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.

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Industry and Empire: From 1750 to the Present Day by Eric Hobsbawm (1968)

Eric Hobsbawm (1917 to 2012) was one of Britain’s leading Marxist historians. Of Jewish parentage he spent his boyhood in Vienna and Berlin during the rise of the Nazis. With Hitler’s accession to power in 1933, the family moved to Britain in 1933, although his Wikipedia page is at pains to point out that, because his father was originally from London’s East End, he had always had British citizenship. Hobsbawm excelled at school and went to Cambridge where he joined the communist party in 1936.

Twenty-two when the Second World War broke out, Hobsbawm served in the Royal Engineers and the Army Educational Corps, though he was prevented from serving overseas due to his communist beliefs. In 1947 he got his first job as a lecturer in history at Birkbeck College, University of London, the start of a long and very successful career as a historian, which included stints teaching in America at Stanford and MIT.

As a Marxist Hobsbawm had a special interest in what he called the ‘dual revolutions’ i.e. the political revolution in France in 1789 and the parallel industrial revolution in Britain. His most famous books are the trilogy describing 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)

A series he completed with a fourth volume, his account of the ‘short’ 20th century, The Age of Extremes (1994).

Industry and Empire was commissioned by the high-minded Pelican books back in the mid-1960s, as the third and concluding volume in a series about economic history (part 1 being The Medieval Economy and Society by M.M. Postan, part 2 Reformation to Industrial Revolution by Hobsbawm’s fellow Marxist historian, Christopher Hill).

I read it as a student and had a vague memory of finding it rather boring, but on rereading I found it riveting. Setting out to cover such a huge period of just over 200 years means that individual chapters are relatively brief at around 20 pages long and highly focused on their subjects.

State of England 1750

Arguably the most interesting section is the opening 50 pages where Hobsbawm sets the scene for the industrial revolution which is to come, describing the state of England (the book focuses overwhelmingly on England with only occasional remarks about the other three nations of the UK) around 1750, and making a number of interesting observations.

The most interesting is that, although England was ruled by an oligarchy of a relatively small number of mighty families – maybe as few as 200 – who owned most of the land, the key thing about them was that they were a post-revolutionary elite (p.32). Their equivalents in France or the German or Italian states were genuinely hidebound reactionaries obsessed with aping the accoutrements and etiquette of kings and princes. By sharp contrast England’s elite had survived not one but two revolutions (the execution of Charles I in 1649, then the Glorious Revolution of 1688). As a result they did not submit to their monarch but had reached a position of constitutional ascendancy over their king in the form of a dominating Parliament. They were powerful and independent.

Above all, England’s elite were devoted to commerce and profit. One of the motive forces of the civil war of the 1640s had been King Charles’s insistence on granting monopolies of trade to favoured courtiers and spurning genuine entrepreneurs who came to form a powerful bloc against him. But all that had been sorted out a century ago. Now this politically independent oligarchy was interested in trade and profit of all sorts.

But these were only one of the many differences which distinguished 1750s England from the continent. Foreign visitors also remarked on the well-tended, well-organised state of the land and the thoroughness of its agriculture. They commented on the flourishing of trade: England was noted as a very business-like nation, with well-developed markets for domestic goods of all kinds.

Multiple origins of the Industrial Revolution

Hobsbawm points out that the industrial revolution is one of the most over-determined and over-explained events in history. He amusingly rattles off a list of reasons which have been given by countless historians over the years for why the industrial revolution first occurred in Britain, for why Britain was for several generations the unique workshop of the world and pioneer of revolutionary new ways of working, new industrial machinery, new ways of producing and distributing goods. Historians have attributed it to:

  • Protestantism and the Protestant work ethic
  • the ‘scientific revolution’ of the 1660s
  • Britain’s political maturity compared with Europe (i.e. the Glorious Revolution)
  • the availability of large sources of coal
  • the presence of numerous fast-flowing streams to provide water power
  • a run of good harvests in mid-18th century
  • Britain’s better road and canal infrastructure

And many more. The list is on page 37.

Hobsbawm’s explanation – colonies and colonial trade

Hobsbawm lists all these putative causes in order to dismiss them and attribute Britain’s primariness to one reason. The first wave of the industrial revolution was based on the mass processing of raw cotton into textiles. 100% of Britain’s cotton was imported from the slave plantations of the American South and a huge percentage of it was then exported to foreign markets, in Africa and then to India where, in time, the authorities found it necessary to stifle the native cloth-making trade in order to preserve the profits of Lancashire factory owners. The facts are astonishing: Between 1750 and 1770 Britain’s cotton exports multiplied ten times over (p.57). In the post-Napoleonic decades something like one half of the value of all British exports consisted or cotton products, and at their peak (in the 1830s), raw cotton made up twenty per cent of total net imports (p.69). So the industrial revolution in Britain was driven by innovations in textile manufacturing and these utterly relied on the web of international trade, on importing raw materials from America and then exporting them in huge quantities to captive markets in British colonies.

Cotton manufacture, the first to be industrialised, was essentially tied to overseas trade. (p.48)

If Britain had had to rely on a) domestic sources of raw materials and b) its domestic market to sell the finished product to, although the native population was growing during the 1700s it wasn’t growing that fast. What provided the crucial incentive to the cloth manufacturers of Lancashire to invest and innovate was the certainty of a vast overseas market for manufactured cloth in the British Empire, which was finally made safe for British control after the Seven Years War (1756 to 1763).

Britain had established itself as master of the world’s seas as a result of the Seven Years War and already had a thriving trade infrastructure at ports like Glasgow, Liverpool, Bristol and London. What kick-started things, in Hobsbawm’s view, was the opening up of overseas markets. It was the ability to send ships full of cloth products to India and other colonial markets, to make large profits and then reinvest the profits in further innovations that led a generation of Lancashire entrepreneurs to experiment with new devices and machines and ways of working.

So, Hobsbawm’s thesis rests on a set of linked propositions, that:

  • Britain had a uniquely warlike series of governments through the 18th century (pp.49 to 50)
  • Britain was able to rely on a far more advanced and sizeable navy than its nearest rival, France, which was always distracted by wars on the continent and so preferred to spend resources on its army, thus, in effect, handing rule of the oceans over to Britain
  • in the mid-1700s a series of foreign wars conquered all of north America, most of the Caribbean and India for Britain
  • and it was the complex web of international trading thus established by its a) warlike government and b) its world-dominating navy which provided the economic framework which motivated the technological and business innovations which led to the Industrial Revolution (pages 48 to 51)

This vast and growing circulation of goods…provided a limitless horizon of sales and profit for merchant and manufacturer. And it was the British – who by their policy and force as much as by their enterprise and inventive skill – captured these markets. (p.54)

And again:

Behind our industrial revolution there lies this concentration on the colonial and underdeveloped markets overseas, the successful battle to deny them to anyone else…the exchange of overseas primary products for British manufactures was to be the foundation of our international economy. (p.54)

And:

The Industrial Revolution was generated in these decades – after the 1740s, when this massive but slow growth in the domestic economies combined with the rapid – after 1750 extremely rapid – expansion of the international economy; and it occurred in the country which seized its international opportunities to corner a major share of the overseas market. (p.54)

1. Manufacturers in a pre-industrial country, in agriculture and artisans in trade, have to wait fairly passively on market requirements. But an aggressive foreign policy which seizes territory overseas creates new markets, potentially huge markets with massive opportunities for rapid and massive expansion (p.42).

2. Hobsbawm makes the interesting point that it wasn’t the inventions per se that accelerated and automated cotton manufacture. The level of engineering skill required to start the industrial revolution was very low. Most of the technology and ideas already existed or had been lying around for decades (pages 59 to 60). It was the guarantee of tasty profits by exporting finished goods to captive colonial markets which gave individual entrepreneurs the certainty of profit and so the incentive to experiment and innovate. One factory owner’s innovation was copied by all his rivals, and so an ever-accelerating cycle of innovation was created.

All the other conditions historians have suggested (listed above) were present and many were important contributors. But it was the spur of guaranteed profits abroad which, in Hobsbawm’s opinion, provided the vital spark.

Is British industrialisation a model for the developing world?

It is an odd feature of the book that Hobsbawm has barely articulated his thesis before he is worrying about the plight of the developing world. He keeps asking, particularly in the opening ‘Origins’ chapters, whether Britain’s experience of industrialisation could be a model for the newly industrialising and newly independent post-colonial nations of the 1960s to emulate?

The short answer is an emphatic No and in answering it, Hobsbawm makes clearer than ever the uniqueness of Britain’s history. Britain was unique in being able to fumble its way towards industrialisation slowly and piecemeal and on a very small scale, one factory owner here trying out a new machine, another, there, devising a more efficient way of organising his factory hands and so on.

There was no ‘barrier to entry’ into the industrialised state for Britain because it was the first nation ever to do so, and so had the luxury of making it up as it went along. It started from 0. A little bit of tinkering could produce surprising rewards. There were no leaps but a series of pragmatic steps. And there was no competition and no pressure from anyone else.

Obviously, 150 years later, any nation trying to industrialise in the 1960s (or now) is in a totally different situation in at least two obvious ways: the shift from non-industrial to modern industrial production now represents an enormous leap. The technology and scale and infrastructure required for industrialisation is huge and can only begin to be achieved by dint of enormous planning (to create a co-ordinated energy and transport and distribution infrastructure) and huge investment, money which by definition a non-industrialised country does not have, and so has to go cap-in-hand to international banks which themselves dictate all kinds of terms and conditions.

Above all, a newly industrialising nation will be entering a very crowded marketplace where over a hundred nations are already fighting tooth and claw to maintain competitive advantage in a multitude of areas and practices, not least trade and tariff and tax and financial arrangements which a country with few financial resources will find difficult to match.

At first I found Hobsbawm’s adversions to this question of whether Britain’s history and example could be useful to developing nations a modish digression (it occurs on pages 38, 39, 61 to 62 and many more). But in fact placing British history in this contemporary frame turns out to be very thought-provoking. It not only sheds light on the challenges developing nations face, still, today – but also highlights the huge advantage Britain enjoyed back in the later 18th century by virtue of being the pioneer.

Because it industrialised and developed a transport infrastructure and financial systems first, Britain could afford to do them pretty badly and still triumph. Nobody, nowadays, could industrialise as amateurishly as Britain did.

To contemporaries who didn’t understand economics (pretty much everyone) the transformation and inexorable rise of Britain seemed inexplicable, miraculous, and it was this that gave rise to the simplistic, non-economic, cultural explanations for Britain’s success – all those explanations which foreground the anti-authoritarian, Protestant spirit of free enquiry, the independence of thought and action guaranteed by the Glorious Revolution, the nonconformist values of thrift and discipline and hard work espoused by dissenting tradesmen and factory owners excluded from politics or the professions by the Test Acts and so forced to make their way in the world through business, innovation and investment. And so on.

All these are aspects of the truth but are, ultimately, non-economists’ ways of trying to explain economics. And Hobsbawm is first and foremost an economic historian and proposing a Marxist thesis – Britain’s industrial primacy was based on a) her aggressive control of the seas and b) the huge and complex web of transoceanic trading arrangements which linked foreign suppliers with endless marketing opportunities in her foreign colonies.

The second industrial revolution

The second industrial revolution is the term commonly applied to the second wave of industrialisation associated with the rise of the new capital goods industries of coal, iron and steel, generally credited with starting in the 1840s.

Hobsbawm pauses to consider the teasing counter-factual notion that the industrial revolution based on textiles alone might conceivably have fizzled out in the 1830s, for the 15 years after the end of the Napoleonic Wars saw a catastrophic depression with much rural poverty. If nothing new had come along, it is conceivable that industrial development might have stalled or even stopped and the world remained at the level of having highly efficient machines to turn out cloth and no more.

But the railways came along. Hobsbawm explains that the great railway ‘mania’ of the 1840s was the result of the huge accumulation of capital derived from textiles looking for something to invest in (p.112). This explains the hysterical tone of wild investment and speculative mania which surrounded the early railways, and the irrationality of many of the lines which were opened with great fanfare only to go bust within years. To quote Wikipedia:

The mania reached its zenith in 1846, when 263 Acts of Parliament setting up new railway companies were passed, with the proposed routes totalling 9,500 miles (15,300 km). About a third of the railways authorised were never built — the companies either collapsed due to poor financial planning, were bought out by larger competitors before they could build their line, or turned out to be fraudulent enterprises to channel investors’ money into other businesses.

Between 1830 and 1850 6,000 miles of railways were opened in Britain (p.110) soaking up an investment of £240 million of capital (p.112), most of them during the intensest period of railway mania in between 1844 and 1846. By way of comparison, the total mileage of the modern UK railway network is around 11,000 miles.

Social historians dwell on the immense cultural changes the coming of the railways created. I remember being struck as a student when I learned that the standardisation of time and clocks across the UK required for railway timetables to work, was a huge innovation which dragged even the remotest locations into a modern, synchronised timeframe. If you visit any of the seaside towns of Britain you’ll discover their fortunes were transformed with the coming of the railways which allowed large numbers of visitors to travel cheaply to the coast, causing a building boom in hotels. And so on.

But as an economic historian, Hobsbawm makes the more obvious point that the building of all these railways required a vast expansion in the production of iron and then, quickly, of the more durable material, steel.

The railways acted as an immense spur to technical innovations in all aspects of metal manufacture, which in turn created a huge increase in demand for the coal to fuel all this industrial production, which in its turn created a need for quicker, more cost-effective bulk transportation, and so commercial motivation for yet more railways, and for trains which were more powerful, more cost effective, and so on. Innovation in one field spurred innovation all down the line.

British investors were able to invest because the act of investing in business speculations was itself a fast-growing area of business activity, creating cadres of stockbrokers and financial lawyers, jobs which didn’t exist 50 years earlier.

And this matrix of industries and professions spread abroad, with a huge growth of British investment in foreign companies, especially in the USA and South America. Profits from these foreign holdings gave rise to an entirely new class of rentiers, people able to afford a moneyed middle-class lifestyle without doing a day’s work, solely off the profit of shrewd investments.

By 1870 Britain had about 170,000 people of rank and property, living lives of luxury without any visible occupation. Hobsbawm emphasises that most of them were women (p.119). These were the ladies of independent means swanning off to spa resorts in Switzerland or villas in Italy who festoon the pages of late Victorian and Edwardian novels, like the Italophiles of E.M. Foster, like the continent-trotting Aunt Mary in Somerset Maugham’s novel Mrs Craddock. These comfortably-off parasites were still living a wonderful life between the wars, floating around Tuscany vapouring about Art and Life, as documented in the early novels of Aldous Huxley, living lives of luxury off the sweat and labour of working men in three continents.

Competitors and the long decline

The scale and speed of development, particularly of the second wave of the industrial revolution, with entire cities mushrooming into existence stuffed with factories, and a country swiftly criss-crossed by the loud, noisy new technology of the railways, awed contemporaries and again and again gave rise to essays and books and speeches extolling the miraculous qualities of the British nation.

It was only when competitor nations such as America and Germany began to harness the new technologies of the second industrial revolution, the ones which rotated around the production of coal, iron and the new material of steel, taking and improving techniques in the area of metal and machine production which rotated around the great boom in railways from the 1840s onwards, that the shortcomings of British production methods and efficiency began, very slowly, to be revealed.

The entire developed world entered a prolonged agricultural depression in the 1870s which lasted a decade or more (different historians give different start and end points but contemporaries thought it lasted from about 1873 into the 1890s) and when Britain emerged from this depression in the 1890s, she had been decisively overtaken in all measures of industrial production by Germany and America.

Between 1890 and 1895 both the USA and Germany passed Britain in the production of steel. During the ‘Great Depression’ Britain ceased to be ‘the workshop of the world’ and became merely one if its three greatest industrial powers; and, in some crucial respects, the weakest of them. (p.127)

The wealth pouring in from protected imperial trade with an empire was now vastly bigger than it had been in 1750 and so hid our industrial shortcomings from the unintelligent (which included most of the ruling class) and the Daily Mail-reading middle classes. But even the rousing jingoism of Kipling the imperialist poet and Joseph Chamberlain the imperialist politician during the 1890s couldn’t conceal Britain’s relative decline. The pomp and circumstance of the turn of the century was a fool’s paradise.

After the middle of the nineteenth century [the British cotton trade] found its staple outlet in India and the Far East. The British cotton industry was certainly in its time the best in the world, but it ended as it had begun by relying not on its competitive superiority but on a monopoly of the colonial, and underdeveloped markets which the British Empire, the British Navy and British commercial supremacy gave it. (p.58)

While the Germans and Americans developed new ways of organising industrial concerns, with huge cartels and monopolies, developed ever-better methods of mass production, invested heavily in technical education and pioneered new ways of selling high quality products to their domestic markets, Britain was still expending its time and energy expanding its already huge empire and trying to create a global imperial market with preferential treatment of what slowly came to be seen as inferior British goods. This remained the case into the period between the wars and even into the 1940s and 50s.

Imperialism, which reached its peak of rivalry and competition in the 1890s and 1900s, concealed the deep structural reasons for Britain’s long decline, which were already well established by 1900 (p.131).


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Designed in Cuba: Cold War Graphics @ the House of Illustration

Fidel Castro’s revolutionary 26th of July Movement and its allies defeated the military dictatorship of Cuban President Fulgencio Batista in January 1959. The new revolutionary government enacted a wide array of new domestic laws and policies, but Castro always saw the revolution in Cuba as just the beginning of the liberation of the oppressed masses in not just Latin America but war-torn Africa and around the world, wherever the poor and downtrodden were oppressed by colonial or neo-colonial masters.

OSPAAAL

And so the Organization of Solidarity with the People of Asia, Africa and Latin America (in Spanish the Organización de Solidaridad con los Pueblos de Asia, África y América Latina – abbreviated to OSPAAAL) was set up to fight globalisation, imperialism, neoliberalism and defend human rights, in Havana, in January 1966, after the Tricontinental Conference, a meeting of over 500 delegates and 200 observers from over 82 countries.

One of the first things the organisation did was establish a magazine to publicise its causes and titled Tricontinental. From 1966 into the 1990s more than fifty designers working in Havana produced hundreds of posters and editions of the magazine which expressed solidarity with the U.S.A.’s Black Panther Party, condemned apartheid in South Africa and the Vietnam War, and celebrated Latin America’s revolutionary icons, as well as criticising the ongoing existence of U.S. military bases in Guantanamo Bay, calling for the reunification of North and South Korea and many other radical causes.

The exhibition includes some 33 of the total of 50 or so artists and designers who worked for OSPAAAL, including leading lights such as Alfredo Rostgaard, Helena Serrano, Rafael Enríquez and Gladys Acosta Ávila.

Unlike artists in the Soviet bloc the OSPAAAL designers weren’t shackled by the deeply conservative doctrine of Socialist Realism, but were free to pick and choose from all the best streams of current art, including Pop Art and psychedelia. They also co-opted images and ideas from capitalist adverts into what they called ‘anti-ads’.

The plan was for the posters to be stapled into copies of Tricontinental, and so distributed around the world. Because the posters were intended to be internationalist they had to use strong primal languages or find inventive ways of conveying their message. If any writing was used it was generally in the three major languages of Spanish, English, French, and sometimes Arabic.

By the mid-1980s heavy trade embargos and sanctions imposed by American had created such shortages that it ultimately forced the organization out of production. By that time approximately 326 OSPAAAL posters had been produced.

Altogether it’s estimated that some nine million OPSAAAL posters were distributed around the developing world. At its peak the magazine had more than 100,000 subscribers, mostly students. At one time, it was common for posters from issues of Tricontinental to be put up on the walls of student community centres.

This exhibition brings together 170 works (100 posters and 70 magazines) produced by 33 OSPAAAL designers, created between 1965 and 1992, which are not only striking and dramatic art works in their own right but shed unexpected insights onto the long history of the Cold War.

The Mike Stanfield Collection

While originally distributed freely in editions of thousands, OSPAAAL posters and magazines are now rare and highly sought-after. The works in the exhibition are all drawn from a single UK private collection – The Mike Stanfield Collection, the largest collection of OSPAAAL material in the world, gathered by British collector Mike Stanfield over a 25-year period. Every work in the exhibition is drawn from his collection.

Posters

The poster designers used every trick in the toolbox of capitalist advertising plus a lot more they invented. The diversity and inventiveness of approaches is astonishing. Obviously the cause, the fundamental political aim of the posters, was deadly serious – but this didn’t stop them using scathing satire to make their points.

And above all they didn’t limit themselves to one aesthetic but seized an extraordinary freedom to experiment, with the result that you see everything from bold typography and photomontage to psychedelic colours and pop culture-inspired graphics, iconic modern imagery or ancient native objects pressed into service, silhouettes, psychedelic reverberating, cartoons and biting satire.

Cuba

The first edition of Tricontinental included an article by Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara and a folded poster by Alfredo Rostgard, thus inaugurating its two-pronged approach to radical propaganda: text for those who could read, stirring images for those who couldn’t.

Che Guevara (1969) © Alfredo G. Rostgaard, OSPAAAL. The Mike Stanfield Collection

It’s almost too obvious to point out but, in the Soviet bloc, the canon of revolutionary heroes from Marx through Lenin, Stalin on down, were all portrayed in real, or heroically socialist realist style. It takes a moment’s reflection to realise how utterly unlike that dull stifling tradition the OPSAAAL images are, freely taking from contemporary pop and op art and psychedelic art.

Africa

The designers were tasked with distilling complex anti-colonial conflicts down into simple but striking images, symbols which would require little or no explanation. This image of African women in traditional costume and carrying their babies in baby-carriers is made vivid and powerful by the addition of the semi-automatic rifles slung over their other shoulders.

The all-consuming nature of the struggle, the need to balance ordinary life with the struggle, the empowered role of women in the struggle, and the lack of facial features indicating that these are just two out of millions and millions anonymous fighters across the continent, are all brilliantly conveyed.

After Emory Douglas (1968) © Lízaro Abreu Padron, OSPAAAL. The Mike Stanfield Collection

Apartheid

Apartheid was a sore on the conscience of the world throughout the 1960s, 70s and 80s. Many of the OPSAAAL posters were simple images of oppression. This is unusual in being a more narrative image, with its four pictures showing the progressive, and inevitable, collapse of the repressive regime. Note the use of the four cardinal languages, Spanish, English, French and Arabic.

Day of Solidarity with the Struggle of the People of South Africa (1974) Olivio Martinez Viera, OSPAAAL. The Mike Stanfield Collection

Asia

The Vietnam War came to symbolise neo-imperialist Western super-violence against nationalist independence struggles and crystallised America’s reputation as the great enemy of freedom for many Third World countries.

This clever poster shows the word Saigon slowly morphing from being dominated by the Stars and Stripes to bearing the flag of the communist North, suggesting that the rebels would win in the end. As they did.

Saigon, International Week of Solidarity with Vietnam (1970) © Rene Mederos Pazos, OSPAAAL. The Mike Stanfield Collection

Anti-America

Cuba is just 90 miles from the American mainland.

From the moment Castro’s revolution succeeded, the Americans tried to overthrow it. In 1961 they launched the embarrassing Bay of Pigs invasion which ended in humiliation, but continued making intermittent attempts to assassinate Castro, as well as imposing crippling sanctions on its tiny neighbour.

In response Cuba helped to focus the world’s attention on America as the heartland of neo-colonial oppression. Some of the most powerful images in the exhibition distort and subvert imagery and symbols central to American culture, such as the Great Seal, the Bald Eagle, the Statue of Liberty or, as here, Uncle Sam himself, zapped by the power of the World Revolution.

World Solidarity with the Cuban Revolution (1980) © Victor Manuel Navarrete, OSPAAAL. The Mike Stanfield Collection

Using native cultural heritage

As a way into contemporary liberation struggles in Latin America, Asia or the Far East, some OPSAAAL designers had the idea of taking traditional indigenous artefacts and giving them a modern spin, mostly putting a machine gun in their hands. Some of these aboriginal peoples also represented the very first resisters to the colonial oppression which their distant descendants were now fighting against.

This approach tapped into nationalist feelings in the respective countries, and also made contemporary protesters feel, or realise, that they were in fact part of a long, long lineage of resistance and protest. The ten or so images which used old imagery like this were among my favourites.

Guatemala (1968) © Olivio Martinez Viera, OSPAAAL. The Mike Stanfield Collection

Magazine covers

To some extent the designers’ style was dictated by a shortage of materials, including good quality paper and printing ink, embargoed by the United States. This encouraged the designers to eschew subtlety in shade and contour and favour high-contrast photography and large areas of clearly defined colour. Tricontinental’s often starkly simple covers were printed in four colours by offset lithography.

Anti-America

Although little Cuba suffered badly from American sanctions, during the 60s and 70s there were many radical American supporters of the revolution. The San Francisco-based People’s Press published a North American edition if Tricontinental, and images created by Emory Douglas for the Black Panther Party newspaper were adapted for use by OPSAAAL.

There are posters here supporting the imprisoned black activist Angela Carter, as well as memorials for various black radicals shot or imprisoned in America. But in a way, it was the imaginative symbols of American oppression which make the most impact.

Tricontinental magazine 33

Anti-apartheid

Apartheid was in force in South Africa from 1948 to 1994. It was only the most extreme version of institutionalised white racism, which also included the segregation laws in America, so vehemently protested by the Civil Rights Movement.

For me the OPSAAAL posters and Tricontinental cover art are at their best when they embody a really strong design idea, as in this simple but scathing image, a piece of Pop Art collage used to withering effect.

Tricontinental 76

Thoughts

1. Taken together they make up a fascinating review of visual styles and approaches available to political poster makers in the late 60s and 70s. In many ways the magazine covers are even more inventive and biting than the posters. Lots and lots of them have a really strong visual and intellectual impact, like the image – blown up, here, into a wall-sized hanging – of an American astronaut reaching out to the moon while standing on the backs of two prone African Americans.

2. It’s a reminder of just how much conflict there was around in the world in the 1970s when I grew up, with military dictatorships running most of South America, with colonialist regimes and apartheid South Africa still repressing millions of Africans, while millions of others were caught up in brutal civil wars, and then topping everything the nightmare of Vietnam which was promptly followed by the living hell of the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia.

When you factor in that half of Europe was under Communist tyranny and there was an endless diet of scares about whether this or that incident might trigger World War Three, the world I grew up in seemed a much more violent and dangerous place than it does today.

3. This is embodied in the way there are so many guns in the posters. Almost all the native artefacts-updated ones simply put guns in the hands of tribal gods. In the last room in particular, almost every poster seemed to feature a man or woman or sometimes an inanimate object, holding a sub-machinegun. Stepping back from the rights and wrongs of the causes, the final room in particular gave me a claustrophobic sense of violence and fighting going on in every part of the world.

That’s maybe the main feeling the exhibition gave to me, but other visitors will find their own threads and meanings. Above all I defy you not to be thrilled by the sheer inventiveness and exuberance of so many of the works on display.

Installation view of Designed in Cuba at the House of Illustration. Photo by Paul Grover

And it’s worth pointing out that the curators of the exhibition flew to Cuba specially to interview the surviving OPSAAAL designers and that the exhibition includes the resulting video, in which leading designers such as Alfredo Rostgaard, Rafael Enríquez and Gladys Acosta Ávila explain at length their motivation and approach, the design ideas and technical constraints, which lay behind the Tricontinental phenomenon.

This is another brilliantly conceived and beautifully laid out exhibition from the House of Illustration.


Related links

Reviews of other House of Illustration exhibitions

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