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New Left Review I/29, January-February 1965

Gareth Stedman Jones

Labouring men

Eric Hobsbawm’s latest book is unlikely to have the general appeal of The Age of Revolution. There are few generalizations; elaborate synthesis is not its purpose. Common themes remain implicit rather than stated. Each essay remains a discrete entity, the connections must be made by the reader. Again, unlike The Age of Revolution, Labouring Men is primarily a book designed to meet the needs of the specialist historian; tentative conclusions are buttressed by an overwhelming weight of scholarship testified in page upon page of meticulous footnotes. Even the most commonsense and apparently obvious statement is stoutly defended by a mass of irreproachable source material and continental analogy. Perhaps this is an occupational hazard of any historian who wishes to present even the most catholic Marxist interpretation of 19th century working-class history. In a country increasingly dominated by a positivist and quantitative philosophy of history, both Hobsbawm in the 19th and Hill in the 17th century have often felt obliged to argue a Marxist case in their opponents’ terms. In some ways this is unavoidable, but the constant danger of such an approach is that important points will be obscured and castrated by a jungle of qualifications and historical modesty. In his essay on the standard of living between 1790 and 1850 for instance Hobsbawm finds it necessary to employ 17 pages of footnotes to support the assertion that ‘no certainty in this field is as yet possible, but that the hypothesis of a marked or substantial rise in the standard of living of most Britons between early 1790’s and the early 1840’s is, as things stand, an extremely improbable one.’ Such a conclusion would seem plausible, even without the ambiguous evidence of weight of meat sold at Smithfield, and Edward Thompson has provided a more convincing refutation of the Hartwell-Von Hayek school, relying on qualitative material.

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Gareth Stedman Jones, ‘Labouring Men’, NLR I/29: £3

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