Eric J. Hobsbawm (1917-2012)
The Age of Revolution. Europe 1789–1848

London. Folio Society. 2005. xviii, 412 pages.

Introduction

Words are witnesses which often speak louder than documents. Let us consider a few English words which were invented, or gained their modern meanings, substantially in the period of sixty years with which this volume deals. They are such words as ‘industry’, ‘industrialist’, ‘factory’, ‘middle class’, ‘working class’, ‘capitalism’ and ‘socialism’. They include ‘aristocracy’ as well as ‘railway’, ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ as political terms, ‘nationality’, ‘scientist’ and ‘engineer ’, ‘proletariat’ and (economic) ‘crisis’. ‘Utilitarian’ and ‘statistics’, ‘sociology’ and several other names of modern sciences, ‘journalism’ and ‘ideology’, are all coinages or adaptations of this period 1. So is ‘strike’ and ‘pauperism’.

To imagine the modern world without these words (i.e. without the things and concepts for which they provide names) is to measure the profundity of the revolution which broke out between 1789 and 1848, and forms the greatest transformation in human history since the remote times when men invented agriculture and metallurgy, writing, the city and the state. This revolution has transformed, and continues to transform, the entire world. But in considering it we must distinguish carefully between its long-range results, which cannot be confined to any social framework, political organization, or distribution of international power and resources, and its early and decisive phase, which was closely tied to a specific social and international situation.
The great revolution of 1789–1848 was the triumph not of ‘industry’ as such, but of capitalist industry; not of liberty and equality in general but of middle class or ‘bourgeois’ liberal society; not of ‘the modern economy’ or ‘the modern state’, but of the economies and states in a particular geographical region of the world (part of Europe and a few patches of North America), whose centre was the neighbouring and rival states of Great Britain and France.
The transformation of 1789–1848 is essentially the twin upheaval which took place in those two countries, and was propagated thence across the entire world.
But it is not unreasonable to regard this dual revolution—the rather more political French and the industrial (British) revolution—not so much as something which belongs to the history of the two countries which were its chief carriers and symbols, but as the twin crater of a rather larger regional volcano.
That the simultaneous eruptions should occur in France and Britain, and have slightly differing characters, is neither accidental nor uninteresting. But from the point of view of the historian of, let us say, AD 3000, as from the point of view of the Chinese or African observer, it is more relevant to note that they occurred somewhere or other in North-western Europe and its overseas prolongations, and that they could not with any probability have been expected to occur at this time in any other part of the world. It is equally relevant to note that they are at this period almost inconceivable in any form other than the triumph of a bourgeois-liberal capitalism.
It is evident that so profound a transformation cannot be understood without going back very much further in history than 1789, or even than the decades which immediately preceded it and clearly reflect (at least in retrospect), the crisis of the ancien régimes of the North-western world, which the dual revolution was to sweep away. Whether or not we regard the American Revolution of 1776 as an eruption of equal significance to the Anglo-French ones, or merely as their most important immediate precursor and stimulator; whether or not we attach fundamental importance to the constitutional crises and economic reshuffles and stirrings of 1760–89, they can clearly explain at most the occasion and timing of the great breakthrough and not its fundamental causes. How far back into history the analyst should go—whether to the mid-seventeenth century English Revolution, to the Reformation and the beginning of European military world conquest and colonial exploitation in the early sixteenth century, or even earlier, is for our purposes irrelevant, for such analysis in depth would take us far beyond the chronological boundaries of this volume.
Here we need merely observe that the social and economic forces, the political and intellectual tools of this transformation were already prepared, at all events in a part of Europe sufficiently large to revolutionize the rest. Our problem is not to trace the emergence of a world market, of a sufficiently active class of private entrepreneurs, or even (in England) of a state dedicated to the proposition that the maximization of private profit was the foundation of government policy. Nor is it to trace the evolution of the technology, the scientific knowledge, or the ideology of an individualist, secularist, rationalist belief in progress. By the 1780s we can take the existence of all these for granted, though we cannot yet assume that they were sufficiently powerful or widespread. On the contrary, we must, if anything, safeguard against the temptation to overlook the novelty of the dual revolution because of the familiarity of its outward costume, the undeniable fact that Robespierre's and Saint-Just's clothes, manners and prose would not have been out of place in a drawing-room of the ancien régime, that the Jeremy Bentham whose reforming ideas expressed the bourgeois Britain of the 1830s was the very man who had proposed the same ideas to Catherine the Great of Russia, and that the most extreme statements of middle class political economy came from members of the eighteenth-century British House of Lords.
Our problem is thus to explain not the existence of these elements of a new economy and society, but their triumph; to trace not the progress of their gradual sapping and mining in previous centuries, but their decisive conquest of the fortress. And it is also to trace the profound changes which this sudden triumph brought within the countries most immediately affected by it, and within the rest of the world which was now thrown open to the full explosive impact of the new forces, the ‘conquering bourgeois’, to quote the title of a recent world history of this period.
Inevitably, since the dual revolution occurred in one part of Europe, and its most obvious and immediate effects were most evident there, the history with which this volume deals is mainly regional. Inevitably also, since the world revolution spread outwards from the double crater of England and France it initially took the form of a European expansion in and conquest of the rest of the world. Indeed its most striking consequence for world history was to establish a domination of the globe by a few western régimes (and especially by the British) which has no parallel in history.
Before the merchants, the steam-engines, the ships and the guns of the west—and before its ideas—the age-old civilizations and empires of the world capitulated and collapsed.

  • India became a province administered by British pro-consuls
  • The Islamic states were convulsed by crisis
  • Africa lay open to direct conquest
  • Even the great Chinese Empire was forced in 1839–42 to open its frontiers to western exploitation.
     

By 1848 nothing stood in the way of western conquest of any territory that western governments or businessmen might find it to their advantage to occupy, just as nothing but time stood in the way of the progress of western capitalist enterprise.
And yet the history of the dual revolution is not merely one of the triumph of the new bourgeois society. It is also the history of the emergence of the forces which were, within a century of 1848, to have turned expansion into contraction. What is more, by 1848 this extraordinary future reversal of fortunes was already to some extent visible. Admittedly, the world-wide revolt against the west, which dominates the middle of the twentieth century, was as yet barely discernible. Only in the Islamic world can we observe the first stages of that process by which those conquered by the west have adopted its ideas and techniques to turn the tables on it: in the beginnings of internal westernizing reform within the Turkish empire in the 1830s, and above all in the neglected and significant career of Mohammed Ali of Egypt (1769–1849).
But within Europe the forces and ideas which envisaged the supersession of the triumphant new society, were already emerging. The ‘spectre of communism’ already haunted Europe by 1848. It was exorcized in 1848. For a long time thereafter it was to remain as powerless as spectres in fact are, especially in the western world most immediately transformed by the dual revolution. But if we look round the world of the 1960s we shall not be tempted to underestimate the historic force of the revolutionary socialist and communist ideology born out of reaction against the dual revolution, and which had by 1848 found its first classic formulation. The historic period which begins with the construction of the first factory system of the modern world in Lancashire and the French Revolution of 1789 ends with the construction of its first railway network and the publication of the Communist Manifesto (1848).

Note
1. Most of these either have international currency, or were fairly literally translated into various languages. Thus ‘socialism’ or ‘journalism’ are fairly international, while the combination ‘iron road’ is the basis of the name of the railway everywhere except in its country of origin.