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

Gareth Stedman Jones on Marx and 1848

Having just read Karl Marx’s two great works of political analysis about the ill-fated French Second Republic (The Class Struggles in France: 1848 to 1850 and The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon), I thought I’d reread the hundred or so pages of Gareth Stedman Jones’s masterly intellectual biography of Marx which cover the same period – to remind myself of the wider European political and intellectual context, and to have Jones explain the development of Marx’s thought to me.

The Communist Manifesto

The Manifesto of the Communist Party was published in January 1848. According to Jones, Marx was:

  • the first to evoke the seemingly limitless powers of the modern economy and its global reach
  • the first to chart the staggering transformation unleashed by the productive powers of modern industry
  • the first to describe the restless, unfinished nature of capitalism which, in order to survive, must continually invent new human needs and new products to satisfy them
  • the first to describe how capitalism disrespects all previous boundaries and hierarchies, dissolving all conventional relationships, turning all humans into objects for sale, reducing all human relationships to the cash nexus

There is no doubting the innovativeness and power of much of Marx’s thought.

The creation of the ‘bourgeoisie’ and the ‘proletariat’

Karl’s writings of the earlier 1840s had used concepts inherited from the Hegelian tradition: ‘the Christian state’, ‘the philosopher’, ‘the rational state’, ‘civil society’, ‘the peasantry’, ‘the Germans’, ‘the Philistines’. From about 1845 these were replaced by a new ‘cast of characters’, as Jones describes them – ‘the modern state’, ‘the class struggle’, ‘the bourgeoisie’ and ‘the proletariat’.

Karl borrowed bourgeoisie from contemporary French radicals, notably Louis Blanc. Blanc wrote about the banking industry enthralling trade and commerce, enforcing competition in all sectors, pushing small businesses and traders to the wall, undermining those of middle stature and creating ‘an oligarchy of bankers’. That sense of capitalism’s all-conquering dynamism would become familiar in Marx’s writings. But whereas in France the word ‘bourgeois’ referred to individual fat cats, often satirised in contemporary cartoons, Marx greatly expanded the idea to make it identical with the great impersonal historical force of Capital itself.

The words proletarian and proletariat derive from the Latin root meaning ‘child’. They also were widely used in French radical writing of the 1840s to refer to the lowest order of society who have no property and so nothing to offer the state except their children. Again Marx adopted the word and vastly increased its meaning by using it to denote the entire working class population, not just of one, but of all the European nations, indeed of the whole world. (cf Engels, quoted on page 243.)

On the plus side, this drastic simplification enabled the stirring rhetoric of The Communist Manifesto which paints the contemporary world as a titanic clash between the Bourgeoisie and the Proletariat. On the down side, it led Marx to lump together all kinds of disparate groups under his new master terms – for example, lumping the mill owners of Lancashire with the financiers of Paris or the ruling elite of Berlin, groups which, in actuality, had very little in common and were acting in completely different situations and often with very different aims.

Similarly, despite superficial similarities, factory workers from Wigan, the unemployed of Paris and army conscripts in Berlin were all described by Marx as ‘the proletariat’ but, once again, didn’t really have that much in common, and were thinking and acting in completely different societies and political systems.

This Great Conflation and Conceptual Simplification encouraged Marx and his followers to minimise or just plain ignore the very real differences between actually existing social groups, groups which sometimes came into active antagonism to each other, as well as the very real differences in the economic situations and the political systems of Britain, France and Prussia.

The Battle at the barricade in the Rue Soufflot, Paris, on 24 June 1848 by Horace Vernet

The Battle at the barricade in the Rue Soufflot, Paris, on 24 June 1848 by Horace Vernet

The revolutions of 1848

Jones gives detailed accounts of the revolutions which broke out in France in February 1848 and in Germany in March 1848, as well as the parallel uprisings which occurred across the continent in countries like Austria, Italy and Poland.

Karl was expelled from Brussels for his political activities in March 1848, and went to Paris (arriving 4 March) where he witnessed at first hand the early developments in the French Republic which had been created when King Louis-Philippe had been forced to abdicate only a few weeks earlier.

These were heady, euphoric days when radicals thought the final workers’ revolution had arrived. But Karl had barely settled into digs in Paris before news came of anti-government disturbances in Germany, specifically in the Prussian capital Berlin, as well as other cities like Frankfurt and Dresden. Karl decided to return to his homeland, arriving in Cologne on 10 April, and remaining there for the next thirteen months.

Along with fellow communists, Karl set up a radical newspaper, the Neue Rheinische Zeitung which quickly established itself as the leading radical journal in Germany, with a circulation of 5,000. However, Jones cautions that it never had any influence because of ‘its dogmatic tone and its reductive conception of politics’ (p.295).

The problem Karl and his journal created for themselves was they had a schizophrenic position created by their split worldview. On the one hand Karl believed the Great Proletarian Revolution was just around the corner and that therefore he needed to support whatever events were pushing the situation to extremes, whatever seemed likely to spark the Final Insurrection. From this grand historical point of view Marx was often in favour of governments taking repressive actions; the more repressive, the more they would hasten The Great Uprising.

But, on the other hand, as editor of a journal claiming to represent the best interests of the working classes, Karl had to give some kind of practical advice about who to support and what to campaign for as events unfolded day by day – forcing him to take part in the messy, compromising business of actual politics.

In Jones’s view Marx’s flip-flopping between these positions not only made the Neue Rheinische Zeitung an unreliable guide for working class readers, it looked to many like indecisiveness, and led some on the left to ridicule it (and Karl) for his often grandiose visions of a world on the brink of utopian transformation.

Karl’s political commentaries

During his eight months in Cologne Karl wrote intense and furious commentary on political developments, but this is where – for Jones – it starts to go wrong, for a number of reasons.

1. Jones says that Karl and his circle thought the 1848 revolution would follow the pattern of the Great French Revolution i.e. there would be an initial bourgeois phase dominated by the usual liberal rhetoric about the rights of man and democracy (1789-1792), but this would then be followed by the True Proletariat Revolution (which is how Karl interpreted the rise of Robespierre, the Committee of Public Safety, and the Terror of 1792-3).

This was the part of the French revolution which executed the king, declared a republic, created universal suffrage, abolished church land and took far-reaching radical steps which all of which Karl strongly admired. So Marx expected the events of 1848 to fit into this pre-ordained schema: first bourgeois revolution, then proletariat revolution.

But he was wrong.

Jones says that the very strength of the Communist Manifesto is also its weakness. It appeals because of its simplicity: the wicked bourgeois grow richer but numerically smaller and smaller; the impoverished proletariat grow poorer, but more and more numerous. The result is as inevitable as a simple maths problem: eventually the proletariat will outnumber the bourgeoisie to such an extent that the Great Proletarian Revolution will become inevitable, the oppressed Proletariat will rise up, overthrow their exploiters and bring human history to an end in a peaceful utopia.

But the world wasn’t and isn’t that simple, never has been.

One of the undoubted strengths of Karl’s analysis is that it enabled him to look behind the scenes of daily politics in France and Germany to identify the class-based interests of different political groupings in a way that more conventional commentators couldn’t. But this X-ray vision also led to what Jones sees as Karl’s greatest mistake: which was to underestimate the messy and unpredictable realm of actual politics.

Karl’s conviction that History proceeds along an unavoidable course, moving through inevitable stages (industrial revolution, the economic then political triumph of bourgeoisie, the rise of proletariat, the communist revolution) led him and his colleagues in the Communist League and on the Neue Rheinische Zeitung to underestimate the complexity of the societies they were commentating on (Britain, France and Germany) and to ignore the complexity of the actual political manoeuvring taking place in them, under very fraught circumstances.

It led them to overlook the massive differences between all three countries (for instance, Prussian liberals and radicals had no republican tradition whatever to look back to or draw upon, unlike the French radicals who had the 1789 revolution and the 1830 revolutions to refer back to and invoke).

It led them to make mistakes in the history they claimed to be so fond of (the French state of 1789 was bankrupt and tied to a moribund church, whereas the French state of 1848 was relatively well off and backed by the richest parts of society, the industrial and financial bourgeoisie: no wonder the two revolutions unfolded in completely different ways).

The opening of Karl’s essay on French politics, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, is one of the most quoted things he ever wrote:

Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.

The clarity, the sweep, the confidence, the shiny brilliance of this insight are typical Marx and typically misleading. It may well be true that politicians drape themselves in the costumes, postures and words of their predecessors, particularly at times of stress. But rereading Marx this time round has made me realise that one clever insight is not enough. While Karl was elaborating the parallels between the actors of 1848 and their predecessors in 1789 (or, as he often does, to figures in classical Rome, or Biblical times) the real politicians of his time were getting on with their plotting and reacting to completely new circumstances in the here and now.

Americans have an irritating phrase – ‘If you’re so clever, how come you ain’t rich?’ You can apply a variation of this to Marx and his followers: ‘If you’re so clever, with all your unique insights into economic and social forces — how come your cause lost?’ Lost again and again.

Because it did lose.

In Britain, the Chartist agitation which looked like producing a real change of the political scene in early 1848, fizzled out.

In Germany, Jones shows how the Prussian emperor cleverly manoeuvred his way through the revolutionary turmoil, until he finally outwitted his National Assembly, carried out a coup and imposed a new constitution, retaining all his powers.

In France, it took three years of very complex political chicanery until the preposterous figure of Louis-Napoléon managed to make himself emperor (December 1851), crystallising the defeat of the revolution.

The Polish uprising of 1848 was crushed by Russia.

The January rising in Sicily was defeated with the return of its Bourbon rulers. An uprising for independence in Hungary was eventually crushed by Russian and Austrian armies. And so on.

By 1853, Queen Victoria (Britain), King Frederick William IV (Prussia), the emperor Louis-Napoléon (France), the emperor Francis Joseph (Austria) and Czar Nicholas I (Russia) were all secure on their thrones as they had been in 1847.

Karl underestimates the importance of politics

In all his political analyses, Karl can’t hide the tone of contempt and sarcasm (the ‘contemptuous tone’, the ‘derision and condemnation’ as Jones describes them p.283) directed at the politicians he regards as mere puppets fronting various conflicting ‘class interests’.

The assumption in all of his writings is that he and his communist group alone in all of Europe understand the true nature of technological, economic and social change.

This, in fact, may have been true: his economic and class-based analyses are fascinating and way ahead of his time — but nonetheless, they ignore the reality of politics, which is that victory goes not go to the virtuous or to ‘the vanguard of History’ – it goes to the cunningest and most Machiavellian.

Karl is more in thrall to ‘the histrionics of revolution than to its actuality’; ‘he underestimated the ability of the leaders of the reaction’ (p.284). His ‘hostility towards the modern representative state’, his ‘consequent belittlement of the significance of manhood suffrage and the democratic republic’, his ‘disregard of political and legal forms’ (p.307) led Karl and Engels to systematically underestimate the importance of these goals for the working classes of their time, and explains the way their predictions for all the 1848 revolutions (and indeed for the rest of the century) turned out to be diametrically wrong.

Jones’s critique of The Class Struggles in France: 1848 to 1850

Jones says it is the difficulty of reconciling the great global Hegelian vision of the two vast world-historical categories which Marx had invented (the Bourgeoisie and the Proletariat) lumbering towards the Great Day of Revolution with the day-to-day confusing and messy manouevrings of political factions, which gives Marx’s long essay The Class Struggles in France: 1848 to 1850 its ‘strangeness’ of tone and content.

For a start it omits a surprising amount of basic information:

1. There is very little mention of the political causes which the left and radicals were fighting for, almost nothing about the actual political platforms of workers’ leaders like Blanqui and the radicals, next to nothing about the actual mechanics of the ‘right to work’ movement which inspired many of the workers throughout the revolution. It was rhetoric around the ‘right to work’ which mobilised huge numbers of the unemployed in Paris. The opening of National Workshops for the unemployed was the central issue in working class politics: the June riots weren’t the result of some abstract confrontation between the Proletariat and the Bourgeoisie, they were sparked by the government’s threat to close the National Workshops and were the mass protests of the thousands of men who stood to lose their life-supporting dole money. By always moving to the most abstract level, Karl consistently misses the importance of the quotidien, of practical details.

2. There is surprisingly little detailed economic analysis. Karl followed French socialist theorists who thought that capitalist crises were the result of periodic overproduction which flooded markets and produced slumps. This is what Karl attributes the 1847 economic crisis to. But Jones says it was caused by entirely different factors: the potato blight of 1846 and poor wheat harvests – which both produced hunger – and a poor cotton crop which led to lack of work in the textile industry (mass unemployment). In fact the collapse of linen production across much of northern Europe was part of a turning point in European history, which resulted in the de-industrialisation of much of the countryside of northern Europe, the movement of rural artisans to the cities or to flee starving Europe altogether and migrate to America. None of this is in Karl’s account.

3. Karl is always itching to represent every confrontation as that between the Bourgeoisie and the Proletariat, but this forces him to overlook or distort all kinds of inconvenient facts: for example, the government of the French Republic which did all the repressing, was mostly not made up of employers, industrial or otherwise; the Paris insurgents included just as many small employers as helpless wage earners; and the armed forces which confronted them, the Mobile Guard, was just as working class as the workers they were trying to control.

Karl knew this but to save his theory invents the concept of the lumpenproletariat, consisting of drunks, crooks, thieves, prostitutes and so on to explain the behaviour of the Mobile Guard. In reality they were from the same ‘class’ as the marchers, but had simply decided to take the government’s shilling and wear a uniform. The entire concept of the lumpenproletariat can be defined as ‘the elements of the working class which don’t behave in the way Karl Marx’s theory says they ought to behave and so he has to call by a different name and go out of his way to abuse and discredit’.

4. Karl takes no time to analyse the central problem the young French Republic faced, which was what to do with over 100,000 unemployed working class men and their families. Paying some to join the newly established Mobile Guards solved part of the problem. Setting up the National Workshops for the unemployed solved the rest, but cost the government a fortune. Where was the money to come from? The republic decided to tax the peasants – (which resulted in the peasants hating the new Republic and voting for the first person who promised to reduce taxes – Louis-Napoléon – in the electoin of December 1848.

So much for key elements of the revolution which Karl ignored. But Jones says that at a much deeper level, Karl’s entire analysis was wrong-headed.

It was hardly rocket science to notice that 1848 saw insurgencies against almost every established government in Europe; other people did notice this too, not least the governments in question. But Karl made two cardinal mistakes in his analysis of these events:

1. He couldn’t escape his own blinkered interpretation of the insurgencies in terms of the French Revolution of 1789. Having just read Karl’s text, The Class Struggles in France: 1848 to 1850, I can confirm that Karl is much more haunted by 1789 (and especially by the rise of the Jacobin party in 1792) than the workers and middle-class liberals he’s describing. Having interpreted the French Revolution as in fact two revolutions taking place in sequence – the ‘bourgeois’ revolution of 1789 and then the Jacobin or radical revolution of 1792 – Karl time and time again describes the political actors of 1848 as repeating, invoking, walking in the steps of and generally copying their great predecessors.

Only they weren’t. They were reacting to completely different situations, economic pressures and political realities, in completely new and unpredictable ways.

2. Karl’s philosophical position had been developed in the early 1840s, and a central tenet was that modern life in a capitalist system alienated people from traditions, customs and from themselves. Of nobody was this more true than of the industrial proletariat, who were reduced to the status of ‘hands’, to mere appendages which tended the genuinely valuable items in factories, the machines. Alienated from their work, from the products of their labour, from the value of their labour, Karl saw this class as being subjected to such an extreme of dehumanisation, that it would eventually – by a kind of law of physics – rebound, reclaim the means of production and distribution, overthrow its oppressors, and institute a new era of history in which all men and women live alienation-free lives, in touch with themselves, enjoying the fruits of their labours in harmonious associations.

You don’t need a degree in politics and economics to see that this is a pitifully simple-minded fairy tale.

What Jones specifically accuses Karl of is placing his own ideologically-blinkered philosophy over the actual facts. Karl thought the proletariat had to be pushed right to the brink, to be ground into utter misery, before the world-shaking transformation could come about. But in the event the working classes of Europe turned out not to be so keen on being ground into the mud in order to prove the theory of an obscure German philosophy student; what they wanted was work, shorter hours and more pay.

And most of the radical leaders in Britain, France, Germany, Austria and beyond thought this could best be achieved not by overthrowing the existing political system but by being granted entry into it.

The central demand of the Chartists wasn’t to abolish property and overthrow the bourgeoisie: it was to have the vote. Similarly, the issue of male suffrage was central to the 1848 revolution in France. The ‘class consciousness’ of workers in Britain or France was caused less by the notional stage of development of capitalist technology, than by the fact that they wanted the vote so that their representatives could fight their cause in Parliament and the National Assembly.

Jones’s point is that the central issue of the 1848 revolutions was not Karl’s ‘class consciousness’, it was widespread concern about ‘political exclusion’.

When Marx and Engels ridicule the whole notion of parliamentary politics, when they pour scorn on the English Constitution as ‘a tissue of lies’, when they mock moderate socialist leaders in Britain and France – they are denying the voices of the working classes themselves.

Highly ideological and doctrinaire themselves, Karl and Friedrich projected onto working class people their own theories and ideas about how the working classes ought to think and behave, ignoring the actual stated wishes of the majority of the workers – shorter hours, better pay and the vote.

Is there any way of adjudicating between these conflicting interpretations of events? Yes. By seeing what happened subsequently: Did the working classes of Britain, France and Germany turn out to want violent revolutionary overthrow, or did they just want more say in existing political systems?

The fact that exclusion and lack of recognition rather than exploitation were the prime precipitants of the insurrectionary sentiments of the peoples of 1848 was borne out by the subsequent history of Western Europe. With manhood suffrage and a representative system established in France after the fall of the Second Empire, and renewed talk of Reform in England, the working classes were progressively re-incorporated back into the political system. Thus the political and extra-constitutional significance of the ‘class struggle’, as it had been invoked by the Communist Manifesto, faded away. (p.313)

Karl superimposed over the actual stated aims of working class radicals in 1848 an arcane schema derived from the Idealist philosopher Hegel, which bore little relation to economic, social or political realities, and which has bedazzled restless intellectuals ever since.

Workers didn’t want to overthrow the system; they wanted more of a say in the system, and a fairer distribution of the spoils. The proof is the way that, as the century progressed, the ‘proletariat’ didn’t rise up against the ‘bourgeoisie’ of England, France or Germany – it was step by step co-opted into the system and running of those countries, which all avoided revolution and became social democracies – the precise opposite of what Karl and Engels predicted and never gave up hoping for.

Jones’s critique of The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon

In the summer of 1849 the king of Prussia, Frederick William IV, introduced a new cabinet of his reactionary supporters, who implemented counter-revolutionary measures to expel leftist and other revolutionary elements from the country. The paper Karl had been editing and writing for, the Neue Rheinische Zeitung was soon suppressed and Marx was ordered to leave the country on 16 May.

He returned to Paris, which was then in the grip of both a reactionary counter-revolution and a cholera epidemic. But he wasn’t there long before he was expelled by the city authorities, who considered him a political threat. With his wife Jenny expecting their fourth child and unable to move back to Germany or Belgium, in August 1849 Karl arrived as a refugee in London, where he was to live for the rest of his life.

It was in Dean Street, in London’s Soho district, between December 1851 and March 1852, that Karl wrote his analysis of the rise of Louis-Napoléon, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, which went on to be published in 1852 in Die Revolution, a German monthly magazine published in New York.

On pages 334 to 343 of his biography Jones analyses The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon. For a start it was, apparently, Engels’s idea that the grand history of 1789 was repeating itself as farce in the 1848 events, and that the coup by which Louis-Napoléon seized power in December 1848 echoed the coup by which his uncle, Napoléon Bonaparte seized power on 9 November 1799. We know this because we have the letter in which Engels suggests the idea to Karl.

At the time of the first Bonaparte’s coup, France was still living under the fanciful calendar dreamed up by the earlier French revolutionaries, according to which November was known as Brumaire and the 9th of November translated as the 18th day of ‘Brumaire’. Thus Bonaparte’s coup was known as the 18th Brumaire, and so the title of Marx’s long article is a direct reference (once again) to the events of the first French Revolution, jokingly labelling the coup of the nephew by the term previously used for the coup of the uncle.

As with his critique of Marx’s writings about the 1848 revolution, Jones heavily criticises Marx for being trapped and blinkered by his own theory. His obsession with interpreting everything as part of the great struggle between the abstract categories of Capital and Proletariat, and his obsession with the revolutions of the past, completely blinded him to the novelty of the situation in 1848.

This consisted in the fact that the Second Republic had consciously created the role of a president, something which had never existed in France before and which they modelled on the role of the American president.

It seemed like a good idea, but in practice nobody in France knew how to manage the resulting political situation, specifically the confrontation between president and National Assembly, both claiming the authority of having been elected.

It was Louis-Napoléon’s wisdom (or luck) to realise that he could appeal over the heads of both the liberals and the so-called ‘Party of Order’ in the National Assembly, and even of the radical socialist leaders of ‘the street’, to the largest element in the Paris population – the petty bourgeoisie – and to by far the largest section of the population of France – the peasants – to secure power.

Far from being a pygmy reincarnation of his giant forebear, a retread of an old formula (as Marx saw him), Jones claims that Louis-Napoléon was in fact a talented pioneer of an entirely new politics – he was arguably the first European populist politician, happy to ignore the entire political class and appeal directly to ‘the people’.

Once again, Karl’s dismissal of democratic politics as a mere smokescreen concealing the ‘reality’ of class conflict, and his obsessive interpreting of every twist and turn in the complex story solely in terms of his wished-for conflict between Bourgeoisie and Proletariat, completely blinded him to the novelty of this situation and to the actual power politics on the ground, which led to an outcome exactly contrary to what he predicted.

As a result Karl’s reading of the sequence of events which had culminated in the implementation of universal suffrage, Bonaparte’s massive electoral majority and finally his coup d’état was wilful and perverse. He claimed that these events signified the ripening of the ‘party of insurrection’ into ‘a really revolutionary party’, and the establishment of the Second Empire was not a defeat of the bourgeoisie, but a new form of bourgeois rule. But he had little to say about what was to be its more obvious consequence – that, as a result of the political demand for universal male suffrage in France in 1848, and again in Germany in the 186os, both the liberals and the more traditional parties of order found themselves defeated, not by radical democrats on the left, but by the demagogic manoeuvres of maverick post-Legitimist leaders on the right – Bonaparte and Bismarck. (p.341)

Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte aka the Emperor Napoleon III by Franz Xaver Winterhalter

Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte aka the Emperor Napoleon III by Franz Xaver Winterhalter

Conclusions

Marx developed a way of interpreting society and history which is simultaneously powerful, persuasive and deeply misleading. Societies are driven forward by technological innovation. Capitalism does suck all societies into its vortex of trade and banking. (By now, 2018, the entire world has been subsumed into a global capitalist ‘system’, or system of interlocking systems.) Political leaders are often the puppets of big business and finance. Culture as a whole, and even individual artists or writers, can very usefully be thought of as expressing class interests or of reflecting the stage of development of their society.

All of these ideas have gone on to have brilliant careers in sociology, literary and wider cultural theory.

BUT the fundamental teleology, the view that History is inevitably and unstoppably heading in a particular direction, turns out to be completely unfounded.

And the idea that that direction amounts to the ‘Bourgeoisie’ becoming a tiny class of all-powerful capitalists grinding the faces of an enormous class of propertyless ‘Proletariat’ who will, inevitably, rise up to overthrow them – turned out to be completely wrong.

His position of teaching his followers to belittle and ignore the complexities of the political sphere, dismissing democracy, constitutions, the vote and the law as ‘bourgeois fictions’, and instead to rely on completely fictional ideas of ‘historical inevitability’, goes a long way to explaining why Marxist parties have repeatedly failed in industrialised and developed countries and have always been defeated by parties which understood the realities of power in complex societies much better.

Where Marxist tenets were to triumph was in the backward, economically more simple states of Russia and China and, even then, only under the chaotic conditions created by devastating wars. These essentially military seizures of power led to state dictatorships which were able to export or impose their ideologies on their neighbours by force (Eastern Europe in Stalin’s case, South-East Asia in Mao’s), with terrible consequences.


Related links

Related blog posts

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 from conquering Poland and 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 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 was Orwell was fighting with and he only just managed to escape arrest, interrogation and probable execution.

Communism in England

Karl Marx’s prose style

My daughter is studying sociology and I get to help her with her homework and read her textbooks. The flat, dull tone of would-be scientific writing is enough to drive you mad.

The prose style of Karl Marx, according to some people the founder of modern sociology, is the exact opposite.

It is a constant surprise how rhetorical Marx is: pithy poetic phrases, bombastic generalisations, baggy lists, nifty antitheses, classical references, all these are deployed in a tone dominated by sarcasm and satire – Marx constantly expects the ‘bourgeoisie’ to do its worst and is rarely disappointed.

This blog post simply aims to highlight the importance of techniques of rhetorical persuasion in Marx’s writings.

It’s based on a close reading of Karl Marx Political Writings Volume 2: Surveys from Exile edited by David Fernbach – specifically from Marx’s two long essays about the political turmoil in France between 1848 and 1852, The Class Struggles in France: 1848 to 1850 and The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. Page numbers refer to the 1973 Pelican paperback edition.

Insults 

For a start Marx is not respectful. He doesn’t feel any inhibitions about abusing and insulting all his enemies, from the bourgeoisie in general to the hollow trickster, Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, who he calls

  • a grotesque mediocrity
  • a ludicrous, vulgar and hated person
  • the adventurer who hides his trivial and repulsive features behind the iron death mask of Napoleon

The Provisional Assembly which replaced the French king in February 1848, had the bright idea of declaring universal male suffrage i.e. all adult men were empowered to vote, most importantly in the election for a new president to replace the abdicated king. 1. The urban liberals in their idealism overlooked the fact that by far the biggest single part of the electorate was the millions of peasants, who outnumbered the populations of all French cities and towns several times over. 2. By the time the presidential election was held in December 1848, the political landscape had changed out of all recognition. The result was an overwhelming victory for the buffoonish figure of Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte.

Thus Marx not only doesn’t like Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, he actively despises the backward, clumsy, ignorant peasants who voted for him.

The symbol that expressed the peasants’ entry into the revolutionary movement, clumsily cunning, knavishly naive, doltishly sublime, a calculated superstition, a pathetic burlesque, a cleverly stupid anachronism, a world-historic piece of buffoonery and an indecipherable hieroglyphic for the understanding of the civilized – this symbol bore the unmistakable physiognomy of the class that represents barbarism within civilization.

But his strongest vituperation is, of course, reserved for the hated ‘bourgeoisie’.

The mortgage debt burdening the soil of France imposes on the French peasantry an amount of interest equal to the annual interest on the entire British national debt. Small-holding property, in this enslavement by capital toward which its development pushes it unavoidably, has transformed the mass of the French nation into troglodytes. Sixteen million peasants (including women and children) dwell in caves, a large number of which have but one opening, others only two and the most favored only three. Windows are to a house what the five senses are to the head. The bourgeois order, which at the beginning of the century set the state to stand guard over the newly emerged small holdings and fertilized them with laurels, has become a vampire that sucks the blood from their hearts and brains and casts them into the alchemist’s cauldron of capital. (p.242)

Note how solid factual analysis (of the results of debt on French peasants) is inextricably entwined with highly alarmist and exaggerated similes and metaphors – of enslavement, troglodytes and vampires. Abuse and insults are an intrinsic part of Marx’s analysis, not an accident, not a removeable element – bitter hatred of the bourgeois enemy is a key part of Marx’s worldview.

Rhetorical repetition 

Marx uses rhetorical repetition, often in the time-honoured form of the three clauses trick.

Thus the awakening of the dead in those revolutions served the purpose of glorifying the new struggles, not of parodying the old; of magnifying the given task in the imagination, not of fleeing from its solution in reality; of finding the spirit of revolution once more, not of making its ghost walk about again.

Bonaparte represented the peasant’s superstition, not his enlightenment; his prejudice, not his judgement; his past, not his future.

Antitheses 

He likes antithesis, or the repetition of an idea with variations – ideally a straight inversion – to produce a snappy phrase.

The republic had announced itself to the peasantry with the tax collector; it announced itself to the republic with the emperor.

The December 10 Society was to remain Bonaparte’s private army until he succeeded in transforming the public army into a December 10 Society.

This tendency is more important than it seems because it indicates the underlying fondness for neat patterns of Marx’s thought. He thinks that History moves in neat antitheses, just like his prose (just like the neatly antithetical prose he learned as a student at the feet of the classically trained Idealist philosopher, Hegel).

Repetition of phrases

Sometimes Marx uses repetition with variation (as above). On other occasions he uses simple repetition, its flatness and bathos indicating the batheticness of the actors he attributes it to, in this case the charlatan, Louis-Napoléon. The use of deadpan repetition reminded me of modern stand-up comedy.

As a fatalist, [Louis-Napoléon] lives by the conviction that there are certain higher powers which man, and the soldier in particular, cannot withstand. Among these powers he counts, first and foremost, cigars and champagne, cold poultry and garlic sausage. With this in mind, to begin with, he treats officers and non-commissioned officers in his Elysée apartments to cigars and champagne, to cold poultry and garlic sausage.

Out of context this comes over as a bit flat, but in the warmth of his ongoing text this little trick comes as a moment of comic relief. Boom, boom.

Lists

There is nothing so glorious as a long, ragbag, rollercoaster of a list.

On the pretext of founding a benevolent society, the lumpenproletariat of Paris had been organized into secret sections, each section being led by Bonapartist agents, with a Bonapartist general at the head of the whole organization. Decayed roués with dubious means of subsistence and of dubious origin, ruined and adventurous offshoots of the bourgeoisie, rubbed shoulders with vagabonds, discharged soldiers, discharged jailbirds, escaped galley slaves, swindlers, mountebanks, lazzaroni, pickpockets, tricksters, gamblers, maquereaux, brothel keepers, portes, literati, organ-grinders, ragpickers, knife grinders, tinkers, beggars – in short, the whole of the nebulous, disintegrated mass, scattered hither and thither, which the French call la bohème; from this kindred element Bonaparte formed the core of the December 10 Society…

Having conjured up this vivid Dickensian mob, Marx proceeds in his characteristic tone of High Sarcasm to reveal the ‘real’ motives of such bourgeois shams, and uses a panoply of rhetorical tricks to ram home his contempt for Louis.

… A ‘benevolent society’ – in so far as, like Bonaparte, all its members felt the need to benefit themselves at the expense of the labouring nation. This Bonaparte, who constitutes himself chief of the lumpenproletariat, who here alone rediscovers in mass form the interests which he personally pursues, who recognizes in the scum, offal and refuse of all classes the only class upon which he can base himself unconditionally, is the real Bonaparte, the Bonaparte sans phrase. An old crafty roué, he conceives the historical life of the nations and their performances of state as comedy in the most vulgar sense, as a masquerade where the grand costumes, words and postures merely serve to mask the pettiest knavery.

Note the use of three clauses to build rhetorical power. Note the insult words (scum, refuse). Note the ad hominem attack on Louis-Napoléon (a crafty old roué with a vulgar sense of theatre). Rhetoric and insults are central.

Conjuring ghosts and spectres

The word ‘conjure’ appears five times in the Brumaire, ‘ghost’ eight times, ‘spirit’ 16 times. Circe and her ‘black magic’ are mentioned.

The opening sentence of The Communist Manifesto is bold and memorable – ‘A spectre is haunting Europe: the spectre of communism’ – but reading further into Marx, you realise that the use of imagery connected to ghosts, spirits, conjurors and magicians is not that exceptional. It is a routine fixture of his imagination and his rhetoric.

Even a mere Vaisse [a deputy in the national assembly] could conjure up the red spectre… (p.212)

The social republic appeared as a phrase, as a prophecy, on the threshold of the February Revolution. In the June days of 1848, it was drowned in the blood of the Paris proletariat, but it haunts the subsequent acts of the drama like a ghost… (p.234)

All the ‘Napoleonic ideas’ are ideas of the undeveloped small holding in the freshness of its youth; they are a contradiction to the outlived holdings. They are only the hallucinations of its death struggle, words transformed into phrases, spirits transformed into ghosts. (p.244)

1. The frequency of ghost imagery reminds you that Marx the writer grew to maturity in the 1830s, the heyday of High Romantic writing, of plays and operas about the supernatural, especially in Germany, and so it’s no surprise that there is a certain Gothic quality to his imagination, teeming as it is with ghosts and spectres.

2. It worryingly reminds you that Marx was above all a writer, given to conjuring up words, classes, nations, conflicts with the stroke of a pen, without a second thought. Historical eras, sociological classes, leading politicians, can all be made to appear or disappear in a puff of smoke by Marx, the political prestidigitator.

The constitution, the National Assembly, the dynastic parties, the blue and red republicans, the
heroes of Africa, the thunder from the platform, the sheet lightning of the daily press, all the other publications, the political names and the intellectual reputations, the civil law and the penal code, liberté, egalité, fraternité, and the second Sunday in May, 1852 – all have vanished like a series of optical illusions before the spell of a man whom even his enemies do not claim to be a magician. (p.151)

So we find his compadre, Engels, writing in the aftermath of the 1848 revolutions with the optimistic hope that all the reactionary types who had helped to crush the uprisings (specifically, in the Austrian empire) would be swept away.

The Austrian Germans and Magyars will be set free and wreak a bloody revenge on the Slav barbarians. The general war which will then break out will smash this Slav Sonderbund and wipe out all these petty hidebound nations, down to their very names. The next world war will result in the disappearance from the face of the earth not only of reactionary classes and dynasties, but also of entire reactionary peoples. And that, too, is a step forward. (The Magyar Struggle in Neue Rheinische Zeitung, 13 January 1849).

Unfortunately, their descendants in the Marxist-Leninist line of ideology would take them at their word and, instead of merely textual flourishes, would make real people in the real world and – in Stalin and Mao’s cases – entire groups of people (the kulaks, the urban intelligentsia), disappear with the stroke of a pen into freezing gulags or mass graves.

The language of theatre

The language of magic and conjuring is intimately linked with the lexicon of drama, theatre, comedy, masquerades, costumes and stage with which these texts are drenched.

Bourgeois revolutions, like those of the eighteenth century, storm more swiftly from success to
success, their dramatic effects outdo each other, men and things seem set in sparkling diamonds,
ecstasy is the order of the day. (p.152)

The opening pages of the Brumaire are famous for stating an enormous theory of history, which is that current political actors always clothe themselves in the names and values of previous ones. This allows Marx to compare all of the actors, throughout the book, with their predecessors in everywhere from ancient Israel to the Jacobin Revolution via the Rome of the Caesars.

Whether Marx’s theory that history repeats itself with modern political pygmies dressing up in the clothes of Great Men of the Past has any factual validity, as an imaginative and rhetorical trope it creates a vast sense of a) historical knowledgeableness, and of b) intellectual spaciousness – we feel we are privy to a mind which understands all of human history.

If we consider this conjuring up of the dead of world history, a salient difference is revealed immediately. Camille Desmoulins, Danton, Robespierre, Saint-Just, Napoleon, the heroes as well as the parties and the masses of the old French Revolution, performed the task of their time in Roman costume and with Roman phrases, the task of unchaining and setting up modern bourgeois society.

The first ones smashed the feudal basis to pieces and mowed down the feudal heads which had grown on it. The other created inside France the only conditions under which free competition could be developed, parcelled landed property exploited and the unchained industrial productive power of the nation employed; and everywhere beyond the French borders he swept the feudal institutions away, to the extent necessary to provide bourgeois society in France with a suitable up-to-date environment on the European Continent. Once the new social formation was established, the antediluvian Colossi disappeared and with them resurrected Romanity – the Brutuses, Gracchi, Publicolas, the tribunes, the senators, and Caesar himself.

This long quote demonstrates the way Marx thought of politics as intrinsically theatrical, and the way his imagination constantly recurs to Great Men of the (real or legendary) past.

But he is not only pointing out the way that modern political actors often invoke the shades of the Great Protagonists of the past to bolster their authority – there is also a deeper reference in this idea to Marx’s fundamentally Hegelian worldview: the worldview that History is moving through inevitable phases to an inevitable conclusion. The Jacobins ‘performed the task of their time’; Napoleon ‘swept the feudal institutions away’: both prepared the way for the triumph of ‘free competition’. Marx’s view of History is profoundly teleological; the basis of his entire position is that human History is moving along a pre-determined course towards a pre-determined end.

And if History is heading towards an inevitable conclusion, it must follow that we are all to some extent actors on a stage, playing parts in a drama which is already written. This premise maybe explains Marx’s fondness for theatrical metaphors.

The first act of his ministry was the restoration of the old royalist administration. The official scene was at once transformed – scenery, costumes, speech, actors, supers, mutes, prompters, the position of the parties, the theme of the drama, the content of the conflict, the whole situation.

The revolution made progress, forged ahead, not by its immediate tragicomic achievements but, on the contrary, by the creation of a powerful, united counterrevolution…

Marie’s ateliers, devised in direct antagonism to the Luxembourg, offered occasion, thanks to the common label, for a comedy of errors worthy of the Spanish servant farce…

Instead of only a few factions of the bourgeoisie, all classes of French society were suddenly hurled into the orbit of political power, forced to leave the boxes, the stalls, and the gallery and to act in person upon the revolutionary stage!

The people cried: À bas les grands voleurs! À bas les assassins! when in 1847, on the most prominent stages of bourgeois society, the same scenes were publicly enacted that regularly lead the lumpenproletariat to brothels, to workhouses and lunatic asylums, to the bar of justice, to the dungeon, and to the scaffold.

The terrible attempt of April 16 furnished the excuse for recalling the army to Paris – the real purpose of the clumsily staged comedy and for the reactionary federalist demonstrations in the provinces.

In the many places where Marx invokes the theatre, we join him in the audience watching a political drama which has already been written, assimilated and analysed: while the poor political actors take their parts in the farce or tragedy totally seriously, we, the privileged spectators, understand what is really going on behind the sham of bourgeois rhetoric and in the drama of History.

The rhetoric of both these long essays encourage in the reader a sense of superiority to other commentators and analysts, to the politicians and moralists who are taken in by the play. We are not taken in. We know what is really going on. We are the only ones who understand that all human existence, all human history and all political events are based on class conflict, that this dizzying vaudeville of political acts are all combinations on the theme of the ‘bourgeois’ control of power – and that the entire giddy play will one day come tumbling down when we, the clever ones, and the workers, rise up in revolution.

It is in the opening lines of the Brumaire that he expresses most pithily the idea that History repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce.

Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. (p.147)

Taken in isolation this has the crisp appeal of an Oscar Wilde witticism. But I hope I have provided enough context to show that it is just one among many examples of Marx’s highly theatrical way of thinking about history, and of his very dramatic and rhetorical way of writing.

It isn’t, in other words, the one-off insight it is so often painted as being.

On the contrary, this pithy quote is a key which opens up Marx’s entire imaginative worldview of the world as being a stage, a platform on which a pre-scripted drama is unfolding towards its preordained end and we, his readers and the members of his ‘party’ – sitting by his side – are privileged to be in on the secret of the plot, we are the cognoscenti, we have a front row seat at the great drama of History.

Summary

There are plenty more examples, and I could have elaborated a bit more on the connection between rhetorical tropes and his actual ideas – but I wanted to keep this blog post short and sweet.

The point is simply that, whenever you read that Marx founded a form of ‘scientific’ socialism, invented the objective ‘scientific’ analysis of society, of its economic and class basis and so on – you should also remember that he did so in texts notable for their sustained irony, ad hominem abuse, rhetorical play and theatrical melodrama.


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