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Alex Callinicos


Righteous republicans

(December 1994)

From Socialist Review, No. 181, December 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The Experience of Defeat
by Christopher Hill
Bookmarks £9.95

‘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 17th century.’

Trotsky wrote these words in 1925. 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-17th century were a revolution. Much recent historical scholarship has been devoted to this end.

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 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.

Now in paperback, The Experience of Defeat widens the focus to consider how 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.

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.

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.

The radicals looked to the army as the guarantee that the ‘saints’ would rule. Hill in his book Milton and the English Revolution 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 1647–49 it might possibly have claimed to speak and act.’ But the revolutionary army was systematically purged in the 1650s.

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 – a Cromwellian general, George Monck brought back the King on behalf of the propertied classes.

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 milleniary 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 18th century.

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. His loathing for the society which emerged from the English Revolution is absolutely evident. Yet he draws too readily parallels between bourgeois and socialist revolution.

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 in 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 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’.

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 will enjoy The Experience of Defeat.

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