James Crossley traces the links between Christopher Hill's Marxist analysis of the English Revolution, the importance of the Bible in promoting revolutionary thought, and the student revolts of 1968.
We should not underestimate the importance of the Bible in the work of the Marxist historian Christopher Hill (1912–2003). Yet this is what has happened, and it is telling that a standout exception is a historian who knew Hill better than most: his niece, Penelope Corfield. The most obvious example of what had long been central for Hill’s analysis of the English Revolution is The English Bible and the Seventeenth-Century Revolution (1993). By this time, Hill had become increasingly convinced of the importance of Numbers 35.33 in the regicide:
So ye shall not pollute the land wherein ye are: for blood it defileth the land: and the land cannot be cleansed of the blood that is shed therein, but by the blood of him that shed it.
Using an argument developed by Patricia Crawford, Hill stressed that puzzlement over Charles I launching a second civil war was dealt with by identifying Charles as the Man of Blood who had to be killed.
But the Bible was already central to his most celebrated work, The World Turned Upside Down (1972). The phrase ‘world turned upside down’ is biblical and Hill made this explicit by quoting the relevant passages from the King James Version in the epigraph (Psalm 146.9; Isaiah 24.1-2, 20-21; Acts 17.1-6). As Corfield showed, Hill was fascinated by Acts 17.6 and the idea of the world turned upside down, because it suggested the subversion of received ideas of the truth and that egalitarianism could be made available to the lowliest.
Not only did such ideas about the Bible frame The World Turned Upside Down but throughout the book Hill would typically introduce an issue relating to the Bible, before moving on to a conclusion (usually at the end of a paragraph) about how revolutionary such interpretations were. The following conclusion to a paragraph on page 144 highlights the point well: ‘The Bible should be used to illustrate truths of which one was already convinced: Winstanley was prepared to use Acts 4.32 to justify community of property.’ Running throughout the book is the theme of popularist, millenarian interpreters versus the elites and intellectuals.
Even when a biblical verse or the Bible itself were thought to be undermined, we still find the importance of the ‘inner light’ and Jesus in promoting revolutionary thought. Nevertheless, Hill emphasized the historical significance of the Bible. By the seventeenth century, the Bible had become popularly available and, Hill stressed, was popular for lower class resistance in an era when no-one could turn to Rousseau or Marx. But he also argued that this politically revolutionary understanding of the Bible contributed to the Bible as being central to a broader cultural and literary revolution from the 1580s to the 1680s, and the development of the Protestant English nation.
In this sense, the Bible mirrored Hill’s understanding of the English Revolution. Hill argued that there were effectively two revolutions taking place in the mid-seventeenth century. The successful Puritan revolution was bourgeois, where Parliament tamed the power of the Crown and the Church and created a state ready for capitalist development and imperialist expansion. The unsuccessful revolution made radical democratic claims which went hand-in-hand with revolutionary ideas such as proto-communism, free love, and questioning the notion of a creator God and the existence of Hell. This revolution from below was important, Hill claimed, because it gave the bourgeois Puritan revolution momentum. But once regicide was committed bourgeois power was then consolidated and the revolution from below, and its revolutionary Bible, had to be suppressed.
But we should also read Hill’s interest in the Bible and the seventeenth century on another level: a means to understand the changes taking place in the twentieth century. It is often remarked that The World Turned Upside Down is as much an embrace of the student-led uprisings of 1968 as it is an analysis of seventeenth-century radicalism. But Hill’s take on 1968 was fraught with ambiguities, as it was for the Marxist establishment of the time: was this a serious challenge to capitalism, hopelessly romantic, or anti-Marxist? Theodor Adorno even called the police on protesters while students denounced him as a ‘classicist’. Before his death, he wrote that this counterculture was the return of a ‘ghost’—anarchism. Hill’s close colleague, Eric Hobsbawm, had more interest in the legacy of the 1960s but likewise saw a resurgent anarchism as little more than ‘admirable but hopeless’.
Hill embodied the tensions perhaps more than any of the old Marxist establishment. Hill and Bridget Sutton (his second wife) were fascinated by notions of free love and free thought and the echoes of the mid-seventeenth century. Yet there was no romantic notion that the new counterculture was going to overthrow capitalism anytime soon. Hill’s Communist and Nonconformist background (sometimes understood as near synonymous among the British Marxist historians) might have been one of dissent but it was also at odds with the radicalism of 1968 because these were backgrounds which stressed civility, seriousness, sobriety, restraint, respectability, decency, and discipline. Hill was also the only one of his generation of Communist historians to gain an Oxbridge position, including his appointment as Master of Balliol College from 1965 until his retirement in 1978, which put him in a particularly difficult position in negotiating student radicalism and the demands of a governing body.
These tensions come through in The World Turned Upside Down. Hill pointed out that the Bible (the Geneva Bible, to be precise, which included incendiary notes justifying the end to the divine right of monarchs) was now in pocketable editions and could be used for personal study yet he ensured that individualist-capitalist interpretations were reined in. The Quakers, for instance, were understood to have used the Bible to provide a ‘radical reply’ to ‘priests and scholars’ who wanted to monopolize the Bible for the educated elite. Hill was careful to make it clear that ‘mere absolute individualism’ was not occurring among his seventeenth-century radicals. Instead, he stressed that the congregation was the place where interpretations were ‘tested and approved’. In The World Turned Upside Down, Hill also gave some thinly-veiled critiques of anarchism in his own time which included critiques of appeals to individual conscience, the concept of the isolated artist, and the illusion of a withdrawal from society. The ghost of anarchism was also lurking behind the back of the Balliol Marxist.
Such concerns give further insight into Hill’s stress on the seventeenth-century Bible. His favoured interpreters, such as Winstanley, were presented as serious scholars of a book of cultural importance who effectively belong alongside more obvious interpreters in the English literary canon, such as John Milton or Andrew Marvell. Shocking though they may have been to the university elites, interpreters such as the Quaker Samuel Fisher were presented as serious scholars and precursors of the critical, academic approaches to the Bible that would take off in the English Enlightenment. As with his understanding of historical development, bourgeois biblical interpretation may have won in the long run but not without the mark of popular radical interpretation.
This understanding of the Bible and biblical interpretations as a site of serious culture gave some protection to Hill’s radicals against allegations of them as being the ‘lunatic fringe’. But it also functioned as Hill’s own re-reading of 1968 and an attempt to protect the legacy of sixties counterculture from anything too anarchistic or too playful and to present as it really should have been: revolutionary, serious and scholarly.
Hill’s later work would likewise foreground the Bible as he tried to explain the failure of the seventeenth-century revolution, though with one eye on the failures of 1968, the decline of a revolutionary left, and emerging Thatcherism. Milton and the English Revolution (1978) and The Experience of Defeat (1984) looked at how people coped with the idea of God allowing revolutionary failure after such spectacular successes against a backdrop of the Restoration and the rise of capitalism and bourgeois Protestant work ethic. As he concluded The Experience of Defeat, ‘In 1644 Milton saw England as “a nation of prophets”. Where are they now?’ Defeat really was defeat and there was no shying away from the transformation of universalistic tendencies in the revolutionary impulses and millenarianism of the 1640s and 1650s into English imperialism with a combination of revolution and restoration paving the way for eighteenth-century Whiggery.
But for all the pessimism, Hill did not give up hope entirely. He may have turned to ideas about exile, apostasy, and illegitimate church leaders but he also noted ideas about vigilance and patiently waiting with the true Gospel for the true church to emerge. Hill’s understanding of Milton was that experience of defeat meant that Milton took his role as poet and prophet even more seriously and that Milton used biblical characters as examples of heroic failure coupled with the hope of divine intervention in the future. Hill had long noted the importance of a radical English history which had survived against the odds and would continue to do so after the seventeenth century. Though he died in 2003, his own logic would suggest that there would be hope for progressive resurgence even after the Blair years. And, once again, there is—despite the odds.
James Crossley is Professor of Bible, Society and Politics at MF Oslo, and the Academic Director of the Centre for the Critical Study of Apocalyptic and Millenarian Movements. He writes mainly on religion in English political history and on the historical Jesus.