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 Empire: 1875 to 1914 by Eric Hobsbawm (1987)

Summary

This is a very mixed bag of a book. The first quarter or so is a thrilling global overview of the main trends and developments in industrial capitalism during the period 1875 to 1914, containing a vast array of fascinating and often thrilling facts and figures. But then it mutates into a series of long, turgid, repetitive, portentous, banal and ultimately uninformative chapters about social change, the arts, sciences, social sciences and so on, which are dreadful.

And underlying it all is Hobsbawm’s unconcealed contempt for the nineteenth century ‘bourgeoisie’ and their ‘bourgeois society’, terms he uses so freely and with so little precision that they eventually degenerate into just being terms of abuse.

And in his goal of insulting the 19th century ‘bourgeoisie’ as much as possible, Hobsbawm glosses over a huge range of crucial differences – between nations and regions, between political and cultural and religious traditions, between parties and politicians, between classes and even periods, yoking a fact from 1880 to one from 1900, cherry-picking from a vast range of information in order to make his sweeping Marxist generalisations and support the tendentious argument that ‘bourgeois society’ was fated to collapse because of its numerous ‘contradictions’.

But when you really look hard at the ‘contradictions’ he’s talking about they become a lot less persuasive than he wants them to be, and his insistence that ‘bourgeois society’ was doomed to collapse in a welter of war and revolution comes to seem like the partisan, biased reporting of a man who is selective in his facts and slippery in his interpretations.

Eventually you feel like you are drowning in a sea of spiteful and tendentious generalisations. I would recommend literally any other book on the period as a better guide, for example:

It is symptomatic of Hobsbawm’s ignoring specificity, detail and precision in preference for sweeping generalisations about his hated ‘bourgeois society’, that in this book supposedly ‘about’ imperialism, he mentions the leading imperialist politician in the world’s leading imperialist nation, Joseph Chamberlain, precisely once, and the leading British cultural propagandist of imperialism, Rudyard Kipling, also only once. These feel like glaring omissions.

When I read this book as a student I was thrilled by its huge perspectives and confident generalisations and breezily Marxist approach. It was only decades later, when I read detailed books about the scramble for Africa, or late-imperial China, or really engaged with Kipling’s works, that I realised how little I actually understood about this period and how much I had been seriously misled by Hobsbawm’s fine-sounding but, in the end, inadequate, superficial and tendentiously misleading account.

Introduction

The Age of Empire is the third and final volume in Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm’s trilogy of books covering what he termed ‘the long nineteenth century’, from the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1798 to the start of the Great War in 1914. This third instalment covers the final 40 years, from 1875 to 1914.

In the previous book, The Age of Capital, Hobsbawm had amply demonstrated that he regards the third quarter of the nineteenth century as marking the triumph of the liberal ‘bourgeoisie’, of the ‘capitalist’ middle classes, in industry and technology and finance and politics and the arts.

Having seen off the attempt to overthrow existing regimes across continental Europe in the failed revolutions of 1848, the continent’s ruling classes experienced from 1850 onwards, a period of spectacular economic, technological, business and trade growth which continued on into the 1860s. This boom period was overseen by laissez-faire liberal governments in most countries and reflected in the widespread, optimistic belief that the steady stream of scientific, technological and industrial innovations would produce an endless progress upwards towards peace and prosperity. It was 25 years of what Hobsbawm insists on calling ‘liberal bourgeois triumph’.

It led to the confident conquest of the globe by the capitalist economy, carried by its characteristic class, the bourgeoisie, and under the banner of its characteristic intellectual expression, the ideology of liberalism. (p.9)

At the end of The Age of Capital he gave a short preview of what was coming up in the next era, and it is a major change in tone and subject. Whereas the pace of scientific and technological innovation accelerated, economically, politically and culturally the period which began around 1875 felt like a very different period, witnessing the collapse of much of the mid-century optimism.

Main features of the period

The Long Depression

The period witnessed a long depression, particularly in agriculture, which lasted from 1873 to 1896. A glut of agricultural produce led to a collapse in prices, rural poverty and loss of revenue for the landowning aristocracies. Cheaper food made life better for all those who lived in cities, so the overall impact was very mixed. Commentators at the time didn’t understand what had led to an apparent stalling in expansion and profits and historians have debated its precise causes ever since.

Protectionism

The Long Depression was the main trigger for many western governments to move rapidly from the mid-century free trade model associated with Liberalism towards protectionism, the imposition of protective tariffs on imports etc, especially by America.

New industries

The textile base of the first industrial revolution continued to be important (witness Britain’s huge exports of cotton to its captive markets in India) but the main industrial economies entered a new era driven by new sources of power (electricity and oil, turbines and the internal combustion engine), exploiting new, science-based materials (steel [which became a general index for industrialisation and modernisation, p.35], alloys, non-ferrous metals), accompanied by numerous discoveries in organic chemistry (for example, new dyes and ways of colouring which affected everything from army uniforms to high art).

Monopoly-capitalism

The depression and the consumer explosion led to small and medium-sized companies being replaced by large industrial corporations, cartels, trusts, monopolies (p.44).

New managerial class

The age of small factories run by their founders and family was eclipsed by the creation of huge industrial complexes themselves gathered into regions linked by communications and transport. Hobsbawm mentions the vast industrial conurbation taking shape in the Ruhr region of Germany or the growth of the steel industry around Pittsburgh in America. The point is that these operations became far too large for one man and his son to run; they required managers experienced at managing industrial operations at scale, and so this gave rise to a new class of high level managers and executives. And to the beginnings of management ‘theory’, epitomised by the work of Frederick Winslow Taylor (born 1865 in Pennsylvania) which introduced concepts like, to quote Wikipedia:

analysis; synthesis; logic; rationality; empiricism; work ethic; efficiency and elimination of waste; standardization of best practices; disdain for tradition preserved merely for its own sake or to protect the social status of particular workers with particular skill sets; the transformation of craft production into mass production; and knowledge transfer between workers and from workers into tools, processes, and documentation.

Population growth

Europe’s population rose from 290 million in 1870 to 435 million in 1910, America’s from 38.5 million to 92 million. (All told, America’s population multiplied over five times from 30 million in 1800 to 160 million by 1900.)

Consumer capitalism

This huge population explosion led to a rapid expansion of domestic consumer markets (p.53). There was still much widespread poverty in the cities, but there was also an ever-growing middle and lower-middle-class keen to assert its status through its possessions. This led to an fast-expanding market for cheap products, often produced by the new techniques of mass production, epitomised by the radical industrial organising of Henry Ford who launched his Model T automobile in 1907.

Department stores and chain stores

Another symbol of this explosion of consumer culture was the arrival of the department store and the chain store in the UK (p.29). For example, Thomas Lipton opened his first small grocery shop in Glasgow in 1871 and by 1899 had over 500 branches, selling the characteristic late-Victorian product, tea, imported from Ceylon (p.53; British tea consumption p.64).

Or take Whiteleys, which began as a fancy goods shop opened in 1863 at 31 Westbourne Grove by William Whiteley, employing two girls to serve and a boy to run errands. By 1867 it had expanded to a row of shops containing 17 separate departments. Whiteley continued to diversify into food and estate agency, building and decorating and by 1890 employed over 6,000 staff. Whiteleys awed contemporaries by its scale and regimentation: most of the staff lived in company-owned male and female dormitories, having to obey 176 rules and working 7 am to 11 pm, six days a week.

Mass advertising

The arrival of a mass consumer market for many goods and services led to an explosion in the new sector of advertising. Many writers and diarists of the time lament the explosion of ads in newspapers, magazines and, most egregious of all, on the new billboards and hoardings which started going up around cities.

The poster

Hoardings required posters. The modern poster was brought to a first pitch of perfection during what critics consider ‘the golden age of the poster’ in the 1890s (p.223) (something I learned a lot about at the current exhibition of the poster art of John Hassell at the Heath Robinson Museum in Pinner).

Hire purchase and modern finance

New ways for the financially squeezed lower middle classes to pay for all this were invented, notably hire-purchase or instalment payments (p.49).

New popular technologies

Entirely new technologies were invented during the 1880s and 1890s, the most notable being the internal combustion engine and the car, the bicycle, cinema, telephone, wireless and light bulb (pages 19 and 28 and 53).

Competition for resources

New discoveries in industrial chemistry and processes required more recherché raw materials – oil, rubber, rare metals such as manganese, tin and nickel (p.63). The booming consumer market also developed a taste for more exotic foodstuffs, specifically fruits, bananas, cocoa. (Apparently it was only during the 1880s that the banana became widely available and popular in the West.) Where was all this stuff found? In the non-European world.

Imperialism

Growing need for all these resources and crops led to increasing competition to seize territories which contained them. Hence the 1880s and 1890s are generally seen as the high point of Western imperialism, leading up to the so-called Scramble for Africa in the 1880s.

(Interestingly, Hobsbawm notes that the word ‘imperialism’, used in its modern sense, occurs nowhere in Karl Marx’s writings, and only became widely used in the 1890s, many commentators remarking [and complaining] about its sudden ubiquity, p.60.)

Globalisation

During the 1860s and 70s the world became for the first time fully ‘globalised’, via the power of trade and commerce, but also the physical ties of the Railway and the Telegraph (p.13).

The major fact about the nineteenth century is the creation of a single global economy, progressively reaching into the most remote corners of the world, an increasingly dense web of economic transactions, communications and movements of goods, money and people linking the developed countries with each other and with the undeveloped world. (p.62)

During the 1880s and 1890s this process was intensified due to the growth of direct competition between the powers for colonies and their raw materials. Until the 1870s Britain ruled the waves. During this decade international competition for territories to exploit for their raw resources and markets became more intense (p.51). Imperialism.

A world divided

The final mapping of the world, its naming and definitions, led inevitably to the division of the world into ‘developed’ and ‘undeveloped’ parts, into ‘the advanced and the backward’.

For contemporaries, the industrialised West had a duty to bring the benefits of civilisation and Christianity to the poor benighted peoples who lived in all the ‘undeveloped’ regions. Hobsbawm, with the benefit of hindsight, says that the representatives of the developed part almost always came as ‘conquerors’ to the undeveloped part whose populations thus became, in Hobsbawm’s phrase, ‘victims’ of international capitalism.

On this Marxist reading, the imperial conquerors always distorted local markets to suit themselves, reducing many populations to plantation labour reorganised to produce the raw materials the West required, and eagerly helped by the tiny minorities in each undeveloped country which were able to exploit the process and rise to the top as, generally, repressive local rulers (pages 31, 56, 59).

In the second half of the twentieth century, many nations which had finally thrown off the shackles of colonialism found themselves still ruled by the descendants of these collaborationist elites, who modelled themselves on their former western rulers and still ran their countries for the benefit of themselves and their foreign sponsors. Further, truly nationalist revolutions were required, of which the most significant, in my lifetime, was probably the overthrow of the American-backed Shah of Iran by Islamic revolutionaries in 1978.

New working class militancy

Working class militancy went into abeyance in the decades 1850 to 1875, politically defeated in 1848 and then made irrelevant by a general raising of living standards in the mid-century boom years, much to Marx and Engels’ disappointment.

But in the 1880s it came back with a vengeance. Across the developed world a new generation of educated workers led a resurgence in working class politics, fomented industrial unrest, and a significant increase in strikes. There was much optimistic theorising about the potential of a complete or ‘general’ strike to bring the entire system to a halt, preliminary to ushering in the joyful socialist paradise.

New socialist political parties, some established in the 1860s or 1870s, now found themselves accumulating mass membership and becoming real powers in the land, most notably the left-wing German Social Democratic Party, which was the biggest party in the Reichstag by 1912 (chapter 5 ‘Workers of the World’).

Incorporation of working class demands and parties into politics

The capitalist class and ‘its’ governments found themselves forced to accede to working class demands, intervening in industries to regulate pay and conditions, and to sketch out welfare state policies such as pensions and unemployment benefit.

Again, Germany led the way, with its Chancellor, Bismarck, implementing a surprisingly liberal series of laws designed to support workers, including a Health Insurance Bill (1883), an Accident Insurance Bill (1884), an Old Age and Disability Insurance Bill (1889) – although, as everyone knew, he did this chiefly to steal the thunder from the German socialist parties.

Whatever the motives, the increasing intervention by governments across Europe into the working hours, unemployment and pension arrangements of their working classes were all a world away from the laissez-faire policies of the 1850s and 60s. Classical liberalism thought the forces of the market should be left entirely to themselves and would ineluctably resolve all social problems. By the 1880s it was clear to everyone that this was not the case and had instead produced widespread immiseration and poverty which states needed to address, if only to ensure social stability, and to neutralise the growing threat from workers’ parties.

Populism and blood and soil nationalism

But the rise of newly class-conscious workers’ parties, often with explicit agendas to overthrow the existing ‘bourgeois’ arrangements of society, and often with an internationalist worldview, triggered an equal and opposite reaction: the birth of demagogic, anti-liberal and anti-socialist, populist parties.

These harnessed the tremendous late-century spread of a new kind of aggressive nationalism which emphasised blood and soil and national language and defined itself by excluding ‘outsiders. (Chapter 6 ‘Waving Flags: Nations and Nationalism’).

Some of these were harmless enough, like Cymru Fydd, founded in Wales in 1886. Some would lead to armed resistance, like the Basque National Party founded 1886. Some became embroiled in wider liberation struggles, such as the Irish Gaelic League founded 1893. When Theodor Herzl founded Zionism with a series of articles about a Jewish homeland in 1896 he can little have dreamed what a seismic affect his movement would have in the second half of the twentieth century.

But the point is that, from the time of the French Revolution through to the 1848 revolutions, nationalism had been associated with the political left, from La Patrie of the Jacobins through the ‘springtime of the peoples’ of the 1848 revolutionaries.

Somehow, during the 1870s and 80s, a new type of patriotism, more nationalistic and more aggressive to outsiders and entirely associated with the political Right, spread all across Europe.

Its most baleful legacy was the crystallisation of centuries-old European antisemitism into a new and more vicious form. Hobsbawm makes the interesting point that the Dreyfus Affair, 1894 to 1906, shocked liberals across Europe precisely because the way it split France down the middle revealed the ongoing presence of a stupid prejudice which bien-pensant liberals thought had been consigned to the Middle Ages, eclipsed during the Enlightenment, long buried.

Instead, here it was, back with a vengeance. Herzl wrote his Zionist articles partly in response to the Dreyfus Affair and to the advent of new right-wing parties such as Action Francaise, set up in 1898 in response to the issues of identity and nationhood thrown up by the affair. (In a way, maybe the Dreyfus Affair was comparable to the election of Donald Trump, which dismayed liberals right around the world by revealing the racist, know-nothing bigotry at the heart of what many people fondly and naively like to think of as a ‘progressive’ nation.)

But it wasn’t just the Jews who were affected. All sorts of minorities in countries and regions all across Europe found themselves victimised, their languages and dialects and cultural traditions under pressure or banned by (often newly founded) states keen to create their own versions of this new, late-century, blood and soil nationalism.

The National Question

In fact this late-nineteenth century, super-charged nationalism was such a powerful force that socialist parties all across Europe had to deal with the uncomfortable fact that it caught the imagination of many more members of the working classes than the socialism which the left-wing parties thought ought to be appealing to them.

Hobsbawm’s heroes Lenin and ‘the young Stalin’ (Stalin – yes, definitely a man to admire and emulate, Eric) were much concerned with the issue. In fact Stalin was asked by Lenin in 1913 to write a pamphlet clarifying the Bolsheviks’ position on the subject, Marxism and the National Question. Lenin’s concern reflected the fact that all across Europe the effort to unify the working class into a revolutionary whole was jeopardised by the way the masses were much more easily rallied in the name of nationalistic ambitions than the comprehensive and radical communist overthrow of society which the socialists dreamed of.

In the few years before Stalin wrote, the Social Democratic Party of Austria had disintegrated into autonomous German, Czech, Polish, Ruthenian, Italian and Slovene groupings, exemplifying the way what ought to be working class, socialist solidarity was increasingly undermined by the new nationalism.

Racism

Related to all these topics was widespread racism or, as Hobsbawm puts it:

  • Racism, whose central role in the nineteenth century cannot be overemphasised. (p.252)

This is the kind of sweeping generalisation which is both useful but questionable, at the same time. Presumably Hobsbawm means that racism was one of the dominant ideologies of the period, but where, exactly? In China? Paraguay? Samoa?

Obviously he means that racist beliefs grew increasingly dominant through all strands of ‘bourgeois’ Western ideology as the century progressed, but even this milder formulation is questionable. In Britain the Liberals consistently opposed imperialism. Many Christian denominations in all nations very powerfully opposed racism. For example, it was the incredibly dedicated work of the Quakers which underpinned Britain’s abolition of the slave trade in 1807.The missionaries who played such a vital role in funding expeditions into Africa did so to abolish the slave trade there and because they thought Africans were children of God, like us.

A key point of the Dreyfus Affair was not that it was a storming victory for antisemites but the reverse: it proved that a very large part of the French political and commenting classes, as well as the wider population, supported Dreyfus and condemned antisemitism.

It is one thing to make sweeping generalisations about the racism which underpinned and long outlasted the slave system in the American South, which Hobsbawm doesn’t hesitate to do. But surely, in the name of accuracy and real historical understanding, you have to point out the equal and opposite force of anti-racism among the well organised, well-funded and widely popular anti-slavery organisations, newspapers and politicians in the North.

I can see what Hobsbawm’s driving at: as the nineteenth century progressed two types of racism emerged ever more powerfully:

1. In Europe, accompanying the growth of late-century nationalism went an increasingly bitter and toxic animosity against, and contempt for, people identified as ‘outsiders’ to the key tenets nationalists included in their ideology (that members of the nation must speak the same language, practice the same religion, look the same etc), most obviously the Jews, but plenty of other ‘minorities’, especially in central and eastern Europe, suffered miserably. And the Armenians in Turkey, right at the end of Hobsbawm’s period.

2. In European colonies, the belief in the intrinsic racial superiority of white Europeans became increasingly widespread and was bolstered in the later period by the spread of various bastardised forms of Darwinism. (I’ve read in numerous accounts that the Indian Revolt of 1857 marked a watershed in British attitudes, with the new men put in charge maintaining a greater distance from their subjects than previously and how, over time, they came to rationalise this into an ideology of racial superiority.)

I don’t for a minute deny any of this. I’m just pointing out that Hobsbawm’s formulation is long on rousing rhetoric and short on any of the specifics about how racist ideology arose, was defined and played out in actual policies of particular western nations, in specific times and places – the kind of details which would be useful, which would aid our understanding.

And I couldn’t help reflecting that if he thinks racism was central to the 19th century, then what about the twentieth century? Surely the twentieth century eclipses the nineteenth on the scale of its racist ideologies and the terrible massacres it prompted, from the Armenian genocide, the Jewish Holocaust, the Nazi Ostplan to wipe out all the Slavs in Europe, the Japanese massacres in China, the anti-black racism which dominated much of American life, the Rwandan genocide, and so on.

Hobsbawm confidently writes about ‘the universal racism of the bourgeois world’ (p.289) but the claim, although containing lots of truth a) like lots of his other sweeping generalisations, tends to break down on closer investigation and b) elides the way that there were a lot of other things going on as well, just as there were in the twentieth century.

The New Woman

In 1894 Irish writer Sarah Grand used the term ‘new woman’ in an influential article, to refer to independent women seeking radical change and, in response, the English writer Ouida (Maria Louisa Rame) used the term as the title of a follow-up article (Wikipedia).

Hobsbawm devotes a chapter to the rise of women during the period 1875 to 1914. He makes a number of points:

Feminism

The number of feminists and suffragettes was always tiny, not least because they stood for issues which only interested middle-class women, then as now. The majority of British women were poor to very poor indeed, and most simply wanted better working and living conditions and pay. It was mostly upper-middle-class women who wanted the right to vote and access to the professions and universities like their fathers and brothers.

The more visible aspects of women’s emancipation were still largely confined to women of the middle class… In countries like Britain, where suffragism became a significant phenomenon, it measured the public strength of organised feminism, but in doing so it also revealed its major limitation, an appeal primarily confined to the middle class. (p.201)

Upper class feminism

It is indicative of the essentially upper-class nature of suffragism and feminism that the first woman to be elected to the UK House of Commons was Constance Georgine Gore-Booth, daughter of Sir Henry Gore-Booth, 5th Baronet, and Georgina, Lady Gore-Booth.

Nancy Astor

In fact, as an Irish Republican, Constance refused to attend Westminster, with the result that the first woman MP to actually sit in the House of Commons, was the American millionairess, Nancy Astor, who took her seat after winning a by-election for the Conservative Party in 1919. Formally titled Viscountess Astor, she lived with her American husband, Waldorf Astor, in a grand London house, No. 4 St. James’s Square, or spent time at the vast Cliveden House in Buckinghamshire which Waldorf’s father bought the couple as a wedding present. Hardly the stuff of social revolutions, is it? The exact opposite, in fact. Reinforcing wealth and privilege.

Rentier feminism

In the same way, a number of the most eminent women of the day lived off inherited money and allowances. They were rentiers, trustafarians aka parasites. When Virginia Woolf wrote that a woman writer needed ‘a room of her own’ what she actually meant was an income of about £500 a year, ideally provided by ‘the family’ i.e. Daddy. The long-running partnership of the founders of the left-wing Fabian Society, Beatrice and Sidney Webb, was based on the £1,000 a year settled on her by her father at her marriage i.e. derived from the labour of others, mostly working class men (p.185).

New secretarial jobs for women

Alongside the rise of a new managerial class, mentioned above, the 1880s and 1890s saw the rise of new secretarial and administrative roles, what Hobsbawm neatly calls ‘a tribute to the typewriter’ (p.201). In 1881 central and local government in Britain employed 7,000 women; by 1911 that number was 76,000. Many women went into these kinds of secretarial jobs, and also filled the jobs created by the spread of the new department and chain stores. So these years saw a broad social change as many middle-class and lower middle-class single women and wives were able to secure reasonable white collar jobs in ever-increasing numbers (p.200).

Women and education

Education began to be offered to the masses across Europe during the 1870s and 80s, with Britain’s patchy 1870 Education Act followed by an act making junior school education compulsory in 1890. Obviously this created a huge new demand for schoolteachers and this, also, was to become a profession which women dominated, a situation which continues to this day. (In the UK in 2019, 98% of all early years teachers are women, 86% of nursery and primary teachers are women, 65% of secondary teachers are women. Overall, 75.8% of all grades of school teacher in the UK are female).

Secretarial and admin, shop staff, and schoolteachers – the pattern of women dominating in these areas was set in the 1880s and 1890s and continues to this day (p.201).

Women and religion

Hobsbawm makes one last point about women during this period which is that many, many more women were actively involved in the Christian church than in feminist or left-wing politics: women were nuns, officiants in churches, and supporters of Christian parties.

Statistically the women who opted for the defence of their sex through piety enormously outnumbered those who opted for liberation. (p.210)

I was surprised to learn that many women in France were actively against the vote being given to women, because they already had a great deal of ‘soft’ social and cultural power under the existing system, and actively didn’t want to get drawn into the worlds of squabbling men, politics and the professions.

Even within the bourgeois liberal society, middle class and petty-bourgeois French women, far from foolish and not often given to gentle passivity, did not bother to support the cause of women’s suffrage in large numbers. (p.209)

Feminism, then as now, claimed to speak for all women, a claim which is very misleading. Many women were not feminists, and many women were actively anti-feminist in the sense that they devoutly believed in Christian, and specifically Catholic, values, which allotted women clear duties and responsibilities as wives and mothers in the home, but also gave them cultural capital, privileges and social power.

These anti-feminists were far from stupid. They realised that a shift to more secular or socialist models would actually deprive them of much of this soft power. Or they just opposed secular, socialist values. Just as more than 50% of white American women voted for Donald Trump in 2016 and did so again in 2020.

Sport

Hobsbawm mentions sport throughout the book. I knew that a lot of sports were given formal rules and their governing bodies founded during this era – the Football League founded in 1888, Rugby Football Union founded 1871, Lawn Tennis Association founded 1888. I knew that tennis and golf in particular quickly became associated with the comfortably off middle classes, as they still are to this day.

But I hadn’t realised that these sports were so very liberating for women. Hobsbawm includes posters of women playing golf and tennis and explains that clubs for these sports became acceptable meeting places for young women whose families could be confident they would be meeting ‘the right sort’ of middle class ‘people like them’. As to this day. The spread of these middle class sports significantly opened up the number of spaces where women had freedom and autonomy.

The bicycle

Another new device which was an important vehicle for women’s freedom was the bicycle, which spread very quickly after its initial development in the 1880s, creating bicycle clubs and competitions and magazines and shops across the industrialised world, particularly liberating for many middle class women whom it allowed to travel independently for the first time.

Victorian Women's Cyclewear: The Ingenious Fight Against Conventions - We Love Cycling magazine

The arts and sciences

I haven’t summarised Hobsbawm’s lengthy sections about the arts and literature because, as a literature graduate, I found them boring and obvious and clichéd (Wagner was a great composer but a bad man; the impressionists revolutionised art by painting out of doors etc).

Ditto the chapters about the hard and social sciences, which I found long-winded, boring and dated. In both Age of Capital and this volume, the first hundred pages describing the main technological and industrial developments of the period are by far the most interesting and exciting bits, and the texts go steadily downhill after that.


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 edition.

Hobsbawm reviews

Related reviews about imperialism

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 Spanish communist party put more energy into eliminating its opponents on the Left than fighting the fascists, with the result that Franco won the civil war.
  • 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.

Hobsbawm reviews

Related reviews

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).


Related reviews

Eighteenth century

Slavery

Industrial revolution

Victorian

Imperialism

The supermarket of history

I have just read S.H. Steinberg’s History of the Thirty Years War. I came to it fresh from reading Peter H. Wilson’s 2010 book on the same subject, in which Wilson sets out to ‘overturn received opinion’ about many aspects of the conflict, lining up ‘traditional’ interpretations of the conflict in order to question and reinterpret them.

So I chuckled when I read in the opening sentences of the preface to Steinberg’s book that he also sets out to ‘reorientate and reinterpret’ the familiar story of the Thirty Years War.

Sometimes it seems like this is all historians ever do – overturn everything the previous generation thought. Is there any professional historian anywhere who isn’t a ‘revisionist’, I wonder?

Historians are like a succession of Oedipuses rebelling against their fathers, each successive generation producing dazzling new reorientations and reinterpretations of increasingly distant and remote events. If you buy a newish history on almost any subject, you can pretty much guarantee it will be a ‘revisionist’ account that sets out to ‘overturn established narratives’, ‘tell the untold story’, letting us hear previously ‘unheard voices’, and so on.

Since historians are society’s professional gatekeepers to the past, we readers kind of have to go along with the narratives they give us – but the more history you read, the more you realise that, in a sense, ‘history’ just consists of commentaries on the past which can be as varied and contradictory as newspaper and magazine commentaries on the present.

If you want a right-wing analysis of Covid or Brexit, read the Telegraph and the Spectator. If you want a woke interpretation, read the Guardian. If you want a tabloid version featuring loads of celebrities in bikinis, read the Mail, and so on.

Similarly, if you want a feminist slant on a historic event or figure, read Mary Beard or Lucy Worsley, a Marxist slant, read a Marxist historian like Eric Hobsbawm or E.P. Thompson, a black or an lgbt+ interpretation, read David Olusoga or gay historians. If you want a solidly right-wing view, read Niall Ferguson, if you want social history, then read the likes of David Kynaston, if you want history seen from particular regions read John Morrill on Cheshire or David Underdown on Somerset, and so on.

After a while, you realise that ‘history’ is a supermarket of opinions. Stuff definitely happened in the past, vast amounts of stuff – but which bits you choose to emphasise, how you choose to interpret it, and what you make it mean, are entirely down to the school of history and the historian you choose.

If you like the 18th century, you can choose to dwell on the rarefied heights of Enlightenment philosophy or on the bloody brutality of slavery, on society portrait painting or colonial wars, according to your taste and interests. Do you prefer Persil or Ariel?

As modern marketers like to say, it entirely depends on which values you identify with and therefore which brand reflects those values.

To equate the practice of history with some kind of search for ‘The Truth’ seems to me a ludicrous misunderstanding of history as an academic specialism and, in wider society, as a cultural practice (I mean the result of the efforts of a wide range of people from local historical societies and amateur historians and historical tours and TV and radio history programmes and so on).

Just like a good lawyer can take any set of ‘facts’ and twist them into a narrative which supports his client, so a good historian can argue any side when it comes to clashes of interpretations. Or, if they’re not quite so flexible as lawyers, you can certainly find the historian who will back up your view (feminist, Marxist, BAME, neo-liberal, neo-traditional).

And, quite obviously, the bigger the event or the longer the period, the larger the scope for multiple interpretations to be put forward for the same events. In other words, we the readers and viewers are free to enjoy a multiplicity of viewpoints. In one mood I can think about the First World War as a seismic event in international affairs, in another mode can focus on the transformation in women’s place in society as they were recruited into factories and change which led to the vote, in another mode read about the not-very-well-known role of the hundreds of thousands of Indian and African labourers who fought on the Allies’ side, and so on. You pays your money, you chooses your perspective.

And we mustn’t forget the role played in the production of ever-changing interpretations by the blunt fact that historians have to earn a living. A lawyer needs new cases, an advertising agency needs new clients, and historians need to produce new interpretations to justify their tenure at universities. They need to publish new papers and books and do new research to pass reviews, fulfil departmental targets, achieve organisational KPIs and so on.

Thus, there are simple bread-and-butter considerations which explain the need of historians to come up with new perspectives, or adapt emerging perspectives (BAME, feminism, LGBT+) to subjects and eras they haven’t previously been applied to.

I saw this up close as a would-be academic considering whether to do an English PhD in the 1980s. My girlfriend of the time did, and a couple of close friends. The advent of identity politics in the 1980s was a godsend to humanities professionals because it gave them a suite of new perspectives which could then be applied to the entire subject.

Thus, from a feminist point of view, all of world history needs to be re-researched, rethought and rewritten to ‘restore women’s voices’ and give ‘women’s points of view’ and so on – which is more than enough work to keep thousands of feminist scholars employed for the rest of their lives. My girlfriend of the day began a PhD giving a feminist interpretation of woman as muse figure in the poetry of Robert Graves and other contemporary poets.

Ditto black and post-colonial interpretations – for academics of this persuasion, mining this particular seam, all of world history needs to be reinterpreted from the point of view of black people, of the slave trade, of peoples oppressed by European colonialism, native Americans, aborigines, you name them, it will be a vast and potentially endless undertaking. And jobs. And careers.

Ditto LGBT+ interpretations.

Each new ‘school’, each new focus or emphasis means the same old ground can be raked over, but from an entirely new perspective, and that means academic papers, conferences, books and careers.

So thinking of History as some kind of pure and noble Search for Truth strikes me as a very naive view. History, whatever else its proponents may say it is, is a type of discourse which is 1. embedded in its cultural moment i.e. heavily affected by the cultural and political fashions and indeed demands of the day, and 2. driven by financial incentives i.e. the need of professional historians to justify their pay by coming up with a steady stream of ‘revisionist’ interpretations.

Like everything else in a consumer capitalist society, it is driven by the need for novelty.

Asking whether this or that version of history is ‘true’ is like asking whether a Range Rover or a Fiat Uno is ‘true’. They’re different ways of doing the same general thing (getting from A to B in the case of cars, informing yourself about the past, in the case of history), but which one you prefer is down to individual choice.

Marvellous and Mischievous: Literature’s Young Rebels @ the British Library

Next to the big Buddhism exhibition at the British Library (admission £14 for adults) is a smaller FREE exhibition for children titled Marvellous and Mischievous.

The British Library has a vast collection of children’s literature with examples from the distant past right up to the present day, and they’ve created this bright, inventive, fun exhibition to present a vivid selection of some of the more rebellious or naughty children’s characters from the past three hundred years or so, from a Latin textbook from 1680 containing doodles made by disgruntled schoolboys to The Boy at the Back of the Class, a story about a boy refugee which was winner of best story at the Blue Peter Book Awards 2019.

The exhibition has two elements:

1. A sequence of wall labels giving information about some 40 different heroes and heroines from children’s literature, from the Bash Street Kids to Angry Arthur via Oliver Twist, Matilda, Lizzie Dripping, Pippi Longstocking and many more. Each wall label is accompanied by one or two illustrations from the books the characters appear in, giving a vivid sense of how important good illustration is to the success of children’s books, and showcasing some masters and mistresses of the art, including Axel Scheffler (Zog), Quentin Blake (Matilda), Nick Sharratt (Tracy Beaker), Judith Kerr (When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit) and many more.

© Zog by Julia Donaldson, illustrated by Axel Scheffler 2010 (Alison Green Books)

So the main experience of the show is strolling past a series of deeply evocative pictures of children’s book ‘rebels’ old and new, each with an interesting and diverting factual accompaniment.

2. And there are three Activity Areas:

  • a reading corner where some mums were reading to small children
  • a wall mirror and some clothes and props where kids can dress up as a rebel character and take selfies in the modern style
  • and a table and chairs with loads of paper and pens, where slightly older children (8?) were creating their own comics, which can then be left on the string lines above for other visitors to read

Leo Baxendales of the future creating their own comics in the Marvellous and Mischievous exhibition at the British Library

So which characters from children’s literature are in included in the exhibition? (The sentences in speech marks are direct quotes from the exhibition wall labels.)

Rebel girls (23)

  • Tilly and the Bookwanderers – One day Tilly realises that the characters in her favourite books are encouraging her to enter the pages of the books and join with them to solve the mystery of her mother’s disappearance.
  • Zog by Julia Donaldson – a dragon with a sore throat is treated by Pearl, a princess who lives in a castle but wants to escape and become a doctor! – ‘Pearl is heroic because she defies expectations and dares to be herself’
  • Northern Lights by Philip Pullman – ‘mischievous and disobedient Lyra’; ‘Lyra’s rebellious nature leads her to question her place in the world’
  • Howl’s Moving Castle by Hayao Miyazaki – In the land of Ingary, oldest children are destined to be least successful but Sophie rebels against her destiny, and sets off to have adventures
  • Billy and the Beast by Nadia Shireen – not only is Billy a girl, she is a ‘brown’ girl (as The Bookseller puts it) and she has to stand up to the Terrible Beast who is gathering ingredients for his Terrible Soup. ‘Have you ever confronted someone scary to stand up for what’s right?’
  • Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carrol – ‘Alice isn’t daunted: she’s forthright, inquisitive, courageous and truthful’.
  • Azzi in Between by Sarah Garland – the daughter of refugees, Azzi is ‘resilient and imaginative’
  • Mulan – in ancient China girls rarely went out in public but Mulan challenged convention. ‘Mulan was a courageous young girl who concealed her gender for 12 years in order to serve in the army. ‘Have you ever dreamt of being a storybook hero?’
  • When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr – the rise of the Nazis through the eyes of young Anna – ‘The story shows the importance of family’
  • The Rebel of the School by L.T. Meades – Kathleen finds the rules at Great Shirley School stifling and struggles to regain the freedom she had before starting school and refuses to conform
  • Matilda by Roald Dahl – strong, independent schoolgirl who stands up against bullies, namely the headteacher, the Trunchbull
  • Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë – young Jane rebels against her strict schooling, refusing to be afraid and ‘her defiance is a lesson for her schoolmates, and the reader’
  • Jane, The Fox and me by Isabelle Arsenault – Hélène is bullied at school but finds inspiration in the character of Jane Eyre, which gives her hope and confidence
  • The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnet – Mary Lennox is a spoilt orphan who’s been raised in India and finds moving back to England difficult, but keeps her rebellious, rule-breaking nature
  • Witchfairy by Brigitte Minne – Rosemary doesn’t want to be a stupid fairy, she wants to be a witch so she goes and builds a new home in the forest, and makes friends with witches. ‘A story about growing up, accepting yourself and finding a place in the world.’
  • The Jolly Postman by Janet and Allan Ahlberg. ‘Is Goldilocks the most outrageous rule-breaker in fairy tales?… Here the Jolly Postman delivers Goldilocks’ apologies to the three bears.’
  • Wild by Emily Hughes – A little girl grows up wild in the woods, but is then captured and taken to the city where she she can’t understand manners and politeness. ‘Three cheers for misfits and outsiders!’
  • Dare by Lorna Gutierrez (Author), Polly Noakes (Illustrator) – ‘Taking risks, spotting the things others don’t see, supporting those in need, expressing yourself, speaking up for what is right’ – makes her sound like a Young Communist Youth Pioneer.
  • I Am Thunder by Muhammad Khan – Muzna dreams of becoming a writer but her controlling parents won’t let her. ‘This coming-of-age novel moves from everyday teenage rebellion to Muzna’s choice between protecting the person she cares about most, or betraying her beliefs.’
  • Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren has a healthy disrespect for unreasonable adults. ‘A powerful character who uses her strength for good and is often found protecting children from bullies.’
  • Tracy Beaker by Jacqueline Wilson – Tracy is a ten-year-old girl living in a children’s residential care home nicknamed the ‘Dumping Ground’. but is ‘determined to change her life and isn’t going to compromise!’
  • Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery – ‘an imaginative, impulsive character who changes those around her with the force of her personality’
  • What planet are you from, Clarice Bean? by Lauren Child – Clarice ‘navigates the complex ethical and social questions children deal with at school and at home’

What Planet Are You From, Clarice Bean? by Lauren Child © Lauren Child (Orchard Books, 2001)

Rebel boys (8)

  • Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak – sent to bed without his supper, Max imagines a wild island full of fierce beasts – ‘a celebration of mischief, anarchy and imaginative play’
  • Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie – ran away from his parents to a land where children never grow up. There he lives with the mischievous Lost Boys and has thrilling adventures.
  • The Boy at the Back of the Class by Onjali Q. Raúf – Ahmet is a refugee who’s become separated from his family. The children at his new school befriend him and ask the queen for her help – an adventure which shows ‘the power of friendship, standing up to bullies, and a little bit of bravery’
  • Angry Arthur by Hiawyn Oram – Arthur gets angry when his mum insists it’s time to turn the TV off and go to bed, so angry that he blows up the universe!
  • Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens – Oliver asks for more gruel in the poorhouse.
  • Wicked Walter by Catherine Storr – steals a cake from his mother only to discover it contains salt and pepper rather than sugar!
  • Dirty Bertie by David Roberts – Bertie is a likeable boy who tried very hard, generally without success!
  • Julian is a Mermaid by Jessica Love – young Julian wants to dress up as a mermaid. ‘An inspirational picture book that celebrates individuality, self-discovery, acceptance, gender identity, beauty and love.’

Julian Is a Mermaid by Jessica Love © 2018 Jessica Love

Rebel groups (4)

  • The Bash Street Kids from The Beano drawn by Leo Baxendale – ‘Easily one of the naughtiest groups of children in comic book history’
  • Noughts and Crosses by Malorie Blackman – young adult book about race, set in a society where dark-skinned people have power and the friendship-love between a boy and girl across the colour divide
  • The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier – a group of older children are thrown together by the Nazi invasion of Poland – ‘The characters are brave and resilient’
  • The Midnight Gang by David Walliams – patients living in an unusual hospital with a terrifying matron and a porter who helps them live out their dreams.

1. What is a rebel?

Several trains of thought arise from carefully reading all these wall labels:

First, what is a rebel? The dictionary definition is:

a person who rises in opposition or armed resistance against an established government or leader

Well, not many of the characters in this exhibition are taking up arms against an oppressive government. Most of them are refusing to tidy their room or do their homework. And what emerges as you progress around the displays is that most of the ‘rebels’ who are featured represent values which the modern-day curators thoroughly endorse – standing up for yourself, being true to your beliefs, bucking convention, protecting the weak and vulnerable.

After all, what parent wants to read bedtime stories to their little children which actively encourage them to disobey their parents, smash up the furniture and torture the cat? Clearly the notion of ‘rebellion’, as applied to children, exists in a carefully delimited sense. Good children’s books must acknowledge every child’s wayward impulses, but subtly channel them into forms which are acceptable to adults, in which the characters are ‘naughty’ – but stay just this side of the really serious boundaries.

Thus (I’m suggesting) children’s fiction plays a role in indulging rebel impulses, but carefully controlling them and reshaping them into socially acceptable forms.

Matilda and Miss Trunchbull from Matilda by Roald Dahl 1988 © Roald Dahl Story Company Quentin Blake 2019

And it’s likely that children have a psychological need to read or hear about other children being naughty, misbehaving, getting into trouble but deep down being kind and wanting the best — so that the readers can identify with these naughty children, not feel they are lost, not feel they are alone, not feel they are the only ones who keep getting into trouble and that no-one understands them.

Children need to be shown that these kinds of tantrums, rule-breaking, misunderstandings or conscious disobediences have happened to generations of children before them who turned out alright. It is OK to get into trouble now and then, to be told off by parents or teachers. It is not the end of the world.

So in a way all these books redeem bad behaviour, or show that adults do understand naughtiness. The message is a fundamentally comforting, reassuring one: You can be naughty, break some of the rules – and still be a good person.

Lastly, there is the obvious point that – it’s just more fun reading about naughty characters, whether you’re a child or an adult.

The reading area at Marvellous and Mischievous at the British Library

2. What about boys?

The second thing which became fairly obvious as I read my way round the exhibition was the surprising under-representation of rebel boys.

The exhibition contains nearly three times as many books for girls as for boys, and it became increasingly clear that the curators (three women: Lucy Evans, Anna Lobbenberg, Nicola Pomery) are promoting a heavily feminist view of what a rebel is – namely a heroic girl who bucks society’s expectations and escapes from gender stereotypes, but is, deep down, kind and helpful to the weak and bullied – in other words, a feminist paragon.

It’s a narrative which is very on-trend and comfortably sits alongside the great tsunami of girl-supporting books and films and government initiatives which currently flood our culture. A quick search on Amazon suggests there is no shortage of books on the subject:

  • Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls
  • I Am a Rebel Girl: A Journal to Start Revolutions
  • Forgotten Fairy Tales of Brave and Brilliant Girls
  • Rebel Colouring For Girls: Motivating Messages & Marvellous Mantras To Colour & Create
  • ‘Rebel Girls Say…’ Positive Colouring For Girls age 7-10
  • Star Wars Feminist Princess Leia T-Shirt for Rebel Little Girls
  • Bad Girls: A History of Rebels and Renegades

I suppose all schoolchildren need help and support and encouragement – that’s a core element of education, in fact almost a definition of education. Pondering the obvious bias in this exhibition, though, I couldn’t help wondering why girls seem to need so much more encouragement than boys, especially in light of three well-known facts:

1. Boys read less than girls

2. Girls now outperform boys at every level of education

Girls are outperforming boys at every stage of the educational system. They do better than boys in National curriculum SAT tests.

Girls are more successful than boys in virtually every GCSE subject at 16 including traditional ‘male’ subjects like Maths and Physics.

In 2018 the gap in attainment between girls and boys at grades 4/C and above was 13.3%, with 73.8% of girls getting these grades compared to 64.6% of boys.

This pattern was repeated among the top grades (grade 7/A and above), where the gap was 30.4% with 24.6% of entries by girls compared to 18.1% for boys.

Girls also outperformed boys at the top grade 9 – Ofqual figures show 732 pupils who sat seven or more reformed GCSEs have managed to get straight 9s across those subjects – 68% of this group were female and 32% male.

In 2017 young women maintained a clear lead over young men despite the new linear exams. The gender gap of 10 percentage points – was wider than the 9% recorded in summer of 2016, despite the downgrading of coursework and a decisive move towards end-of-course exams.

A higher number of women stay on at school or go to college.

This year more women than men have been accepted for university than men.

Six out of 10 graduates today are women. 30 years ago, seven out 10 graduates were men.

And female students are more likely to get top degrees too.

(Further Education news)

3. White working class boys are the worst performing group in the UK

In the comprehensive list of books featured in the exhibition, where are the realistic role models for young boys? Peter Pan? Oliver Twist? Angry Arthur?

Why are there so many positive role models for girls and hardly any for boys? (In the press images for the exhibition, there are six images of rebel girls and none of rebel boys [with the exception of transgender Julian]. Why?)

In this exhibition, as in so much of British cultural life, white working class boys are written out of the story.

So it seemed to me that in so heavily promoting reading for girls this exhibition was pushing at an open door but, at the same time, sadly missing an opportunity to reach out to notoriously reluctant-to-read boys.

© Billy and the Beast by Nadia Shireen (2019) Jonathan Cape, Penguin Random House Children’s

3. Can children’s fiction ever be value-free?

And, finally, this exhibition made me wonder whether it’s possible to write a children’s story without filling it with positive, uplifting, socially approved messages.

Modern curators and academics tend to mock the Victorians and Edwardians for producing literature with ‘improving’ messages, or which crudely promoted the values needed to support the now-utterly-discredited British Empire – ‘Play up, play up, and play the game!’ etc.

But is the children’s literature of our day so very different, with its barrage of socially aware, woke messaging – with its gentle but persistent insistence that we must help girls break free of their gendered roles, and we must understand boys like Julian who want to dress up as mermaids, and we must be supportive of refugees like Ahmet?

I’m not querying these values. I’m just wondering whether modern children’s fiction isn’t every bit as nakedly propagandist for our contemporary social values as Victorian children’s books were for theirs. We live in our age and so find our values natural and inevitable. But then, so did the Victorians, and the Georgians, and every generation before them…

The merchandise

Lastly, all the books referenced in the exhibition are on sale in the bookshop by the exit. ‘Rebel as much as you like – so long as you keep on buying our products!’ The ultimate rebellion – the extinction rebellion – to cease consuming, to opt out of the planet-destroying compulsion to buy, buy, buy – is mentioned by the curators in their introduction but nowhere (surprisingly) by any of the authors they’ve chosen.

Children’s books on sale at Marvellous and Mischievous at the British Library

Summary

I’m vastly over-thinking an exhibition which is, after all, designed for infant and junior school-age children, designed to give them a selection of interesting characters to inspire them and get them reading, and asking interesting questions about fictional characters and about themselves.

The show is obviously designed to showcase highlights from the Library’s huge collection, to serve as a book-filled venue for school trips, and also just to provide an opportunity for kids to dress up and make their own comics. It’s meant to be fun and is predominantly aimed at the very young, as the introductory text clearly indicates:

In our exhibition you’ll meet all kinds of storybook rebels from the last 300 years – in their homes, at school, or on a journey.

Who’s your favourite and what would you stand up for?

And after all, these are valid questions: Who is your favourite children’s book character – and what would you stand up for?


Related links

Reviews of other British Library exhibitions

Mimesis: African Soldier @ the Imperial War Museum

Making a new world

For the past year or so, Imperial War Museum London has given over its third floor to four related but very different exhibitions marking the end of the First World War a hundred years ago.

They come under the overarching title of Making A New World, and have been accompanied by a programme of live music, performance and public debates, all addressing aspects of the aftermath of the conflict. Here’s the promotional video.

I’ve reviewed three of the four already:

Across the corridor from these two spaces is a door opening onto a darkened corridor leading to a blacked-out screening room in which is being shown a new art film by John Akomfrah, titled Mimesis: African Soldier.

John Akomfrah

Akomfrah was born in Accra, Ghana in 1957. His mother and father were both anti-colonialist activists. His father served in the cabinet of Ghana’s first post-independence Prime Minister, Kwame Nkrumah. When the latter was overthrown in a coup in 1966, his mother fled the country with young John. Surprisingly, maybe, they fled to the epicentre of the colonial oppressor, to the home of racism and imperialism, to Britain, where John became a British citizen, trained as an artist and went on to become a famous and award-winning maker of art films.

John Akomfrah in front of Mimesis: African Soldier, co-commissioned by 14-18 NOW, New Art Exchange, Nottingham and Smoking Dogs Films, with additional support from Sharjah Art Foundation. Photo © IWM / Film © Smoking Dogs Films

John Akomfrah standing in front of a screen showing Mimesis: African Soldier, co-commissioned by 14-18 NOW, New Art Exchange, Nottingham and Smoking Dogs Films, with additional support from Sharjah Art Foundation. Photo © IWM / Film © Smoking Dogs Films

So prestigious has Akomfrah’s career been that in 2008 he was awarded the Order of the British Empire (OBE) and in 2017 appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE). Also in 2017, Akomfrah won the biennial Artes Mundi prize, the UK’s biggest award for international art, having been chosen for the award for his ‘substantial body of outstanding work dealing with issues of migration, racism and religious persecution.’

It is a story in itself, and one not without irony – how the son of vehemently anti-British anti-colonial activists went on to become a lion of the British art establishment.

Purple

I first heard Akomfrah’s name when I came across the massive multi-screen installation of his film Purple at the Barbican a few years ago.

In the long darkened space of the Barbican’s Curve gallery, Purple projected onto a series of massive screens a combination of historic archive footage of industrial life in the West – coal mines, car factories, shopping centres and street scenes from the 1940s, 50s and 60s – and stunningly beautiful modern footage shot at remote and picturesque locations around the planet with pin-prick digital clarity.

The purpose of Purple was to inform its viewers that humanity’s industrial activity is polluting the planet.

As a theme I thought this was so bleeding obvious that it made no impact on my thinking one way or the other: I just sat entranced by the old footage, which had its own historic interest, the 1960s footage in particular, tuggingly evocative of my own distant childhood – and enjoying the aesthetic contrast between the historic footage and the stunning landscapes of, for example, Iceland – which made me desperately jealous of the lucky researchers, camera crews and prize-winning directors who get to fly to such breath-taking destinations.

Mimesis: African Soldier

Visually, Mimesis: African Soldier does something very similar.

There are three big screens instead of the six used by Purple (the screening room at the IWM is a lot smaller than the long sweeping Curve space at the Barbican where Purple was screened).

Once again the screens intercut creaky old archive footage with slow-moving, almost static ‘modern’ sequences shot in super-bright digital clarity at a number of remote locations – both of which are fascinating and/or entrancing in their different ways.

The vintage black-and-white footage shows black African and Indian soldiers, labourers and carriers at work during the First World War. There’s a lot of footage at docks where all manner of goods are being unloaded by black labourers and heaped up into enormous piles of munitions and rations. Other footage shows Indian troops on parade, marching – and then footage of what appear to be black soldiers going into battle.

Installation view of Mimesis: African Soldier at the Imperial War Museum, London

Installation view of an ‘archive’ segment of Mimesis: African Soldier at the Imperial War Museum, London

The modern sequences are completely different in every way. For a start they are in colour. They are shot with stunning digital clarity. But most of all they are very, very slow.

For, as with Purple, the visual contrast is not just between the black and white and modern colour footage – there’s a rhythm thing going on, too, in that the old footage has that speeded-up, frenetic quality (due to the discrepancy between the speed of the cameras it was shot on and the different speed of the projectors we now play it on) which brings out even more the hauntingly slow, almost static nature of the modern sequences.

In the colour sequences which I saw, a black soldier is walking through a jungle, very, very, very slowly, until he comes upon a skeleton hanging from a tree, and stops dead. Different screens show the static scene from different angles. Pregnant with ominousness and meaning.

Installation view of Mimesis: African Soldier at the Imperial War Museum, London

Installation view of a ‘modern’ segment of Mimesis: African Soldier at the Imperial War Museum, London

In another ‘modern’ sequence a handful of black men in uniform are on a wet muddy beach. The beach is dotted with flags of many nations, and also random crates. The men stare out at sea. They turn. One picks up a crate. Another takes off his helmet and wipes his forehead. All very slow.

In another sequence an Asian man in army uniform and wearing a turban is standing in a landscape of dead and fallen trees, and slowly chopping a piece of wood with an axe. Very slowly. The ‘bock’ sound of each blow of the axe is amplified on the soundtrack which, from amid a collage of sounds, sounds of docks, works, men, soldiers, guns going off.

By and large the loudness and business of the audio track contrasts eerily with the Zen slow motion movements of the black and Asian actors.

Installation view of a 'modern' segment of Mimesis: African Soldier at the Imperial War Museum, London

Installation view of a ‘modern’ segment of Mimesis: African Soldier at the Imperial War Museum, London

Mimesis: African Soldier is 75 minutes long – long enough to really sink back and become absorbed and entranced by this audiovisual experience.

The message

So much so that it’s easy to forget Akomfrah’s message. This is that some three million African and Asian men served on the Allied side during the Great War, as labourers, carriers and soldiers, and their story – indeed their existence – is rarely if ever acknowledged.

This is spelled out in the wall label outside the gallery, in the wall label in the corridor leading to the screening room, in the ten-page handout to the exhibition, and in the extended prose descriptions about the film on the museum’s website:

And in the interviews Akomfrah has given about the work:

But having read all these sources and listened to all the interviews, none of them get me much further than the basic idea. All these texts just repackage the same basic fact:

Between 1914 and 1918, millions of African and colonial soldiers served in long campaigns that spanned the whole of the African and European continents, contributing to victories throughout the First World War. These soldiers from British and French African territories were brought to Europe’s western front, where hundreds and thousands lost their lives alongside unknown, unheralded and undocumented African labourers and carriers. Mimesis: African Soldier seeks to commemorate these Africans and colonial soldiers who fought, served and died during the First World War.

This information takes less than a minute to process and understand – in much the same way as I have in the past processed all manner of obscure or (to me) unknown aspects of this war, of the other world war, and of countless other historical episodes.

It was, after all, a world war. It had a global reach and consequences which are almost impossible for one person to grasp. A few months ago I was reading about the Mexican Revolution and the role played in it by the notorious Zimmerman Telegram in which the Germans promised to give Mexico back large chunks of Texas and other neighbouring states, if only Mexico would come in on the side of the Allies.

You could argue that Mexico thus played a key role in the First World War. Who knew?

To take another example, not so long ago I made a conscious effort to break out of the straitjacket of always viewing the war through the experiences of the British on the Western Front, and read two books to try and understand more about the war in the East.

Who in this country knows anything about the course of the First World War in Galicia or Bulgaria or Romania, let alone the vast battles which took place on the huge eastern Front? Who is familiar with the ebb and flow of fighting in little Serbia, which caused the whole damn thing in the first place?

Or take the example of another First World War-related exhibition I visited recently: I knew nothing about the role played by the Canadian army, which not only supplied cavalry on the Western Front, but also proved invaluable in setting up lumber mills behind the Front which supplied the millions of yards of planking from which the trenches and all the Allied defences were built. I had never heard about this until I went to the Army Museum’s exhibition about the painter Alfred Munnings who documented their contribution.

For me, then, the message that some three million Asians and Africans fought and supplied invaluable manual labour to the Allied side is just one more among a kaleidoscope of aspects of the war about which I freely admit to being shamefully ignorant.

Not being black, and not coming from one of the colonies in question, it doesn’t have a salience or importance greater than all these other areas of which I know I am so ignorant. Why should the black dockers have more importance than the Canadian lumberjacks? And why do their stories have any more importance or relevance than the millions of Russians, and Poles, and Romanians and Hungarians and Ukrainians and Jews who died in fighting or were massacred in the ugly pogroms and racial violence which characterised the war in the East?

Surely all human lives are of equal value, in which case all deaths in massacre and conflict are equally to be lamented and commemorated.

Art film as a medium for education

As it stands, the mere presence of Mimesis: African Soldier at the Imperial War Museum as part of this year-long commemoration means that all visitors to this part of the building will read the wall labels explaining the importance of the millions of Africans and Asians who aided the Allied war effort.

And since the IWM gets around two and a half million visitors, that’s potentially a lot of people who might have their minds opened to this overlooked aspect of the war.

But I’m not sure the film itself does very much to educate and inform. It’s an art film. It moves very, very slowly. The soundtrack is a disorientating mash-up of what is presumably the sounds of ships and docks and workmen with what seem to be African tribal music, chanting and so on. I get that this is the aural equivalent of the mash-up we’re seeing on-screen, but I’m not sure it really adds anything to anyone’s understanding.

In a nutshell, I’m not sure art films are an effective way to convey information about anything, apart from the film-maker’s own aesthetic decisions.

Comparison with Bridgit 2016

I had much the same response to Charlotte Prodger’s film, Bridgit 2016 which won the 2018 Turner Prize. It was intended to be a lecture about LBGTQ+ rights and gender and identity, but I found all the information-giving parts of it boring and sanctimonious (where they weren’t factually incorrect).

Instead, what I responded to in Bridgit 2016 was not the right-on, politically correct sentiments but the haunting nature of some of the shots, especially the sequence I saw (like every other visitor, I didn’t stay to watch the whole thing) where the camera was pointed at the wake being made in the grey sea by a large ferry, presumably off the Scottish coast somewhere.

The way the camera didn’t make any kind of point, and the way that, for at least this part of the film, Prodger wasn’t lecturing me about LGBTQ+ rights, meant that, for that sequence at least, the film did what art films can sometimes do – which is make you see in a new way, make you realise the world can be seen in other ways, make you pay attention enough to something humdrum in order to let the imagination transform it.

Which has a liberating effect, far far from all political ideologies, whether conservative or socialist or politically correct or politically repressive. Just that long shot of the churning foaming wake created by a big ship ploughing through a cold northern sea spoke to me, at some level I can’t define.

Which is better at conveying information – art film or conventional display?

Similarly, like Bridgit 2016Mimesis: African Soldier comes heavily freighted with the moral earnestness of a Victorian sermon (and it’s as long as a Victorian sermon, too, at a hefty 75 minutes).

Akomfrah wants ‘Britain’ to ‘acknowledge’ the contribution of these millions of colonial subjects who fought and died for their imperial masters.

OK. I accept it immediately without a quibble, and I can’t imagine anyone anywhere would disagree. Isn’t this precisely what visiting museums is all about? That visitors are bombarded with all kinds of information and facts about the subjects of exhibitions they have chosen to visit? That people visit museums to learn.

And if the aim of the film is to educate, you can’t help wondering whether the point wouldn’t have been better made, more impactful, if it had been replaced – or maybe accompanied – by a more traditional display of hundreds of photos of the time accompanied by wall labels giving us facts and figures and, maybe, the stories and experiences of half a dozen African and Asian soldiers.

The rise and rise of the ‘forgotten voices’ trope

But as I reread the text around the film asserting that its aim was to restore an overlooked aspect of the history of the war, to rediscover lost voices, and restore people to their rightful place in history, I found myself more intrigued by this aspect of the display – the claim to be rediscovering, reclaiming and restoring – rather than its actual content.

How each era gets the history it requires

History is written for its times, responding to the cultural and economic needs of its day.

Machiavelli wrote his histories of Rome as warnings to Renaissance princes. Carlyle wrote a history of the French Revolution to thrill Victorian society with a vision of how Great Men direct the course of events.

The often-ridiculed ‘Whig’ historians reassured their liberal-minded readers by writing British history as if the whole thing, from Magna Carta to the reform acts of the 1800s, demonstrated the inevitable rise of the best and fairest possible liberal democracy.

Tougher minded Edwardian historians set out to show their readers that the British Empire was a force for peace and the enlightened development of the colonies.

The historians I read as a student (Eric Hobsbawm, E.P. Thompson, Christopher Hill) were Marxists who showed in their particular areas (the long nineteenth century, the Industrial Revolution, the British Civil War, respectively) that history consisted of class struggles which confirmed Marx’s underlying theory of a dynamic and the forward march of history which would inevitably lead to a proletarian revolution.

And so they were very popular among students as the Cold War 1950s turned into the heady student revolutions of the 1960s and on into the strike- and violence-soaked 1970s and 1980s.

But, as I understand it, during the 1970s and 80s there was also a reaction against these grand, high-level (and very left-wing) narratives among a younger generation of historians who decided instead to specialise in provincial studies of particular localities (I’m thinking of John Morrill’s studies of Chester or David Underdown’s studies of the West Country during the Civil War). These tended to show that events at a local level were much more complicated than the lofty, and dogmatic, Christopher Hill-type versions suggested.

And it’s possible to see these reactions against the Marxist historians as a symptom of the way that, throughout society, the old communist/socialist narratives came to be seen as tired and old fashioned, as Mrs Thatcher’s social revolution changed British society and attitudes in the 1980s.

But another trend, when I was a student in the 1980s, was a growing move towards apolitical oral history, with a rash of books telling the ‘untold stories’ of this, that or the other constituency – generally the working classes, the class that didn’t make policies and diplomacy and big speeches in the House of Commons, the ordinary man or woman throughout history.

I’m thinking of Lyn MacDonald’s accounts of the key battles of the First World War in which she relied heavily on letters and diaries with the result that her books were marketed as telling ‘the untold stories of…’, ‘giving a voice to…’ the previously ignored common squaddie.

This ‘popular’ approach prompts pity and sympathy for ‘ordinary people’ of the past without being overtly left or right-wing, and it is an approach which hasn’t gone away, as these recent book titles indicate:

  • ‘Forgotten Voices of the Somme’ by Joshua Levine
  • ‘Forgotten Voices of D-Day’ by Roderick Bailey
  • ‘Forgotten Voices of the Holocaust’ by Lyn Smith
  • ‘Forgotten Voices of the Second World War’ by Max Arthur
  • ‘Forgotten Voices of Burma’ by Julian Thompson
  • ‘Forgotten Voices of the Falklands’ by Hugh McManners
  • ‘Forgotten Voices of Mao’s Great Famine’ by Xun Zhou

To bring us up to date, the end of the Thatcher era coincided with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of communism as a viable political theory. I’ve watched as over this period, the past 30 years, increasing numbers of progressive thinkers, writers, historians, artists and so on have become steadily more in thrall to questions of identity – especially the twin issues of race and gender – which have spread out from academia to become two of the broader, defining issues of our time.

And watched as a new generation of historians, including many women and black and Asian historians, has arisen which has packed bookshelves, magazines, radio and TV programmes with new interpretations of history which ‘restore’ the place of women and non-white figures in British and world history.

Combining all this, we arrive at the present moment, 2019, where there is:

  1. more cultural production than ever before in human history, with an unprecedented number of poems, plays, radio programmes, TV documentaries, films and art works ranging over all of recorded history in search of subjects and people from the past to restore, revive and reclaim
  2. and this unprecedented output is taking place in an age obsessed by identity politics, and so is ever-more relentlessly conceived, produced and delivered in terms of identity, specifically the two great pillars of modern progressive ideology, race and gender

Adding the ‘forgotten stories’ trope to the inexorable rise of identity politics helps to explain the explosive proliferation of books, plays, movies, documentaries and radio programmes which use the same rhetorical device of reclaiming the stories of unjustly forgotten women and unjustly forgotten people of colour from pretty much any period of the last 3,000 years. Thus, to give just a few examples of each:

Forgotten Women

  • 52 Forgotten Women Who Changed the World
  • The Forgotten Tudor Women: Anne Seymour, Jane Dudley & Elisabeth Parr
  • Ladies of Lascaris: Christina Ratcliffe and The Forgotten Heroes of Malta’s War
  • Sounds and Sweet Airs: The Forgotten Women of Classical Music
  • The Forgotten Tudor Women: Margaret Douglas, Mary Howard & Mary Shelton
  • Daughters of Chivalry: The Forgotten Children of Edward I
  • Roaring Girls: The forgotten feminists of British history
  • Charlie Company’s Journey Home: The Forgotten Impact on the Wives of Vietnam Veterans
  • Invisible Women. Forgotten Artists of Florence
  • War’s Forgotten Women
  • Forgotten Desert Mothers, The: Sayings, Lives, and Stories of Early Christian Women
  • When Women Ruled the World: Six Queens of Egypt

Forgotten people of colour

  • Forgotten: The Untold Story of D-Day’s Black Heroes
  • Black and British: A Forgotten History
  • The Forgotten Black Cowboys
  • Forgotten black TV and film history
  • 5 Forgotten Black and Asian Figures Who Made British History
  • Black on the battlefield: Canada’s forgotten First World War battalion
  • The Forgotten Black Heroes of Empire
  • Black servicemen: Unsung heroes of the First World War
  • Forgotten? : Black Soldiers in the Battle of Waterloo
  • The Forgotten Black Soldiers in White Regiments During the Civil War
  • Black Athena: The Afro-asiatic Roots of Classical Civilization

My point is that the whole notion of listening to ‘forgotten voices’ and restoring ‘forgotten histories’ has become a central trope of our times, and moreover it is, a moment’s thought suggests, a potentially bottomless well of material.

Once you have accepted the premise that we need to hear the voices of everyone who has ever lived, then there is potentially no end to the number of forgotten women whose voices we need to hear and whose stories we need to be told, just as there is no end to the number of forgotten black slaves, entrepreneurs, soldiers, heroes, scientists, writers, pioneers, cowboys, immigrants, poets and artists whose voices need to be heard and whose stories need to be told.

A flood of forgotten voices

To return to Akomfrah’s film, what I’m trying to do is understand the times I live in, and understand how a politically-committed work of art like Mimesis: African Soldier fits into it.

My view is that the Imperial War Museum commissioning this piece, and John Akomfrah making it, are very much not ground-breaking or innovative.

The opposite. Mimesis: African Soldier is smack bang in the centre of the cultural mood of our times. We are in the middle of an absolute flood of such productions:

I’m not saying any of this ‘forgotten history’ is untrue or unworthy. I’m just pointing out that each era gets the ‘history’ it asks for and, on some level, needs. That societies write history not to reveal any ‘truth’ (there is no fixed historical ‘truth’) but to manufacture the stories they need to sustain their current social and cultural concerns.

For reasons which are a little too deep to be tackled in this blog post, our culture at the moment is undergoing an obsessive interest in identity politics, focusing in particular on the twin issues of race and gender. ‘Diversity’, already a major concern and ubiquitous buzzword, will only become more and more dominating for the foreseeable future.

And so history retold from the perspectives of race and gender, history which perfectly reflects the concerns of our day and age –  is what we’re getting.

And, of course, it’s popular and fashionable. And lucrative.

History retold from the perspectives of race and gender is the kind of history which historians know will get them academic posts and high student approval marks from their evermore ‘woke’ pupils, the kind of history TV companies know will get them viewers, which publishers know will get them readers, and which artists know will get them museum commissions and gallery exhibitions.

Summary of the argument

All of this is intended to show that, if I have a relaxed approach to the political content of Akomfrah’s film, if I read that millions of blacks and Asians laboured and fought for the European empires and accept it without hesitation, filing it next to what I’ve also recently learned about Canadian lumberjacks, or about the troops who fought and died in Palestine or East Africa – it is not out of indifference to the ‘issue’. It is:

1. Because, on a personal level, there are hundreds of aspects of the First World War which I don’t fully understand or comprehend, and all kinds of fronts and campaigns which I am pitifully ignorant of – and I am pretty relaxed about living with that ignorance because life is short and I have umpteen other calls on my time.

2. Because, on a cultural level, Mimesis: African Soldier can be seen as just one more artifact in the tsunami of cultural products in our time which all claim to be unearthing ‘the untold story’ and restoring ‘the forgotten voices’ and putting the record straight on behalf of neglected women, ignored people of colour and any number of other overlooked and oppressed minorities.

I am trying to understand my complete lack of surprise at finding the film on show here, or at its subject matter, and the complete lack of factual or historical illumination I felt when watching it.

Summary on the film

The political motivation behind Akomfrah’s piece is worthy, if entirely uncontroversial.

And because it has no voiceover or captions and because it relies for understanding and meaning on the introductory wall labels, the film is not that effective as purely factual information. A conventional display would have been infinitely more informative. In fact, in his interviews, Akomfrah emphasises the enormous amount of research which went into the making of the film. Well, following that line of tnought, I couldn’t help thinking the whole project would make significantly more impact if it was accompanied by a book which dug really deeply into the subject, with maps and figures and deeper explanations, explaining just how many people came from each colony, willingly or unwillingly, how they were deployed, the special conditions they worked under, and so on, all liberally illustrated with – that favourite trope of our times – the actual stories of African and Indian soldiers in their own words. Ironically, there are no voices in the film: just silent and slow moving actors.

But quibbles about its meaning and purpose and its place in broader cultural movements aside, there is no denying that, as a spectacle, Mimesis: African Soldier is wonderfully hypnotic and tranquilising. The archive footage is artfully selected, the contemporary sequences are shot in stunning digital clarity, the two are edited together to make entrancing viewing.

And, just as with Purple, Mimesis allows the viewer’s mind to take the archive footage and modern scenery (its foggy jungles and muddy beaches and lonely Asian chopping wood) as starting points from which to drift off into reveries of our own devising, making our own connections and finding our own meanings.

Installation view of the 'beach' sequence of Mimesis: African Soldier at the Imperial War Museum, London

Installation view of the ‘beach’ sequence of Mimesis: African Soldier at the Imperial War Museum, London


Related links

Reviews of other exhibitions at the Imperial War Museum

World War One-related art reviews

World War One-related book reviews

%d bloggers like this: