‘We Still Have Much to Learn from the Seventeenth Century’

Following as it does from that of Rodney Hilton last June, the recent death of Christopher Hill at the age of 91 marks the passing of another important member of that remarkable levy of twentieth-century British Marxist Historians (prominent in whose ranks stand, amongst others, Maurice Dobb, Eric Hobsbawm, Victor Kiernan, George Rudé, Dorothy Thompson, E P Thompson, Raphael Samuel, John Saville and Raymond Williams). Hill, however, uniquely among this pantheon, was able to win an unprecedented hearing and an acceptance within mainstream academe on his own terms as a serious historian in his own right; unlike, for example, E P Thompson, who shunned the pursuit of academic glory, preferring in its place a lifelong commitment to active politics (for which he deservedly won the respect of generations of footsoldiers of the left), or Hobsbawm, whose florescent reputation these days is rather more of the Sunday-supplement variety. In fact, such was Hill’s mainstream prestige within British – or rather English – academia that his interpretation on his speciality subject – seventeenth-century England, or, to put it another away, the English Revolution and civil war – although not nowadays accepted as the near orthodoxy it once was, is still for many entering the fray of debate around this period a necessary starting point, even if a starting point from which to develop a critique. Thus any assessment that is drawn up of Hill’s intellectual career must take account of both of the elements that make up the double-handed adjective ‘Marxist historian’: how did Marxist theory affect Hill’s work, and to what degree was he as a historian successful in developing a Marxist account of English-British history within a non-Marxist, if not actively anti-Marxist, academic milieu?

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The Debate on the Bourgeois Revolution Revisited

Recently, some French historians have called for an end to the discussion of the causes and meaning of the French Revolution, declaring it to be ‘terminated’. But an occurrence that raises such fundamental philosophical and moral questions can never end. For the dispute is not only over what has happened in the past but also over what may happen in the future.

The object of the notes below is to argue the following:

  • That the traditional Marxist conception of bourgeois revolution is­ – with serious consequences for both Marxists and Marxism – fundamentally flawed.
  • That, this notwithstanding, Marxism retains its validity as a tool of historical enquiry. The problem is not that Marxism itself is ‘wrong’ but that it has been consistently misunderstood and misapplied by generations of Marxists, not least in the field of historiography.
  • That the debate on the origin and nature of the bourgeois revolutions is no mere scholastic obscurantism but rather has, on a number of different levels, a practical and increasingly urgent relevance.

The classical Marxist model, developed with regard to the eighteenth-century French Revolution, painted a picture of bourgeois revolution as a result of a clash between, on the one hand, an ascendant capitalist bourgeoisie (drawing behind it the plebeian masses) attempting to free itself from the strictures of an over-arching feudal order, and, on the other, a reactionary feudal aristocracy intent on maintaining a controlling position in political and economic life.The ensuing struggle, political in form, focusing on control of the apparatus of the state, was rooted in an antagonism between two different forms of socio-economic structure, represented by antagonistic social classes:he revolution was social in content, bilateral in terms of protagonists, and ‘national’ in geographical extent. Its result was the inauguration of a new social order based on the predominance of the capitalist mode of production and the social and political ascendancy of the bourgeoisie.

This model of bourgeois revolution, articulated over the course of the middle third of the twentieth century by historians with strong ideological and/or organisational links with the Communist Parties, enjoyed a great deal of acceptance within mainstream historiography. But the onslaught of the so-called ‘revisionist’ interpretations of the French Revolution over the course of the 1960s and 70s which the Marxist model inevitably produced left the latter in a state of disrepute. And in this respect it is necessary to say that on practically every point the revisionists have been proved right over the Marxists.

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The Antinomies of Perry Anderson

The best way to describe my present thinking is to run through the sequence of events that have led me to be, intellectually speaking, where I am now.

At some point in the early 1990s I read Perry Anderson’s essay ‘Origins of the Present Crisis’. I can remember it having a profound effect on me. What Anderson had argued (the essay was written in 1964) was that, contrary to the accepted historical wisdom of both the right and the left, what typified British society was its relative backwardness—social, political, cultural—and what explained British backwardness was a premature and backward seventeenth-century bourgeois revolution. British historical development was, in this respect, cast as unique within Europe. Anderson followed ‘Origins’ in the 1960s with further essays pointing up the consequences of British cultural and political backwardness; along with essays by Tom Nairn pursuing a similar vein, their central conclusions are what has come to be known as the ‘Nairn-Anderson Theses’.

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Notes on the ‘Nairn-Anderson Theses’

What follows is an initial and provisional assessment of the strengths and weaknesses, ellipses and omissions, and contemporary relevance of the series of texts that have come to be known as the ‘Nairn-Anderson Theses’.

The key tenets of the ‘Theses’ in my view can be broken up into three essential themes.

1. An articulation of the notion of British ‘particularism’. Even though in the political tradition from which I come expressions of British particularism have been viewed as somewhat heretical, I think it is the case that without a very basic grasp of the fact that in certain fundamental historical respects Britain/England is ‘different’ (concretely, by way of contrast with Europe, and in particular with ‘western’ Europe) then one is faced with great difficulties in any attempt to unpick the root elements of present-day British reality and the essentially British historical process which underlies it. The problem faced by British socialists has never been the idea of British ‘particularism’ as such but rather that of British superiority: in the sense of both the concrete reality of the bourgeois society facing it, and in the way that the British left has in successive waves incorporated the reactionary assumptions behind the reality (Labourism; British Stalinism; Healy, Grant Cliff et al). But a British Marxism which rejects the notion of British particularism in  the name of a disavowal of British superiority will actually end up reinforcing the very idea of the latter: in much the same way as the ‘great-power’ internationalist’s disavowal of ‘narrow nationalism’ actually reinforces the chauvinism of the great power itself, or as the revolutionary syndicalist’s abstention from the political struggle actually reinforces the position of the bureaucrat.

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