Christopher Hill's 1984 The Experience of Defeat: Milton and Some Contemporaries — out in a new edition from Verso — follows out of Hill's account of the radical ideas that animated the English Revolution, and Milton's relation to them; which he had developed in The World Turned Upside Down (1972) and Milton and the English Revolution (1977). "My concern," Hill writes in the introduction, "is not so much with the fate of radicals after the restoration, but to study how some individuals coped with the experience of living through a revolution which they initially welcomed, and with the defeat of that revolution — a defeat which for some of them occurred before 1660."
In the excerpt below, Hill examines the relationships between the radicals, the army, and "the people" that developed in the "fluid society" of the 1650s — and how they changed as it came to an end.
One point that forced itself upon me whilst writing this book was the continuing importance of the Army for the radicals. Their ideas could have emerged only in the fluid state of society which existed during the revolutionary decades. We should not underestimate — as historians perhaps too easily do — the significance of rank and file and junior officers in London as members of gathered congregations, often as preachers themselves around whom such churches formed. Outside London it was normally under the Army’s protection that separatist churches and groups could gather and survive. The Digger community at Cobham lasted as long as it had Army backing; and no longer. In January 1650 Winstanley was still hoping for Army support, and even in 1652 he appealed to Cromwell. The Ranters drew on support from Army officers in their brief heyday. That the "northern Quakers" owed much to Army protection is clear from Fox’s Journal, and from the Nayler Debates in 1656. Removing the garrison from Bristol in 1654 at once reduced support for the Quakers. In Ireland it was in the Army that Quakers "found their greatest response." When Burrough and Howgil were expelled from Ireland in 1656, the guards taking them to the coast "were loving to them and suffered them to have meetings where they came."
This year marks the 400 anniversary of the birth of one of the great revolutionary democrats of British history, John Lillburne. 200 years before the Chartists and 300 before the universal suffrage became a reality in Britain, ‘freeborn John’ and the Levellers campaigned tirelessly for freedom and justice during the turbulent years of the English Revolution.
In honour of this, and to mark this weekend’s conference to celebrate this life and work at the Bishopsgate Institute (featuring John Rees, Geoffrey Robertson QC, Peter Flannery and more) we have an extract from John Lilburne’s pamphlet ‘England’s New Chains Discovered’. Written in 1649, and thus after the execution of Charles I, the abolition of the House of Lords, and the people being declared the origin of all power by the House of Commons, Lilburne argues that the republican government is reverting to a new form of tyranny. This marked the beginning of the end for the possibilities for radical change that emerged during the great social upheavals of the ‘century of revolution’. Yet, Lilburne’s pamphlet shows that the seeds of liberty still remained. As the incomparable historian of the 17th century Christopher Hill argued, ‘Each generation ... rescues a new area from what its predecessors arrogantly and snobbishly dismissed as 'the lunatic fringe,”’ and perhaps now more than ever can we learn anew from the Leveller’s fight for freedom.
One of the signal features of our era is the re-emergence of the 'sacred' in all its different guises, from New Age paganism to the emerging religious sensitivity within cultural and political theory.
Verso has published for many years a range of critical accounts of Christianity and the broader issues of religion, belief and faith. Here, in conjunction with the publication of Pier Paolo Pasolini's St Paul, Verso presents a Radical Christianity reading list.
I still believe in the old values of the 18th Century Enlightenment; in Reason, in education, in the improvement, if not the perfectability, of human beings, and in the attempts, at any rate, to establish "liberty, equality, fraternity", or "life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness" or any other these other marvellous slogans which we owe to the late 18th Century.
BBC's Archive on 4 special feature on historian Eric Hobsbawm opens with his own words, spoken to Desert Island Discs in 1995. The programme, an hour-long profile of the outspoken Marxist historian, was presented by Simon Schama and laid out the story of Hobsbawm's colourful life: a life which has traced a line alongside the great fissures and faults of 20th Century. The esteemed author, who celebrates his 95th birthday this year, also talks about the life-changing effect that reading The Communist Manifesto had upon him at an early age. That influence continues to this day: eighty years after first picking up Marx's text in his school library, Hobsbawm has written the introduction to a new, modern edition of the Manifesto.