Vol. 10 No. 13 · 7 July 1988

Going down with the band playing and the rich in evening dress

F.M.L. Thompson

2491 words
The Age of Empire, 1875-1914 
by E.J. Hobsbawm.
Weidenfeld, 404 pp., £15.95, October 1987, 0 297 79216 4
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Eric Hobsbawm’s The Age of Empire occupies a special place in what has grown, without the author’s originally intending it, into the final volume of a trilogy in which Hobsbawm ‘makes sense’, on the grand scale, of the 19th century – of the world which flourished before, and led to, the catastrophe of 1914. The first two volumes of this trilogy, such is the exciting sweep of their canvas and the dazzling force of their integrative argument, have been claimed, with only slight exaggeration, to ‘have become part of the mental furniture of educated Englishmen’. Hobsbawm towers above all others as social historian and polymath, able to pluck an example from Peru as readily as from Perivale, as much at home with music as with marriage, and with the sharpest eye in the business for the tricks of the capitalists.

The publication of Robert Gildea’s recent book, which successfully weaves the strands of scientific, cultural and economic developments into a political and military narrative, and of Gerald Newman’s unfamiliar case for the growth of an English nationalist culture from literary, intellectual and anti-élitist roots, a culture which furnished the indispensable setting for the technological and economic innovations that launched the modern world, serves to remind the reader who might be carried away by the persuasiveness of Hobsbawm’s version that there are alternative approaches.* The nub of his world-view is the triumph of the bourgeoisie, issuing from the combination and partial fusion of the French Revolution and the British Industrial Revolution, marching on to bourgeois liberal regimes, nation states, industrial economies, world-wide trading and financial systems, and European domination of the rest of the world. Capitalist enterprise was the motor of change, the agency of the transformation of the world, and it contained within itself the seeds of its own decay. The bourgeois grew sleek and fat and their vigour began to flag. They took the easy way out, seeking protection for their commercial interests and security for their status through the pursuit of empire, and then watched helplessly as capitalism and imperialism propelled ‘the uncontrolled slide into world conflict’, a kind of just retribution which entailed millions of deaths.

To compress a subtle, sophisticated, urbane and immensely erudite interpretation into two or three crude sentences is, of course, a travesty – though it is less of a travesty than the assertion that the principles of Marxist determinism only apply to the years 1880 to 1914 and not to any other periods of history. To be sure, The Age of Empire is superb as a fully-rounded tour of the activities and achievements of the men and women of the time, and as we are carried past Mach and Planck, Freud and Krafft-Ebing, Ibsen and Shaw, Picasso and Modigliani, and many, many more, with a few sentences deftly explaining their contributions and the essence of their originality, there is no insistent or obtrusive attempt to demonstrate that the intellectuals, scientists, and artists were puppets being manipulated by the forces of monopoly capitalism. Considerable autonomy is thus allowed to intellectual and artistic processes, and also, with a certain feeling of reluctance, to feminism; there is a suspicion that pretty women and ‘well-heeled Parisian lesbians’ are more interesting than working women or the sexual division of labour. The overall impression, however, is of a book concerned to explain the collapse of the 19th-century liberal-capitalist world order in terms of its own contradictions, featuring prominently the over-ripe decadence of the Fin-de-Siècle bourgeoisie, the loss of its sense of historic mission beneath layers of luxury and unproductive indulgence in good causes, and its virtual death-wish in anticipating, without trying seriously to avert, some terrible catastrophe.

The heart of the matter is imperialism, the scramble for colonies and the establishment of the informal empire of dependency which give the age its label and the book its title. Here the account is cool, detached, judicious, far removed from the stridently-asserted monocausal explanations favoured by either Lenin or Hobson. The work of the economic and imperial historians who have shown that there was neither much capital investment nor much commodity trade with the new British, French, German and American colonies of this period is freely acknowledged. The difficulties of measuring the economic dimensions of Russian imperialism, creeping across Asia, are exposed. The strategic explanations are given a full airing: these are particularly strong in the case of the factors impelling the British to secure control both of the territories commanding the short sea routes to India – Egypt, the Red Sea, the Gulf – and those commanding the long sea routes – the Cape of Good Hope, East Africa, Singapore. The strategic motive was important also for the French, seeking a colonial offset for their post-1870 decline in mainland strength, and for the Americans in the Caribbean and Central America, where Panama was an artificial creation conveniently contrived to avoid the need for direct rule. This spilled over into the pursuit of Great Power status-politics, which had no obvious connection with specific strategic objectives, as in the case of the American acquisition of the Philippines, which had something to do in a general way with the assertion that the US was a Pacific Power, but more to do with the spoils of the successful war against Spain in 1898. The pure pursuit of Great Power geopolitics, however, untroubled by the previous possession of strategic interests requiring enlarged defence, or indeed of any interests, was shown in Germany’s bid for ‘a place in the sun’: the acquisition of some suitably hot but generally unprofitable parts of Africa satisfied cartographic pride, but apart from uprooting some blacks and providing jobs for colonial administrators did little else except provide one of the justifications for building the ocean-going German navy that was one of the causes, and from Britain’s point of view arguably the chief cause, of the First World War.

The Hobsbawm analysis of imperialism, having passed all these points in review, comes back to a primarily economic explanation by observing that ‘the jewel in the crown’, India, was worth defending in the first place, and was ‘the core of British global strategic thinking precisely because of her very real importance to the British economy’. India was indeed an important market for British manufactures, especially cottons, and an important source of agricultural produce, becoming one of Britain’s major wheat suppliers at this time. Moreover, in the multilateral trading system through which the international balance of payments was adjusted, Britain’s surplus with India was crucial in offsetting trading deficits with other parts of the world (just as India’s surpluses with other countries were critical in balancing her deficit with Britain). Quite so. The security of large and prosperous parts of the world trading system was worth defending, and nothing in the argument suggests that Britain was engaged in defending her power to exploit a weak India on terms of privileged access denied to her competitors, although that may have been the case.

The fact that the generalised requirement for the defence of India was translated into specific territorial objectives by soldiers and sailors, Foreign Office officials and cabinets, rather than by Lancashire cotton men or City bankers, can be readily explained away by saying that the apparatus of officialdom was simply the institutionalised arm of capitalism, even though the lordly Raj and gentrified Foreign Office might have experienced difficulty in recognising themselves as cats’ paws. Even so, when the economic explanation of late 19th-century imperial expansion has been watered down in this way, it scarcely amounts to a theory any more: it has become more a way of sidestepping the problems which arise when the theories which used to be on offer purporting to detect critical new developments in the nature of the capitalist beast, in the shape of international finance capitalism, have been discarded because they do not fit the facts.

What has happened is that, in the manner of historical fashions, we have come full circle back to ideas about the links between trade and empire which were already beginning to grow old in the 17th century. There is everything to be said for these links as an essential element in the description of the process of colonial penetration and annexation: but as an explanatory tool they lack precision. The old examination question inviting discussion of the proposition that ‘trade follows the flag’ suggests that the student can have fun juggling with the two elements and their effects on each other. Hobsbawm clothes the empiricism of his approach with the conclusion that ‘in short, politics and economics cannot be separated in a capitalist society, any more than religion and society in an Islamic one.’ This falls short of a full-blooded re-instatement of theory, and the second half of the proposition appears to be a tautology, stating that religion and society cannot be separated in an Islamic society, which must by definition be a religious one and could scarcely be separated from itself without ceasing to exist; whether religion and society can be separated in an Islamic state is more debatable, a question to which Iran, Pakistan and Egypt, for example, currently offer different answers. What is interesting, however, is the implication that the inseparability of politics and economics was, and is, in some way peculiar to capitalist societies.

Before 1914, there may not have been any non-capitalist societies except for traditional and economically backward ones, often loosely and erroneously called ‘feudal’, which were busy being undermined, subjugated or transformed by the superior power of advanced industrialised economies and imperialist governments. But since 1917, and more particularly since 1945, there have been several non-capitalist societies around, with economic resources and technologies at least roughly comparable to those of Western capitalist societies; politics and economics show every sign of being even more inseparable there than in the West. And if one happened to be in the business of making sweeping statements about imperialism, it would appear to be the weakness of non-capitalist economies which leads to the pursuit of empire through military power, not their strength.

The connection between politics and economics seems to be self-evident and independent of the nature of economic systems. That the connection was operating in the process of Late Victorian imperialism is undeniable, but that process can be more sensibly ascribed to the economics, and power, of advanced industrialisation than to the peculiarities, or wickedness, of capitalism. That is to say, the new production and transport technologies were the real factors, along with demographic trends, producing the opening-up of new territories, integrating far-flung countries into a single international economy, and supplying the world with cheap goods. Traditional and aboriginal societies were undermined by contact with the ‘civilisation’ of machine-made goods and European disease – not by ideology, unless it was that brought by missionaries. The result was a mixture of far-flung empires, far-flung client or satellite economies which were more than nominally independent in a political sense, and regeneration and imitation (Japan). The Western machines were owned and managed by capitalists: but a steamship will outpace a dhow or a junk whether it is being operated on behalf of a private capitalist, a state enterprise or a commune, and in that sense capitalism was incidental, not central, to the whole process.

It would be unfair to claim of a palpable misprint that it shows a loss of faith in earlier certainties, but The Age of Empire does state that one of the messages of hope and encouragement coming to the workers of the world from Karl Marx was ‘that the nature of capitalist development ... made the overthrow of the present society and its replacement by a new and better society quite uncertain.’ Nevertheless, the confident assertion towards the end that ‘after 1917 it became clear that the stable and prosperous countries of Western bourgeois society themselves would be, in one way or another, drawn into the global revolutionary upheavals which began on the periphery of the single, interdependent world system this society had created,’ does not altogether put the record straight. This sounds stirring and apocalyptic, but on inspection says no more than that Western societies were affected by, and responded to, the Russian Revolution (and in lesser degree to the Chinese, Mexican and other revolutions) in ways unspecified: an unexceptionable if not very revealing observation. In truth, Hobsbawm is in this volume beset by unresolved contradictions which did not disturb the two previous Ages. The Age of Revolution had a clear message and organising principle which help make it a classic. The Age of Capital was held together by a sustained distaste and contempt for its subject-matter, announced in the introduction.

The Age of Empire lacks that kind of unity, and has an underlying message which fails to carry conviction. The author would clearly have liked 1914, or 1917, to have been the death-knell of capitalism, and to have marked, or at least inaugurated, the end of the bour goeisie. So there is a persistent undercurrent in the book hinting at the death of the bourgeoisie and implying that they were about to become defunct. This is clearly untrue. Capitalism has changed and evolved since 1914, and give or take a stockmarket crash or two seems to survive more chirpily than any other economic system; while bourgeois seem to abound, and new names for new varieties of them are invented almost daily in the City. Hence there is a second theme, much less triumphalist, that the imperialist world was cruising along towards the collapse of a particular kind of bourgeois hegemony, a sort of worldwide Titanic disaster going down with the bands playing, the rich in evening dress, and the proles jumping into an unfriendly sea. In this version the world which ended in 1914 was the world of la belle époque, an agreeable, or distasteful, flowering of comfort, opulence, culture with champagne and caviar – a decadent icing on the cake of capitalism, not the cake itself. Even so, there is more than a hint of a sneaking admiration for some of the features of la belle époque especially its intellectual, artistic, theatrical, musical, operatic and scientific achievements. For it cannot be pretended that all the artists and thinkers of the time starved in garrets, ignored by the bourgeoisie, and insulated from and uninfluenced by their material and social environment. They, too, were products of the system, and Hobsbawm’s third theme is to show how the world of the 20th century since 1918 has been shaped by ideas, cultures, modes of thought, institutions and conflicts inherited from the Age of Empire. In this view, the death of 1914 was a prelude to rebirth. All these themes are presented with the master’s touch of immense knowledge lightly worn, and of penetrating analysis conveyed in epigrammatic comments. But this cannot erase the impression that Hobsbawm is not at ease with the Age of Empire, and not at case with what has come after – because it has been so different from what it ought to have been.

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