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The Age of Capital, 1848-1875 (1975)

by Eric Hobsbawm

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1,583119,668 (3.97)26
Eric Hobsbawm's magnificent treatment of the crucial years 1848-1875 is a penetrating analysis of the rise of capitalism and the consolidation of bourgeois culture. In the 1860s a new word entered the economic and political vocabulary of the world: 'capitalism'. The global triumph of capitalism is the major theme of history in the decades after 1848. The extension of capitalist economy to four corners of the globe, the mounting concentration of wealth, the migration of men, the domination of Europe and European culture made the third quarter of the nineteenth century a watershed. This is a history not only of Europe but of the world. Eric Hobsbawm's intention is not to summarise facts, but to draw facts together into a historical synthesis, to 'make sense of' the period, and to trace the roots of the present world back to it. He integrates economics with political and intellectual developments in this objective yet original account of revolution and the failure of revolution, of the cycles of boom and slump that characterise capitalist economies, of the victims and victors of the bourgeois ethos.… (more)
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Lost amid his other majestic histories of the long nineteenth century, Eric Hobsbawm's The Age of Capital, covering the years 1848-1875, still makes a highly readable account of that quarter of a century between the wave of revolutions in 1848 to 1875. I head already read Hobsbawm's other entries on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and worried that a book about economics in the mid-nineteenth century would be dull. It was not. ( )
2 vote MiaCulpa | Nov 23, 2021 |
Only in recent years have I come to appreciate how significant 19th century history actually was. This book examines the years 1848-1875 primarily from an economic point of view but it also covers political and cultural history. It treats both European and Asian history as well. The one negative aspect of the book is its writing style with its overly long paragraphs and its tendency to hope around geographically and through time. If you already have a good grasp of this period that should be no problem. ( )
  M_Clark | Sep 25, 2018 |
As brilliant as this is as a work of synthesis, I wonder if it might help to know something about the era before you start reading? I knew a little, and it helped enormously. Hobsbawm has a habit of referring to historical events which aren't generally well known as if they were as familiar as Beatles lyrics, which can be frustrating even if you know something about the time. Hobsbawm himself recommends some out of print books for this purpose, and unfortunately I don't know any good books to read which are in print! If you've done intro to 19th century history at school or something, you'll be fine; otherwise, it's still worth getting through this one. Just be sure to have wikipedia to hand for the more obscure references. ( )
  stillatim | Dec 29, 2013 |
The 1975 preface has been slightly revised, notably to excise, in its 1996 version, an apology for the volume's being "too Eurocentric." Otherwise there seem to be few alterations from the 1975 text. ( )
  jensenmk82 | Dec 18, 2012 |
Early on in this book, Hobsbawm almost apologises for this book. Compared to its predecessor volume, 'The Age of Revolution, 1789 - 1844', he says, there is very little that happens during the period this book covers. He then goes on to make one of the most comprehensive analyses of the world in the quarter-century in view that you could wish for. Along the way, he covers the gestation of our modern world. This book is essential reading (and is also better written than its predecesssor, too.) ( )
1 vote RobertDay | Mar 12, 2010 |
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In the 1860s a new word entered the economic and political vocabulary of the world: ‘capitalism’. It therefore seems apposite to call the present volume The Age of Capital, a title which also reminds us that the major work of capitalism’s most formidable critic, Karl Marx’s Das Kapital (1867), was published in these years. For the global triumph of capitalism is the major theme of history in the decades after 1848. It was the triumph of a society which believed that economic growth rested on competitive private enterprise, on success in buying everything in the cheapest market (including labour) and selling in the dearest. An economy so based, and therefore resting naturally on the sound foundations of a bourgeoisie composed of those whom energy, merit and intelligence had raised to their position and kept there, would – it was believed – not only create a world of suitably distributed material plenty, but of ever-growing enlightenment, reason and human opportunity, an advance of the sciences and the arts, in brief a world of continuous and accelerating material and moral progress. The few remaining obstacles in the way of the untrammelled development of private enterprise would be swept away. The institutions of the world, or rather of those parts of the world not still debarred by the tyranny of tradition and superstition or by the unfortunate fact of not having white skins (preferably originating in the central and north-western parts of Europe), would gradually approximate to the international model of a territorially defined ‘nation-state’ with a constitution guaranteeing property and civil rights, elected representative assemblies and governments responsible to them, and, where suitable, a participation in politics of the common people within such limits as would guarantee the bourgeois social order and avoid the risk of its overthrow.
The history of our period is therefore lopsided. It is primarily that of the massive advance of the world economy of industrial capitalism, of the social order it represented, of the ideas and beliefs which seemed to legitimatize and ratify it: in reason, science, progress and liberalism. It is the era of the triumphant bourgeois, though the European bourgeoisie still hesitated to commit itself to public political rule. To this – and perhaps only to this – extent the age of revolution was not dead. The middle classes of Europe were frightened and remained frightened of the people: ‘democracy’ was still believed to be the certain and rapid prelude to ‘socialism’. The men who officially presided over the affairs of the victorious bourgeois order in its moment of triumph were a deeply reactionary country nobleman from Prussia, an imitation emperor in France and a succession of aristocratic landowners in Britain. The fear of revolution was real, the basic insecurity it indicated, deep-seated. At the very end of our period the only example of revolution in an advanced country, an almost localized and short-lived insurrection in Paris, produced a greater bloodbath than anything in 1848 and a flurry of nervous diplomatic exchanges. Yet by this time the rulers of the advanced states of Europe, with more or less reluctance, were beginning to recognize not only that ‘democracy’, i.e. a parliamentary constitution based on a wide suffrage, was inevitable, but also that it would probably be a nuisance but politically harmless. This discovery had long since been made by the rulers of the United States.
Quotations
Here the man who is powerful in the weapons of peace, capital and machinery uses them to give comfort and enjoyment to the public, whose servant he is, and thus becomes rich while he enriches others with his goods.

                    William Whewell, 1852
A people can achieve material well-being without subversive tactics if they are docile, hard-working and constantly apply themselves to their own self-improvement.

From the statutes of the Société contre l'Ignorance of Clermont-Ferrand, 1869
If nationalism was one historic force recognised by governments, “democracy”, or the growing role of the common man in the affairs of state, was the other. The two were the same, in so far as nationalist movements in this period became mass movements, and certainly at this point pretty well all radical nationalist leaders supposed them to be identical. However, as we have seen, in practice large bodies of common people, such as peasants, still remained unaffected by nationalism even in the countries in which their participation in politics were seriously considered, while others, notably the new working classes, were being urged to follow movements which, at least in theory, put a common international class interest above national affiliations. At all events, from the point of view of ruling classes the important thing was not what “the masses” believed, but that their beliefs now counted in politics. They were, by definition, numerous, ignorant and dangerous; most dangerous precisely by virtue of their ignorant tendency to believe their eyes, which told them that their rulers paid too little attention to their miseries, and the simple logic which suggested to them that, since they formed the bulk of the people, government should primarily serve their interests.

Yet it became increasingly clear in the developed and industrialised countries of the west that sooner or later the political systems would have to make room for them. Moreover, it also became clear that the liberalism which formed the basic ideology of the bourgeois world had no theoretical defences against this contingency. Its characteristic form of political organisation was representative government through elected assemblies, representing not (as in feudal states) social interests or collectivities, but aggregates of individuals, of legally equal status. Self-interest, caution, or even a certain common sense might well suggest to those on top that all men were not equally capable of deciding the great questions of government, the illiterate less than the university graduates, the superstitious less than the enlightened, the feckless poor less than those who had proved their capacity of rational behaviour by the accumulation of property. However, quite apart from the lack of conviction such arguments carried to those at the bottom, other than the most conservative, they had two major weaknesses. Legal equality could not make such distinctions in theory. What was considerably more important, they became increasingly hard to make in practice, as social mobility and educational progress, both essential to bourgeois society, blurred the division between the middle strata and their social inferiors. Where, in the great and increasing mass of the “respectable” workers and lower middle classes who adopted so much of the values and, in so far as their means allowed, the behaviour, of the bourgeoisie, was the line to be drawn? Wherever it was drawn, if it included any large number of them, it was likely to include a substantial body of citizens who did not support several of the ideas which bourgeois liberalism regarded as essential to the prospering of society, and who might well oppose them passionately. Furthermore, and most decisively, the 1848 revolutions had shown how the masses could irrupt into the closed circle of their rulers, and the progress of industrial society itself made their pressure constantly greater even in non-revolutionary periods.
Yet, whatever the ultimate prospects (and modern historians are less optimistic than the Marx of the 1850s), in the immediate present the most obvious result of western conquest was ‘the loss of (the) Old world with no gain of a new one’, which imparted ‘a peculiar kind of melancholy to the present misery of the Hindu’ as of other peoples who were the victims of the west. The gains were hard to discern in the third quarter of the nineteenth century, the losses only too evident. On the positive side there were steamships, railways and telegraphs, small knots of western-educated intellectuals, even smaller ones of local landlords and businessmen who amassed enormous fortunes out of their control of the sources of exports and the disposal of foreign loans, like the hacendados of Latin America, or their position as middlemen for foreign business, like the Parsi millionaires of Bombay. There was communication – material and cultural. There was a growth of exportable production in some suitable areas, though hardly as yet on a huge scale. There was, arguably, a substitution of order for public disorder, security for insecurity in some areas which came under direct colonial rule. But only the congenital optimist would argue that these outweighed the negative side of the balance-sheet at this period.

The most obvious contrast between developed and underdeveloped worlds was and still remains that between poverty and wealth. In the first, people still starved to death, but by now in what the nineteenth century regarded as small numbers: say an average of five hundred a year in the United Kingdom. In India they died in their millions – one in ten of the population of Orissa in the famine of 1865—6, anything between a quarter and a third of the population of Rajputana in 1868—70, 3½ million (or 15 per cent of the population) in Madras, one million (or 20 per cent of the population) in Mysore during the great hunger of 1876—8, the worst up to that date in the gloomy history of nineteenth-century India. In China it is not easy to separate famine from the numerous other catastrophes of the period, but that of 1849 is said to have cost nearly 14 million lives, while another 20 million are believed to have perished between 1854 and 1864. Parts of Java were ravaged by a terrible famine in 1848—50. The late 1860s and early 1870s saw an epidemic of hunger in the entire belt of countries stretching from India in the east to Spain in the west. The Moslem population of Algeria dropped by over 20 per cent between 1861 and 1872. Persia, whose total people were estimated to number between 6 and 7 million in the mid-1870s, was believed to have lost between and 1½ and 2 million in the great famine of 1871—3. It is difficult to say whether the situation was worse than in the first half of the century (though this was probably so in India and China), or merely unchanged. In any case the contrast with the developed countries during the same period was dramatic, even if we grant (as seems likely for the Islamic world) that the age of traditional and catastrophic demographic movements was already giving way to a new population pattern in the second half of the century.

In short, the bulk of the peoples in the Third World did not as yet appear to benefit significantly from the extraordinary, the unprecedented, progress of the west. If they were aware of it at all as something other than the mere disruption of their ancient ways of life, it was as a possible example rather than as a reality; as something done by and for red- and sallow-faced men in curious hard hats with cylindrical trousers who came from far countries or lived in big cities. It did not belong to their world, and most of them very much doubted whether they wanted it to. But those who resisted it in the name of their ancient ways were defeated. The day of those who resisted it with the weapons of progress itself had not yet arrived.
The ‘Wild West’ is so powerful a myth that it is difficult to analyse it with any realism. Very nearly the only historically accurate fact about it that has entered general knowledge is that it lasted only a short time, its heyday falling between the Civil War and the collapse of mining and cattle booms in the 1880s. Its ‘wildness’ was not due to the Indians, who were ready enough to live at peace with the whites, except perhaps in the extreme southwest, where tribes like the Apache (1871—86) and the (Mexican) Yaqui (1875—1926) fought the last of several centuries’ wars to maintain their independence from the white men. It was due to the institutions, or rather the absence of effective institutions, of government and law in the United States. (There was no ‘Wild West’ in Canada, where even gold-rushes were not anarchic, and the Sioux, who fought and beat Custer in the United States before being massacred, lived quietly there.) The anarchy (or, to use a more neutral term, the passion for armed self-help) was perhaps exaggerated by the dream of freedom as well as of gold which lured men to the west. Beyond the frontier of farm-settlement and city there were no families: in 1870 Virginia City had more than two men for every woman, and only 10 per cent children. It is true that the Western myth has degraded even this dream. Its heroes are more often than not desperadoes and barroom gunmen like Wild Bill Hickok who never had much to be said in their favour, rather than the unionized immigrant miners. Yet, even allowing for this, it should not be idealized. The dream of freedom did not apply to the Indians or the Chinese (who formed almost a third of the population of Idaho in 1870). In the racist southwest – Texas belonged to the Confederacy – it certainly did not apply to the Negroes. And though so much of what we regard as ‘Western’, from the cowboy’s costume to the Spanish-based ‘Californian custom’ which became the effective mining law in the American mountains, derived from the Mexicans, who probably also supplied more cowboys than any other single group, it did not apply to the Mexicans. It was a dream of poor whites, who hoped to replace the private enterprise of the bourgeois world by gambling, gold and guns.

If there is nothing very obscure about the ‘opening of the West’, the nature and origins of the American Civil War (1861—5) have led to endless dispute among historians. This centres on the nature of the slave society of the Southern states and its possible compatibility with the dynamically expanding capitalism of the North. Was it a slave society at all, given that Negroes were always in a minority even in the Deep South (apart from a few patches), and considering that the majority of slaves worked not on the classical large plantation but in small numbers on white farms or as domestics? It can hardly be denied that slavery was the central institution of Southern society, or that it was the major cause of friction and rupture between the Northern and Southern states. The real question is why it should have led to secession and civil war, rather than to some sort of formula of coexistence. After all, though no doubt most people in the North detested slavery, militant abolitionism alone was never strong enough to determine the Union’s policy. And Northern capitalism, whatever the private views of businessmen, might well have found it as possible and convenient to come to terms with and exploit a slave South as international business has with the ‘apartheid’ of South Africa.
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Eric Hobsbawm's magnificent treatment of the crucial years 1848-1875 is a penetrating analysis of the rise of capitalism and the consolidation of bourgeois culture. In the 1860s a new word entered the economic and political vocabulary of the world: 'capitalism'. The global triumph of capitalism is the major theme of history in the decades after 1848. The extension of capitalist economy to four corners of the globe, the mounting concentration of wealth, the migration of men, the domination of Europe and European culture made the third quarter of the nineteenth century a watershed. This is a history not only of Europe but of the world. Eric Hobsbawm's intention is not to summarise facts, but to draw facts together into a historical synthesis, to 'make sense of' the period, and to trace the roots of the present world back to it. He integrates economics with political and intellectual developments in this objective yet original account of revolution and the failure of revolution, of the cycles of boom and slump that characterise capitalist economies, of the victims and victors of the bourgeois ethos.

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