Reflections on The Age of Empire: 1875 to 1914 by Eric Hobsbawm (1987)

Critique of Hobsbawm’s Marxisant approach

In the third of his mighty trilogy of histories of the long nineteenth century, The Age of Empire: 1875 to 1914, as in its two predecessors, Hobsbawm makes no attempt to hide his strongly Marxist point of view. Every page shouts his contempt for the era’s ‘bourgeois’ men of business, its ‘capitalists’ and bankers, the despicable ‘liberal’ thinkers of the period and so on. From time to time his contempt for the bourgeoisie rises to the level of actual abuse.

The most that can be said of American capitalists is that some of them earned money so fast and in such astronomic quantities that they were forcibly brought up against the fact that mere accumulation in itself is not an adequate aim in life for human beings, even bourgeois ones. (p.186)

Replace that final phrase with ‘even Jewish ones’ or ‘even Muslim ones’ or ‘even black ones’ to get the full sense of how deliberately insulting it is intended to be and how unacceptable his invective would be if applied to any other group of people.

Hobsbawm loses no opportunity to quote Marx (who died in 1883, saddened by the failure of his communist millennium to arrive) or Lenin’s views on late capitalism and imperialism (Lenin published his first political work in 1893), and he loses absolutely no opportunity to say ‘bourgeoisie bourgeoisie bourgeoisie’ scores of times on every page till the reader is sick of the sight of the word.

Hobsbawm’s highly partisan and politicised approach has strengths and weaknesses.

Hobsbawm’s strengths

On the up side, using very simplistic binary oppositions like ‘the developed world’ and ‘the undeveloped world’, the ‘bourgeoisie’ and the ‘proletariat’, helps him to make great sweeping generalisations which give you the impression you are gaining secret access to the engine room of history. If you ignore the complexity of the histories and very different cultures of individual nations such as America, Britain, France and Germany, and lump them altogether as ‘the West’, then you can bring out the broad-brush historical and economic developments of the era, grouping together all the developments in science, chemistry, physics, technology, industry and consumer products into great blocks, into titanic trends and developments.

This gives the reader a tremendously powerful sense of bestriding the world, taking part in global trends and huge international developments. Just as in The Age of Capitalism, the first half or so of the book is thrilling. It makes you feel like you understand for the first time the titanic historical forces directing world history, and it’s this combination of factual (there are lots of facts and figures about industrial production) and imaginative excitement which garnered the trilogy so many positive reviews.

Hobsbawm’s obsession with capitalism’s contradictions

Hobsbawm makes obeisance to the Marxist convention that ‘bourgeois’ ideology was riddled with ‘contradictions’. The most obvious one was the contradiction between the wish of national politicians to define and delimit their nations and the desire of ‘bourgeois’ businessmen to ignore all boundaries and trade and invest wherever they wanted around the globe (p.40).

Another ‘contradiction’ was the way the spread of ‘Western ideology’ i.e. education and values, to developing countries, or at least to the elites within European colonies, often led to the creation of the very Western-educated elites who then helped to overthrow it (he gives the London-trained lawyer Gandhi as the classic example, p.77, though he could as easily have mentioned Jawaharlal Nehru, educated at Cambridge, trained at London’s Inner Temple as a barrister).

Another ‘contradiction’ was the between the way the mid-century ‘bourgeois’ industrial and economic triumph rested on a mechanical view of the universe, the mechanical laws of physics and heat and chemistry underpinning the great technological advances of the later nineteenth century. Hobsbawm then delights in the way that, at the end of the century, this entire mechanistic worldview was overturned in a welter of discoveries, including Einstein’s theory of relativity, the problematic nature of the sub-atomic world which gave rise to quantum physics, and deep discoveries about the bewildering non-rational basis of mathematics.

These are just some of the developments Hobsbawm defines as ‘contradictions’ with the aim of proving that Marx’s predictions that capitalism contained within itself deep structural contradictions which would undermine it and lead inevitably to its downfall.

Why Hobsbawm was wrong

Except that Marx was wrong and Hobsbawm is wrong. His continual mentioning Marx, quoting Lenin, harking back to the high hopes of the revolutionaries of 1848, invoking the memory of the Commune (redefined, in good Marxist style, as a heroic rising of the downtrodden working classes, rather than the internecine bloodbath that it actually was), his continual harking forward to the Bolshevik revolution as somehow the climax of all the trends he describes, his insistence that we, he and his readers, all now (in the mid-1980s when he wrote this book) still live in the forbidding shadow of the Russian revolution, still haunted by the spectre of communist revolution — every aspect of his attitude and approach now seems dated and irrelevant.

Now, in 2021, it is 30 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellites revealed:

  1. Their complete failure to build an economic and social system which could be a serious alternative to ‘capitalism’.
  2. The extraordinary extent to which communist regimes had to surveil, monitor and police every aspect of their populations’ behaviour, speech and thoughts, in order to prevent them relapsing into the ways of human nature – the prison camps, the psychiatric wards, the secret police. Look at China today, with its censorship of the internet and its hounding of dissidents, its suppression of Falun Gong and the Muslim Uighurs of Xinjiang.

Seen from our contemporary perspective, Hobsbawm tendentious habit of naming every clash in policies, every development in cultural thinking as some kind of seismic ‘contradiction’ which will bring global capitalism tumbling down, looks like what it is, a biased obeisance to Marxist ideas which have long ago proved to be untrue.

The misleading use of terms like ‘bourgeois’

To some extent his attitude is based on one particular logical or rhetorical trick which can be proved to be false.

In the later chapters of the book, about the arts, the hard and social sciences, Hobsbawm repeatedly claims that this or that aspect of ‘bourgeois ideology’ of the mid-nineteenth century came under strain, suffered insoluble contradictions, underwent a crisis, and collapsed.

I think this is the crux of the massive mistake he makes. It consists of several steps:

  1. identifying every element of mid-nineteenth century political and cultural theory as some universal thing called ‘bourgeois’
  2. identifying this ‘bourgeoisie’ as the central and necessary figure of the capitalist system
  3. and then claiming that, because in the last few decades of the nineteenth century this ‘bourgeois’ ideology came under strain and in many ways collapsed, that therefore this shows that capitalism itself, as a system, must come under strain caused by its internal contradictions and therefore must collapse

Surely anyone can see the logical error here. All you have to do is stop insistently repeating that mid-nineteenth century ideology was identical with some timeless ‘bourgeois’ ideology which necessarily and uniquely underpins all capitalism, and simply relabel it ‘mid-nineteenth century ideology’, and then all your sentences stop being so apocalyptic.

Instead of saying ‘bourgeois ideology was stricken by crisis’ as if The Great Revolution is at hand, all you need say is ‘mid-nineteenth century political and social beliefs underwent a period of rapid change at the end of the century’ and the portentous sense of impending doom hovering over the entire system vanishes in a puff of smoke – and you are left just describing a fairly banal historical process, namely that society’s ideas and beliefs change over time, sometimes in abrupt reversals resulting from new discoveries, sometimes as slow evolutionary adaptations to changing social circumstances.

Put another way, Hobsbawm identifies mid-nineteenth century liberal ideology as if it is the one and only shape capitalist thinking can possibly take and so excitedly proclaims that, by the end of the century, because mid-nineteenth century ‘bourgeois’ beliefs were quite visibly fraying and collapsing, therefore capitalism would collapse too.

But quite obviously the ‘capitalist system’ has survived all the ‘contradictions’ and ‘crises’ Hobsbawm attributes to it and many more. It is still going strong, very strong, well over a century after the period which Hobsbawm is describing and when, he implies, it was all but on its last knees.

In fact the basic idea of manufacturing products cheap and selling them for as much profit as you can, screwing the workers who make them and keeping the profits to a) enjoy yourself or b) invest in other business ventures, is probably more widespread than ever before in human history, seeing how it’s been taken up so enthusiastically in post-communist Russia but especially across hyper-modernising China.

In other words, Hobsbawm’s use of Marxist terms like ‘bourgeois’ and ‘proletarian’ may have a certain explanatory power for the era he’s describing, but after a certain point they are too simplistic and don’t describe or analyse the actual complexity of even one of the societies he describes, let alone the entire world.

At some point (which you can almost measure in Hobsbawm’s texts) they cease to be explanatory and become obfuscatory, hiding the differences which separate America, Britain and Germany much more than unite them. Use of the terms simply indicate that you have entered a certain worldview.

Imagine a Christian historian identifying mid-nineteenth century ideology as the one and only expression of ‘Christian’ ideology, an ideology which divided the population into ‘believers’ and ‘unbelievers’, into the ‘saved’ and the ‘damned’. Imagine this historian went on to describe how the widespread ‘crisis’ in Christian belief at the end of the century indicated that the entire world was passing out of the phase of Christian belief and into infidel unbelief.

If you read something like that you would immediately know you are inside the particular worldview of an author, something which clearly means a lot to them, might shed light on some aspects of the period – for example trends in religious belief – but which in no way is the interpretation of world history.

a) Plenty of other interpretations are available, and b) despite the widespread laments that Christianity was dying out in the later nineteenth century, contrary to all their pessimism, Christianity now has more adherents worldwide than ever before in human history. And ditto capitalism.

The dominance of the key terms Hobsbawm deploys with such monotonous obsessiveness (capitalism, bourgeoisie, proletariat, liberal ideology) don’t prove anything except that you have entered the worldview of a particular author.

The system with the real contradictions, contradictions between a) its utopian claims for equality and the reality of a hierarchical society which privileged party membership, b) between its promises to outproduce the West and the reality of permanent shortages of consumer goods and even food, c) between its rhetoric of ‘freedom’ and the reality of the harsh repression of any kind of political or artistic unorthodoxy – was communism, whose last pitiful remnants lie rusting in a thousand statue parks across Russia and Eastern Europe.

The fundamental sleight of hand in Hobsbawm’s argument

Because Hobsbawm identifies the mid-nineteenth century worldview with the ‘bourgeoisie’ and the ‘bourgeoisie’ as the indispensable foundation of ‘capitalism’, he tries to pull off the conjuring trick of claiming that, since the mid-nineteenth century worldview drastically changed in all kinds of ways in the last decade of the century, these change invalidate the ‘bourgeoisie’, and that this, in turn, invalidates ‘capitalism’. Proves it is wrong and doomed to collapse.

You can see how this is just a three-card trick which moves vague and indefinable words around on the table at speed to bamboozle the impressionable. For despite the trials and tribulations of the century of extremes which followed, ‘capitalism’ in various forms appears to have triumphed around almost the entire world, and the materialistic, conventional, liberal ‘bourgeoisie’ which Hobsbawm so despises… appears still to be very much with us, despite all Hobsbawm’s protestations about its terminal crises and death throes and contradictions and collapse.

Victimology tends to tyranny

To anyone familiar with the history of communist Russia, communist China and communist Eastern Europe, there is something unnerving and, eventually, worrying about Hobsbawm’s very broad-brush division of the entire world into victims and oppressors.

The first half of the twentieth century was the era of totalitarian governments seeking to gain total control over every aspect of their populations and mould them into better humans in a better society. The first thing all these regimes did was establish goodies and baddies, and rouse the population to be on perpetual guard against the enemy in whatever guise – ‘the bourgeoisie’, the ‘kulaks’, ‘capitalist roaders’, ‘reactionary elements’, ‘the Jews’, and so on.

Dividing the entire huge world and eight billion people into simple binaries like ‘oppressors’ and ‘victims’, ‘bourgeoisie’ and ‘workers’, ‘exploiters’ and ‘exploited’, ‘white’ masters and ‘black’ victims, is worryingly reminiscent of the simplistic, binary thinking which the twentieth century showed leads to genocides and mass killing.

Hobsbawm criticises the nationalist parties of the late-nineteenth century for dividing up populations into citizens and outsiders, members of the Volk or aliens, a process of which the Jews were notable victims. And yet he enacts the very same binary oppositioning, the same outsidering of a (large) group of society, by objectifying and insulting the ‘bourgeoisie’ at every opportunity.

It’s the same old mental slum: if only we could get rid of the gypsies / homos / lefties / commies / bourgeoisie / capitalists / Catholics / Protestants / Armenians / Jews / Croats / Serbs / Tutsis / Hutus / men / whites / blacks / immigrants / refugees, then society would be alright. I call it ‘If-only-ism’.

If capitalism and imperialism were inevitable, how can anyone be guilty?

In Age of Capital Hobsbawm describes how the industrial revolution amounted to a lucky fluke, a coming together of half a dozen circumstances (of which the most important was, in his view, Britain’s command of the waves and extensive trading network between colonies) and this helps you realise that some people were able to seize the opportunity and exploit it and become masters of small firms and then of factories etc. Clever, quick, resourceful or well-placed men leapt to take advantage of new opportunities. Any history of the industrial revolution names them and gives biographies of individuals central to the series of inventions or who then set up successful firms to exploit them.

However, the tendency of Hobsbawm’s very high-level Marxist approach, his sweeping surveys which pull together evidence from Austria, or France, from north Italy or New York, is, paradoxically, to remove all sense of agency from the humans involved. Hobsbawm makes it seem almost inevitable that the first industrial revolution (textiles) would give rise to a second (iron and coal) which in turn would give rise to a third (steel, organic chemistry, electrics, oil).

And he makes it seem inevitable that, once the world was fully mapped and explored, then the other ‘western powers’ which by 1890 had more or less caught up with Britain in terms of industrialisation, would join the competition to seize territories which contained valuable minerals or exotic produce (tea, coffee, bananas). That an acceleration of imperial rivalry was inevitable.

But if it had to pan out this way, how can you blame anyone? If, viewed from this lofty godlike perspective, it was inevitable that industrialisation broke out somewhere, that it would spread to all similar regions and states, that the now numerous industrial nations would find themselves in competition for the basic resources (food) and more arcane resources (rubber, oil, rare metals) required to drive the next stage of industrial development – can you blame them?

You could call it Hobsbawm’s paradox, or Hobsbawm’s Choice. The more inevitable you make the entire process sound, the less reason you have to be so cross at the ‘bourgeoisie’.

The reality is that you can, of course, hold the western nations accountable for their actions, but only if you descend to a lower level of historical discourse than Hobsbawm’s. Only if you begin to look at specific actions of specific governments and specific men in specific times and places an you begin to make assessments and apportion praise or blame.

Responsibility and guilt can’t really exist at the level Hobsbawm is operating on because he goes out of his way to avoid mentioning individuals (with only a few exceptions; Bismarck’s name crops up more than any other politician of the period) and instead emphasises that it all unfolded according to almost unavoidable historical laws, implicit in the logic of industrial development.

If humans couldn’t avoid it, then they can’t very well be blamed for it.

In light of Hobsbawm’s theory, is equality possible?

The same set of facts give rise to a parallel thought, which dogged me throughout reading this book, which is — if what Hobsbawm says is true, if industrial and technological developments tend to be restricted to just a handful of certain nations which have acquired the technology and capital resources to acquire ‘liftoff’ to industrialisation, and if, within those nations, the benefits of industrialisation accrue overwhelming to a small proportion of the population; and if this process is so stereotyped and inevitable and unstoppable — then, well… is it even possible to be fair? Is it possible to achieve anything like ‘equality’? Surely the entire trend of the history Hobsbawm describes with so much verve suggests not.

Putting aside the issue of fairness in one nation aside in order to adopt Hobsbawm’s global perspective, he often repeats the formula that countries in the ‘undeveloped’ or ‘developing’ or ‘Third World’ (whatever you want to call it) were forced by the demands of consumer capitalism or The Market to turn themselves into providers of raw materials or a handful of saleable commodities – after all, this was era which saw the birth of the banana republic. But, I thought as I ploughed through the book… what was the alternative?

Could undeveloped nations have turned their backs on ‘international capitalism’ and continued as agrarian peasant nations, or resisted the western imperative to become ‘nations’ at all and remained general territories ruled by congeries of local sheikhs or tribal elders or whatever?

At what stage would it have been possible to divert the general trend of colonial takeover of the developing world? How would it have happened? Which British leader would have stood up and said, ‘This is wrong; we renounce all our colonies and grant them independence today?’ in the1870s or 1880s or 1890s? What would have happened to the sub-continent or all those bits of Africa which Britain administered if Britain had simply packed up and left them in 1885?

As to all the wealth accumulating in Britain, among its sizeable cohort of ship-owners, traders, factory owners, bankers, stockbrokers and what not. On what basis would you have taken their wealth away, and how much? Half? All of it and shot them, as in Bolshevik Russia?

Having seized the wealth of the entire ‘bourgeoisie’, how would you then have redistributed it to the bedouin in the desert or the native peoples of Australia or the Amazon, to the workers on the rubber plantations, in the tin and gold mines, in the sugar fields, to squabbling tribes in central Africa? How could that have been done without a vast centralised redistribution system? Without, in fact, precisely the centralising, bureaucratic tendencies of the very capitalist system Hobsbawm was criticising?

And who would administer such a thing? Having worked in the civil service for over a decade I can tell you it would take hordes of consultants, program managers, project managers and so on, who would probably be recruited from the host country and make a packet out of the process?

And when was all this meant to happen? When, would you say, the awareness of the wrongs of the empire, or the wrongs done to the ‘undeveloped world’ became widespread enough to allow such policies to be enacted in a democracy where the government has to persuade the majority of the people to go along with its policies? In the 1860s, 70s, 80s?

Live Aid was held in 1985, just as Hobsbawm was writing this book, and which I imagine brought the issue of Third World poverty and famine to the attention of even the dimmest members of the population. But did that global event abolish poverty, did it end inequality and injustice in in the Third World? No, otherwise there would have been no need for the Live 8 concerts and related charity efforts 30 years later, in 2005. Or the ongoing efforts of all the industrialised nations to send hundreds of millions of dollars of support to the Third World every year (hence the furore surrounding the UK government cutting back on its foreign aid budget this year.) Not to mention the continuous work of thousands of charities all across the ‘developing world’.

When you look at the scale of activity and the amounts of money which have been sent to developing countries since the Second World War, it makes you wonder how much would be enough? Should every citizen of every industrialised nation give, say, half their annual earnings to people in the Third World? To which people? In which countries? To India, which has invested tens of billions in a space program? To China, which is carrying out semi-genocidal policy of incarceration and mass sterilisation in its Xinjiang province? Do we need to take money from the British public to give it to Narendra Modi or Xi Jinping? Who would manage that redistribution program, for whatever civil servants and consultants you hired to make it work would earn much, much more than the recipients of the aid.

Student excitement, adult disillusion with Hobsbawm

When I was a student, reading this trilogy educated me about the broad industrial, economic and social forces which created and drove forward the industrial revolution in the Western world throughout the nineteenth century, doing so in thrilling style, and for that I am very grateful. Hobsbawm’s books highlighted the way that, through the 1850s and 1860s, capitalism created an ever-richer class of ‘owners’ set against a rapidly growing number of impoverished workers; how the industrial and financial techniques pioneered in Britain spread to other Western nations; how the industrial system evolved in the 1880s and 1890s into a) a booming consumer society in the West and b) the consolidation of a system of colonial exploitation around the world.

I had never had the broad trends of history explained so clearly and powerfully and excitingly. It was a memorable experience.

But rereading the books 40 years later, I am now painfully aware that the simplistic Marxist concepts Hobsbawm uses to analyse his period may certainly help to elucidate it, but at the same time highlight their own ineffectiveness.

The confidence that a mass working class movement which will rise up to overthrow the inequalities of the West and liberate the developing world, that this great liberation is just around the corner – which is implicit in his numerous references to 1848 and Marx and the Commune and Lenin – and that all it needs is a few more books and pamphlets to spark it off….goes beyond boring to become sad. Although the historical facts he describes remain as relevant as ever, the entire ideology the books are drenched in feels terribly out of date.

Democracy not the blessing it is cracked up to be

In chapter 4 Hobsbawm discusses the politics of democracy. Throughout he takes it for granted that extending the franchise to all adults would result in the revolutionary change he supports. He starts his discussion by referencing the powerful German Social Democratic Party (founded back in 1863) and the British Labour Party (founded in 1900) and their campaigns for universal suffrage, as if giving the vote to ‘the working class’ would immediately lead to a social revolution, the end of inequality and exploitation.

Only in the chapters that follow does he slowly concede that new mass electorates also helped to create new mass, populist parties and that many of these catered not to the left at all, but to right-wing nationalist ideas of blood and Volk. For example, the notorious Karl Luger, mayor of Vienna from 1897 to 1910, whose Christian Social Party espoused populist and antisemitic politics which are sometimes viewed as a model for Adolf Hitler’s Nazism.

In fact it had already been shown that universal male suffrage not only didn’t lead to socialist revolution but the exact opposite, when, in the aftermath of the 1848 revolution which overthrew the French monarchy, the French granted universal male suffrage and held a presidential election in which the opera bouffe candidate, Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, promptly won with 74% of the entire male adult vote, and then went on to win the plebiscite held after his 1851 anti-leftist coup with 76%.

So any educated person knew in the 1850s that extending the franchise did not, in and of itself, lead to red revolution. Often the opposite. (This is a point picked up in Richard Shannon’s book The Crisis of Imperialism 1865 to 1915 which quotes umpteen later Victorian politicians and commentators arguing against extending the franchise precisely because they’d seen what it led to in France, namely the election of a repressive, right wing autocrat.)

Hobsbawm’s excited description of the way the ‘scary’ working class were ‘threatening’ bourgeois hegemony, were on the brink of ‘seizing power’ and righting the world’s wrongs, underplays the extent to which universal suffrage led:

  1. directly to the rise of populist nationalist anti-left wing governments
  2. and to the fragmentation of the left into ‘reformists’, prepared to compromise their radical principles and ally with liberal parties in order to get into parliament, and the die-hards who held out for radical social change

In other words, extending the franchise led to the exact opposite of what Hobsbawm hopes. Something borne out after the Great War, when the franchise was drastically extended to almost all adults in most European countries and the majority of European governments promptly became either right-wing or out-and-out dictatorships. Mussolini won the 1924 Italian general election; Hitler won the largest share of the vote in the Weimar Republic’s last election. Or Hungary:

In January 1920, Hungarian men and women cast the first secret ballots in the country’s political history and elected a large counterrevolutionary and agrarian majority to a unicameral parliament. (Wikipedia)

Switching from Hobsbawm altogether to the present day, 2021, any reader of the English left-liberal English press must be struck how, since the Brexit vote, it has stopped being a taboo subject to suggest that quite possibly a large proportion of the British electorate is thick and uneducated (terms you frequently meet in the Guardian newspaper). You can nowadays read plenty of ‘progressive’ commentators pointing out that the great British electorate was persuaded, in voting for Brexit (2016) and Boris (2019), to vote for populist right-wing demagoguery and against their own best interests as working people. I have read so many commentators pointing out that it is the very conservative working class communities who voted for Brexit who are most likely going to suffer the prolonged consequences of economic dislocation and decline.

In other words, right now in 2021, you can read representatives of the left openly stating that universal franchise, one person one vote, not only doesn’t lead to the socialist paradise Hobsbawm implies it will, but the opposite – rule by right-wing populists.

As far as I can remember, thoughts like this would have been utterly taboo in the 1980s, or have immediately identified you as a right-wing conservative. But now I read comments like this every day in the Guardian or New Statesman.

So – this is the recent experience and current political discourse I bring to reading Hobsbawm’s chapter about democracy and which makes me think his assumption, his faith, his Marxist belief, that simply expanding the franchise to all adults would of itself bring about social revolution and justice and equality is too simplistic.

  • It doesn’t correlate with the historical fact that, as soon as the franchises of most European nations had been radically expanded (after the Great War), lots of them became very right-wing.
  • It doesn’t speak to our present situation where, it’s true that no-one is openly suggesting restricting the franchise, but many progressives are questioning whether the universal franchise produces the optimum results for a nation and its working class. Trump. Brexit.

The world is not as we would like it to be.

My opposition to Hobsbawm’s teleology

I am a Darwinian materialist. I believe there is no God and therefore no purpose or direction to human lives or events. There is no plan, divine or otherwise. Shit happens, people try to cope. Obviously shit happens within a complex web of frameworks and structures which we have inherited, it takes a lot of effort to disentangle and understand what is going on, or what we think is going on, and sometimes it may happen in ways some of which we can broadly predict. But ‘events, dear boy, events’ are the determining feature in human affairs. Take Afghanistan this past week. Who knew? Who expected such a sudden collapse?

This isn’t a very profound analysis but my aim is to contrast my preference for a theory of the unpredictable and chaotic nature of human affairs with Hobsbawm’s profound belief in Marxist teleology, meaning the very nineteenth century, rationalist, scientistic belief that there are laws of history and that human societies obey them and that they can be predicted and harnessed.

Teleology: the doctrine of design and purpose in the material world.

Teleology is the belief that if you shave away all the unfortunate details of history, and the peculiarities of culture, and the impact of charismatic individuals, in fact if you pare away enough of what makes people people and societies societies, you can drill down to Fundamental Laws of History. And that Karl Marx discovered them. And that these laws predict the coming collapse of capitalism and its replacement by a wonderful classless society. And that you, too, can be part of this future by joining the communist party today for the very reasonable online registration fee of just £12!

Anyway, the teleology (‘sense of direction, meaning or purpose’) which is a vital component of Marxism, the confidence in an inevitable advent of a future of justice and equality, which underpins every word Hobsbawm wrote, evaporated in 1991 and nothing has taken its place.

There will be no Revolution. The ‘capitalist system’ will not be overthrown. At most there will be pointless local revolts like the Arab Spring, revolts which, more than likely, end up with regimes more repressive or anarchic than the ones they overthrew (Syria, Libya, Egypt).

This sort of thing will occur repeatedly in countries which did not enjoy the early or middle benefits of the technological revolutions Hobsbawm describes, countries of the permanently developing world, which will always have largely peasant populations, which will always depend on the export of raw materials (oil being the obvious one), which will always have unstable political systems, liable to periodic upheavals.

The environmental perspective

If there is One Big Thing we do know about the future, it is something which isn’t mentioned anywhere in Hobsbawm’s book, which is that humanity is destroying the environments which support us.

My son is studying biology at university. He says it amounts to having world-leading experts explain the beauty and intricacy of various eco-systems in beautiful places around the planet – and then describing how we are destroying them.

As a result, my son thinks that human civilisation, in its present form, is doomed. Not because of global warming. But because we are killing the oceans, exterminating all the fish, destroying species diversity, wrecking agricultural land, using up all the fresh water, relying more on more on fragile monocultures, and generally devastating the complex web of ecosystems which make human existence possible.

Viewed from this perspective, human activity is, overall, fantastically destructive. And the massive ideological divide Hobsbawm makes between the tradition of the nineteenth century ‘bourgeoisie’, on the one hand, and the revolutionaries, Communards, Bolsheviks and communists he adulates, on the other, fades into insignificance.

We now know that polluting activity and environmental destruction were as bad or worse under communist regimes as they were under capitalist ones. It was the Soviet system which gave us Chernobyl and its extended cover-up. Capitalist ones are at least capable of reform in a way communist regimes turned out not to be. Green political movements are a feature of advanced ‘capitalist’ countries but were suppressed, along with every other form of deviance, under communist governments.

But then again, it really doesn’t matter from a global perspective. Looked at from the planet’s point of view, all human activity is destructive.

So this is why, looking at them from a really high-level perspective, as of aliens visiting earth and reviewing the last couple of centuries, these books no longer make me angry at the wicked ‘capitalist’ exploitation of its workers and entire colonial nations and the ‘heroic’ resistance of the proletariat and the exploited peoples of the colonial nations.

I just see a swarm of humans ruining their habitat and leading, inevitably, to their own downfall.

Hobsbawm’s style

Hobsbawm is very repetitive. He mentions bicycles and cars and so on representing new technologies at least three times. I swear he points out that imperialism was the result of increasing competition between the industrial nations at least half a dozen times. He tells us that a number of Germany’s most eminent revolutionaries came from Russia, namely Rosa Luxemburg, at least four times. He repeats President Porfirio Diaz’s famous lament, ‘Poor Mexico! So far from God, so close to the United States’ twice. He tells us twice that western governments were keen to invest in medical research into tropical fevers solely because the results promised to help their officers and administrators survive longer in colonial outposts several times. He repeatedly tells us that Bismarck was the master of maintaining peace between the powers (pp.312 and 318).

The impression this gives is of rambling, repetitive and circular arguments instead of linear, logical ones.

Hobsbawm’s discussions are often very gaseous in the sense that they go on at length, use lots of highbrow terminology, but at the end it’s hard to make out or remember what he’s said. The discussion of nationalism in Age of Capital was long and serious-sounding but I emerged at the end of it none the wiser. The long discussion of sociology in chapter 11 of this book left me none the wiser about sociology except for Hobsbawm’s weird suggestion that, as a social science, it was founded and encouraged in order to protect society against Marxism and revolution. Really?

In a similar spirit, although he uses the word ‘bourgeoisie’ intensively throughout both books, I emerged with no clearer sense of what ‘bourgeoisie’ really means than I went in with. He himself admits it to be a notoriously difficult word to define and then more or less fails to define it.

On a more serious level I didn’t understand his discussion of nationalism in Age of Capital or his discussion of the increasing democratisation in the 1890s in this volume, because they were vague and waffly. It seemed to me that as soon as he left his home turf of economic development, his ideas become foggy and repetitive.

And sometimes he comes over as a hilariously out of touch old buffer:

By 1914 the more unshackled youth in the western big cities and resorts was already familiar with sexually provocative rhythmic dances of dubious but exotic origin (the Argentinian tango, the syncopated steps of American blacks). (p.204)

‘The syncopated steps of American blacks’. No wonder American capitalism was doomed to collapse.

Overall conclusion

Hobsbawm’s books are thrilling because of their scope and range and the way he pulls together heterogenous material from around the world, presenting pages of awe-inspiring stats and facts, to paint a vivid, thrilling picture of a world moving through successive phases of industrialisation.

But he is eerily bereft of ideas. This comes over in the later chapters of both books in which he feels obligated, like so many historians before him, to write a chapter about The Arts. This is not his natural territory and the reader has to struggle through turgid pages of Hobsbawm dishing up absolutely conventional judgements (Van Gogh was an unrecognised genius; the arts and crafts movement was very influential), which are so lame and anodyne they are embarrassing.

I had noticed his penchant for commenting on everything using numbered points (‘The bourgeois century destabilised its periphery in two main ways…’; ‘Three major forces of resistance existed in China…’, ‘Three developments turned the alliance system into a time bomb…’, and many others). Eventually it dawned on me that he produces these nifty little sets of issues or causes or effects instead of having ideas. Lists beat insights.

Considering how fertile Marxist literary and art criticism has been in the twentieth century (cf György Lukács, Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, Frederick Jameson) it is very disappointing how flat and untheoretical and banal Hobsbawm’s comments about the arts in both books are. In these later sections of each book it is amazing how much he can write without really saying anything. He is a good example of someone who knows all the names and terminology and dates and styles and has absolutely nothing interesting to say about them.


Credit

The Age of Empire: 1875 to 1914 by Eric Hobsbawm was published in 1975 by Weidenfeld and Nicholson. All references are to the 1985 Abacus paperback.

Hobsbawm reviews

Related reviews

Reviews about Marx and communism

Karl Marx

Communism in Russia

Communism in China

Communism in Vietnam

Communism in Germany

Communism in Poland

  • Warsaw 1920 by Adam Zamoyski (2008) How the Polish army stopped the Red Army’s advance into Poland in 1920 preventing them pushing on to support revolution in Germany.
  • The Captive Mind by Czesław Miłosz (1953) A devastating indictment of the initial appeal and then appalling consequences of communism in Poland: ‘Mass purges in which so many good communists died, the lowering of the living standard of the citizens, the reduction of artists and scholars to the status of yes-men, the extermination of entire national groups…’

Communism in Czechoslovakia

Communism in France

Communism in Spain

  • The Battle for Spain by Antony Beevor (2006) Comprehensive account of the Spanish civil war with much detail on how the Stalin-backed communist party put more energy into eliminating its opponents on the Left than fighting the fascists, with the result that Franco won.
  • Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell (1938) Orwell’s eye-witness account of how the Stalin-backed communist party turned on its left-wing allies, specifically the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification which Orwell was fighting with, and how he only just managed to escape arrest, interrogation and probable execution during the communist purges.

Communism in England

The Age of Capital: 1848 to 1875 by Eric Hobsbawm (1975)

The astonishing world-wide expansion of capitalism in the third quarter of the [nineteenth] century…
(The Age of Capital, page 147)

Eric Hobsbawn (1917 to 2012) was one of Britain’s leading historians. A lifelong Marxist, his most famous books are the trilogy covering what he himself termed ‘the long 19th century’, i.e. from the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789 to the Great War in 1914. These three books are:

  • The Age of Revolution: Europe 1789–1848 (1962)
  • The Age of Capital: 1848–1875 (1975)
  • The Age of Empire: 1875–1914 (1987)

To which he later appended his account of the ‘short’ 20th century, The Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century, 1914 to 1991 (1994).

The Age of Capital: 1848 to 1875

The Age of Capital: 1848 to 1875 does what it says on the tin and provides a dazzlingly panoramic overview of the full economic, political and social events right across Europe and indeed around the world, from the famous year of revolutions (1848) through to his cutoff point 27 years later.

In his preface Hobsbawm says that the end of the era can be taken as 1873, which marked the start of what contemporaries came to call the Great Depression, a decades-long slump in trade and industry which is usually taken to have lasted from 1873 to 1896. Maybe he and the publishers chose the slightly later date of 1875 so as to end it precisely 100 years before the book’s publication date. Certainly nothing specifically important happened in 1875, it’s just a convenient marker.

General response

When I was a student in the 1980s I much preferred Hobsbawm’s rip-roaring and colourful trilogy to his dry economic volume, Industry and Empire: From 1750 to the Present Day (1968). Now the situation is reversed. I like the earlier book because it is more factual, which makes the central proposition of its first part – that the vital spur to the industrial revolution was Britain’s position at the centre of a complex global network of colonies which allowed it to import raw materials from some and export finished products to others at great profit – all the more powerful and persuasive.

By contrast, The Age of Capital is much more overtly a) Marxist and b) rhetorical and, after a while, both these aspects began to seriously detract from my enjoyment.

1. Very dated Marxism

Hobsbawm loses no opportunity to bang on about the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. These are both foreign words, French and German, respectively, and, for me, they began to really stick out from the text. I began to circle them in pencil, along with his other buzzwords, ‘capitalism’ and ‘revolution’, and this helped to visually confirm my sense that some passages of the book are entirely constructed from this dusty Marxist rhetoric. ‘The demands of the bourgeoisie…’, ‘The bourgeois market…’, ‘The business and domestic needs of the bourgeoisie…’, literally hundreds of times.

Back in the 1980s it didn’t stick out so much because a) as a humanities student I moved in an atmosphere permanently coloured with excitable student rhetoric about ‘the revolution’ and the overthrow of ‘capitalism’ and so on, and b) this reflected the rhetoric’s widespread use in the public domain, where you heard a lot more of this sort of terminology coming out of the 1980s Labour Party in the era of the Miners Strike and the Militant Tendency and so on.

But when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, all the steam went out of international socialism. Up till then the rhetoric of revolution had a genuine sense of threat or menace – not that there was necessarily going to be a revolution tomorrow, but there had been, and there could be again, and so it felt like some kind of communist revolution was, at the very least, a real, conceptual possibility. And this sense of possibility and threat was reinforced by the number of genuinely communist governments around the world, all 15 Soviet states, all of China, half of Europe, much of south-east Asia, as well as the various Marxist guerrilla groups across Africa and Latin America. It was a rhetoric, a set of ideas and a mindset you couldn’t help engaging with every day if you watched the news or read newspapers.

File:Communist countries 1979-1983.png

Communist countries 1979 to 1983. Source: Wikipedia

These terms had real-world presence and possibilities because they were the official rhetoric of half the governments of the world. The Soviet Union, Chinese or Cuban governments routinely made pronouncements condemning the ‘capitalist countries’, attacking ‘bourgeois liberalism’, criticising ‘western imperialists’ and so on.

Now, decades later, all this has disappeared. Gross injustice there still is, and sporadic outbreaks of left-wing-sounding movements for fairness. But they lack the intellectual cohesion and above all the sense of confidence (and funding) and threat which ‘revolutionary’ movements were given in the 1960s, 70s and 80s by the vast presence and threat of the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc. John Le Carré’s thrillers had such an impact because behind the small number of spies battling it out there was the real sense that a war might break out, that espionage might play a role in the actual undermining of the West.

What I’m driving at is that Hobsbawm’s relentless focus on the political movements of the workers of his era, of the proletariat and radicals and socialists and so on of the 1860s and 1870s, now looks quaint and dated. Of course 1848 to 1875 was the era of the triumph of capitalism and the response of workers and workers parties and liberals and intellectuals all across Europe was often couched in terms of socialism and even communism, and Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were alive and organising and writing, yes, of course.

But this book’s relentless focus on the plight of ‘the workers’ and the formation of ‘the proletariat’ is not only obviously biased and parti pris but now, in our post-communist era, comes over as dated and contrived. He was writing in the mid-1970s to a widespread acceptance of very left-wing politics which was common not only among academics but in trade unions and major political parties all across Europe and which has now… vanished.

And comes over as boring. I got bored of the way Hobsbawm casually labels the working classes or the populations of non-western countries as ‘victims’, as if absolutely everyone in 1860s China or Persia or Egypt or Africa were helpless children.

I’m just reading a passage where he lambasts the Victorian bourgeoisie for its ‘prejudices’ but his own worldview is just as riddled with prejudice, clichés and stereotypes – the ‘bourgeoisie’ is always 100% powerful exploiters; everyone else is always 100% helpless ‘victims’; only Karl Marx understood what was going on; the holy quest for ‘revolution’ went into abeyance during these years but was to revive and flourish in the 1880s, hurrah!

He repeats certain phrases, such as ‘bourgeois liberalism’, so many times that they eventually become empty of meaning, little more than slogans and boo words.

‘Here is the hypocrite bourgeois in the bosom of his smug family while the workers slave away in his factory’, BOO!

‘Here are the socialist intellectuals and more educated workers seeking to organise labour and planning for the revolutionary overthrow of bourgeois society and the seizure of the means of production by the workers’, HOORAY!

‘Here are the Great Thinkers of the period, Auguste Comte and Herbert Spencer, whose writings supported raw capitalism, racism and eugenics’, BOO!

‘Here are Karl Mark and Friedrich Engels, noble humanitarians who were the only ones to grasp the scale of the socio-economic changes the industrialised world was undergoing’, HOORAY!

2. Hobsbawm’s superficial treatment prevents understanding

This brings me to the other major flaw in the book which is that it reads to me, now, as so superficial on almost all the specific events it covers, as to be actively misleading.

As a starry-eyed and fairly uneducated student it came as a dazzling revelation to learn just how many huge and momentous events took place during this packed 25-year period. It was my first introduction to the 1848 revolutions and the Paris Commune, to the Taiping Rebellion and the American Civil War and so on, all of which stretched my historical understanding and broadened my perspectives on world history.

However, rereading it now, 30 years later, I think Hobsbawm’s presentation of many of these subjects is so brief and is so skewed by the way he forces everything into his Marxist worldview – everything is shoehorned into the same framework of capitalism and proletariat and bourgeoisie – as to be actively misleading.

Because every event he covers is described in terms of the triumph of the liberal-capitalist bourgeoisie over either their own proletariat or entire foreign nations (for example, China or India) everything ends up sounding very samey. He doesn’t distinguish between the enormous cultural, economic, legal and historical differences between nations – between, for example the ‘bourgeoisie’ of America, Britain and Germany, all very different things – he doesn’t pay attention to the complexities and unexpected turns and ironies which defy Marxism’s neat patterns and limited repertoire of concepts.

This generalising tendency makes a lot of the events of the era sound the same and this actively prevents a proper understanding of history’s complexities and strangeness. It was only when I read specific books on some of the events he describes that I came to really understand the complexity and specificity of events which Hobsbawm, for all his verve and rhetoric, often leaves badly unexplained.

For example, I’ve just read Hobsbawm’s description of the Paris Commune (pages 200 to 202) and am profoundly unimpressed. He skimps on the historical detail or the actual events of the Commune, preferring to give a shallow, teenage account of how much it scared the European bourgeoisie and how they took fright at the sight of workers running their own government etc.

Its [the Commune’s] actual history is overlaid by the enormously powerful myth it generated, both in France itself and (through Karl Marx) in the international socialist movement; a myth which reverberates to this day, notably in the Chinese People’s Republic… If it did not threaten the bourgeois order seriously, it frightened the wits out of it by its mere existence. Its life and death were surrounded by panic and hysteria, especially in the international press, which accused it of instituting communism, expropriating the rich and sharing their wives, terror, wholesale massacre, chaos, anarchy and whatever else haunted the nightmares of the respectable classes – all, needless to say, deliberately plotted by the International. (p.201)

See what I mean by rhetoric? Heavy on rhetoric and references to Marx, the International, communist China, revolution, bourgeois order and so on. But where are the facts in that passage? There aren’t any.

Hobsbawm fails to explain the context of the Franco-Prussian War or the complex sequence of events which led to the declaration of the Commune. He glosses over the way the workers’ government came into being, the disagreements among various factions, the executions of hostages which introduced a note of terror and violence into the situation, which was then amply repaid by the French government forces when they retook Paris arrondissement by arrondissement and the mass executions of communards which followed. I only came to properly appreciate the Commune’s grim complexity when, many decades later, I read The Fall of Paris by Alistair Horne (1965)

Same with the Crimean War, which Hobsbawm dismisses as a notorious fiasco and more or less leaves at that (p.96). It wasn’t until I read The Crimean War by Orlando Figes (2010) a few years ago that I for the first time understood the long-term geopolitical forces at work (namely the Ottoman Empire’s decay and the fierce ambition of Russia to seize the Straits and extend their territory all the way to Constantinople), the complicated sequence of events which led up to the outbreak of war, and the multiple ways in which it was, indeed, a mismanaged disaster.

Same with the American Civil War (pages 170 to 173). Hobsbawn gives a breath-takingly superficial sketch (‘For four years the civil war raged’) and, surprisingly for such a left-wing writer, doesn’t really give slavery its due weight. He is more interested in the way victory for the North was victory for American capitalism, which was the view of Marx himself.

Anyway, it wasn’t until I read James McPherson’s epic history of the American Civil War, decades later, that I really understood the long-term causes of the war, the huge conceptual frameworks within which it took place (I’m still awed at the ambition of some of the southern slavers to create a new and completely separate nation which would include all the Caribbean and most of Central America), the terrible, appalling, mind-searing horrors of slavery, the strong case made by the southern states for secession, and the technological reasons (development of better guns) why it went on so long and caused such immense casualties (620,000 dead).

Here are books on specific events or figures from the period, which I would strongly in preference to Hobsbawm if you really want to fully understand key events from the period:

Same on the domestic front. By limiting his description of British society to concepts of capital, capitalists, bourgeoisie and proletariat, Hobsbawm, in his concern with identifying the structural and economic parallels between all the capitalist nations of the West, loses most of the details which make history, and life, interesting.

I came to this book immediately after reading Richard Shannon’s book, The Crisis of Imperialism, 1865 to 1915 which is a long, sometimes rather turgid, but nonetheless fascinating and detailed analysis of the high politics of Britain during the period, which views them almost entirely in terms of the complicated challenges faced by successive British leaders in trying to keep the various factions in their parties onside while they negotiated the minefields of domestic and international politics. Among other things, Shannon’s book brilliantly conveys the matrix of intellectual and political traditions which politicians like Gladstone and Disraeli sought to harness, and how they both were trying to preserve visions of a past equilibrium or social balance which probably never existed, while the world hurried them relentlessly onwards.

By contrast, Hobsbawm’s account gives you no idea at all of the characters and worldviews of the leading politicians of the day; they are all just representatives of the ‘bourgeoisie’, taken as, for all intents and purposes, identical, whether in America, Britain, France, Germany, Italy and so on. (The one possible exception is Bismarck, who emerges with a very clear political agenda, all of which he achieved, and so impresses Hobsbawm.)

The book’s strengths

Where the book does score, what made its reputation when it was published and has maintained it ever since, is the bravura confidence with which Hobsbawm leaps from one continent to another, mimicking in the structure of his text the phenomenal spread of the industrial revolution and the new capitalist ways of managing production, new social relations, a new economy, and new trading relations, new and unprecedented ways of doing things which spread like wildfire around the world. The first half of the book is crammed with raw facts and statistics about the West’s astonishing feats of industrialisation and engineering. Here are some highlights:

1848, the ‘springtime of peoples’

1848 saw political revolution across Europe. I have summarised these in a review of 1848: Year of Revolution by Mike Rapport (2008). The revolutions of 1848 generated a huge amount of rhetoric, primarily by middle class nationalists and liberals, but also from ideologists for the new ideas of socialism and communism.

But the key thing about the 1848 revolutions and the so-called ‘springtime of peoples’ is that they failed. Within a year, year and a half at most, they had all been crushed. Some political gains were made, serfdom was abolished in Hungary, but broadly speaking, within two years the kings and emperors were back in control.

All except in the most politically unstable country of Europe, France, which overthrew its king, endured three years of unstable democracy and then elected a buffoon, the nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte, to become their emperor, Napoleon III (Napoleon counted his father as Napoleon II, hence the way he named himself the third Napoleon). The French replaced an inept king with a populist buffoon. The left was decisively crushed for nearly 40 years, only reviving in the harsher environment of the 1880s.

The labour movement [across Europe] had not so much been destroyed as decapitated by the failure of the 1848 revolutions and the subsequent decades of economic expansion. (p.133)

Boom years of the 1850s

The 1848 revolutions were bitterly fought, there was a lot of bloodshed which amounted to civil war in some parts of Europe, but apart from the fact that they all failed in their aims of establishing liberal republics, the other key thing about them that Hobsbawm brings out is they were the end of a process, not the beginning.

The 1840s are often referred to as the Hungry Forties because of the malign impact of industrialisation on many populations, combined with a run of bad harvests. BUT 1850 saw all this change, with a sudden industrial boom which lasted most of the rest of the 1850s and a run of good harvests.

With the result that the ‘working class militancy’ so beloved of a Marxist like Hobsbawm fizzled out. Chartism, which had at one point threatened the state in Britain, disappeared and the same with the other movements across Europe. All except for the nationalist movements in Germany and Italy, which were by no means socialist or for the workers. The unification of Germany was brought about by Bismarck, the opposite of a socialist.

1848 gold rush

Much more important for the global economy was the discovery, in the same year, 1848, of gold in California. This is the kind of thing Hobsbawm is good at, because he has the figures at his fingertips to show how dramatically the gold rush drew the Pacific world closer together. An unprecedented number of Chinese crossed the sea to find their fortunes in California, part of the huge influx of migrants who boosted San Francisco’s population from 812 in 1848 to 35,000 just 4 years later (p.79).

Crews of ships docking in San Francisco regularly absconded in their entirety, leaving the wooden ships to rot, many of them eventually being torn up and used as building materials. Such was the pull of gold and the mushroom wealth it created, that fleets and food were attracted up the coast from faraway Chile.

The gold rush also acted as a financial incentive for the completion of the transcontinental railways being built at the time (the line right across America was completed in 1869). Previously California had been cut off by the huge Rocky mountains. Now there was the incentive of gold to complete a transport link to it, allowing the traffic of food from the mid-West.

Globalisation

The gold rush in California (shortly followed by one in Australia) is a good example of one of the overall themes of the book, which is that this era saw the advent of Globalisation.

The interdependence of the world economy could hardly be better demonstrated. (p.79)

Due to the railway, the steamer and the telegraph…the geographical size of the capitalist economy could suddenly multiply as the intensity of its business transactions increased. The entire globe became part of this economy. This creation of a single expanded world is probably the most significant development of our period…for practical purposes an entirely new economic world was added to the old and integrated into it. (p.48)

In this industrial capitalism became a genuine world economy and the globe was therefore transformed from a geographical expression into a constant operational reality. History from now on became world history. (p.63)

No wonder that observers saw the economic world not merely as a single interlocking complex, but as one where each part was sensitive to what happened elsewhere, and through which money, goods and men moved smoothly and with increasing rapidity, according to the irresistible stimuli of supply and demand, gain and loss and with the help of modern technology. (p.82)

…the ever-tightening network of global communications, whose most tangible result was a vast increase in the flow of international exchanges of goods and men… (p.85)

For the historian the great boom of the 1850s marks the foundation of a global industrial economy and a single world history. (p.88)

… the extraordinary widening and deepening  of the world economy which forms the basic theme of world history at this period. (p.207)

Second industrial revolution

There are varying opinions about how many industrial revolutions there were. From Hobsbawm’s accounts here and in Industry and Empire it seems clear the first industrial revolution centred on cotton production, took place in Lancashire, and relied on British dominance of international trade, since 100% of the raw material was imported (from the American South) and a huge percentage was then exported (to Africa and India).

There was a slump in the textile economy in the 1830s and Hobsbawm briefly entertains the counter-factual possibility that the process of industrialisation, which had, after all, only touched a relatively tiny part of the world’s surface, might have sputtered out and died altogether.

But it was saved by a second wave of renewed industrial activity leading to phenomenal growth in production of coal and iron, with accompanying technical innovations, which were catalysed by the new technology connected with the railway (which Hobsbawm tells us Karl Marx thought of as capitalism’s ‘crowning achievement’, p.48).

Railway mania

Hobsbawm explains how the railway mania, at first in Britain, then in other industrialising nations, was driven by financial factors, namely the need for capitalists who had acquired large amounts of capital for something to invest in.

Hobsbawm has some lyrical passages, the kind of thing most readers of this book long remember, describing the astonishing feats of finance and engineering and labour which flung huge lengths of iron railroad across the continents of the world between the 1840s and the 1870s, connecting coasts with hinterlands, linking the world together as never before. Many readers remember Hobsbawm’s awed descriptions of the astonishing achievements of individual railway entrepreneurs such as Thomas Brassey, who at one point was employing 80,000 men on five continents (pages 70 to 73).

Such men thought in continents and oceans. For them the world was a single unit, bound together with rails of iron and steam engines, because the horizons of business were like their dreams, world-wide. (p.74)

He points out that Jules Verne’s famous novel of 1873, Around the World in Eighty Days, was fantastically topical to its time. In effect its protagonist, Phileas Fogg, was testing and showcasing the spread of the new railway technology which had girdled the earth (p.69).

Map of the trip

Map of Philea Fogg’s route in Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne (Map created by Roke. Source: Wikipedia)

The electric telegraph

Even more dramatic than railways was the development of the electric telegraph which Hobsbawm describes in detail on pages 75 to 78. It was the telegraph which created the first and definitive communications revolution. In 1848 you had to wait months for letters to arrive from another continent. By 1875 news could be telegraphed from England to America in minutes. It was a transformation in human relations, perception and psychology.

Hobsbawm goes on to make the interesting point that this globalisation was still very limited and focused on high profit areas and routes. Only a hundred miles from the railway and telegraph, billions of people still lived with more or less feudal technology, the fastest vehicle being the ox-cart.

Right from the beginning the process of globalisation created an even bigger zone of unglobalisation, what is now often called the ‘left behind’. So Phileas Fogg’s famous journey has this additional interpretation, that it was a journey along the frontier between the newly globalised and the still untouched. In the novel Phileas travels a kind of borderline between the deep past and the ever-accelerating future.

Production figures

Britain produced 2.5 million tons of iron in 1850, in 1870 6 million tons, or about half the world’s total. Over the same period world production of coal increased by two and a half times, world output of iron four times. Global steam power increased from an estimated 4 million horsepower in 1850 to 18.5 million HP by 1870. In 1859 2,000 million barrels of oil were produced in the USA, in 1874, 11 million barrels. The book ends with a dozen pages of tables conveying these and many other examples of the explosion in productivity and output, and maps showing the spread of trade routes and emigration movements around the world.

The industrialisation of the German Federation between 1850 and 1870 had major geopolitical implications, creating the industrial might which helped Bismarck win three wars in succession and create a united Germany, which has been a decisive force in Europe ever since (p.56).

World fairs

As their economic system, businesses and military might spread around the world, what Hobsbawm calls the ‘liberal bourgeoisie’ celebrated in a series of world’s fairs, starting with the famous Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace in London at which no fewer than 14,000 firms exhibited (1851), followed by Paris 1855, London 1862, Paris 1867, Vienna 1873 and Philadelphia 1875 (p.47).

Mass migration

The third quarter of the nineteenth century saw the largest migrations in human history to that point. Between 1846 and 1875 more than 9 million people left Europe, mostly for America (p.228). Between 1851 and 1880 about 5.3 million people left the British Isles (3.5 million to the USA, 1 million to Australia, half a million to Canada).

More subtly, maybe, there was large scale inner migration from the countryside to the new mushroom towns and cities of the industrial revolution, creating vast acreages of appallingly squalid, over-crowded slums without any sanitation, water etc. These were to be the settings for the poverty literature and government reports of the 1880s and 1890s which brought about sweeping changes in town planning at the end of the century and into the 1900s.

The challenge to the developing world

The corollary of the notion that industrial ‘liberal capitalism’ spread its tentacles right around the world during this period, drawing all nations and peoples and places into its ravenous quest for profit, was the challenge this represented to all the non-Western nations and other cultures. Hobsbawn has sections describing the responses of the Ottoman Empire, the world of Islam, the Chinese Empire, the Persian Empire and the Japanese to the growing challenge from what he glibly calls ‘the West’.

His passages on these nations suffer from the same shortcomings I’ve listed above, namely that they are brief and superficial. To really understand what happened in China during this period, I would recommend The Penguin History of Modern China: The Fall and Rise of a Great Power, 1850 to the Present by Jonathan Fenby (2013). For an overview of why the non-Western empires and cultures proved incapable of matching the West’s dynamism, I recommend the outstanding After Tamerlane: The Rise and Fall of Global Empires 1400 to 2000 by John Darwin. For descriptions of the internal crises the transformation sparked, generally leading to the overthrow of the old regimes, in the Ottoman Empire, China, Japan in a controlled way, I would recommend you to find books specifically about those countries.

Wars

It was an era of wars. Which era hasn’t been?

  • The Second Carlist War (1846 to 1849) was a minor Catalan uprising
  • The Taiping Rebellion aka the Taiping Civil War or the Taiping Revolution, 1850 to 1864
  • The Crimean War, October 1853 to February 1856
  • American Civil War, 12 April 1861 to 9 April 1865
  • The Unification of Germany involved:
    • The Second Schleswig War aka Prusso-Danish War Feb to October 1864
    • The Austro-Prussian War or Seven Weeks’ War, June to July 1866
    • The Franco-Prussian War War, 19 July 1870 to 28 January 1871
  • The Unification of Italy involved:
    • The Second Italian War of Independence aka the Austro-Sardinian War, April to 12 July 1859
      (2 months, 2 weeks and 2 days)
    • The Third Italian War of Independence between the Kingdom of Italy and the Austrian Empire, June and August 1866
  • The Paraguayan War aka the War of the Triple Alliance, 1864 to 1870
  • The Third Carlist War, in Spain, 1872 to 1876

Famines

Less newsworthy than wars, less painted, less celebrated, producing fewer statues and medals, but many times more people died in famines than conflicts. As Hobsbawm points out, one of the fundamental differences between the ‘civilised world’ and the rest is that the industrial world can (by and large) feed its populations, whereas the undeveloped world is susceptible to failures of harvest and distribution.

  • 1848: Java ravaged by famine
  • 1849: maybe 14 million died in the Chinese famine
  • 1854 to 1864 as many as 20 million died in prolonged famine in China
  • 1856: one in ten of the population of Orissa died in the famine
  • 1861 to 1872: a fifth the population of Algeria died of starvation
  • 1868 to 1870: up to a third the population of Rajputana
  • 3 and a half million perished in Madras
  • 1871 to 1873: up to 2 million, a third the population of Persia, died of starvation
  • 1876 to 1878: 1 million in Mysore

Hobsbawm tries to reclaim human dignity i.e. give these catastrophes some semblance of meaning, by blaming some of this on the colonial powers (especially the British in India; as a British Marxist he is duty bound to reserve most of his scorn and contempt for the British authorities). But the effect of this list is not to make me ‘blame’ anyone, it just overwhelms me with the misery and suffering most of humanity have experienced throughout most of human history.

American states

In the post-civil war era, America continued to grow, adding states to its roster, having now settled the central issue of the war, which was whether they would be slave states of free states. The North’s victory in 1865 meant they would all be ‘free’ states.

  • Wisconsin became a state in 1848
  • California 1850
  • Minnesota 1858
  • Oregon 1859
  • Kansas 1861
  • West Virginia 1863
  • Nevada 1864
  • Nebraska 1867
  • Russia sold America Alaska 1867
  • Colorado 1876

Colonies

The original European colonial powers were Portugal and Spain. Spain lost control of its colonies in Central and South America in the early 1800s. Portugal hung on longer to a handful of territories in Latin America, a few coastal strips in Africa and Goa in India (p.145). The Dutch created a sizeable foreign empire in the 17th and 18th centuries. The French had ambitions to control North America and India but lost out during the 18th century to the British. So that the nineteenth century belonged to Britain, which ruled the world’s oceans and developed an unprecedented web of international, ocean-carried trade and this, Hobsbawm argues, was the bedrock reason for Britain pioneering the industrial revolution.

In a nutshell, the idea is that a fully developed capitalist system must be continually looking for new markets in order to maintain its growth. Where markets don’t exist in its native country, the system creates needs and markets through advertising. Or it conquers new parts of the world and new populations which it can drag into its mesh of trade and sales, extracting its raw materials at the cheapest cost, and turning them into manufactured items which it sells back to colonial peoples at the maximum profit.

Although there continued to be expeditions and territorial claims during this period, it was really a prelude to the frenzy of imperial conquest which characterised the final quarter of the nineteenth century, and which is the subject of the third book in the trilogy, the sequel to this one, Age of Empire.

In a word

Hobsbawm’s book impressed when it was published, and still does now, with its sheer range and scope, with its blizzard of facts and data, with its rhetorical conjuring of a world for the first time embraced and joined together by new technologies (railway, steamship, telegraph).

But its strength is its weakness, for its breadth means it sacrifices subtlety and insight for dogma, and becomes increasingly bogged down in sweeping generalisations about the wicked bourgeoisie and hypocritical capitalists (‘In general capitalists of the first generation were philistines…’, p.334).

By the end of the book I was sick to death of the sight of the word ‘bourgeois’. Hobsbawm sounds like a fairground toy: put a penny in the slot and watch it jerk to life and start spouting endless slogans about the vicious, hypocritical, exploitative ‘bourgeoisie’, especially in the long and profoundly dim final  sections of the book in which, God forgive us, an ageing Marxist historian shares with us his banal and  predictable views about the intellectual and artistic achievements of the period. For example:

  • The novel can be considered the one genre which found it possible to adapt itself to that bourgeois society….p.326
  • When one considers the orgy of building into which a prosperous bourgeois society threw itself…326
  • Few societies have cherished the works of creative genius… more than that of the nineteenth-century bourgeoisie. p.327
  • The demands of the bourgeoisie were individually more modest, collectively far greater. (p.330)
  • The business and domestic needs of the bourgeoisie made the fortunes of plenty of architects… (p.330)
  • The bourgeois market was new only insofar as it was now unusually large and increasingly prosperous. (p.330)
  • We can certainly discover those who, for various reasons, resisted or tried to shock a bourgeois public… (p.332)
  • For bourgeois society [the artist] represented ‘genius’…
  • Bourgeois tourists could now hardly avoid that endless and footsore pilgrimage to the shrines of the arts which is still in progress along the hard floors of the Louvre, Uffizi and San Marco. (p.335)
  • [Artists] did not have to conform to the mores of the normal bourgeois… (p.335)
  • Here again Richard Wagner showed a faultless appreciation of the bourgeois artist. (p.335)
  • Did the bourgeois actually enjoy the arts? (p.335)
  • Aestheticism did not become a bourgeois fashion until the late 1870s and 1880s. (p.336)
  • The bourgeoisie of the mid-nineteenth century was torn by a dilemma which its triumph made even more acute. (p.340)
  • At best the bourgeois version of ‘realism’ was a socially suitable selection… (p.340)
  • [Naturalism] normally implied a conscious political critique of bourgeois society… (p.340)
  • The insatiable demands of the bourgeoisie, and especially the petty-bourgeoisie, for cheap portraits provided the basis of [photography]’s success. (p.341)
  • Torn between the idealism and the realism of the bourgeois world, the realists also rejected photography… (p.342)
  • The Impressionists are important not for their popular subject matter – Sunday outings, popular dances, the townscapes and city scenes of cities, the theatres, race-courses and brothels of the bourgeois society’s half world – but for their innovation of method. (p.344)
  • If science was one basic value of bourgeois society, individualism and competition were others. (p.345)
  • [The birth of the avant-garde] represents the collapse of the attempt to produce an art intellectually consistent with (though often critical of) bourgeois society… (p.346)
  • This breakdown affected the marginal strata of the bourgeois world more than its central core: students and young intellectuals, aspiring writers and artists, the general boheme of those who refused to accept (however temporarily) to adopt the ways of bourgeois respectability… (p.347)
  • [French artists] were united, like the Romantics before 1848, only by a common dislike of the bourgeoisie… (p.348)
  • Until 1848 these spiritual Latin Quarters of bourgeois society had hope of a republic and social revolution…. (p.348)
  • Flaubert’s Sentimental Education (1869) is that story of the hope in the hearts of the world-storming young men of the 1840s and its double disappointment, by the 1848 revolution itself and by the subsequent era in which the bourgeoisie triumphed… (p.348)
  • With the collapse of the dream of 1848 and the victory of the reality of Second Empire France, Bismarckian Germany, Palmerstonian and Gladstonian Britain and the Italy of Victor Emmanuel, the western bourgeois arts starting with painting and poetry therefore bifurcated into those appealing to the mass public and those appealing to a self-defined minority. They were not quite as outlawed by bourgeois society as the mythological history of the avant-garde arts has it… (p.349)
  • [Music] could oppose the bourgeois world only from within, an easy task, since the bourgeois himself was unlikely to recognise when he was being criticised. (p.350)
  • Richard Wagner succeeded…in convincing the most financially solvent cultural authorities and members of the bourgeois public that they themselves belonged to the spiritual elite… (p.350)
  • Prose literature, and especially that characteristic art form of the bourgeois era, the novel, flourished for exactly the opposite reason. (p.350)
  • It would be unfair to confine the discussion of the arts in the age of bourgeois triumph to masters and masterpieces… (p.351)

Eventually, by dint of endless relentless repetition, the word ‘bourgeois’ becomes almost entirely emptied of meaning, and the endless conflating of everything bad, vicious, exploitative, hypocritical and philistine under this one mindless label eventually obliterates all Hobsbawm’s attempts to analyse and shed light. It does the opposite.

He nowhere makes clear that, since it is a French word implies, this venomous hatred of the ‘bourgeoisie’ had special French origins and significances in a politically unstable country which had a revolution more or less every generation throughout the century, which just weren’t the same and couldn’t be applied in the same way in Germany, Britain let alone America. Tennyson didn’t hate the English ‘bourgeoisie’, Dickens didn’t despise the English ‘bourgeoisie’, as much as their French counterparts, Baudelaire and Flaubert hated the French ‘bourgeoisie’. The hatred, the concept and the cultural context are all French and have never made nearly as much sense in Britain, let alone in America, as Marx learned to his bitter disappointment.

The passages describing the astonishing achievements of entrepreneurs, inventors, engineers and industrial innovators during this period remain thrilling and eye-opening, but they make up a minority of the text. Struggling through the long, doctrinaire Marxist and tediously banal second half is like being trapped in a corner of a party by a slobbering bore who asks you to hang on while he just tells you 20 more reasons why the Victorian bourgeoisie were so despicable. ‘Yes, grandad. I get it.’

The Age of Capital is arguably, in its overall tendency and rigidly doctrinaire interpretations, more a relic of its own time, the right-on, Marxisant 1970s, than a reliable guide to the era it claims to describe.

Ad hominem

On one occasion only have I been in a traditional London gentleman’s club, when a TV producer invited me to lunch at his club, the Garrick. He pointed out a few famous members in the packed dining room, including the distinctive features of the agèd and lanky Hobsbawm over at one of the tables.

It struck me how very English it was that this fire-breathing, ‘radical’, ‘Marxist’ historian enjoyed all the benefits of the English Establishment, membership of top clubs, numerous honours (Companion of Honour, Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, Fellow of the British Academy and so on), enjoying a tasty lunch at the Garrick before strolling back to the library to pen another excoriating attack on the hypocrisy, philistinism, greed, ruthlessness and cruelty of the ancestors of the jolly chaps he’d just been sitting among, confident that his ‘bourgeois’ publishers would do a good job producing and promoting his next book, that the ‘bourgeois’ bookshops would display and sell it, that the ‘bourgeois’ press would give it glowing reviews, and he would be awarded another chestful of honours by a grateful monarch.

It’s not really even hypocrisy, it’s something odder: that academic communities across the Western world happily employed, paid and promoted humanities academics and writers who systematically castigated their employers, their nations and their histories, and cheerfully proclaimed their allegiance to foreign powers (the USSR, China) who made no secret of their intention to overthrow the West in violent revolution.

Well, history has had its revenge on the Marxist historians. As I slotted Age of Capital back onto my shelf I thought I heard the sound of distant laughter.


Credit

The Age of Capital: 1848 to 1875 by Eric Hobsbawm was published in 1975 by Weidenfeld and Nicholson. All references are to the 1985 Abacus paperback.

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Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass (1845)

I have found that, to make a contented slave, it is necessary to make a thoughtless one. It is necessary to darken his moral and mental vision, and, as far as possible, to annihilate the power of reason. He must be able to detect no inconsistencies in slavery; he must be made to feel that slavery is right; and he can be brought to that only when he ceases to be a man.
(Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, chapter X)

Brief bio

Frederick Douglass was born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey to Harriet Bailey, a slave woman, and an unknown white father, probably in February 1818. He speculated that his father was the plantation master, but he never had any proof.

Fred Bailey, as everyone called him, was about seven years old when his mother died, and soon after that he was given to Lucretia Auld, who sent him to serve her brother-in-law, Hugh Auld in Baltimore and his wife, Sophia, who was the first to teach him to start to read and write, until her husband forbade her.

After seven years of relative good treatment as a domestic slave in Baltimore, Bailey was sent to a plantation to work in the fields and subjected to brutal treatment. He made good comrades among the other male slaves and helped organise a group escape of about 6 slaves in April 1836, but the conspiracy was discovered and Bailey was severely punished.

Two years later, in September 1838, aged 20, he finally managed to escape to the free North. In 1837, Bailey had met and fallen in love with Anna Murray, a free black woman in Baltimore about five years his senior. She encouraged his aspirations to be free, lent him money and helped his escape. The escape was quite elaborate, requiring Bailey to take a train north, then a steam ferry across the Susquehanna River, and then resume the train journey, to arrive at Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, an anti-slavery stronghold.

To do this he required a sailor’s uniform provided to him by Murray, who also gave him part of her savings to cover his travel costs and he needed to carry identification and protection papers certifying that he was free, which he had obtained from a free black seaman. Full details of the thrilling escape are given in the Wikipedia article.

Three points about this:

  1. Anna’s help was absolutely central to Bailey’s escape.
  2. Bailey gives no details whatsoever of the escape in this book: in this narrative he says that even hints about how he did it would close the escape route for any who wanted to follow him.
  3. It reads like one of the accounts of Allied airman escaping Nazi-occupied France, what with the need for a disguise and false papers. They are two very similar genres.

Bailey moved on from Philadelphia to New York where he was married to Anna Murray then, to be safe, they moved further north, to New Bedford, Massachusetts. Here he was welcomed by a network of  abolitionists who helped freed slaves. He wanted to change his name to establish a new identity and one of these white supporters suggested the name Douglass, the name of a character in Walter Scott’s novel The Lady of the Lake, which the supporter happened to be reading at the time (explained in chapter XI).

After the newly named Frederick Douglass made a speech at an anti-slavery meeting in Nantucket he was hired by the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society to lecture about his life as a slave. He was so eloquent that auditors doubted such an articulate man could ever have been a slave and that was the spur for him to write this autobiography, the Narrative, which became an international bestseller.

The publicity the Narrative brought made him made Douglass fear he might be tracked down and recaptured by his previous owner, so he fled to England. Here he became a free man when a group of supporters purchased his liberty for $700. In spring 1847 Douglass returned to America and launched his own newspaper. He published a second autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom, in 1855.

Following the outbreak of the civil war in April 1861, Douglass lobbied President Lincoln to allow black men to enlist as soldiers in the Union cause and lobbied for the emancipation of slaves to become a Union war aim and so his joy when Lincoln finally makes the Emancipation Proclamation on 1 January 1863 is often quoted by historians. After the war he campaigned for the swift passage of the Fifteenth Amendment granting suffrage to freed slaves. It was finally ratified in 1870.

Douglass rose to hold a series of official positions, serving the US government as a Federal Marshall in the District of Columbia, as consul to Haiti and chargé d’affaires to the Dominican Republic. These experiences form the basis for his third autobiography, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, published in 1881.

Douglass died in 1895 shortly after delivering a speech about women’s rights.

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

It’s a short text. In the Oxford University Press edition, it’s 92 pages. But a little like another short book, One Day In The Life of Ivan Denisovich, it manages to convey an entire world of suffering and humiliation in a short span.

The text is packed with examples of the wickedness and evil of slavery which appal and disgust the reader. But what really strikes home is the universal perversion of normal human relationships which slavery brings. He never knew his birthday, no-one told him. He was separated from his mother when he was months old; she was sent off to slave from dawn to dusk at another of his master’s holdings. On a handful of occasions, when her day’s work was done, she walked miles to see him and bed down with him for a few hours but she was always gone in the morning. When he was seven he learned, some time after the fact, that she had died.

He explains how frequent it is that a master impregnates one of his female slaves and goes on to raise the child, his own child, as another slave. On the one hand it is ‘cheaper’ than buying new slaves. But on the other, it leads to terrible perversions of human relations. Think about it: a man makes his own child a slave. If he shows any partiality for the child, his white children or wife and even the other slaves will resent it. And he looks on while overseers whip his own child, or watches his half-brothers whip his own child.

The slave narrative genre and its conventions

The notes in the OUP version I read mention the 1839 book, American Slavery as It Is: Testimony of a Thousand Witnesses. This was an anthology of documents assembled by the American abolitionist Theodore Dwight Weld, his wife Angelina Grimké, and her sister Sarah Grimké. They bought thousands of old newspapers from libraries and scoured them for all references to slavery, personal accounts, letters, articles and hundreds of adverts, especially for runaway slaves, written by slavers themselves.

When cut and pasted together the book formed a harrowing testimony to the brutality of the slave regime which completely contradicted the lying speeches of southern politicians and commentators.

But from a literary point of view, the important thing about American Slavery As It Is is how influential it was. Harriet Beecher Stowe used it as the direct inspiration for her novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which itself influenced millions. Charles Dickens’s American Notes quotes whole ads from American Slavery. And  also Frederick Douglass quoted extensively from the book in the many speeches he gave.

My point is that the recycling and formatting of descriptions meant that anti-slavery books quickly became a genre with its own conventions and formats. Certain topics were expected. Certain arguments were repeated. As I read through the Narrative I was certainly horrified by Douglass’s experiences of the systematic heartlessness, cruelty and brutality of the American slave system. But I also began to notice that the narrative is artfully arranged to press its readers’ buttons.

Consider his audience. It was the educated, bien-pensant, North American nineteenth-century middle-classes, the same high-minded New England abolitionists who attended his lectures. What were their values? They believed in family, in home, in chastity and fidelity. They believed in religion, the ten commandments, we should love our neighbour as ourselves. They believed in the sanctity of the Sabbath, that men should use chaste and dignified language and refrain from swearing. They had a sentimental post-romantic ideology of fine feelings and romantic attachments. They disapproved of alcohol and many advocated complete abstention.

As I read Douglass’s Narrative it almost felt like he had a checklist of these Victorian values in front of him and went out of his way to show how slavery, slave owners and their overseers were the exact opposite of everything the Victorians held precious, and embodied the diabolical anti-type of every single Victorian value.

Chastity

Many male slave owners had sex with their female slaves. Female slaves were unable to maintain their chastity and there was no-one to protect them. All those fair damsels being rescued from dragons in sentimental Victorian art and literature were mocked by the reality of the systematic raping of millions of helpless black women.

Family values

Rape

Male slave owners completely inverted the idea of family values by siring multiple mulatto children with numerous slave women, obviously out of wedlock. Douglass himself thought his father was probably the white owner of the plantation he was born on. It is doubtful if his mother gave anything like what we mean by ‘consent’ to him raping her. Douglass must have gone through his life knowing he was the result of white master rape.

Destroying families

Not only that, but slave owners thought nothing of breaking up families, dividing husband and wife or parents from children, at the drop of a hat, with no warning, and forever. After Colonel Lloyd hears criticism of himself from a slave who didn’t even realise Lloyd was his master (Lloyd had some 1,000 slaves), he acts decisively and cruelly.

The poor man was then informed by his overseer that, for having found fault with his master, he was now to be sold to a Georgia trader. He was immediately chained and handcuffed; and thus, without a moment’s warning, he was snatched away, and forever sundered, from his family and friends, by a hand more unrelenting than death.

Douglass being separated from his mother while still a baby was no accident; it was an intrinsic part of a system which went out of its way to destroy all natural family feeling.

My mother and I were separated when I was but an infant—before I knew her as my mother. It is a common custom, in the part of Maryland from which I ran away, to part children from their mothers at a very early age. Frequently, before the child has reached its twelfth month, its mother is taken from it, and hired out on some farm a considerable distance off, and the child is placed under the care of an old woman, too old for field labour. For what this separation is done, I do not know, unless it be to hinder the development of the child’s affection toward its mother, and to blunt and destroy the natural affection of the mother for the child. This is the inevitable result.

Anti-fathers

The fathers of these half-breed slave children were happy to watch them be degraded, worked to death, punished and whipped to shreds. Pretty much the exact opposite of what the ideal, caring and loving Victorian paterfamilias ought to be. A diabolical inversion.

Truth telling and lies

Colonel Lloyd had met the slave about an errand on a road, asked him who he belonged to, was told ‘Colonel Lloyd’ and when he asked what kind of owner Lloyd was, the slave (not realising he was talking to the man himself) replied that he wasn’t treated well. Tearing him away from his family was the slave’s punishment.

OK, upsetting story: but, as is his way, Douglass then goes on to make a much wider sociological point, which is that it was this kind of event which taught all slaves never to tell the truth. Again, for the Victorians this was a much more important issue than it is to us today. Douglass was addressing the Victorian value which goes something like ‘a gentleman always tells the truth’. All Victorian mummies told their little boys and girls to always tell the truth. Well here, Douglass shows his reader, is a vast system which indoctrinates millions of slaves into never telling the truth, into hesitating to reply to any enquiry, of being afraid to tell the truth to anyone, in any situation, in case they are a spy for their owner trying to catch them out (which does, Douglass assures us, frequently happen).

Slavery was not only based on multiple lies about human nature but it created a culture of systematic lying. For God-fearing Victorian evangelists this was horrifying for who is the Father of Lies in the Bible? The Devil. Slavery does the Devil’s work by turning its wretched subjects into sinners.

Chivalry towards the fairer sex

As we all know Victorian ladies fainted at the sight of a grand piano’s legs and Victoria chaps were aroused by an exposed ankle. Slave culture drove a coach and horses through these fancy pretensions with slave women regularly stripped naked and degraded.

I have often been awakened at the dawn of day by the most heart-rending shrieks of an own aunt of mine, whom he used to tie up to a joist, and whip upon her naked back till she was literally covered with blood. No words, no tears, no prayers, from his gory victim, seemed to move his iron heart from its bloody purpose. The louder she screamed, the harder he whipped; and where the blood ran fastest, there he whipped longest. He would whip her to make her scream, and whip her to make her hush; and not until overcome by fatigue, would he cease to swing the blood-clotted cowskin.

Male slave owners could have sex with any slave they wanted to. Apart from anything else the system institutionalised rape on an industrial scale. He tells the story of his Aunt Hester, a good looking woman who he now realises his master was raping. When his master catches her in the company of a male slave from another property:

Before he commenced whipping Aunt Hester, he took her into the kitchen, and stripped her from neck to waist, leaving her neck, shoulders, and back, entirely naked. He then told her to cross her hands, calling her at the same time a d——d b——h. After crossing her hands, he tied them with a strong rope, and led her to a stool under a large hook in the joist, put in for the purpose. He made her get upon the stool, and tied her hands to the hook. She now stood fair for his infernal purpose. Her arms were stretched up at their full length, so that she stood upon the ends of her toes. He then said to her, ‘Now, you d——d b——h, I’ll learn you how to disobey my orders!’ and after rolling up his sleeves, he commenced to lay on the heavy cowskin, and soon the warm, red blood (amid heart-rending shrieks from her, and horrid oaths from him) came dripping to the floor.

If chivalry means something like respect towards and consideration for ‘the fairer sex’, then slavery was its diabolical antitype, combining systematic rape, stripping naked and degradation, along with the most violent and cruel physical punishment imaginable.

Decency

Not only were the women regularly raped and/or stripped and whipped, but most slaves had very few clothes to cover their bodies with, to maintain what the Victorians thought of as their ‘decency’, and then only of the poorest quality. These often degenerated to rags. Where Douglass grew up, the children weren’t given any underclothes or garments to his their privates, just one long shirt.

The children unable to work in the field had neither shoes, stockings, jackets, nor trousers, given to them; their clothing consisted of two coarse linen shirts per year. When these failed them, they went naked until the next allowance-day. Children from seven to ten years old, of both sexes, almost naked, might be seen at all seasons of the year.

This indecency would have scandalised Douglass’s high-minded, religious readers.

Christian values

Slave owners simply deny that slaves are human and therefore ineligible for the rights and respect preached by Christianity (see below). By direct contradiction, Douglass makes plain at various points in the narrative that he is a practising Christian who believes the series of incidents which led to his eventual freeing were the results of a special Providence. In fact he devotes the final section of the text, the Appendix, to making an unambiguous extended declaration of his profound Christian faith.

As to whether religion had a positive effect on slave owners, the answer is No. In 1832 Douglass was transferred to the ownership of young Master Thomas Auld who turns out to be a mean and cruel owner. In August 1832 his master attends a Methodist camp meeting and is converted to the new religion, and yet it in no way moderates his behaviour. He continues to whip and punish Douglass for  numerous infringements of his petty rules. In fact, Douglass states that conversion to more active Christian belief made his master’s behaviour worse:

I indulged a faint hope that his conversion would lead him to emancipate his slaves, and that, if he did not do this, it would, at any rate, make him more kind and humane. I was disappointed in both these respects. It neither made him to be humane to his slaves, nor to emancipate them. If it had any effect on his character, it made him more cruel and hateful in all his ways; for I believe him to have been a much worse man after his conversion than before. Prior to his conversion, he relied upon his own depravity to shield and sustain him in his savage barbarity; but after his conversion, he found religious sanction and support for his slaveholding cruelty.

Douglass routinely watches Auld whip a helpless young slave woman, Henny, and piously quote scripture to justify doing so: ‘“He that knoweth his master’s will, and doeth it not, shall be beaten with many stripes’ (Luke 12:47).

Not really up to managing slaves, Auld loans Douglass out to a Mr Covey, a notorious ‘nigger breaker’, even though he was a professor of religion—a pious soul—a member and a class-leader in the Methodist church. Once again this Mr Covey manages to be super-pious and extremely violent to his slaves. Covey whipped Douglass more than any other master. Later on Douglass is totally explicit on this issue:

I assert most unhesitatingly, that the religion of the south is a mere covering for the most horrid crimes,—a justifier of the most appalling barbarity,—a sanctifier of the most hateful frauds,—and a dark shelter under, which the darkest, foulest, grossest, and most infernal deeds of slaveholders find the strongest protection.

Were I to be again reduced to the chains of slavery, next to that enslavement, I should regard being the slave of a religious master the greatest calamity that could befall me. For of all slaveholders with whom I have ever met, religious slaveholders are the worst. I have ever found them the meanest and basest, the most cruel and cowardly, of all others.

It was my unhappy lot not only to belong to a religious slaveholder, but to live in a community of such religionists. Very near Mr. Freeland lived the Rev. Daniel Weeden, and in the same neighbourhood lived the Rev. Rigby Hopkins. These were members and ministers in the Reformed Methodist Church. Mr. Weeden owned, among others, a woman slave, whose name I have forgotten. This woman’s back, for weeks, was kept literally raw, made so by the lash of this merciless, ‘religious’ wretch.

For pious, religious Northern readers, what could be more horrifying than this hypocrisy and the devilish quoting of scripture to justify cruelty and sadism?

Bad language

The Victorians disapproved of bad language. D—n and b——h are spelled with the central letters omitted so as not to offend the gentle reader. By contrast, the overseers who managed their slaves on the owners behalves are consistently depicted as swearing their heads off and uttering all the worst oaths available.

This ‘profanity’ was far more offensive to Victorian readers than it is to us today. The height of this sin was blasphemy, to take the Lord’s name in vain, to use the name of God or Jesus in angry outbursts instead of contexts of veneration. Profanity had been a serious crime in early modern (Elizabethan and Restoration) times and was still highly frowned on in polite society in the nineteenth century. Whereas:

Mr. Severe [the overseer] was rightly named: he was a cruel man. I have seen him whip a woman, causing the blood to run half an hour at the time; and this, too, in the midst of her crying children, pleading for their mother’s release. He seemed to take pleasure in manifesting his fiendish barbarity. Added to his cruelty, he was a profane swearer. It was enough to chill the blood and stiffen the hair of an ordinary man to hear him talk. Scarce a sentence escaped him but that was commenced or concluded by some horrid oath. The field was the place to witness his cruelty and profanity. His presence made it both the field of blood and of blasphemy.

Mr. Plummer was a miserable drunkard, a profane swearer, and a savage monster. He always went armed with a cowskin and a heavy cudgel. I have known him to cut and slash the women’s heads so horribly, that even master would be enraged at his cruelty, and would threaten to whip him if he did not mind himself.

Drunkenness

Same with alcohol. Overseers are often depicted as the worse for wear, another value whose transgression meant much more to Victorians than to us. Drunkenness was seen as a vice, and one which degraded its practitioner.

In this respect, as so many others, Douglass goes out of his way to show how Southern slaveowner behaviour was the exact antitype of ‘true’ religion and civilised values.

Whipping and blows

So much for Douglass’s enumeration of the way the institution of slavery mocked and inverted traditional Christian and Victorian values.

At a kind of higher level, slavery mocked the very idea of a civilised society. The most obvious way is that, in a civilised society, men show respect and courtesy to each other, whereas slave society was drenched in wanton cruelty and, in particular, the universality of whipping.

It would astonish one, unaccustomed to a slaveholding life, to see with what wonderful ease a slaveholder can find things, of which to make occasion to whip a slave. A mere look, word, or motion,—a mistake, accident, or want of power,—are all matters for which a slave may be whipped at any time. Does a slave look dissatisfied? It is said, he has the devil in him, and it must be whipped out. Does he speak loudly when spoken to by his master? Then he is getting high-minded, and should be taken down a button-hole lower. Does he forget to pull off his hat at the approach of a white person? Then he is wanting in reverence, and should be whipped for it. Does he ever venture to vindicate his conduct, when censured for it? Then he is guilty of impudence,—one of the greatest crimes of which a slave can be guilty. Does he ever venture to suggest a different mode of doing things from that pointed out by his master? He is indeed presumptuous, and getting above himself; and nothing less than a flogging will do for him. Does he, while ploughing, break a plough,—or, while hoeing, break a hoe? It is owing to his carelessness, and for it a slave must always be whipped.

Douglass shows that pretty much all slaves are whipped, some to a hair-raising degree, whipped for half an hour solid till the overseer is exhausted and strips of skin hang off the slaves’ bloody backs.

I have seen Colonel Lloyd make old Barney, a man between fifty and sixty years of age, uncover his bald head, kneel down upon the cold, damp ground, and receive upon his naked and toil-worn shoulders more than thirty lashes at the time. Colonel Lloyd had three sons—Edward, Murray, and Daniel,—and three sons-in-law, Mr. Winder, Mr. Nicholson, and Mr. Lowndes. All of these lived at the Great House Farm, and enjoyed the luxury of whipping the servants when they pleased, from old Barney down to William Wilkes, the coach-driver. I have seen Winder make one of the house-servants stand off from him a suitable distance to be touched with the end of his whip, and at every stroke raise great ridges upon his back.

At the other end of the spectrum, less devastatingly violent but just as demoralising, are the frequent blows and cuffs and beatings which some slave owners handed out to their chattel, sometimes on a constant level, for almost all a slave’s waking hours. He evidences the household of Mrs Hamilton in Baltimore, who sat in the middle of her living room with a bullwhip by her side and:

Scarce an hour passed during the day but was marked by the blood of one of these slaves. The girls seldom passed her without her saying, ‘Move faster, you black gip!’ at the same time giving them a blow with the cowskin over the head or shoulders, often drawing the blood.

Compare and contrast with all those Victorian novels where the weak and fey female politely accepts the visitation of a charming young gentleman and they politely discourse over tea and cakes. The reality of slave society’s continual, constant violence makes a mockery of those scenes.

Injustice and murder

Obviously slavery was a vast system of injustice which gave rise to countless millions of daily instances of injustice. But Douglass is careful to include some instances of what he regards as murder, where a slave overseer simply murders a slave dead. Now entire mid-Victorian novels could rotate around just one murder, the newspapers went mad every time a salacious murder was committed and there were outcries against the heartless perpetrators or such heinous crimes. As long as the victims were white.

Douglass goes out of his way to describe the murders of several slaves, namely when the grave and serious overseer Mr Gore shoots dead Demby, a slave, for running away during a whipping and hiding in a creek. Mr Gore tells him to come out of the creek, says he’ll count to three, counts to three then shoots Demby through the head.

Or Mr Thomas Lanman of St Michael’s who murders two of his slaves, one of them by knocking his brains out with a hatchet.

The individual stories are upsetting, but the point Douglass is making is that both times the overseers got away with it. They were never charged or ‘brought to justice’. Even if the white ‘justice’ system made a few cursory attempts at an investigation it soon fizzled out, the whole thing was hushed up, and the overseers continued on their career of whipping and occasionally killing their slaves.

Slavery was a system which literally got away with murder, thus undermining the fundamental basis of all civilised society, which is the sanctity of human life.

Suicide

Nowadays we think of suicide as the result of mental illness or mental problems to which we must be sympathetic and supportive. But for the Victorians it was first and foremost a terrible sin which automatically condemned its practitioner to hell.

Which is the relevance of Douglass’s admission that it was only when he could read and began to read abolitionist tracts against slavery that the full force of the horrific iniquitous system in which he found himself became clear and he began to have suicidal thoughts. Reading had shown him the hellhole he was in but offered no escape. Anyone who has had suicidal feelings will recognise that mental condition, the feeling that you are trapped, in a box, in a cell, in a hole, with no way out except to do away with yourself.

Thus Douglass’s admission of his own suicidal ideas is an example of the double-sidedness of the narrative: it is a true and accurate first person description of his feelings. But at the same time makes a massive general point about the effect of the system on its victims, creating widespread feelings of hopelessness and despair, so frowned on by Victorians, and which often led to the actual act of suicide, which was an unambiguous sin which condemned its practitioner to hell.

In its way, suicide was more iniquitous and evil than murder, in which the victim, according to Victorian theology, at least stood the chance of going to heaven. Douglass shows that slavery was not just a system of universal violence, rape and sadistic punishment, but also spread the sin of suicidal thoughts and actions.

Are slaves human?

The fundamental crux of the issue was whether slaves were fully human. Southerners said no. They used a wide variety of arguments to support this position, but sooner or later all the arguments boil down to claiming slaves are a difference race, a different species: they were cursed to slavery in the Bible, they enjoy slavery, they were animals so they couldn’t be reasoned with and needed the firm discipline of slavery, they were congenitally unfit for freedom, and so on.

Whereas abolitionists argued that, yes, slaves are human, as human as all other humans, with the full set of human feelings, emotions, perceptions, thoughts and intellect, they are creatures of God like you and me, and so are due the entire panoply of human rights, freedom under the law, equal access to justice and so on.

It is to address the slaver accusation that slaves are somehow not fully human in their a) intellect and b) feelings that Douglass goes out of his way to prove the opposite.

Feelings

This motivation (to prove that slaves are capable of all the human emotions) underlies the passages in the first few chapters about his mother, Harriet Bailey, how they were separated when he was a baby but how she still made long pilgrimages to see her son. These passages are not only heart-breaking in their own right but are making a fundamental point: slaves have feelings, too. They are capable of just the same fine family sentiments as the most dignified of white people.

This is not a trivial issue. A key plank in the defence of slavery was that slaves were incapable of finer feelings and emotions. You could split up their family units as if they were livestock because they were incapable of feelings, you could whip them like you whipped a donkey because they didn’t feel it. Passages like the ones about his mother are at pains to utterly discredit this argument.

Intellect

As to intellect, slavers were able to use the circular argument that their slaves were ignorant, illiterate and stupid and so it was pointless trying to educate them. Douglass singles out the key moment in his escape from slavery as coming when his mistress in Baltimore, Mrs Sophia Auld, naively offered to teach him to read and write. In fact she didn’t get very far before her husband learned what she is doing and delivers a key speech:

‘If you give a nigger an inch, he will take an ell. A nigger should know nothing but to obey his master—to do as he is told to do. Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world. Now,’ said he, ‘if you teach that nigger (speaking of myself) how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master. As to himself, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy.’

Hearing this was like a thunderbolt to Douglass’s mind. It lay bare in a flash the key to the white man’s domination over the black. Education. Literacy. Those were the sources of the white man’s power:

These words sank deep into my heart, stirred up sentiments within that lay slumbering, and called into existence an entirely new train of thought. It was a new and special revelation, explaining dark and mysterious things, with which my youthful understanding had struggled, but struggled in vain. I now understood what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty—to wit, the white man’s power to enslave the black man…From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom.

And although his mistress obeyed her husband and abruptly stopped teaching him his letters, the next few chapters give a moving account of how Douglass picked it up on the streets, doing favours for white boys and getting them to identify the different letters for him, picking them out in the dirt or on brick walls, slowly learning to spell out the words in adverts and shop signs, painfully teaching himself to read. Also his master’s son, Master Thomas, was attending junior school and so Douglass was able to sneak looks at his schoolbooks and even swipe his old ‘copy books’ and use them to teach himself to write out letters. And once he could read, it opened up the vast treasure house of knowledge, law and power.

So Douglass’s narrative not only describes the author’s slow, painful self-education and the path to empowerment which he undertook – but the narrative itself, its sheer existence, is a massive rebuttal and disproof of a central plank of the slaver argument that blacks are somehow intrinsically incapable of thought and intellect.

This book at a stroke demolished that argument forever. Give a black child the same education as a white one and he or she can go on to become easily the equal of any white person, arguably their superior because they have had to overcome so many obstacles in a white persons’ society.

A treasury of arguments and examples

Douglass’s narrative became such a central text in abolitionist literature not only because it is a vividly written, easily accessible and heart-breaking first-hand testimony to an evil system; but also because it was a cannily assembled series of counter-arguments to all the slavers’ justifications for their system.

It can be plundered for scenes which graphically depict the stomach-churning violence or the subtly corrupting effect of slave-owning on initially ‘good’ people. But it was also a goldmine of anti-slavery arguments which could, and would, be quoted extensively in abolitionist lectures, articles and speeches for decades to come.

P.S.

I had included some photos of slaves taken for Harvard zoologist Louis Agassiz in 1850 for a study in which he tried to prove that black people constituted a different and inferior race to whites. The ownership and purpose of these images is now highly contested, as is Agassiz’s reputation. I had included the photos as visual evidence of the abjection and humiliation to which slaves were subjected. But, on reflection, I think a) I was perpetuating that very objectification and humiliation by including them, and b) the people in the photos have living descendants who have complained to Harvard about the ownership and use of the images, and, to be blunt, how would I like to see photos of my great-great-great grandparents stripped naked and humiliated? So I’ve removed them.


Related links

Other posts about slavery and racism

Origins

Slavery

The civil war

20th century racism

Art

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