Socialist Worker

Historian for a revolution

by Johnny Clark
Issue No. 1841

ON SATURDAY 15 February democracy came onto the streets to demonstrate against war and barbarism. The demos are part of a process where politics has become so generalised that a casual conversation about the weather becomes a full blown discussion about the lies and deceits of George Bush. Old-timers start to look for comparable events, to explain, in the words of Marvin Gaye, 'What's Going On'.

But what's going on now may be so significant that we will need to look for a deeper understanding of the dynamics of history. In 1940, under the impact of global war, a young historian, Christopher Hill, who sadly died recently, wrote a short account of the English Civil War, called The English Revolution 1640.

This account was no bigger than The Communist Manifesto, written by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels in 1848. Yet, like their book, from which it took its model of analysis, Hill's book challenged the idea that British society was a rather nice idea that had been invented by amiable, clever people.

In fact the war was nothing less than a revolution which completely violated the old feudal landscape. This landscape was now occupied with new social classes of men and women who began to lead their lives in a wholly different way.

They behaved differently, thought differently, and worked differently. The revolution of the 17th century turned the world upside-down, an expression used at the time.

New ideas about common law and the rights of the commons introduced by a Lord Chancellor were transformed by John Lilburne, a member of the radical Levellers group, into a democratic constitution, an 'Agreement of the People'. Ideas that challenged basic forms of church worship flowed into radical worldviews on the church, state, god, sex and property.

All this because an imitation Scot with an English accent (King Charles I) wanted to go to war with fundamentalists who had developed a weapon of 'mass' destruction - Calvinism. Sound familiar?

It is a sad irony, as a new generation of people take to the streets challenging the power of the established order, that Christopher Hill, historian, activist and Marxist, is no longer with us.

Hill left a body of work to develop our ideas and arm ourselves for the struggles to come. I recommend his books The English Revolution 1640, The World Turned Upside-Down and Puritanism and Revolution. He may not have lived forever, but his ideas unquestionably will.

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Sat 8 Mar 2003, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1841
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