Magazine article History Today

Christopher Hill: John Morrill Remembers and Assesses the Marxist Historian of the English Revolution, Who Died Recently. (Today's History)

Magazine article History Today

Christopher Hill: John Morrill Remembers and Assesses the Marxist Historian of the English Revolution, Who Died Recently. (Today's History)

Article excerpt

THE EXTRAORDINARY expansion of universities in the 1960s and 1970s placed a huge responsibility on the generation of graduate teachers who were training up the young scholars who would fill the legion vacancies in expanding campuses. The field of early modern British history was especially vibrant, and those who taught in the major universities of the English-speaking world had a special responsibility for the development of the subject. And they grasped it. In America, the colossi were Jack Hexter at Yale and Lawrence Stone at Princeton; in Cambridge Geoffrey Elton and Jack Plumb; in London John Neale and Joel Hurstfield; and in Oxford Hugh Trevor-Roper and Christopher Hill. Now they are dead, and the one to out-live the others, in life and perhaps in reputation, was Christopher Hill. His death marks the end of an epoch.

Hill was born on February 6th, 1912, and died on February 24th, 2003. He was born into comfortable circumstances, the son of a York solicitor who was also a stern Methodist. This combination of material prosperity and intellectual non-conformity was, transmuted, to be the key to his life. He always seemed at ease combining the creatures comforts of college life, of homes in leafy North Oxford and 'unspoiled' Pfirigord, with intellectual Marxism and an admiration for Stalin's Russia that outlived Stalin himself. He traded his parents' religious radicalism for a secular variety and lived with the contradictions.

His career was straightforward. He was an undergraduate at Balliol (1931-34) and a Prize Fellow of All Souls (1934-36); after an assistant lectureship at University College Cardiff (1936-38) he went to Balliol for forty years as a Fellow and, 1965-78, as Master. After retiring at the age of sixty-seven, he spent several fruitful years as a Visiting Professor at the Open University. Self-consciousness about his slight speech impediment limited his effectiveness as a lecturer, but he was a very good tutor and research supervisor, never assertive or closed-minded. He had a slightly craggy face and slightly raffish swept-back hair, but what stays in the memory was the keen, sharp, quizzical eyes and the slight playfulness of the smile around his mouth. He was intellectually generous to all who sought him out until physical and mental decline in his final years caused him to retreat to the Cotswolds where he was guarded by Bridget, his wife and intellectual companion.

The two great turning points in his life were his conversion to Soviet Communism in the early 1930s and his departure from the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1957. The years of his 'conversion' were the years of the Great Depression. He rejected the triumphalist self-helpism of his background in favour of something more fundamentalist. He told a Cambridge postgraduate student a few years ago that the most powerful influences on his intellectual development as an undergraduate were first F.R. Leavis and Scrutiny and then the socialist historians of the period, especially G.D.H. Cole. But, he said, what turned him towards Russian State Socialism was the sickening complacency of the dons he encountered. It was the easy dismissal by those around him of the Russian Revolution and their blind eye to the evils of Nazism that drove him to explore the former. He spent 1935 studying in Russia and then became an active member of the Communist Party, writing as and when requested to do so, sometimes in his own name (most interestingly The English Revolution, 1640, for The Marxist Text Book Series in 1940), and sometimes under pen-names given him by the Party.

In the later 1940s and 1950s, he was a key member of the Marxist Historians' Group, which set out, by rigorous debate and intellectual self-discipline, to develop a comprehensive Marxist account of English history. And why not? Some of his writings he later disowned. If his biography of Lenin (1947) is an uncritical account, his adulatory writings about Stalin, including a fawning essay on his greatness as a historian and humanitarian, were disreputable. …

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