Monday, June 3, 2013

My Log 357: I catch up on Hobsbawm’s earlier volumes: The Age of Revolution fills me in on much that I didn’t know

Cover of "The Age of Revolution: 1789-184...
Cover of The Age of Revolution: 1789-1848

One of the books that has had the greatest influence on me was the last of Eric Hobsbawm’s four epic histories of the modern world, the one that deals with what he called the short twentieth-century,  to which he gave the title The Age of Extremes 1914-1991. As he took me through the decades of my life since 1928 I had the feeling he was writing about me, and what has happened to me during the seven decades that I lived through in that century.
I never had a chance since then to read his three earlier works until this week, when I came upon the first of them, The Age of Revolution, 1789-1848  in the library of my friend in Dubrovnik. I kind of doubted my capacity to get through it, to tell the truth, but I soon discovered it is composed of  16 concise chapters, each of about 20 pages, which, if attacked one by one, presented a less formidable objective. To my surprise, I finished the book in a week, and although I was not totally blown away by it as by the earlier book, I did learn a great deal, once again had cause to sit at the feet of this master synthesizer, who, in this book took the two revolutions, the Industrial Revolution and the French Revolution that happened almost simultaneously, and explained therewith the bases of our modern world.
Although I have a kind of nagging resentment against intellectuals, some of them exhibit such staggering knowledge over huge areas of history as to leave me bereft of criticism, and Hobswawm is certainly one of those. (Another, as readers may remember me remarking before, was the McGill university anthropologist and archaeologist, Bruce Trigger,  whose untimely death in 2006, at the age of 69, robbed me of a sure guide through perceptions about native Canadians, as about Canadian politics in general).
Hobsbawm reveals in this one volume an amazing range of knowledge of European thought, science and art, not to mention his mastery of the facts and events that have marked Europe’s recent history. And unlike many intellectuals, he is not overcome by caution in making his judgments about what has happened. Although I read Carlyle on the French revolution, and a few other books, I had not realized, myself, the dramatic effect this event had on the structures of government throughout Europe, which are still being felt today. Also, I don’t think I had ever really understood that the basis for the British Empire lay so entirely on Britain’s industrial transformation, that its dominance of the seas was necessary to sell the goods, particularly the cotton goods in whose manufacture it was ahead of all other countries in the world. “Never in the entire history of the world,” writes Hobabawm, “has a single power exercised a world hegemony like that of the British in the middle of the nineteeth century, for even the greatest empires or hegemonies of the past had been merely regional --- the Chinese, the Mohammedan, the Roman. Never since then  has any single power succeeded in re-establishing a comparable hegemony, nor indeed is any one likely to in the foreseeable future; for no power has since been able to claim the exclusive status of ‘workshop of the world.’ ”
One may surely enter an interrogatory here, given the huge dominance of the United States over the world as it has developed since the fall of the Soviet Union (Hobsbawm was writing in 1961). But then again, the title of workshop of the world has so rapidly become attached to China in the last 20 years, that perhaps the case is not yet proven, either way.
Of course, Hobsbawm is not a great admirer of the results of the industrial revolution that lay at the heart of the British achievement. “No doubt these triumphs (of production) had their dark side, though these were not so readily to be summarised in statistical tables,” he writes in his final chapter. “How was one to find quantitative expression for the fact, which few would today deny, that the Industrial Revolution created the ugliest world in which man has ever lived, as the grim and stinking, fog-bound back streets of Manchester already testified?  Or, by uprooting men and women in unprecedented numbers and depriving them of the certainties of the ages, probably the unhappiest world?”
Although this was undoubtedly true, and there was poverty “of the most shocking kind” that many held was even increasing and deepening, yet, by the criteria which measured the triumphs of industry and science, “could even the gloomiest of rational observers maintain that in material terms it was worse than at any time in the past, or even than in unindustrialized countries in the present?” (He was referring to anyone who in the middle of the nineteenth century, was trying to make a balance account of achievements and failures.)
“It was a sufficiently bitter accusation,” he writes, “that the material prosperity of the labouring poor was often no better than in the dark past and sometimes worse than in periods within living memory, but the champions of progress had tried to fend off these facts with the argument that 'this was due not to the operations of the new bourgeois society,' so much as to the obstacles that the old feudalism, monarchy and aristocracy were still placing in the way of 'perfect free enterprise.' ”
For this brings us to the point that the Industrial Revolution was a triumph for capitalism, a demonstration of the by now well-known fact that capitalism is the most efficient system of governance in the production of goods, and that it demonstrated that the profit motive has always been willing to ruthlessly pursue its own maximization, no matter the effects on the lives on those whom it had virtually enslaved by its wage-system.
Among other things this remarkable book chronicles not only the rise of mechanized production, but also describes its attendant change in the modes of living from rural to urban, the rise of giant cities, which became the centres of education, science and culture. (His chapter on the arts, which did not, suprisingly, particularly grip me, nevertheless revealed some fascinating information, such as that “socially displaced young men and professional artists were the shock troops” of the Romantic rebellion against the bourgeois world: “Byron became famous overnight at 24, an age at which Shelley was famous and Keats was almost in his grave.” Hugo’s poetic career began when he was 20, Musset’s at 23, Schubert wrote Erlkoenig at the age of 18 and was dead at 31, Delacroix painted the Massacre of Chios at 25, Petofi published his Poems at 21. “An unmade reputation or an unproduced masterpiece by 30 is a rarity among the romantics,” writes Hobsbawm.)
Yet Hobsbawm’s book does emphasize the achievements stimulated by the industrialists and monied classes, the immense changes they brought about. By 1848 “the population of the world was greater than ever before, its communications unbelievably speedier…Cities of vast size multiplied faster than ever before. Industrial production reached astronomic figures: in the 1840s something like 640 million tons of coal were hacked from the interior of the earth.” These achievements were exceeded only by the even more extraordinary figures for international commerce, which had multiplied fourfold since 1780 to reach something like 800 millions of pounds sterling worth…
“Science had never been more triumphant; knowledge had never been more widespread. Over four thousand newspapers informed the citizens of the world and the number of books published annually in Britain, France, Germany and the USA alone ran well into five figures…”
And so it goes, this catalogue of the hard-won triumphs of the industrialists and their underpaid wage slaves; set against the horrors of the living conditions into which people removed from their traditional lands were cast when they reached the cities.
And yet, in spite of its advances, the world of the 1840s was, he writes, “out of balance.”  The future decline of Britain was already visible, and it was already evident it woud be overtaken eventually by the much larger economies of USA and Russia, and that even within Europe it would soon be challenged by Germany.
But was already clear, he writes, that sooner or later serfdom and slavery would have to go, that Britain could not for ever remain the only industrialized country, that landed aristocracies and absolute monarchies must retreat against the developed and developing bourgeoisie, and that the great legacy of the French revolution, the injection of political consciousness and political activity among the masses of people,  must sooner or later mean that the masses would eventually play a formal part in politics.
For me, perhaps the most interesting part of this book is that it traces the development of the idea of socialism and communism, from their beginnings in the 1820s, through to the Communist manifesto of 1848, in which Marx and Engels suggested socialism (or some form of it) was not just rational, but as Marx posited, inevitable, an argument that, as Hobsbawm notes, defences are still being erected against today.
The intervening two volumes of this epic intellectual enterprise are The Age of Capital 1848-1875, and The Age of Empire 1875-1914.  I am going to have to read these when I can find copies of them, after I return home at the end of July.

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1 comment:

  1. I think you will find that Hobsbawm rarely wrote something that was not worthwhile reading. His autobiography covers the whole time of his life but the major critique was that he did not make it personal enough: as in describing his raising of his children and a couple of divorces. Those quibbles aside he writes very well, shies away from the jargon, but must be read slowly, as all excellent writers must be read slowly. Having lived during the pre-Fascist and Fascist periods in Germany and then in England he is a very good guide as to the thinking of the intelectual ferment at the time. And this may explain his political stance late in life pushing very hard for a united political front to confront Thatcher, Reagan, et al. As to reading Pilger, I don't grasp how a laid back (Norman Lewis) description can match Pilger's grasp of the absurdities and cruelties of this epoch.

    Keep writing,