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

F.M.L. Thompson

  • The Age of Empire, 1875-1914 by E.J. Hobsbawm
    Weidenfeld, 404 pp, £15.95, October 1987, ISBN 0 297 79216 4

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.

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[*] Barricades and Borders: Europe 1800-1914, by Robert Gildea, was published by Oxford on 2 July 1987 (498 pp., £27.50 and £9.95, 0 19 873028 4). The Rise of English Nationalism: A Cultural History 1740-1830, by Gerald Newman, was published by Weidenfeld on 30 July 1987 (294 pp., £19.95, 0 297 79145 1). Gerald Newman’s book will be reviewed by Marilyn Butler in a later issue.