The two souls of Christopher Hill

Submitted by Anon on 2 July, 2003 - 9:18

Alan Johnson concludes his appreciation of the Marxist historian who wrote about the 17th century and the English Revolution

We have to be careful in appropriating Hill's history-writing. He is contradictory and uncertain on some crucial questions. In parts of his oeuvre Hill is not alive to the qualitative difference between a bourgeois and a working class revolution. The former is necessarily minoritarian and self-deluding. The latter is necessarily majoritarian and self-conscious. Hill (rather like Isaac Deutscher) tended to conflate the two and read the dynamics of the former onto the latter. But in other places Hill is clear that on the left wing of the bourgeois revolution emerged something entirely new in human history, the presentiment of self-emancipation.

The "From Above" Hill

The problem of the "giddy multitude" during the English Revolution was real enough: "an illiterate, uneducated people would no more vote for a sophisticated commonwealth of virtue than the natural rulers would". Hill criticised the Levellers for having "never faced the necessity of holding the rest of the population down" while "the sovereign people were being educated up to their new responsibilities". The CP background can be seen very close to the surface of Hill's writing at times. Hill was attracted by the sentiment of Colonel John Jones (whom he introduces to us as "that shrewd and thoughtful observer"): "I had rather do a people good though against their wills, than please them in show only".

Norah Carlin was moved to bitterly complain of Hill: "Perhaps the defeat of the Levellers and the Diggers were inevitable, but that does not mean we have to cheer on those who brought it about, such as Oliver Cromwell". Is Carlin fair? I do not think Hill "cheered on" Oliver. We can see in Hill exactly what Hill saw in Milton: the "reluctance of the thought". Yet, we have to say that, in Hill as in Milton, the thought is there.

The real problem with Hill is that he frequently treats the problem of the "giddy multitude" in the English bourgeois Revolution of the 17th century as if it were a model for the socialist revolution in the 20th. In God's Englishman he argues the problem of the electorate "recurred in later revolutions". In Milton and the English Revolution: "We are facing here the problem of any revolutionary minority which claims to act on behalf of the people, whether this is expressed by John Jacques Rousseau as forcing to be free or by the Bolsheviks as the dictatorship of the proletariat". Again: "there was no solution to the perpetual problem of what the relation was to be between the rule of the saints and the remainder of the people". That word "perpetual" marks the problem with his entire line of argument. Oddly Hill employs here a transhistorical conception of revolution. A historical understanding of revolution must begin from the fact that the modern working class, unlike "the middling sort" of the 17th century, needs no "saints" to rule over it, nor poor to rule over. It has, potentially, the capacity to lead a movement "of the immense majority in the interests of the immense majority". The European revolution of 1917-1923 might have come off in a way the dreams of Winstanley never could have.

The "From Below" Hill

The historian Peter Linebaugh has written that on the left wing of the English Revolution "the world was shown a new type of leadership" based upon an "unheard of power". Hill does far more than recover and celebrate this new type of leadership. In his plain russet-coated prose, he tells us much about its conditions of its emergence, strengths and weaknesses, and why, in the organic crisis of the mid-17th century, it had to fail.

Hill shows us the new politics embodied in the likes of Leveller "William Walwyn and hundreds like him… walking the streets of London, discussing, organising, canvassing the 'fine notions' with the intention of making them 'take in the world'."

Hill clearly sided with Winstanley when he looked forward to a time when all officers should be elected annually so that "whereas many have their portions to obey, so many may have their turn to rule". The radical protestants, Hill noted, stressed "the intellectual element in religion as against the sacramental and liturgical". The sermon was "directed to men's understandings" and the object of worship was to "rouse men to think and act about the problems of this world". Winstanley believed "new ideas drawn from experience were better than traditional untested truths", a view that has the root of the matter in it as far as democratic leadership goes. When Archbishop Laud, in 1629, denounced the protestant lecturers and mechanic preachers as "the people's creatures" who "blow the bellows of their sedition" he touched on the combination of leading (blowing the bellows) and following (the people's creatures) which marks all democratic leadership.

The authentic voice of the democratic leader can be heard, for the first time, on the left wing of the English Revolution. In William Dell, telling his congregation that "the power is in you, the people; keep it, part not with it". In Walwyn's argument that, "The great things that have been done for the Parliament, have been done by the meaner sort of men". And in Overton's cry, "It must be the poor, the simple and mean things of this earth that must confound the mighty and strong". This note of self-reliance is truly revolutionary. It is in sharp contrast to the peasant revolts of medieval society which "threw up its own leaders, often claiming to be sent by God" who would "try to persuade gentlemen to come along with them, ostensibly under compulsion". The Cades, the Askes ran the risks and paid the penalties: the greater men could betray the revolt at the appropriate time and realign themselves with authority.

Hill relates the emergence of this new type of leadership to the dynamics of the bourgeois revolution. Parliament called on the lower orders as an object against the King but helped produce a new subject: "the people saw a door opening out of their own sphere and rushed through it". The traditional ruling class leaders now saw "leaders who had come to the fore in action" promoted. The Earl of Essex was left indignant at "the audacity of the common people".

In 1647, when the King was seized, "the initiative in this mass movement seems undoubtedly to have come from the rank and file". Joyce, when he seized Charles accompanied by a small group of soldiers, was asked who was in command. The answer "All commanded!" Joyce acted "as primus inter pares in what can well be likened to a military soviet". When asked by Charles for his commission he simply pointed to the troopers behind him. The historian Woolrych argues that the meaning of Joyce's gesture was not "might is right". Rather it meant that he derived his authority from the collective soldiery of the army, and exercised it by the advice and consent of those present. It is the most striking of many examples of the egalitarian camaraderie of the Agitator movement, especially in its earlier phases.

Underpinning this egalitarianism was another "momentous transition": from "historical mythology to political philosophy". When Rainsborough at Putney, invoked not the bible or the dubious precedents of old England but "the equality and reasonableness of the thing" he was, in a very English way, a new kind of leader founding a new kind of politics beyond myth and antiquarianism. Ironically, the man who most clearly understood the impact of democratic leadership on capacity was an enemy, Clement Walker, who said of the army radicals:

"They have cast all the mysteries and secrets of government… before the vulgar (like pearls before swine) and have taught both the soldiery and people to look so far into them as to ravel back all governments to the first principles of nature… They have made the people thereby so conscious and so arrogant that they will never find humility enough to submit to civil rule".

Struggling to achieve this in the 21st century we still have much to learn from the seventeenth century. And from Christopher Hill.

Hill and Stalinism

Was Hill a Soviet mole during World War Two when he worked for the Foreign Office? This was the charge levelled within one week of Hill's death by Anthony Glees, an academic, in The Times. After reading declassified papers Glees confronted Hill in 1985 and claims Hill confessed but managed to persuade Glees not to unmask an old man until after his death.

Glees claims that Hill concealed his membership of the CPGB to worm his way into the Foreign Office. Once there Hill pushed pro-Soviet memos up to Churchill and Eden, for instance proposing that all White Russian émigrés teaching in British universities be sacked and replaced by Soviet-approved staff. Hill was a close associate of a proven mole, Peter Smollet. Glees also hints darkly that Hill may have had some role in the recall to the Kremlin and execution of Grigori Saksin. Glees said Hill was "sinister and disgraceful". The allegations were laughed off by the historian and Communist Eric Hobsbawm. Hill's 1940 book The English Revolution, noted Hobsbawm, was published by Lawrence and Wishart, the CP publisher, and was a communist tract. Hill was obviously a communist and known as such before 1943.

Hill was certainly a loyal Stalinist in the 1930s and 1940s. A friend of Hill's recalled that during the Moscow Trials "in some perturbation I wrote Christopher asking what it was all about. I did not receive a reply and we did not get in touch again until after the war". Hill's wartime book The Soviets and Ourselves: Two Commonwealths was full of the usual apologetics and lies. Gertrude Himmelfarb, the neoconservative US historian, has noted Hill talking rubbish about Lysenkoism as late as 1951. But it should be remembered that even Edward Thompson, as late as 1955, was writing nonsense about the Soviet Union. In his study of William Morris, Thompson wrote that "Twenty years ago even among socialists and Communists, many must have regarded Morris's picture of 'A Factory as it Might Be' as an unpractical poet's dream: today visitors return from the Soviet Union with stories of the poet's dream already fulfilled".

In 1957, after Khrushchev's "revelations" about Stalin and the Soviet invasion of Hungary, Hill resigned from the CPGB. He had been appointed to an internal commission charged with the question of inner-party democracy. But the minority report drafted by himself, Peter Cadogan and Malcolm MacEwan was ignored, so he went.

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