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The Experience of Defeat: Milton and Some Contemporaries

What happened to the radicals when the English Revolution failed?
The Restoration, which re-established Charles II as king of England in 1660, marked the end of “God’s cause”—a struggle for liberty and republican freedom. While most accounts of this period concentrate on the court, Christopher Hill focuses on those who mourned the passing of the most radical era in English history. The radical protestant clergy, as well as republican intellectuals and writers generally, had to explain why providence had forsaken the agents of God’s work.

In The Experience of Defeat, Christopher Hill explores the writings and lives of the Levellers, the Ranters and the Diggers, as well as the work of George Fox and other important early Quakers. Some of them were pursued by the new regime, forced into hiding or exile; others compelled to recant. In particular Hill examines John Milton’s late work, arguing that it came directly out of a painful reassessment of man and society that impelled him to “justify the ways of God to Man.”

Reviews

  • “Intensely interesting … Essential.”
  • “The commanding interpreter of seventeenth-century England.”
  • “The dean and paragon of English historians.”
  • “Wide-ranging, popular and immensely prolific … the dominant figure in studies of the period.”
  • “A book of great learning.”

Blog

  • Revolutions: Great and Still and Silent

    History and Revolution: Refuting Revisionism, edited by Mike Haynes and Jim Wolfreys and published by Verso in 2007, collects essays on the English, French, and Russian Revolutions and the body of revisionist historiography — developed or publicized by historians like François Furet, Simon Schama, Orlando Figes, and Conrad Russell — that dominated public conception of them during the high years of "the end of history."

    "Revisionism generally shares a view of revolutions," the editors write, "as, to paraphrase George Taylor, political acts with social consequences rather than social acts with political consequences."

    The lasting achievement of revisionist historiography of the French Revolution has been to discredit the idea that the event brought about a change in France's social order. Against the "determinism" of social explanations of historical change, which focus on class antagonisms, revisionists emphasize the primacy of the political. Their tendency to see revolutions as narrow political events rather than broader social transformations means that extraordinary circumstances — war, famine, counter-revolution — figure little in explanations of why protagonists sometimes act in ways which would otherwise be considered extreme or intolerable. The focus on elite activity and the attempt to establish a causal link between ideas and events leaves little room for the active role played by groups who do not form part of the elite. Popular insurgencies, violence and insurrection are no longer integral to revolutionary change but an unnecessary distraction, or worse, a reactionary brake on modernization and peaceful reform.

    In the book's final chapter, reprinted below, Daniel Bensaïd takes on some of the broader themes of the revisionist literature, picking up Marx's figure of the old mole to trace the persistence of revolution during even the most apparently static of times.    


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  • Resisting Left Melancholia

    Published in 2000, Without Guarantees — edited by Paul Gilroy, Lawrence Grossberg, and Angela McRobbie — brings together more than 30 essays inspired by, or written in honor of, the great cultural theorist Stuart Hall, who died three years ago this week. "It is appropriate," the editors write in their preface: 

    given the spirit of Stuart's own commitments that this volume has a second, subsidiary purpose. Cultural studies have been subjected to much abuse lately and the fragile institutional initiatives with which those words are entangled are now under great and growing pressure. In these circumstances it seemed right to try to make this public gift a modest interventionist act in its own right. Here then are some implicit and explicit reflections on what cultural studies can be and what it might become. 


    Below, we present one of the essays collected in the volume: Wendy Brown's now classic reflection on Hall and the condition that Walter Benjamin termed "left melancholia." First published in
    boundary 2 in 1999, Brown's essay spurred a debate that has continued through the present day. 

     

    via Stuart Hall Foundation

    “In every era the attempt must be made anew to wrest tradition away from a conformism that is about to overpower it. ... only that historian will have the gift of fanning the spark of hope in the past who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins.”1 Walter Benjamin

    It has become commonplace to lament the current beleaguered and disoriented condition of the Left. Stuart Hall is among the few who have tried to diagnose the sources and dynamics of this condition. From the earliest days of the rise of the Thatcher-Reagan-Gingrich Right in Europe and North America, Hall insisted that the “crisis of the Left” in the late twentieth century was due neither to internal divisions in the activist or academic Left nor to the clever rhetoric or funding schemes of the Right. Rather, he charged, this ascendency was consequent to the Left's own failure to apprehend the character of the age, and to develop a political critique and a moral-political vision appropriate to this character.

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  • Army, Saints, People

    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."

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Other books by Christopher Hill