Downhill All the Way

The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914–1991

by Eric Hobsbawm
Pantheon, 627 pp., $30.00

Among historians in the English-speaking world there is a discernible “Hobsbawm generation.” It consists of men and women who took up the study of the past at some point in the “long nineteen-sixties,” between, say, 1959 and 1975, and whose interest in the recent past was irrevocably shaped by Eric Hobsbawm’s writings, however much they now dissent from many of his conclusions. In those years he published a quite astonishing body of influential work: Primitive Rebels, which first appeared in 1959, introduced young urban students to a world of rural protest in Europe and overseas that has now become much more familiar to us, in large measure thanks to the work of scholars whose imaginations were first fired by Hobsbawm’s little book. Labouring Men, Industry and Empire and Captain Swing (with George Rude) substantially recast the economic history of Britain and the story of the British labor movement; they brought back to scholarly attention a half-buried tradition of British radical historiography, reinvigorating research into the conditions and experiences of the artisans and workers themselves, but bringing to this engaged concern an unprecedented level of technical sophistication and a rare breadth of knowledge.

If the conclusions and interpretations of these books seem conventional today, that is only because it is difficult now to remember what their subject matter looked like before Hobsbawm made it his own. No amount of revisionist sniping or fashionable amendment can detract from the lasting impact of this body of work.

But Hobsbawm’s most enduring imprint on our historical consciousness has come through his great trilogy on the “long nineteenth century,” from 1789 to 1914, the first volume of which, The Age of Revolution, 1789–1848, appeared in 1962. It is hard to assess the influence of that book precisely because it has become so indelibly part of our sense of the period that all subsequent work either unconsciously incorporates it or else works against it. Its overall scheme, interpreting the era as one of social upheaval dominated by the emergence and rise to influence of the bourgeoisie of northwest Europe, eventually became the “conventional” interpretation, now exposed to steady criticism and revision. It was followed in 1975 by The Age of Capital, a masterly survey of the middle years of the last century that drew on a remarkable range of material and depth of understanding. That book remains, in my view, Hobsbawm’s single greatest work, drawing together the many mid-Victorian transformations of the world and framing them in a unified and still forceful historical narrative. In The Age of Empire, which appeared twelve years later, there was an unmistakable elegiac air, as though the leading historian of the last century were somehow sorry to see it come to a close at his hands. The overall impression is of an era of protean change, where a high price was paid for the rapid accumulation of wealth and knowledge; but an era, nonetheless, that was full of promise and of optimistic visions of radiant …

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