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An American Tribute to Christopher Hill

Since the destruction of the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York on September 11, 2001, the rhetoric of President Bush has drawn heavily on Winston Churchill’s rhetoric at the commencement of the Battle of Britain. With the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq the Churchillian note is near deafening. Often it is called, “their finest hour.” What is meant? Anticipating the Battle of Britain here is what Churchill said on 18 June 1940 as France fell.

Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilization. Upon it depends our own British life, and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire. … Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.’

Christianity and empire are not freely spoken of as goals of the invasion of Iraq, though they are for some. Even if the Iraqi invasion in 2003 was not anybody’s finest hour, England being more or less alone in 1940, against the armed might of the National Socialists, most of western Europe having collapsed under their Blitzkrieg, actually did hang at the hinge of fate, a fine moment. Churchill spoke for many besides Christians and imperialists. What made it so fine?

Huge energy of fire and water and air and earth was mobilized by war. Epochal consequences were released in brief moments. A blitz is the lightening stroke, or a tremendous discharge of electrical energy originating in rain clouds striking through the atmosphere to the ground often igniting fires. It has transforming effects. We most notice the destruction of cities and peoples as it is memorialized. In contrast, generation, or the birth of the new, tends to merge with living forms in the epoch to come. Their beginnings however are no less part of the blitz than the endings entailed by destruction. Seeds of the future are born in the terrifying moment. Some seeds are airborne, others survive even in salt water (as Darwin showed), certain seeds need the great heat of the forest fire to open, and germination requires earth for all.

Looking back at May 1940 particularly and broadening our view generally to include all of 1940 (because I don’t know the calendar of composition of Christopher Hill’s essay) I would like to identify four seeds and their vectors.

One is anti-racism. A few months May 1940 C.L.R. James wrote “What we as Marxists have to see is the tremendous role played by Negroes in the transformation of Western civilization from feudalism to capitalism. It is only from this vantage-ground that we shall be able to appreciate (and prepare for) the still greater role they must of necessity play in the transition from capitalism to socialism.” The historical side to this project, despite the expansion of university research at the end of the 20th century, is incomplete. The political aspect of the proposition is the failure of de-colonization against the European and American empires. In May 1940 C.L.R. James reviewed Richard Wright’s Native Son: “The great masses of negroes carry in their hearts the heavy heritage of slavery, and their present degradation. Such has been their past, it is their present, and, as far as they can see, it is their future. It is the revolution which will lift these millions from their knees. Nobody can do it for them. Men, personalities, will be freed from the centuries of chains and shame, as Bigger’s personality was freed, by violent action against their tyrants. It is on the evening after battle, with smoking rifle and bloody bayonet, that the Negro will be able to look all white men in the face, will be able to respect himself and be respected.” This is soldiering against empire and racism; it was a seed germinated by fire.

A second seed is anti-patriarchy. On 27 April 1940 Virginia Woolf gave a lecture at the Women’s Institute in Brighton; in May she gave it again to the WEA. Although it was the worst week of her experience, the lecture she offered raised hopes. It was called “The Leaning Tower.” In it she spoke as an outsider and a commoner (“are we not commoners, outsiders?”). In the 19th century human life “looked like a landscape cut up into separate fields.” After the war, however, there will be “no more classes and shall we stand, without hedges between us, on the common ground?” She quoted her father, the eminent Victorian, “Whenever you see a board up with ‘Trespassers will be prosecuted,’ trespass at once.” She recommended the practice. It is this vision of commoning which she applied in her critique of the Leftist generation of writers who became apostates or emigrants to America. Striding on the Sussex Downs, she contemplated “the subconscious Hitlerism in the hearts of men.” The end of class society, the cutting down of hedges, had to become the basis of that compensation of the man’s loss of his machine, the loss of his gun, his imprisonment within patriarchy. Against the RAF-Luftwaffe fights in the sky above her, she clasped her hands over her head and flung herself to the ground. Owing to the bombing the River Ouse flooded. Her great project, though derided at the time, is still alive, flowing in the world-wide peace marches against the Iraqi war. This is water.

A third seed which was to bloom quickly and bear fruit rapidly was provided by Aneurin Bevan (himself the cultivator of cabbages on Brimpton Common) who immediately went after Churchill, “Sometimes the Prime Minister’s ear is too sensitively attuned to the bugle notes of Blenheim for him to hear the whisperings in the streets.” Bevan wrote in January, “social problems thrust themselves upon the minds of the most obtuse and compel an interest, grudging at first, but which often afterwards grows into an eager thirst for new knowledge. War opens minds that were sealed, stimulates dormant intelligences, and recruits into political controversy thousands who otherwise would remain in the political hinterland.” He wrote “Britain is still controlled by those who think, consciously or unconsciously, that ordinary men and women are there to be governed and not to govern.” Mankind has progressed in arts, crafts, dignity, and learning “just to the extent that ordinary men and women won freedom and pushed their way into the central citadels of power.” Speaking in the House of Commons or the BBC, these whispering seeds were airborne.

Christopher Hill’s essay The English Revolution 1640 is a fourth seed. It was written for the soldiers going into battle and the civilians who suffered the Blitz. It is brief, it is lucid, and it does not weigh heavily in a soldier’s kit. Its address was to a class excluded from academia or the ruling elite. He quoted Oliver Cromwell on his soldiery, they “knew what they fought for and loved what they knew.” He explained how revolution was made, and the Communist Party leadership of 1940 did not like what he said. He introduced the idea of the “bourgeois revolution.” Getting it published was “a victory for politics as well as theory,” wrote Dona Torr. The victory was a lasting one—we see it in the formation of the postwar Communist Party History Group, we see it in the introduction to the first issue of Past & Present (1952) quoting Ibn Khaldoun, the 14th century Islamic scholar, that history includes the “transformations that society undergoes by its very nature,” and we see it in “the living line of Marx’s analysis of British history” (as Thompson put it). It put the past into the present and into the future.

Christopher Hill’s counselor within the Party was Dona Torr of whom he (with John Savile and E.P. Thompson) would write, “She made us feel history on our pulses. History was not words on a page, not the goings-on of kings and prime ministers, not mere events. History was the sweat, blood, tears, and triumphs of the common people, our people.” See how they changed Churchill’s words which included sweat, blood, and tears among his offerings as prime minister in May 1940, but also toil. Christopher Hill and the historians of the common people, added triumphs instead.

Hill balanced historical necessity with human freedom. Voluntarism and determinism were placed in equilibrium, not of theory nor of politics, but in the actuality of the English civil war. Thus, “Winstanley’s communist idea was in one sense backward-looking, since it arose from the village community which capitalism was already disintegrating…,” yet Winstanley did not only look to the past; he also had glimpses of a future in which “wheresoever there is a people united by common community of livelihood into oneness it will be the strongest land in the world, for there they will be as one man to defend their inheritance.'” He wrote of both 1640 and 1940. “When the earth becomes a common treasury again, as it must … then this enmity in all lands will cease.” We still have much to learn from the seventeenth century,” Hill concluded.

These then were four seeds from the Blitz—fiery anti-racism, fluid anti-patriarchy, airborne broadcasting of social welfare, and these three requiring groundings in the earthly commons of past, present, and future found it in the scholarly husbandry of Christopher Hill. Seeds in 1940, they bloomed in different futures. At an ignominious hour in Anglo-American history, Christopher Hill reminds us of a fine one.


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Peter Linebaugh teaches history at the University of Toledo. His books included: The London Hanged,(with Marcus Rediker) The Many-Headed Hydra: the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic and Magna Carta Manifesto. His essay on the history of May Day is included in Serpents in the Garden. His latest book is Stop Thief! The Commons, Enclosures and Resistance.  He can be reached

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