By Brian Manning
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Obituary: Turning Point in History

This article is over 21 years, 2 months old
Brian Manning pays tribute to Christopher Hill, an outstanding historian of the English Revolution.
Issue 272

‘The object of this article is to suggest an interpretation of the events of the 17th century different from that which most of us were taught at school… This interpretation is that the English Revolution of 1640-60 was a great social movement like the French Revolution of 1789.’ These are the opening words of Christopher Hill’s essay on the English Revolution published in 1940. To a schoolboy like myself at the time, they were a sudden flash of lightning that lit a dark landscape. Later in life Christopher Hill apologised that this essay was the work of ‘a very angry young man’–angry at the failures of capitalism and the rise of fascism–who thought that he might be killed in the Second World War. There was no need to apologise–emotional commitment guided by wide learning and scrupulous scholarship shaped the work of Christopher Hill.

Hill’s century

Christopher Hill and the English Revolution are synonymous–as 1540-1640 was called ‘Tawney’s century’ so the 17th century became ‘Hill’s century’. But he did not invent the term ‘English Revolution’. In 1826 Guizot, French historian and politician, published ‘History of the English Revolution of 1640’ in the preface to which he wrote ‘Previous to the French Revolution, this was the greatest event which Europe had to narrate.’

The undoubted dominance of Christopher Hill in the history of the English Revolution may be attributed to his prolific record of books and articles, and his continuous engagement in debate with other historians; to the breadth of his learning, embracing the history of literature, the law, science, as well as religion and economics; to the fact that his work set the agenda and the standard to which all historians of the period had to address themselves, whether in support of or opposition to his methods and interpretations; but above all to the inspiration he drew from Marxism. The English Revolution took place in a culture dominated by religious ideas and religious language, and Christopher Hill recognised that he had to uncover the social context of religion in order to find the key to understanding the English Revolution, and as a Marxist to ascertain the interrelationships between the intellectual and social aspects of the period.

Among an enormous number of books and articles, I would single out three essays, because they penetrated to the reality behind what was said at the time, and because they extended beyond the revolution itself to analyse what might be called the prehistory of the working class. The terms ‘the poor’ and ‘the people’ were constantly employed during the revolution (Charles I was tried and executed in the name of ‘the people’) and Christopher Hill brilliantly exposed what such terms really meant, in his article on ‘The Poor and the People in Seventeenth Century England’ (in Frederick Krantz (ed) ‘History from Below’, 1988). He focused on the significance of attitudes to wage labour in his essay ‘Pottage for Freeborn Englishmen’ (in ‘Change and Continuity in Seventeenth Century England’, 1974) and he pioneered the reconstruction of the radical ideology known as ‘Anti-Normanism’, which attributed the oppressions of class rule to the Norman Conquest of 1066, in ‘Democracy and the Labour Movement’ (John Savile (ed), 1954). These essays, and his book ‘Liberty Against the Law’ (1996), are indispensable for grasping the heritage of the English working class.

There was a fundamental shift from the statement in the 1940 essay: ‘The state power protecting an old order that was essentially feudal was violently overthrown, power passed into the hands of a new class, and so the freer development of capitalism was made possible. The civil war was a class war,’ to the statement in 1980, rejecting the agency of the bourgeoisie and focusing on the outcome of the revolution as unforeseen by the revolutionaries: ‘The English Revolution was brought about neither by the wishes of the bourgeoisie, nor by the leaders of the Long Parliament, but its outcome was the establishment of conditions far more favourable to the development of capitalism than those which prevailed before 1640.’ A bourgeois revolution is therefore not one made by the bourgeoisie but one which in effect allows the creation of conditions for the development of capitalism. (‘A Bourgeois Revolution?’, in J G A Pocock (ed), ‘Three British Revolutions’, 1980). This interpretation leaves many problems unsolved.

What was the outcome of the English Revolution? It was of great consequence to the history of the country. Access to common lands to pasture a few animals and to collect wood and fuel was vital to keeping many poor peasants and rural artisans from total dependence on wages. Enclosures involved the dividing of common lands into private properties and ‘the appropriation to one person of land which had previously been at the disposal of the whole community’. Despite popular hopes at the start of the revolution that parliament would oppose enclosures, the revolutionary regimes came down in favour of them. The revolution put no obstacle in the way of the development of agrarian capitalism. The criterion shifted during the revolution from what was for the good of the community to what was for the profit of the individual.

A decisive consequence of the revolution was that a single, universal church to which all subjects were obliged by law to belong could not be restored after 1660, as a result of the experience and legacy of the revolution. Against fierce resistance from the ruling class, people won alternatives and choices in religion, in place of the monopoly of a single church, in what amounted to ‘free market Christianity’.

Feudal dues were abolished during the revolution and not revived after 1660. The Cromwellian conquest of Ireland, and the replacement of Irish Catholic landowners by English Protestant landowners was not reversed at the Restoration. During the revolution black slave labour was introduced into capitalist enterprises in British colonies, the slave trade was established, as was the belief in white supremacy. This was confirmed at the Restoration.

During the civil wars and revolution parliament mobilised fiscal and naval resources which were bequeathed to the state of the restored monarchy, and laid the foundations for Britain’s commercial, naval and colonial development, which transformed the country from a comparatively minor power to one of the great powers of Europe

Christopher Hill spent his life seeking to persuade people that the English Revolution was a decisive event or, as he titled his last book, ‘England’s Turning Point’ (1998), and he succeeded.

A brilliant, often sardonic wit, an incisive mind, and a deeply compassionate person, he was the finest product of the British radical tradition, and he did more than anybody to establish Marxism as central to that tradition. It is hard to accept that there will no longer, year by year, be a new book by Christopher Hill, enlightening, stimulating new thoughts, and no doubt something to quarrel with.


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