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

Critique of Hobsbawm’s Marxisant approach

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

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

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

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

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

Hobsbawm’s strengths

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

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

Hobsbawm’s obsession with capitalism’s contradictions

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

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

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

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

Why Hobsbawm was wrong

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

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

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

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

The misleading use of terms like ‘bourgeois’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The fundamental sleight of hand in Hobsbawm’s argument

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

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

Victimology tends to tyranny

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Student excitement, adult disillusion with Hobsbawm

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

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

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

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

Democracy not the blessing it is cracked up to be

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My opposition to Hobsbawm’s teleology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The environmental perspective

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hobsbawm’s style

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Overall conclusion

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

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

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

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


Credit

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

Hobsbawm reviews

Related reviews

Reviews about Marx and communism

Karl Marx

Communism in Russia

Communism in China

Communism in Vietnam

Communism in Germany

Communism in Poland

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

Communism in Czechoslovakia

Communism in France

Communism in Spain

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

Communism in England

The Penguin History of Modern China: The Fall and Rise of a Great Power, 1850 to the Present by Jonathan Fenby (2nd edition, 2013)

Westerners bore some blame for China’s plight, but the prime cause lay in the empire itself and its rulers. (p.94)

The bloodshed! The murders! The killings! The massacres! The public beheadings! The drownings! The executions! The torture! The mass rapes! The famines! The cannibalism! It’s a miracle China exists after so much death and destruction.

This is a huge book with 682 pages of text and on every page there are killings, murders, massacres, pogroms, famines, floods, executions, purges and liquidations. 150 years of murder, massacre and mayhem. It is a shattering and gruelling book to read.

An estimated 20 million died in the Taiping Rebellion which dragged on from 1850 to 1871. 20 million! Maybe 14 million died in the 8-year-war against Japan 1937-45. And then maybe as many as 45 million died during the chaotic thirty-year misrule of Chairman Mao!!!!

Throw in the miscellaneous other rebellions of the Taiping era (the Nian Rebellion, 100,000+ killed and vast loss of property), the Boxer Rebellion of 1900 (about 100,000 civilians and soldiers dead), the chaos of the Warlord Era (1916-28), immense losses during the long civil war between Nationalists and Communists (1927-49), and Fenby comes up with the commonly accepted figure that between 1850 and 1980 around 100 million Chinese died unnatural or unnecessary deaths.

100 million! The sheer scale of the killing, the torture and executions and butchery and burnings and beheadings and starving to death and burying alive is difficult to comprehend, and also difficult to cope with. Several times I lay the book down because I was so sickened by the butchery. Contemporary China is soaked in the blood of its forebears as no other country on earth.

Here’s a few examples from just the opening pages:

  • In 1850 Han officials massacred tens of thousands of Muslims in remote Yunnan (p.18)
  • When the Taiping army reached the Wuhan cities in 1851, it massacred the inhabitants. When it took Nanjing it ‘systematically butchered’ all the Manchu inhabitants (p.20)
  • The mandarin in charge of putting down the revolt in Canton boasted of having beheaded over 100,000 rebels and only lamented he couldn’t exterminate the entire class (p.22)
  • When the Xianfeng emperor died in 1861 he left the throne to a minor. A regency council was formed by a senior censor, Sushun. He was outwitted by the former emperor’s concubine Cixi, and was beheaded (the original plan had been to skin him alive) and two princes allied with him were allowed to hang themselves. (p.24) Can you imagine anything remotely similar happening at the court of Queen Victoria? Skinning alive?
  • 13 days after the death of the emperor, a gentry army took the river port of Anqing. The river was full of the headless bodies of rebels (p.26)
  • The silk city of Suzhou was held by 40,000 Taiping rebels. General Li Hongzhang besieged it and the rebel leaders surrendered. Li had all the leaders executed and half the defenders massacred, then the city was comprehensively looted (p.28)
  • When the poet and Taiping rebel leader Shi Dakai surrendered to save his troops from imperial forces, he himself was slowly sliced to death in the process sometimes translated as ‘death by a thousand cuts‘ (a form of punishment and torture commonly used in China until it was officially banned in 1905), and 2,000 of his troops were massacred (p.28)
  • The last engagement of the Taiping Rebellion was the imperial reconquest of the rebels’ capital at Nanjing in 1864. At least 100,000 rebels were killed in the three-day battle and the imperial army went on to massacre the entire population of Nanjing (p.29)
  • While the Taiping devastated the south, northern China was rocked by the Nian Rebellion with its snappy motto: ‘kill the rich and aid the poor’. (The more you learn, the more the disasters of Mao’s communism reveal their deep roots in Chinese tradition i.e. he was invoking and repeating well-established cultural practices.)
  • Having finally conquered the Taiping rebels, Qing imperial forces went north to exterminate the Nians, at first by surrounding and starving them. In one canton the population was reduced to eating the crushed bones of the dead and then to cannibalism. Then they were massacred (p.30).
  • In 1872 the leader of the rebellious Hui Muslims in Yunnan, surrounded in his capital Dali by imperial armies, swallowed an overdose of opium and had his corpse carried in a sedan chair to the imperial camp, where it was ceremonially decapitated. Then the imperial army launched a ferocious attack on Dali, an eye-witness claiming that not a single Muslim man, woman or child was left living, while the streets ran ankle deep in blood. The ears of the dead were cut off and more than 20,000 ears were sent in baskets to the court in Beijing. Any surviving women and children were sold as sex slaves (p.30)
  • Imperial general Zuo Zongtang besieged the leader of the anti-Qing rebellion in Gansu province, Ma Hualong, in his capital at Jinjipu. Having reduced the population to cannibalism, Zuo accepted the surrender of Ma before having him sliced alive, executing his son and officials, then massacring the town’s inhabitants, and burning it to the ground (p.31).

That’s just 13 pages out of 680. On and on it goes, the mind-boggling violence and cruelty – with murders, massacres, battles and pogroms, torture and beheadings, floods and famine on nearly every page.

The complete absence of democracy or debate

If the accumulated disasters ram home one bitter lesson, it is that Chinese politics and culture entirely lacked the ability to cope with dissenting voices and differing opinions. The Imperial system was based on total obedience. It was backed up by the phenomenally hierarchical philosophy of Confucius, in which everyone is subordinate to superiors and must obey (sons obey fathers, wives obey husbands etc).

From the court down, through the gentry class, the army, intellectuals and students – it was either Total Obedience or Total Rebellion, no middle way was possible because no middle way was conceivable. Mild dissent or liberal debate was – literally – incapable of being thought.

This top-down mindset was inherited by the Nationalist Party which imposed a sort of government over most of China between the wars – and then was repeated once again in the terrifying dictatorship of Mao Zedong from 1949 till his death in 1976.

The messy polyphony of Western democracies, with its satire, criticism, proliferating parties, all sorts of newspapers, magazines and outlets for opposition and dissent – with its free speech – was just one of the many things the Chinese despised about the West, and considered themselves loftily superior to.

Whether it was imperial China or Nationalist China or communist China: all Chinese disdained and mocked the uncultured buffoonery of western democracy.

And the result was war upon war upon war – your opponents weren’t guys you could just invite round for a beer and a chat about their demands and do deals with: they were ‘impious rebels’, ‘imperial running dogs’, ‘idolatrous demons’, ‘surrenderists’, ‘mountaintopists’ and so on.

On the evidence of this book China doesn’t appear to have much political theory. Instead it has a rich vocabulary of abuse based on one fundamental idea – he who is not with me is against me. Hence the litany of dehumanising insults used by all political players throughout this book which were designed to turn your opponents into non-human vermin who couldn’t be talked to, God no – who must simply be exterminated. And exterminated they were, on an industrial scale.

None of this changed when the empire fell in 1911: the Nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek carried on using the same language both about all their enemies (‘foreign devils’, ‘communist dogs’), while the communists went on, after 1949, to develop their own special language of abuse and dehumanisation.

As Fenby shows in excruciating detail, both Nationalists and communists not only massacred each other, but were riven by internal splits which led to pogroms and mass liquidations of their own sides. People couldn’t just agree to disagree (and what a beautiful achievement of English civilisation that phrase seems in this context): they felt compelled to exterminate the ‘capitalist roaders’ or ‘communist dogs’ on their own side.

For, as Fenby shows, from Tiananmen Square in 1989 to this day, the Chinese communist party leadership, despite having transformed their country into a peculiar type of state capitalism, is still incapable of managing dissenting voices and opinions. From mass movements like the Falun Gong, to the wishes of the Tibetan people kindly not to have their culture destroyed, to the Muslim separatists of Xinjiang, through to individual dissidents like the high-profile artist Ai Weiwei – there are no mechanisms for dialogue, there never have been: there is only the language of demonisation and total repression.

This utter inflexibility buried deep in the Chinese psyche, this inability of its leaders to tolerate any form of free speech, combined with an unbending sense of their own superiority and rectitude, is the enduring characteristic of Chinese leaders and one which has plunged their country again and again and again into bloodshed and terror on an unimaginable scale.

This book covers the 170 years from 1850 to the present. It feels like it skimps a bit on the earlier years – not telling me much more about the vast, calamitous Taiping Rebellion (1850-64) that I hadn’t learned from John Keay’s history of China – in fact it made me wonder whether there’s a good up-to-date history devoted to just the Taiping Rebellion, it’s such an extraordinary event.

So it’s only really in the 1870s and 80s that Fenby’s book hits its stride, the text becomes increasingly detailed, that you feel you are beginning to get to grips with the minutiae of the period, and to get a feel for the enormous cast of characters. In particular you get a good sense of how the later 19th century in China rotated around the figure of the cunning dowager empress Cixi and the constellation of young emperors and courtiers who circled round her.

As with Keay’s book, there is no point trying to summarise such a vast and complex history. Instead, I’ll give a basic timeline and then highlight a few of the thoughts and issues that arose.

China timeline

  • 1644 to 1912 Qing Dynasty Although the Qing rulers adapted quickly to traditional Chinese rule they were ethnically different from the majority of the native, Han Chinese, hailing from Manchuria in the north. This provided a pretext for all sorts of nationalist Han rebellions against Qing rule from the 1850s onwards. The later Qing emperors are:
    • Emperor Xianfeng (1850 – 1861)
    • Emperor Tongzhi (1861 – 1875)
    • Emperor Guangxu (1875 – 1908)
    • Emperor Xuantong (1908 – 1911)
  • 1850 to 1864 Taiping Rebellion – led by a religious zealot, Hong Xiuquan. Convinced he was Jesus’s younger brother, Hong whipped up his followers to expel all foreigners, which included not only westerners but the ‘alien’ Manchu dynasty. Wherever they triumphed, they massacred Manchus, and established a reign of terror based on countless public beheadings. The Taiping Rebellion was the bloodiest civil war and the largest conflict of the 19th century, and one of the bloodiest wars in all human history, with estimate of deaths ranging as high as 70 million, although more often set are a more reasonable 20 million. ‘Only’ 20 million.
  • 1894 to 1895 First Sino-Japanese War Fought over possession of Korea, until then a Chinese vassal state, to secure its coal and iron and agricultural products for Japan. The Japanese seized not only Korea but the Liaodong Peninsula and Port Arthur, within marching distance of Beijing, as well as the island of Taiwan.

Japanese soldiers beheading 38 Chinese POWs as a warning to others. Illustration by Utagawa Kokunimasa

  • 1898 The Guangxu Emperor’s Hundred Days’ Reform is stopped in its tracks and reversed by the Dowager Empress Cixi.
Empress Dowager Cixi, maybe the central figure of the last 50 years of the Chinese empire

Empress Cixi, the central figure of the last 40 years of the Chinese empire

  • 1899 to 1901 The Boxer Rebellion – Han Chinese rose up against foreigners, the highlight being the siege of the Western embassies in Beijing.
  • 1911 Anti-Qing rebellions break out accidentally and spread sporadically across China with no single unifying force, just a wave of local strongmen who reject Qing rule.
  • 1912 The last Qing emperor abdicates – Temporary presidency of republican hero Dr Sun Yat-sen.
  • 1912-1915 presidency of General Yuan Shikai, a military strongman who works through a network of allies and placemen around the provinces. Power goes to his head and he has himself declared emperor of a new dynasty, before dying of blood poisoning.
  • 1916-1928 The Warlord Era – China disintegrates into a patchwork of territories ruled by local warlords, creating a ‘meritocracy of violence’.
  • 1919 May 4th – Student protests against the humiliating terms of the Versailles peace Treaty (China, who sent over 100,000 coolies to help the Allies, was given nothing, while Japan, who did nothing, was given all the territory previously held by the defeated Germany, including territory in the province of Shandong, birthplace of Confucius, creating the so-called Shandong Problem).
  • 1919 October – foundation of the Kuomintang (KMT) or Nationalist Party of China, a right-wing reaction against the pro-democracy 4th of May movement, which emphasised traditional Chinese values and, led by Chiang Kai-Shek in the 1920s and 30s, went on to form the nearest thing to a government China had, until defeated by the communists in 1949.
  • 1921 Inspired by the Fourth of May protests against imperialism and national humiliation, the Communist Party of China is formed with help from Russian Bolsheviks.
  • 1937 to 1945 Second Sino-Japanese War (see the book about it by Rana Mitter).

Themes and thoughts

Mass killing

Wow, the sheer scale of the the numbers who were killed. In the hundred and ten years from the Taiping Rebellion to the Cultural Revolution, maybe 100 million Chinese died unnatural deaths, actively killed or dying from avoidable starvation or drowning. The Taiping Rebellion itself was responsible for maybe 20 million deaths. The war with Japan caused another 14 million or so. Mao’s famine and general mismanagement maybe 45 million. 45 million.

Even what sound like fairly minor revolts in cities and towns, rural disturbances, seem to result in thousands of deaths almost every year. Every dozen or so pages Fenby quotes another western journalist arriving at the scene of another massacre by the Taiping rebels or Boxer rebels or warlord rebels, by the imperial forces or Muslim rebels, by the Nian or the nationalists or the communists – and finding the city razed to the ground and the river choked with corpses.

  • In 1895 James Creelman of the New York World finds Port Arthur devastated and the unarmed civilians butchered in their houses, the streets lined with corpses and heads stuck on pikes by the rampaging Japanese army (p.51).
  • In 1900 Richard Steel witnessed the aftermath of Boxer rebels’ attempt to take the foreign section of Tianjin, where they were mown down by Japanese and Russian soldiers, leaving the city in ruins and the river choked with Chinese corpses (p.90).

Brutality

Being made to kneel and have your head sliced off with a scimitar was a standard punishment for all sorts of crimes. As the empire crumbled and was subject to countless rebellions small and large across its vast territory, their suppression and punishment required an astonishing number of Chinese to chop each others’ heads off.

The Mandarin in charge of suppressing the Taiping Revolt in Canton boasted of having beheaded 100,000 rebels (p.22). During the 1911 revolution the new governor of Sichuan had his predecessor decapitated and rode through the streets brandishing his head (p.121).

Arms tied behind their backs, forced to kneel in big public gatherings, then head sliced off with a ceremonial sword

Arms tied behind their backs, forced to kneel in big public gatherings, head sliced off with a ceremonial sword. The Chinese way.

Resistance to change

I was staggered by the absolute, dead-set determination from top to bottom of Chinese society to set its face against modernisation, industrialisation, liberalisation, democracy and all the other new-fangled ideas from the West, which it so despised. From 1850 to about 1980, all Chinese governments were determined to reject, deny, censor and prevent any incorporation of corrupt, decadent, capitalist Western ideas and techniques.

As John Keay remarked in his history, a central characteristic of the Chinese is an ingrained superiority complex – their leaders, from the emperor to Chaing Kai-shek to Mao, just know that China is the centre of the world and is superior to the whole of the rest of the world, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.

Fenby describes the late-imperial world as ‘a system which was not designed to accommodate, let alone encourage, change’ (p.38.) As the late 19th century reformer Li Hongzhang admitted in 1884:

‘Affairs in my country have been so confined by tradition that I could not accomplish what I desired.’ (p.41)

The first railway in China, built by the British in Shanghai, was bought by the local council who had the rails torn up and the station turned into a temple. Railways interfered with feng shui and local customs, they brought in foreign devils. Like every other western innovation – i.e. like every single aspect of the modern world – they were resisted hammer and tongs by Chinese at all levels. As an edict from the Guangxu Emperor’s Hundred Days’ Reform put it, China was afflicted by:

‘the bane of the deeply-rooted system of inertness and a clinging to obsolete customs.’ (p.67)

Reformers were always in a minority, within the court itself, let alone in a country overwhelmingly populated by illiterate peasants. Which explains why it took China about 100 years – from the 1880s when it began to grasp some of the implications of capitalism – until well into the 1980s, to even begin to implement the basics of economic and technological reform.

Fenby’s immensely detailed picture takes account of the endless war, violence and conflict China was caught up in. But what comes over most strongly is the way Chinese of all ranks and levels of education didn’t want it – western ‘democracy’, ‘free speech’, competition, egalitarianism, innovation, entrepreneurism, disruptive technologies.

没有! Méiyǒu! NO!

Foreign devils

Rana Mitter’s book about the China-Japanese war contains a surprising amount of anti-western and anti-British feeling and he frequently refers to the ‘unequal treaties’ of the nineteenth century between European powers and a weakened China, but since his book is about the war of the 1930s, he doesn’t give a lot of detail.

Fenby’s book by contrast covers exactly the period of ‘unequal treaties’ (where European countries took advantage of China’s weakness to get her to sign away rights to trade, to give foreigners legal immunity from any kind of wrongdoing, handed European countries entire treaty ports like Hong Kong and Macau) gives a lot more detail, and really drills home why the century from 1840 to 1940 was a period of sustained national humiliation for the Chinese – it is in fact known as ‘the century of humiliation’ or ‘the hundred years of national humiliation’.

Basically, Westerners imposed an unceasing stream of treaties designed, initially, to create special trading cantonments on the coast, but which one by one encroached further inland, ensured Westerners were exempt from Chinese law (in effect, free to do what they wanted) and could force trade with the Chinese on unfavourable and biased terms.

Moreover, there were so many foreign nations each scrambling to get a piece of the action in China – most obviously trading basic commodities but also competing for the broader opportunities which opened up later in the 19th century, for example, building railways or setting up banks.

I hadn’t realised how many western countries queued up to get their slice of the action. I knew about the usual suspects – Britain with its powerful navy, and France encroaching up from its colony down in Indo-China i.e. Vietnam-Laos. But Bismarck’s unification of Germany in the 1870s announced the arrival of a new, more brutal competitor who was determined not to miss out in either Africa or China.

And Fenby makes clear that, more than all the others, the Chinese feared neighbouring Russia because of its steady expansion into Manchuria and the North of China:

The British, French and Germans were a constant irritant, but the Tsarist empire and its communist successor represented a much greater territorial threat to China. p.31

And above all, the Chinese should, of course, really have been most scared of Japan, another ‘divine empire’, which turned out to be by far its worst destroyer.

I was startled when Fenby gives the process the overall title ‘the Scramble for China’, since this is a term usually reserved for the European ‘Scramble for Africa’ – but as he piled example on example of the countless unequal trading deals, the intimidation of Chinese authorities with gunships and punitive armed raids by European armies, I came to realise how true it was, how carved up, humiliated and exploited China became – and so why getting rid of foreigners and foreign influence came to be such a dominating strand in the mindset of early 20th-century Chinese intellectuals and revolutionaries.

'China - the cake of kings and emperors' French political cartoon by Henri Meyer (1898)

‘China – the cake of kings and emperors’ French political cartoon by Henri Meyer (1898)

The ratcheting effect

A key element of the unequal treaties was the way each of the European nations was able to out-trump the others… and then all the others demanded parity. Some German missionaries were harmed in a remote province? Germany demanded reparations and increased trading rights. At which the British, French, Russians and Americans all demanded a similar ratcheting up of their rights and accessibility. Some British merchants were attacked in Canton? The British sent in gunboats, demanded reparations and the rights to entire industries – and all the other European nations then demanded parity or they’d send in their gunboats.

So it went on with an apparently endless ratcheting up of the legal and commercial privileges and the sums of cash demanded by the rapacious Europeans.

Unequal treaties

  • 1839 to 1842 The First Opium War leading to the 1842 Treaty of Nanjing – granted an indemnity and extraterritoriality to Britain, the opening of five treaty ports, and the cession of Hong Kong Island
  • 1844 The Treaty of Whampoa between France and China, which was signed by Théodore de Lagrené and Qiying on October 24, 1844, extended the same privileged trading terms to France as already exacted by Britain
  • 1845 The Treaty of Wanghia between China and the United States, signed on July 3, 1844 in the Kun Iam Temple.
  • 1856 to 1860 The Second Opium War pitting the British Empire and the French Empire against the Qing dynasty of China.
  • 1858 – British attack on Canton after Chinese sailors were arrested aboard a ship carrying the British flag. British houses were burned and a price put on the heads of foreigners. British forces secured Canton. British and French forces attacked Tienjin, the coastal area east of Beijing. The westerners marched on Beijing and burned down the emperor’s Summer Palace (1860), among the looters being Charles Gordon, later to make his name at Khartoum. In the final peace treaty the allies were paid a large indemnity, trading concessions and Russia was given 300,000 square miles of territory in the far north!
  • 1884 to 1885 The Sino-French War, also known as the Tonkin War, in which the French seized control of Tonkin (northern Vietnam).
  • 1895 Treaty of Shimonoseki ending the first Sino-Japanese war cedes to Japan Taiwan, the Pescadores islands and the Liaodong Peninsula, along with an indemnity of 16.5 million pounds of silver as well as opening five coastal ports to Japanese trade.

Fenby’s account makes vividly and appallingly clear the treadmill of endless humiliation and dismemberment which educated Chinese felt their country was being remorselessly subject to. And the hypocrisy of the Western nations who went on about ‘democracy’ and ‘human rights’, while all the time lining their pockets and showing no morality whatsoever.

Western advantages

All that said, the Chinese needed the West and Fenby (thankfully) paints a nuanced and complex picture. Just as not all Chinese were pigtailed ignoramuses, so not all Westerners were hypocritical exploiters. A shining example is Robert Hart, an Ulsterman from a poor family, who rose to become the head of the China’s Customs Service, just one of many Westerners employed by the imperial court for their (Western) knowledge and expertise. Hart ran the service from 1863 to 1911 and transformed it from a corrupt, antiquated and inefficient sinecure into a well-run organisation which ended up being one of the main contributors to imperial finances. He became a byword for honesty and dependability, and was awarded a number of China’s highest honours.

Hart’s story reminds us that it is a complicated world, then as now, and that many Westerners made significant contributions to China, establishing a range of businesses, banks, building railways, developing areas of the economy. If there was a lot of shameful gunboat diplomacy, there was also a lot of genuine collaboration and contribution.

Fleeing to the West

It is also notable the number of times that native Chinese reformers, dissidents, disgraced court officials and so on fled to the European ports to find sanctuary. Here they found law and order, cleanliness and hygiene which, if not perfect, were vastly superior to the dirt, zero plumbing and violence of their native China.

In 1912, as revolutionary violence swept China, many members of the Imperial court took refuge in the foreign compounds. After the Tiananmen Square ‘Massacre’ of June 1989, as many of the student leaders as could manage it fled abroad, most ending up in America, for example prominent student leader Chai Ling who went on to head up a successful internet company. Plus ca change…

The Japanese

‘As we entered the town of Port Arthur, we saw the head of a Japanese soldier displayed on a wooden stake. This filled us with rage and a desire to crush any Chinese soldier. Anyone we saw in the town, we killed. The streets were filled with corpses, so many they blocked our way. We killed people in their homes; by and large, there wasn’t a single house without from three to six dead. Blood was flowing and the smell was awful. We sent out search parties. We shot some, hacked at others. The Chinese troops just dropped their arms and fled. Firing and slashing, it was unbounded joy. At this time, our artillery troops were at the rear, giving three cheers [banzai] for the emperor.’
– Diary of Japanese soldier, Makio Okabe, describing the capture of Port Arthur, November 1894

Multiply this several million times to get the full impact of what it meant to be a neighbour of Imperial Japan in the first half of the twentieth century: Korea, Manchuria, mainland China all benefited from Japan’s goal of building a glorious Asian empire. This is described at great length in Rana Mitter’s history of the China-Japanese war and there are regular scenes of such stomach-churning violence as to make you want to throw up your last meal.

Maoist madness

The madness of the Mao Zedong era is described in my reviews of Frank Dikotter’s book:

But Fenby dwells at length on the paranoia and crazed whims of the Great Helmsman, with results that eclipse the horrors of the late Qing Empire. The famine which resulted from his Great Leap Forward policy (1958 to 1962) resulted in anything from 30 to 55 million deaths. And that’s before the separate category of deaths actively caused by the security forces implementing their brutal policy of forced collectivisation. Madness on an epic scale.

Plus ça change…

Countries are like people, they rarely change. The modern history of Chinese history is a fascinating case study. Again and again Fenby points out that certain patterns of behaviour recur and recur, the most notorious being the attempt to impose reform of Chinese society from the top, reform which threatens to get out of hand, and then is harshly repressed, followed by a period of harsh control. As predictable as a, b, c.

Thus his description of a) the attempted reforms of the Guangxu Emperor in 1898, which b) began to get out of hand c) were brought to an abrupt halt by the power behind the throne, the Dowager empress Cixi, eerily pre-echo a) Mao’s unleashing of revolutionary change from above in the Cultural Revolution b) which by the 1970s even the Mad Helmsman realised was getting out of hand and c) so he repressed.

Or the way the a) very mild liberal reforms begun by Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s led to b) the unpredictable outburst of student protests in Tiananmen Square which the party hierarchy tolerated for a few weeks before c) brutally suppressing it. a, b, c.

To this day the rulers of China daren’t institute anything like real democracy because they know the chaos they would unleash, they remember the history of the Warlord Era, indeed the terrifyingly violent 20th century history history this book describes. Maybe such a vast and varied terrain, containing so many ethnicities and levels of economic development, can still only be managed by a really strong central authority?

And the more you read and learn about the Chinese history of the past century – the more you sympathise with them. Fenby’s long and gruelling narrative ends with the repeated conclusion that China’s rulers are as repressive as ever – indeed, given the arrival of the internet, they are able to practice surveillance and social control of their populations which previous dictators could only have dreamed of.

And yet they are all too aware that they are sitting astride a bubbling cauldron of vast social inequality, political corruption, popular resentment, ethnic division (most obvious in Tibet and Xinjiang but present among a hundred other ethnic minorities), and the pressures and strains caused by creating a dynamic go-head 21st century economy controlled by a fossilised, top-down, 20th century Leninist political structure.

This is an extraordinarily insightful and horrifying book. Anybody who reads it will have their knowledge of China hugely increased and their opinion of China and the Chinese irreparably damaged.


Other reviews about China

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