately or not they all avoided venturing into the modern arena. It is notable that E.H. Carr, who was never a member of the Communist Party but wrote on the history of the Russian Revolution and expressed a high regard for Trotsky, was for long periods unemployed and unemployable because his views clashed with those on both the left and right of British academic life.

Hill’s sole attempt at modern history, his study of Lenin, is undoubtedly his weakest book. It is marred by repeated attacks on Trotsky, who is dismissed as one of the “Westernising theoreticians” of the revolutionary movement. Discussing whether Trotsky could ever have become the leader of the Bolshevik Party after Lenin’s death, Hill concludes, “Such a view exaggerates, I think, the importance of Trotsky in the party.”

As Hill should have known, the British government were well aware of Trotsky’s importance since they would not allow him into the country when he requested asylum. But still Hill’s historical faculties would not let him deny that Trotsky was a great orator, that he organised the insurrection which brought the Bolsheviks to power, and nor does he avoid giving Trotsky more references in the index than Stalin. At no point does Hill repeat the false charges that the Stalinists made against Trotsky and his followers at the Moscow trials. Even in this book, which is certainly hack work, Hill did not make himself fully a Stalinist hack. His criticisms of Trotsky are ill-judged and betray an ignorance of his subject, rather than being malicious and dishonest. He retained a core of intellectual honesty in a work that was written in 1947 as the lines were being drawn for the Cold War, which was designed to defend the Russian Revolution and not to win him friends in high places at home or in the Kremlin.

If his book on Lenin represented the low point of Hill’s work, the best was yet to come as he began to publish his remarkable series of books on the English revolution that were to change the way in which the period was understood. His years of greatest productivity came after 1957 when he left the Communist Party following the Soviet invasion of Hungary that suppressed a workers’ uprising. The fact that Hill was not among the most politically advanced elements of the party—those who then joined the Fourth International—is perhaps a greater tribute to them than it is a criticism of him. His subsequent work showed him to be a better historian than he was a political thinker.

Hill’s great achievement as an historian was to challenge the accepted consensus of Whig history—that Britain had been peculiarly blessed with a tranquil history based on gradual change and had achieved peaceful progress through class compromise without the excesses of revolution. The most outstanding representative of the Whig tradition is Macaulay and it was continued in the twentieth century by his nephew Trevelyan. It had the advantage that it was at once suited to Liberalism and Labourism. It was a tradition that was physically embodied in the Trevelyan’s country house at Wallington, Northumberland, where Macaulay’s desk is preserved and which was the scene of annual Labour picnics. The roofed central court of this house is decorated with historical scenes and not a revolution among them—as the national epic unfolds from prehistoric times to the triumph of industry and empire in Victorian Britain. They were images that adorned children’s history books well into the twentieth century and underlay much of the popular consciousness of British history.

The term the “Whig interpretation of history” dates back to Sir Herbert Butterfield’s slim volume of that name. As a polemic, it was not particularly well aimed and has often since been directed at economic determinism rather than the Victorian view of British history that was its target. But the name has stuck. The Whiggish view of history gained ground as Britain achieved a degree of social stability as its economic supremacy emerged that must have been surprising to many contemporaries given its turbulent past history. Writing in the midst of the 1848 revolutions and as the Chartists marched in London, the historian J.M. Kemble expressed the sense of Britain’s special destiny:

“On every side of us thrones totter and the deep foundations of society are convulsed. Shot and shell sweep the streets of capitals which have long been pointed out as the chosen abodes of order: cavalry and bayonets cannot control populations whose loyalty has become a proverb here, whose peace has been made a reproach to our own miscalled disquiet. Yet the exalted Lady who wields the sceptre of these realms sits safe upon her throne and fearless in the holy circle of her domestic happiness, secure in the affections of people whose institutions have given to them all the blessings of an equal law.”

The sense that in Britain things were done differently and without continental excess was not entirely new. Burke had expressed it in his Reflections on the French Revolution, but there were plenty of voices to gainsay him and the social disturbances in the years of economic upheaval that followed the Napoleonic wars were a testimony to the contrary. Luddism, anti-corn law agitation, the anti-poor law movement, strikes and most of all Chartism demonstrated that Britain was not an island of social peace.

Nonetheless the Whig interpretation of history had deep roots in the consciousness of the British political class. The visitor to Chatsworth House in Derbyshire can still see in the great entrance hall a fireplace inscribed with the legend “1688 The year of our liberty.” It refers to the “Glorious Revolution” when James II quit his throne and his kingdom overnight and William of Orange was installed as king. This was the kind of palace revolution that the British ruling class increasingly preferred to look back on rather than the revolution in the 1640s when they had executed the king, conveniently overlooking the fact that James would not have run if he had not remembered the fate of his father—Charles I.

The myth of the “Glorious Revolution” was the target of Hill’s first published article, which appeared in the Communist International under the pseudonym E.C. Gore in 1937. It was followed in 1940 by a short essay, The English Revolution 1640, which contained a concise statement of the arguments that Hill was to spend the rest of his life elucidating.

Hill never acknowledged having read Trotsky, but there are distinct parallels between his attacks on the Whig interpretation of history and Trotsky’s brief but trenchant analysis in Where is Britain Going? in which he identified two revolutionary traditions in British history—that of the Cromwell in the seventeenth century and later of Chartism—both of which were denied by the prevailing conception of gradualism that characterised the Whig view of history. “The ‘great’ national historian Macaulay,” Trotsky wrote, “vulgarises the social drama of the seventeenth century by obscuring the inner struggle of forces with platitudes that are sometimes interesting but always superficial.”

Trotsky recognised Cromwell as a revolutionary leader of the bourgeoisie, whose New Model Army was not merely an army but a party with which he repeatedly purged Parliament until it reflected the needs of his class and suppressed the Levellers who represented the plebeian elements who wanted to take the revolution further than was necessary for capitalist society to thrive. Whether he got it from Trotsky, or arrived at his assessment of Cromwell independently by reading Marx and Engels, Hill reflected this analysis of Cromwell in God’s Englishman: Oliver Cromwell and the English Revolution (1970) in which he explored Cromwell’s revolutionary role. It was a measured portrait of the man that recognised his ruthless pursuit of the interests of the class he represented—as when he had the leaders of the Levellers executed and in Ireland where he sacked the towns of Drogheda and Wexford, executing the captured garrison and civilian population. If in concluding that Cromwell’s historical importance could be compared to that of Stalin as much as Lenin, Hill revealed that his affiliations still lay with the party he had left in 1957, he perhaps also revealed something of his own inner feelings when he said of the English revolution, “The dreams of a Milton, a Winstanley, a George Fox, a Bunyan, were not realised; nor indeed were those of Oliver himself: ‘would that we were all saints’.”

Employing the Old Testament phraseology of the seventeenth century he concluded, “The sons of Zeruiah proved too strong for the ideals which had animated the New Model Army.” For the seventeenth century revolutionaries the Sons of Zeruiah represented the forces of reaction that had prevented them achieving their vision of utopia. Perhaps Hill also thought of the Soviet Union as a country in which the Sons of Zeruiah had proved too strong.

Hill’s achievements were twofold. Firstly he identified the mid-seventeenth century crisis as a revolution, which in the case of Britain overthrew the rule of one class and brought another to power. Secondly he recognised that revolutions are made by the mass of the population and that for a revolution to take place the consciousness of that mass of people must change, since revolutions are not made by a few people at the top although the character of their leadership is crucial at certain points. These achievements were considerable at the time and are of continuing relevance today, when historians increasingly reject any serious economic or social analysis and argue that revolutions are nothing but the work of a tiny group of conspirators.

Hill conveys a sense of the organic character of revolution and views the many ordinary people who made the seventeenth century revolution with admirable humanity.

He has been criticised by later historians for only using the published sources and not making any use of the manuscript material that is available. Hill had some excuse for doing so, however, in that the amount of published material from this period when censorship collapsed is so enormous. In the 1640s everyone had something to say about the way the world was going and everyone who was literate wanted to get into print. It is a dramatic contrast with the preceding centuries, when only a small elite with government approval found their way into print. 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.

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, of course, was well aware that there were gentlemen and landowners on the Parliamentary side in the civil war and small farmers and artisans on the Royalist side. He had read enough Marx and Lenin to know that one could not expect a chemically pure revolution in which the members of one social class lined up one side of the barricades and those of the other on the opposite side. However, 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.

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 were soon eager to pretend that the whole thing had been a ghastly mistake, no monarch sat easily on the throne after that event until quite late in Victoria’s reign.

More serious Marxist criticisms of Hill are that he always maintains an essentially national approach to the English revolution, which he does not place in an international context, and that he has a tendency to romanticise the religious movements of the period and to be too dismissive of their rational intellectual descendants such as Newton and Locke. In part these characteristics arise from the national orientation of his social class and reflect even in Hill vestiges of the Whig outlook that imagined a peculiarly English political tradition rooted in millennial seventeenth century visionaries like Bunyan that was entirely separate from Enlightenment thought. More significantly it reflects the influence of the popular front politics and national outlook of Stalinism. With Hill this is evident more in what he does not write than in what he does write.

Within the strict confines of the few decades that comprise the Civil War and Commonwealth period, Hill had some reason to concentrate on the many religious sects which to modern eyes are so strange that their connection with revolution is by no means obvious. In The Intellectual Origins of the English Revolution (1965), Hill performs a useful task in showing that although there was no Jean-Jacques Rousseau or Karl Marx in the English revolution the revolutionaries of the period were moved by definite social, political and economic ideas—albeit expressed in a religious form.

In the period after 1660, all these groups lose their revolutionary impetus, but Hill persists in pursuing them as though they retained their political significance. Like E.P. Thompson he was concerned to demonstrate that there was a distinctive English revolutionary tradition than ran intact from the Civil War to modern times. He had therefore no interest in showing the continental origins of many of the ideas that inspired the English revolution, such as natural rights theory that was to play such a significant role in the development of Enlightenment thought and the political ideas of subsequent centuries. Nor was he interested in examining how the English philosopher, John Locke, or the political theorist, Algernon Sidney, took up the ideas that had been expressed in the course of the English revolution and distilled them into a more precise programmatic form that could be developed in turn by American and French revolutionaries.

The science of the period that did so much to inspire a rational approach to politics and society was only of interest to him insofar as he could connect the scientists directly to the revolutionary movement. He never explored the complex relationship between the impetus to social revolution and the scientific revolution, because the increasingly rational and materialistic conclusions of science were uncongenial to him. The materialism of Hobbes and Spinoza was outside his orbit and even Newton, for all his mysticism and millennial visions, left Hill cold.

Yet within the 20-year period from 1640 to 1660, Hill’s historical achievements were significant in his own lifetime and are likely to prove more so in the future because current academic history is hardly less complacent than the Whig interpretation of history was in Hill’s day. Simon Schama, who recently presented A History of Britain for the BBC, declares himself to be “a born-again Whig”. His account of the Civil War in volume two of the books that accompany the series is full of colourful incident and fascinating detail, but there is no analysis of the contending class forces involved and the clash of interests that led to the bloody suppression of the Levellers, or to Cromwell’s repeated purges of Parliament and his personal dictatorship. The actions with which Cromwell ensured the success of the revolution are, for Schama, excesses or deviations which violated “precisely the parliamentary independence that the war had been fought to preserve.” This is Whig history indeed, although to be fair to Macaulay it is a neutered variety of the genre.

Set against this background Hill’s analysis of the Civil War takes on a very contemporary significance. As an historian he stands head and shoulders above his detractors and his books deserve to be read and reread, and if with a critical eye, it should always be with the knowledge that his limitations and faults as much as his great historical insights and innovations are the product of his time. He may be bettered, but never dismissed, and only bettered by those who have studied him closely.