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International Socialism, Autumn 1992


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.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


How do you see the development of the debate around the English Revolution over recent years? Would you agree that the revisionists have taken some ground?

They have made a lot of useful points, but their more extreme views are now being attacked by the younger generation of historians. Although the revisionists had all sorts of useful ideas they had a terribly narrow political approach in that they tried to find the causes of the English Revolution solely in the years 1639–41. This simply assumes what you are setting out to prove. If you look just at those years then of course it’s a matter of political intrigue and not long term causes. I think people are reacting against that now. The better of the revisionists are themselves switching round a bit. John Morrill, for instance, who thought everything depended on the county community and localism, is now taking a much broader point of view. And Conrad Russell has become aware that long term factors have to be taken into account – he doesn’t like it but he recognises that religion has some long term effects on what happened in 1640, a rather elementary point but he left religion out altogether in the early days. Now he’s bought it in. He still leaves out the cultural breakdown in society of that period but he is moving a bit. I think a consensus will arise and then there will be another explosion in 20 years or so. These debates occur regularly – ever since 1640 people have been arguing about what it was all about.

Morrill has clearly reassessed his position on Cromwell, linking his political actions with his social circumstances in a way which one perhaps would not have expected.

People like Morrill and Russell are taking things aboard. Russell said of Cromwell, for instance, that he was the only member of parliament of whom we have records before 1640 who tried to help the lower orders in his work for the fenmen – but he doesn’t draw any conclusions from that, yet this is one of the most important aspects of Cromwell. He had a much broader approach than most of the gentry.

English academics always hated revolutions so that there is an in-built pleasure in being able to get back, as some of them tried to do, to saying nothing important had happened. French, Russian and American historians have accepted revolutions as part of their tradition whereas we’ve always hushed ours up and transferred it to the Glorious Revolution of 1688.

Do you think the cycles of debate on the English Revolution are tied to political developments in Britain? Was the rise of revisionism tied to the rise of Thatcherism, for instance?

When I started as a historian the orthodoxy was that England was the centre of world history and that the whole of history was working towards the evolution of democracy of which England was the perfect example. That’s the thing that my generation were gunning for – Anglo-centrism and concentration almost exclusively on political and constitutional history. So there has been a big change over time. Social and economic aspects became, in the Tawney years, almost the orthodoxy. It’s that orthodoxy that the revisionists are trying to revise, to get away from too much sordid economics and back to the constitution.

Jack Hexter, for instance, who’s not really a revisionist, has just founded an institute for the history of freedom and they’ve produced a volume of essays on parliament and freedom in the 17th century, showing parliament working for freedom. The book outlines the steps through which freedom emerges and it’s all constitutional, nothing to do with social problems generally. So there are different assets of this anti-revisionist process which are converging and producing strange allies. To find Trevor Roper, Jack Hexter and me on the same side was a unique experience – I don’t think it pleased any of us very much!

What would you say about the emerging consensus amongst historians today? Would you agree that it has produced a sort of agnosticism about the revolution, a recoil from the earlier more extreme positions, akin to Major’s recoil from Thatcherism?

Or Kinnock’s recoil from socialism! The emerging consensus amongst historians is based on a very cautious use of language. There are some phrases they want to avoid, like ‘class struggle’, or ‘the bourgeoisie’, often quite rightly since careless use of them can be misleading. Ann Hughes is probably on the right side with her latest book although cautious in her language. That’s one of the things Conrad Russell has taught us. He caught a lot of us out, including me, with careless use of language. For instance, in the original edition of my Century of Revolution I used the phrase ‘the opposition’. In the second edition I crossed out the word ‘the’ where it referred to parliamentary opposition in the 1620s, since Russell quite rightly pointed out that talk of ‘the’ opposition gives the impression of a much more organised parliamentary opposition than in fact existed. That’s one of the useful things this latest debate has done, although Russell obviously hasn’t taught Jack Hexter much since throughout his work he just assumes that ‘freedom’ always means freedom for property.

Consensus is probably exaggerating the position but it certainly is true that the better of the revisionists are toning their work down. The fierceness of the battle seems to be over. Most of the camp followers of the revisionists have just been discarded. The main debate still remains whether there were any long term causes or not. Russell still thinks it was all an unfortunate accident, although once you start to see that there had been problems with religion for 70 years that becomes more difficult. Then you have to define what you mean by religion of course. In my young days it was defined in terms of 19th century non-conformity, puritans were equated with 19th century non-conformists, which is not at all how I see it.

There is a marked trend to separate out various aspects of the revolution, so that cultural developments are seen in isolation to, say, economic ones, a trend which is part of a much wider debate taking in the arguments around postmodernism. Would you agree that this is also a great challenge to the economic and social interpretation of history?

Yes, all this linguistic stuff of the literary historians ignores the social context. I think that’s a very unfortunate phase that literary criticism seems to be going through. I had thought that one of the good things of the last few decades was the way historians and literary critics seemed to be coming together on the 17th century and producing some sort of consensus. This is now in danger with all this linguistic guff. I suppose it’s quite difficult for people trained in one discipline to take on board the lessons learnt in others, but any new consensus will have to be one based on looking at society as a whole including literature and religion.

I’ve recently finished a book that looks at the use of the bible in the 17th century, looking at some of the ways in which its myths were used for political purposes: Cain as the ruling class and Abel as the exploited class – god loves Abel and hates Cain, and Abel’s day is coming – that sort of thing. I see literature and religion and economics and history as all part of a single picture.

Is that commitment to total history much more difficult for people who come to history solely with an academic background?

Yes, Ralph Samuel had a theory that all the historians who joined the Communist Party were interested in literature, E.P. Thompson and Victor Kiernan for example, and that this helped them a lot. I think he is quite right.

Would you agree that it is the political organisation that gives you that total outlook rather than any academic training?

Yes, the best academic historical training I ever got was from the historians’ group of the CP where we discussed all of this – science and the revolution, literature and the revolution and so on. That gave me the sort of education that all historians ought to have, it showed me that all individual aspects of history are linked. It’s very difficult when you study the personal letters of a gentleman from Bedfordshire in 1642 to spot the wider implications and references. They are there but you have to be on the look out for them.

Although we can’t talk about the English Revolution being consciously planned would you agree that there was an emerging ideology on the parliamentarian side which helped shape events?

I think it’s 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 haven’t 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.

But the process of the revolution shows how quickly they developed one. The Putney debates for example testify to their progression.

Yes, the arguments there are wonderfully sophisticated, as are the ideas of Winstanley. They both suggest the widespread debate which must have been going on. Yet it’s very difficult to establish that these debates were going on. In so far as those participating in the Putney debates have a text to work from, it is the bible. Millenarianism was the nearest they got to an ideology and of course that let them down since the millennium didn’t come as expected – there are certain analogies with recent events in Eastern Europe perhaps.

They had a programme of bringing about the millennium which made all sorts of assumptions about what history was going to do which didn’t come to fruition. We ought to try and find more evidence of the debate that was going on. We get occasional glimpses of it. Thomas Edwards, although very hostile to the radicals, is a wonderful source. He tells of William Erbery, one of the leading radicals, who was on his way to Wales in about 1645 and got involved in a discussion with other radicals in which he denied the divinity of Christ. The level of debate is astonishing, with copious references to scripture. Erbery defends himself by reference to the Greek original texts from which subsequent translations were taken, a very sophisticated level of discussion for a chance meeting en route and a hint of the level of debate taking place more generally around the country.

What strikes me, most forcefully through Cromwell, is the parallel between what we call theory and practice and what the 17th century knew as religious motivation at the level of principle and pragmatism at the level of politics.

Yes, but Cromwell wasn’t conscious of it as, say, Lenin was. This is part of what I mean when I say they didn’t realise they were taking part in a revolution, they hadn’t any ideology to cope with this sort of thing. Lenin had obviously thought about what happens in revolutions and what happens to revolutionary leaders; the English revolutionaries didn’t have this luxury. It’s amazing how well at least the better of them did. Of course we can’t know how widely Cromwell’s thinking, or that of participants in the Putney debates or Winstanley’s ideas, were taken up. It must have been so different from conventional thinking. The consequences of Winstanley’s theories were taken up by unemployed labourers but his ideas must have been a bit over their heads.

Would you say that contemporary events affect your interpretation of the English Revolution and, if so, is this a conscious decision on your part? i>The World Turned Upside Down for example was written in the 1960s at a time of great social upheaval.

It’s difficult to know the true answer to that kind of question. I wrote The World Turned Upside Down at the time of massive student struggle and I was very consciously aware of parallels between say the Ranters and some of the way out student revolutionaries. To that extent it was conscious. But I didn’t decide to write the book for that reason. I was invited to contribute to a series edited by Rodney Hilton. So there was no conscious decision to write the book because of the events at the time; but inevitably as I wrote I was seeing analogies between the 17th century and contemporary events all the time.

You said that you tend not to use the same sort of jargon which characterised your earlier writings but none of the essential method has gone. How important is the Marxist method in studying history?

I took a conscious decision in the 1950s to guard against political jargon after a lovely young woman from the Communist Party told me she thought my book on 1640 had done more harm than good because of the language I used. I’ve striven not to use sectarian language since. Some words can have an amazing effect on people. Using the word ‘bourgeoisie’ is a red rag to most academics. Even the most intelligent of them, Lawrence Stone for example, believe that the bourgeoisie must have something to do with the towns and that if you can prove that the gentry were the main capitalists in England in the 17th century you’ve disproved the idea of a bourgeois revolution. But to have to explain this every time you use the word bourgeois is a bore. It’s much easier to just leave out the word bourgeois – but of course it’s very easy to slide from dropping the word to dropping the idea. Initially I thought I had to drop the jargon in order to get people to take me seriously. I have changed some of my ideas, naturally, but not I hope my basic approach.

How did the Communist Party historians’ group form and what influence did it have on you?

Anyone who was in it thinks it was the best academic and educational experience of their lives. There were beginnings of it just before the war. A few people got together and were thinking of a group and so after the war it naturally resumed. It was an entirely self-appointed body. People brought others along to the discussions who they thought would be interested. It was primarily, but not exclusively, academics. There were technical relations with the Communist Party headquarters in King Street but it exercised no control over us. Dona Torr, who had King Street connections, was a member of the group. She was a marvellous historian and the least like a party dictator of anyone I have ever known. The most severe thing she ever said to me was, when she saw I had committed some terrible political deviation, ‘I think, comrade, this has not yet reached its final formulation’. She was just one of us, taking part in discussion as an equal member of the group.

We were completely freelance, deciding amongst ourselves what we would talk about. We split up into sections: there was a 19th century section, a 17th century section, a medieval section and an ancient section. We all had our own discussions and worked out our own agenda and discussed what we wanted to discuss. We had a tremendous asset in the 17th century group in Victor Kiernan whom god created as a heretic who contradicted anything which he thought was verging on becoming an orthodoxy. He was terribly good at asking subversive questions about all our assumptions. We used to have fierce battles. There was no idea of imposing orthodoxy or a party line – which was one of the reasons why the discussions were so good. Victor Kiernan encouraged us to consider the possibility that Marxism might be wrong on this or that point. So we would have to argue it out and see whether he had a point. Quite often he did, although perhaps not what he intended. It was very stimulating.

We used to meet regularly in London from about 1946 onwards. Looking back it was clear it was losing a lot of its élan in the early 1950s before things started to go wrong in the party. With the benefit of hindsight of course it’s easy to see there were signs, or an absence of signs, which told of things to come. I was very sad when I left it and I would have liked to have kept some sort of group like that going.

How did the group actually work?

The group didn’t take any decisions on what particular people should write on. J.C. Davis thinks that Leslie Morton and I were told to play up the Ranters – utter nonsense. People may have discussed a book they were writing if it came up within the general group discussion and this could lead to modifications to the book if the author agreed. But there were no political decisions taken about subject matter, it was absolutely free for all in that sense. The stimuli were tremendous. I got interested in the history of science in a very amateurish way and things that I put into my The Intellectual Origins of the English Revolution arose out of our discussions on science. We were influencing each other but as individuals. After 1957 it was one of the things I most missed about leaving the party, in fact I may have been a little starry eyed about the party because of the group. We kept in touch with each other of course, including with people who stayed in the party. Eric Hobsbawm in some extraordinary way stayed on. I never quite understood why he did. I think he was daring them to expel him all the time. It didn’t seem to make any difference to our relationship as friends.

Although your work has had a tremendous influence there isn’t the same core of such committed people as you were then. How would you explain that?

It is perhaps because so much of Marxism has now been accepted by historians. It may be connected with the change in vocabulary. Both Eric Hobsbawm and myself discovered later that we changed how we expressed ourselves at about the same time because we both thought it was more important to be read than to use the ‘right’ jargon. But I really can’t give an overall explanation.

Isn’t it more to do with the fortunes of the organised left? Political organisation provides the framework within which people discuss and argue over problems, holding together Marxists and creating a forum for Marxist debate.

I think that is very important for developing ideas. One of the important things about the historians’ group was that it formed about 1945, at a high point in left thinking in England. It was composed of pretty high level historians. The fact that we divided up into our four sections to discuss our specialisms, and each of the groups had high level professional discussions shows it as something a bit different from Marxist education. Students came along but the actual discussion was very professional and technical and I think that was its success and also perhaps why it didn’t last. People started to drop away for all sorts of reasons during the 1950s. It had been a very fortunate conjuncture. A lot of left wing people had just left the army, they were fed up with everything, got together at that time full of excitement and optimism.

Were most of the people involved at the beginnings of an academic career?

Yes mostly. Some of us had been appointed in the 1930s. Maurice Dobb and Leslie Morton were of course well established. Leslie Morton was another good pricker of bubbles, good at telling academics when they were getting too academic. But mostly the others were just getting their first academic jobs or jobs as researchers. It was very fortunate that you could get enough young eager people who wanted to discuss at that sort of level. I’d love to have a group of people with whom to discuss any book I was writing. But, on the whole, English academics are not very good at that sort of thing. They like to do their own thing. The idea that you could write a better book if you sat down and argued about it is not very widely held. It is not part of the English academic tradition.

What does your new book cover?

It’s got quite a lot about the importance of the English bible in connection with English nationalism. From very early days, the bible, Protestantism and nationalism went together. The bible was of tremendous use for Protestant propaganda, people learnt to read in order to read the bible. It was very important for the development of English literature in the 16th century. Translations of the psalms were important – everyone worth his salt tried his hand at translations of the psalms. Biblical drama was a popular propaganda aid in the reigns of Henry VIII and Edward VI.

Everyone in the 16th and 17th centuries tended to express themselves in biblical terms. The meaning of these terms becomes extended. Cain becomes not only a bad man, but a symbol of the ruling class. Nimrod becomes not only a bad usurping ruler, but again a symbol of any sort of tyranny or persecution. Everyone thought of politics in biblical terms and claimed biblical authority. Millenarianism, the main ideology of the radicals, was very important in bringing about regicide. When you have to go against the law of the land you can only do it with reference to a higher truth. John Cooke, the prosecutor of Charles I, says that the law is one thing but the law of god is something higher, and when necessary the law of god must overrule accepted legal judgement and precedents. At crucial stages the bible gave people the courage to do things they wouldn’t have done otherwise. Cromwell genuinely believed that he and Christ’s people knew what Christ wanted and they were going to do it.

An example is that Charles I was referred to as ‘the Man of Blood’, which just sounds like a term of abuse. In fact it’s a very precise quotation from Numbers 33 which says that if a man sheds blood his blood must be shed or the blame will fall on the whole community. So after the second civil war which, it was clear, had been started by Charles, not by his evil advisers, it was argued that if the Man of Blood wasn’t brought to justice the whole community was responsible, or at least parliament’s army that fought in the second civil war was responsible. So the idea of the Man of Blood was decisive for regicides; it justified their determination to have Charles’s head.

But there comes a point when so many people get so many things out of the bible that it becomes useless since it doesn’t give any clear and agreed line. This is very important for the decline of the bible in the later 17th century as a political text as well as for the decline of radicalism. The radicals lost a very important focus. Again you might draw analogies with Eastern Europe. The lack of an agreed ideology makes you sceptical about the basis of your actions. They used to say it was god who called the Long Parliament, not Charles I, and it was god who executed Charles I. But then you had to say it was god who bought back Charles II in 1660. When you got to that the whole idea became a nonsense. Providential history is all right so long as your side is winning, but it’s awful when it goes the other way. By the end of the 17th century the bible is no longer looked on as a guide for political action. In 1657 an MP was laughed at in the House of Commons for quoting the bible too often. That couldn’t have happened ten years earlier. In 1697, in one of Vanbrugh’s plays, Lady Brute is reminded that the good book says you should love your enemies; she answers immediately, ‘That may be a fault in the translation’. In 1660 Samuel Fisher, an ex-baptist Quaker, published an enormous tome in which he proved that the bible couldn’t be the word of god because it was so contradictory and inconsistent. This summed up two decades of biblical criticism’. Spinoza read Fisher, and through him those ideas passed into the ideas of the Enlightenment.

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