Everything Before Us

June 19, 2016 § Leave a comment

HobsbawmThe Age of Revolution (1789-1848) (Hobsbawm, E. J.)

Eric Hobsbawm was an eminent British historian whose career spanned from 1948 to 2011. He is discredited these days, specially in conservative circles, as a ‘Marxist’, which is shorthand (in those circles) for ‘la-la-la-la-la-I-can’t-hear-you-la-la-la-la-la’. The serious charges leveled against him include being ‘Stalin’s cheerleader’, and of peddling propaganda in the guise of history, but Niall Ferguson, not by any stretch of imagination a bleeding heart pinko, had this to say about the man:

“That Hobsbawm is one of the great historians of his generation is undeniable…His quartet of books beginning with The Age of Revolution and ending with The Age of Extremes constitute the best starting point I know for anyone who wishes to begin studying modern history.”

All I know is, I read Hobsbawm’s ‘On History’ many years ago, and much of it made sense to me, particularly his definition of history, not as a set of reference points or even a duration, but as the process by which the past became the present. (He also quotes Fustel de Coulanges as saying, ‘History is not an accumulation of events of all kinds  which occurred in the past. It is the science of human society’) It is in light of these statements that one must study Hobsbawm’s The Age of Revolution.

While the period under discussion (1789-1848) was indeed eventful in European history – the fall of the Bastille, the coronation of Napoleon, Trafalgar, Waterloo, etc. – it is not the events themselves that Hobsbawm is mainly concerned with, but the consequences of the two main events of the age: the Industrial Revolution in Britain and the French Revolution, and how society, politics, economics, and art changed as a result of these events. Language, ever a faithful barometer for society’s priorities and preoccupations, changed as well, and a selection of the new words that were coined in this period tells Hobsbawm’s social transformation story succinctly: ‘industry’, ‘industrialist’, ‘factory’, ‘middle class’. ‘working class’, ‘capitalism’, ‘socialism’, ‘aristocracy’, ‘liberal’, ‘conservative’, ‘nationalism’, ‘engineer’, ‘crisis’, ‘statistics’, ‘journalism’, ‘ideology’ and ‘strike’. If you can imagine a world without these words, you would be thinking of a pre-1789 timeframe.


It was the best of times, it was the worst of times: Liberty leading the people, Eugene Delacroix


Hobsbawm goes beyond the clichés, right into the weeds, for his insights into what happened. Distrust the superficial narrative, he says. Why was Britain the epicenter of the Industrial Revolution despite France being ahead of her in every technological and scientific way at the time? The easy answer: free-market capitalism and risk-taking, unencumbered by governmental meddling. And there is some truth to that. But the nuance: the systematic colonization of Africa and India, followed by the killing of all industry and modernizing attempts by the subjugated people. Without their forced conversion into captive markets for British manufacture, the industrial revolution may not have been nearly as profitable as it proved to be for individual entrepreneurs, and so a lot of the investment in innovation might never have taken place.

We have much to thank the Industrial Revolution for: practically everything we understand about modern economics derives from it. But Hobsbawm also catalogues its many discontents: the surge in mass alcoholism, prostitution, petty gangsterism, and destitution brought about by the sudden urbanization and industrialization and the abrupt change in social values that they heralded. It was the best of times...but not quite.

On the other hand, what was the French Revolution like? The easy answer: Ask them to eat cake, the fall of the Bastille, the tribunals, the guillotine and the Terror. The nuance: the solid middle-class support for the Jacobin “Terror” of 1793, its role in preserving the country in the face of civil war, external aggression from German states and Britain, bankruptcy and an unstable currency. A year later, in 1794, the Jacobins had beaten off the aggressors, brought back law and order, stabilized the currency, and turned around the economy. It was the worst of times…but not quite.

The far-reaching consequences of the French Revolution were mainly political, and Hobsbawm sees in it (and in the consequential advent of Napoleon) the world-wide awakening of nationalism, the radical democratization of institutions, and their Romantic influence on literature and on a new area of scholarly interest: social studies, including the creation of history as an academic subject. A lot of the history written in this age was, for the first time, national history, intensely partisan in character, and infused with a jingoistic sense of past and future glory: exactly the kind of history, in fact, that Hobsbawm spent a lifetime repudiating.

I wonder how much of the summary dismissal of Hobsbawm’s views as ‘Marxist’ owes itself to his acceptance of Marx’s framework of historical analysis, that focuses less on dates, personalities, battles and dynasties and more on economic and political trends that transform society. From what little I have read of Hobsbawm, he seems to approve of Marx’s dialectic framework without agreeing with the predictive conclusions that Marx drew. I suspect it is Hobsbawm’s obsession with tiny socio-economic facts, undistorted by uber-nationalistic chest-thumping and exceptionalism, that gets the goat of conservative critics, and they have reacted by branding him with a label.

Taking note (with some alarm) of the current conservative tilt in world politics, I try and take comfort from one of Hobsbawm’s own quotes from a different book. In turn quoting Reinhart Kosselleck as saying that in the short run, history may be written by victors, but in the long run, the gains in historical understanding have to come from the defeated, Hobsbawm comments with optimism that the world is fuller of defeated thinkers wearing a variety of ideological badges than of triumphant ones. I know I’d much rather stand with these thinkers who didn’t ‘win’, than with the ‘winners’ who can’t think.


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