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Obituary: Christopher Hill

March 14, 2003 | Page 4

Dear Socialist Worker,

The British historian Christopher Hill died last month at the age of 91. Hill rose to the pinnacle of the British academic establishment, serving as master of Balliol College in Oxford from 1965 to 1978. But he was also the leading Marxist historian of his generation. Beginning with his pathbreaking 1940 pamphlet The English Revolution 1640, Hill transformed our understanding of 17th-century England.

He joined the Communist Party (CP) in the 1930s while a student. In the 1940s and 1950s, he was a member of the party's Historians' Group, which included such talented figures as Maurice Dobb, Rodney Hilton, Eric Hobsbawm and E.P. Thompson. After resigning from the CP in 1957 after the former USSR's invasion of Hungary, Hill published a stream of books and articles over the next 40 years.

An earlier generation of liberal British historians viewed the English Civil War of the 1640s, which culminated with the execution of Charles I and the establishment of a short-lived republic under Oliver Cromwell, as an aberration in an otherwise peaceful history of social progress.

By contrast, Hill pointed to the class divisions that had always existed in British society and argued that the civil war was a full-fledged bourgeois revolution that ushered in the conditions for rapid capitalist development.

Hill emphasized not only the underlying economic factors, but also the way in which class interests were articulated in religious terms. His books included studies of the influence of the poet Milton, the religious writer John Bunyan and the Bible on the revolution and its aftermath.

Hill was also a pioneer of history from below. He showed how the divisions at the top of society created space for radical ferment and ideas among the masses. His most celebrated book, The World Turned Upside Down--written during the student radicalism of the late 1960s--is a brilliant study of the revolutionary ideas preached by groups such as the Diggers and the Ranters.

During these "marvelous decades," Hill wrote, "Ordinary people were freer from the authority of church and socially superior than they had ever been before." The radicals in the English Revolution were defeated, but Hill's superb writings showed their relevance for those who hope to turn the world upside down today.

Phil Gasper, San Leandro, Calif.

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