Thursday, March 12, 2009

*The Revolutionary Ebb- Christopher Hill's English Revolution

Click on title to link to Wikipedia's entry for James Harrington one of the republican theorists (and founder of the Rota Club) mentioned by Christopher Hill in the book reviewed below.

Book Review

The Experience Of Defeat: Milton and Some Contemporaries, Penguin Books, New York, 1984

The first two paragraphs here have been used elsewhere in reviews of Professor Hill’s work.

The name and work of the late British Marxist historian Christopher Hill should be fairly well known to readers of this space who follow my reviews on the subject of the 17th century English Revolution that has legitimately been described as the first one of the modern era and that has had profound repercussions, especially on the American Revolution and later events on this continent. Christopher Hill started his research in the 1930’s under the tremendous influence of Karl Marx on the sociology of revolution, the actuality of the Soviet experience in Russia and world events such as the Great Depression of that period and the lead up to World War II.

Although Hill was an ardent Stalinist, seemingly to the end, his works since they were not as subjected to the conforming pressures of the Soviet political line that he adhered to are less influenced by that distorting pressure. More importantly, along the way Professor Hill almost single-handedly brought to life the under classes that formed the backbone of the plebeian efforts during that revolution. We would, surely know far less about Ranters, panters, Shakers, Quakers and fakers without the sharp eye of the good professor. All to the tune of, and in the spirit of John Milton’s "Paradise Lost", except instead of trying to explain the ways of god to man the Professor tried to explain ways of our earlier plebeian brothers and sisters to us.

In a sense this is a companion book to Hill’s earlier work on Milton’s role in the English Revolution and its aftermath that I have previously reviewed in this space (“Milton And The English Revolution”). However, the question posed by Hill has larger implications for radicals today. We have become, if we are in any way familiar with the trajectories of subsequent revolutions, especially the French and the Russian, painfully aware that revolutions flow and ebb. Not all the way back to the old regime, for the most part, but far enough back to cause anguish and demoralization in those who stood in the forefront of the revolution when it counted.

Not everyone, however, reacted to the new political realities in the same way. Some welcomed the new ‘conservative’ regimes, some stood on the side lines and some pondered what to do next. Thus we have such counterposed representative figures as Babeuf and Talleyrand in the French revolution or Trotsky and Molotov in the Russian. Needless to say, this phenomenon takes on a life of its own. However, as Professor Hill argues for the English Revolution and we should argue today this is no reason to give up on revolutions. Rather it is more necessary to learn to do a better job next time, if one gets the chance.

As for the English Revolution itself Professor Hill goes through his paces in pointing out the reactions of various factions and grouping within English society as the revolutionary events unfolded. Certainly the period just prior to the restoration was significantly difference from that early euphoria in the days of the military fight against the king. Thus for those religious radicals who thought that 1640 meant ‘Second Coming’ their reactions, most notably that of the Quakers after 1960, were to become quiet and inward-looking. For those like James Harrington and the Rota Club the restoration was more of a return to equilibrium and thus their reactions were mixed. Samuel Pepys, the famous diarist, is the ideal representative of this trend. The former Milton associate the poet Dryden can be taken as more extreme abject apologist.

For those intimately identified with the execution of Charles I the choices were grimmer. The executioner’s ax or flight. For those who were disturbed by the excess of the lower orders, like the clergyman Baxter, the restoration represented divine retribution against the ‘ungodly’. And for the literary lights like Milton it was time to reflect on the struggle and how to drive it forward even if this was a more circumspect propaganda effort than his previous work of behalf of the Commonwealth. Once again, for those familiar with Professor Hill’s work he has, like his muse Milton, tried to explain the ways of the English Revolution to today’s plebes. Kudos.


If John Milton was the literary muse of the English Revolution then the Diggers and their leader, Gerrard Winstanley, were the political muses.

The World Turned Upside Down

We will not worship the God they serve, a God of greed who feeds the rich while poor folk starve.
In 1649 to St. George's Hill
A ragged band they called the Diggers came to show the people's
They defied the landlords, they defied the laws
They were the dispossessed reclaiming what was theirs.
We come in peace, they said, to dig and sow
We come to work the lands in common and make the waste
ground grow

This earth divided we will make whole
So it may be a common treasury for all "**
The sin of property we do disdain
No man has any right to buy or sell the earth for private gain

By theft and murder they took the land
Now everywhere the walls spring up at their command
They make the laws to chain us well
The clergy dazzle us with heaven, or they damn us into hell

We will not worship the God they serve,
a God of greed who feeds the rich while poor folk starve
We work and eat together, we need no swords
We will not bow to masters, nor pay rent to the lords

Still we are free, though we are poor
Ye Diggers all, stand up for glory, stand up now!
From the men of property the orders came
They sent the hired men and troopers to wipe out the Diggers'

Tear down their cottages, destroy their corn
They were dispersed - only the vision lingers on
Ye poor take courage, ye rich take care
This earth was made a common treasury for everyone to share
All things in common, all people one
They came in peace - the order came to cut them down


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