From Socialist Worker Review, No. 69, October 1984.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
The Experience of Defeat: Milton and Some Contemporaries
Faber and Faber £12.50
‘IN the internal history of Great Britain, the principle of peaceful and gradual evolution is by no means as prevalent as stated by some Conservative philosophers. In the last analysis, all of modern England grew up out of the revolution in the seventeenth century.’
Trotsky wrote these words in 1925, as part of his polemic against Ramsay MacDonald and other Labour leaders, who opposed violence as ‘unBritish’ and insisted that socialism could only come gradually and peacefully (things haven’t changed much, have they?).
The English revolution of 1640–60 is certainly a problem for defenders of the status quo. How are they to admit that the entire basis of the British constitution – parliamentary sovereignty – derives from Charles I’s defeat and execution at the hands of Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army?
One way round this difficulty is to deny that the events of the mid-seventeenth century were a revolution. Much recent historical scholarship has been devoted to this end. For Tory historians like Hugh Trevor Roper (now Lord Dacre of Hitler’s Diary fame) the civil war was an unfortunate accident, the product largely of Charles I’s lack of political skill. The ‘Great Rebellion’ which haunted the imagination of subsequent generations has been dissolved into a patchwork of squabbles between local notables, lacking any wider meaning.
Standing firmly against the current of academic fashion is the Marxist historian Christopher Hill. Starting with his 1940 pamphlet The English Revolution, right up to his latest book, The Experience of Defeat, he has insisted on seeing the civil war as arising from the clash between developing capitalist relations of production in agriculture and commerce, and the efforts of the Stuart monarchy to establish an absolutist state along continental lines.
For this he has earned sometimes the most bitter of attacks from right-wing historians. One reason for this hostility is, I think, that Hill writes in such a way as constantly to make clear the connections between his socialist politics and historical research.
Thus his earlier writings are rather ‘orthodox’, influenced by the view of history developed by Kautsky and Plekhanov and taken over by Stalin as evolving in a predetermined order from one stage to another. An active member of the Communist Party History Group after the war, Hill tended to concentrate on the historically progressive features of the English revolution, the manner in which it eliminated the obstacles to the development of capitalism set by the quasi-absolutist Tudor and Stuart monarchy.
Hill left the CP in 1957, after the Hungarian revolution had been crushed. He has not abandoned the general analysis of the English revolution developed earlier, but his interest has shifted to the radical sects which that revolution produced, in whose beliefs and practices a far more thorough going revolution than Cromwell’s was prefigured.
The most outstanding result of this new focus to Hill’s work was The World Turned Upside Down (1972). This marvellous study of the Cromwellian underground shows how the overthrow of the monarchy took the lid off English society, allowing feverish social, religious, even sexual experimentation briefly to flourish.
Behind many of the weird heresies which flourished during the Interregnum of 1649–60 – Ranters, Seekers, Fifth Monarchists, Muggletonians – lay powerful aspirations to create a society which would conform neither to the old feudal order or to emergent capitalism. Hill accords pride of place among these groups to Gerrard Winstanley, and the Diggers, who sought a social revolution in which heaven would be brought down to earth, and the land owned in common.
The radicals’ hopes were dashed first by Cromwell’s Protectorate, a monarchy in all but name, and then by the restoration of Charles II in 1660. Hill shows how the Quakers evolved into a distinct sect in response to these defeats, abandoning their previous faith in political action, and renouncing violence as a means of realising their ideas.
This preoccupation with defeat was taken further in Milton and the English Revolution (1977). Hill’s highly controversial Milton is an intensely political figure, who was employed by the Commonwealth to defend their execution of Charles I, and who shared many of the radicals’ heresies, their concern with improving man’s condition in this world, not the next. Milton’s great poems, such as Paradise Lost, were, on this reading, in part a meditation on the reasons for the revolution’s failure.
Now in The Experience of Defeat Hill widens the focus to consider how, not just Milton, but other revolutionaries responded to the collapse of their hopes. In doing so, he dramatises the dilemma which they faced. For in what sense was the English revolution defeated? Its social and economic achievements were taken over by the restored monarchy as part of the price of the Stuarts’ return (when James II looked in 1688 like reneging on the deal, out he went, to be replaced be the more pliable William and Mary).
To dismantle the absolutist regime, the propertied classes of town and country had to mobilise the lower classes, especially the urban poor. By the outbreak of the civil war, probably a majority of the gentry had abandoned the parliamentary cause for the King out of fear of the masses. Those who did not, and especially the tough-minded lesser gentry around Cromwell, found themselves faced after 1645 with the Levellers, who championed the cause of the small property owner and demanded that he be enfranchised. Until they had got rid of the King, Cromwell and his allies leaned on the Levellers. Once Charles was dead, the Levellers were crushed, soon to be followed by the Diggers.
The same pattern was displayed during the Great French Revolution. The bourgeoisie split into radical and moderate wings, Jacobins and Girondins. The Jacobins mobilised the urban poor to beat the Girondins, execute Louis XVI and smash the armies sent against them by the rest of Europe. To avoid the danger of a more radical revolution, Robespierre and the other Jacobin leaders purged their own left wing, only in turn to be overthrown in the Thermidor coup. Subsequent bourgeois regimes reaped the benefits of the revolutionary violence inflicted by the Jacobins and their plebeian followers.
Hill shows how in the 1650s the radicals came increasingly to fear the masses. If given the vote, the people might vote for the restoration of the monarchy or demand an end to enclosures. The radicals opted instead for the rule of an enlightened minority – the ‘saints’. Just before the Restoration Milton argued that the only way to preserve the republic was through an oligarchy, arguing that it was ‘more just … that a lesser number compel a greater to retain … their liberty, than that a greater number for the pleasure of their baseness compel a less most injuriously to be their fellow slaves.’
The radicals looked to the army as the guarantee that the ‘saints’ would rule. Hill in his book on Milton draws an analogy with the Bolsheviks’ substitutionism after the disintegration of the Russian working class: ‘Similarly the New Model Army substituted itself for the people of England, for whom in 1647–9 it might possibly have claimed to speak and act.’ But the revolutionary army was systematically purged in the 1650s. By the end of the decade ‘the army had become a police force protecting the gains of its commanders.’
Military rule by Cromwell’s major-generals added to the revolution’s unpopularity. The ‘avarice and ambition’ of the generals became a constant target for the radicals. In 1660 their fears were realised – it was a Cromwellian general, George Monck, who brought back the King on behalf of the propertied classes, who believed that the monarchy would offer them more stability.
Hill argues that, for the honest revolutionary, there were two choices after 1660. One was that adopted by those influenced by the philosopher James Harrington. This was to see the revolution as a victory for a certain form of property, which survived the return of the monarchy. In other words, 1660 was not a defeat for capitalism. This was the view of the civil war taken by those who benefited, the Whig oligarchs of the next century.
The other choice was Milton’s. The great poet is for Hill a contradictory figure – an elitist with a ‘strong sense of the necessity of bourgeois society’ but one who shared the millenniary hopes of the late 1640s, when many believed that Charles’s fall was a portent of Christ’s return to overthrow all earthly thrones. Hill sees ‘Milton’s confidence in the ultimate victory of good over evil’ as bearing fruit in the rebirth of radical politics at the end of the eighteenth century.
In all this, it is difficult not to feel that Hill is drawing a political moral for the present. He no longer has the confidence in the inevitability of historical progress of his CP days. It has been replaced by a pessimism which makes it easier therefore to identify with defeated minorities like the republicans of Restoration England.
Hill constantly compares their lot with those of twentieth-century Marxists. Lenin during the years of reaction after 1905 is cited as a parallel to Milton. Disillusionment with Cromwell is compared to the lost illusions in Stalinist Russia which Hill himself shared. The Experience of Defeat concludes with these words: ‘In 1644 Milton saw England as “a nation of prophets”. Where are they now?’
This concern for the present is both a source of strength and of weakness. Hill has not sunk into bourgeois complacency, like so many ex-Communists, despite his years as the Master of Balliol. His loathing for the society which emerged from the English revolution is absolutely evident. Yet he draws too readily parallels between bourgeois and socialist revolutions.
Bourgeois revolutions, such as England 1640 and France 1789, are necessarily minority affairs. They are carried out to create the political prerequisites for the accumulation of capital – in other words, to lay the basis of a new form of class society, ruled the interests of a capitalist minority. The ambivalent attitude of a Cromwell or a Milton towards plebeian radicalism – readiness to use it, yet fear that it might escape control – was absolutely rational from their standpoint as bourgeois revolutionaries.
Socialist revolutions, however, are, Marx says in the Communist Manifesto movement of the overwhelming majority carried out by the mass of workers in their own interests. There is therefore absolutely no reason to slip into thinking, as Hill tends to, that any revolution must inevitably rely on an enlightened minority of ‘saints’.
Hill is led into this error, I think, both his own experience of Stalinism and by the persisting influence of CP ideas. Thirty years ago he wrote an essay called The Norman Yoke, in which he showed how English radicals from the seventeenth century till well into the nineteenth tended to see the ruling class as an alien group stemming from the Norman Conquest. This idea was used to justify a populist alliance of all classes against the foreign foe.
Now a bourgeois revolution of necessity involves a class alliance, the capitalist: mobilising the working masses to do their dirty work. To apply this strategy to contemporary capitalism is, however, to dissolve class into nation, socialist into bourgeois revolution.
None of this is to take away in the slightest from Christopher Hill as a historian. Anyone who hasn’t read The World Turned Upside Down has missed a great deal. Anyone who has will enjoy The Experience of Defeat when it appears in paperback.
Last updated: 8.3.2012