Hobsbawm – The Age of Capital

Eric Hobsbawm’s The Age of Capital is the second book in series that survey European and world history during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  The Age of Capital examines the years 1848 – 1875 and is a work of synthesis.  Having read deeply and widely on economic and world history, Hobsbawm’s study attempts to understand the era in its entirety and incorporates a wide body of literature into a coherent narrative.  Because of its nature, this book is based entirely on secondary sources but this does not make the study less valuable.  Historians can produce hundreds of monographs concerning a particular era but at some point they must step back and understand the period as a continuous and cognizant whole.  Though some issues are glossed over such as the founding of the British Raj, the Italian and German wars of unification, and the Crimean War, Hobsbawm is still able to create an encompassing narrative that successfully depicts the economic and world developments of the period. 

            Hobsbawm’s main argument is that this period witnessed a massive advance in the world economy, in industrial capitalism, in the social order it represented, and in the ideas and beliefs which seemed to legitimize it – science, progress and liberalism.  The study is divided thematically with a prelude focusing on the Revolutions of 1848, part one examining the social, economic, and political developments of the time, and part two exploring the results of these developments.  According to Hobsbawm, who is an affirmed Marxist, 1848 sets the tone for this period and it is primarily the failure of the revolutions that enable capitalism’s advancement.  Hobsbawm understands the revolutions as heterogeneous with each nation desiring a different political outcome; however, he also suggests that the revolutionaries throughout Europe consisted of the laboring poor whose demands frightened the liberals and the moderates into negotiations and agreements with the old regimes.  Thus, for the author, 1848 failed because the confrontation was not between old regimes and progress but between order and social revolution and the liberal moderates preferred order.   

            With the revolutions failure, the old regimes aimed to placate the moderate liberals through economic, legal, and cultural reforms which ended the revolutionary motives of the bourgeoisie.  The liberals then used these reforms to create private enterprises and industries; furthermore, with advancements in technology, especially steam power, and the construction of the railroads, the entire globe became part of the capitalist economy.  The results of the capitalist period were wide and far reaching as agricultural land became incorporated into the world economy and technology and science increased yields and the ability to transport food worldwide.  Steamships and railroads allowed men and women to relocate across the globe to locate better opportunities particularly to the vast openness of the United States. 

            The final chapters of the text explore the cultural developments of the era with a comparison between the lifestyles of the bourgeoisie and the emerging working class.  Here Hobsbawm decries the emergence of the overcrowded cities with filthy streets and the neglect of the industrialist as they focused on building grander office buildings.  He further elaborates by describing the typical bourgeois home full of artifacts and comforts from around the world, the gender relationships within a bourgeois household, and the liberal politics of the of this class.  The final chapter examines the developments in religion, science, and the arts and focuses on social Darwinism, eugenics, and religion as tools for the bourgeoisie to achieve their capitalist objectives.  Hobsbawm concludes by contending that the age of capital ended in 1875 in the midst of an economic slump and that what emerged after the slump was a very different form of capitalism.  It would be a period of government interference, massive corporations, and imperial competition that focused on satisfying the consumer economy. 

            Hobsbawm’s interpretation of this period is enlightening and demonstrates his talents as a historian; however, there are some faults.  First, his labeling of 1848 as failure and then suggesting it fundamentally changed European politics is contradictory.  If the changes created by 1848 were “profound” and “marked the end . . . of the politics of tradition, of the monarchies, . . . and of the beliefs in patriarchal rights” why are they failures? (24) The idea that politics and society were different than before seems to suggest that the 1848 revolutionaries did accomplish a change in society.  The monarchies greatly feared the revolutionary periods and did grant some reforms in order to placate the upper echelons of society, and though little changed for those in lower classes of society, the masses were now more politicized than before revealing that 1848 did create change just not the social revolution that Hobsbawn desires. 

            Furthermore, while the Marxist interpretation of history in no way invalidates his study, the author’s consistent injection of how Marx understood an event or would have interpreted a certain situation does at times hinder the study.  This is particularly evident in the section on science, religion, and ideology when Hobsbawn constantly compares certain intellectuals’ ideas with those of Marx.  For example, when speaking of development of science during the period the author concludes that science remained too attached to natural laws and that only “revolutionary thinkers like Marx found it easy to conceive of situations in which, 2 + 2 no longer equaled 4 but equal something else.” (259)  These Marxist interjections also suggest that the author’s interpretation is teleological – that everything is leading up to the Russian Revolution of 1917.  This is particularly evident in the author’s statement that by the 1860s “a Russian Revolution became not merely a possibility, but a probability, even a certainty.” (157)

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