Book Review Hobsbawm, Eric (1962 – 1994), Age of… series

Following the death of renowned historian Eric Hobsbawm on October 1st of last year I vowed to make my way through his seminal Age of… series. I had read parts during my time at university, but had always had my eye on reading them fully, and his passing seemed a fitting time to do so. Now, having finished the series, admittedly with a few interludes to read other material, I am most thankful I made the time and effort. As a panorama of the modern era nothing I have read until this point is even close to accomplishing what Hobsbawm achieves both in terms of a wonderfully readable account and in setting out a convincing historical framework through which to understand our modern world and the vast transformations that have forged it. I will not attempt a complete review of the works here. So much worthy of comment is covered in the four titles that to do so would warrant some significant rereading, and a mammoth review to do the works justice. As anyone who has read my first review on this blog, of Richard Baxell’s British Volunteers in the Spanish Civil War will know that brevity is not my strong point, even when dealing with a relatively concise work. So whilst the scope of this piece is rather limited, I felt it worth an entry if for nothing more than to recommend any enthusiasts of history who have not already done so to make there way through Hobsbawm’s epic. I expect very few would come out the other side feeling disappointed they had done so.

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Hobsbawm was born in June of 1917. His life experience was very much intertwined with many of the tumultuous events that comprise the final book in the series, Age of Extremes. Being a Jew living in Berlin at the time of Hitler’s rise to power left Hobsbawm little chance to shy away from the defining historical events of his time. It was this experience which led him into the Communist movement, the most visible and forceful opponent of the Nazi Party. As he is keen to recognize, history is often best written from the perspective of an outsider. Writing on a period through which one lived inevitably draws up sentiments and perspectives coloured by one’s contemporary experience of the event. Hobsbawm deals with this issue extensively in Age of Extremes, and warns that it cannot be taken in quite the same way as the other three titles in the series precisely for this reason. Some critics have also highlighted his lack of distance as a flaw of this final work. A compelling overture in The Age of Empire also tackles this question of a writer’s relationship with the history they are relaying in an insightful manner.

Hobsbawm’s early commitment to communist ideas became fundamental in shaping his approach to history. Along with other such notable historians of his time like Christopher Hill and E. P. Thompson, Hobsbawm became perhaps the most revered of the Communist Party Historians Group, which was to become a significant force in shaping historiographical trends. As would be expected this school placed emphasis on the centrality of social and economic aspects, and were pioneering in the intensive study of the lower social classes throughout history. Whilst in less able hands the Marxist historical materialist analysis can feel overly mechanistic, and at worst dogmatic, in Hobsbawm’s work it appears a wonderful asset, allowing great thematic coherence. The theoretical framework never seems externally imposed, rather its strength emerges as almost self-evident through the narrative. I must add here that I too am inclined to a similar perspective and as such am perhaps lacking the rigorously critical perspective of a sceptic. Nonetheless the high regard in which Hobsbawm is held is near universal in the world of academia. Unsurprisingly it was left to the Daily Mail to wheel out a little-known historian seething with bile to pen a derisory obituary to Hobsbawm.

The Age of… series can be considered as two parts. The “long nineteenth century” detailed in the first three works, The Age of Revolution, 1789 – 1848The Age of Capital, 1848-1875, andThe Age of Empire, 1875-1914, and the “short twentieth century” dealt with in Age of Extremes, 1914-1991. The first three books appear to have received near universal acclaim, Extremeshowever has proved a more controversial work.

Revolution was first published in 1962 and is centred on Hobsbawm’s concept of the “dual revolution”, its political manifestation in France and economic counterpart in the British industrial revolution. Consequently the work takes a highly Eurocentric approach. However it is hard to find great fault with this as Hobsbawm is seeking to trace the events most fundamental in shaping the modern world and, like it or not, during the nineteenth century at least, these were to predominantly be found in Europe. To quote from the introduction, “Indeed [the dual revolution’s] most striking consequence for world history was to establish a domination of the globe by a few western regimes” (p. 3). As the title suggests this was a period of great instability beyond the dual revolution. Hobsbawm highlights and elucidates three further “waves of revolution in the western world” between 1815 and 1848 bleeding out into South America, although as yet unknown in Africa and Asia (Chapter 6). The impacts of the radical transformations inculcated by the dual revolution are tracked across all layers of society, with particular attention given to the newly emerging dichotomy between rural and urban life. Ample consideration is also given to major trends in science and culture in conjunction with and reflecting the development of economic, political and social change.

In 1975 The Age of Capital followed Revolution. Ostensibly it covers a somewhat less momentous period than its predecessor, but nonetheless tracks many fundamental developments of a capitalist system finding its feet. Whilst the majority of the world’s population continued to work the land as it had ever done, largely unaffected by the newly emerging dominant social and economic structure, capitalism’s reach extended markedly during the period, with industrialisation breaking its previously British confines, giving indication of the rapaciously expansive nature of capitalism that today has left very little of the globe untouched. Hobsbawm considers this period the first where one can really write of world history as a coherent totality. There were also several developments that reshaped the geopolitical map as nation-building projects led to the reunification of Germany under Prussian dominance, as well as comparable events in the Italian Risorgimento, not to mention the American Civil War. The continuing transformation of class dynamics and the newly emergent workers movement is also covered in much detail. The Communist Manifesto itself of course first saw light in this period following the failure of the 1848 revolutions across Europe.

Hobsbawm’s survey of the long nineteenth century concludes with The Age of Empire, first published in 1987. Following an initial economic depression, this period was typified by a great expansion of the capitalist economy, and with it increasingly rapid social and cultural change. Often referred to as the Belle Époque, the era saw an emerging upper middle class of merchants and businessman begin to rival their aristocratic counterparts in terms of prosperity and lavish excess. This label has been derived retrospectively, a golden age when considered by those enduring the harsh years of intermittent war in the first half of the twentieth century. Not only was it looked back upon as a time of great economic prosperity but also of considerable peace. From our contemporary perspective it is easy to dismiss the general optimism of the period, but there certainly was widespread belief, amongst the emergent middle classes at least, that the new economic order would bring with it unprecedented peace in international affairs. As the twentieth-century was to prove, quite the opposite was in fact true. Looking at the belle époque with what it led to in mind, it is not so difficult to see how entirely unrealistic the contemporary optimistic view was. The rising living standards were matched by growing inequality, and as capitalism continued to engulf more of the globe many of the transformations it wrought were cause for instability.

A look at the collapse of Imperial China under the Manchu dynasty in 1911 is clear evidence of this. It was to create a profound instability that threatened China’s very existence as a cohesive totality. A fear only abated following Communist victory in the Civil War in 1949. It was precisely under the strains of contact with imperialist powers during the nineteenth-century that the fragility of Imperial China became clear. Intellectuals in China became convinced of the need to break from the rigid orthodoxy of Confucianism and embrace certain aspects of Western economic, political and social development in order to prevent being entirely submerged into one or other of the imperialist empires. Fundamentally the Manchu dynasty was unable to balance the necessary reform to exist in this new era with the maintenance of traditional values that validated their rule. Its collapse and the subsequent power vacuum saw China without national central authority for the best part of forty years.

Whilst China’s development in this period has its own distinct form it demonstrates well the predicament many societies that had been on the periphery of the dual revolution faced when its consequences came to bare on them. The outcome was always unlikely to be stability and increased prospect of peace. This was also true for countries at the heart of the capitalist boom inWestern Europe. Whilst the details of the First World War are covered in Age of ExtremesEmpiretackles the factors that led to it in graceful fashion. Hobsbawm tracks the sinister undertones to the belle époque all generating an inextricable drive toward conflict despite the fact that when it came none of the belligerents desired it, at least not in the form it came. The rising German challenge to British hegemony and the complex array of alliances it wrought created a tension which threatened to turn even the most minor political event into cause for large scale conflict. The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand was to prove just that, and was of little direct consequence to several of the most heavily involved belligerents in the war. The role of the economic order inculcated by the industrial revolution was at the heart of this. Its expansive drive had led Western nations and capitalists to nearly every corner of the globe in search of profit. As Lenin’s famous pamphlet Imperialism – The Highest Stage of Capitalism (1917) was to argue, this new international dynamic was a fundamental precipitator of conflict.

It is in this climate, with all the great hopes of the belle époque in tatters, that Hobsbawm concludes his survey of the long nineteenth century. Age of Extremes appeared in 1994, with the short twentieth century of 1914-1991 as its scope. Whilst the first three Age of… titles have their critics, these largely seem to be partial criticisms of minor emissions or slight inconsistencies. They are generally held in high regard. Whilst Extremes also has its fair share of admirers it has received some staunch criticism particularly around Hobsbawm’s treatment of the Russian revolution and the subsequent development of the Soviet Union.

It was not until after the Soviet Union had collapsed and the international Communist movement withered that Hobsbawm had attempted to tackle twentieth-century Russian history in any great detail. In a radio interview he suggests this was due in no small part to his membership of and allegiance to the Communist Party of Great Britain. The centralised party structure discouraged public criticism of the Soviet Union, and Hobsbawm felt unwilling to sacrifice his historical integrity by producing a neutered and over-sympathetic history, or his political integrity in breaching party discipline. By the early nineties international political developments freed him of this constraint. According to his critics however, it did not free him of his rose tinted view of the Soviet Union. Having been aware of such criticisms prior to readingExtremes I was actually taken aback by how critical a stance on the Soviet Union Hobsbawm takes throughout. He essentially sees the Soviet project as a failure following the defeat of the German revolution in the early 1920s, and Stalin’s consolidation of power under the ideological banner of “socialism in one country”. What in effect, this failure to spread the revolution amounted to was a transformation of communist politics from a revolutionary project aimed at fundamentally altering the class dynamic of society into a vehicle for centralised, authoritarian power committed to rapid industrialisation. Whilst this manifested itself in quite a different way to free-market capitalism, the working class under “really existing socialism” was no closer to wielding power. Nor was the spread of revolution given much support. Revolutions led by Communists in Yugoslavia, Albania and China were all unsuccessfully discouraged from seizing power by Stalin, whilst developments in Greece after World War Two and during the Spanish Civil War also highlighted a conservative attitude towards world revolution emanating from the Kremlin.

Hobsbawm then is no clear apologist for state socialism on the Soviet model. The harshest critics of Extremes seem themselves to be as locked into the Cold War mentality as they accuse of Hobsbawm of being, albeit from the opposite anti-Communist angle. His more nuanced critics however, do highlight some flaws which ultimately make Extremes less satisfying than the other three Age of… titles. He exhibits a reluctance to give full scope to the atrocities committed in the name of communism, his near life long commitment to the cause being an undoubted factor. The idea of systematically detailing all the wrong turns and unjustifiable actions that he, as a member of the Communist Party, had spent his political life advocating must bare heavy even for someone of Hobsbawm’s clarity of historical vision. As he emphasises, he lacks the historical distance for a more detached view. The debate around Extremes and the history of the Soviet Union is such a vast and controversial topic that to go into it in too great an extent is beyond the scope of this supposedly brief review. In summary, it is unwise to dismiss altogether Hobsbawm’s take on Soviet history, but it must be considered in light of his long held sympathy toward “really existing socialism” and the constraints this has placed on his historical objectivity.

There is far more to Extremes than the Soviet Union, although it is events in Russia which effectively provide the scope for the short twentieth century, and the Russian revolution and its consequences are rightly located as the most significant political developments of the period. Interwoven with this are two world wars, the rise of fascism and the relative international decline of Britain and rise of America, all of which comprise the “Age of Catastrophe”, the first half of the short twentieth century up to the conclusion of the Second World War. It was an era of unprecedented death and destruction, of stark contrast to the belle époque as the contradictions of that period unravelled in conflict.

Even such notable positives as the retreat of imperialism left much uncertainty. A plethora of new nation-states of varying derivation and stability filled the map. For the most part repressive and parasitic foreign elites were replaced by similar domestic ones as the century wore on, and neo-colonialism, or the indirect domination of weaker nations particularly through foreign control over resources, began to replace the traditional imperial dominance. This is not to downplay the beneficial aspects concurrent with the end of traditional empires but to emphasise that the subsequent new structures masked a similar underlying dynamic.

The Cold War was of course central in shaping the parameters under which the post-colonial world came into being. It was the geopolitical backdrop to the post-war “golden age” of the fifties and sixties and the international stability it somewhat paradoxically created was a facilitating factor in this prosperity. This stability did not prevent conflict as the several “hot” wars from Korea to Afghanistan are testimony, but generally speaking the two superpowers had hegemonic blocks of influence that both accepted at least until the 1970s, and by that point the Sino-Soviet split had made the international division of forces along capitalist-communist lines less clear cut. Until this point the fiery rhetoric from both camps actually obscured a more stable reality.

The conclusion of the Second World War had also seen a general shift in perspective amongst the population of West European belligerent states towards sympathy for a more inclusive social structure and in response governments across Europe of both right and left introduced massive programs of reform bringing the modern welfare state into being. This increased living standards, and for a time arrested the seemingly ever growing inequality at least in developed states. Economic growth was near universal and with it a decline in the peasantry and increased urbanisation, although a diminishing but still considerable proportion of the world’s population remained isolated from it. Demographic explosion in the “third world” also added to already considerable strains on their resource distribution, all too often concentrated in very few hands.

Golden Age prosperity could not last and “The history of the twenty years after 1973 is that of a world which lost its bearings and slid into instability and crisis.” (p. 403) This is how Hobsbawm begins the final part of the book and is indicative of the more pessimistic tone ofExtremes. Whilst this period saw a serious blow landed against the predominant Keynesian model of the Golden Age, Hobsbawm argues that the free-market ideologues who appeared to benefit from this transition also failed to revitalise the economy to anything like the extent of the fifties and sixties. This transition was fundamental however and its effects are still obvious today, with a general shift away from welfare politics in parties of left and right, a rise in individualist attitudes and correspondent decline of traditional community and worker organisations in the West. The legacy of the Thatcher-Reagan generation is still in the driving seat in shaping domestic economic policy, although its connections to the pure free-market ideology of Hayak, Friedman et al. are tenuous.

Whilst the capitalist world was spluttering through its own crisis, the Soviet model was being more profoundly undermined. In the fifties the pretence of socialism being a superior economic model to capitalism had its sympathisers even in the West. Later developments evidenced just how bankrupt the Soviet system was. Saturated with a self-serving bureaucracy and economically stagnant, not to mention politically repressive and culturally sterile, Hobsbawm argues it eventually fell because, “…hardly anyone believed in the system or felt any loyalty to it, not even those who governed it.” It is perhaps in his interpretation of the post-Soviet world that Hobsbawm most angers his critics. He does not defend the Soviet system but emphasizes the crises its collapse has caused across much of Eastern Europe, with inequality mushrooming to extreme levels and standards of living falling for many. The newfound ferocity to nationalist movements in the region has also caused conflict and confusion. Even now territorial disputes arising from the collapse of the Soviet Union are a cause for tension and instability. It is Hobsbawm’s refusal to accept the predominant rhetoric of the “end of history” and the unassailable dominance of capitalism that is refreshing in a world still beset with all the problems communism sought to solve, despite how catastrophically it failed in its Russian incarnation. Hobsbawm’s final chapter dealing with the consequences of the short twentieth century is fascinating and thought provoking, but is overarched by a great uncertainty of what is to come. It is clear that the free market does not hold answers to the fundamental crises facing the world. The changing role of the nation state, the decaying of democracy, demographic and ecological problems, all seem unsolvable without vast transformations in our social and economic structure, but neither do alternatives seem clear.

Ultimately however Hobsbawm believes the short twentieth century will be viewed retrospectively as an age of great progress, despite it being perhaps the bloodiest century in human history that has concluded with a rising ideological assault on enlightenment principals. The fundamental reason for this is the remarkable forward steps made by mankind in the fields of science and technology. The globe has been transformed to the extent that today so many central aspects of societal operation would cease to function without the science that underpins it. A corresponding social and cultural transformation has also eroded many conservative values held for hundreds of years. It is this rapidity of change that creates such great uncertainty for the future, but seems to guarantee that continued transformation is inevitable.

In brief summary, Hobsbawm’s Age of… series is a must read for any history enthusiast. There is so much that provokes thought in his work, and his command of language is masterful. I feel as though I have gone on rather a lot about the content and controversy of Extremes in particular, yet there is so much more I could write. Perhaps the single strongest aspect of this work is the framework which allows the reader to engage with this great volume of knowledge without being overwhelmed, whilst simultaneously providing the theoretical consistency to understand the modern era in world history as a cohesive but continually evolving whole.

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