Dr. Hobsbawm’s bookfootnote is addressed, its preface tells us, to “the intelligent and educated citizen, who is not merely curious about the past, but wishes to understand how and why the world has come to be what it is today and whither it is going”. One has not to read far before feeling satisfied that the intelligent citizen who takes it up will find in it exactly what he requires. This makes the book an important one, and its writing a remarkable achievement, for the sixty multitudinous years it describes are of far more than academic concern to us, and to get into 356 pages an epoch so huge and chaotic is a task like Shakespeare’s of cramming the Hundred Years War into his wooden O. Whoever has had to try to teach it to a class will feel this with special force. Hobsbawm not only gets it in, but he succeeds in making sense of his subject, without making nonsense of history. He is not, of course, plodding over the whole ground and writing a textbook narrative. He gives enough general background to make his foreground comprehensible; his focus is on two climacteric changes, between them initiating the tidal wave that was to sweep first Europe and then the world out of one age into another—the Industrial Revolution, starting in Britain, and the Revolution of 1789 in France.

Hobsbawm is a Marxist, and all who are interested in Marxist historical method will be curious to see how it comes off here. It is only the occasional large-scale work of this kind that enables us to take stock of the progress Marxism is making, and of its ability to illumine broad sweeps of the road mankind has come by. But no reader need boggle at the book out of fear of being expected to understand, or agree with, Marxist theory, nor need he feel apprehensive of being pressured. Marxist and other socialist authors there have been who were inclined to drive and dragoon their readers, but Hobsbawm is not one of them. His reader is taken courteously by the arm and led, not dragged, through the maze; and he is made aware of many of the obscurities and uncertainties with which the period bristles, without being left bewildered.

Hobsbawm starts with the advantage of being a social historian by trade, with a wide knowledge of political history, familiarity with the literature of several countries, a well-informed interest in music and culture at large, and a general inquisitiveness about everything. Altogether he has about as encyclopaedic a contact with his Europe as any single writer can well be expected to have. Many of his materials are necessarily borrowed, but he makes them his own by the way he works them into his pattern and, without any effort at freakish originality, permeates and animates the brute mass of facts with his philosophy. His success is partly one of style. One has heard a celebrated scholar say that he had no objection to the Marxist writers in his own field, except their unbearable dullness; no-one will be heard saying so of The Age of Revolution. Its language is always clear, often witty, sometimes mordant. A reader about to open it might turn first, by way of tuning himself up, to p. 70, on Robespierre; or to p. 75, on Napoleon and what he stood for in Europe; or pp. 202–4, on life in the early industrial slums. There are no labyrinthine footnotes, or clanking armour of learning, but there is an adequate supply of references to reassure the most suspicious that the author is not producing any of his aces out of his sleeve; also a moderate reading-list that many readers stimulated to go further will find helpful. Extra buoyancy is added to the volume by a splendidly chosen set of a hundred illustrations, and an artfully devised series of maps.

Another noteworthy feature of the book is that it finds time to carry us outside Europe every now and then, showing us our own continent more clearly by contrast with Asia and Africa, as well as some part of the impact of Europe on the others. And while so much is brought in, it is only occasionally that the requirements of compression seem to have something of a Procrustean effect. The character of the ganglabour latifundia of Andalusia might be said to differ by more than “legal technicalities” (p. 15) from that of the serf-worked estates of eastern Europe. Perhaps the coup d’état of Brumaire and the advent of Napoleon Bonaparte are treated too summarily on p. 74; and to speak of Bonaparte as the “leader” of the army, and of power being “half-thrust” on him by foreign danger—the military tide had turned before November 1799—may be questionable. Anglo-Russian tension at the Vienna peace conference in 1814–15 is also passed over rather more hastily than it deserves (pp. 10–2). It was a portent of many things to come that Britain and Russia were close to war with each other in 1791, just before the French wars supplied them with a distraction, and came close to war again in 1814, the moment their common foe disappeared. As J. H. Pirenne has pointed out, the rivalry of these two countries, the only two world-powers then on the map, was already well developed.

Dealing with the Industrial Revolution the author is very much on his own ground. Why this unique and portentous thing should have begun happening, in this one corner of the globe, and in that one corner of the bank and shoal of time, the 1780s, is as complicated a problem as any in history. He convinces me, rather against the grain, that he is right in fixing on cotton as the essential catalyst. Cotton was the one industrial material that could galvanize industry into a new, mechanized way of production, because it alone could reckon on not merely a gently swelling local demand, but a world market, unlimited and incalculable. To accept this explanation seems to lead, among other consequences, towards acceptance of a predatory, aggressive, imperialistic bent as a primary instinct of capitalism, planted in its inmost soul and cells; for a world market in cotton cloth meant wars for colonies and for the crushing of rivals, the conquest of India, the African slave-trade. In particular it seems to disclose the mainspring of the twenty years war between England and her chief competitor, France.

Many will see this as self-evident. I must confess to doubts and difficulties, some of them accentuated by passages elsewhere in Hobsbawm’s early chapters. By democratizing France, especially the countryside, the French Revolution as he points out (p. 70) retarded instead of accelerated the growth of French capitalism. (He adds, reasoning too much I think from pure statistics, that it thereby postponed the day of a proletarian revolution in France;—but France has come nearer to socialism than England, where capitalism grew so much more rapidly.) It is in every way a startling paradox that the greatest of all bourgeois revolutions should have ended by retarding the bourgeoisie and the bourgeois economy. “French industry and commerce would almost certainly have expanded further and faster but for the revolution and the wars” (p. 98). And it adds a fresh complexity to that fundamental question: whence came the demonic energy that kept France fighting and conquering for two decades on end? Was it the energy of a retarded capitalism? Hobsbawm seems prepared to answer yes, when he writes that the Revolution “brought to power a French bourgeoisie whose appetites were . . . as limitless as those of the British” (p. 84); or that “initiative and expansion were what the middle class needed” (p. 73). Here I feel that he is, for once, making do with a phrase. More generally (and reluctantly) I have to confess to finding it hard to think of any European war, since industrial capital replaced merchant capital at the helm (and did this happen before 1830–32?), which was clearly caused by the economic necessities of capitalism.

Of exceptional interest again is the account of the revolutionary movements in central and western Europe after 1815, starting as a sort of “International” of conspirators and then diverging more and more into national channels. Their social composition, their hopes, and their forms of organization, evolving from the ritualistic secret society of the Carbonaro period towards something more like a modern party, are all illuminated; so are individuals, such as Blanqui, whom Hobsbawm respects, or Mazzini, whom he does not. One distinction that might have been worth drawing is that between revolution, as in 1789, and civil war, as in England in 1642–49, or Spain in 1833–40. All these can be classed as “bourgeois revolutions”, but the one stands for a quick, sharp, irresistible transformation, the other for change long-drawn-out and fiercely resisted. In Spain the process was dreadfully murderous, yet the gains were meagre out of all proportion to the bloodshed. Both in England and in Spain what emerged was a compromise between the antagonists, a coalition of ruling groups at the expense of the commoners; something a good deal different from the outcome of 1789. One might seek in the experience of 1642–49 for the reason why the two main sections of the English plutocracy took care never again to quarrel with each other too seriously.