England’s Revolution

Intellectual Origins of the English Revolution

by Christopher Hill
Oxford, The Clarendon Press, 333 pp., $7.50

Over the last nine years Mr. Hill has published no fewer than five major works dealing with the social and ideological origins of the English Revolution of the mid-seventeenth century.* This torrential scholarly output is the fruit of years of dedicated research into the printed literature, and also, one may surmise, a consequence of the emotional and intellectual sense of release produced by his clean break with the Communist Party. As a result, the age of the Puritan Revolution must now be regarded as “Hill’s half-century,” and for years to come students will be testing, confirming, modifying, or rejecting his hypotheses. It is given to few historians to achieve such intellectual dominance over their chosen field, for it requires sustained capacity for taking pains in the drudgery of research, a fertile and facile pen, and tremendous imaginative powers. Together, these are the marks of the great historian.

The problem to which Mr. Hill has devoted himself is why it was seventeenth-century England which saw the first great upheaval in Western Europe, the first successful, if temporary, overthrow of the old social and political order, the first emergence of ideas about the political equality of free men (and even women), liberty of thought and conscience, economic liberalism, strict legal and moral restraints on the executive power, mass education, equality of opportunity, and scientific research for material progress—ideas which have rumbled around the world ever since, and for which men are still fighting today. The truth or falsehood of his explanation consequently affects not only our understanding of modern British history, but also of the whole subsequent development of the western world.

It was Engels who first seriously attempted to cramp the English revolution into the Marxist straightjacket as the earliest Bourgeois Revolution. He saw the Parliamentary gentry as a rural bourgeoisie, a capitalist group who allied themselves with the urban merchants and petty bourgeoisie to overthrow the aristocratic-clerical Establishment. Once victory was won, the alliance turned on the peasantry and artisans and crushed them and their radical ideas in the interests of property.

Mr. Hill is too sophisticated a thinker, and too honest an historian to accept this giddy stuff at its face value, and much of his work of the last nine years, culminating with the book under review, has consisted of an attempt to improve upon this crude model, to elucidate the complex inter-relationship of ideas and socio-economic forces which combined to produce the Revolution.

In an earlier book (Society and Puritanism in Pre-Revolutionary England) Mr. Hill took up the Weber/Tawney thesis of the link between Calvinist theology and “the industrious sort of people,” the urban industrial artisans and small capitalists, and provided much additional documentation to support the hypothesis that Puritanism was ideally suited to the economic needs of this class. The argument depends, however, on some very special definitions of both Puritanism and Puritans. Puritans are taken to be predominantly, if not exclusively, this urban “middle-class” group, whereas in fact this group was only one element…

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