Eric Hobsbawm is my favourite historian. His oeuvre constitutes a monumental demonstration of what Marxist history can do. He developed the influential concept of “the invention of tradition”, dissected nationalism, studied a variety of aspects of working class culture (from banditry and bread riots to jazz), and, above all, delineated the creation of the modern world in his “Age of” trilogy, from Revolution through Capital to Empire, followed by the coda of Extremes, in which he stepped away from the ground which was history to him, to write about his own lifetime.There is for me great comfort as a Marxist in knowing that this man, with his penetrating insight, his profound humanity, and his staggering erudition (as Neal Ascherson wrote in 1994, “Hobsbawm’s capacity to store and retrieve detail has now reached a scale normally approached only by large archives with big staffs. Appropriately born in Alexandria, he is a walking Alexandrian Library of knowledge”) was on my side.
I will write more about Hobsbawm (I am currently reading his fascinating exploration of his own life, Interesting Times) and about his overall contribution to historiography, alongside E.P.Thompson and Christopher Hill, the other members of the great “trinity” of British Marxist historians, in due course. My purpose here is to introduce his first great monograph, Age of Revolution (1962), as a prelude to my own re-reading and summarising of its contents.
As Hobsbawm’s Preface begins:
“This book traces the transformation of the world between 1789 and 1848 insofar as it was due to what is here called the ‘dual revolution’ – the French Revolution of 1789 and the contemporaneous (British) Industrial Revolution. It is therefore strictly neither a history of Europe nor of the world.”
In this 60-year period, industry/industrialist, factory, middle class, working class, capitalism, socialism, aristocracy, railway, liberal, conservative (as political terms), nationality, scientist, engineer, proletariat, (economic) crisis, utilitarian, statistics, sociology, journalism, ideology, strike, pauperism – all were invented, or acquired their modern meanings.
“To imagine the modern world without these words….is to measure the profundity of the revolution which broke out between 1789 and 1848, and forms the greatest transformation inhuman history since the remote times when men invented agriculture and metallurgy, writing, the city and the state [the Neolithic Revolution].”
In short, this is the Achsenzeit of modernity. Although, as Hobsbawm acknowledged, crucial preconditions (such as the world market, an ideology of individualist, secularist, rationalist belief in progress) had accumulated over preceding years and centuries, this is the age that marked the “decisive conquest of the fortress” by capitalist industry and by bourgeois liberal society. And although his story is centred on Britain and France, “the twin craters of a rather larger regional volcano”, this is also a global story, of how European expansion in and conquest of the rest of the world, driven by the dual revolution, established
“a domination of the globe by a few western regimes (and especially by the British) which has no parallel in history. Before the merchants, the steam-engines, the ships and the guns of the west – and before its ideas – the age-old civilizations and empires of the world capitulated and collapsed…By 1848 nothing stood in the way of western conquest of any territory that western governments or businessmen might find it to their advantage to occupy.”
But of course, to a Marxist, European bourgeois society also dialectically created the conditions for its own supercession, by facilitating both the subsequent “world-wide revolt against the west” by the victims of its expansion (obviously a central feature of the world of 2014) and the rise of revolutionary socialism and communism (rather less so).
Age of Revolution is over 50 years old, and historians don’t tend to write like this anymore. Not with this wit and confidence of judgement:
“The main characteristic of Austrian thought was that there was none at all that deserves mention”
nor this comfortable range of cultural reference:
“Balzac’s Rastignac is far nearer to Maupassant’s Bel-Ami, the typical figure of the 1880s, or even to Sammy Glick, the typical one of Hollywood in the 1940s, than to Figaro, the non-aristocratic success of the 1780s”.
They don’t write, either, with this unashamed political engagement:
“[writing of the peasant’s response to enclosure] Altogether the introduction of liberalism on the land was like some sort of silent bombardment which shattered the social structure he had always inhabited and left nothing in place but the rich: a solitude called freedom.”
As Matt Karp writes in this excellent short retrospective,
“Today’s historians often write with political and historical preferences at least as distinct as Hobsbawm’s, if seldom as self-assured or systematic. Rarely, though, are they asserted with any kind of confidence—the dominant methods of dealing with historical politics involve either a willful ignorance that they exist at all, or an equally unsatisfying attempt to sublimate them inside the voices, stories, or ‘agency’ of certain historical characters.”
We can identify some other problems with Age of Revolution from our later vantage point: the narrowness of its focus on Britain and France, the neglect of Haiti and Toussaint L’Ouverture, perhaps the focus on class to the exclusion of race and gender, and the certainty of Hobsbawm’s judgement of the “emphatic secularization” of the age. Most substantially, I think modern historians would object to Hobsbawm’s relentless attempt to synthesise, to explain, to understand, and to “generalize about human affairs” (as Hobsbawm put it in his autobiography). As Karp puts it, “the post-1968 ‘historical left’ …. found its object not in “historical discovery, explanation or even exposition,” but in ‘inspiration, empathy and democratization’”. But re-reading Hobsbawm across the subsequent 50 years shows us what modern scholarship has lost in following the “cultural turn” away from synthesis and analysis towards meaning and subjectivity. In short, on re-reading Hobsbawm I am tempted to conclude that, if this is not what modern historians do, or think it is possible to do – then so much the worse for them.