The Warrior’s Honour: Ethnic War and the Modern Conscience by Michael Ignatieff (1998) – 1

The family of nations is run largely by men with blood on their hands. (p.82)

The main title and the picture on the cover are a bit misleading. They give the impression the entire book is going to be an investigation of the honour or value system of the many groups of soldiers, militias, paramilitaries and so on involved in the small wars which broke out across the world after the end of the Cold War.

Not so. This book is more varied and subtle than that. The investigation of ‘the warrior’s code’ is limited to part of the longest section, chapter 3. No, in the introduction Ignatieff explains that his overall aim in this collection of essays is not to investigate them, the people massacring each other in failing states, but to examine why we in the rich West feel so obliged to intervene in foreign countries to bring peace, feed the starving etc.

The narratives of imperialism are dead and buried but they have, according to Ignatieff, left us with ‘the narrative of compassion’. Why? Is this a novel development in world history, that the rich nations feel such a connection with the poor and such a moral obligation to help them? If so, what does this mean in practice? And why do our efforts seem doomed to fail or fall far short of what is needed? In which case, what is needed to bring peace, order and fairness to the trouble spots and failed nations of the world?

Introduction

Ignatieff sees the modern culture of international human rights and the conviction of so many in the West that we have to help the poor in the developing world – all those refugees and victims of famine or conflict – as a new development in human history, ‘a crucial new feature of the modern moral imagination’.

Our moral imagination has been transformed since 1945 by the growth of a language and practice of moral universalism, expressed above all in a shared human rights culture. (p.8)

I’m not totally convinced. It’s been a long time since 1945, the founding of the UN and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The situation he describes in 1998 as if it was a sudden new thing was actually the result of a long evolution of legal understanding and organisational practice. The UN, aid agencies and charities have been working since the end of the Second World War, changing and adapting.

And the sudden sense of ‘crisis’ he describes in his 1994 book Blood and Belonging and in this one, may have seemed suddenly more real and acute at the time but now, looking back, tends to seem part of a continuum of disasters, which includes Biafra and Congo in the 60s, the killing fields of Kampuchea 1975 to 79, the first Gulf War 1991 before he was writing, and 9/11, the Darfur genocide (2003 to the present), the collapse of Iraq, the Syrian civil war, the Libyan civil war, the Rohynga genocide and so on, after.

On the one hand, taking the long view, maybe he’s correct that it is a newish phenomenon that people in the West, spurred on by television news feel a moral obligation to help people in the Third World caught up in crises. But I can immediately think of two objections. One is that my recent reading of Victorian explorers and politics shows that the plight of people in the developing world was widely publicised back then, in the 1870s and 1880s, by explorers and missionaries writing books, newspaper articles and going on popular lecture tours. Which in turn inspired societies to be set up to help people in poor countries.

In particular I can think of the Bulgarian Uprising of 1876 which was suppressed by the Ottoman Empire, which sent militias into Bulgarian villages and murdered men, women and children. Maybe 30,000 Bulgarians died in all and the bloody repression was widely reported in Britain and became known as the Bulgarian Atrocities. The Liberal politician William Gladstone wrote a famous pamphlet about it which castigated the pro-Turkish policy of the British government of the day led by Benjamin Disraeli. Eye-witness accounts of western journalists who visited the burned-out Bulgarian villages and described the dead bodies lying everywhere were very widely reported in the European and British press.

All this is not really much different in spirit from the eye-witness accounts of Saddam’s gassing of Halabja or the Serb mass murder at Srebrenica, nor from the way these atrocities were widely reported in the West, and they anticipate journalistic denunciations of the inaction or impotence of the British government which have rung down the ages.

So the basic structure and content of reporting foreign atrocities has been around for at least a hundred and fifty years. On the other hand, maybe there is something to Ignatieff’s claim that television, in particular in the 1980s and 1990s, brought these disasters into everyone’s living rooms with a new urgency and prompted calls for action and triggered mass charitable movements.

He’s thinking of Live Aid from 1985, and that certainly felt like a truly epic event. But surely it was part of a continuum of public sympathy and charitable donation? There had been huge publicity about the Biafran civil war and famine 1967 to 1970, many pictures, news footage, public outcry, pressure on the government to intervene. I’ve seen Don McCullin’s photos of the prolonged Congo Crisis from that decade, ditto. In 1971 the Concert for Bangladesh raised money for UNICEF’s work in the new country born in famine and war, for the first time mixing consciousness raising about an international disaster with fund raising and popular culture.

Like most journalists and commentators, Ignatieff is making the case that the thing he’s writing about is dramatically new and requires his urgent analysis, which, on a bit of investigation, is sort of, maybe new-ish, has new aspects, has become more far-reaching, but is at heart not quite as dramatically novel as he claims.

Chapter 1. The ethics of television

This first chapter focuses on this issue. It reflects Ignatieff’s conviction that one of the things which is new in the 1990s is the way disasters in faraway countries are mediated by television.

He describes the way television news is selected, structured and edited, the way it is a genre in its own right. Fair enough, I used to work in TV news, I know very well what he’s talking about. But hand-wringing about the positive or negative effects of TV now seems very dated, very 1980s and 1990s. Things have, to put it mildly, moved on. He was writing before the internet and a full decade before smart phones and social media began. How people get their news, and how it is packaged for their slick consumption, has dramatically changed. But I find this whole media studies approach to newspapers, telly and social media profoundly boring.

Excitable commentators these days have transferred their moral panic from TV to social media and not a day goes by without hand-wringing articles about the devastating impact of Facebook and the rest. Who cares. It’s not interesting because:

  1. it is an over-analysed subject thousands of articles which all end up with the same conclusion – something must be done
  2. and yet little or no practical result – thousands of articles saying how terrible Facebook is and yet and Facebook is still there
  3. so ultimately it’s boring; in the 1990s people kept on watching TV news despite hundreds of articles and books saying how bad our addiction to TV was, and now, 25 years later, people carry on using Facebook, Instagram, Tik-Tok and all the rest of them, no matter how much the chattering classes tut and tsk

Ignatieff summarises the argument of his first chapter thus:

  • the moral empathy mediated by television has a deep philosophical history, namely the emergence of moral universalism in the Western conscience (which he traces back to Montaigne and Locke)
  • moral universalism (no man is an island; any man’s death diminishes me) is permanently at odds with moral particularism (we should worry most about family, friends and our own people)
  • in the second half of the 20th century moral universalism has increasingly taken an apolitical siding with the victim
  • there is a moral risk involved, which is that too many pictures of too many victims leads to indifference or, at worst, disgust with humans and misanthropy
  • this risk is increased by television’s superficiality as a medium, people watch, are shocked for 30 seconds, then immediately distracted by something else, then something else, then something else: picture of disasters, famines and so on become hollowed out, the viewer becomes more and more blasé

I dislike writing about morality because I think it has so little applicability to the real world. Give a moral philosopher a minute and she’ll start describing some improbably complex scenario designed to force you to make some kind of ‘moral’ decision you would never face in real life. (‘Imagine you have the power to save the world but only by killing an innocent child, would you sacrifice one life to save billion?’ – that kind of thing. Time-passing undergraduate games which have no application to real life.)

I also dislike writing about morality because morality is so endless. It is a bottomless pit. There is no end of moral hand-wringing… but at the same time most moralising writing has little or no impact on the world. It’s a paradox that moral philosophy ought to be the most practical and applicable form of philosophy, but is often the opposite.

I also dislike writing about morality because it is often sloppy and superficial. This first chapter is by far the worst in the book. To my surprise Ignatieff bombards us with cultural references which he himself (ironically, in light of his accusations that television is superficial) treats very superficially. He namechecks the history of Christianity, Roman slave society, early enlightenment philosophers like Montaigne and Bayle, then leaps to the French literary critic Roland Barthes, mentions the racism inherent in imperialism, explains some Marxist theory and practice, namechecks the French phenomenological philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, the American politician Robert MacNamara, the theorist of colonialism Fritz Fanon, gives a list of post-war atrocities, civil wars and famines then a list of international charities, a snippet from Don McCullin’s autobiography, the Vietnam War, Bosnia, the Rwandan genocide, CBS’s nightly news, the New York Times, Goya’s Horrors of War, Picasso’s Guernica.

See what I mean? It’s magpie philosophy, feverishly jumping from reference to reference. ADHD thinking. Compare and contrast with Blood and Belonging. In that book each 30-page chapter was set in a specific location. Ignatieff met and interviewed a cross-section of people from the country at length, who we got to know and understand. Their lives and experiences then shed light on the place and the situation and allowed Ignatieff to slowly draw out more general ideas about the world we live in.

This first chapter on telly is the opposite. It addresses a tired theme with a machine-gun rat-a-tat-tat of highbrow references, thrown out at such a rate that there isn’t time for any of them to acquire depth or resonance. I started skipping paragraphs, then entire pages.

This introductory essay shows Ignatieff at his most modish and pretentious and wrong. Take, for example, his passage on the way the state funerals of President Kennedy, Winston Churchill or Lady Diana were covered on TV.

These are the sacred occasion of modern secular culture, and television has devised its own rhetoric and ritual to enfold viewers in a sense of the sacred importance of these moments: the hushed voices of the commentators; loving attention to uniforms and vestments of power; above all, the tacit inference that what is being represented is a rite of national significance. (p.31)

This is not only pompous pretentiousness using breathy metaphors to dress up the bleeding obvious, but it is also largely wrong. The funeral of a much loved president or prime minister kind of is a rite of national significance, there’s no ‘tacit inference’ about it. Television has not ‘devised its own rhetoric and ritual’ for covering these events: I think you will find that funerals had a fair bit of rhetoric and ritual about them centuries before TV came along, in fact a key aspect of Homo sapiens as a species appears to be the care we’ve taken to bury people, as evidenced by graves from up to 80,000 years ago. All telly has done is develop technical ways of covering what were already highly rhetorical and ritualised events. As to ‘the hushed voices of the commentators’, well, you do tend to keep your voice down at a funeral, don’t you. As to attention to ‘uniforms and vestments of power’, again I think you’ll find people at presidential and prime ministerial level have always paid a lot of attention, since time immemorial, to wearing precisely the correct outfits at a funeral, complete with the insignia of office or medals for military types.

In other words, this paragraph is dressing up the obvious in pretentious metaphor to make it sound like insight. But it isn’t thinking or valuable analysis, it’s just being a smart-ass. Having ‘proven’ that TV has a semi-religious, ritualistic aspect, Ignatieff goes on to use this as the basis for further argument. But the argument, as a whole, fails, because it is based on precisely the kind of assertion and rhetoric demonstrated in this passage, rather than on the facts and real insights which characterise Blood and Belonging.

This first chapter, about TV, ends up by concluding that watching a 90-second TV news item isn’t as informative as reading a good newspaper or magazine article about the subject, let alone a book. Well… that’s not a very original or useful thought, is it.

The final few pages call for television journalism to completely change itself in order to give more information about the world. That way, via detailed discussions of gathering crises, viewers might get to learn about famines and wars before they broke out. This transformed TV might help viewers to understand the world so much better that we could all prevent atrocities and catastrophes before they happen.

  1. This is so utopian as to be laughable.
  2. The entire chapter now feels utterly out of date. My kids don’t watch any TV news (and neither do I). All they know about the world comes to them via their feeds on Facebook, Instagram, Tik-Tok and a host of other social media apps I’ve never heard of.

Blood and Belonging is a brilliant book because it examines in detail the political situations of half a dozen part of the world and

  1. although they’re nearly 30 years old, his snapshots of moments in each country’s history remain relevant to this day because they continue to be excellent analyses of the basic ethnic and political situations in each of the countries
  2. so acute is his analysis of different types of nationalism that the general principles he educes can be applied to other nationalist crises elsewhere in the world and still today, in 2021

Whereas this essay about the special power of television news not only felt contrived and superficial at the time (when I first read it, back in 1998) but has dated very badly and now feels relevant to no one.

Chapter 2. The narcissism of minor differences

Chapter two is much better because it starts from a specific time and place. It invokes the time Ignatieff spent in a village in Croatia holed up with Serb paramilitaries in the basement of an abandoned farmhouse, an observation post from which the bored soldiers occasionally take potshots at the Croats, in a similar ruined building two hundred and fifty yards away. How did it come to this?

This chapter picks up themes from Blood and Belonging and digs deeper. The most obvious thing to an outsider like Ignatieff is not the way Serbs and Croats come from distinct ethnic and religious groups, or represent the so-called Clash of Civilisations (the concept promoted by Samuel Huntingdon which became fashionable in the 1990s). It’s the opposite. Serbs and Croats come from the same racial stock, look the same, they speak the same language. Sure, they belong to different religions (Croats Catholic, Serbs Orthodox) but Ignatieff’s point is that hardly any of the men he talks to go to church and none of them gave it a thought till a few years ago.

Ethnic conflict is not inevitable

Ignatieff’s central point is that ethnic nationalism is NOT the inevitable result of different ethnic groups sharing one territory. Serbs and Croats lived happily together in Croatia and Serbia when both were governed by an (admittedly authoritarian, communist version of) civic nationalism.

The ethnic nationalism which tore the former Yugoslavia apart was the conscious creation of irresponsible rulers. It didn’t have to happen. Ethnic conflict is not inevitable where rulers make a sustained effort to inculcate civic nationalism at every level of their society. But once you let ethnic nationalism in, let it gain a foothold, and it quickly spreads. Go out of your way to actively encourage it – as Franjo Tuđman did in Croatia and Slobodan Milošević did in Serbia – and you get disaster.

That 600,000 Serbs lived inside Croatia didn’t matter when Croatia was merely part of a larger federal country. But when Croatia declared its independence on 25 June 1991, those 600,000 Serbs became intensely anxious about their futures.

Instead of doing everything in his power to address those concerns, the ruler of Croatia, Franjo Tuđman, made a series of errors or provocations. He restored the Croatian flag. Street signs began to be changed to Croat. The government announced that Croat would become the official language of the country and taught in all the schools. All of this reminded older Serbs of the Yugoslav civil war of 1941 to 1945 when Croatia allied with Nazi Germany and carried out a genocide of Serbs, murdering as many as 100,000, most notably at the notorious concentration camp at Jasenovac.

In other words, Serbs began to have real concerns that they were being quickly manoeuvred into becoming second class citizens in a place where they’d lived all their lives. Tuđman failed to address these concerns and so left the door open for the leader of Serbia, Slobodan Milošević, to depict himself as the heroic saviour of the Serb minorities within Croatia and then the other Yugoslav states (notably Bosnia) and to send into those territories units of the Yugoslav Army (mostly staffed by Serbs) along with new Serb paramilitaries, to ‘save his people’.

A proper understanding of the sequence of events makes crystal clear that the situation came about because of the complete failure of all political leaders to maintain and promote civic society and their crude rush to whip up ethnic nationalism of the crudest kind.

Nationalism creates communities of fear, groups held together by the conviction that their security depends on sticking together. People become ‘nationalistic’ when they are afraid; when the only answer to the question ‘who will protect me now?’ becomes ‘my own people’. (p.45)

The psychodynamics of ethnic nationalism

So much for the macro scale, the large political picture. But Ignatieff is fascinated by the nitty gritty of what the individual Serbs in the basement of a ruined farmhouse think they’re actually fighting for. And here he makes some brilliant observations about how fake ethnic nationalism is and what a struggle it is, deep down, to really believe it.

He does this through a long consideration of Sigmund Freud’s idea of the narcissism of minor differences. Freud started from the observable fact that people who hate each other are often very close, for example members of the same family or husbands and wives. Nations often reserve their strongest antipathies for their neighbours, the English and the Scots.

To outsiders, these look like people who live in the same place, speak the same language, share the same values and experiences, and so on. And yet they are often divided by real antagonism. It’s as if, in the absence of all the large-scale reasons for difference, all their psychic energy is focused on the tiniest trivialest differences.

This isn’t totally persuasive, but Freud says something else. Which is that when individuals join a group,  the voluntarily suppress their own individualism in order to belong.

Ignatieff stitches together these insights to develop his own variation, which states: a nationalist takes minor differences with those around them and, in bigging up themselves and their cause, inflates them into shibboleths, into stumbling blocks, into the things which define himself and his group.

Nationalism is guilty of a kind of narcissistic attention to trivial details (how you were your hat, how you pronounce one particular letter or sound, this national song instead of that national song) and exaggeration – turning apparent trivia into a matter of life and death.

This systematic overvaluation of our story, our suffering, our language, our patriotic songs and so on always comes at the price of a systematic denigration of other people’s same attributes. An unrealistic over-valuation of the self seems to necessarily involve an equally unrealistic depreciation of others, and this depreciation is most intense at the point where the Other approaches nearest to being like you.

The nationalist thinks his tribe and nation are wonderful, special and unique; so that if someone calmly points out that they are actually pretty much the same as the other half dozen tribes of nations which surround it, the nationalist will furiously deny it, and the more alike they are, the more furious the denial.

Thus there is an anxiety at the heart of nationalism. When Ignatieff talks to the paramilitary in the farm basement he slowly realises the man has a bad conscience, a very bad conscience. When asked why he hates the Croats a couple of hundred yards away, he comes up with all kinds of reasons, many of which contradict each other. Ignatieff realises there is no reason. There is no rational reason why Serb should hate Croat or Croat hate Serb. Instead they have plunged into this mental condition of Group Narcissism in which they find psychological validation, reassurance and belonging by investing all their psychic energy in the Group Ideology, and investment which denies reality. Which denies that they were ever friends, went to the same pubs, shopped in the same shops, were married to people from the other group.

If you allow a rational consideration of the situation to enter, it undermines the unrealistic fantasy at the core of ethnic nationalism and this is why ethnic nationalists get so angry about it, furiously denying that they have anything in common with them, the others. They are all murderers and rapists; we are all heroes and martyrs. The possibility that they’re just flawed people like we are cannot be allowed otherwise it brings the entire artificial and overblown fiction of nationalist belief crashing down.

This explains for Ignatieff what he sees among so many nationalist communities which is a certain amount of fakery and insincerity. It often seems as if the politicians, ideologues, spokesmen and soldiers on the ground don’t entirely believe what they say. Inauthenticity, shallowness and fraudulence. It is if the extravagant violence with which ethnic nationalist beliefs are stated amounts to wilful overcompensation for notions the speaker knows, deep down, not to be true. He knows that his Croatian neighbour is not actually the murderer and rapist which his Serbian nationalism tells him he is, but… but to carry on being a member of the Group he has to conquer his own doubts. He has to march in line, wear a uniform and badge, get drunk with the boys and shout out patriotic songs.

All to conceal from himself his uneasy awareness that it’s all bullshit.

Ignatieff doesn’t say this but it struck me that this explains a common phenomenon, which is the documentaries you watch which interview people caught up in massacres, wars and genocides and… they themselves don’t really understand what happened. They look back and they can’t really explain why they and their friends grabbed their machetes and ran round to their neighbours’ house and hacked him, his wife and children into hunks of bloody meat, as hundreds of thousands did during the Rwandan genocide. Now, calm and quiet, sitting sedately in their garden sipping tea, they can’t quite believe it happened. I’ve noticed this in many TV documentaries about atrocities. Years later the participants can barely believe it happened.

Clearly, this is because it was a kind of mass intoxication. It was a delirium, like a prolonged party in which everyone was in a mad, feverish, drunken mood and did all kinds of wild things… and then they sobered up. Indeed Ignatieff records how everyone he spoke to in Yugoslavia expressed surprise that the boring, everyday society they knew collapsed so quickly and so completely into a Hobbesian nightmare of war and terror. They describe it as a kind of madness or intoxication.

He concludes with words of advice for liberal society which can be summarised in two strategies:

1. His analysis suggest there is a kind of basic mathematical formula at work, an inverse ratio: the more people overvalue their group, their tribe, their nation (and overvalue themselves as a part of this Heroic People), the more, as if by some fateful psychological law, they will denigrate outsiders who are not members of the Heroic People. The more intense the positive feelings for our side, the more intense our negative feelings for the other. The cure for this is, pretty obviously, to moderate our feelings for our side. To cultivate a nationalism which is proud of various aspect of our national life and culture, but not blind to its faults, not exaggerated.

We are likely to be more tolerant toward other identities only if we learn to like our own a little less. (p.62)

Because all historical precedent suggests the more you big up yourself, the more you find someone to denigrate and anathematise.

2. Nationalist intolerance works by converting real people into abstractions.

Nationalist intolerance requires a process of abstraction in which actual, real individuals in all their specificity are depersonalised and turned into carriers of hated group characteristics. (p.70)

The solution to this is to consider everyone as an individual, including yourself. Instead of thinking of yourself primarily as a member of this tribe or nation or people or group, you should consider yourself as an individual person. This then forms the basis for treating everyone else you meet as themselves individuals in their own right, and not as representatives of this or that group, with all the (probably) negative connotations you associate with that group.

The essential task in teaching ‘toleration’ is to help people see themselves as individuals, and the to see others as such. (p.70)


Credit

History judges no one. There will be no reckoning at all. (p.55)

The Warrior’s Honour: Ethnic War and the Modern Conscience by Michael Ignatieff was published by Chatto and Windus in 1998. All references are to the 1999 Vintage paperback edition.

New world disorder reviews

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

Critique of Hobsbawm’s Marxisant approach

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

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

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

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

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

Hobsbawm’s strengths

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

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

Hobsbawm’s obsession with capitalism’s contradictions

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

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

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

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

Why Hobsbawm was wrong

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

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

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

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

The misleading use of terms like ‘bourgeois’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The fundamental sleight of hand in Hobsbawm’s argument

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

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

Victimology tends to tyranny

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Student excitement, adult disillusion with Hobsbawm

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

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

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

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

Democracy not the blessing it is cracked up to be

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My opposition to Hobsbawm’s teleology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The environmental perspective

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hobsbawm’s style

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Overall conclusion

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

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

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

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


Credit

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

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