The World Turned Right-Side Up

1 August 2010



A few weeks back I wrote a post in which I mentioned the influence of Christopher Hill’s The World Turned Upside Down had had on my thought (this was The Agricultural Paradigm). A few days later R. C. Richardson, emeritus professor of history, University of Winchester, Wrote “The Canon: The World Turned Upside Down by Christopher Hill” and Christopher Thompson responded to this on his Early Modern History blog (now apparently closed to the public, but his comment on Richardson appears on the THE website). I wrote about Hill again in Unintended Timeliness, and Nick Poyntz of Mercurius Politicus also wrote an appreciation of Hill. I was interested to note that these diverse contributions from diverse individuals were then all linked at the History News Network under the title A Christopher Hill Symposium.

I have continued to think about Christopher Hill’s The World Turned Upside Down, especially this paragraph from Christopher Thompson:

The World Turned Upside Down graphically illustrates the problems inherent in Hill’s analysis of the events of the 1640s and 1650s. The groups that excited his interest — the Levellers, Diggers, Ranters, Fifth Monarchists, etc — were and are important for their ideas but had minuscule support. Their activities and views were anathema, so far as we can tell, to the bulk of the populations of England, Wales and the rest of the British Isles. There was never any possibility of the societies of these islands being persuaded of the rectitude of their radical or sectarian claims. Indeed, the regimes of the post-1646 period depended on military force to remain in place because they lacked the consent of the bulk of the populations whose religious and political views were fundamentally conservative. For this reason, the English Revolution could not be consolidated at any stage.

This struck a nerve with me, but at first I didn’t really know why, except for the obvious (and probably correct) claim that the ideas of Hill’s early modern radicals were marginal at best and had no broadly-based social support. I just realized yesterday, however, that this stands in negative correlation to some claims that I made some time ago in The Nation-State: A Sketch of its Origins. In that post I wrote concerning early modern political philosophy:

The emergent practices of the early modern nation-state were felt to require a theoretical justification. Early modern political theory was, at least in part, a reaction against the feudal fragmentation of Europe… One political philosopher after another extolled the virtues of absolutism, and the difference between their doctrines was a matter of detail in the formulation of absolutism. Later modern political theory in the Enlightenment was, in turn, a reaction against the absolutism celebrated by their predecessors. With the rise of absolutist nation-states came a degree of order that the middle ages did not possess, but it also inaugurated an epoch of state repression — repression of ethnic, linguistic, religious, and cultural minorities, repression of individuals, repression of dissent — novel forms of repression not conceived before the birth of the absolutist nation-state.

Of course, there were philosophers of the stature of Hobbes who were absolutists, but radical in another sense than the radicalism of the egalitarian doctrines celebrated by Hill. Hobbes’ materialism scandalized many in his day, although reading Hobbes today he doesn’t come across as any kind of radical, but that is only because the intervening lapse of centuries has produced unprecedented radicalisms and scandals. Hobbes only seems to lack radicalism in hindsight.

Philosophical reputation is an inscrutable and unpredictable thing, and not unlike poetic reputation. A philosopher can be famous in his day, his works widely circulated and the topic of much topical debate, and then, not long after his death, he falls out of favor and becomes the exclusive concern of antiquarians, his name only heard in lectures and seminars. On the other hand, a philosopher like David Hume, who gained wealth and fame as an historian but who was virtually unknown as a philosopher in his own time, now dominates philosophical discussion and stands among the names of Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, and Kant as one of the great philosophical figures of his time.

Hobbes was well-enough known in his time that he was among the six who received an advance copy of Descartes’ Meditations and drafted a set of objections. Hobbes is also remembered as a classic political philosopher today, so Hobbes bridges the gap between being known in his own time and being known to posterity. In this, he is an unusual figure. There are many more unknown and obscure philosophers than there are well-known philosophers, and fewer still who are known to both their fellows and to posterity.

Because of Hobbes’ materialism, the established powers of his time kept their distance for him, ideologically speaking, but other writers — even relatively abstract philosophers — who said things that flattered powerful and wealthy patrons (or their presumptive ideological commitments) found their careers advanced. I wrote about this in my Variations on the Theme of Life (section 753):

Official philosophy.—There was a time when the refutation of skepticism was seen as a service to the state. Thus James Beattie was given a royal pension of two hundred pounds sterling per year for having written against Hume.

To which I appended the following footnote:

Such support has not disappeared, but has changed its appearance; today, this kind of largess comes instead in the form of research grants given to respectable academics by respectable institutions.

As we noted above, Hume was scarcely even recognized as a philosopher in his day, but writing against his corrosive skepticism was sufficiently interesting to the established powers that it won Beattie a generous pension. Philosophical theories, and the writers of philosophical theories, prosper or suffer in the degree to which they support or criticize those who hold political, military, or economic power. This is nothing other than the old Marxist distinction between economic infrastructure and ideological superstructure.

In this forum I have had many occasions to invoke the Marxist distinction between economic base and ideological superstructure, which I prefer to call economic infrastructure and ideological superstructure. I took the trouble today to look up the text that is usually cited as the source of this distinction, and here it is:

In the social production which men carry on they enter Into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will, these relations of production correspond to a definite stage of development of their material powers of production. The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society — the real foundation, on which rise legal and political superstructures and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production in material life determines the general character of social, political, and spiritual processes of life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but, on the contrary, their social existence determines their consciousness.

Marx, Karl, A Contribution to The Critique of Political Economy, translated from the Second German Edition by N. I. Stone, Chicago: Charles H. Kerr & Company, 1911, Author’s Preface, pp. 11-12

So, there you have the locus classicus of the distinction, and it remains a useful idea today, however much Marx’s other doctrines have suffered in the intervening years. There is much more that can be said on this head, and in fact many subsequent philosophers have developed this theme in extenso (Antonio Gramsci, for example). Needless to say, as a Marxist, Christopher Hill would have been well familiar with this distinction.

Christopher Thompson, as quoted above, wrote about the radicals celebrated by Hill, “There was never any possibility of the societies of these islands being persuaded of the rectitude of their radical or sectarian claims.” With this claim I explicitly disagree. There was a possibility, but it was a possibility that remained unactualized due to contingent circumstances. It is not that people don’t have ideas that conflict with the economic infrastructure, but that patronage is distributed accordingly as one flatters that infrastructure, while punishment is meted out to those who defy it. Christopher Thompson presented radical thought as essentially repugnant to an essentially conservative outlook of the greater part of the population, and I do not dispute this, but I do not think that it is the whole story.

Peasant populations are notoriously conservative; they distrust foreign ideas at least as intensely as they distrust people from foreign villages, and the greater the distance, generally speaking, the greater the distrust. But peasant peoples are also generally uneducated and exposed to very little of the world. When they become educated, and achieve some exposure to the wider world, they are quite likely to identify with doctrines that express the content of their lives, and the content of their lives was largely one of one-sided and often onerous oppression by lords and landlords.

When radical ideas have been free to circulate among oppressed people, and no systematic measures are taken by elites to extirpate or punish these views, they often spread widely and rapidly. There are a few cases (admittedly, not many) when full scale revolutions have emerged from such influences.

England was not the only place in the early modern period to experience of great ferment of ideas and ideologies. The Protestant Reformation on the continent involved widespread proselytizing of a spectrum of religious doctrines of varying degrees of radicalism. In the case of the Peasant’s War, largely led by Thomas Munzter and denounced by Luther (the recipient of protection by German princes), these radical doctrines led to an uprising of peasants that had to be put down militarily. Radical doctrines among German peasants, then, had plenty of intrinsic traction, and only failed in the long run because no peasant force could stand against trained and armed elites: the peasants knew farming, while their aristocratic landlords knew fighting, so it wasn’t much of a contest.

For us it can only be a thought experiment to imagine what doctrines might have had a wide appeal among pre-industrialized agricultural laborers if ideas had enjoyed free and unrestricted distribution, if the peasantry had some rudimentary education, and if alternatives to the doctrines sanctioned by elites had not be violently suppressed through military force. Yet are enough traces and exceptions in the historical record to suggest that, even if radical doctrines might not have universally appealed, they would have had some appeal, and indeed I think that we can safely speculate that radical doctrines, under other circumstances than those that did hold in fact, would have enjoyed a representation among peoples at that time roughly proportional to that which they enjoy today.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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3 Responses to “The World Turned Right-Side Up”

  1. Christopher Thompson said

    Your comments are interesting for a number of reasons. First of all, seventeenth-century England was not a “peasant society” or even a predominanty peasant one. Its social structure was indeed mainly based on land, although London was becoming of increasing importance as its trade and population grew. But that social structure was highly complex and depended on a significant degree of co-operation between people of widely differing economic and social status. Government by consent was a pre-requisite for good order throughout this period. This was vital because there was very little by way of coercive apparatus — no police force and, save in the 1640s and 1650s and after c.1680, no standing army — available to England’s rulers or its ruling elite. Landlords were constrained from trying to exploit their tenants, freeholders and copyholders by well-understood and accepted cultural and legal restraints. This was true for large landlords, i.e. the gentry and above, and for smaller ones, i.e. the parochial gentry, yeomen and others. By contemporary European standards, the population was surprisingly literate — perhaps one quarter of all men in 1600 and ten per cent of women then — and these percentages grew by 1700. News and ideas were rapidly spread throughout the period. There is good evidence too of those at the bottom of the social scale, artisans and rural labourers, using their knowledge of social conventions, the law, etc., to bargain with their superiors, often successfully as inspection of Quarter Sessions records will show. English society was not riven by class struggles in 1600 or 1640 or 1660 or 1700. What admirers of the struggles in the British Isles in the middle decades of the seventeenth century too often forget is the terrible human cost of the wars: more people died as a percentage of the populations of England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales than in the First World War. The minorities who fought these wars had a great deal to regret whether winners or losers. The radicals who hoped to use military force to reshape English society, religion, government, etc., after 1646 never enjoyed any degree of consent and could not, in my view, have obtained it however well or comprehensively their aims might have been explained. The desire for a peace settlement between King and Parliament after 1646, a settlement that precluded further internal violence, was too strong to be gainsaid. That is what the radicals of all sorts never understood.

    • geopolicraticus said

      Dear Professor Thompson,

      Thanks for your detailed comment!

      Testimony of the “terrible human cost of the wars” is preserved for us not only in sources like The History of the Rebellion and Civil Wars in England Begun in the Year 1641, by Edward Hyde, Earl of Clarendon, who is fairly even-handed in apportioning blame to Cavaliers and Roundheads alike, but also in poetic sources like Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Church-Yard,” which includes this stanza:

      Some village-Hampden, that with dauntless breast
      The little tyrant of his fields withstood,
      Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest,
      Some Cromwell, guiltless of his country’s blood.

      Here Cromwell serves as a symbol of carelessness of the lives of others. Thus the tradition of English literature has kept the terrible human cost alive in memory. While this may be forgotten in the popular mind, no scholar would be unaware of it, and I’m sure that in Christopher Hill’s enthusiasm for revolutionary voices from below he was not unmindful of this. His focus was driven by political interests, not pity or sympathy. In this particular, he was an admirable historian. But, as I wrote earlier, his explicit Marxism compromises the honesty and integrity of his scholarship, so this this other particular, he is not an admirable historian.

      In the earlier referenced piece in the THE by Richardson, the latter wrote that Hill’s The World Turned Upside Down, “was both symptom and engine of the concept of ‘history from below’,” and I think we must see Hill’s work in this context. He was not trying to produce a complete history of the period, nor even attempting to express his admiration for unsung radicals, but seeking to give voice to figures that had been largely passed over in the historical narrative because of their social situation and their marginal views. I don’t think that the marginality of their views was ever in question, for Hill or for most of his audience, myself included.

      The interesting sketch you provide of early modern English society certainly points to its uniqueness in terms of the education of the working classes and the relative efficacy of the rule of law. We can see here, in embryo, the social structures that made it possible for England to be the first society transformed by the Industrial Revolution, and perhaps the society most transformed by the Industrial Revolution. By the time of the First World War, the German submarine blockade caused real pain in England because little of the foodstuffs consumed in England were produced in England; this is the origin of “victory gardens.”

      So I stand corrected about early modern England being a “peasant society,” but it is still (at least as I define it) a society based on the agricultural paradigm in which the wealth of the society lies in and is measured primarily by land, and land ownership thus means wealth and power. Early modern England had progressed farther than most other European societies toward a proto-industrial economy, which facilitated its later industrialization, but it was still a society in which the bulk of people lived in the countryside and worked the land that their parents worked. It is in such an economy that the early Elizabethan enclosures of the commons to facilitate the raising of sheep for the wool trade could create a social crisis of “masterless men.” In a society more transformed by industrialization and the mobility of labor, this would have been less of a crisis and more of an opportunity, but that opportunity would have to wait for full industrialization more than a century later.

      Best wishes,


  2. Christopher Thompson said

    I am certainly sympathetic to the idea of historians reflecting upon the voices of those from below and of reflecting upon their concerns, especially their aims, aspirations, hopes, etc., of re-shaping that world even if their prescriptions were unrealistic or never came to pass. Where I differ from Christopher Hill, my former supervisor, is in my assessment of the capacity of English society to accommodate these aims. I suspect that he exaggerated both the degree of neglect such aspirations and their holders had been given and held fanciful ideas about their prospects. This was post-1968.

    However, I should not like to embrace the position that the importance of landed wealth in English society, whether in 1600 or 1650 or 1700 or 1750, was any bar to the penetration of landed elites by those who had made their money in domestic trade, in overseas ventures or in manufacturing. Local elites across England proved remarkably accommodating to new arrivals in their ranks. As a matter of fact, most enclosures took place before 1500, not in the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries. So the complaints of the mid-Tudor “commonwealthsmen” were actually erroneous. In any case, Eric Kerridge has shown that the great bulk of Tudor and Stuart enclosure took place by agreement between freeholders, copyholders, yeomen and landlords. This has been known by academic historians for several decades. It was the rapid growth of the population of England and Wales from c.1520 down to c.1630 (demonstrated in the work of Wrigley and Schofield) that generated greater social mobility, the movements of masterless men and women and the depression of real wages. You can find a good brief account of these processes in the first two chapters of Barry Coward, The Stuart Age. England 1603-1714 (2nd edition. 1994. Longman. London and New York).

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