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.
Hobsbawm is far more interesting in his ‘expository’ essays. His contributions on the ‘Tramping Artisan’, ‘Custom, Wages and Work Load’, and ‘the British Gas-workers’ are model historical monographs; lucid, important and touching upon uncharted historical material, they raise the important questions of the connection between Imperialism and
New and efficient methods of exploiting labour also had to be learnt by capitalists. Hobsbawm amplifies this in his analysis of the gas industry. The dominant capitalist attitude to non-craft labour before the Great Depression is adequately summed up by Marx: ‘to appropriate labour during all 24 hours of the day is the inherent tendency of capitalist production . . . the limiting of factory labour was dictated by the same necessity which spread guano over the English field.’ As Hobsbawm says, ‘broadly speaking employers assumed that the lowest wage bill for the longest hours meant the lowest labour cost per unit of time’. The productivity of the worker was thought to be customary and static, hence the natural and logically consistent attacks on the factory acts by political economists like Nassau Senior. During the Great Depression the changing economic structure and the increased strength of unionized workers forced different conclusions upon the employers. In the strike of 1889 gas workers gained the replacement of two 12-hour shifts by three 8-hour shifts. The employers reckoned that this would entail a straight loss of 30 per cent on an increased wage bill. But a policy of outright opposition to wage increases proved impossible. Instead, attention was paid to labour-saving improvements and the more scientific use of manpower. No longer considered as part of the vast residue of the unskilled, gas workers were treated as skilled artisans; productivity, it was found, could just as well be raised by incentives, as by ‘forcing’. The gas industry was not unique in its more sophisticated attitude to labour utilization. It was in the 1880’s that systematic attention was first paid to labour management. Wage bills could be kept down, not merely by low wages and long hours, but also through the more economical use of labour by changing from flat rates to payment by results. These are important and hitherto little studied aspects of research into Imperialism. It is perhaps in the oblique light it casts on the connections between the Great Depression, the extension of unions and the rationalization of the labour force, that
Of most general interest perhaps, are the sections devoted to historical revision. Hobsbawm carries the revision of traditional accounts of the Fabians much further than the extended Ph.D. theses which he cites. It is not merely, he argues, that the claims of the Fabians and their hagiographers have been ludicrously exaggerated, Hobsbawm’s penetrating critique reveals them to have been entirely irrelevent to any socialist or liberal tradition of political philosophy. He shows that Fabian demands coincided with the emergence of a white collar and an expanding tertiary sector of the economy, which was to some extent the result of the provision of universal education in 1870. The demands of this group cannot be interpreted within the traditional subject matter of political theory since they emanated from a new and increasingly meritocratic bureaucracy, whose interests were quite distinct from that of the working class or the supporters of the Liberal party.
Nevertheless they were the fountainhead of a significant new tradition which has found its latest expression in the Robbins’ report. Nor can their influence on the Labour party after 1918 be quite so cavalierly dismissed. After all, the demands of the Fabians can be seen quite as clearly reflected in Labour party policy from the 1920’s onwards as original demands of the working class. Furthermore it can be misleading to reduce the importance of an intellectual tradition to its sociological roots. On that criterion the work of Bentham and Mill can easily be made to look insignificant. The work of the Fabians was important, however much they might have deluded themselves on the immediate effect of their efforts. Technocracy has, after all, been a persistent intellectual force in English thought since the days of Chadwick and its early Utilitarian origins. Continental analogies might also have been useful in the revaluation of Fabian contributions to policies of social imperialism. Some form of parallel could surely be drawn between the rather pathetic attempts of the Webbs to ‘permeate’ Lord Roseberry, and the peculiar flirtation between Lassalle and Bismarck.