Shane Avery's Reviews > The Age of Revolution: 1789-1848

The Age of Revolution by Eric Hobsbawm
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Aug 05, 2009

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E.J. Hobsbawm argues that the French Revolution and the British Industrial Revolution transformed the world in unprecedented ways. This “Dual Revolution,” argues Hobsbawm, established the parameters for European hegemony. The socio-economic structure of Europe in 1848 looked completely different from that of 1789. Although they followed different trajectories, bourgeois liberalism lay at the heart of both.

To begin with, Britain was the first country in the world to industrialize, in part because its political system was already geared to the ideals of economic expansion and private profit. Britain’s economy changed in fundamental ways as it gradually moved away from peasant agrarianism: this entailed the abolition of lands held in common (notably through Enclosure Acts), the rise of a non-agrarian and non-skilled workforce, and explosive urbanization. By the time Britain’s economy achieved “self-sustained growth” (45) at some point during the 1780s, its economy was already fully committed to the world-market. This marks the first time in world history that a nation’s export market triumphed over its domestic market. (53) The explosion of capital, made possible by the monumental growth of the cotton industry, in turn allowed for the astronomic expansion of iron, steal, coal, and railways. The transition to industrial capitalism was exceptionally hard on “the labouring poor,” inasmuch as it completely transformed their traditional cosmology.

For its part, the French Revolution provided the world with a vocabulary of bourgeois liberalism. Hobsbawm understands the Revolution as a class struggle between --and among-- aristocrats, the middle classes, and the peasants. It would be anachronistic, perhaps, given the absence of class consciousness, to speak of a bourgeoisie and proletariat in 1789. It is clear, however, that the different stages of the French Revolution reflect the impending struggle between liberalism and socialism. What began as the aristocratic attempt to recapture the state quickly evolved into the attempt by the middle classes to create “a secular state with civil liberties and guarantees for private enterprise, and government by tax-payers and property-owners.” (81) The most radical years of the Revolution (1792-94), conducted by the sans-culottes and Jacobins, scared the bourgeoisie and helped solidify middle-class interests. From Thermidor forward, we can understand French history in terms of maintaining a balance between the dangers of radicalism and returning to the extremes of the old regime. Napoleon’s military projects contributed to the institutionalization of bourgeois ideals -- in Marxist terms, he created a bourgeois superstructure, the political geography of the “characteristic modern state” (113) with its concomitants international financing and long-term investment in the capital goods industries.

Hobsbawm also surveys the effects the Dual Revolution had on: the rise of nationalism; the commodification of land; the abolition of social privileges; the rise the proletariat as a political entity; religious and secular ideologies; science; and the arts. Tying all these things together, it seems, is the dialectical idea that the triumph of bourgeois liberalism also contained the seeds of its subversion. The rationalism of the enlightenment, and its belief in the progress of civilization, did not find its ultimate expression in the theories of Adam Smith, who believed that “the exchange of equivalents in the market somehow assured social justice.” (287) Recognizing the fundamental flaws within capitalism, utopian socialists offered alternative visions. Owen, Saint Simon, and Engels all embraced the idea that man is a communal being, not a commodity whose utility can be measured in the market place. The social experiments of Owen and Fourier reflect not so much the repudiation of industrial development, as they do to a commitment to a more humanitarian form of economic development. Thus “the period of the dual revolution saw both the triumph and the most elaborate formulation of the middle-class liberal and petty bourgeois radical ideologies, and their disintegration under the impact of the states and societies they had themselves set out to create . . .” (298)
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