Hobsbawm’s Nineteenth Century: An appreciation

Rohan McWilliam

President of the British Association of Victorian Studies

The passing of Eric Hobsbawm is a huge loss to anyone who cares about the nineteenth century.  For that matter, his passing is a huge loss to anyone who cares about the present moment and the future.  Hobsbawm bequeathed to many of us the assumption that, if we wished to really probe what is at stake in current affairs, we had to understand the social and economic transformations that took place not only in Britain but throughout the world in the hundred years or so before 1900.

Much discussion of Hobsbawm’s life and career focuses on the question of why he declined (unlike contemporaries such as Edward Thompson) to leave the Communist Party but stayed till the bitter end.   I am often struck that the vilifications of Hobsbawm seldom deal with what he actually wrote.  It is therefore seems appropriate in this space to reassert Hobsbawm’s status as one of the greatest historians of the nineteenth century.

Apart from Edward Thompson and Asa Briggs, it is difficult to think of a historian who has been more fertile than Hobsbawm, when it comes to thinking about the period (though it is probably fair to say that he was not too concerned with the category of ‘the Victorian’).  He identified new areas of research and challenged us to think in different ways.

Hobsbawm was the last of the Communist Party Historians Group and so this is truly the end of an era.  Whilst it has become increasingly common to insist (rightly) on the non-Marxist sources of the development of social history in the 1950s and 1960s, there is no question that the impact of the main figures in the Group (including Hobsbawm, Thompson, Christopher Hill, John Saville and Raphael Samuel) was transformative.  The greatness of these historians was not that they were always right; it is that they were the people we had to argue with.  And they remain so.

Hobsbawm’s role in the foundation of social history is probably his greatest legacy.  One forgets how Past and Present (the journal with which he is always associated) was originally a controversial publication, challenging the academic establishment and broadening our sense of what history should be about.  However, the discipline that Hobsbawm helped create was emphatically one of economic and social history.  His work, as a Marxist, naturally emphasised the primacy of the economic and, in later years, he was notoriously resistant to certain kinds of feminism and of identity politics more generally (as for post-modernism, forget it).  Some of his work on industrialisation is dated; historians tend to see industrialisation in more complex ways than what we get in, for example, The Age of Revolution with its memorable description of the dual revolution (political revolution in France and industrial revolution in Britain).  Yet, at a time when scholars often seem uncomfortable talking about the economic dimension, Hobsbawm’s work reminds us of aspects of historical experience that we ignore at our peril.   We badly need to find new ways of talking about economic history although recent work on Victorian finance may be getting us to do precisely that.

Despite the claims of some critics, his work was never reductionist or doctrinaire.  Quite the reverse.  Hobsbawm always appreciated how complex and multi-faceted historical change is.  Moreover, like Edward Thompson, he believed in reasserting the agency of people in the past, rather than seeing them as victims of impersonal forces.  That is the spirit in which I would read Primitive Rebels, Bandits and Captain Swing (the last written with George Rudé).  He wrote with enormous understanding about the marginalized without being romantic.  Yet Hobsbawm’s work was always holistic, his eye ever on the big picture.  He claims in The Age of Capital to be contemptuous of the Victorian bourgeoisie but this does not prevent him from writing quite sympathetically about the class.  Appreciating how nineteenth century society worked as a system was his main purpose.

At the same time, Hobsbawm became one of the most important contributors to the more conventional forms of labour history with its emphasis on trade unions.  The essays in Labouring Men remain some of the most thoughtful attempts to grasp why the institutions of the left took the form they did.  The labour aristocracy debate now seems a bit dated (was this really the reason why Britain did not experience revolution?) and yet it was a profound attempt to think about Hobsbawm’s great themes, class and capitalism.

It has long seemed to me that Hobsbawm’s portrait of nineteenth-century social class (best expressed in his Worlds of Labour) is more correct than the version we get in Edward Thompson.  As a passionate admirer of Thompson, these are not easy words to write.  However, I would now accept Hobsbawm’s view that the working class was not made by 1830, that social relations were more fluid and that it is only in the later nineteenth century that we see the development of a mature class consciousness, or at least of a ‘labourist’ sensibility.  It is striking that much of the revisionist writing on class in the 1980s (for example, the work of Gareth Stedman Jones and Patrick Joyce) is compatible in some respects with the Hobsbawm view.

Like Thompson, he took culture in all its forms seriously (no wonder he sometimes moonlighted as a jazz critic).  This became clear in The Age of Revolituion/Capital/Empire/Extremes quartet.  It also explains why Hobsbawm became one of the most profound thinkers about national identity, commencing with his contribution to The Invention of Tradition (which he edited with Terence Ranger) and then in Nations and Nationalism since 1780.  In recent years, this aspect of his work (along with Age of Extremes) has been the reason why scholars have most often taken his books off the shelves.

Hobsbawm was a particular kind of historian.  Relatively little of his work was heavily archival.  His genius was for synthesis and for interpretation.  I have noticed how in recent years the ideal of being ‘well read’ seems to have dropped out of contemporary discourse.  Hobsbawm’s work is a rejoinder to this with his extensive knowledge of different languages and his immersion in a broad range of sources, which he could connect in brilliant ways.  The word ‘cosmopolitan’ can be such a dull cliché and yet it expresses the spirit we find in his work.  We need minds like this to unlock the nineteenth century.

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