Confronting Defeat

Perry Anderson reflects on Eric Hobsbawm’s account of the making of the contemporary world

Presented as a pendant to Age of Extremes, a personal portrait hung opposite the historical landscape, what light does Interesting Times throw on Eric Hobsbawm’s vision of the 20th century, and overall narrative of modernity?[1] In overarching conception, The Age of Revolution, The Age of Capital, The Age of Empire and Age of Extremes can be regarded as a single enterprise – a tetralogy which has no equal as a systematic account of how the contemporary world was made. All display the same astonishing fusion of gifts: economy of synthesis; vividness of detail; global scope, yet acute sense of regional difference; polymathic fluency, equally at ease with crops and stock markets, nations and classes, statesmen and peasants, sciences and arts; breadth of sympathies for disparate social agents; power of analytic narrative; and not least a style of remarkable clarity and energy, whose signature is the sudden bolt of metaphoric electricity across the even surface of cool, pungent argument. It is striking how often these flashes of figuration are drawn from the natural world to which he says he felt so close in his youth: ‘religion, from being something like the sky, from which no man can escape and which contains all that is above the earth, became something like a bank of clouds, a large but limited and changing feature of the human firmament’; ‘Fascism dissolved like a clump of earth thrown into a river.’

Still, within the epic span of these four volumes, there is a definite break between the first three, conceived early on as a trilogy, and the last, which is more self-standing, with features that mark it off from its predecessors. Covering the epoch from the French Revolution to the First World War, the trilogy follows a consistent scheme, classically Marxist in its logic: each volume begins with an account of the economic foundations of the period, then a narrative of its political conflicts (in the first two volumes, headed ‘Developments’), followed by a panorama of social classes, and then a survey of the cultural and intellectual scene (headed ‘Results’). There is no clanking of theoretical armour; base and superstructure are never mentioned. Within the series, individual treatments repeatedly stand out: wonderful chapters on the Napoleonic Wars, on Romanticism, on the world boom of the 1850s and its losers, on the origins of the First World War, and many others. A decade before the term became common currency, ‘globalisation’ is already a theme in The Age of Empire.

The political sympathies of the trilogy are forthright. It is rare to find a historian writing (this is The Age of Capital): ‘the author of this book cannot conceal a certain distaste, perhaps a certain contempt for the age with which it deals, though one mitigated by admiration for its titanic material achievements and by the effort to understand even what he does not like.’ Hobsbawm’s general verdicts are often searing: ‘Altogether the introduction of liberalism on the land was like some sort of silent bombardment which shattered the social structure [the peasant] had always inhabited and left nothing in its place but the rich: a solitude called freedom.’ But the tang of particular judgments is always individual, and rarely predictable. Who would have thought to see the Congress of Vienna praised as sensible and realistic, or expected Louis Napoleon to receive more favourable treatment than Proudhon or Bakunin?

If the three Ages enjoy a well-nigh universal admiration, they have attracted less critical discussion than they deserve, as often happens in such cases. This is partly a matter of the scale of their performance, which virtually defies any all-round view of them. Lacking that, particular points of dissent or reflection are bound to remain somewhat arbitrary or marginal. But if the test of any major work is also the questions it prompts, a few loose thoughts may be worth bouncing off these superbly polished surfaces. The axis around which the trilogy organises the history of the ‘long 19th century’ – running, as it were, from 1776 or 1789 to 1914 – is, in Hobsbawm’s words, ‘the triumph and transformation of capitalism in the historically specific forms of bourgeois society in its liberal version’. Here we have, in nuce, the trio of objects of analysis – economic: social: political – that controls the unfolding of each volume.

Describing the aim of his work as ‘not detailed narrative, but interpretation or what the French call haute vulgarisation’, Hobsbawm leaves open the question of how far this commits him to explanation, a distinction that is not irrelevant to his achievement. At the outset of his enterprise, he remarks that The Age of Revolution will not try to explain the origins of capitalism, which lie in 16th or 17th-century Europe, but the breakthrough of the Industrial Revolution in England from the 1780s onwards. He keeps his promise with a powerfully focused account of the Imperial foundations of British industrialisation. ‘Launched, like a glider, by the colonial trade to which it was attached’, the cotton industry – its raw materials furnished essentially by slaves, its markets secured by naval power – represented the triumph of exports over domestic consumption. Subsequent historians have stressed the comparative advantage afforded by Britain’s coal-based energy as a key condition of the Industrial Revolution, a notion others have sought to do away with altogether. But none has seriously shaken Hobsbawm’s case for the importance of the imperial framework.

On the other hand, when we come to the second major epoch of industrial expansion, the global take-off of the 1850s that is the starting point of The Age of Capital, a gradual lowering of explanatory pressure sets in. ‘Why did economic expansion accelerate so spectacularly in our period?’ Hobsbawm asks, only to reply that ‘the question ought really to be reversed’ – the problem being rather why it did not do so earlier. This fin de non-recevoir seems something of an evasion, but in any case is not pursued. Instead, we are offered a more scattered menu of factors – the railway, improved communications, new gold supplies – that never really matches the scale of the change invoked, tailing away inconclusively with the spread of economic liberalism (‘how far the global movement to liberalise was cause, concomitant or consequence of economic expansion must be left an open question’).

At the next crucial juncture of the world economy, the slide into the Great Depression of 1873, even less is vouchsafed: while there is a graphic depiction of the uneven character of the slump, scarcely any causal analysis of it is ventured. Rather, when the tide turns again with the upswing of the 1890s, Hobsbawm simply notes that the whole period of The Age of Empire appears to have moved to a Kondratiev rhythm – some twenty years of recession, followed by twenty of expansion. But ‘since we cannot explain them, the Kondratiev periodicities do not help us much.’ Little is said of the possible reasons for the upturn, beyond the increased purchasing power of the big cities, after the price deflation of the downswing. Perhaps abstention from deeper probing of difficult questions like these is the price of the streamlined elegance of the trilogy, whose pace militates against the patient economic excavation Hobsbawm practised in essays such as ‘The Crisis of the 17th Century’ (1954).

If we move from the first to the second term of the programme of the trilogy, a different set of issues is posed, conceptual more than empirical. It might be said that these begin with the famous idea of the dual revolution itself – ‘twin craters of a larger regional volcano’. The problem here can be put very simply. At the end of the 18th century, the industrial revolution occurred in Britain, the political revolution in France. But why were they dissociated? According to traditional Marxist premises, a political revolution should occur when the advance of new economic forces of production bursts through the carapace of outmoded social relations. Yet in one country the blast of modern industry shook neither monarchy nor oligarchy; in the other, the eruption of the people brought no acceleration of advanced technology, but rather – as Hobsbawm notes – a consolidation of traditional peasant property. For a Marxist historian, this reciprocal asymmetry might seem to call for something more than empirical registration. To tax any work of magnitude with what it does not say, rather than learn from what it does, always risks being captious. But in this instance, the grace with which Hobsbawm’s histoire raisonnée glides across what might be thought analytic thin ice presages difficulties later on. For what it finesses is the nature of the relationship between ‘capitalism’ and ‘bourgeois society’, of which the trinitarian formula of the Ages says only that one is a historically specific form of the other, without further particulars.

The neuralgic point here is the career of the European bourgeoisie as a political class. In his first volume, after describing the Restoration settlement of 1815, Hobsbawm writes of the revolutionary wave of 1830:

In effect, it marked the definitive defeat of aristocratic by bourgeois power in Western Europe. The ruling class of the next fifty years was to be the ‘grande bourgeoisie’ of bankers, big industrialists and sometimes top civil servants, accepted by an aristocracy which effaced itself or agreed to promote primarily bourgeois policies, unchallenged as yet by universal suffrage, though harassed from the outside by the agitations of the lesser or unsatisfied businessmen, the petty bourgeoisie and the early labour movements.

This seems premature. If the bourgeoisie were already the rulers of Western Europe in the time of Lola Montes and King Bomba, what need for the upheavals of 1848? Why indeed conclude, at the end of an admirable survey of these, that it was now that ‘the bourgeoisie ceased to be a revolutionary force’? For that matter, in the half-century after 1830, universal male suffrage had arrived in both France and Germany, but were Bismarck and MacMahon mere burghers?

The second volume suggests another periodisation, but one that compounds rather than resolves such uncertainties. The years from 1848 to 1875 represent, above all, ‘the era of the triumphant bourgeois’, when its ascendancy ‘seemed beyond doubt or challenge’. Yet at the same time, Hobsbawm concedes, ‘in most countries the bourgeoisie, however defined, plainly did not control or exercise political power. What it did exercise was hegemony, and what it increasingly determined was policy. There was no alternative to capitalism as a method of economic development.’ What this description implies, but does not say, is that between economic and political realms, there was not a match but a torsion. The rule of capital did not necessarily mean bourgeois rulers. Here too is a central paradox, that appears to call for explanation. But again the narrative eludes it. In this case, it does so in part by dispersion. The great political upheavals of the period form a set that concentrates all the elements of this epochal twist: the Unifications of Germany and Italy, the American Civil War and the Meiji Restoration in Japan. The Age of Capital covers all of them, but distributing them under different chapter headings – ‘Conflicts and Wars’, ‘Building Nations’, ‘Winners’ – does not relate them in a way that would force the underlying historical issue.

If, at the height of its powers, the European bourgeoisie was never actually quite in power, enjoying mastery of the state, what was the curve of its development after the ‘brief and impermanent’ moment of its triumph? The Age of Empire shifts emphasis to the third term of the originating formula. ‘This book surveys the moment in history when it became clear that the society and civilisation created by and for the Western liberal bourgeoisie represented not the permanent form of the modern industrial world, but only one phase of its early development.’ Here for the first time Hobsbawm starts explicitly to disconnect economic form and social force. After a careful discussion of the fluid composition and boundaries of the class, he remarks that ‘the problem of defining the bourgeoisie as a group of men and women, and the line between these and the “lower middle classes”, has no direct bearing on the analysis of capitalist development at this stage’ – for ‘the economic structures which sustain the 20th-century world, even when they are capitalist, are no longer those of “private enterprise” in the sense businessmen would have accepted in 1870.’

The Age of Empire does not dwell on the continuing grip of aristocratic and agrarian elites at the summit of state and society in the Belle Epoque, in the way that a historian like Arno Mayer has done. But it traces a ‘dissolution of the firm contours of the 19th-century bourgeoisie’ in the emergence of the modern corporation, the emancipation of women, and above all in the crisis of liberalism – a moral and ideological self-destruction leading to 1914. ‘As bourgeois Europe moved in growing material comfort towards its catastrophe, we observe the curious phenomenon of a bourgeoisie, or at least a significant part of its youth and its intellectuals, which plunged willingly, even enthusiastically into the abyss.’ In effect, the upshot of the trilogy is thus a snapping of the links between the constituent elements that set it in motion. Capitalism no longer requires – this: or any? – bourgeoisie. The bourgeoisie is no longer committed to – this: or any? – liberalism. The demonstratives remain indeterminate, leaving the difference between the particular and the generic in suspense.

Chronologically, Age of Extremes resumes the narrative at the point its predecessor ends, with the outbreak of the First World War – a continuity underlined by the anticipation of some of its key themes in the epilogue that concludes the trilogy, looking ahead to the history of the 20th century. But conceptually, and architectonically, there is a break. Half as long again as the earlier volumes, the fourth is erected on a larger scale. Coming to it after them is rather as if, having ascended to what appeared to be the crest-line of a great mountain range, one were suddenly to find a peak of Andean proportions rearing up beyond it. There is no doubt at all that Age of Extremes is Hobsbawm’s masterpiece. Its presentation and internal construction repay close attention. The title is already a signal: the definite articles of the trilogy have gone, as have their pointed substantives. The replacements belong to another semantic set: less categorical and political, more existential. The actors have changed too. The most striking single discontinuity of the fourth volume is the complete disappearance from sight of the bourgeoisie, which – unlike chess, drugs or football – does not even rate an entry in the index. Did it vanish historically in August 1914? No historian is obliged to return to earlier themes, and a wish to break new ground is always commendable. But such a sharp caesura is unlikely to be just a matter of changing the subject, without significance for the direction of what follows.

Age of Extremes delivers its fundamental argument in the form of a periodisation. The ‘short 20th century’ between 1914 and 1991 can be divided into three phases. The first, ‘The Age of Catastrophe’, extends from the slaughter of the First World War, through the Great Depression and the rise of Fascism, to the cataclysm of the Second World War and its immediate consequences, including the end of European empires. The second, ‘The Golden Age’, stretching approximately from 1950 to 1973, saw historically unprecedented rates of growth and a new popular prosperity in the advanced capitalist world, with the spread of mixed economies and social security systems; accompanied by rising living standards in the Soviet bloc and the ‘end of the Middle Ages’ in the Third World, as the peasantry streamed off the land into modern cities in post-colonial states. The third phase, ‘Landslide’, starting with the oil crisis and onset of recession in 1973, and continuing into the present, has witnessed economic stagnation and political atrophy in the West, the collapse of the USSR in the East, socio-cultural anomie across the whole of the North, and the spread of vicious ethnic conflicts in the South. The signs of these times are: less growth, less order, less security. The barometer of human welfare is falling.

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[1] Interesting Times was discussed by Perry Anderson in the last issue of the LRB (3 October).

[2] See, inter alia, The Boom and the Bubble (Verso, 303 pp., £15, 20 June, 1 85984 636 x) and ‘The Economics of Global Turbulence: A Special Report on the World Economy 1950-98’ (New Left Review, No. 229, 1998).

[3] Abacus, 176 pp., £7.99, 7 December 2000, 0 349 11336 x.