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17 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars dense, brilliant, evocative analysis of a watershed, 27 Aug. 2012
This review is from: The Age Of Revolution (Hardcover)
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.
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Location: Balmette Talloires, France

Top Reviewer Ranking: 595