Friday, July 10, 2009

The Age of Revolution: 1789-1848 by Eric Hobsbawm

(Book Review)

This is another classic history. It was originally published in 1962, but has gone through numerous reprintings and is still available today.
Eric Hobsbawm is a famous British Marxist historian, and this book is part of his series analyzing recent history from a Marxist perspective.

I bought this book, along with another Hobsbawm book: "Revolutionaries", a few years ago in a Nagoya bookstore. Both books have sat on my shelf ever since and although I would leaf through them from time to time (I quoted Hobsbawm in this 2004 post) this is the first time I've read this book cover to cover.

It was not an easy read for me, which is why I waited a long time before sitting down and seriously reading it.

As the title indicates, the book covers the Revolutionary period of European history, specifically the Revolutions of 1789, 1830, and 1848, and the years in between. But Hobsbawm never tells you what happened during those Revolutions. Instead he analyzes the conditions leading up to the revolutions, and the conditions resulting from them.
If you, like me, enjoy narrative history rather than analytical history, than this is strike one against the book already.

Added to that is a prose so dry and academic that you really have to concentrate hard to follow what Hobsbawm is saying.
A typical example:
When we come to analyse the social and political structure of the world in the 1840s, however, we leave the world of superlatives for that of modest qualified statements. The bulk of the world's inhabitants continued to be peasants as before, though there were a few areas-notably Britain-where agriculture was already the occupation of a small minority, and the urban population already on the verge of exceeding the rural, as it did for the first time in the census of 1851. There were proportionally fewer slaves, for the international slave-trade had been officially abolished in 1815 and actually slavery in the British colonies in 1834, and in the liberated Spanish and French ones in and after the French Revolution. However, while the West Indies were now, with some non-British exceptions, an area of legally free agriculture, numerically slavery continued to expand in its two great remaining strongholds, Brazil and the Southern USA, stimulated by the very progress of industry and commerce which opposed all restraints of goods and person, and official prohibition made the slave trade more lucrative. (p. 369). And on it goes like that. And the sad thing is, that's only half the paragraph.

I know I ripped that out of context, but just imagine a whole book written in that dry tone.
I constantly found my mind wandering as I tried to work my way through this book, and in the end I could only get through it in small doses at a time.

It's a pity this book isn't written in a more accessible style, because once you get past the dry prose the ideas contained within are really fascinating. If you take the trouble to engage this book, you will learn a lot of interesting things from it.

Hobsbawm has taken an 60 year period of history when all of Europe was consumed with the struggle between absolutism and liberty.
"Liberty, that nightingale with the voice of a giant, rouses the most profound sleepers...How is it possible to think of anything today except to fight for or against freedom? Those who cannot love humanity can still be great as tyrants. But how can one be indifferent?" (Ludwig Boerne (W) quoted in Hosbawm p. 138)

Every history student knows about the great revolutions of 1789 (which started in Paris and then spread to the rest of Europe) 1830 (which started in Paris and then spread to the rest of Europe) and 1848 (same deal).
But to this broad picture, Hobsbawm adds several more waves of revolution which don't always make the history books, such as the wave of uprisings that took place between 1820-1824.
Hobsbawm describes how the European revolutionaries during this period saw each local revolution as being connected, and dreamed of a single unified Republic. He compares the unified front against absolutism in every country as being similar to the struggle against fascism in the 1930s. And he compares events like the Greek Revolution in the 1820s which drew left wing support from all over, to the Spanish Civil War in the 20th century.
(And for that matter, comparisons are made to the Spanish civil war in the 19th century, in which liberal intellectuals threw their support behind the international brigade which went to support the Spanish liberals against the reactionary Clericals in the Spanish civil war of 1820-1823).

But it is not just the political revolutions that Hobsbawm is interested in. He examines the dual industrial and political revolutions and their impact on each other. For example, the political revolutions abolished feudalism and serfdom. Although this was partly done because of idealistic reasons, it also had the affect of flooding the cities with cheap labour needed for the factory owners. Thus ideology was largely shaped by the industrial necessity.
Hobsbawm also highlights some of the paradoxes of the age. For example liberal opinion eventually eliminated the slave trade in Europe, but that same liberal opinion placed a preeminent value on free trade, which helped to ensure that slavery would remain lucrative in it's two remaining strongholds: Brazil and the Southern United States.
Also the liberal attitude idealized a laizefaire state, but, partly as a result of liberal reforms a bureaucracy was created and by 1840 government expenditure in liberal Britain was four times as great as autocratic Russia.

Hobsbawm also charts the birth of capitalism, it's earlier disasters and recessions, and how its proponents quickly established it in the popular mind as the only possible system of human existence.

The book has chapters on almost every imaginable facet of society: war, peace, land, religion, secular ideology, the arts and the sciences. These are all interesting in their own ways. For example, Hobsbawm in his chapter on science Hobsbawm explores the early conflicts between religion and science.

In his section on the arts, Hobsbawm claims that almost all of the art of lasting value from this period was politically motivated (contrary to the post modern view that true art must be separated from politics). He cites examples from Mozart's "The Magic Flute" to Beethoven's "Eroica" to the French painters such as Delacroix and David to all the romantic and revolutionary novelists of the period.

However as fascinating as all these sections are, once again one finds oneself having to wade through very dry and thick prose.
I recommend this book with caution. It's not an easy read, but for the reader willing to struggle through it there's a lot of interesting material in here.

Addendum: Also any one not fluent in French will find all the untranslated quotes an additional annoyance.

Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky: Manufacturing Consent post production interview After reviewing a couple Chomsky documentaries, it's interesting to hear how he feels about them. Turns out he's not a huge fan of "Manufacturing Consent"

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