on 13 June 2015
The Age of Empire 1875-1914 is the third of Eric Hobsbawm's quartet of books covering the tumultuous rise of the modern industrialised world. Yet this volume also acts as a denouement, because it completes (after The Age of Revolution 1789-1848 and The Age of Capital 1848-1875) Hobsbawm's internal trilogy covering the 'long nineteenth century'. Collectively, the three books may present a rather daunting endeavour, but Hobsbawm is the consummate writer for the everyday reader. In fact, his Preface states that his work 'is addressed not to other academics, but to all who wish to understand the world', and it's this inclusiveness, stripped of academic waffle, that makes this series such a success. For Hobsbawm, the book is not 'a narrative or a systematic exposition' but 'the unfolding of an argument, or rather, the tracing of a basic theme through the various chapters'. And the theme? To 'explain a world in the process of revolutionary transformation, to trace the roots of our present back into the soil of the past and, perhaps above all, to see the past as a coherent whole' .
Hobsbawm's many themes coalesce into a stunning panorama depicting the imperial escapades of the late nineteenth century. To highlight the numerous topics and wide-ranging erudition on show we need only name a few of the chapters. So, for instance, we have chapters entitled 'An Economy Changes Gear', 'The New Woman', 'Certainties Undermined: The Sciences', and 'Who's Who or the Uncertainties of the Bourgeoisie'. But as these chapter titles make clear, the age of empire was also an age of doubt, for it was marked by a 'profound identity crisis and transformation for a bourgeoisie whose traditional moral foundation crumbled under the very pressure of its own accumulations of wealth and comfort' (p.10). But just why was this class on such a shaky footing?
That question can be answered in a twofold manner. Firstly, the nineteenth century saw the rise of a militant and organised proletariat demanding more of the wealth they created, and this creeping menace, this spectre of the great and angry mob, sent a visceral fear of the rabble into the minds of the bourgeoisie. Secondly, there was a new kind of capitalist on the block, whose aggressive and surly attitude showed he was unwilling to bow down before the idle middle classes. And it was this lack of deference to class that caused great unease for the underworked layabouts of the nineteenth-century drawing rooms. As Hobsbawm rightly notes, it 'was now essentially money or the lack of it, rather than birth or differences in legal freedom or status, which determined the distribution of all...the privileges' (p.24) and power. Mass emigration, especially among the working classes, may've been 'the safety valve which kept social pressure below the point of rebellion or revolution' (p.37) but it was never enough to allay the fears of the rulers and the rich.
Some Western capitalist countries sought to combat the growing fractiousness between the classes by spinning a unifying narrative. But what outlet could provide such an important bond? In short, 'economic expansion and the exploitation of the overseas world were crucial for capitalist countries' (p.61), because they allowed a nationalistic and competitive edge to unite the formerly competing classes, who now exchanged the exclusivity of class for the inclusivity of nationality. As such, 'the acquisition of colonies...became a status symbol, irrespective of their value' (p.67), while the conquering of foreign regions made 'good ideological cement' (p.70). Yet this dangerous manoeuvring around the globe spawned toxic ideologies, worldviews predicated on the idea that non-European peoples were 'fit subjects for conquest, or at least for conversion to the values of the only real civilization, that represented by traders, missionaries and bodies of armed men full of firearms and fire-water' (p.79). And this damning yet honest verdict reinforces Hobsbawm's idea that we need to look to history if we are to explain the present revival of nationalist xenophobia or the pernicious adventurism tied to opening up foreign markets for new investment.
Some, however, felt that the plunder of territorial expansion was needed to pay for the benefits obtained by progressive movements, because, lest we forget, this was also an age that introduced 'old age pensions, public labour exchanges, [and] health and unemployment insurance' (p.103). But 'could not the loyalties of the masses be acquired without expensive social policies which might cut into the profits of entrepreneurs on whom the economy depended?' (ibid). Once again, it was a gung-ho adherence to the national flag and its predominantly land-grabbing ideology that prevailed. Yet this expansive and headlong drive to accumulate capital was always going to bring nations into geopolitical conflict. As Hobsbawm makes clear, the relative calm with which the twentieth century was ushered in masked a rampant fragmentation across the world, especially in the Western sphere, because the 'development of capitalism inevitably pushed the world in the direction of state rivalry, imperialist expansion, conflict and war' (p.316).
And it's this rapid disintegration of the world, unravelled by Hobsbawm in all its complex and intriguing detail, which becomes the subject of the chapters 'Towards Revolution' and 'From Peace to War'. Even a brief synopsis of these two chapters will not do them justice, although it's safe to say that their contents lead Hobsbawm to a terrifying conclusion in his 'Epilogue'. Here he states that the experiences of the twentieth century, which merely played out the embryonic tussles conceived in the nineteenth, have taught us 'to live in the expectation of apocalypse' (p.330). For all its seeming hyperbole, Hobsbawm is devastatingly correct, as his plaintive sentiment has as much relevance now as it did in 1987. Are we not witnessing the return of extremist politics? If so, then it's pertinent to remember Hobsbawm's earlier remark: it is necessary 'to trace the roots of our present back into the soil of the past', otherwise we'll never be able to understand, or remedy, what catalyses humanity's malevolent urges.
It's not all doom and gloom though. Hobsbawm is a witty and touching writer, his 'Overture' a beautiful mixture of memoir and history. He also draws a smile when he makes an absurd comment, which, once you've unpacked it, turns out to be strikingly true. For instance, take the bicycle, that most humdrum of quotidian contraptions. Seeing them every day dampens the wonder of how they revolutionised transport for all the classes, because the bicycle was the 'great engine of freedom' (p.205), especially for women, who had 'more need of free movement' (ibid). There are numerous examples of such defamiliarisation in this book. The work of William Morris has been imitated so often that it's hard to stifle a yawn. But Hobsbawm shows just what a radical presence he was in his day, his entire oeuvre driven by the need to 'restore the broken links between art and the worker in production, and to transform the environment of daily living' (p.229) for the working class. These are just two instances of how Hobsbawm takes a culturally trite object or artist and changes the way we perceive them in the postmodern world.
Anyhow, Hobsbawm ends the book on a positive note. For all its turpitude, the twentieth century was also one of 'extraordinarily impressive and quite undeniable' (p.340) 'material and intellectual progress' (ibid). It was the moral side that let it down. But that shouldn't deter the human race from its final goal, which Hobsbawn formulates in a simple question: 'Is there still room for the greatest of all hopes, that of creating a world in which free men and women, emancipated from fear and material need, will live the good life together in a good society?' (ibid). The answer Hobsbawm gives is brief and points to an enchanting optimism: 'Why not?' (ibid). And it's this hope, this yearning for alternatives, which the twenty-first century left needs to harness. The task of rebuilding the world cannot be left to the resurgent right, who slither across the globe hissing an age-old brand of fear and loathing. No, it must be the left, and they must deliver a message of unity and hope. The dream of a socialist future was one that Hobsbawm never gave up. And neither should we, as the current alternatives are too dreadful to contemplate.