Monday, 27 January 2020

Christopher Hill - obituary (2003)

Christopher Hill, 1912-2003
Written By: Keith Flett
Date: April 2003
Published In LSHG Newsletter  Issue 18: Summer 2003  

Christopher Hill, who has died aged 91, was one of a generation of marxist historians who were able to reach and influence a far wider audience than simply those in the academy. Several of Hill’s books were standard school texts for example.

Hill’s reputation and influence has provoked a range of obituaries and comment. These span from the interesting (Tristram Hunt's comparison of Hill with Hugh Trevor Roper, who also died earlier this year), to the nasty (the attempt by The Times to smear Hill as a Soviet spy when he couldn't answer back), to the extremely silly (Norman Stone’s assertion in the London Evening Standard that Hill could not be trusted because he, allegedly, dyed his hair).

Martin Kettle’s Obituary in The Guardian (February 26th 2003) and Brian Manning’s piece in Socialist Review (March 2003) give a very fair assessment both of Hill’s life and publications and the historical questions raised by his work and I do not intend to go over the same ground here.

However it is worth looking at some of the outstanding questions that Hill’s death leaves others to pick up. Firstly, as David Renton has argued (Socialist Review April 2003) Hill’s first book, The English Revolution 1640 (1940), far from being a work of mechanical Stalinism, raised a number of important questions about how marxists saw the English Civil War. For Hill at that time it was to be seen as a class war. Brian Manning has emphasised that Hill later modified his position on the nature and character of the Civil War. By 1980 Hill had ceased to argue that the bourgeoisie had been an active agent in the outcome of the Civil War, even if this outcome was favourable to its development. The issue of what a bourgeois revolution is and is not and who makes it is an important debate for marxist historians and one which ought to be continued.

Secondly there is the question of Hill’s politics. Whether he was indeed a Soviet “spy” when Britain was actually a wartime ally of Russia (and therefore presumably had few significant secrets from it) can be left to right-wing historians who want to re-fight the Cold War. Hill left the CP in the aftermath of Hungary but not before he had been part of the minority report on inner-party Democracy at the subsequent Congress. This suggests that he had a slightly different perspective on the CP than John Saville and Edward Thompson who had already departed at this stage or Eric Hobsbawm who did not depart until closing time. Clearly he was what would generally be recognised as a Stalinist from the late 1930s until the mid-1950s, although as with Hobsbawm there was not, thankfully, a direct link between his day to day politics and his marxist history. After this the nature of his marxism can only really be judged through his historical work. The World Turned Upside Down (1972) suggested that he was fully aware and in tune with the politics of the then new left and his appearances at the SWP’s Marxism summer schools in the 1990s indicate that in later life he had left any idea of Stalinist politics long behind.

Thirdly there is the question of Hill’s day job as Master of Balliol. Balliol may be the most “left” of the Oxford Colleges, but this can’t really account for how it came to elect an ex-Communist and still prominent marxist to run the place during the Cold War, as it did from 1965 to 1978. By all accounts Hill did a very good job, but the mere fact that he did it at all suggests, as some of the Obituaries have hinted, that a history of Hill’s life and ideas is almost as interesting to marxist historians as his marxist history itself.

We shall need to fight to defend his legacy from the right, from revisionists and from those on the left who would prefer a hagiographic view of Hill to an engagement with the controversies that he started.

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