Peter Sedgwick

The Last Time It Happened

(Winter 1961/62)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.7, Winter 1961/62, p.29.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The Century of Revolution, Christopher Hill, Nelson 25s.

This book must not be dismissed as fare for historians alone. The causes and results of the last English Revolution should engage all who are determined to help create the next; and Christopher Hill, more in this than in any other work of his, has enabled the general reader to savour the political, economic and spiritual identity of a revolutionary century. The story of the bare events is packed into a number of separate synopses, leaving the rest of the book free for exposition of the economics, politics and ideas of the successive periods. The unspecialiscd Socialist reader will find the arrangement mighty convenient, and the contents superb.

In the first place, everything important that happened in the century is rendered unmysterious, and comprehensible in the same way that the items of the ten o’clock news are comprehended by a hard-headed and informed listener. This is an impressive exercise in historical materialism, in which the weight of economic change is seen as bearing down to breaking point on existing political and productive relationships. The reasons behind the battles and the parliaments arc all tough, pushing and particular.

But for all the materialist shrewdness, this is a liberty-loving book. It is rather hard to pick out individual sentences which display the author’s sympathies. But all along we are left in no doubt that the dominion of Court and Church was a repellently reactionary affair and that the bourgeois revolution did a job that was on the whole (despite Charles II) permanent and (despite Cromwell) satisfactory, easily enough in a popularizing work or review of the Television Don variety. But it is extraordinary to find fact and sympathy so fused for page after page of documentation or analysis, with hardly an epigram or separate comment to point the moral.

Hill makes a brilliant and loving use of quotations from the writings of seventeenth-century characters, with a knack of plucking strangely luminous insights and inklings from the sidelines of people’s thoughts at the time, of making the half-consciousness of others into our own consciousness. It is a distortion to say that the Marxist view of the Civil War is that the participants thought that they were fighting about religion, whereas they were really fighting about economics. We are shown a whole host of acute contemporary observations with a surprisingly Marxist ring.

It remains to be said that The Century of Revolution would make a first-rate Christmas present for anybody likely to be reading this journal and for their like-minded relatives or friends. There can be no better tonic for those disgusted with what passes for politics in present-day England than a brief but total immersion in the age of Winstanley and the New Model Army.

Peter Sedgwick

Last updated on 21 February 2010