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Socialist Review Index (1993–1996) | Socialist Review 169 Contents

Socialist Review, November 1993

Lee Humber


Revisionists revised

From Socialist Review, No. 169, November 1993.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.

A Nation of Change and Novelty
Christopher Hill
Bookmarks £10.99

The timing of the publication of the paperback version of this book is extremely apt given the recent discussion about the Thatcher years. The book considers the effect of the Thatcher project on historians of the time and their efforts to ‘revise’ interpretations of the English Revolution, indeed their efforts to write the word ‘revolution’ out of the 17th century altogether.

Throughout the 1980s historians like Conrad Russell, John Morrill and others built up reputations trying to show that the English Revolution had no long term causes, no long term effects, had few profound political and ideological consequences and produced few radical ideas or individuals. Hand in hand with Thatcher’s efforts to attack socialist ideas, revisionist academics attacked the Marxist analysis of history.

Now Thatcher is no more, the revisionists are not quite so cocky. A whole number of articles appeared in various history magazines attempting to reassert the usefulness of the Marxist interpretation. English Revolution academics have often been forced to look up from their study of parliamentary papers to consider other sources. Most now admit that the reasons for the civil war can be traced back way beyond Charles I and Archbishop Laud.

Economics has always been at the heart of Marxists’ analysis of the English Revolution and Hill takes this opportunity to restate the arguments as a thrust against the revisionists. With England deep in an economic crisis in the 1620s and 1630s and Charles attempting to build up an openly royalist state, the emerging bourgeoisie found their financial and political progress blocked. This was even more frustrating for them as the chances of English economic advancement were huge. England’s great colonial rival, Spain, had overtaxed itself through its involvement in the Thirty Years War and its empire was wide open to plunder. Charles and his predecessor, James, had consistently refused to provide the military might to do this, and had in fact cuddled up to the Spanish absolutist king.

As Hill states, ‘A revolution was necessary before England possessed a government committed to aggressive commercial imperialist policies, and able to raise adequate taxes to implement them.’ It was after the revolution, with a bourgeois state set on expansion, that England began its reign as the major imperialist power.

Hill gives some great advice on historical method as well as some shining examples of this technique in action. His attack on Colin Davis’s attempts to write the Ranters out of history is one, constituting one of the most thorough demolitions of the revisionist project written over the past few years.

The book gives a very broad picture of the England of the 17th century, taking in politics, economics, literature, religion, radicalism and a lot more. It is an essential part of any socialist’s understanding of the period.

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