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Archive for the ‘bourgeois revolution’ Category

Though many things are being said about Vivek Chibber’s new book, Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital, it is unlikely at this point that anyone will call the book boring. It has ignited a fair amount of controversy in its claim that the central arguments emerging from Subaltern Studies are wrong, and that a universalist social theory grounded in Marxism is capable of explaining the phenomena they fail to.

The posting of Chibber’s debate with Partha Chatterjee, one of the main targets of critique in the book, at Historical Materialism New York, will no doubt only intensify the disputes. Indeed, some are already claiming that Chatterjee has closed the book on Chibber’s arguments with his “meticulous demolition” a few weeks ago.

In this post, I’d like to examine one small aspect of the debate, centering around the contending interpretations of Ranajit Guha’s work. It is my contention that Chatterjee, in attempting to defend Guha, misrepresents the latter’s arguments, often strikingly.

Before proceeding, it is worth noting what this post is not arguing. I am not asserting here that either Chatterjee or Guha’s work is worthless or should not be read. Indeed, Guha’s criticisms of the bad faith of colonialist historiography, his portrait of the way aspects of Indian culture were mobilized to support colonial rule, and his emphasis on the brutality of the raj are all valuable and compelling. I am less familiar with Chatterjee’s work, and for that reason do not want anything in this post to be construed as a broader commentary on his other publications.  However, the issue of misrepresentation is a serious one, and deserves consideration.

Chibber lays out his side of the argument briefly in an interview about the book published at Jacobin:

Subaltern studies offers two distinct arguments for how and why the universalizing drive of capital was blocked. One argument comes from Ranajit Guha. Guha located the universalizing drive of capital in the ability of a particular agent — namely, the bourgeoisie, the capitalist class — to overthrow the feudal order and construct a coalition of classes that includes not only capitalists and merchants, but also workers and peasants. And through the alliance that is cobbled together, capital is supposed to erect a new political order, which is not only pro-capitalist in terms of defending the property rights of capitalists, but also a liberal, encompassing, and consensual order.

So for the universalizing drive of capital to be real, Guha says, it must be experienced as the emergence of a capitalist class that constructs a consensual, liberal order. This order replaces the ancien régime, and is universalizing in that it expresses the interests of capitalists as universal interests. Capital, as Guha says, achieves the ability to speak for all of society: it is not only dominant as a class, but also hegemonic in that it doesn’t need to use coercion to maintain its power.

So Guha locates the universalizing drive in the construction of an encompassing political culture. The key point for Guha is that the bourgeoisie in the West was able to achieve such an order while the bourgeoisie in the East failed to do so. Instead of overthrowing feudalism, it made some sort of compact with the feudal classes; instead of becoming a hegemonic force with a broad, cross-class coalition, it tried its best to suppress the involvement of peasants and the working class. Instead of erecting a consensual and encompassing political order, it put into place highly unstable and fairly authoritarian political orders. It maintained the rift between the class culture of the subaltern and that of the elite.

So for Guha, whereas in the West the bourgeoisie was able to speak for all the various classes, in the East it failed in this goal, making it dominant but not hegemonic. This in turn makes modernity in the two parts of the world fundamentally different by generating very different political dynamics in the East and West, and this is the significance of capital’s universalizing drive having failed.

JB: So their argument rests on a claim about the role of the bourgeoisie in the West, and the failure of its counterpart in postcolonial societies?

VC: For Guha, absolutely, and the subaltern studies group accepts these arguments, largely without qualification. They describe the situation — the condition of the East — as a condition in which the bourgeoisie dominates but lacks hegemony, whereas the West has both dominance and hegemony.

Now the problem with this is, as you said, that the core of the argument is a certain description of the achievements of the Western bourgeoisie. The argument, unfortunately, has very little historical purchase. There was a time, in the nineteenth century, the early twentieth century, even into the 1950s, when many historians accepted this picture of the rise of the bourgeoisie in the West. Over the last thirty or forty years, though, it has been largely rejected, even among Marxists.

What’s strange is that Guha’s book and his articles were written as though the criticisms of this approach were never made. And what’s even stranger is that the historical profession — within which subaltern studies has been so influential — has never questioned this foundation of the subaltern studies project, even though they all announce that it’s the foundation. The bourgeoisie in the West never strove for the goals that Guha ascribes to it: it never tried to bring about a consensual political culture or represent working-class interests. In fact, it fought tooth and nail against them for centuries after the so-called bourgeois revolutions. When those freedoms were finally achieved, it was through very intense struggle by the dispossessed, waged against the heroes of Guha’s narrative, the bourgeoisie. So the irony is that Guha really works with an incredibly naïve, even ideological notion of the Western experience. He doesn’t see that capitalists have everywhere and always been hostile to the extension of political rights to working people.

These arguments are expanded upon in Chapters 2-5 of Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital.

To rebut Chibber’s criticisms, Chatterjee offered four arguments:

1.) Guha’s text is not comparative at all, and does not make any claims about what actually happened during the development of European capitalism. Rather, it simply comments on what liberal historiography assumed would happen in India. Therefore, Chibber’s argument that Guha compares India to a European history that never happened is simply the product of an inept reading. (made at 27:23 in the debate)

2.) Guha is not actually talking about what capitalists did or did not do, but instead is speaking of a much broader anticolonial elite. Therefore, Chibber’s attempt to compare their actions with the actions of European capitalists is an invalid exercise in comparing two very different kinds of social entities. (31:00)

3.) Guha does not hold a Whig view of history. The Whiggish view Chibber criticizes is precisely what Guha is criticizing in liberal historiography. (30:45)

4.) The appropriate grounds of comparison, and the one Guha is actually making, is between England and India of the 1950s, not between the European bourgeois revolutions and modern Indian history. The comparison Chibber makes renders the contemporary history of India nothing more than a replay of Europe’s past, an extraordinarily Eurocentric maneuver. (31:44).

All four of these arguments represent serious distortions of the arguments made in Dominance without Hegemony. In order:

1.) Chatterjee claims that “nowhere in the essay does Guha offer any propositions of his own that might be construed as a historical sociology of bourgeois revolutions in England and France.” What, then, are we to make of passages such as the following?

“liberal historiography has been led to presume that capital, in its Indian career, succeeded in overcoming the obstacles to its self-expansion and subjugating all precapitalist relations in material and spiritual life well enough to enable the bourgeoisie to speak for all of that society, as it had done on the occasion of its historic triumphs in England in 1648 and France in 1789.” (Dominance without Hegemony, 19)

“Much of the specificity of Indian politics of this period derives precisely from the failure of nationalism to assimilate the class interests of peasants and workers effectively into a bourgeois hegemony. Nothing testifies more clearly to the predicament of a bourgeoisie nurtured under colonial conditions and its difference from its opposite numbers in Western Europe…In other words, it was initially as an acknowledgment of the connection between its own interests and those of all the other nonruling classes that the bourgeoisie had led the struggle against feudalism and established its hegemony over the peasantry, whereas in India the influence it gained over the rural population in the 1920s and 1930s did not develop into a full-fledged hegemony because of its reluctance to break with landlordism. Again, in Western Europe, the conditions prevailing under the ancien regime did not allow the interests of the bourgeoisie to be reduced at once to “the particular interest of a particular class.” (ibid 133-134)

how is it that even after British capital, powered by industrialism, had come of age and the culture corresponding to it had created a homogeneous space for itself by overcoming the resistance of all that was parochial and particularistic in metropolitan politics — how is it that even at its hour of triumph the universalist tendency was resigned to live at peace with the heterogeneity and particularity of the indigenous political culture of an Asian colony?” (ibid 64)

Here, in locations throughout the 1997 text, Guha is quite plainly making claims about what actually happened in Europe during the period of the rise of capitalism. In two of these passages, there is not even a reference to the liberal historiography which Chatterjee claims is Guha’s true reference. Instead, we have what are unavoidably statements about the history of capitalism in Europe, in which it is claimed that the bourgeoisie led the struggle against feudalism, overcame the resistance of the particular, established a homogenous space, and was thus able to speak for the nation. Even in the first passage, which begins by referencing the liberal historiography, the sentence’s final clause implies that the bourgeoisie was actually able to speak for all of society after 1648 and 1789.

Chatterjee’s description of what is in Guha’s text is then quite plainly false. But he also argues that Guha does not require any historical sociology of bourgeois revolution in Europe to substantiate his claims. This is a more complicated argument to adjudicate, as it cannot be settled simply with references to the text. However, I think there are still good reasons to think that Chatterjee is wrong here. It is quite true that the overwhelming bulk of Dominance without Hegemony is not focused on the question of what happened in India versus what happened in Europe. Guha’s explication of the role of Dharma, of the ideological machinations of colonialist historiography, and of the dynamics of nationalist struggle do not depend on any claims about Europe. Indeed, Chibber says as much in the book, praising Guha’s empirical description of Indian history while contesting his theoretical explanation of it. It is this theoretical account which depends upon a comparison between Europe and India.  Chatterjee is correct to claim that, for his critique of historiography, Guha only needs evidence a) that the liberal historiography assumes that the bourgeoisie enjoyed hegemony in Europe b) that it also enjoyed hegemony in the colonies c) that Indian liberals saw the postcolonial order as similarly hegemonic and d) that neither the colonial nor the postcolonial regimes enjoyed hegemony. Unfortunately for Chatterjee, however, Guha offers us rather more than a criticism of the historiography. Indeed, in the second passage quoted above, Guha is quite explicit that the failure of the Indian bourgeoisie explains “the specificity of Indian politics.” For this claim to be successful, one must assume the bourgeoisie succeeded elsewhere. If the bourgeoisie failed in Europe as well as in India, how could its failure in India explain the specificity of Indian politics? Guha’s argument does indeed imply claims about what happened in European history, and, as we have seen, he is not at all shy about making these claims.

2.) Chatterjee’s claim that Guha is not talking about Indian capitalists, but rather Indian nationalist elites, is wrong on several levels. The argument is proffered as an attempt to rebut Chibber’s claims about the French Revolution, where he argues, in the tradition of political Marxism, that the French bourgeoisie who participated in the revolution was in no sense capitalist, and that therefore the French revolution cannot be taken as an example of the capitalist bourgeoisie succeeding in forging hegemony and speaking for the nation. Chatterjee argues in response that Guha is only describing nationalist elites, not capital. It is unclear what exactly he thinks is gained by making this point. On the surface, there is the obvious effect that this claim, if true, would buttress his general argument that Chibber has misunderstood Guha. However, it does little to rehabilitate Guha’s theoretical claim – namely that the French bourgeoisie succeeded in speaking for the nation, while the Indian bourgeoisie failed. Even assuming that we are talking about non-capitalist bourgeoisies in both cases, Chibber shows that the French revolution was wracked with class conflict, with the bourgeoisie fighting for a very limited set of reforms, while attempting at every turn to restrict and repress the development of more popular insurgencies.  As in India, there was no hegemony. Abstracting from the question of capital, the attempt at contrast still fails.

Moving into Guha’s text itself, we find that once again Chatterjee’s attempts to defend Guha run aground on the pages of the very work he purports to be defending. Guha offers an expansive picture of the bourgeoisie in India, encompassing nationalist elites, Indian capitalists, and British capitalists. Indeed, his references to capital’s universalizing tendency throughout the book make clear that his argument is very much about what capital failed to do. Restricting his arguments to cover only nationalist elites is a distortion of the text.

3.) Chatterjee claims that Guha does not hold a Whig view of history, but rather criticizes the one found in the texts of liberal historiography. Yet Chibber’s argument that Guha, by claiming that the European bourgeoisie fought for liberty and democracy, romanticizes the bourgeoisie, finds substantial support throughout Guha’s text. Guha names, among the “achievements” of the bourgeoisie, “democracy” and “liberty” (67). He describes “bourgeois law” as having made “inviolable…the individual’s right to the security of his or her own person” (26). And he describes it as a “paradox” that forms of pre-capitalist oppression were mobilized by “the world’s most advanced bourgeoisie.”

In these statements, the European bourgeoisie receives credit for a series of reforms it actually struggled tooth and nail against. As Chibber notes, by the time the English Reform Act of 1832 was passed, the English electorate was actually smaller than it had been in 1630 (65). Almost two centuries of bourgeois rule yielded precious little evidence that the European bourgeoisie had any interest in democracy. Similarly, the description of the inviolability of the individual body whitewashes the sordid history of the consolidation of bourgeois rule in England, ably recounted in Peter Linebaugh’s The London Hanged and Domenico Losurdo’s Liberalism: A Counter-History. Finally, the utilization of precapitalist institutions in the interest of capital accumulation is hardly a paradox. Karen Orren’s Belated Feudalism tells the story of precisely such a dynamic in the United States. In Europe, the consolidation of capitalism often took place in part through a similar process, as in England, where market dependency among peasants was achieved through the assertion of a host of lordly rights to the land. In short, Guha attributes to the bourgeoisie a number of properties – an interest in liberty and democracy, a proclivity to do away with precapitalist social forms, and an investment in the rule of law – which the historical record simply does not support. This is what it means to draw on a Whig view of history. It is view that exists in the texts Guha is criticizing, to be sure, but finds expression throughout his own text as well.

4.) Chatterjee’s last claim is in some ways the most puzzling. The motivation for the criticism is easy enough to understand; it is the familiar postcolonial critique that Marxism too often reduces the history of the colonial world to Europe’s pre-history. Yet, as we have seen, it is precisely Guha who makes this claim, bringing up the revolutions of 1648 and 1789 as points of comparison with the development of capitalism in India. I will only add to this that, in focusing so heavily on the period of Indian independence, Chatterjee obscures both Guha’s text and Chibber’s critique of it, neither of which have anything resembling an exclusive focus on the moment of independence, but consider the history of Indian capitalism as a whole.

Why go through this unfortunately lengthy exercise in correction? A few reasons. First, as I have noted, Chatterjee is already being celebrated for allegedly knocking out Chibber in the debate. It is hard to square such plaudits with the reality of his misrepresentations of Guha’s text.

More fundamentally, however, I think both Chatterjee’s claims in the debate, and the support they have found, are indicative of the state of the left academy. To put it bluntly, bullshit, in the Frankfurtian sense, rules the day. Chatterjee’s cavalier misrepresentation of the text he purports to be defending seems a classic token of the concept.

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It’s no secret that Israel has a PR problem.  Even the most fervent Zionists at this point admit as much, and the increasingly frenzied efforts of the Israeli state only confirm the feeling.  The Kushner Affair seems to be only the latest in a string of propaganda catastrophes for Zion.  Yet I also think it represents a turning point of sorts.  While previous incidents like the Mavi Marmara or the Operation Cast Lead helped solidify the growing opposition to Zionist barbarism, Kushner’s blackballing led nearly the whole of the liberal class in the United States to unequivocally condemn the censoring of a critic of Israel.  In what follows, I will attempt to lay out what I think the Kushner Affair represents for Israel and liberal opinion, by contextualizing it in a broader history of liberalism.

In Domenico Losurdo’s book Liberalism: A Counter-History, he argues that liberalism has always been far more compatible with domination than its own self-image would lead one to believe.  Through an examination of the writings of Locke, Tocqueville, Mill, and other leading lights of the tradition, Losurdo shows that liberalism historically has functioned by establishing a ‘community of the free,’ to whom the vaunted promises of rights and privileges correspond, while those outside that restricted community were entitled to no such enjoyments.  Locke, for example, did not believe that Africans or Native Americans deserved any of the rights he so carefully formulated for fellow Europeans.  Tocqueville thought it perfectly appropriate to crush the workers’ rising in Paris in 1848 through the suspension of constitutional order,  that the privileges of the liberal upper class might be preserved.  In other words, for Losurdo, the traditional Marxist critique of liberalism – that it promotes formal equality in the face of substantive inequality – gives liberalism too much credit.  Many of its leading thinkers were unwilling even to extend formal freedoms to those beyond the boundaries of the community of the free.

While this account has some problems (it seems difficult to differentiate liberalism and conservatism on this reading.  Symptomatically, Losurdo includes Burke firmly in the liberal tradition), it is also tremendously suggestive.  Losurdo demonstrates how liberalism’s naturalization of its social vision – the privileges of a restricted community – inevitably produces the pathologization so characteristic of liberal polemic.  The right to dispossess the natives is obvious, and you’d have to be a madman or mohammedan not to recognize as much.

Though much of the book concentrates on the changing definitions of the community of the free, Losurdo is equally interested in the conflicts internal to liberalism and their consequences for the tradition’s future.  The American Revolution is his first case study.  Here, he shows how restrictions on those accustomed to considering themselves part of the liberal community – the colonists – led to fissures with England, which since the Glorious Revolution had been the standard bearer of liberalism.  The course of the conflict itself involved debate over how this community should be defined.  Samuel Johnson’s pithy reprimand to the colonists (“How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?”) is representative of the ways that British liberals sought to both brand the rebels as hypocrites and reinforce their own liberal self-presentation.  At the same time, the colonists responded by pointing to the English involvement in the Atlantic slave trade, a practice the rebels held to be far more odious than merely owning a slave.  In this way, both sides of the conflict attempted to brand their opponents as the illiberal force threatening to crush precious liberty.

This same pattern reoccurs in the American Civil War.  Here, the slaveowners, who conceived of themselves as the most democratic and liberal ruling class in history, argued that the various Northern initiatives to limit the expansion of slavery constituted unacceptable aggressions against liberty.  The rhetoric of the planter class, which represented abolitionists as deranged fanatics, fits the pattern as well.  However, the Southern counter-offensive, whether in the form of the Gag Rule or Dred Scott or the Fugitive Slave Act, worked to antagonize the North all the more.  Each of these Southern responses could be, and were, read as infringements on the Northern community of the free.  As John Ashworth has written:

In the mid-1830s southerners were able to count upon some northerners to aid them in their war against the abolitionists.  Again, however, the consequence was to strengthen the forces of antislavery.  The pressure on northern legislatures to act against abolitionists alarmed many northerners who were themselves quite unconcerned about the plight of the slave but very concerned to maintain freedom of speech.  The anti-abolitionist riots of these years, conducted by men who were taking their cue from the leaders of southern opinion, also created deep disquiet and tended to confirm the abolitionist claim that slavery disorganized the entire nation.  Charles Sumner in 1836 wrote that ‘we are becoming abolitionists in the North fast: riots, the attempts to abridge freedom of discussion, and the conduct of the South generally, have caused many to think favorably of immediate emancipation who have never before been inclined to it.’ Ashworth, Slavery, Capitalism, and Politics in the Antebellum Republic, Vol I 143.

While Sumner exaggerated in describing the results of Southern maneuvers as increased abolitionism, it is certainly the case that the South’s efforts increased Northern antipathy.  Both North and South conceived of themselves as liberal societies, but the planter class’s strategy for maintaining control only put more ammunition in the hands of those who sought to portray them as enemies of liberty.

In a nutshell, I think something similar is happening today with Israel.  Like the Southern planter class, Israel defines itself, crucially, as part of the community of the free.  This is an endlessly repeated theme in the hasbara – Israel is the only democracy in the region, Israel has women’s rights, Israel has gay rights, etc.  Though Israel’s dispossession of the Palestinians has led many to argue that this self-image is a farce, Losurdo’s account demonstrates that, at the least, it is not an anomalous combination in the history of liberal states.  At the same time, however, it is undeniable that Israel has, in seeking to preserve its status as the liberal utopia among the barbarians, adopted a whole slew of blatantly anti-liberal policies – a new set of gag rules.

In the US, this comes in the form of the attack on Kushner.  Though censorship of criticisms of Israel is nothing new in the US (see Edward Said’s brilliant essay ‘Zionism from the Standpoint of its Victims’ for some perspective on how total this censorship once was), CUNY’s treatment of Kushner provoked an unprecedented outcry.  The New York Times, no friend to Palestine, was on the case immediately, issuing an editorial denouncing CUNY and publishing an interview (with the wonderfully understated title ‘A CUNY Trustee Expands His View of What is Offensive) with the the lead Zionist bully that was clearly written to make him appear every bit as disgusting as he actually is.  Other important liberal venues have jumped on the bandwagon as well.

As in the case of the conflict between North and South, the sympathy for Kushner in these publications has not, by and large, been based on sympathy for the Palestinians.  Rather, it stems from outrage over  the treatment of one of the finest representatives of liberal America.  Kushner himself is no radical on Palestine, and he has repeatedly affirmed his support for Israel’s continued existence and his opposition to BDS.  Indeed, his very timidity on the question has made CUNY’s offense all the worse in the eyes  of the liberal class.  If Israel’s defense is now coming at the expense of people like Kushner, it signals the potential for major conflict on the question within the liberal community.

This doesn’t mean that Israel is finished, or anything nearly so final.  Rather, I think it is an important moment in the struggle against Zionism, and one whose structure is familiar in the long duree of liberalism.  It signifies the moment when the actions of those outside the community of the free – abolitionists and slaves in the nineteenth century, Palestinians and solidarity activists today – succeed in pushing their demands to the point where they begin to create a crisis for the rulers.  Then and now, the outcome of that crisis is uncertain, but its arrival is unquestionably to be welcomed.

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Let us never forget Milton, the first defender of regicide.
-Frederick Engels, The Northern Star Dec 18th, 1847.

Biographies are bourgeois. More often than not, they are little more than the supports to Great Man theories of history, in which the dynamics of historical change are explicable through the actions of the most prominent individual actors. We can see this in the tremendous academic industry of biographies of the Founding Fathers of the United States, whose every whisper and fart becomes more relevant to national history than the culture (in Raymond Williams’ sense of a way of life) of the millions over whom they ruled. (Highlighting the genre’s ideological proclivities does not, of course, render it useless).

Christopher Hill’s biography of John Milton is particularly worthwhile for its interaction with the these strictures of the genre. Milton was one of the first bourgeois radicals, and in many ways the high water mark for the tradition until Thomas Paine. It is thus not inappropriate that he should be examined through an ideological lens (partially) commensurate with his own. More important than this congruence, however, is Hill’s own subtle revision of the problematic of biography. Counterpoising the previous efforts of scholars to trace the influence upon Milton of authors like Plato, Aquinas, and Homer, Hill argues that a far more fecund source of his subject’s ideas lay in his dialogue with his fellow countrymen. By emphasizing the collective input into Milton’s development, Hill does much to defetishize the bourgeois ideal of individual genius.

This emphasis on the dialogic nature of Milton’s thought is at the heart of Hill’s argument. He argues that in the political terrain of the English Revolution, there were three main cultures contending – the Royalists (led by Charles I), the Parliamentarians (Oliver Cromwell), and the radicals (the Diggers, Levellers, and Ranters.) For Hill, Milton is located perpetually in the interstices between the second and third culture. Though of a middle class upbringing – the son of a moneylender – Milton developed enthusiasms for the democratic currents in England early in his life through friendships with many of the radicals of his day.

Milton’s contact with the radicals led him, when the revolution began, to adopt a position well to the left of many of the Parliamentary leaders. Though he did not always agree the positions of the radicals, and often criticized them, a dialogue existed nevertheless. It was partially this positioning that led Milton to take the radical position in favor of free speech he did in his famous pamphlet the Areopagitica. While older scholarship has focused on the Biblical and Greek philosophical quotations Milton uses to make his point, it has never bothered to ask why he chose to make the defense in the first place when other, no less dedicated classicists, endorsed censorship. The same contact with the radicals informed Milton’s spirited defense of regicide, the Eikonoklastes.

Milton’s radicalism was not limited to the political, however; it extended to the personal as well. Though Milton was once the bete noire of feminism (see Mary Daly), recent scholarship has placed him firmly on the side of antimisogyny. Hill was one of the earliest (1977) to argue against the received wisdom on Milton and women. Through a close examination of Milton’s relationship to both the rulers and the radicals, Hill demonstrates that the former viewed the poet as a disgusting libertine for advocating divorce on the grounds of incompatibility, while the latter saw his work as a foundation to build off. Though Milton was certainly displeased by the direction in which some of the radicals took his work, such as excusing adultery, he was nonetheless well in advance of many of his contemporaries in his views on relations between men and women[1].

Unsurprisingly, this radical in politics and romance was also a radical in theology. Though a committed Christian, Milton flirted with the radical theology produced by the third culture which even contemporary Christians would have a hard time accepting. Among other things, Milton was a mortalist, who believed that the soul died along with the body. In all his theology, Milton was far more concerned with what transpired in this world than in the next.

Even when considering the material realm Milton went farther than most of his contemporaries. Though not an antinomianist himself, Milton was strongly influenced by the plebeian theology which held that men in the community of God were not subject to laws either spiritual or mundane. While stopping short of endorsing such theses, Milton did argue that whatever heresies the people of England did commit, they were not responsible; the Bishops of an idolatrous Church who had kept the people in ignorance were. He also thought angels had pretty wild sex.

Though they occupy a large portion of the book, I cannot do justice to Hill’s readings of Milton’s great poems (Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained, Samson Agonistes) in this review. Suffice to say that through a meticulous examination of the texts, Hill argues that one can find distinct echoes of the debates surrounding the English Revolution. In reconstructing the poems’ contexts, Hill maps out a compelling progression through the three works. Paradise Lost, written in the aftermat of the restoration of Charles II to the thrown, seeks “to justify the ways of God to men” That is, to examine why God allowed the English Revolution to fail. In narrating the Fall, Milton was also engaging in (self)-criticism of the shortcomings of the Parliamentarians and Radicals. Paradise Regained, the story of Jesus’ resistance to temptation, Milton offers a program for humanity in which God’s kingdom can finally be brought to earth. Finally, Samson Agonistes shows what an ordinary (fallen) man can do with the proper faith. Though the defeat of the revolution deeply shook Milton’s faith in the English people, his poetry offered him a means by which to maintain hope.

Some of the parts of Milton and the English Revolution that I found the most engaging were Hill’s little asides explaining this or that detail of his argument. Culled from a lifetime’s study of seventeenth century English history, Hill packs more insight into a paragraph than are found in many books. To take one example: in discussing Milton’s ideas on women, Hill briefly surveys middle class Puritan and bourgeois ideas concerning the family. Hill notes that although bourgeois women were often surrounded by an aura of grace and deference, this aura actually concealed their powerlessness in society. While Puritan women, as part of an economy based on household production, played a vital role in producing and reproducing society, the bourgeois woman was utterly removed from this whole process. Her husband’s employers did the producing, and her servants the reproductive work of raising children and maintaining the home. Though only an aside here, Hill’s argument introduced a whole level of depth previously lacking in my understanding of bourgeois English society.

Milton and the English Revolution stands as a testament to the ability of Marxist historiography. Though largely free of terms like ‘mode of production’ and ‘class struggle,’ Hill is deeply committed to a Marxist method which sees society as a totality and seeks to excavate the dialectical interactions of its different parts. It is perhaps a final dialectical irony that a genre so deeply influenced by bourgeois society should reach its apogee in the hands of one committed to that society’s undoing.

*For those interested in getting into Christopher Hill, I recommend his (very) early essay “The English Revolution 1640,” which is available courtesy of the good folks at Marxists.org.*

[1] In another context, Hill offers a partial explanation for the harshness with which so many contemporary commentators view Milton: “Part of the difficulty in assessing Milton is that some of his ideas are so advanced that we tend to treat him as though he were our contemporary.”

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