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Brian Manning

The legacy of Christopher Hill

(Summer 2003)

From International Socialism 2:99, Summer 2003.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Christopher Hill was especially conscious of the interaction between past and present. Attitudes towards the past and interpretations of history alter as a result of changes in contemporary society. [1] For him the most dramatic and far-reaching examples of the revolutionising of historical studies by present day politics were ‘women’s history’ and ‘history from below’.

‘Women’s history, I suppose, is the best advertisement for the beneficial result of asking of the past questions which arise from the present ... One of the things I am most ashamed of is that for decades I ... somehow assumed that’ political demands being made only in the name of men ‘had to be taken for granted in 17th century England. But if we are to understand that society we have to ask why it was taken for granted ... Once we ask the question, other questions are opened up’ and there has to be a huge rethinking about the past. [2]

‘The most fruitful change in historical attitudes in my time’, he wrote, ‘I think has been the emergence of "history from below" – the realisation that ordinary people have a history, that they may have played a greater part in determining the shape of the historical process, whether for change or for continuity, than we have thought’. [3] Attention had to shift from nobles, gentry, merchants and clergy to peasants, artisans and ‘the poor’, and their significant roles in the English Revolution. This was the product of a growing sense in the present that ‘ordinary people’ (I dislike the term) can change the world, and take inspiration from the history of popular movements.

Christopher Hill was opposed to the ‘departmentalisation of history’ and chopping it up into bits labelled ‘constitutional history’, ‘political history’, ‘economic history’, ‘religious history’, ‘literary history’, ‘women’s history’, and ‘people’s history’. [4]

The historian should not stay on the surface of events; his or her interest should not be limited to State Papers, Acts and Ordinances, decisions of judges and local magistrates ... He or she should listen – carefully and critically – to ballads, plays, pamphlets, newspapers, tracts ... to every source that can help him or her to get the feel of how people lived and in what ways their sensitivity differed from ours ... The historian must listen to alchemists and astrologers no less than to bishops, to demands of London crowds; and he or she must try to understand the motivation of rioters, whether they are labelled anti-Catholic or anti-enclosure rioters or simply food rioters. [5]

Whatever his starting point, Hill’s stress was always on the interconnectedness of different aspects of history, whether religion and society, or literature and politics. [6] This may be regarded as a chief aim of the Marxist interpretation of history. In his economic history of early modern England he said, ‘My aim has been all through to emphasise interaction between politics and economics, seeing neither as a sufficient cause in itself.’ Political revolution has economic causes, and political revolution transforms social and economic life. [7]

In the 1930s and 1940s he thought that the pendulum of historical studies had swung too far towards economic interpretations and he set himself to revive ‘interest in the ideas that motivated the 17th century revolutionaries’. [8] He recognised that the English Revolution took place in a world very different from our own – a world dominated by religion and religious idioms. He sought to dissociate Marxist history from economic determinism, and condemned the ‘crude’ belief that ‘the material conflicts are the only ones deserving serious analysis’. [9] ‘Marx himself did not fall into the error of thinking that men’s ideas were merely a pale reflection of economic needs ...’ [10] ‘Any adequate interpretation of the English Revolution must give full place to questions of religion and church government, must help us to grasp the political and social implications of theological heresy.’ [11]

He devoted a great deal of his historical work to the history of ideas. In his view this was essential for the study of revolution: ‘ not break lightly with the past: if they are to challenge conventionally accepted standards they must have an alternative body of ideas to support them ... Almost by definition, a great revolution cannot take place without ideas’. [12] ‘Shifts in ideas are therefore necessary if a revolution is to take place’. [13] This is as relevant to present day as to past politics.

‘What mattered in the English Revolution’, wrote Hill, ‘was that the ruling class was deeply divided at a time when there was much combustible material among the lower classes usually excluded from politics.’ [14] The ruling class was split over constitutional and ecclesiastical matters, but some artisans, apprentices and women demanded voices in questions of church and state. Hill suggested that there were two revolutions in mid-17th century England: one was a struggle for power between two sections of the ruling class, and the other was a struggle for a share in power by plebeian elements, often linked with demands for reform of the legal system and for the abolition of tithes (taxes for payment of the clergy), and sometimes expressing hostility to the ruling class. The latter frightened the propertied classes to reunite in order to reassert their dominance and settled the final outcome of the revolutions. [15]

Hill’s preliminary interpretation of the English Revolution was put forward in 1940 [16], and elaborated in a volume of documents, edited with Edmund Dell (a future Labour minister) in 1949, in which the introduction declared:

Our subject here is the story of how one social class was driven from power by another, and how the form of state power appropriate to the needs of the first was replaced by one appropriate to those of the second. The first class, the ruling class in England in the first decades of the 17th century, was a semi-feudal landed aristocracy ... The new class which grew up inside English feudal society ... was the bourgeoisie – merchants, industrialists, and landowners regarding their estates primarily as a source of money profits rather than as a means of maintaining feudal followers. [17]

Intensive research into the parties of the civil war rendered this interpretation unsustainable, and the struggle could not be demonstrated as having been between a ‘bourgeoisie’ and a ‘semi-feudal landed aristocracy’. In the 1960s and 1970s Hill abandoned the bourgeoisie.

‘The Marxist conception of a bourgeois revolution, which I find the most helpful model for understanding the English Revolution,’ he wrote, ‘does not mean a revolution made by the bourgeoisie.’ [18] There was no self conscious bourgeoisie which planned and willed the revolution. But the English Revolution was a bourgeois revolution because its outcome, though glimpsed by few of its participants, ‘was the establishment of conditions far more favourable to the development of capitalism than those which prevailed before 1640’. [19]

In the conjuncture of upheavals in the 1640s and 1650s, social forces and ideas were juxtaposed to each other, sometimes unrelated to the development of capitalism, sometimes assimilating with the development of capitalism. This conjuncture included ‘not only the individualism of those who wished to make money by doing what they wanted with their own, but also the individualism of those who wished to follow their own consciences in worshipping god, and whose consciences led them to challenge the institutions of a stratified hierarchical society’. [20] Among the outcomes stressed by Hill was the overthrow by popular resistance of the monopoly of the state church, to which all subjects were obliged by law to belong, and the creation of space for people to have alternatives and choices in religion, in what has been described as ‘free market Christianity’. The expropriation of poor peasants was not prevented by popular resistance during the revolution, and the process continued by which more and more people became landless and dependent on working as wage labourers. During the revolution black slave labour was imposed in British colonies, the slave trade was established, and white supremacy was asserted. This was confirmed and extended after 1660. Hill argued powerfully that the outcome of the revolution facilitated the development of capitalism. This was not the objective of the revolution but the result of social forces drawn in the wake of the revolution. [21]


1. C. Hill, Change and Continuity in 17th Century England (London 1974), p. 284.

2. C. Hill, History and the Present, in A Nation of Change and Novelty (London 1990), pp. 245–246.

3. Ibid., p. 245.

4. C. Hill, Intellectual Origins of the English Revolution (Oxford 1965), p. 300.

5. C. Hill, The English Bible and the Seventeenth Century Revolution (London 1993), pp. 436–437.

6. C. Hill, Milton and the English Revolution (London 1977).

7. C. Hill, Reformation to Industrial Revolution 1530–1780 (London 1969), p. 14.

8. C. Hill, Intellectual Origins of the English Revolution, op. cit., p. 6.

9. C. Hill, Economic Problems of the Church (Oxford 1956), pp. x, xiii–xiv.

10. C. Hill, Intellectual Origins of the English Revolution, op. cit., p. 3.

11. C. Hill, Puritanism and Revolution (London 1958), p. 29.

12. C. Hill, Intellectual Origins of the English Revolution, op. cit., pp. 1, 5–6.

13. C. Hill, Change and Continuity in 17th Century England, op. cit., p. 282.

14. C. Hill, A Bourgeois Revolution?, in J.G.A. Pocock (ed.), Three British Revolutions: 1641, 1688, 1776 (Princeton 1980), p. 124.

15. C. Hill, The Century of Revolution 1603–1714 (Edinburgh 1961), p. 188; C. Hill, The World Turned Upside Down (London 1972), p. 12.

16. C. Hill, The English Revolution, 1640 (London 1940).

17. C. Hill and E. Dell (eds.), The Good Old Cause: The English Revolution of 1640–60 (London 1949), pp. 20–21.

18. C. Hill, Change and Continuity in 17th Century England, op. cit., pp. 279–280.

19. C. Hill, A Bourgeois Revolution?, op. cit., pp. 110, 111, 115, 134.

20. Ibid., p. 112.

21. Ibid.; C. Hill, The Place of the 17th Century Revolution in English History, in A Nation of Change and Novelty, op. cit.

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