• Email
  • Print

Goodbye to All That

The Age of Empire: 1875–-1914

by E.J. Hobsbawm
Pantheon, 404 pp., $22.95

In May 1898 the British prime minister, Lord Salisbury, in a powerful and somber speech to the annual meeting of the Conservative Primrose League, divided the nations of the world into the living and the dying: “On the one hand you have great countries of enormous power growing in power every year, growing in wealth, growing in dominion, growing in the perfection of their organization.” In the dying nations, on the other hand, “disorganization and decay are advancing almost as fast as concentration and increasing power are advancing in the living nations that stand beside them.” And he went on to draw the conclusion:

For one reason or another—from the necessities of politics or under the pretence of philanthropy—the living nations will gradually encroach on the territory of the dying, and the seeds and causes of conflict among civilized nations will speedily appear.

Salisbury had in mind particularly the Chinese and Ottoman empires; and indeed the European Great Powers were already making plans for the partition of these dilapidated structures. But even more attractive to governments wanting to show the virility expected of “living” nations was Africa—the unknown continent, widely believed to offer rich rewards in raw materials, new fields of investment, and new markets, and waiting only for the benefits of European rule brought by imperialists convinced of their “civilizing mission” to make its contributions to the prosperity of the developed world. The period from 1875 to 1914, which is the subject of the latest volume in Eric Hobsbawm’s nineteenth-century trilogy1—one of the great achievements of historical writing in recent decades—saw the proportion of the world under European rule increase by more than 80 percent. It was an age when, to a greater extent than ever before, Europe was the center of a world on which it left an indelible imprint.

It is this dominance that justifies Professor Hobsbawm’s concentration on Europe and those parts of the world that followed the European pattern. Colonial rivalries were drawing a new map of Africa, but the boundaries were established to suit the administrative, economic, and strategic interests of the colonizing powers, and it was these boundaries that were to become the frontiers of independent states in the mid-twentieth century, even if they did not correspond to the historic or ethnic divisions of precolonial times. As yet the European ideas that inspired the nationalist leaders who were to create the new independent states were confined to a small elite, while European technology, except when it provided the military means for maintaining European rule, was only just beginning to impinge on the native inhabitants of most of the colonies.

The great mass of the colonial populations,” Hobsbawm writes, “hardly changed their ways of life if they could help it.” One sometimes feels, indeed, that for Professor Hobsbawm the inarticulate have no history, or at least not one that is relevant to his analysis. As he writes of women in the European countryside, “They were not outside history, but they were outside the history of nineteenth-century society,” because their way of life had not changed for centuries. Or again,

Insofar as a conscious working class, which found expression in its movement and party, was emerging in this period, the pre-industrial plebs were drawn into its sphere of influence. And insofar as they were not, they must be left out of history, because they were not its makers but its victims.

This state of affairs was not to last for long: the forces for change were already there, and more and more people were determined not to be left out of history. In Europe the spread of education (it was, in Hobsbawm’s words, “the age of the primary school”), the growth of a new awareness of women’s rights, at least among the middle classes, a fall in the birth rate all encouraged the hope that something could be done to enable children to have a better chance in life than had been available to their parents. Such chances were made possible by a new mobility that enabled people to move to the rapidly growing cities or to travel, on a scale never seen before, to a new world to seek their fortunes. Choices were open more widely than ever before, so that those to whom they still remained closed began to demand that they be opened as they came to realize what they themselves lacked.

The most striking form this took, and the one that worried the ruling classes most, was the emergence of a new organized working-class movement. In fact, as Hobsbawm points out in a chapter called “Workers of the World,” the revolution, however much dreaded by governments, was no longer a possibility in the advanced industrial countries of the West. Capitalism, so far from being about to collapse from its own contradictions, seemed stronger than ever. Marx, for his part, had taught that the proletariat was not only no longer outside history but was destined for a triumphant historical role. However, for most of the socialist parties of Europe, Marxism was no longer a doctrine involving immediate violent revolution. It was, as Hobsbawm says, characteristic that even in Germany, where the Social Democratic party was avowedly Marxist and was the most important socialist party in the world, “the Communist Manifesto…was published in editions of a mere 2000–3000 copies and the most important ideological work in workers’ libraries was one whose title is self-explanatory: Darwin versus Moses.”

It was not in the industrialized countries that revolution was a practical possibility but rather in those countries that formed “a vast semi-circular belt of poverty and unrest…[which] stretched from Spain, through large parts of Italy, via the Balkan peninsula into the Russian Empire.” Here, Hobsbawm adds, Marxism retained its original explosive connotations, and “returned to the west as well as expanding into the east as the quintessential ideology of social revolution.” It was in countries on the margin of, or outside, bourgeois Europe that the threat to the European order was to come; and Hobsbawm provides some reflections on the form this revolution might take in his chapter called “Towards Revolution,” in which he discusses what was happening in China, the Ottoman Empire, Persia, and Mexico.

Yet, if most socialists, however convinced of the need for an end to the capitalist system and its replacement by a new collectivist economy, were for the moment content to work for immediate improvements within the system and to organize their own cultural and social activities—including such bodies as the Austrian Workers’ Funeral Association, with its motto, “A proletarian life, a proletarian death and cremation in the spirit of cultural progress”—why were governments so obsessed with the socialist threat? Why was the fear of revolution so great that it inspired many government policies, especially in Germany, where the promulgation of a new strident nationalism seemed to be one way of masking the rift between rich and poor and creating a united nation?

During the period before 1870 the bourgeois had been haunted by the fear of losing his money. Now, in the decades before 1914, the fears went deeper. “There were years when wisps of violence hung in the air over the Ritz hotels and country houses.” Did this anxiety arise from violent strikes by increasingly powerful trade unions or the assassination of royal personages by individual anarchists; or was it due to something deeper? For the most part, it was no doubt true, as Hobsbawm claims, that the ruling classes were “worried about the future but not really frightened about the present”; but the worries were there all the same.

One of the main themes of The Age of Empire is the way in which “the world of bourgeois liberalism” was a “victim of the very contradictions inherent in its advance.” Hobsbawm lists a number of changes in the world economy that were altering fundamentally the nature of capitalist society. The network of interacting economic interests was more widely spread geographically than ever before: the scale of enterprises was growing, and so there was increasing antagonism between “big business” and small businesses, between the Grossindustriellen and their lesser competitors. Technological changes were creating a totally new setting both for economic production and for daily life in a world in which the market for consumer goods was growing continuously. Moreover it was a world in which the state was playing a greater part in the economy and the financial system, on a scale that would have seemed startling fifty years earlier; and this in turn was contributing to the emergence of a new class of bureaucrats, managers, and technicians. Perhaps Max Weber, with his insistence on the importance of bureaucracy, was to prove a better prophet than Karl Marx. Even without the First World War, the world in the later twentieth century was going to be very different from that of the nineteenth.

European and American society was changing profoundly just at a moment when governments were apparently increasing their commitment to the liberal and democratic goals of the previous generation, or if they weren’t, they were under strong pressure to do so. Even the most autocratic states seemed to be moving in a liberal direction with a parliament in czarist Russia, universal suffrage in the Austrian half of the Hapsburg monarchy, a new westernizing regime in the Ottoman Empire, and so on. But, Eric Hobsbawm asks, “was not the stability of this marriage between political democracy and a flourishing capitalism the illusion of a passing era?” And indeed by 1900 there were influential voices asking similar questions. Nietzsche and Barrès were replacing Spencer and Taine as the intellectual spokesmen of a new and changing Weltanschauung: positivist faith in science was giving way to a cult of the irrational. And in this crisis of bourgeois society, as Hobsbawm calls it, the history of the arts seems a crucial indicator.

Or is it? It is certainly true, as has been repeatedly pointed out, that in the first decade of this century the visual arts in Europe were undergoing their greatest revolution since the Renaissance, while in music the certainties of the old tonal system were dissolving and composers were looking for new ways out of a tradition whose possibilities seemed to some of them to have been exhausted. Yet it is by no means clear how one can relate all this to such phenomena as the growth of industrial cartels and the growth of socialist parties. At the same time, as Hobsbawm shows in an admirably lucid chapter, the certainties of the natural sciences were also being undermined and a new way of looking at the universe was developing.

We are inevitably tempted to link all these new ideas and concepts with one another, but it is extremely hard to say just what the links are. Eric Hobsbawm puts it like this:

It may be pure accident or arbitrary selection that Planck’s quantum theory, the rediscovery of Mendel, Husserl’s Logische Untersuchungen, Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams and Cézanne’s Still Life with Onions can all be dated 1900—it would be equally possible to open the new century with Ostwald’s Inorganic Chemistry, Puccini’s Tosca, Colette’s first ‘Claudine’ novel and Rostand’s L’Aiglon—but the coincidence of dramatic innovation in several fields remains striking.

All these innovations were the result of an attempt to deal with the contradictions resulting from the progress of the previous decades. There was a feeling that in the arts “the conventional language…based on historical tradition, was somehow inappropriate or inadequate for the modern world.” And something similar was happening in the sciences, where the changes were part of the “general process of expectations transformed and reversed, which is found at this time wherever men and women, in public or private capacities, confronted the present and compared it with their own or their parents’ expectations.”

These reflections lead on to another paradox that Hobsbawm is not entirely successful in resolving. Both in science and in the arts, these new developments were only affecting a small minority as well as being limited to a few European centers. Only later in the century, in a distorted and vulgarized form, did the scientific discoveries of its first decade begin to be widely known in a world in which theories that few understood were leading to technological changes affecting everybody:

In 1914 the name of Einstein was hardly a household word outside the great physicist’s own household…. Within a few years of the First World War Einstein, in spite of the total impenetrability of his theory for most laymen, had become perhaps the only scientist since Darwin whose name and image were generally recognized among the educated lay public all over the world.

In looking at the problem of the gap between the elite and the masses, Hobsbawm follows a different line of argument in the case of the arts. Avantgarde art was just as incomprehensible to the masses as advanced scientific theory; but its practitioners

belonged to each other, to argumentative groups of the dissident young in the cafés of suitable city quarters, to the critics and drafters of manifestos for new “isms”…to little magazines and to a few impresarios and collectors with flair and a taste for new works and their creators…. They were taken up by a section of high fashion. That is all.

Even the most famous artist of this century is denied a wide influence:

Pablo Picasso…a man of extraordinary genius and vast productivity, is mainly admired as a phenomenon rather than (except for a handful of paintings mainly from his pre-Cubist period) for the depth of impact, or even our simple enjoyment of his works.

I’m sorry that Professor Hobsbawm does not enjoy Picasso; but in any case this judgment underestimates both the popularity of Picasso as shown by the numbers of people who have crowded to exhibitions of his work from Tokyo to New York, London, and Paris, and the extent to which the images invented by Picasso and his Cubist colleagues at the beginning of the century have been absorbed, exploited, and disseminated in the public art—posters, advertisements, buildings, and much else—of our own time.

Hobsbawm, although he admits that it is “unwise to exaggerate the divergence between public and creative artists in high bourgeois culture,” nevertheless feels that the avant-garde and high bourgeois culture are the cultures of a minority. He thus sees as the most important development in twentieth-century culture the conquest of the world by what he calls “the plebeian arts.” (One can’t help recalling that Eric Hobsbawm has been himself an eminent critic of jazz.) The new industrialized entertainment is best exemplified by the movies. Not only was the gap between the culture of the masses and that of the elite widening, but also the cinema was “the first art which could not have existed except in the industrial society of the twentieth century.” Moreover the extraordinarily rapid success of the cinema was already before 1914 illustrating some of the changes that were splitting open the old nineteenth-century bourgeois world. The movie millionaires created the center of the new industry in Hollywood and so inauguarted the first stage of the American era in world culture. “Hollywood was based on the junction between nickelodeon populism and the culturally and morally rewarding drama and sentiment expected by the equally large mass of middle Americans.” And if by the 1920s the European cinema was producing some films that could undoubtedly claim to be works of high art, Hollywood, Hobsbawm maintains, had an artistically negligible message. The same, he adds, was not true of its ideological content: “If hardly anyone recalls the great mass of B-movies, their values were to be decanted into American high policy in the late twentieth century.”

Eric Hobsbawm has written a book full of vivid and challenging judgments and also full of fascinating and recondite information. (How many of his readers will have known about the strike of “the ultra-pious Chassidic weavers of ritual Jewish prayer-shawls in a lost corner of Galicia”?) The book is also a splendid answer to those critics who complain that academic historians no longer write readable prose. Hobsbawm is known as a “Marxist historian,” and has been attacked as such. In this book as in the two earlier volumes of the trilogy, the Marxism is of a highly sophisticated kind and indeed exhibits itself mainly in the scale, range, and sweep of the narrative and the sense of dialectical contradictions as the basis for historical change. It is far from being narrow or doctrinaire. For example, Hobsbawm gives a succinct and balanced account of Marxist theories of imperialism and the numerous criticisms of them; and when he comes to the conclusion that, for instance, “whatever the ideology, the motive for the Boer War was gold” and that “politics and economics cannot be separated in a capitalist society, any more than religion and society in an Islamic one,” I suspect few non-Marxists will disagree. Sometimes the word “bourgeois” is used as shorthand for several different meanings, and Hobsbawm perhaps underestimates the extent (overestimated in Arno J. Mayer’s The Persistence of the Old Regime2 ) to which the bourgeoisie accepted and emulated the values of the old landed aristocracy, enabling the latter, especially perhaps in England, to retain much of their old hegemony.

The great strength of this book is the way in which what seems in so many ways a wholly vanished epoch is related to our situation today. There is, Hobsbawm writes, “a twilight zone between history and memory; between the past as a generalized record which is open to relatively dispassionate inspection and the past as a remembered part of the background to one’s own life.” This “noman’s land of time” is hard for us to grasp; and even if the number of people who, like the author and reviewer of this book, were born during the First World War and whose parents grew up in the heyday of the Age of Empire is growing smaller, the society in which we live is still largely one made by “men and women who grew up in the period with which this volume deals, or in its immediate shadow.” And so the historian of such a period brings to his study a whole range of childhood memories, personal experience, and family traditions, all of which color his view of the recent past and which have to be combined with the objective study of a great number and variety of historical sources. History, it has often been said, is like psychoanalysis: it is by analyzing and interpreting past experience that societies are enabled to understand the contradictions of their past and to come to terms with the complexities of their present. In this sense Eric Hobsbawm is a Freudian as much as he is a Marxist.

  1. 1

    The earlier volumes are The Age of Revolution (1962) and The Age of Capital (1975).

  2. 2

    Pantheon, 1981.

  • Email
  • Print