Home > 2020 > The People’s Historian | Christopher Hill

Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 51, New Delhi, December 5, 2020

The People’s Historian | Christopher Hill

Saturday 5 December 2020

by Christopher Hill *

Raphael Samuel recently drew attention to the number of British Communist Party intellectuals in the 1930s whose first interest had been English literature—Edgell Rickword, Alick West, Douglas Garman, Jack Lindsay—and A.L. Morton. Morton worked with T.S. Eliot on the Criterion in the 1920s, and spoke—many years later—of the ‘liberating experience’ of reading The Waste Land then. Leslie never lost his fascination with English literature, and it stood him in good stead as a historian.

But A People’s History of England is what won him fame. It is difficult to remember that before this was published in 1938 there was hardly any Marxist work on English history. There were many epigrams and insights hidden away in the writings of Marx and Engels, some of which were beginning to be translated into English. There was Bernstein’s Cromwell and Communism, a study of the seventeenth-century Diggers, translated in 1930. The nineteenth-century English Marxist Belfort Bax had written about sixteenth century German history. But on England there was virtually nothing. The best liberal history was J. R. Green’s History of the English People (published in four volumes between 1878 and 1880); G.M. Trevelyan’s Social History of England was not published until 1944. Writing a complete history of England from a Marxist standpoint, with so little to base it on, was a daunting task for anyone to undertake.

Morton had to construct his own framework, do his own research, construct and test his own hypotheses. It would have been an astonishing achievement for a whole team of historians. And of course if it had been written by a team of historians it would have lacked Morton’s personal stamp. He was incapable of writing badly. He had a strong sense of the Englishness of our landscape and of our culture. To people who had been badly taught and so thought history was a boring subject his book offered something quite different, and it gave an alternative vision to those who had been brought up on Alfred and the cakes, Good Queen Bess and the sea-dogs of Devon, kings and their mistresses, prime ministers and their wars, British freedom slowly broadening down, painting the map red. A People’s History gave us a foretaste and one of the best exemplars of history from below.

When the Historians’ Group of the Communist Party came together after the Second World War its discussion—the most exciting and stimulating of any I have ever participated in, unforgettable—were dominated by two books: the People’s History and Maurice Dobb’s Studies in the Development of Capitalism. Dobb’s more specialised work led us into the most controversial aspects of the English Revolution—its causes and consequences. A People’s History gave us our broad framework; its free-ranging suggestions opened up an infinity of questions to think about, explore further, discuss. In 1946 Leslie was a mature 43; most of us were in our twenties and thirties—impatiently post-war young men and women in a hurry, some of us thinking we knew our own little corner better than Morton did. We were supposed to be discussing revision of A People’s History, and we gave its author all sorts of what we thought useful advice on how he should rewrite his book. Leslie was infinitely patient, infinitely courteous; he listened tolerantly, not necessarily taking us all too seriously though far too nice to say so; gently reminding us from time to time what the audience was for which he had written, and what his objectives were. There is a seventeenth-century story about a man who said of the strawberry: ‘Doubtless God could have made a better berry, but doubtless God never did.’ Doubtless the members of our very lively group of Marxist historians could have pooled their wisdom to write a book some of whose formulations might have improved on Morton’s. But doubtless they never did. Nor is there any likelihood that the People’s History of England will be replaced in the foreseeable future.

Just one example of Leslie’s capacity to throw out far-reaching ideas: I was asked recently to talk about two of the centenaries that are being somewhat over-publicised this year—1588 and 1688. I have been saying no to 1688, because it is so boring to go on saying ‘on the one hand good, on the other hand bad’. But 1588 and 1688 sounded an interesting combination. Whilst I was hesitating I read Morton on 1588. ‘The defeat of the Armada’, he suggested, ‘can best be understood as the first phase of the English revolution,’ of which 1688 was the last. So there was my theme! That sort of stimulating, provocative insight—whether you agree with it or not—is one of the greatest strengths of A People’s History. At first glance Leslie’s statement sounds rather a crude over-simplification. But on reflection it makes us think again about what the defeat of the Armada meant in European and English politics. It was sent to end English support for the radical Dutch republic, a state unique in Europe, ruled by Protestant merchants. The future of religious and political liberty in Europe were at stake. The historian of printing, Elizabeth Eisenstein—no Marxist—has argued that freedom of the press in the Netherlands, and later in revolutionary England, was essential to the survival of the scientific revolution. So this is no hole-and-corner local matter. Queen Elizabeth, we know, was at best lukewarm towards the Dutch republic. She disliked anti-monarchical rebels, and continued negotiating with Spain until the Armada was already under way. She made a famous speech—after the Armada had been defeated; she graciously accepted the praise and the glory. But the heart of resistance to Spain came not from her but from a group of radicals in the Council—Leicester, Walsingham. The fighting was done by the sea-dogs, freelance, and by commandeered merchant vessels; the hastily improvised defence preparations, the bonfires to warn of the Armada’s approach, depended on popular initiative and enthusiasm. The Armada was defeated by private enterprise with popular support rather than by the Elizabethan state, just as the sea-dogs, the privateers, the colonisers, the conquerors of Ireland, the great trading companies of James I’s reign, the accumulators of capital, were all private entrepreneurs.

That is what Leslie meant. To see the defeat of the Armada as ‘the first phase of the English Revolution’ raises questions about the social composition of support for the Parliamentarian cause long before the civil war; it makes us think about the nature of the English state in 1588 and what changes were necessary for it to become the powerful machine wielded by Oliver Cromwell in the 1650s and perfected after 1688—the tercentenary which completes the century of the English Revolution. It makes us think about the long-term causes and consequences of that Revolution. It gives short shrift to those who think there was no English Revolution, or that it had no long-term causes.

I want to spend a little time on Morton’s other historical writings, which some of you may know less well. What impresses me about them is their enormous range, revealing the spacious curiosity which lay behind the success of A People’s History; and showing too Leslie’s sheer joy in English literary creativity. The English Utopia (1952) starts from the medieval fantasy of The Land of Cokaygne, a country in which nobody shall work and everybody shall eat, drink and make love to their heart’s content; but you get there only after wading through muck up to your neck, an experience more familiar to medieval serfs than to their lords. Morton has a powerful sense of the continuity of English life and of the struggles of Englishmen and women for a better society, even though some of their ideals were not always ideologically wholly admirable by textbook Marxist standards. Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte d’Arthur,for instance, was written when he was ‘defeated, a prisoner, sick perhaps’, with a ‘sense of failure and decay . . . for his own life and his own cause’. ‘Gravely, magnificently and unwittingly Malory pronounced’ the ‘funeral oration’ on the feudal world that ‘he valued and wished to revive’, but which he knew ‘was passing beyond recall’. Or Morton’s praise for Sir Thomas More—a fierce persecutor of Protestants who thought for themselves, not as the church told them to. Morton emphasises More’s powerful indictment in Utopia of class exploitation and the rule of the greedy rich, noting that it was written in Latin so that only the learned could read it. More said he would rather see Utopia burnt than translated for the common people to read. Morton celebrates the Tory Swift’s denunciation of the bestialities of early capitalist Whig England (made secure by the revolution of 1688), whilst expressing only modified raptures for Defoe’s contemporaneous eulogies of capitalism—though that surely was objectively progressive, comrades, wasn’t it? Leslie was no phrase-mongering simplifier.

The Matter of Britain (1966) is subtitled ‘Essays in a Living Culture’. Morton’s sense of the continuity of the lives and struggles of the English people again enables him to transcend ideological barriers. He wrote eloquently and sympathetically of men and women trapped in evil times but holding on to values which he respected. Such were the Tory-radical Brontes, on the frontier between the industrial West Riding and the ballad country of the Pennine moors; Charles Kingsley and the Christian socialists, whom some Marxists have mocked as humbugs; Ruskin, who ‘began . . . with the intention of condemning’ the Paris Communards, since he disapproved of violence and still more of the destruction of Parisian art treasures of which the Communards were accused. But as he examined more closely, ‘he saw on the one side heroism and self-sacrifice, and on the other nothing but bestial greed and bestial cruelty springing from guilty fear’. So Ruskin did not condemn the Communards. Morton is admirable on E.M. Forster’s Passage to India and its vision of ‘love the Beloved Republic’ which can transcend differences of race, colour and sex. He quotes Forster’s ‘Democracy . . . means . . . understanding that other people are as real as oneself.’ I quoted earlier Morton’s tribute to the historical achievement of The Waste Land,whilst completely rejecting Eliot’s later career ‘as a high Tory and a central figure of the literary establishment’. Leslie was no liberal: he saw the barricades, but he appreciated that even enemies may have some admirable qualities. ‘Everyone acts according to his lights,’ as Lenin said of the girl who tried to assassinate him.

I conclude with The World of the Ranters (1970). The Ranters, were seventeenth-century antinomians, way out on the fringes of radicalism in the English Revolution. They were not a sect, not an organized group, perhaps best described as a milieu. They discussed, in pubs, highly subversive ideas. They questioned the authenticity and authority of the Bible; they were sceptical about the existence of heaven and hell, of an afterlife with its rewards and punishments; they attacked a state church and any form of government, whether that of king, parliament or army. They had no use for the Protestant work ethic. They thought ‘sin’ existed only in men’s imaginations. Perhaps it had been invented by the ruling class to keep the lower orders in place? If there was no sin, there were no sexual restraints. Some Ranters advocated and practised free love; and their enemies made much of their alleged orgies. At the height of what used to be called ‘the Puritan Revolution’ the Ranters caused a great deal of alarm among the godly and the propertied, and they were soon suppressed. ‘It is hardly to be doubted’, wrote the economist Charles Davenant later in the century, ‘but if the common people are once induced to lay aside religion they will quickly cast off all fear of their rulers.’

An academic in New Zealand has recently published a book which attacks Morton and myself on the subject of the Ranters (J.C. Davis, Fear, Myth and History, Cambridge 1986). Davis claims that the Ranters did not exist, except for two or three individuals; they were invented, or grossly exaggerated, by yellow-press propagandists in the early 1650s, abetted by early Quakers who wished to dissociate themselves from a radical fringe which they called Ranters. More offensively, Davis said that the Ranters had been re-invented as part of a plot by the Communist Party Historians’ Group as a political model for twentieth-century use. (I caricature slightly, but not much.)

It is difficult to know where to start with this farrago of nonsense, but it contains an outrageous libel on Leslie Morton, who can no longer defend himself. In the last conversation I had with him he said he didn’t think Davis worth answering, which would be true were it not that Davis has been taken seriously by some ill-informed reviewers, and by others politically motivated. But, firstly, I ceased to be a member of the CP Historians’ Group thirteen years before Morton published on the Ranters, fifteen years before I published. We were a bit slow in carrying out our plot. Secondly, Davis has to admit that Norman Cohn, author of a book called The Pursuit of the Millennium (1956)forestalled Morton in rediscovering the Ranters. So far from being a communist Cohn is (I suspect) at the opposite end of the political scale. Thirdly, who in their senses could possibly think Leslie Morton would recommend the Ranters as a suitable model for twentieth-century communists? In the first place, he was not that sort of crude propagandist; secondly, if he had done anything so foolish as to look for a seventeenth-century model to follow, I think he might have chosen the Leveller William Walwyn (and I might have chosen Winstanley the Digger—we disagreed slightly in our preferences here). Neither of us could possibly have chosen the Ranters. Thirdly, what again about Norman Cohn? Did he perhaps invent the Ranters as part of a right-wing conspiracy to which Leslie Morton and I fell innocent victims? Or were we all three fellow conspirators in an unholy alliance? Finally, the evidence for the existence of the Ranters is quite considerable. Morton tracked them down in more than twenty counties. Bunyan and George Fox were both temporarily attracted by Ranter ideas, and said so. No doubt the CP Historians’ Group invented Bunyan and Fox? Except to remove the slur on Morton’s reputation Davis’s book is not worth wasting time on.

What is worth our attention is what Morton said about the Ranters. He showed that their ideas, or ideas very similar to theirs, survived to influence William Blake. Morton was so impressed by analogies between Blake and the Ranter Abiezer Coppe that he suggested that Blake may have read Coppe. We note again Leslie’s eye for continuities, continuities of fellowship and in struggle, his eye for the core of rationality in the irrational; and his sheer joy in the exuberant vitality of Coppe and Blake. He quotes Coppe on God’s threats to the rich. ‘Behold I (the Lord) come as a thief in the night, with my sword drawn in my hand, and like a thief as I am—I say deliver your purse, deliver sirrah! deliver or I’ll cut thy throat.’ ‘The plague of God is in your purses, barns, houses, horses; a murrain will take your hogs (O ye fat swine of the earth) who shall shortly go to the knife.’ ‘Howl, howl, ye noble, . . . howl ye rich men, for the miseries that are coming upon you.’ It is the vigour, the energy of the prose, that delighted Leslie as it may well have delighted Blake. ‘Energy is eternal delight.’ But Morton gave historians yet another line to follow up here in tracing connections between Ranter ideas driven underground in the seventeenth-century reaction and Blake in the age of the French Revolution. English people, unknown and nameless, form the connecting link. But God the Highwayman is not, I think, a political figure that Morton or indeed the Historians’ Group would necessarily recommend for imitation. On an earlier occasion I remarked that the title of A People’s History of England sums up three things very dear to Leslie—people, history and England.

(Reproduced From: * Hill, Christopher. “The People’s Historian,” in History and the Imagination: Selected Writings of A. L. Morton, edited by Margot Heinemann and Willie Thompson (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1990), pp. 11-17.)

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