Tuesday, August 23, 2005

One of the oddest things about academia in the West is that supporting barbarous tyrannies can be socially acceptable as long as they are communist barbarous tyrannies. On the other hand, supporting a fascist tyranny or even a fascist anything, quite rightly, gets you hounded out of the college door. I don't have much time for fascists myself but was reminded of the inequality of odium because I have recently been reading a book by the late Christopher Hill. Hill was not just your plain vanilla Marxist but an out and out supporter of Stalin who denied the purges ever happened. I actually saw him on a BBC show saying this (which was acutely embarrassing to my girlfriend of the time because she had previously admired him). Anyway, Hill's reward for the equivalent of holocaust denial was to be elected the Head of Balliol College, Oxford.

The argument has always been that Hill was a great historian so we should forgive his political peccadilloes. No doubt he was also nice to animals and didn't molest his students. But reading his The Intellectual Origins of the English Revolution has shown me that he wasn't much good as a historian at all. Rather he was an expert Marxist propaganda writer who twisted facts and selected his sources to make a case that is in all probability complete fantasy. While we all have our agendas, Hill had already written the minutes before even looking at the evidence. I suppose one of the advantages of doing a PhD is that it means you become an expert in a very small field and thus can see where anyone else who steps in it has gone wrong. Hill wrote Intellectual Origins in the 1960s so could be forgiven for getting it wrong then. However, he stuck to his guns in the 1997 new edition which is less forgivable. I can also see where he has deliberately left things out that damage his thesis - a crime beyond forgiveness in a historian. Ironically he accuses other historians who oppose his thesis of doing just that themselves.

It is not (quite) true to say that we should discount Hill's history simply because of his odious political stance. But it is not unreasonable to take special satisfaction in dismantling his work because of it. At least I am spared having to wade through anything by EP Thompson or Eric Hobsbawn confident that it too is probably complete tosh.

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