A Very Old Book: The Case for Eric Hobsbawm’s Age of Revolution


Put the poetry down, Don. It’s time to get your Chartism on.

Last year marked the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Eric Hobsbawm’s Age of Revolution, 1789-1848, a milestone that was largely overlooked in the more general hubbub over the great historian’s death in October. But it’s an impressive number all the same, and an inescapable reminder that when we return to The Age of Revolution we are dealing with a Very Old Book. The battered cover of my own 1962 Signet paperback (see below), whose author still preferred the high-academic modesty of “E.J. Hobsbawm,” offers a striking visual proof of the antiquities that lie within. It is after all technically possible, and perhaps not as improbable as you may think, for this book to have lain on Don Draper’s desk. When he was still married to Betty Draper.

What can a 21st century early American historian learn from such an artifact? Amid the clamors and confusions of the debate over the New New Political History, why should anyone bother to resuscitate the  Old? Can we learn anything vital about the Age of Revolution in a book written during the Age of Draper? Well, obviously, the answer is yes.

Inside contemporary American academia, Hobsbawm is probably best known for his work on nationalism and “the invention of tradition,” along with his lifelong membership in the Communist Party (a political alliance forged on the streets of Berlin in 1932, whose durability provoked much bewilderment and bile from even his fiercest admirers). He also wrote penetratingly on a variety of phenomena in global working class culture, from bread riots to banditry to jazz. But it is Hobsbawm’s four-volume history of the modern world, in its progress through Revolution, Capital, Empire, and Extremes—not quite a full sweep from the Bastille to Mountain Dew, although in another sense, exactly that—that remains his major scholarly achievement.

The Age of Revolution is the first volume in that series, and naturally the most likely to appeal to early Americanists. Though it never got the reception it deserved from the U.S. academy—more on that later—the book offers a persuasive synthesis of Western society’s transformations between 1789 and 1848. Hobsbawm argues that the central ideas and forces that molded both the nineteenth century world, and our own, emerged from the “dual revolution” of this period, the political upheaval in France, and the Industrial one in Britain. While global capitalism, the bourgeois liberal state, and a rationalist-individualist faith in progress all originated in previous centuries, it was the era of the “dual revolution” in which they became dominant in Western Europe—and, shortly thereafter, wherever in the world Western Europeans chose to go.

AgeOfRevolutionBut this crude summary hardly does justice to the power, the finesse, the almost logarithmic density of Hobsbawm’s insights. My notes for each tightly packed Signet page could take up a page of their own in MS Word. And yet it is a density always relieved by clarity, as if by genetic compromise Hobsbawm’s half-German profundity and half-English precision agreed to divide things in the most equitable manner possible. He deploys statistics aggressively but strategically, with each number emerging not only as an adjunct to an argument but somehow an argument all by itself: “in 1789 something like one European out of every five was a Frenchman” (74); by 1840 British cotton exports to Asia, Africa, and the non-U.S. Americas outnumbered exports to Europe by more than two-to-one (53).

His ear for the striking phrase finds its equal in his eye for the telling detail: thus early nineteenth century Paris was the ultimate “parvenu’s paradise,” in part because it was the birthplace of the department store, the shop-window, and the gossipy modern newspaper, whose provenance is reflected in the English words for ‘journalism’ and ‘publicity’ (221). And for an unapologetically economistic Marxist, the range and ease of Hobsbawm’s cultural purview is stirring: again on the bourgeois capitalism of Paris, he observes: “Balzac’s Rastignac is far nearer to Maupassant’s Bel-Ami, the typical figure of the 1880s, or even to Sammy Glick, the typical one of Hollywood in the 1940s, than to Figaro, the non-aristocratic success of the 1780s” (220).

From the perspective of 2013, of course, there’s plenty that’s bound go missing from even the most heroic synthesis published over fifty years ago. The Age of Revolution, precisely because it is so heroic, presents a brilliant negative image of contemporary scholarship, with the glaring absences of 1962 illuminating the achievements and emphases of a half generation of history. Unlike today’s best chroniclers of the global 19th century, Hobsbawm’s study of the modern world is not even a proper study of Europe: it is more or less a history of Britain and France, with recurring updates on Germany, southern Europe, and the United States, plus the occasional vivid dispatch from Latin America, India, or Algeria.

Though he treats America briefly, he treats Native Americans almost not at all. His chapters on the “The Industrial Revolution”—one British event, simple and singular—and “Ideology: Religion”—a story of “emphatic secularization”—ripple with a muscular confidence it would be difficult even to impersonate today. Hobsbawm’s account of the Jacobin Republic, which salutes the “iron control” of Robespierre, disparages the “voluntarist direct democracy” of the sans-culottes, and hails the Terror as “the only effective method of preserving [the] country,” sounds a bit like it could have been telegraphed in direct from Moscow (90-95). The entire volume is structured around Class, but there is little on Race, and nothing on “Gender,” unless, perhaps, he was an obscure Prussian economist. And possibly there is no more eloquent measure of The Age of Revolution’s obsolescence than an Index containing the entry, “Haiti, see San Domingo,” which, in turn, yields three forlorn pages in a work of over four hundred.

Yet for all that, I’m reminded of the gruff old Tory in The Picture of Dorian Gray: “His principles were out of date, but there was a good deal to be said for his prejudices.” Hobsbawm’s prejudices remain both eminently defensible and sadly underrepresented in 21st century historical writing. There may be good reasons why contemporary scholars (and their editors) shrink from his combination of authoritative judgment and ferocious wit—e.g., “The main characteristic of Austrian thought was that there was none at all that deserves mention”—but that does not mean we should not mourn its passing (295).

Hobsbawm’s unabashed partisanship, though, should be due for a comeback. Today’s historians often write with political and historical preferences at least as distinct as Hobsbawm’s, if seldom as self-assured or systematic. Rarely, though, are they asserted with any kind of confidence—the dominant methods of dealing with historical politics involve either a willful ignorance that they exist at all, or an equally unsatisfying attempt to sublimate them inside the voices, stories, or ‘agency’ of certain historical characters. Reading The Age of Revolution made me yearn for a bygone era of sentences as gleefully loaded as this, on the peasant’s response to land enclosures: “Altogether the introduction of liberalism on the land was like some sort of silent bombardment which shattered the social structure he had always inhabited and left nothing in place but the rich: a solitude called freedom” (191).

Campbell Bookshelf

Rand, Schlesinger, and Boorstin: This has got to be Pete Campbell’s bookshelf.

Despite Hobsbawm’s virtuosity—or, perhaps, partly because of it—The Age of Revolution was largely ignored by American academics. Early Americanists certainly weren’t paying attention; the book was not cited in the William and Mary Quarterly until 2006, when a Robin Blackburn footnote respectfully chided Hobsbawm for (what else?) neglecting the importance of Haiti.

It’s not just the WMQ, either: The Age of Revolution didn’t make it into the Journal of American History until 1987, and the Journal of the Early Republic until 1990. Part of this obviously reflects the book’s limited coverage of American topics, but still—in an age of self-consciously Atlantic and transnational approaches, why haven’t we done more to relate our finely-braided narratives of early America to Hobsbawm’s powerful larger patterns?

Part of the problem may have to do with our current skepticism about synthetic history. Hobsbawm himself has weighed in on this question: the central scholarly conflict of the 20th century, he wrote in his 2002 autobiography, was the battle between “history as narrative and history as analysis and synthesis, between those who thought it impossible to generalize about human affairs in the past and those who thought it essential.” In the war between Marxist and Annaliste lumpers and the old-fashioned splitters of high-political narrative, Hobsbawm’s side finally claimed victory—only to be displaced, at the very moment of its triumph, by a new breed. The post-1968 “historical left” then found its object not in “historical discovery, explanation or even exposition,” but in “inspiration, empathy and democratization.”

Surely some of these new splitters—including their progeny among the New New Political Historians—would find this a condescending description of the past generation of scholarship. But in thinking about The Age of Revolution alongside last week’s roundtable, what struck me was how much of the debate in contemporary American historiography is not, fundamentally, between narrative and synthesis, but between two different kinds of narrative—one still essentially personal and high-political, and the other essentially democratic and representational. For Hobsbawm, neither of these approaches would really count as analysis or synthesis—attempts to “generalize about human affairs” in the boldest and most decisive ways. Perhaps, after all, this is for the best—perhaps the kind of synthesis Hobsbawm wants simply isn’t compatible with the richness and diversity of the American experience the last fifty years of research have dug up.

But perhaps it is also a shame. At any rate, I think more US historians should trouble themselves to read The Age of Revolution so they can at least know what that distant and alien kind of synthesis smelled like. To our 21st century eyes, the dates of Hobsbawm’s opus scream “introductory survey,” but in truth this is a book for the expert (in fact I think it would be a complete disaster to teach in an undergrad survey). As George Rudė’s contemporary review observed, The Age of Revolution “is no easy book for the beginner,” but in it the historian will find “important questions answered as he will find them nowhere else… Ideas, classes, laws and institutions cease to be static and unrelated concepts: they are presented in  terms of essence, movement, conflict, ‘break-through,’ consolidation, inner contradiction, rebirth and obsolescence.” This is as true today as it was in 1962, and as true for early Americanists as any other class of historians. Maybe it is not too soon for the obsolescent to be reborn.

13 responses

  1. Thank you Matt – very interesting discussion of some important topics, and I’m always fascinated by the “old books” we know about but rarely if ever read because somehow they’ve become “old fashioned.” I notice you tagged the books containing Schlesinger and Boorstin as being from “Pete Campbell’s” shelf. Yet you call more “unabashed partisanship,” which is what I think of, at least with Schlesinger. Where does that leave Schlesinger in your analysis? The unabashed partisan of whom we could use more or the popular writer who would be enjoyed by someone of Campbell’s less intellectual nature? Also, is there a difference between someone who writes with a distinctive voice and view after having carefully reviewed the evidence and those who are partisan in the sense that they’re presenting “breifs” for their “sides?”

  2. Good question re: Schlesinger, but unfortunately for me, he is another monumental old fashioned writer who I know about but have barely read. Same goes for Boorstin, too, although I’ve yet to feel any guilt about passing him by: naturally enough, I suppose, my call for more partisanship is itself rather partisan.

    I do think that Schlesinger’s undisguised liberalism, in his history and his politics, was intellectually a Good Thing, as was Hobsbawm’s undisguised communism. In that respect, someone like Sean Wilentz — for all my conceivable disagreements with him — is a valuable if pugnacious heir to this tradition of unabashed commitment. For me it’s not so much about reviewing the evidence with a distinctive voice, but acknowledging — even, in effect, celebrating — the way that your own distinctive voice shapes how you review that evidence. I can’t always say that approach has guided my own work, but it’s something I admire, and wish there were more of in the world of history.

    • Many thanks for your thoughtful reply. I’ll only add that I hope that a writer’s “distinctive voice” (i.e. her viewpoint) is shaped by the evidence rather than shaping how that evidence is reviewed. The latter seems to lead to books such as Hyland’s “Brief” on the Jefferson-Hemmings relationship.

  3. Matt! I loved this! Thanks for an enjoyable read! I am not quite clear (but also intrigued) by this phrase — “high-political narrative, Hobsbawm’s side finally claimed victory—only to be displaced, at the very moment of its triumph, by a new breed. The post-1968 “historical left” then found its object not in “historical discovery, explanation or even exposition,” but in “inspiration, empathy and democratization”” — can you elaborate? I am not clear how this change refers back to your overall discussion about synthesis in history writing.

    There does seem to be a resurgence of synthetic works but outside of Americanists of the Early Republic and in the discourses of global Early Modernism and post-Colonial studies. I am thinking of Belich’s Replenishing the Eart, Weaver’s the Great Land Rush, and recently of the article (Konrad?) in the AHA on the global enlightenment.

    The thing I LOVE about Hobsbawm (introduced to me by Josh Freeman, labor historian at CUNY) is his reassuring authority; I feel I am in the hands of a master narrativist and am going to get a GREAT story with drama, detail, richness, and excitement. That is seductive. And I for one am suspicious of the suspicion leveled at seductive historians — does something have to hurt to be serious and important? Granted, I come from a program which emphasized the narrative above all else. I am only now realizing that that is NOT okay with everyone.

    Thanks again!

    • Thanks for the kind words. I think Hobsbawm’s point about the “post 1968 historical left” is that the energy behind their project came not from a desire to organize or explain historical information, but a deep need to identify with and seek inspiration from previous historical actors — whether that meant finding a ‘usable past’, or merely rescuing neglected actors from EP Thompson’s ‘enormous condescension of posterity.’ I’m sure not all New Left historians and their descendants would agree with this characterization, but I think EJH was trying to distinguish between between his own approach — even in bottom-up political ‘rescue missions’ like his work in Primitive Rebels and Bandits — and the approach of post-68 generation, whose political and intellectual goals were very different. He continued to feel this way even though the post-’68 historians drew eagerly on his work & helped spread it in the States — EJH’s first citation ever in the WMQ came in Jesse Lemisch’s classic “Jack Tar” article. The end point for the post ’68ers, evident in some aspects of the NNPH, has in fact proved very different from the kind of larger, global synthetic project Hobsbawm hoped for and was still hoping for at the end of his life.

      Good points, too, on the new non-American synthetic works. I’ve been meaning to read Belich forever and wonder if his work — along with, maybe Victor Lieberman’s Strange Parallels? — is actually the closest contemporary thing to a Hobsbawmian approach today.

      • Hi Matt,

        Yes, it is an interesting experience to read Belich and other meta-narrative books, but it can be a bit jarring too. I have never heard of Lieberman’s Strange Parallels, I will check it out. These big books make a lot of assumptions and gloss over important evidence to craft their narratives. I almost find social theory (I am thinking of Skocpol, Scott, Benhabib, Stoler) as more useful for reconceptualizing the past unhindered by a meta-narrative. I do see your fascinating point about EJH and do agree that he managed to deliver a narrative that while possibly coming from a particular ideological perspective, still felt like a valid and earnest attempt at writing good history. I had never thought of the New Left historians as being so polemical. Are you saying that they erred on the side of ideology at the expense of good history? Would you include a book like The Many Headed Hydra in the category (remembering a scathing review by DB Davis in the AHA). To me it seems like a matter of scale, connecting the big ideas to smaller story which one believes is representative and therefore applicable to other contexts (thinking of Cronon here, Nature’s Metropolis).

  4. If you look at Armitage and Subrahmanyam’s introduction to The Age of Revolutions in Global Context (Palgrave 2010), you’ll find some interesting pages about the eurocentrism of Hobsbawm’s book, along with Robert Travers’ chapter about South Asia.

  5. Matt Karp, “The Great Rehabilitator”? No, I kid, I kid (just noting a pattern in your reviews of recent films). A number of years ago, I read some of Schlesinger’s Age of Jackson, and what I took from it, if nothing else, was the sense that historians today (myself included) write much less interesting prose. The book is bristling with sharp-tongued metaphor, as were the speeches of the politicians he was discussing. On a pedagogical note, I just taught (for the second time) Linebaugh’s “All the Atlantic Mountains Shook” to an undergrad class of non-history majors. It was, predictably, a disaster, but one I think is worthwhile inflicting upon myself and my students. They are forced to engage in a different kind of reading and reflection, both because of the density of obscure historical references (the Muggletonians, the 17th Century Crisis, modes of production, etc.), and the complex concepts Linebaugh is trying to drive home in his idiosyncratic, Blakean way. It being impossible to follow every thread Linebaugh draws out, students are forced to distinguish the essential from the auxiliary. Students sort of hate me for it, but we always get to a point where at least some of the students begin to imagine colonial America in a very new way. So maybe assigning Hobsbawm could be that kind of benign disaster as well.

    • You’re so right about the metaphors: the Hobsbawm is just stuffed with them. Here’s a nice one on the transformation in the role of religious ideology, which feels right to me although I don’t know if contemporary religious historians would agree:

      “Religion, from being something like the sky, from which no man can escape and which contains all that is above the earth, became something like a bank of clouds, a large but limited and changing feature of the human firmament.”

      Interesting point, too, about the value and virtue of a “disastrous” reading assignment: just because it’s painful doesn’t mean it’s not helpful. I guess the key in this kind of thing (as in most kind of things) is finding the right balance between productive pain and productive pleasure.

  6. This is a great post on the continued relevancy of Hobsbawm’s work. I do admit that I found it interesting that Hobsbawm might be best known in the US for his work nationalism and the ‘invention of tradition’, rather than his pioneering ‘history from below’ work, alongside E.P. Thompson, Raphael Samuel, John Saville and Christopher Hill. That is not to say that ‘Nations and Nationalism’ isn’t a very important work, but I would place his work in ‘Bandits’, ‘Primitive Rebels’ and ‘Captain Swing’ as more groundbreaking. But a good defence of his ‘Age of…’ series.

  7. Pingback: Eric Hobsbawm’s Age of Revolution | The Rational Colonel


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