Monday, July 28, 2014

The Age of Revolution 1789 to 1848 by Eric Hobsbawm.

Eric Hobsbawm is that rare combination of innovative thinker and immensely well-informed historian, whose writing enriches one’s understanding beyond the mundane communication of facts. He is the individual who coined the term “dual revolution” to describe that period in Europe between 1789 and 1848, when the Industrial Revolution and the French Revolution combined to create dramatic social change.

To manage a discussion of two distinct and pervasive revolutions and their wide-ranging influences is a complicated task. Professor Hobsbawm accomplishes this labor by first narrowing the foci of each revolution to its starting point. After some initial words introducing the world of 1780, he discusses the inception of the Industrial in England, then the French Revolution in greater Paris. As the reverberations of these historical earthquakes emanate from their individual epicenters, Hobsbawm follows the cracking landscape to include the affected international areas.

It is a pleasure to read a history by a writer who has so thorough an understanding of his period. Hobsbawm examines his time frame from a wide variety of societal and cultural angles. Particularly rare are his book’s later chapters which look at the impact of the dual revolution upon fields as varied as art, religion and science. These digressions, from the pure politics and economics that mark most tomes about this period, are refreshing and insightful.

Few theories of history mesh in perfect comfort with the evidence. Our conceptions may be useful short-cuts to understanding an era, but life has a way of growing and acting beyond the boundaries we place for it. Hobsbawm’s theories are no exception. He has a difficult time inserting the USA into his equations. The historian’s claim that Andrew Jackson’s populist presidential victory was “part of” Europe’s “second wave of revolution [which] occurred in 1829-34” (Hobsbawm, p. 138) has only tenuous evidence to support it. His efforts to downplay the influence that the North American revolution had on Latin American liberation only serve to draw attention to the northern example (Hobsbawm, p. 76). Some South American leaders (e.g. Simon Bolivar) developed their revolutionary creed in Paris. Others were inspired by the thirteen colonies’ success; which provided a more accurate template for Latin colonial independence than did the French rebellion against monarchy. But these discrepancies do not detract from the upheaval caused by the dual revolution in Europe.

Some will refrain from reading this historian’s works because he has been called a “Marxist Historian.” What the reader needs to recognize is that a Marxist Historian is an entirely different organism from a Marxist Activist. A Marxist Activist seeks to overthrow the capitalist system and institute a collective ownership of property. A Marxist Historian is an individual who has a class-based analysis of history and discusses the evolution of relationships within and between classes over time. While there are occasional revolutionaries among them, Marxist Historians do not necessarily think that a communist system is the answer. Rarely do they support Soviet- or Chinese-style communism unless they have been employed by one of those states. The student of history may learn about different classes and their development without accepting collectivist propaganda.

One bewildering characteristic of this book is that Hobsbawm discusses developments leading to the outbreak of revolt in 1848, but he does not spend any time discussing the events of that continent-wide explosion. The Age of Revolution ends with “in 1848, the explosion burst” (Hobsbawm, p. 362). The historian’s next book in the series is entitled The Age of Capitalism. Throughout The Age of Revolution, there are references to 1848’s failure, but no details. I cannot begin to conjecture the reasons for this omission. It is as if one has created a play and left-out the final act.

Despite this missing piece, Hobsbawm presents a chronology of development from 1789 to 1848 that is unparalleled in depth and scope. It would be a shame to miss it. Two options that a reader has regarding the missing finale are 1) find another book and hope that it’s as insightful, or 2) supplement The Age of Revolution with an additional book. I have a time-saving suggestion for readers who really want to read Hobsbawm: I have now embarked upon Jonathan Sperber’s The European Revolutions, 1848-1851 (review to follow). It is a basic depiction of the events and players of those years without innovative analysis. If you have already read Hobsbawm, you can skip the first 104 pages (which will contain nothing new to you) and start with chapter three “The Outbreak of Revolution.” With just 155 pages to go, this will adequately illustrate the final act.

Hobsbawm, Eric J. The Age of Revolution 1789 to 1848. New York: The New American Library, Inc., 1962.

For that review of Sperber's The European Revolutions 1848-1851, see: