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.
But 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).
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.