THE CAREER of Christopher Hill crystallizes a major difference between British and American society. An avowed Marxist, a prominent left-wing intellectual, author of an admiring study of Lenin, he was for many years, until his recent retirement, master of Balliol College, Oxford. It is as if Eugene Genovese had been president of Harvard. Moreover, from that august Establishment position Hill has remained steadfast both in his central interests -- the causes, course, and results of the great 17th-century revolution that established a capitalist society in England -- and in his sympathy for their more radical aspects. Neither the themes nor the sympathies are changed in The Experience of Defeat.

This is an elegiac book, sorrowful, understanding, and often admiring, with hardly a villain, except perhaps those descendants of his subjects who tried to hide their radical pasts. There are few extremists here; most are anguished, dedicated souls, not always consistent, but relentless in their high hopes for England's revolution. The good of mankind, the will of God, or the national interest may drive them in unorthodox directions, but it is always for others that they strive, and it is in that context that their occasional summons to violence or hatred must be assessed. Yet this is primarily a story of tragedy and defeat: the destruction of their lonely dreams, and their struggles to reconcile their beliefs with the catastrophe of resurgent conservatism that engulfed them.

The parallels between the 17th century and the 20th resound at times almost deafeningly. The Seeker William Erbery, for example, attributed the fall of the king, Charles I, to "his settingthe state of his court and courtiers, preferring none but the rich, his friends and favourites, a company of fools and flatterers, though the oppressed peeled nation were ready to perish." And when defeat came to these once hopeful radicals, it carried echoes of the disillusionment of our own century's believers in a utopian cause. Hill occasionally makes the point explicit. Those who blamed Cromwell for the disaster remind him of "later revolutionaries who were deceived by Stalin, solely guilty of everything that had gone wrong."

If, in a sense, this book is a valedictory both for the radicals to whom Hill has devoted so much of his scholarly life, and for those who have been his contemporaries, it is no less a contribution to the long and tortuous history of English dissenters, who stretch from the Lollards to Arthur Scargill. The 17th century was their most heroic age, but after 20 heady years, including the execution of an ungodly king, they had to accept a return to the very fringes of Engish society. Having chronicled their ebullient days -- in studies of leading lights such as Marvell, Winstanley, Milton, and Cromwell, and of lesser lights in The World Turned Upside Down -- Hill now seeks to explain how they adjusted from euphoria to despair.

The answers, rationalizations, evasions, and surrenders that comforted or quietened the revolutionaries were almost as varied as their lives and beliefs. And the process of accommodation began long before 1660, when Charles II returned as king, accompanied by bishops, lords, and all the trappings of gentry rule. Soon after the execution of Charles I, in 1649, the Levellers and a number of related groups of the fervent -- whom Hill calls "the first losers" -- found themselves repressed by the more conservative leadership of Cromwell's New Model Army. A few years later, the "saints" who had hoped to prepare for the rule of Christ, the Fifth Monarchy, were cast aside. Then it was the turn of Ranters, Seekers, Quakers, Republicans, and many others. The final cataclysm, in 1660, merely put paid to the last radical hopes of political and social equality, the dissolution of privilege, or the rule of the godly.

How was one to account for such defeats, especially when one had described the earlier victories as the work of Providence? For many, it was a punishment for sin. The leaders of the revolution had been given a golden opportunity, but they had wasted it in "avarice and ambition," to quote a common accusation. Alternatively, the godly themselves had proved unworthy. This search for scapegoats led in many directions. Although the army had often been the main protector of unorthodox groups ranging from Diggers to Quakers, it could also serve as principal villain. Cromwell, too, appeared in both guises, as did all the parliaments of the 1650s. But somehow it seemed less important to place blame -- for all the colorful language it evoked -- than to find a path for the future. What lessons could be drawn from this dismal experience?

HERE again the answers were kaleidoscopic. The most famous, perhaps, was that of the Quakers, who responded to the restored monarchy by withdrawing from politics and adopting the Peace Principle. But many other individuals and groups had to find a place for themselves on the spectrum that ran from acceptance of king and Church of England, via outward conformity, quiet acquiescence, exile, and disgruntled opposition, to futile open rebellion. For the republicans who followed the teachings of the great political theorist James Harrington, Restoration government was acceptable because it took into account the changing economic structure of England and encouraged the commercial expansion of the late 17th century. For the wonderfully interesting pamphleteer Henry Stubbe, the events of 1660 inspired skeptical religious and political notions that became direct forerunners of Gibbonesque and other Enlightenment unorthodoxies. And for Milton, in Samson Agonistes, Hill argues that the return of Charles II was not the final rejection. "The vulgar," who in Samson escaped the destruction of the Philistine temple because they "stood without," would have other chances. Like so many of the radicals, Milton felt that England had a special destiny. Others may have seen God's favor in commerce or empire; he saw it in the opportunity once given, and bound to come again, for the establishment of a tolerant, open, fair, and godly society.

It may seem that all of this is to pay too much attention to a few eccentrics, whose bizarre ideas touch only remotely on the mainstream of English history. And at times the elucidations do descend into obscurity, the arguments take on an unreal air, and the interpretations strain for conviction. But the basic enterprise is deeply relevant, not only to various flourishing branches of historical scholarship, but also to the very purpose of studying the past. The inclination to dismiss the losers so as to focus on highly visible actors and results, to accept consensus and depreciate conflict, and to assume that silence means consent, takes hold all too easily. Hill's work has always been a powerful antidote to such Toryism, and at its best it suggests an entirely different perspective on the history of England. At the conclusion of The Experience of Defeat, he is led to throw out another such challenge, which may have as much resonance for Americans as for Englishmen.

What was the meaning of the defeat of the radicals? Was their later silence unimportant? Did it matter that their hopes for liberty subsided, since some of them managed to transmute their ideas into celebrations of commerce, reason, science, and empire? For those, after all, were the activities England was to pursue so brilliantly for over 200 years. But Hill, evoking Blake and Wordsworth as well as Milton, reminds us that there is a vital dissenting view:

"Now that England's historical destiny has whimpered to its end we may perhaps see that the defeated had points to make which got forgotten in the two-and-a-half centuries of imperial success. We would no doubt define an equal commonwealth differently; but it might seem a more attractive ideal than being the top of nations. In 1644 Milton saw England as 'a nation of prophets.' Where are they now?"