[Milton-L] CHRISTOPHER HILL, A RESPONSE TO BILL SIMPSON

Alan Rudrum rudrum at shaw.ca
Tue Nov 27 17:47:36 EST 2007


 

1.  This is a long letter.   Think of my long silence over the past 
months and of the even longer silence that will fall very shortly. 

2. A reminder: I have not read any of the ensuing correspondence, so 
will not here be taking note of it.

3. Here I will respond to Bill Simpson and, implicitly, to an earlier 
letter which I cannot now find, which suggested that it was a pity to 
bring questions of political affiliation into our discussions.

4. Here is what I wrote, in a letter sent on November 15: "As I have 
walked six blocks in the streets of Vancouver today without being 
assaulted by the forces of law and order, I feel emboldened to make one 
of my rare appearances on this site. Certainly, Christopher Hill as a 
historian was rather like Bush and Blair as politicians: see the Downing 
Street Memo, and so forth.  ("Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through 
military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But 
the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.")  That 
is, he was wont to massage the evidence to fit his political biases; and 
his book on Milton and the Bible is a mess.    I understand that he was 
almost certainly a Soviet agent: the English at that period produced a 
quite colorful crop of traitors.   HOWEVER, when Hill says "that Milton 
wrote DDD because Mary walked out on him, which scholars of the divorce 
tracts will tell you is not the case," I have my doubts about the 
"scholars of the divorce tracts" rather than about Christopher Hill."

5.  Bill Simpson in responding quoted what I said about Hill up to but 
not including the capitalized word HOWEVER and what followed it and said 
"Those sentences contain rancid trash and innuendo."

6. My first response to Bill Simpson's letter was one of shock and 
horror.  Did I really write that?   So let me explain a little: my 
writing was a brief respite from the fatigue and anxiety of caring for 
my wife, who has been seriously ill, as some personal friends on the 
list are aware, and more immediately from the sense of outrage after 
seeing the video of the RCMP killing of the Polish immigrant at 
Vancouver Airport, knowing that if past form is any guide their lies 
will go unpunished and they will not see a day of jail time.   It didn't 
help that I was severely sleep deprived, running a high temperature, and 
full of pain-killers at the time (my injured back has been threatening 
to put me into hospital yet again, something that as a caregiver I want 
to avoid).  I had no intention of stirring up a hornet's nest, and it 
did not occur to me that what I wrote would do just that.  No wonder 
sleep-deprivation is part of the torturers' bag of tricks.

7. My dismay was compounded by the fact that I could not recall how I 
had been induced to believe that Christopher Hill might have been a 
Soviet agent.  I do not know whether it came from something I read or 
from a conversation in the King's Arms or at some conference.

8. Then my editorial self came into play; and I saw that the gist of 
what I wrote in my delirium had its logic:  "When I have said the worst 
that might be said about Hill as a scholar and as a communist, /and have 
said it in the vilest possible terms/, I have my doubts about the 
"scholars of the divorce tracts" rather than about Christopher Hill."  
In other words, I put a great weight on one side of the equation /in 
order to emphasize the greater weight on the other side/, which said 
that in my view Christopher Hill was right.  Bill Simpson's selective 
quotation ignored that, suggesting one respect in which he has learned 
from Hill as mentor (see paragraph 15 below).

9. It then occurred to me to look into the /Oxford Dictionary of 
National Biography/, where I found the following, - rather long, but for 
the benefit of those who cannot get at the ODNB, and in response to Bill 
Simpson's "I have never read any allegation or heard even an inferential 
hint that he was a Soviet spy or a traitor to his country":

 

"Towards the end of his life and after his death Hill's wartime service 
in the Foreign Office led to charges that he had concealed his political 
affiliations, while acting as a Soviet mole and giving prejudiced advice 
about Stalin's intentions in eastern Europe. These accusations, which 
had always seemed to rely more on innuendo than hard fact, looked even 
less plausible when the archival record of Hill's service was examined. 
The main issue concerned a Committee on Russian Studies, on which Hill 
sat and of one of whose sub-committees he was secretary, which made some 
rather tentative plans for the teaching of Russian in post-war Britain. 
The committee was concerned about the possible difficulties that could 
arise from the number of Russian exiles teaching the language, whose 
hostile views might endanger future Anglo-Soviet relations. Among the 
various proposals was one to employ Soviet citizens among other 
instructors, a perfectly familiar arrangement for other languages, 
although in this case it is easy to imagine that security problems would 
have arisen of a kind few would have foreseen in 1944--5. This 
suggestion was clearly one made by the committee as a whole, and there 
is nothing to indicate that Hill played a notably prominent role in such 
decisions.

After the war Hill returned to Oxford and his academic career; until 
1957, however, he was also deeply involved in the activities of the 
Communist Party. He would always remember the meetings of the 
historians' group, with such friends and colleagues as Dona Torr, Rodney 
Hilton, Victor Kiernan, Eric Hobsbawm, and A. L. Morton, as the centre 
of his intellectual life over this period, but he also wrote a good deal 
of what he later described as 'more or less hack party stuff' for a 
wider audience. An important moment was the foundation of the historical 
journal /Past and Present/ in 1952, in which Hill was one of the prime 
movers.

The events of 1956, with Khrushchev's secret speech to the twentieth 
party congress, then the Soviet invasion of Hungary, threw the British 
Communist Party into disarray. For Hill and most of his friends the 
intellectual dishonesty practised by the leadership became intolerable, 
with its denial of obvious facts that needed to be confronted. Many left 
the party immediately. Hill remained for some months longer, serving as 
a member of the commission on inner party democracy, with which the 
leadership tried to appease its critics; he finally resigned after 
presenting a minority report that was voted down overwhelmingly at the 
party congress in the spring of 1957. Much later he would express his 
feeling that those who resigned too precipitately had ensured the 
ultimate demise of the party, but this was surely one of those rare 
occasions when he allowed sentiment to cloud his judgment, since his 
principled stand was doomed to fail even had they stayed on to support 
him. After this he would never engage in active politics again, although 
he remained instinctively a man of the left, and maintained many of the 
personal relationships that dated back to these years."

 

I am perfectly happy to accept the view of the ODNB article that Hill 
was not in fact a Soviet agent.   But supposing he had been, and, as 
Bill Simpson writes, "the people at Oxford University seem not have to 
regarded him with any such

suspicion," so what?  Should we have expected them to?  And figuring out 
who was or was not a Soviet agent is not easy, unless their names happen 
to be Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean, Kim Philby, Gordon Lonsdale or 
Anthony Blunt.  In early December of 2005, having already read Peter 
Wright's /Spy Catcher/, I read Miranda Carter's book on Anthony Blunt.  
You may recall that the British Government went to great lengths to try 
to prevent Wright from publishing /Spy Catcher/, and he was only able to 
do so because the Australian government allowed it.  Wright had strong 
suspicions about Sir Roger Hollis, head of MI5; Dick White, in his 
/ODNB/ biography of Hollis, casts doubt on this; but Dick White had not 
I think ever worked in the field himself, or run agents; he was an 
administrator. Miranda Carter, in her biography of Blunt, writes of 
Peter Wright as a conspiracy-theorist, but what she writes herself makes 
it clear that investigations by Wright and one of his colleagues were 
deliberately impeded.  I did not get far into /The Mitrokhin Archive/ -- 
the holidays came to an end, - so have no opinion on whether Hollis was 
or was not a Soviet agent. 

 

10.   Where am I coming from?   The question that undergraduates used to 
love to ask.  If I had been born twenty years earlier (I shall be 75 on 
November 30), I might well have joined the CP myself.  As it is, I have 
always voted for the nearest approximation to a left-wing party that 
Canada has to offer, short of any CP there might have been.   I let my 
membership lapse after discovering while volunteering for the provincial 
NDP that they had made a secret pact with the outgoing government to 
fatten politicians' pension entitlements.  I do not need Bill Simpson to 
tell me of the achievements of left-wing historians, and am aware of the 
difficulties CP membership created for some of them.   George Rudé 
joined the University of Adelaide the year after I did, after failing to 
get a university position in the UK and after being turned down by the 
Univ. of Tasmania because of his politics.  He was appointed by another 
brilliant Balliol scholar, Hugh Stretton, whom I remember with 
gratitude.  I was glad to see George saluted, in the foreword to the 
1987 English translation of Richard Cobb's great work /Les armées 
révolutionnaires/, as one of Cobb's pioneering predecessors.

 

11. The best friend of my schooldays was recruited into the CP in 
1951-52.  We were sharing a room at the time, and he was recruited by an 
international chess master who lived in the same lodging house, the only 
non-student there.   That party membership might have involved a call to 
clandestine activity at some point seems suggested by the fact that my 
friend did not tell me about it, when until then we had had no secrets 
from one another. His mother being a realist, she had arranged for him 
to send a bag of clothing home every weekend to be washed, and as he was 
a careless lad she found the evidence, was distressed and contacted me 
about it. (One or two members of this list, who experienced my friend at 
Durham conferences, will chuckle at the reference to his mother's 
realism).  In 1951-52 my friend would have been no more than eighteen.  
Christopher Hill was by then forty or so. 

 

12.  By 1956 Hill, who resigned from the party because "the intellectual 
dishonesty practised by the leadership became intolerable, with its 
denial of obvious facts that needed to be confronted," had already 
swallowed a great deal.  He must have known long before 1956 of the 
Katyn massacre, he must have known of the show trials, surely he had 
read Koestler's /Darkness at Noon/ (1940) and George Orwell's /Homage to 
Catalonia/, described by the ODNB as "a supreme description of trench 
life (lice and boredom), but also a trenchant and detailed exposure of 
how the communists risked the whole republican cause in their lust for 
power and in their zeal to suppress all other socialists."  He had 
surely read /Animal Farm/ which "at least four leading publishers 
(Gollancz, T. S. Eliot for Faber, Jonathan Cape, and Collins) turned 
down as inopportune while Russia was an ally."  And surely he had read 
/Nineteen Eighty-Four/.  On Orwell generally I recommend Cora Diamond's 
essay "Truth: Defenders, Debunkers, Despisers" in Leona Toker, ed., 
/Commitment in Reflection: Essays in Literature and Moral Philosophy/, 
New York and London, 1944.  Cora Diamond argues that what appalled 
Orwell most about totalitarian regimes was not their cruelty but their 
suppression of truth. 

 

13.  I wonder what sort of work Christopher Hill undertook for the CP.  
Was he unaware of the part the CP played at Cowley in bringing the 
British motor industry to its knees, or was he there at the beginning of 
working days, handing out leaflets?  You just had to be there, at the 
beginning of any working day, right until the seventies, to see what was 
going on. I found it fascinating, out there on my training runs, just as 
academic Oxford was getting out of bed.   It is of course impossible to 
quantify the impact of Communists in post-war England, bankrupted as it 
had been by WW II, but clearly they were beavering away within the Ban 
the Bomb movement and in the mining areas.  I well remember the winter 
of playing chess by candle-light for the Oxford City team in Oriel 
College, wearing overcoat, scarf, and hat -- I dare say they played a 
part in that.

 

14.  I sympathize with the desire to stay within a movement in which one 
has strong intellectual friendships, but staying within the Communist 
party, knowing what was known by 1956, seems to me extraordinary and 
worse than what was done in, for example, the Anglican church, where 
some bishops and Oxford professors of divinity recited the creeds, while 
believing them only in a symbolic sense.

 

15. I said in my letter that Hill "was wont to massage the evidence to 
fit his political biases."  And I have heard some quite distinguished 
American historians say the same. Here is what the ODNB life says: "His 
methods of work could lead to some intellectual problems, for on 
occasion he was vulnerable to charges that he took quotations out of 
context, and that he disregarded evidence that worked against his case."

 

16. Robert Conquest is quoted as saying in relation to John Cornford, 
who was killed in the Spanish Civil War, "not even high intelligence and 
a sensitive spirit are of any help once the facts of a situation are 
deduced from a political theory, rather than vice versa."  That seems to 
me applicable to some of Hill's colleagues.   On the subject of Eric 
Hobsbawm, an "unrepentant communist" at the age of 85, Google him for an 
article in /The Guardian/ of September 14, 2002.

 

Here I shall transcribe what seems to me a relevant paragraph from 
Victoria Glendinning's biography of Leonard Woolf, who spent much of his 
life working for the left.  I have divided it into two parts, and the 
second part is the more important here:

 

What Leonard Woolf's critics were asking was: Where exactly does he 
stand?  Which side is he on?  He had to answer this question many times 
in his life as a socialist, and his answers were consistent: 'Where you 
go wrong is thinking that freedom of thought is somehow a crime in a 
socialist and that socialism consists in a continuous mumbling and 
remumbling of phrases from Marx, Lenin and Stalin and abuse of people 
who differ from you on any point at all.

 

  In /Barbarians at the Gate/ he described himself as 'a Marxian 
Socialist --but only 'up to a point.'"   The importance of a point is 
'not that it has position without magnitude, but that it is always a 
test of mental sanity.   There is a point up to which the sane man 
believes a doctrine and says 'yes' -- beyond which he disbelieves and 
says 'no'. (That is why the mentally sane have such an uncomfortable 
time in a world composed largely of doctrinal lunatics) (p.310).

 

17.  Finally, what do I think of Christopher Hill, when all this is 
said? /In relation to his academic work/, my reservations are minor.  I 
recommended his /Century of Revolution/ to my upper-division students.  
I think that although by his own account he came to a study of the 
period because of his reading in the poets, he was not an especially 
good literary critic; and a number of his essays do not go much beyond 
stating the obvious, - but that is only to consider them as addressed to 
professional students of the period who had read the sources 
themselves.  My reservations are minor compared to the reservations I 
have about a good many other scholars. Much of the "mess" I referred to 
in relation to his book on the bible, as I said in my review, should be 
blamed on the publisher.  

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