There are times when one picks up books on hearing of the death of the author. Sometimes they are authors who you have never heard of before; sometimes they are those you are aware of but have never got round to reading any of their works. Hobsbawm was in the latter group. Knowing that he had written his “Age of…” books and his concept of the ‘long 19th century’ this was the obvious place to start.
That said, I must admit I had been puzzled by the statement that was a “Marxist historian” as I was unsure whether it meant he was an historian who was a Marxist or whether he was an historian of Marxist ideas. I am guessing you are probably more familiar with Hobsbawm than I, so you will know that the truth contains both of these but is not really either. It is that he looks at all history through a particular viewpoint. It is as though he has a particular set of glasses on which allow him to see certain things but which also hide others. Though to the casual reader, probably the most obvious manifestation is his constant use of the word ‘bourgeois’ which got to irritate me after a while.
The twin revolutions which he begins with are the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution in Britain. From the outset, he acknowledges that he is focused on the history of Europe from 1789 until 1848. The work is split into two parts: the first looking at the origins of various aspects of the period, the second looking at outcomes. This division is somewhat artificial and each chapter tends to scan the whole period, so there is some going back and forth. If anyone wanted to read a purely chronological history, then this is not the book for them.
Compared to likes of ancient historians such as Herodotus or Thucydides, Hobsbawm not only writes about a different era, but his historiography is entirely different. He covers this late on this book where he talks of the emergence of modern ways of doing history. Here, we have not so much a recounting of facts and discourse as though that were the entirety of historical study, but it is the analysis which links events idea, motivations, etc. which are the backbone of Hobsbawm’s work. Above all, though, the differentiating feature here is the economic history. He looks both at wealth and poverty and the motivations of each in the realm of revolutionary history. i.e. what are the conditions that create the appetite for revolution and those that create a resistance to it?
In answering these questions (which are implicit, Hobsbawm doesn’t ask them directly) we are presented with a complicated narrative, a tapestry of threads which pull together eventually to form a coherent picture. That picture is most definitely shaded in a particular way, which may well rub some people up the wrong way. That said, it illustrates very well the idea that no history can be told wholly neutrally. What you choose to include and omit and how you present it will inevitably betray the historian’s own thought process. This is something the reader of history simply has to bear in mind.
One of the reasons this particular era held so much interest for me was that it partly covered the period I studied at school for my GCSE history. In particular, one of the early topics that fascinated me was the Chartist movement, and that features heavily here. The take on it here was very different from that which I had at school, as my history teacher was a staunch Thatcherite. To hold the two views in balance is an interesting task for the reader and not particularly easy.
If there was any great disagreement I had with Hobsbawm is that at times he had a tendency to state what the aims were of the more conservative figures in his history. Here, I felt that Hobsbawm had looked at the outcomes of their actions and interpreted those as aims, seemingly downplaying the possibility that the thought process at the time may have overlooked these matters. In other words, he was projecting onto others his own conclusions. Any historian faces this as a possibility, though it came across more prevalent to me in this work than in most others.
While this is a weakness in the book, it is also an example of the book’s greatest strength; that being his great boldness. To read The Age of Revolution is to be challenged by it. One thing you cannot do is read and ignore Hobsbawm. He will provoke a reaction in any thoughtful reader, whether that be in violent agreement or vehement disagreement – or likely a mixture of both. One might certainly dispute his declaration that Marx was the greatest thinker of the 19th century; I certainly know a few Darwinists who might dispute that idea, and I can think of a few mathematicians and physicists who could challenge for such a title.
I intend to follow up with the sequel, The Age of Capital, though maybe not until 2015. There are other voices for me to engage with first, not least Marx himself. So do expect further reviews of The Communist Manifesto and Das Kapital this year.