Staring down defeat

Submitted by Anon on 18 June, 2003 - 6:15

Christopher Hill, who died in March, was an eminent Marxist historian, writing on the 17th century and the English Revolution. Alan Johnson continues his appreciation of Hill's writing. The first part can be found in a recent issue of Solidarity.

During the revolution: going knee to knee

In Hill's histories "men make movements and movements make men". Dialectically speaking, we might say leaders are both sculptor and marble. Leaders have most opportunity to "sculpt" when an organic social crisis has erupted and an "uneasy dualism of power" exists in which the entire society is faced with a stark question about its future direction: either/or. Not surprisingly, Leon Trotsky captured the dynamics of such periods:

"The relation of class forces is not a mathematical quantity permitting a priori computations. When the old regime is thrown out of equilibrium a new equilibrium can be established only as a result of a trial by battle. That is revolution."

Generalship is the deployment of capacity against rival collective actors during this "trial by battle". The reason no "a prori computation" can be carried out is that the quantities involved are in motion. The battle itself builds or reduces the capacities of all actors. For example, the collapse of government between 1640 and 1642 saw "the emergence of popular movements which the gentry were unable to control". Indeed, the radicals' ideas "could have emerged only in the fluid state of society which existed during the revolutionary decades".

Generalship involves marshalling and deploying forces on a given terrain against an enemy. It involves calculation, timing, logistics, decision, strategising, tactics, and alliance building (and breaking). Hill repeated use of the term "judicious manoeuvring" captures the combination of calculation and initiative, intellect and will, at the heart of generalship.

Hill compared the generalship of Cromwell and the Levellers' leader John Lilburne. Cromwell was a "genius" in military tactics. He adapted the military revolution started in the Dutch Republic in the late 16th century to English conditions. His cavalry "charged home, knee to knee, reserving their fire till the last moment, then reformed and charged again and again until the enemy was broken". Hill pointed out that the discipline was due not only or even primarily to Cromwell's military generalship but to the "high political consciousness of the masses organised in the New Model Army". Hill compares this popular collective discipline superbly to Prince Rupert's cavalry, "totally undisciplined, split up for plunder after the first charge". In Hill's marvellous phrase, they were a "rabble of gentility". The notion of different class capacities could be hardly better illustrated.

But Hill shows us that these outcomes were, in part, Cromwell's achievement not an automatic reflection of a "capacity" constituted somewhere else. Citing Clarendon's observation that such cavalry discipline had not been evident under Essex or Waller, Hill concludes "At Marston Moor it was the repeated charges of Cromwell's horse that tuned apparent defeat into complete victory". Likewise, it was Cromwell who, when parliament, "with no unified command did not follow up its victory" at Marston Moor, fought to create such a command and remove "half-hearted officers".

Moreover, Cromwell "out-generalled" (the term is Hill's) the rank and file army Agitators in 1647-9. Hill shows us Cromwell wearing the mask of command, having a late supper with Lilburne, telling Lilburne what he wants to hear, and so securing his rear before marching on Scotland. Lilburne and the Levellers will be dealt with later, in a "perfectly timed counter-attack". Cromwell understood leadership could mean following now in order to lead later. In 1647, amid the revolt of the army rank and file "Cromwell was their leader: He followed them". Later, when the balance of forces has shifted, we see Cromwell's ruthlessness: "I tell you, sir, you have no other way to deal with these men but to break them or they will break you".

Hill allows us to compare Cromwell to the Leveller leader John Lilburne, the gifted orator and writer, at times the most popular man in London, but who prematurely recalled and replaced the Agitators of the cavalry units, and so opened up the door to the Generals to detach the Levellers from the army rank and file. Lilburne was guilty, says Hill of "going much faster than the majority of its rank and file were prepared to follow". Aylmer points out that at Ware in 1647, when the Generals re-imposed control over the ranks Lilburne was "lurking on the edge of the field but took no part in the proceedings".

As Brian Manning has observed, in words today's anti-capitalists might ponder, "The LevellersÂ… in ethos and tactics [were] geared for protest rather than achieving power." Compare to Hill's portrait of the Army Generals, who "by paying men more regularly, by shipping disaffected regiments off to Ireland and Scotland, later to Jamaica, and by judicious purges and promotions of radical leaders", reduced "the citizens in armsÂ… to something more like a professional army". And who, as a coup de grace, "[provoked] the radical regimentsÂ… into unsuccessful mutiny, which was crushed at Burford in May 1649"?

Movements, even armies for that matter, are not chess pieces. "Generals", military or political, must command confidence and trust based upon a record built over "the slow accumulation of years", as Hill puts it. Cromwell "made himself", says Hill, as "the leader and organiser of the commoners' opposition" to fen drainage, as the "spokesman of humbler and less articulate persons" against the Huntingdon oligarchy, as a Parliamentarian (he possessed "consummate skill as a parliamentary tactician" says Hill) and as a military leader. Hill even takes the trouble to note Cromwell's capacity for horseplay and for displaying a "rustic carriage", which "endeared him to his troops"

Hill helps us to understand one other aspect of generalship: it goes all the way down. A constant theme in his work was that "revolutions are made not only by the great symbolic figures whom posterity recollects but also by nameless masses of men and women". Hill's histories teem not with "masses" but with real men and women, hundreds of them, who lead: the common seamen who won the fleet for parliament after arresting their Royalist officers; a group in Staffordshire led by "a person of low quality" and bearing the brunt of the early fighting and, on the Isle of Wight, a pedlar, Ringwood of Newport, who sits on the revolutionary committee and helped "rule the whole Island".

After the Revolution: leadership after "The Shutters Close"

Organic social crises are resolved by political defeats that end the "uneasy duality of power". The point of resolution is not necessarily known to the protagonists. One of the arts of generalship is to understand what constitutes a "resolution" of the crisis and the deployment of capacity to achieve it. Hill points out that Burford (the crushing of the Levellers) was the beginning of the road to Breda (the Restoration) and all that lay between the two were "some interesting resting places" before the gentry "revived, swept like a flood back over the land".

What were the tasks of leadership after the restoration of 1660 when, as Hill puts it, "the shutters close" on the radicals? In his book The Experience of Defeat, though not only there, Hill shows how defeat tests leaders. They must "recognis[e] the collapse of the system of ideas which had previously sustained action, and attemptÂ… to discover new explanations, fresh perspectives". When leadership fails the test of defeat it can become a de-moralising force. The collapse of radical leaderships after 1660 "was a symptom not a cause of the defeat" said Hill. But "the manner of the collapse ensured that the defeat lasted for a long time".

The Experience of Defeat - a catalogue of the reactions to and explanations of defeat by the radicals and sectaries in the 1650s and 1660s - is a remarkable record of leadership-as-a-decapacitating-force: renegacy, emigration, underground conspiracy, withdrawal and silence, a seeking of solace in the next world, the evisceration of radicalism in theory, the adaptation of ideas to defeat, rigid sect organisational forms, the transfer of hopes to the after-life and radical religious movements, the loss of organisation and collective expression, and the transformation of millenarianism into an ideology of nationalist commercial expansion. All these adaptations reduced capacity.

Hill does not think the radical leaders could have reversed the defeat. The moral seems to be "Don't make matters worse by the manner of your adaptation". To see that the shutters have come down and to prepare the future is the leader's task. Temporary expedients might be unavoidable for immediate survival, but must not become long-term principles.

For example those dissenting churches that survived after 1660, such as the Quakers, did so by sect-organisation and pacifism. Hill is alive to the price paid. Not just "an enormous diversion of labour and energy on the part of their leaders" but the removal of radical capacity: "To adapt Lenin's metaphor, the dissenting churches became schools of capitalism - inculcating the virtues of hard work, responsibility, thrift; deploring indebtedness, extravagance, bankruptcy". Does this not speak to elements of our contemporary experience? Did not the "local government left", for instance, in the backwash of the defeat of the industrial insurgency and radical movements of the 1970s, act as another "school for capitalism"? Did not many who enrolled learn the virtues of "realism" and "the market", a distrust of popular initiative, and a skill in appropriating the language of the left ("empowerment" and "participation") for very different purposes?

Milton is attractive to Hill, I think, because (like the heroes of Milton's late poems), he resists all temptation. A symbol for the Army, Milton's poem Samson Agonistes is "a call of hope for the defeated" and an address to the future Samsons "enslaved at the millÂ… trapped in the arms of Delilah". It is also a reproach to the failed leaders of the revolution and is written in the hope that "guilt, once understood, is mastered and becomes a yet stronger sense of action".

Hill seems to me to be warning against "hope-displacement" or "energy-diversion" whether to conspiracy, the next-life or the private life. You have to stare down defeat.

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