Issue 265 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published July/August 2002 Copyright © Socialist Review

Obituary

'A voice for the exploited'

Brian Manning looks back at the life of the distinguished historian Rodney Hilton

Rodney Hilton
Rodney Hilton

This is an occasion to mourn the passing of Rodney Hilton on 7 June 2002, but it is also an occasion to celebrate a life devoted to Marxist history.

Rodney Hilton was concerned that Marxist theories of English feudalism were based on a few secondary authorities which were written by non-Marxists. His aim was to base a Marxist interpretation of English feudalism on research in the archives on the primary sources. This he did with great success.

He was suspicious of theory divorced from practice. He observed that British Marxist historians did not often make explicit the theories that inspired their work. 'As one who accepts the basic principles of historical materialism,' he said of himself, 'I am nevertheless not so much concerned with debates located purely within its theoretical constructs as with the explanation of the actual historical process.'

He accepted that the Marxist concept of the mode of production was crucial to understanding the moving forces of history. He held that it was essential to recognise feudalism as a mode of production. This was the mode in which the ruling class of landowners/landlords exploited a class of peasants. The latter possessed their own means of subsistence but paid part of the fruits of their labour to their landlord in labour services, or rent in kind in money.

He made an important contribution in arguing that the peasants were a class, devoting the first chapter of his book The English Peasantry in the Later Middle Ages to this:

'(i) They possess, even if they do not own, the means of agricultural production by which they subsist.

(ii) They work their holdings essentially as a family unit, primarily with family labour.

(iii) They are normally associated in larger units than the family, that is villages or hamlets, with greater or lesser elements of common property and collective rights according to the character of the economy.

(iv) Ancillary workers, such as agricultural labourers, artisans or building workers, are derived from their own ranks and are therefore part of the peasantry.

(v) They support superimposed classes and institutions such as landlords, church, state, towns, by producing more than is necessary for their own subsistence and economic reproduction.'

Rodney Hilton was a historian of the peasantry and sought to establish their centrality in history: 'The exploitation of servile peasants by a landowning class is widespread in world history, from Asia to the Americas, from ancient to modern times.' His experiences taught him of contemporary societies where the majority of the population were peasants, and of the problems of decolonisation and of countries seeking to industrialise. He protested against Eurocentric biases, and against divisions of history into ancient, medieval and modern epochs, which obscured the ubiquity of peasantries and their relevance to the present. And he did not ignore women peasants, including them in his essays in Class Conflict and the Crisis of Feudalism.

He addressed the debate about The Transition from Feudalism to Capitalism, writing the introduction to this 1976 reprint of the essays of the 1950s, which had been sparked off by the controversy between the US economist Paul Sweezy and the English economist Maurice Dobb. This was a debate between Marxists. But he also wrote the introduction to The Brenner Debate in 1985, which was a debate between Marxists and non-Marxists. As one of the founders of the journal Past and Present in 1952, professor of medieval social history at Birmingham University from 1963, Ford lecturer at Oxford University in 1973, and fellow of the British Academy, recognition of his scholarly achievements did much to bring British Marxist history into the mainstream from its isolation and ostracism in the 1950s.

The debate to which he was central was whether the forces of production ('new technology, new means by which labour is organised, the economic success of new social classes') or the relations of production (class conflict) were the motor of change in the feudal mode of production, leading towards the emergence of the capitalist mode. His starting point was the relations of production--class conflict between peasants and lords--while recognising that 'the forces of production set limits to--or on the contrary opened possibilities to--development in the nature of production relationships'. He rejected the assumption of some Marxists 'of a one-way determination by the economic base of all other aspects of a particular mode', but also an overemphasis by other Marxists on class conflict at the expense of economic factors: 'There is an interdependence between the different aspects of a social formation--economic base, class relations of production, legal, political and ideological superstructures. The working Marxist historian is careful not to assume one-way determination within the complexities of a social formation based on a mode of production, but does assume interconnections. And in insisting on these interconnections he/she, as a materialist, will give long term priority to the material foundations of social class relations.'

He said that the weight he gave to class struggle was because he wanted to emphasise 'the positive and creative role of the exploited'. This gave him plenty of room for original and insightful explorations of peasant ideas.

He was a good companion and an unwavering Marxist.

Brian Manning is a well known historian whose books include The Far Left and the English Revolution and The English People and the English Revolution


Hilton was a historian of the peasantry and sought to establish their centrality in history


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