55 of 64 people found the following review helpful
An excellent picture of World history during 1875-1914,
This review is from: The Age Of Empire: 1875-1914 (History Greats) (Paperback)
Eric Hobsbawm's The Age of Empire is one of the books which forms a four volume history of the world over the two centuries since the French Revolution: The Age of Revolution (1789-1848), The Age of Capital (1848-75), The Age of Empire (1875-1914), and The Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century (1914-91). The Age of Empire (1875-1914) is exactly what the title suggests: a factual and real representation of the dynamics of the construction of empire. He concentrates primarily on technology, nationalism, imperialism, and revolution covering the era of Western imperialism in a remarkable and outstanding fashion, examining the forces that ultimately led to the outbreak of the First World War, and shaped the world we live in today. He provides the reader with a greater understanding of the political, social, and economic issues during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, highlighting how the era was just as much an era of opportunity as it was an era of hardship. In doing so, he looks at the transformation brought about by capitalism and how it affected various areas of life in an age dominated by the construction of empire. The Age of Empire has a clear and precise form of structural demarcation; each chapter follows on from the previous chapter, enhancing the overall argument. In some ways Hobsbawm's preference for phrase-making clouds our judgement of what people felt at the time. But, nevertheless, his dramatic sense of sweep and structure is quite unmatched. Hobsbawm himself delineates in the preface that The Age of Empire is a "history of different states, of politics, of the economy, of culture or whatever" (Preface: xi). These previously differentiated aspects are clearly portrayed in the book in such a way the reader gains an insight into the remarkable sense of vigour and enthusiasm with which Hobsbawm wrote The Age of Empire. Not only does he concentrate on each aspect individually, dividing the book into specific chapters, he clearly depicts how culture, politics, society, and economics are intrinsically linked. In one case he stresses that as an explanation for the growth of the colonial empire "political and economic elements were no longer clearly separable" (p.59). Clearly, then, Hobsbawm's Age of Empire is a general historical account of the years 1875-1914. Hobsbawm has endeavoured to amalgamate a variety of different aspects such as political, economic, and social history into one volume providing the reader with an all-embracing view. However, one cannot help but notice the clear Marxist undertone prevalent throughout, as shown by the fact that class and class consciousness (and conflict) are a powerful and recurrent theme. Not only this, but capitalism appears to be heavily criticised, as Hobsbawm makes reference to how it is not only schizophrenic in nature, rendering it inadequate, it has also led to the exploitation backward regions of the world. Also, Hobsbawm views the origins of the new imperialism from a Leninist angle arguing that imperialism during The Age of Empire had economic roots in a specific new phase of capitalism, which led to the division of the world and ultimately to the First World War. He claims that colonialism is "a by-product of political-economic rivalry between competing national economies" (Find reference). In doing so, he dismisses any other explanation in a sweeping statement claiming that no further discussion on the anti-Leninist approach is needed because they have "obscured the subject" (p.61). Similarly, his strong criticisms concerning the politics of democracy highlights his political persuasion. He claims that it was not a democratic world because the elites always exploited the working class. Not only this, he views democracy as a failure as shown by the concurrent exclusion and riots, brought about by its inefficiency, fragile, and non-permanent nature. Putting Hobsbawm's political persuasion aside, The Age of Empire, despite being Marxist in character, provides both the Marxist and non-Marxist reader with a detailed and somewhat accurate description of the transformations that occurred, even if the origins and reasons for them are riddled with ambiguities and open to debate. However, one must take into account the extent to which Hobsbawm's Age of Empire is in fact a world history. One of the most obvious criticisms, which have been made of Hobsbawm's writing, is that he is biased towards European history. However, this is hardly surprising considering the European precedence throughout the world during the period 1875-1914, as Hobsbawm points out in an interview with Daniel Snowman: "Because of the nature of the questions I address. If you're dealing with the history of modern capitalism and the world economy, your analysis has got to be Eurocentric right up until the late nineteenth century and the appearance of the USA as a world player" One particular area of transformation that Hobsbawm looks at is that of the sudden increase in the emergence of nation-states and the phenomenon of nationalism. Even though he provides us with an incisive and intellectual account of nationalism and its implications, he fails to recognise the importance of cultural nationalism and primordialism, overemphasising the role of the state and politicians in the construction of nations. Perhaps this is a reminder that in order to fully understand and appreciate the dynamics of Hobsbawm's works, one would need to research more on each of the transformations that Hobsbawm mentions, after-all, The Age of Empire is only a general history. Its purpose is to delineate that through understanding the past we can work to understand the present and possibly the future. The Age of Empire, as Hobsbawm explains in his epilogue, has shown that it was an age "...of growing uneasiness and fear. For most men and women in the world transformed by the bourgeoisie it was almost certainly and age of hope."(p.339). He claims that it is possible to find the perfect society by looking into the past and learning by our mistakes, but the inevitable surprises and changes in life cannot be predicted simply by looking at how things occurred in the past.