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Radicals in Defeat

The Experience of Defeat: Milton and Some Contemporaries

by Christopher Hill
Viking (Elizabeth Sifton Books), 342 pp., $20.00

In Milton and the English Revolution, published in 1977, Christopher Hill tried to rescue Milton from literary scholarship. He argued that to appreciate the great Puritan poet we need to understand not only his place in such lofty traditions as Platonism and Christian Humanism, but also his relationship to the great public dramas of his own time, to the passions of revolution and counter-revolution surrounding him. This view was naturally greeted with skepticism in the academic literary circles where attention to historical events is regarded as heresy, but the book was also attacked by historians. Hill had, not for the first time, it was claimed, exaggerated the importance of the far left of the English Revolution, and had failed to prove his contention that Milton was engaged in a conscious or unconscious dialogue with the Revolution’s “radical underground.”

In The Experience of Defeat Hill is unrepentant. Once more we are asked to read Paradise Lost and Samson Agonistes as commentaries on the failure of revolution; as attempts to justify the ways of God to men, to justify them particularly to those who in the 1640s had, like Milton, dreamed exhilarating millenarian dreams of a new order of liberty and reformation, only to see them vanish in the cynicism and corruption that led to the restoration of Charles II. Readers interested mainly in Milton’s poetry should be warned, however, that until the last chapter there is little on the specific subject of Milton in this book. It is in fact chiefly about the “contemporaries” of the subtitle, on some of whom the impact of public failure, Hill thinks, was similar to, and helps us to understand, the impact on the poet. One ought to look at the book less as a work of Milton scholarship than as a contribution to the continuing debate over the meaning of the English Revolution.

Over the past forty years or so Hill has had a major part in that debate, often being the target of acrimonious criticism—though his own writing has always been refreshingly free from acrimony. Along with Lawrence Stone, the late R.H. Tawney, and others, Hill has helped to shape the general approach that, until quite recently, most historians of early seventeenth-century England have been following. However much they might differ over important details, most of them have agreed that what happened in England in the 1640s was indeed a revolution—the first of the great European revolutions of modern times—and that it was caused by significant changes in English society during the previous century, in which a new social group (usually defined as some version of Tawney’s notorious “rising gentry”) had acquired the wealth and self-confidence enabling them to challenge the Stuart monarchy.

In Hill’s case this explanation has always had a noticeably populist, class-conscious twist. His first major work, which appeared at the outset of World War II, was a straightforward, schematic application of Marxist categories, an explanation of the events of the 1640s as a classical bourgeois revolution.1 For Hill as for so many others, disenchantment with the simple certainties of Marxism soon followed the war. In the major books he wrote, starting in the mid-1950s, he showed himself an increasingly powerful historian of ideas—usually radical ideas, to be sure—presented as something more than the reflections of structural economic realities. In those books Hill explored issues where politics, religion, and economics intersect.2 He has always emphasized that two distinct groups were central in transforming early modern English society: the “industrious sort of people” or “middling sort” (Hill, like many other historians, has become more wary of applying modern notions of class to the seventeenth century), and the radical intellectuals. Hence, of course, his recent preoccupations with Milton, though it might also be noted that he has always been an astute commentator on English literature, as his essays on Marvell and Richardson have shown.

The period of Hill’s greatest influence was probably during the late 1960s and early 1970s, when university students (and many of their elders) on both sides of the Atlantic found in his work inspiring echoes of their visions of a freer cultural and social order, and a sense of being sustained by a tradition of radical criticism stretching back over the centuries. But as the public mood changed and radicalism went out of fashion in the 1970s his approach—and that of other historians like Lawrence Stone who put less emphasis on the populist elements in the 1640s revolution—was inevitably challenged. A new generation of historians emerged, more interested in consensus than in conflict, inclined to view the English Revolution as little more than an unfortunate accident, the result of short-term division among the members of a basically stable elite, and to dismiss the great clash of social ideals and ideologies that their predecessors had found so absorbing.

In a curious way, English historical scholarship on this period has recently been running in two contradictory directions. On the one hand it has shared in the exciting expansion of “grassroots” social history—whose pioneers in France were the Annales school—the study of demographic trends, family structures, community values, and “mentalities.” On the other it has witnessed an increasing tendency by political historians to narrow the boundaries of their discipline and to rule out all broad explanations of political events, especially those emphasizing deep social changes. At its best—in the work of Conrad Russell, for example—this approach can save us from anachronistic errors about the nature of opposition to the crown.3 In the work of John Morrill it brilliantly illuminates the powerful sense of local, provincial identity that animated Englishmen during this period.4 But even at its best the new revisionism makes it hard to explain the outbreak of a civil war. Morrill ruefully recalls being congratulated on having satisfactorily proved that a civil war could not have occurred in 1642.

That there was a real revolution, albeit an unsuccessful one, between 1640 and 1660 no one who has read Hill’s work can doubt. His new book covers some of the same ground as The World Turned Upside Down, published in 1972, but although many of the same characters reappear in The Experience of Defeat the contrasts are striking and remind us how intimately the writing of an engaged and sensitive historian is affected by the climate of the times. When Hill was writing the earlier book, young people in every Western country were trying to turn their world upside down by sit-ins and demonstrations; they were burning draft cards, demanding an end to war, to sexual, racial, and economic injustice.5 The World Turned Upside Down was a superb account of the radical politics and counterculture of the 1650s, with memorable chapters on the collectivist Diggers and their leader Gerrard Winstanley’s denunciations of private property, and on the even more revolutionary Ranters, who contemptuously paraded their rejection of bourgeois respectability by practicing free love and promoting a drug culture based on alcohol and tobacco. In this inverted world Hill sensed possibilities for liberation unfulfilled in the 1650s but perhaps barely possible in our own times, and he ended the book with a call to action: “Were you doers or talkers only? Bunyan asked his generation. What canst thou say?”

The Experience of Defeat: the title of Hill’s new book warns us that we are in a different political universe, in the 1984 of Reagan and Thatcher, perhaps asking ourselves what went wrong. This time the concluding sentence is less stirring: “In 1644 Milton saw England as ‘a nation of prophets.’ Where are they now?” Hill shows how some of those caught up in the seventeenth-century revolution tried to reconcile the fact that the world had not after all been turned upside down, with their theories about the historical process. Being people of their time, they naturally expressed those theories, as Milton did, by interpreting God’s purposes. Many of the people and movements discussed will be familiar to readers of the earlier book—Levelers and True Levelers, Ranters, Seekers, and Quakers are among them. Others—and they are a curiously random collection—are now added to the list: the regicides of 1649; orthodox Puritans like John Owen and Thomas Goodwin; the poet-politician Andrew Marvell; the political philosopher James Harrington and his followers; even Oliver Cromwell, who does not really belong here. (He died in his bed, the most powerful man in the kingdom, never having experienced serious defeat.)

Hill displays his usual mastery of the pamphlet literature and a wide range of other out-of-the-way sources, and as always he introduces us to some intriguing, little-known characters. In The World Turned Upside Down, for example, there is a bit about John Pordage; we now encounter his son Samuel, who turns out to have written some bad poetic tragedies, but also a clever parody of Dryden’s Absalom and Achitophel and an epic poem on the Fall which, like Paradise Lost, tries to justify the ways of God to men.

More familiar are the Harringtonians, about whom Hill has some interesting and provocative suggestions. James Harrington had written Oceana, his blueprint for a new republican constitution, a few years earlier, and in 1659 he was still busy proving that a restoration of monarchy and peerage was logically impossible. He was wrong, Hill suggests, only in the most literal sense. Monarchy and peerage were restored, but the inexorable spread of a commercial society transformed them into agents of the same maritime imperialism the republic had begun. Harrington’s ideas were to be absorbed into the Whig canon, and after 1688 he was to become “a prophet of the rule of the propertied and of the British Empire.”

Like the generation of the 1960s, the English Puritans tried to cope with the circumstances of defeat in many and varied ways. Some continued to resist, in exile or in and out of prison; others milked the system as shamelessly as any 1970s conformist. Hill is less interested in their actual experiences, however, than in how they rationalized them. God had “spit in their faces,” one of the regicides lamented, and this resort to divine providence was the natural explanation for failure in Puritan England. There were a few who felt in 1660 that God had betrayed them, but most realistically accepted that they (or, more comfortingly, their leaders) had betrayed God. Ambition and avarice, lack of civic virtue on the part of the leadership: if a consensus about the causes of defeat exists in these often conflicting voices, it is this one.

For many the arch-traitor was Cromwell, who had fallen victim to the corruptions of power and had refused to pilot the Revolution to the goals of universal freedom, justice, and religious toleration by which so many of its lower-class adherents had been inspired. The failure had long been obvious to many of them: to Levelers shattered at Burford in May 1649, to Winstanley’s Diggers dispersed soon afterward, to Ranters persecuted under the new Blasphemy Act, to Quakers harassed as subversive vagrants. “Oh England, England,” George Fox declaimed while Cromwell was in power, “…a-whoring thou hast gone after gold, after riches, after honour.” The time had come, the Seeker William Erbury decided, when “the people of God should not meddle with state matters.”

Hill is an entertaining and provocative guide to these movements of radical opinion. As in many of his earlier books, his method is impressionistic and anecdotal, with quotation piled upon quotation; his aim is eventually to convince the reader by the weight of examples. The Experience of Defeat is unusually discursive and unstructured even by Hill’s standards. The book could be described as a series of sometimes disconnected chapters on people who had little in common beyond being on the losing side in a civil war. There is an occasional sense of déjà vu as we retrace ground already familiar from The World Turned Upside Down. And in the end Hill’s case is scarcely a controversial one: defeated revolutionaries have to find ways to deal with defeat. Milton, for his part, responded immediately to the disaster of 1660 with the brave publication of one last republican broadside, The Ready and Easy Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth, only weeks before the king’s return. More enduringly, though, in the great poems written after the restoration, especially Samson, Milton rose above despair to offer hope that the people would one day unite again to overthrow tyranny and superstition. That this no longer seems controversial is a measure of how far Hill has advanced the argument since he published Milton and the English Revolution.

But neither Milton nor his fellow radicals really understood why they had failed. Putting the blame on God’s providence, their own sins, or the avarice and ambition of their leaders did not really explain why most of the ordinary people of England had not supported them. Did they not stand for the people’s freedom? Had they not tried to lead them out of the Egyptian bondage of oppression by kings and priests into a bracing Canaan of civic virtue and Protestant piety? They had indeed, and in the New Model Army, in the gathered churches of Puritan “saints,” and in countless industrious households up and down the land, they had committed supporters who rejoiced in their victories however much they might dispute about what came next.

But such people made up only one of the Englands that existed in the seventeenth century. There was another England, territorially more extensive, and much more resistant to change: the England of the slowly vanishing common fields, tenaciously traditional in its culture. It was an England in which the paternalist authority of the gentry still counted for much, but it will not do to attribute its conservatism, as many of the revolutionaries did, only to the imposition of authority from above. For the truth is that these agrarian villages were still communities with deeply held notions of ancient rights and customs, enforced, in the last analysis, by the collective opinion of the inhabitants—enforced against oppressive landlords, intruding soldiers and tax-gatherers, cheating grain dealers, and those of their own kind who violated established norms of sexual, marital, or neighborly behavior. Quaker evangelists like Fox were often baffled when their messages of salvation were rejected by stone-throwing mobs; the evangelists invariably blamed the squires and the established clergy for stirring up the crowds. Sometimes, no doubt, they were right. But often they were wrong, for the perception of Quakers and other radical sectaries as sowers of discord in hitherto united communities was shared, in these traditionally minded villages, by rich and poor alike.

Hill has something of the same difficulty in understanding the reluctance of the population to respond to the millenarian visions being offered them. His most obvious blind spot has always been a relative lack of interest in the force of popular conservatism. In The World Turned Upside Down he uttered some wise cautions against equating his radical activists with the whole population, recognizing that they had far less appeal in the regions of traditional open-field agriculture than in towns and forest regions heavily populated by independent craftsmen and “masterless men.” He repeats those cautions in the new book, but he rarely pursues their implications. He briefly mentions some reasons why the common people disliked the revolutionary regimes (for their high taxes, military oppression, and interference with local traditions), but spends little time on them. Authority is restored in 1660, as always, from above—by gentry and clergy. One of his radicals, the Seeker William Sedgwick, came close to an understanding of the situation when he noted that the people wanted only to be governed “according to their honest and known laws.” Hill gives him credit for his wisdom, but quickly returns to the more forward-looking thinkers who really interest him.

So The Experience of Defeat leaves one important aspect of its theme incompletely explored. But for anyone interested in either the history or the literature of seventeenth-century England the book is still extremely rewarding. It must remind us, surely, of the breadth and scope of Hill’s contributions to our understanding of that contentious century in which some of the foundations of the modern Anglo-American world were laid. In an introduction marked by his usual generosity to his critics (not always reciprocated, alas) Hill calls for a new synthesis of interpretations of the English Revolution, one incorporating both the new social history and the political history written by his revisionist opponents. It should embrace, he rightly adds, “the whole nation, not merely the ruling class, and the whole life and thought of the English people, not merely the politics of the upper strata.” When that synthesis is achieved it will surely include as one of its central elements the understanding of people of the “middling sort” and of the radical thinkers that has always been at the heart of Hill’s work.

  1. 1

    The English Revolution, 1640 (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1940).

  2. 2

    Most notably in Society and Puritanism in Pre-Revolutionary England (London: Secker & Warburg, 1964).

  3. 3

    Parliaments and English Politics, 1621–1629 (Oxford University Press/Clarendon Press, 1979).

  4. 4

    SeeThe Revolt of the Provinces: Conservatism and Radicalism in the English Civil War, 1630–1650 (Longman, 1980).

  5. 5

    Hill gave a lecture at Johns Hopkins entitled “The Radical Attack on the Universities in the 1650s” on the day of the Kent State shootings.

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