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John Rees

Revisionism refuted

(Spring 1991)

First published in International Socialism 2 : 50, pp. 125–131.
Transcribed by Camilla Royle.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

A review of Christopher Hill, A Nation of Change and Novelty, Radical Politics, Religion and Literature in Seventeenth Century England (London, 1990), £30, and John Morrill (ed.), Oliver Cromwell and the English Revolution (London, 1990), £8.95

We have waited some considerable time for Christopher Hill to enter the lists against the revisionist historians of the English Revolution. Of course Hill has taken the occasional potshot at the revisionists in articles and lectures, some of which form the basis for this book. But generally he seems to have stayed a little aloof, cultivating a disdain which still lingers in this book’s introduction where he claims, ‘we should not take these fashions too seriously: they go in cycles, and it is no doubt my age that makes me a little sceptical of latter-day “revisionist” historians who try to convince us that there was no revolution in 17th century England, or that if there was it had no long-term causes or consequences.’ [1]

But such dismissiveness is purely formal in a book whose whose object is to demolish the revisionist case in every area from economics to semantics. Such a coherent aim raises the book above the level of most collections of essays, including some of Hill’s own collections which his publishers have recently pushed at us with great frequency. This book has an impact much greater than the sum of its parts.

Hill begins with a robust defence of The place of the 17th century Revolution in English history, forcefully restating its longer term causes and consequences. Hill analyses how ‘Henry VII and Henry VIII reduced the power of the nobility; the gangs of retainers who used to terrorise the countryside added to the surplus agricultural labour created by the population explosion of the 16th century. There was no lack of personnel who could be employed in the merchant marine’ just at the time when, ‘as Bacon observed, the mariner’s compass opened up the world to European trade.’ [2]

But the monarchy was not the prime beneficiary of this weakening of the aristocracy, ‘Henry VIII’s ruinous French wars ... were paid for by the nationalisation and immediate privatisation of church property which might have financed ... the establishment of absolute monarchy.’ [3] The class which did gain from the Reformation were the gentry and yeoman farmers whose production was increasingly geared to the market: ‘The gentry whose forebears had plundered the monasteries were as reluctant to envisage the restoration of Catholicism as were more disinterestedly pious Protestants’. [4] Indeed, in spite of his revisionism John Morrill makes clear in the first essay of Oliver Cromwell and the English Revolution that Cromwell was actually pushed down from the gentry into the yeoman farmer layer for a significant period before the revolution.

Despite his connection with ancient riches, Cromwell’s economic status was much closer to that of the ‘middling sort’ and urban merchants than to the county gentry and governors. He always lived in towns, not in a country manor house; and he worked for a living. [5]

It was the class from which Cromwell came, and especially their representatives in the Commons, who were growing rich through trade. ‘In the early 17th century parliaments a third of the members of the House of Commons held investments in overseas trading companies.’ [6] Cromwell was linked to these interests by a number of family ties.

A weak aristocracy, a weakened crown and a middling layer who were enriching themselves came into conflict over two questions. Taxation was one. The crown needed money and in the Reformation it had lost the one source which might have made it independent, the land. Consequently it taxed the new middle classes – and taxed them harder than its aristocratic kinsmen. It was, of course, one such tax, Ship Money, that became an immediate cause of the revolution. After the revolution it would be different. Then ‘taxes fell more heavily on the landed class and the poor than on the middling sort which had hitherto borne the main financial burden ‘ [7]

The second point of conflict was the state’s ability to protect key sources of the middling sort’s wealth, agrarian capitalist production at home and trade abroad. Catholic restoration threatened the first – a threat that seemed real enough while Europe was embroiled in the Thirty Years War. Foreign navies and privateers threatened the second. The state’s financial weakness meant that it was unable to counter either threat convincingly, a fact publicly proclaimed when ‘in the 1630s Charles I ordered English merchants to stay out of the Mediterranean because he could not protect them there. The road out of the depression of the thirties for the English clothing industry seemed to be blocked by the government’s weakness.’ [8]

Thus the state would not protect the emerging bourgeoisie unless it could tax them and the bourgeoisie would not be taxed unless it controlled the state. It was on this rock that attempts at compromise between Charles I and parliament consistently foundered. Once again, it was different after the revolution:

The Long Parliament declared taxation levied without the consent of Parliament illegal. Taxes particularly obnoxious to the monied men were abolished-monopolies, forced loans, arbitrary fines, impositions – and were replaced by taxes imposed by Parliament ... In 1651 the Navigation Act was passed, declaring the whole British empire a closed trading area, in which only English merchants were to trade, and to take the profits of trade ... [this] would depend on sea power. The Dutch were virtually monopolising trade with English colonies, and they had a powerful navy; their republic was run by and for merchants. Before 1640 no English government would have been capable of taking them on. Between 1652 and 1673 the Dutch were forced in three wars to accept the exclusion of their merchants from the British empire. [9]

The same kind of transformation that swept the state and foreign policy also affected the economy:

Abolition of feudal tenures had the effect of freeing big landowners from frequent but irregular death duties, heavy enough to disrupt long term agricultural investment. Production could now be planned; this is the basis of English agricultural prosperity in the late 17th and 18th centuries ... Agriculture became what Edward Thompson called England’s greatest capitalist industry: aristocratic and court privileges, landlords’ rights over rivers and so on, which were to delay capitalist advance in pre-revolutionary France and elsewhere, were minimal in England. [10]

Hill is at his best here, moving backwards and forwards between the period before and the period after the revolution to demonstrate its enormous impact. His touch has always been less sure when dealing with the. role played by ideology and consciousness in making the revolution. This may seem an odd claim to make against a historian who is famous for rescuing the ideas of the radical revolutionaries of the 1640s from the dismissive sneers of establishment historians. Yet although Hill remains wedded to ‘history from below’, and is clear on how the ideas of the revolutionaries sprang from the world around them he is less clear on how they in turn shaped that world. He says:

The revolution was not planned, not willed. Some historians think there can have been no revolution if it was not planned, just as all strikes are made by wicked agitators. But parliament did not make the Revolution; no one advocated it ... For that matter, neither the French nor the Russian Revolutions were willed in advance by anyone. By 1917 the Bolsheviks building on English and French experience, were able to take advantage of a revolutionary situation; but they did not make the Revolution. A revolutionary situation developed when the Tsarist state collapsed, just as the English state collapsed in 1640; and the Bolsheviks were prepared to take advantage of it. Great revolutions are not made by conspiratorial minorities. [11]

This starts from a correct premise, that revolutions are great class uprisings whose initial outburst cannot be consciously planned, but then seems to draw a number of false conclusions. These are: i) that the Bolsheviks were a ‘conspiratorial minority’ who simply ‘took advantage of’ an existing revolutionary situation, ii) the suggestion that it is possible to draw direct comparisons between bourgeois and workers’ revolutions, and iii) that no organised, conscious force of any description was present in the 1640s.

Firstly, the Bolsheviks were not a conspiratorial minority in October 1917. They commanded a majority in the Soviets and organised openly. Without such organisation it is highly unlikely that the revolution would have been successful. In this sense they did not simply ‘take advantage of the revolution’, they were an essential component in making it. They could only play such a role because they had predicted a revolution and built their party when they were a minority.

Secondly, because the working class is formed in a society which has far greater control over nature and over its own working than feudal society, because the working class is a collective class (unlike the bourgeoisie) and because the working class is an exploited class (again unlike the bourgeoisie), it has the capacity to form a clear, independent class consciousness in a way that was impossible for the bourgeoisie hence its capacity to create a scientific critique of society and a conscious revolutionary party.

Thirdly, does this then mean that there was no revolutionary leadership and no revolutionary ideology in the bourgeois revolution? Did Cromwell and the Independents simply react to events? Clearly this is wrong. Cromwell, the Independents, the Levellers and the army agitators did develop in the course of the revolution a clearer conception of their goals – a bourgeois republic. They did develop the organisation to achieve that end, the New Model Army. They did begin to theorise, or others who supported them, like Milton, did theorise about what they were doing.

In fact Johann Sommerville’s contribution to Oliver Cromwell and the English Revolution is the book’s best essay precisely because it shows just how strongly the ideas of representative, democratic government had developed before the revolution and how quickly they came to dominate the thinking of the parliamentarians once the revolution was under way. He argues:

It is sometimes mistakenly suggested that the civil war lacked an ideological dimension, or that if it possessed such a dimension it was overridingly religious and not political or constitutional in character. In fact royalists generally claimed that the king ‘s power derived from God alone, while parliamentarians usually sought its origins in an act of transference by the people. [12]

These goals, organisation and theories were part of the parliamentarians’ ability to make a revolution. They necessarily expressed themselves in a pre-scientific language, often religiously but also (and this has been too little investigated) simply and pragmatically, as befits an already partly established business class. Nevertheless, they did, insofar as historical conditions would allow, make a revolution and made it to some degree consciously. At the very least they knew what they fought for far more clearly than the class which opposed them.

Hill is less sharp than he should be on these questions precisely because the popular frontism of his Communist Party days seems to have left him methodologically confused, unable to properly distinguish the defining characteristics of bourgeois and proletarian revolutions. This is a weakness which is embarrassingly obvious in his Lenin and the Russian Revolution.

Part of the difficulty in piecing together the ideology of the revolutionaries is that so much of what people thought about the state was driven underground. Hill is back on safer ground when he rounds on those historians who take state papers and official accounts at face value. As he says about the opposition to Ship Money, ‘Silence in public about the legality of the tax is no more evidence of approval than silence about the desirability of communism in Romania before 1989 was evidence that all Romanians were enthusiastic communists.’ [13]

Hill does much in his chapter on Political Discourse in Early 17th Century England to show that, although there was no pre-formed revolutionary ideology in England before 1640, there were emerging themes of resistance and opposition to the Stuart state that were common to many of the middling sort. Hobbes, for instance, recorded the lesson which London citizens took from the successful revolt of the Dutch: that ‘the like change of government would to them produce the like prosperity’. So some, perhaps, did look forward to revolutionary changes. What is more, they were apt to use the word ‘revolution’ to describe what they wanted.

Hill has done every historian of the revolution a service by establishing this fact in his chapter The word Revolution. Anyone reading about the English Revolution will very quickly come across the argument that there couldn’t have been a revolution since the 17th century knew no word to describe such an event. In the 17th century, the argument runs, revolution meant to turn full circle, not a dramatic change of government or a social transformation. Hill’s encyclopedic knowledge of the 17th century makes short work of this idea, citing authors in 1648-9 referring to ‘the revolutions and changes in government’. [14] In fact one feature of Hill’s style, irritating in other circumstances, is put to devastating polemical use here: he simply piles quotation upon quotation to show that the word revolution was used to mean sudden political change.

The same method also serves him well in his Abolishing the Ranters. This is a direct reply to J.C. Davis’s book, Fear, Myth and History: the Ranters and the Historians. Davis argues that the Ranters are a double myth. Firstly they were invented in the 17th century by royalists and other enemies of the radical sects as a kind of ‘red menace’, a stick with which to beat opponents. Secondly the Ranters were reinvented in the 20th century by left wing historians with a case to prove. Once again Hill piles up the quotations from those who were the Ranters’ friends and enemies (and from those who were neither) to prove their existence. Just for good measure he adds two postscripts on new proofs of the Ranters’ existence which have come to light since he wrote the original article.

If there were any justice Davis would be ashamed to appear in print again. Unfortunately he has contributed a chapter on Cromwell’s religion to Oliver Cromwell and the English Revolution. Even more unfortunately Davis is no more enlightening about Cromwell than he was about the Ranters. By focusing narrowly on Cromwell’s personal religious experience and theological ideas, about which relatively little is recorded anyway, he gives himself plenty of room to speculate on issues of little importance. Luckily the really interesting questions about Cromwell’s religion, how it fitted in with the political tasks he was set to perform, are covered in the following chapter by Anthony Fletcher.

Fletcher is certainly no Marxist, but he is at least a good enough academic historian to provide some interesting insights. He shows how Cromwell saw the elect, God’s chosen people, as an embattled but enlightened minority on whose side God fought and to whom God’s providence would grant victory. And he goes on to show how this could be an effective source of revolutionary fortitude. He is surely right to conclude that Cromwell:

believed that, just as God had delivered the Israelites from slavery in Egypt and Babylon, so now God had chosen him to lead a new chosen people towards a new Jerusalem. In this sense his regime. from first to last, was bound to be intensely ideological. Yet Cromwell’s providentialism was always tempered by a sense of circumstances. It enabled him to pursue long-term goals but adapt to short-term exigencies. The dynamic of his regime was provided by the constantly shifting relationship between his personal spiritual ponderings and the unfolding of the political process. [15]

Strangely, this is a more dialectical approach than Hill is sometimes able to produce, even if its materialist moorings are less secure.

Overall, however, Morrill’s book does not bear close comparison with A Nation of Change and Novelty or indeed with Hill’s own splendid biography of Cromwell, God’s Englishman. Collectively the eight historians who write in Oliver Cromwell and the English Revolution may provide the occasional insight which Hill has missed or a detail which he has overlooked – but to say that is to demonstrate Hill’s success, even in purely academic terms. And there is so much else in Hill which his competitors do not even attempt to match. There is his commitment to history from below, his efforts in two good chapters to integrate literary study with history, his refusal to be restricted by narrow academic specialism and his determination that history must speak to the present. In his final chapter, History and the Present, Hill politely (perhaps too politely) takes the Thatcher years to task – for censorship, for jingoistic history teaching, for ignoring the oppressed and exploited and devaluing their traditions of struggle. He concludes:

I have no big generalisations to offer about what history is or should be, and that is a properly sceptical conclusion. Let me try one from Nietzsche. He said that ‘history keeps alive ... the memory of the great fighters against history – the blind power of the actual.’ The past is going to have power over us anyway, but we need not be totally blind. Within limits we can co-operate with or oppose what seem to be the dominant trends. But that requires an understanding of history as a process, not just a bran-tub of anecdotes. [16]

He goes on to say it would be ‘nicer still if knowledge led to action’. Whatever Hill’s faults, those are better conclusions than many others have drawn at the end of the Thatcher era.


1. C. Hill, A Nation of Novelty and Change, London 1990, p. 1.

2. Ibid., p. 7.

3. Ibid., p. 8.

4. Ibid., p. 9.

5. J. Morrill, The making of Oliver Cromwell, in Oliver Cromwell and the English Revolution, London 1990, p. 22.

6. C. Hill, op. cit., p. 7.

7. Ibid., p. 10.

8. Ibid., p. 9.

9. Ibid., pp. 10–11.

10. Ibid., pp. 14–15.

11. Ibid., pp. 18–19.

12. J. Sommerville, Oliver Cromwell and English Political Thought, in Oliver Cromwell and the English Revolution, op. cit., p. 240.

13. C. Hill, op. cit., p. 43.

14. Ibid., p. 89.

15. A. Fletcher, Oliver Cromwell and the Godly Nation, in Oliver Cromwell and the English Revolution, op. cit., p. 212.

16. Hill, op. cit., p. 257.

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