9 March 2003


Nick Cohen of the Observer has beaten me to it on this one in his column today (click here) in which he draws attention to George Orwell's New Statesman review of The English Revolution 1640, edited by Hill and containing Hill's essay of the same title, which I didn't have to hand when I wrote my original post. Cohen eloquently makes the crucial point: "Real moles hide everything. The last thing they would do is send out Communist tracts to be reviewed in the New Statesman by hostile critics who would point out their Communism as a matter of course." Still, people might like to read the Orwell review (one of his rare pieces for the Statesman) in full, so here it is:

George Orwell: Review of The English Revolution: 1640, edited by Christopher Hill

From the New Statesman and Nation, August 24 1940

The imprint of Messrs Lawrence and Wishart upon a book on the English Civil War tells one in advance what its interpretation of the war is likely to be, and the main interest of reading it is to discover how crudely or how subtly the "materialistic" method is applied.

Obviously a Marxist version of the Civil War must represent it as a struggle between a rising capitalism and an obstructive feudalism, which in fact it was. But men will not die for things called capitalism or feudalism, and will die for things called liberty or loyalty, and to ignore one set of motives is as misleading as to ignore the others. This, however, is what the authors of this book do their best to do. Early in the first essay the familiar note is struck:
The fact that men spoke and wrote in religious language should not prevent us realising that there is a social content behind what are apparently purely theological ideas. Each class created and sought to impose the religious outlook best suited to its own needs and interests. But the real clash is between these class interests.

It is not, then, denied that the "Puritan Revolution" was a religious as well as a political struggle; but it was more than that.
In the light of the first paragraph, it is not so easy to see what is meant by "religious struggle" in the last sentence. But in that cocksure paragraph one can see the main weakness of Marxism, its failure to interpret human motives. Religion, morality, patriotism and so forth are invariably written off as "superstructure," a sort of hypocritical cover-up for the pursuit of economic interests. If that were so, one might well ask why it is that the "super-structure" has to exist. If no man is ever motivated by anything except class interests, why does every man constantly pretend that he is motivated by something else? Apparently because human beings can only put forth their full powers when they believe that they are not acting for economic ends. But this in itself is enough to suggest that "super-structural" motives should be taken seriously. They may be causes as well as effects.

As it is, a "Marxist analysis" of any historical event tends to be a hurried snap-judgment based on the principle of cui bono? something rather like the "realism" of the saloon-bar cynic who always assumes that the bishop is keeping a mistress and the trade-union leader is in the pay of the boss. Along these lines it is impossible to have an intuitive understanding of men's motives, and therefore impossible to predict their actions. It is easy now to debunk the English Civil War, but it must be admitted that during the past twenty years the predictions of the Marxists have usually been not only wrong but, so to speak, more sensationally wrong than those of much simpler people. The outstanding case was their failure to see in advance the danger of Fascism. Long after Hitler came to power official Marxism was declaring that Hitler was of no importance and could achieve nothing. On the other hand, people who had hardly heard of Marx but who knew the power of faith had seen Hitler coming years earlier.

The third essay in the book, by Mr. Edgell Rickword, is on Milton, who figures as "the revolutionary intellectual". This involves treating Milton as primarily a pamphleteer, and in an essay of 31 pages Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained only get between them a hurried mention of half a sentence. The most interesting essay of the three, by Miss Margaret James, is on the materialist interpretations of society which were already current in the mid-seventeenth century. The English Revolution, like some later ones, had its unsuccessful left-wing, men who were ahead of their time and were cast aside when they had helped the new ruling class into power. It is a pity that Miss James fails to make a comparison between the seventeenth-century situation and the one we are now in. A parallel undoubtedly exists, although from the official Marxist point of view the latter-day equivalents of the Diggers and Levellers happen to be unmentionable.

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