on 30 September 1999
The book is a destined to be timeless classic. Hobsbawm's description of the post revolutionary age is stunning. His systematic deconstruction of those social forces which bought the age to be and developed many of the parameters and foundations of the contmeporary age is truly unique
The book was a stunning and welcome surprise. Having a BA in Politics and International Studies and a MA in International Political Economy, I did not believe I would find a book which could still provide me with a treasure chest of new perceptions that alters the way that I not only perceive the world around me, but my life itself. It must be stressed, as the author does in the introduction, that this book must only be tackled by those with a reasonable knowledge of history. He makes no apology and nor should he, for skipping the descriptive historical approach of many and subjecting you to a wealth of analysis. I have already brought the other books in the series and am eagerly waiting to read these.
My only regret about the book ? I did not find it as a student in my first year. At the time I laughed at the story of Chinese politican who when asked what he thought of the French revolution replied "It is too early to tell". This book makes you understand this reply. Being familiar with history, it is certain I would have burned far less midnight oil had I found the book at that time,for it would have instantly removed my viel of naivety and ignorance. If you want to undergo a similar experience I would recommend the author of what must surely become the great histroical text of its era as your guide.
This is one of those wonderful books about a subject I know well, but that pushes in new directions and yet reviews everything I have struggled to comprehend. It is very rare for me to find such a book, one that makes me feel awestruck all over again for something I have read about for years, renewing my hunger to dig deeper. I finished it, then read it all the way through again, underlining like I used to as an undergraduate. It felt that fresh to me, even though it is about 50 years old and supposedly "marxist". (The only thing I could identify as marxist was an emphasis on class relations, but it fits what was going rather than forcing different kinds of factors into such an analysis. I ended by not being sure what marxist even meant.)
The book is about a double revolution. First, there is a political revolution of profound importance: the French Revolution swept away the old order of aristocratic privilege, opening jobs in government and the military to talent. The traditional hierarchies disappeared, crushed finally by a violent purge of those in power. Many reviewers in the US think that this is misplaced emphasis, that the American Revolution is the one of real significance, but I think Hobsbawm makes a convincing case that it was France's that was most important because it was also a social revolution. The American one left most social structures in place, life went on more or less the same as before, as a free-enterprise society whose hierarchies and privilege already were far more fluid than those in EUrope; its value was in the creation of democratic institutions that could evolve, which also occurred later in Europe. This also meant that, in EUrope, the old certainties died, freeing peasants from hereditary obligations but also at the loss of at least minimal help from property owners or aristocrats - they were free to stay put, migrate to cities, and seek entirely new kinds of careers without traditional protections. It was left to Napoleon to spread these ideas to the rest of Europe by force, beyond merely the realm of ideas.
The second revolution is industrial and perfectly symbiotic with the French socio-political revolution: it was a new means of production and organization of both the economy and society, behind that of a capitalist system. A new class arose, the bourgeois, who invested in business and accumulated capital, basing their livelihood not on agricultural resources and property ownership, but on an ever-changing "market" for goods. At the very beginning, Hobsbawm identifies three parts that fit in Britain: 1) the invention of the textile industry; 2) a rise in steel production, principally for new machines and railroads; 3) the creation of a new market of consumers, who will buy the new goods and find employments making them. It represented a huge expansion in trade. The new economic actors - bourgeois managers and their working class counterparts - fundamentally changed the urban landscape.
Interestingly, Hobsbawm also convinced me that the visions of rising living standards - now such standard fare in the political salesmanship - was impossible to foresee, particularly at the beginning. That means that the system survived by brute force rather than good will. As markets matured and the original textile industries were no longer profitable, it was the workers who paid in the form of reduced salaries and living standards, often in the most horrible of urban slums. This explains the rise of socialism, also coeval with the industrial revolution, a radically different means of ownership of production. It reached a crisis point in the 1840s with a major depression, of which the Irish potato famine was merely one example, leading directly into the transnational insurrectionary convulsions of 1848; its consequences were only worked out after WW1 in more democratic regimes, but also in the birth of the USSR, the radical communist experiment.
These are the core ideas of the book. But Hobsbawm doesn't stop there: he also explains the intellectual currents of the time in a way that fits with his core ideas. This is about the transition from reason, particularly as that of enlightened despots, to shape societies. The ideas that rise in their place are those of the romantics, with their respect for a nascent idea of the unconscious, the view of society as an organic construct that evolves in multiple directions, and the relativism that is replacing the certainties of a mechanistic world of near-platonic ideals. These changes came with the sweeping away of traditional social structures and certainties, in particular the consolations of pervasive religious fundamentalism.
This is a valuable analysis of historical forces. It is not a narrative and there isn't enough for me about the diplomacy of the time. (I wanted a better explanation of Metternich's system, for example.) But these are available elsewhere. The synthesis at the heart of this book got me thinking about all of this with excitement. I will have to do more research into the period. Recommended with the greatest enthusiasm. This deserves a slow, careful read for rich rewards.
on 26 February 2003
If you have to study the first half of the 19th century, this is the book to have. Hobsbawm writes logically, clearly, and on a wide range of issues, including ones you would not necessarily expect, such as the arts and sciences. As well as being informative, it is an interesting and eye-opening read.
Hobsbawm's left-wing attitudes are clear throughout much of the book, and this puts many historical events in a light you may not have seen them in before. In summary, this is a great book and the start of a great series - Hobsbawm is one of the greatest historians of our time.
on 17 June 2002
Hobsbawm's general history of Europe and its growing influence on the rest of the world starts here. It is a fantastic read, combining great narrative history with incisive analysis, descriptions of mainstream historical movements with the arkane byways of historical eccentrics.
This is the first of Hobsbawm's four brilliant "Age of ..." books, and is a joy to both newcomers to history and those who read little but.
Read this and be amazed that your high school history teacher didn't use this as a text for A level or Higher European History, but preferred to use morphine-in-print texts, thus denying a generation of the pleasures of great literature disguised as history.
Even if you've already read this, buy it again and give yourself a treat.
It's banging, man.
This book is the first instalment in a four volume series concerned with exploring and understanding the history of modern society. Hobsbawn presents these volumes as a series of ‘ages’ – this book being titled “The Age of Revolution”, and its sequels are “The Age of Capital”, “The Age of Empire”, and “Age of Extremes”. Collectively, the historical emergence and subsequent development of capitalism is outlined and analysed. Such an endeavour is certainly challenging – and is uncommon within the study of history (as most academic historians focus on a much narrower field of investigation, rather than seeking to engage with a social formation in its entirety). What make this book, and the series as whole, even more unconventional is that the author adopts a Marxist approach, grounding his analysis on Marx’s materialist conception of history.
“The Age of Revolution” is concerned with the period 1789 to 1848, and – although it comments on broader European, and occasionally global events – it primarily focuses on Britain and France. Hobsbawn persuasively argues that the societal transformations occurring in these two countries during this period were of fundamental importance to the development of capitalist society. The author engages with the economic, political and social conditions and circumstances that existed. He explores industrialisation (as an economic revolution), radical changes in governance – from absolute monarchy to embryonic democracy (as a political revolution), and the demise of religion alongside the rise of secularism (as a cultural revolution). The narrative begins with the French Revolution of 1789, and it concludes with the European continental revolutions of 1848.
This is a highly fascinating book, well-written and engaging. While it’s clearly intended to be educational (and will be of interest to history students), the author also seeks to present a book that can be popularly understood. This book was first published in 1962, and it’s been very influential in shaping thought and debate. It continues to be relevant – and I thoroughly recommend it to anyone interested in either this period of history or, more generally, in the dynamics of capitalism.
on 26 August 2009
Great thematic sweeps explore the impact of Britain's Industrial Revolution and France's political revolution. Hobsbawm offers enough tidbits of information to make the reader want to explore more of all sorts of issues affected by the 'dual revolution' for the reader to want to delve further into the details of, say, philosophy or economics or art, while presenting developments in a clear theoretical framework which makes sense of the vast amounts of information that Hobsbawm has sifted.
One of THE great history books.
on 4 May 2014
The book traces the transformation of the world between 1789 and 1848 in so far as it was due to what is called in the book the 'dual revolution' - The French Revolution of 1789 and the slightly preceding it (British) Industrial Revolution.
The Industrial revolution in Britain which initially concerned the steam and the cotton industry is well acknowledged for transforming the economy of the nineteenth century. I shall consequently touch a little more on the French Revolution which transformed its politics and ideology. France provided the codes of law, the model of scientific and technical organization, and the metric system of measurement. The French Revolution ended the European middle age and ushered in the characteristic modern state which is a territorially coherent and unbroken area with sharply defined frontiers, governed by a single sovereign authority and according to a single fundamental system of administration and law.
The book is organized into two parts. The first deals broadly with the main developments of the period, while the second sketches the kind of society produced by the dual revolution.
Certain English words were invented, or gained their modern meanings, during this sixty year period. They include 'industry', 'industrialist', 'factory', 'middle class', 'working class', 'capitalism' and 'socialism'. They include 'railway', 'liberal' and 'conservative' as political terms, 'nationality', 'scientist' and 'engineer', 'proletariat' and (economic) 'crisis'. 'Utilitarian' and 'statistics', 'sociology', 'journalism' and 'ideology', are all coinages or adaptations of this period. So is 'strike' and 'pauperism'.
To imagine the modern world without these words is to measure the profundity of the revolution which broke out between 1789 and 1848, and forms the greatest transformation in human history since the invention of agriculture. The great revolution of 1789-1848 was not the triumph of 'industry' as such, but of capitalist industry, not of liberty and equality in general but of middle class or 'bourgeois' liberal society, not of 'the modern economy' or 'the modern state', but of the economics and states in a particular region of the world whose center was the neighboring and rival states of Great Britain and France. The transformation of 1789-1848 is essentially the twin upheaval which took place in those two countries and propagated across the entire world. For the period they represent the triumph of a bourgeois - liberal capitalism.
The author wisely advises that so profound a transformation cannot be understood without going back very much in history than 1789, or even in the decades which immediately preceded it and clearly reflect the crisis of the 'ancien regimes' of the North-Western world, which the dual revolution was to sweep away.
The author examines in the part on results issues like land, industrialization, the laboring poor, religious ideology, secular ideology the Arts and Science.
I shall touch on Arts: the first thing which strikes anyone who attempts to survey the development of the Arts in this period identified with 'Romanticism' is their extraordinary flourishing state. A half-century which includes Beethoven and Schubert, the mature and old Goethe, the young Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Verdi and Wagner, the last of Mozart and all or most of Goya, Puskin and Balzac.
In going through the preceding part of the review, I realized that I have failed to describe the appalling poverty of urban labor and the enormous wealth inequality emanating from industrial capitalism in mid-nineteenth century Britain. To remedy this, I shall conclude the review by citing a couple of examples:
'The average expectation of life at birth in the 1840s was twice as high for the laborers of rural Wiltshire and Rutland (hardly a pampered class) than for those of Manchester and Liverpool.'
'The time when Baroness Rothschild wore one and a half million francs worth of jwellery at the Duke of Orleans masked ball (1842) was the time when John Bright described the women of Rochdale: 2,000 women and girls passed through the streets singing hymns-it was a very singular and striking spectacle - approaching the sublime-they are dreadfully hungry-a loaf is devoured with greediness indescribable and if the bread is nearly covered with mud it is eagerly devoured.
on 11 April 2014
Hobsbawm's "Age of..." books and his concept of the 'long 19th century' are widely acknowledged as one of the great body of works of history conducted in the 20th century. So it seemed reasonable that this first volume was the obvious place to start.
Anyone who knows a little about Hobsbawm knows that he was a Marxist. As such he looks at all history through a particular viewpoint. It is as though he has a particular set of glasses on which allow him to see certain things but which also hide others. Though to the casual reader, probably the most obvious manifestation is his constant use of the word 'bourgeois' which got to irritate me after a while.
The twin revolutions which he begins with are the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution in Britain. From the outset, he acknowledges that he is focused on the history of Europe from 1789 until 1848. The work is split into two parts: the first looking at the origins of various aspects of the period, the second looking at outcomes. This division is somewhat artificial and each chapter tends to scan the whole period, so there is some going back and forth. If anyone wanted to read a purely chronological history, then this is not the book for them.
Compared to likes of ancient historians such as Herodotus or Thucydides, Hobsbawm not only writes about a different era, but his historiography is entirely different. He covers this late on this book where he talks of the emergence of modern ways of doing history. Here, we have not so much a recounting of facts and discourse as though that were the entirety of historical study, but it is the analysis which links events idea, motivations, etc. which are the backbone of Hobsbawm's work. Above all, though, the differentiating feature here is the economic history. He looks both at wealth and poverty and the motivations of each in the realm of revolutionary history. i.e. what are the conditions that create the appetite for revolution and those that create a resistance to it?
In answering these questions (which are implicit, Hobsbawm doesn't ask them directly) we are presented with a complicated narrative, a tapestry of threads which pull together eventually to form a coherent picture. That picture is most definitely shaded in a particular way, which may well rub some people up the wrong way. That said, it illustrates very well the idea that no history can be told wholly neutrally. What you choose to include and omit and how you present it will inevitably betray the historian's own thought process. This is something the reader of history simply has to bear in mind.
If there was any great disagreement I had with Hobsbawm is that at times he had a tendency to state what the aims were of the more conservative figures in his history. Here, I felt that Hobsbawm had looked at the outcomes of their actions and interpreted those as aims, seemingly downplaying the possibility that the thought process at the time may have overlooked these matters. In other words, he was projecting onto others his own conclusions. Any historian faces this as a possibility, though it came across more prevalent to me in this work than in most others.
While this is a weakness in the book, it is also an example of the book's greatest strength; that being his great boldness. To read The Age of Revolution is to be challenged by it. One thing you cannot do is read and ignore Hobsbawm. He will provoke a reaction in any thoughtful reader, whether that be in violent agreement or vehement disagreement - or likely a mixture of both.
on 6 August 2010
If you're thinking about buying this - whether for a course or personal reasons - do not hesitate. I bought it in preparation for a course and was a bit wary as I've never read a 'proper' historical text before. Relax; go ahead and buy. I am enjoying every moment of reading this book. It's written in such a way, that you are drawn in without having to analyse every word. Absolutely readable. A pleasure to read! It has encouraged me to find and read similar books. Excellent.
Firstly, let there be no confusion. This is not history writing of a factual nuts and bolts kind. Hobsbawm expects his audience to have a more or less `A-level' handle on the broad chronological sweep of events in the period of interest. His purpose is rather to draw on the uncannily vast reservoir of erudition at his disposal and, weave from it an interpretative synthesis of the historical currents and forces in operation, in an era where the certainties of centuries were shaken, and their time-honoured structures began to crumble. The focus of his analysis is on the emergence, evolution and shifting alignments of social classes, in response to emerging economic and ideological pressures. A huge variety of data is marshalled in support of his arguments, but summarised with a grace and skill that makes it an effortless pleasure for the reader to assimilate. Hobsbawm was writing at a time when Marxist historical analysis had yet to be so thoroughly discredited, so readers of a more rigorously conservative persuasion might find fragments of his arguments contentious, but to my mind such reservations are peripheral for the period in question. Throughout, one is provoked by a keen sense of the great miseries unleashed across the globe by the flowering of unrestrained capitalism, and the hopes and bitter disappointments that were engendered by the intensifying strains of radical thought and action across Europe in the Age of Revolution. One also finds one's own times, and the open-ended economic turmoil that characterises our current era, illuminated in surprising ways. While reading this I came to see the present challenges confronting global capitalism as continuous with a single story that will span centuries yet to come, and whose ending is still entirely obscure to us. It is so books like this can be written that we study history at all; so that we can penetrate beneath the surface of events, and perhaps discover the meanings concealed within them and even a signpost or two to better possible futures.
For what it's worth, books I have read that equipped me with the background to approach this book have included Norman Davies' Europe: A History and Frank McLynn's Napoleon, for the factual background to the French Revolution and Napoleon. Then Anthony Wood's Europe, 1815-1960, for the tortuous intricacies of post-Napoleonic Europe, and Lowe's Mastering Modern British History for the fascinating story, that we all should have been taught at school, of Britain's socio-political development through the 19th Century.