Christopher Hill is one of my favourite historians, and of his books, of which I have about a dozen on my bookshelves, this is probably the best. Its style owes much to EP Thompson's monumental 'The Making of the English Working Class', both in terms of structure and historical methodology. Hill is a Marxist historian, but there is little dogmatic or reductionist about his work, and, contrary to the review below, a familiarity with Marxist concepts is not at all necessary to appreciate the value of this important book.
Hill begins the work with a general survey of the social, religious and economic background to the English Revolution; the forces which created it, and the openings it itself created through, eg, the New Model Army, the consequences of the Protestant Reformation, and so on. Hill is looking at 'internal' and 'external' causes of the 'flourishing of radical ideas' in the revolutionary decades, 1640-1660. He traces the development of the ideas in themselves, and the response to social conditions, conceived here in the broadest sense possible. Thus his work follows a sophisticated dialectical structure, whereby 'ideas' are discussed in themselves, but always related to the social and cultural millieu in which they operate.
And what ideas! Christopher Hill shows enormous sympathy for the 'exhilirating freedom' of the revolutionary decades. He shows us, like Thompson, people making their own history, not because but in spite of thier 'circumstance'. Thus he presents the Seekers and Ranters, anarchist libertarians who believed, as a logical consequence of Calvinist doctrines of predestination, that the holy were justified sinners; the radical Quakers; and individuals like Samuel Fisher, Abeizer Coppe, the anonymous author of the anarchist 'Tyranipocrit Discovered', and John Bunyan.
Of course the book is most famous for its portrait of True Leveller Gerrard Winstanley, the hero of the book. For Hill, Winstanley is the apogee of seventeenth century radicalism. His agrarian communist priciples strikingly resemble modern libertarian socialism, and his social theory, like Hegel and Marx, was dialectical, in a way. Winsatanley's shadow stretches long and dark over the book, and it is no worse for that.
The book has a scope far beyond the sects of the English Revolution, also discussed are the protestant ethic, the philosophy of Thomas Hobbes, Milton's epics, the burgeoning scientific revolution, the 'puritan sexual revolution', and much more. From this book one gets a sense of the experience of the civil war, as Hill states in his Introduction, from a worm's eye view.
But it is a very one-sided view. More balance is necessary. It would be interesting if Hill had had more to say about popular conservatism, about resistance to these ideas, so that a greater understanding of the radicals may be brought to light.
Yet this book fully deserves its five stars, and equally deserves to be read, discussed and appreciated after almost thirty years. A testement to one of the greatest historians alive today.