Hobsbawm’s The Age of Revolution is the closest thing to a text book that I’d like to read these days, and I’m sure it’s set on various history courses around the place.
It’s jam-packed with facts and statistics about the period from 1789-1848, though gives much less detail on the revolutions of 1848. In fact one reason for choosing this was to fill a void in my knowledge about that date, and the book failed in that respect. Perhaps I missed it somewhere.
In two parts – Developments and Results – the book deals with a series of interlocking themes across the period, rather than looking at them chronologically. An opening picture of the world in the 1780s is helpful, and then chapters on The Industrial Revolution and The French Revolution begin the first section of the book. The ongoing contrast here between developments in France and the UK, the main site of the industrial revolution, was interesting, and in particular the influence the French Revolution had on the development of laws, governments and tricolore flags across Europe.
The second part looked at a range of aspects but science and ideology were chapters that caught my interest, and it was here especially that Hobsbawm gave away his own ideological bent and bias. The book is clearly a product of the sixties, a time when modernisation could be equated with progress. He claims that the champions of the Enlightenment believed firmly (and correctly) that human history was an ascent, rather than a decline or an undulating movement. No one could hold this view today when the splendours of Islamic science in previous centuries are so clearly trumpeted by the media: in Hobsbawm’s sense the loss of that surely is a descent? Now barbaric wars and ethnic cleansing abound, often based on religious bigotry and very similar to wars in earlier centuries from which we have clearly not ascended.
In the section on religion Hobsbawm proves to be equally blind to other possibilities than those of twentieth century humanism and materialism, dismissing the vast mass of unskilled and miscellaneous poor people in the cities as profoundly pious or superstitious – as if these two qualities were equally worthless, or worthy of his snobbish disdain. He goes on to ignore the work of pioneering Christians in developing the social fabric which we take for granted at our peril and which gave rise to our welfare state, currently threatened by the irrational musings of Osborne and Cameron. If history is an ascent, how can the current generation of European finance ministers ignore the lessons of the 1930s with such determination?