Christopher Hill

Christopher Hill (06 February 1912–23 February 2003)

Today is the 110th anniversary of the birth of Christopher Hill (06 February 1912–23 February 2003), who was born on this date in 1912.

The twentieth century saw a number of prominent Marxists historians in the UK, including E. P. Thompson, Eric Hobsbawm, Rodney Hilton, George Rudé, V. G. Kiernan, A. L. Morton, and Christopher Hill, inter alia. These Marxist historians are often associated with the slogans “history from below” and “history from the bottom up,” which are the slogans of social history, but it was social history specifically pursued from a Marxist angle. (At the same time, there was an influential school of scientific Marxists in the UK, sometimes called the “red scientists,” including Conrad Waddington, J. D. Bernal, J. B. S. Haldane, Lancelot Hogben, and others.)

The most famous work to come from the British Marxist historians was undoubtedly E. P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class. Thompson opens the book with a ham-handed discussion of class and class consciousness, and I am frankly surprised that anyone continued reading after Thompson begins in this way. But they did. However, Hill doesn’t subject his readers to anything like this. Hill is a supple and entertaining writer, who remains readable even when trying to make the case for a communist Utopia that almost happened in early modern England. (I am here reminded of the book How the Cold War Transformed Philosophy of Science: To the Icy Slopes of Logic, in which author George A. Reisch paints a misty-eyed picture of a lost epoch of communist philosophy that didn’t happen because it was displaced by logical positivism.)

We can compare the tradition of Marxist historiography to Christian historiography, and just as one can read St. Augustine or Bossuet and learn something without necessarily endorsing the metaphysical framework in which they interpret history, so too we can read E. P. Thompson and Christopher Hill and learn something from them, even if we do not endorse their particular conception of history. And just as there were those who have dissented from Christian historiography, even when this was the dominant narrative, there were those who dissented from Marxist historiography when it was the dominant narrative. Gordon Leff, for example, wrote a couple of books that skewered Marxist historiography, The Tyranny of Concepts and History and Social Theory, the latter being an excellent introduction to historiography.

Christopher Hill can be thought of as being something like a British Foucault. Whereas Foucault immersed himself in the scientific literature of what he called the “classical age” (which more-or-less corresponds with the early Enlightenment), Hill immerses himself in the pamphlet literature of 17th century England, which constitutes a kind of prelude to the Enlightenment proper. Recall that Voltaire, that paradigmatic figure of the Enlightenment, praised English science and English scientists of the 17th century, and wrote his Letters on England in order to introduce their work in France, so that the period that was the focus of Hill’s research was intimately connected with the period that was the focus of Foucault’s research. But while Voltaire unabashedly admired Newton, here is Hill’s sketch of Newton:

“Sir Isaac’s twisted, buttoned-up personality may help us to grasp what was wrong with the society which deified him. So may Dean Swift, the fiercest critic of the new world in which money ruled, whose ‘excremental vision’ extended backwards to a golden age when gold and repression were alike unknown.This society, which on the surface appeared so rational, so relaxed, might perhaps have been healthier if it had not been so tidy, if it had not pushed all its contradictions underground: out of sight, out of conscious mind.” (The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas during the English Revolution, p. 385)

Hill focused on the English Revolution of 1688, and more generally the 17th century context of the Glorious Revolution. In The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas during the English Revolution, Hill focused on radical pamphleteers — Levelers, True Levelers, Diggers, Seekers, Ranters, and Quakers, inter alia — who promoted a vision of English society that Hill believed exemplified some of the ideals of Marxism. Hill repeatedly invokes what he calls the “Protestant ethic,” which he characterizes as ultimately having displaced the ideals of these radicals, once the brief period of press freedom from 1641–1660 came to an end. However, Hill rarely mentions sola scriptura, the priesthood of all believers, salvation by grace alone, or other important Protestant theological concepts, but rather characterizes the Protestant ethic as “…an emphasis on the religious duty of working hard in one’s calling, of avoiding the sins of idleness, waste of time, over-indulgence in the pleasures of the flesh” (op cit., p. 324) and, “Protestantism relied on the sense of guilt, of sin, to internalize an ethic of effort, thrift, industry.” (p. 388)

Here is a paragraph from the introduction to The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas during the English Revolution (p. 15):

“There were, we may oversimplify, two revolutions in midseventeenth-century England. The one which succeeded established the sacred rights of property (abolition of feudal tenures, no arbitrary taxation), gave political power to the propertied (sovereignty of Parliament and common law, abolition of prerogative courts), and removed all impediments to the triumph of the ideology of the men of property — the protestant ethic. There was, however, another revolution which never happened, though from time to time it threatened. This might have established communal property, a far wider democracy in political and legal institutions, might have disestablished the state church and rejected the protestant ethic.”

This theme is continued throughout the book. Here is another example in the same vein:

“There had been moments when it seemed as though from the ferment of radical ideas a culture might emerge which would be different both from the traditional aristocratic culture and from the bourgeois culture of the protestant ethic which replaced it. We can discern shadows of what this counter-culture might have been like. Rejecting private property for communism, religion for a rationalistic and materialistic pantheism, the mechanical philosophy for dialectical science, asceticism for unashamed enjoyment of the good things of the flesh, it might have achieved unity through a federation of communities, each based on the fullest respect for the individual. Its ideal would have been economic self-sufficiency, not world trade or world domination.” (op. cit., p. 341)

Hill also addresses the familiar question of how and why each generation writes its own history, and gives a nice summary of his position:

“History has to be rewritten in every generation, because although the past does not change the present does; each generation asks new questions of the past, and finds new areas of sympathy as it re-lives different aspects of the experiences of its predecessors. History has to be rewritten in every generation, because although the past does not change the present does; each generation asks new questions of the past, and finds new areas of sympathy as it re-lives different aspects of the experiences of its predecessors.” (p. 15)

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