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Alex Callinicos

Hobsbawm’s history

(December 1987)

From Socialist Worker Review, No. 104, December 1987.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The Age of Empire 1875–1914
Eric Hobsbawm
Weidenfeld & Nicholson £16.95

THE PERIOD before the First World War has been invested in retrospect with a nostalgia-soaked appearance. For the Western middle classes it was the last time their world had been secure – what the French called la belle epoque. A current exhibition in London, on the Edwardian era, seems intent on presenting the same image of a gracious era cut short in its prime.

For of course afterwards came what the historian Arno Mayer calls “the Thirty Years’ War of the twentieth century”, the chain of wars and revolutions stretching from the outbreak of world war in August 1914 to the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945.

Yet the sharp contrast between the world before and after 1914 has long been suspect. More than fifty years ago George Dangerfield wrote a wonderful book called The Strange Death of Liberal England. He showed how British society was already cracking at the seams before 1914, the old ruling class challenged by labour unrest, a militant suffragettes’ movement, and the threat of war in Ireland.

More recently another historian, Norman Stone, has argued that we should talk rather of “The Strange Death of Liberal Europe”. All over the continent before 1914 the existing order was under threat, faced with challenges both from below, from socialists and nationalists, and from above, in the shape of a growing aristocratic reaction. In these years Adolf Hitler picked up many of the basic techniques of anti-semitic mass politics from Karl Lueger, the Lord Mayor of Vienna. The first skirmishes of the Thirty Years’ War were fought before 1914.

Finally, most of the cultural changes which overwhelmed the twentieth-century world were prepared before 1914. Einstein developed relativity physics, and Freud psychoanalysis in those years. The Modernist revolution in art and literature was already under way. The motor car and the cinema, key elements in the transformation of everyday life which has taken place in the twentieth century, were already in use.

Communist Party historian Eric Hobsbawm has devoted his latest book, The Age of Empire, to this fascinating period. It is the concluding volume of his trilogy about the “long nineteenth century”, from 1776 to 1914, whose theme is “the triumph and transformation of capitalism in the historically specific forms of bourgeois society in its liberal version.”

The first volume, The Age of Revolution, focussed on the “dual revolution” – the political struggle against absolutist rule whose high point was the Great French Revolution of 1789 and the socio-economic transformations unleashed by the emergence of industrial capitalism. Its successor, The Age of Capital, depicted the triumphant bourgeois world which flourished during the long boom of the mid-nineteenth century.

These books earned a justified reputation. They combine an analytical grasp of the social and economic forces involved, with vast erudition and an imaginative eye for compelling detail. Not everyone, for example, would have thought of using a map of opera houses and performances between 1847 and 1877 to illustrate the global spread of bourgeois civilisation.

Since The Age of Capital appeared in 1975, Hobsbawm has become an important political figure. His authority as a historian and his literary skills have been put to work to justify the political project of Marxism Today – the pursuit of “alliances” with the political centre justified by the claim, first made by Hobsbawm as long ago as 1974, that the working-class movement was in retreat, its social base eroded by economic change and its political advance halted.

Hobsbawm himself has been an active instigator of the Euro-communist wing of the CP’s pursuit of “realignment”. Thus he went much further than the party leadership was prepared to go last spring when he called for tactical voting in the general election. So how has Hobsbawm the historian been affected by Hobsbawm the enemy of class politics? Does The Age of Empire bear the imprint of The Forward March of Labour Halted?

The answer is, yes and no. By the evidence of this book Hobsbawm remains in many respects an impeccably orthodox Marxist. His basic framework for understanding the years between 1875 and 1914 is the theory of imperialism developed by Lenin, Hilferding, Bukharin and others.

He follows them in identifying certain basic changes which the liberal capitalist economies of the mid-nineteenth century underwent in this period, in particular the emergence of a much more broadly based world economy, no longer dominated by Britain; the accelerating concentration and centralisation of capital; and “the growing convergence of politics and economics”.

“A number of competing national industrial economies now confronted each other”, Hobsbawm writes. “Under these circumstances economic competition became inextricably woven into the political, even the military, actions of states”.

This provided the context for the partition of the globe into formal colonial empires which gives the period its name. It also underlies the growing diplomatic tensions between the Great Powers which exploded in world war in the summer of 1914.

Hobsbawm’s surviving Marxist commitments come out elsewhere. Arno Mayer has argued, in a book called The Persistence of the Old Regime, that Europe till 1914 was still dominated by the old landed aristocracy. Industrial capitalism only existed in pockets surrounded by massive rural backwardness, and the bourgeoisie capitulated to the ancien regime, surrendering any claim to political power in exchange for economic prosperity and, where possible, for admission to the aristocracy.

The argument is a familiar one, first advanced about England by Perry Anderson of New Left Review. Hobsbawm won’t have any of it. He argues against seeing big capitalists’ adoption of an aristocratic lifestyle as “an abdication of bourgeois before old aristocratic values”.

The landowners were themselves changed, drawn into institutions like the reformed English public schools and Oxbridge where they learned “a moral system designed for a bourgeois society and its public service”, and increasingly dependent on capitalist enterprise to maintain their lifestyle. “The big bourgeoisie used the mechanism of aristocracy ... for its own purposes.”

If Hobsbawm’s insistence that the bourgeoisie were now the dominant class annoys NLR, his chapter on The New Woman is unlikely to find favour with his Marxism Today collaborator Beatrix Campbell. He explains the rise of feminism as largely a consequence of the emergence of “a substantial leisure class of females of independent means”, part of the new layer of rentiers, living off income from capital whose ownership was now separate from its everyday management.

At the same time “socialist and revolutionary politics offered opportunities (for women) unequalled elsewhere.” And, “the real political choice for the mass of European women lay not between feminism and mixed political movements, but between the Churches (notably the Catholic Church) and socialism.”

These and other observations, and the general Marxist framework into which they are integrated, will make the paperback edition of The Age of Empire, a useful addition to any socialist’s library. This is not to ignore the book’s chief weakness, which lies in its treatment of the working class and nationalism.

Even here Hobsbawm has much of interest to say. He shows how the emergence of modern mass politics with the spread of the vote and the emergence of the labour movement forced the ruling class to search for new political techniques.

“This was consequently the moment when governments, intellectuals and businessmen discovered the political significance of irrationality.” Hence what Hobsbawm calls “the invention of tradition” – the creation of public rituals, cultural symbols, and mythological histories designed to encourage increasingly urban and proletarian populations to see themselves as members of “imagined communities”, of nations uniting different classes together in opposition to the citizens of other nations.

Hobsbawm also notes how nationalism, hitherto an ideology which justified popular insurrections against the ancien regime, increasingly becomes the property of the far right, itself the political expression largely of the lower middle class. Yet he insists that there is a difference between nationalism thus transformed and what he calls “the broader appeal of nationality.” Hobsbawm illustrates the latter by arguing that “it was perfectly possible to become simultaneously a class-conscious Marxist revolutionary and an Irish patriot, like James Connolly”.

This example obscures more than it clarifies. Other Marxists in a similar position to Connolly’s – Rosa Luxemburg, for example – wouldn’t have truck with any form of nationalism. And Connolly’s participation in the Easter 1916 rising was possible only because of Ireland’s position as a British colony.

There is indeed a difference between the revolutionary nationalism of the oppressed and the reactionary nationalism of the oppressor. What Hobsbawm describes happening in Europe at the end of the nineteenth century is the transformation of one into the other as the bourgeoisie consolidated itself as the dominant class. Yet he believes the process is reversible – that, for example, imperialist British nationalism can be won back by the left.

This dangerous illusion is closely connected to Hobsbawm’s Popular Frontism, his commitment to a class alliance between labour and “progressive” capital. It’s also related to his discussion of the working-class movement, which in this period threw up the great mass social-democratic parties of the Second International, founded in 1889. What is striking here is Hobsbawm’s emphasis on the labour movement rather than the working class.

He sees the proletariat as essentially fragmented, the working classes, divided by occupation, skill, language, nationality, religion, gender. Indeed, both here and in his chapter on the bourgeoisie, it’s difficult not to feel that Hobsbawm has a subjective conception of class, where lifestyle and culture enter into the formation of social divisions.

There’s no sense of the working class as defined by a common relation to the means of production which provides the objective basis of unity in struggle. Hence the emphasis on the role of the labour movement: “It was through the movement that the plural ‘working classes’ were fused into the singular ‘working class’.”

Hence also the positive part that Hobsbawm sees nationalism playing for the European labour movements: “The effective framework of their class consciousness was, except at brief moments of revolution, the state and the politically defined nation.”

The “working classes” acquired their identity from movements oriented on winning control of the existing nation-state. Here we can see The Forward March of Labour Halted in embryo. What happens if social-democratic parties become electorally unsuccessful, like Labour in Britain?

For Hobsbawm this threatens the working class itself, not just these parties. The Age of Empire is thus a lop-sided work, brilliantly diagnosing the ills of decaying late nineteenth century bourgeois civilisation, but unable to grasp the nature of the class on whose struggles depends the outcome of the present century of revolutions.

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