Eric Hobsbawm and post-modernity

My holiday reading, courtesy of one of the biggest secondhand bookshops in England, ended up being Eric Hobsbawm’s classic work ‘The Age of Revolution: Europe 1789-1848’, which was first published in 1962. I can’t remember whether I’ve read the whole of it before, but if so it’s so long ago that all memory of its contents has disappeared, so I came to it completely fresh. The result was an appreciation of just how good a historian Hobsbawm is, but also of the gulf that separates his outlook from a twenty first century one. For Hobsbawm in 1962 the developments of the late eighteenth century still had deep and powerful connections to his contemporary world. I was struck, in contrast by the gap between 1962 and now: suddenly I saw more clearly than before what it means to live in post-modern times.

The gap isn’t mainly due either to Hobsbawm’s Marxism or to new historical insights into the material which have since emerged. There are still a number of Marxist historians around today, so his approach and vocabulary is familiar and most of the time in the book Hobsbawm avoids the biggest historical danger of Marxist historiography: the problem of ‘inevitability’. (He is weaker, not surprisingly, on women’s history, but not much worse than many more recent historians). And while his analysis may well have been superseded or corrected on many points, I’m not enough of a specialist on the period to pick up the problems.

Instead, it is the main theme of his book, not Hobsbawm’s analysis, that now seem stranded on the other side of a vast historical divide. This is the impact of what he calls the ‘twin revolutions’ (the Industrial Revolution and the French Revolution). Reading a book in which Britain is repeatedly called the ‘workshop of the world’ cannot help but make the modern reader feel in the presence of a lost world. And yet western industrialisation still seemed commonplace to Hobsbawm, who can say at one point (p 42): ‘This is why even today the most reliable single index of any country’s industrial potential is the quantity of its iron and steel production’. Today such a statement seems nearer to comments on how naturally fertile a country’s soil is, a measure that bears little relation to its economic prospects. The world may not be post-industrial (China certainly isn’t), but the west has largely become post-industrial in Hobsbawm’s sense of heavy industry and mass production in factories. One of the neatest illustrations of the gap is at the start if ‘The Full Monty’, where a 1970s publicity film about Sheffield steel blends into a scene where the unemployed chancer hero goes round a deserted factory. Hobsbawm’s book can’t help but have the same black and white air as the publicity film on this topic.

At first, the French revolution seems to have more resonance with today’s world: the significance of concepts like liberty, equality and fraternity has never gone away. Even the fall of the Soviet Union hasn’t made the problems of democracy, dictatorship and revolution any less potent. But as I read the book I did come to see the limits of Hobsbawm’s approach. One of his key questions (although only implicitly) is the necessary conditions for the success or failure of revolutions and his instinct is to seek them in the character of the revolutionary movement: its tactics, its class composition, a region’s sense of nationalism etc. And yet now it’s hard to argue that such aspects are more than second-order factors. What really matters in modern ‘revolutions’ is the extent to which the ruling classes want to hold onto their position and the involvement of outside powers. China, Burma, Iraq, Zimbabwe have shown that ‘people power’ is no match for ruthlessness backed by heavily armoured troops and tanks (as Hungary in 1956 already suggested). The Berlin Wall did not fall because of the superior tactics of the East German populace as opposed to the Chinese. Popular revolutions now (as opposed to coups) succeed if they are ‘allowed’ by regimes whose will to crack down has crumbled or whose military capability have been destroyed by an outside force. (The same analogy is also increasingly true at the level of labour relations. ‘The workers united’ can very often be defeated.)

Because he concentrates on these twin revolutions, Hobsbawm’s geopolitical framework now seems equally pre-postmodern, even though his work is notable for the extent to which he analyses events from Latin America via the Middle East to India. His focus on Britain and France as the key countries in the period is entirely justified, but that simply confirms that the period is no longer our own. The European conflicts of the nineteenth century now seem rather like the battles of the classical Greek city states: how could people get so het up about such insignificant polities? To whom (other than the Italians) does the unification of Italy now matter? Hobsbawm wrote in a world in which individual European countries were still political significant, Russia was supposedly an industrial power and China was a third-world country. The 45 years between his book and now have seen far more changes in that sense than between the nineteenth century and 1962.

All this doesn’t mean that Hobsbawm’s historical analysis is necessarily wrong or even so old-fashioned as to be irrelevant. There are even occasional moments when he seems spookily prescient, such as his pointing out the lack of a Yugoslav national identity. (Some of his comments on religion, which I want to deal with in a different post, also seem very relevant to current concerns). But what I think it does show is that the connection of what happened then (1789-1848) and now must now be proved in a way that was not necessary in the mid twentieth-century. Just as any contemporary discussion of the seventeenth century European wars of religion or the eleventh century conflict of church and state cannot assume that students will have a pre-existing understanding of why these issues mattered, so they will increasingly need to have explained to them the importance of manufacturing and who the proletariat once were. The worlds we have lost are getting increasingly numerous and varied.


One thought on “Eric Hobsbawm and post-modernity

  1. An interesting critique of Hobsbawm’s world, one which I confess had not occurred to me, and probably would not have even had I reread it.

    And therein lies the crux. I actually was fortunate enough to attend Hobsbawm’s lectures on this topic in 1965 (or thereabouts), shortly after he had written this, so although I’m not quite of his generation, I’m close enough to it so that his world looks “normal” to me, unless some outsider/latecomer forcibly jolts my frame of reference. Good on ya!

    FWIW, Hobsbawm was an excellent lecturer, though not a particularly slick or prepossessing one. (I always thought of him as resembling Ichabod Crane of the original “Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”) But his command and deployment of the salient or striking facts of European history was, for a non-European specialist like myself, extremely engaging. (I still remember the boulevards of Paris being made so broad so that students would have difficulty barricading them, e.g.)


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