Hobsbawm on Nationalism and Revolution

This piece is a part of our ongoing series, entitled “Rethinking the Revolutionary Canon.” 

By Iker Itoiz Ciáurriz

At the time of his death in 2012, Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm was the most recognized British historian around the world. Born in Egypt and raised in Vienna and Berlin, Hobsbawm was a fierce critic of nationalism. A close analysis of Hobsbawm´s work, especially his “Age” quartet, The Age of Revolution: Europe 1789–1848The Age of Capital: 1848–1875 and The Age of Empire: 1875–1914), and The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914-1991, reveals Hobsbawm’s evolving skepticism and opposition to nationalism. He would come to argue that nationalism, driven by industrial capitalism, undermined the universalist goals proposed by revolutionary movements, particularly in Europe.  

A collection of Eric Hobsbawm's books sitting on a bookshelf.

Over the course of his career, his understanding of nationalism evolved from an initially more orthodox Marxist analysis—where modes of production and class-interest defined nationalism—to a more nuanced, cultural understanding of the category. In 1994, when Age of Extremes was published, the demise of Communism and the resurgence of nationalism in Europe led to Hobsbawm´s late critique of nationalism and his reimagination of the values of the Enlightenment as a way to subvert nationalism. Thirty plus years earlier in 1962, when The Age of Revolution was first published, Hobsbawm´s thesis of the dual revolution, industrial revolution (economic) in the United Kingdom, and political revolution in France, took an Marxist approach to the period.[1] Nationalism, politically on the Left during the French Revolution, gradually shifted into a movement that divided revolutionary forces in the 1830s with the formation of the ‘Young’ nationalist movements. Hobsbawm saw in the emergence of these nationalist movements the beginning of the end of revolutionary prospects in Europe, since they were ”elitist,” and bourgeois membership underlined the class interest that preceded nationalist ideology. Thus, in his view, nationalism had been shorn of any positive relationship to revolution. 

The question of nationalism reappeared briefly in The Age of Capital (1975), wherein Hobsbawm referred to it as “the nightmare of the nations” while writing about the revolutions of 1848. For Hobsbawm, 1848 was “objectively” a revolution in the sense that popular movements instigated the fall of regimes throughout continental Europe, halted only in Scandinavia, Russia, and at the Pyrenees. Yet it lacked organized, determined revolutionary leadership and a coherent class base. Revolutionary forces were divided and faced a clear counter-revolutionary movement driven by the fear instilled in propertied groups by the uprisings. As a result, progress was framed as economic development, whereas the only permissible violence was interstate warfare. As Hobsbawm noted, from 1848 onward there was to be no further revolution in Western Europe. Class politics prevailed, undercutting the unity of the revolutionary forces before 1848. The triumph of the bourgeoisie, Hobsbawm argued, signaled the end of the revolutionary era. As he wrote, “The British (industrial) revolutionary had swallowed the French (political) revolution.”[2]

As Richard Evans summarizes, The Age of Capital was highly criticized for the lack of analysis of nationalism.[3] Hobsbawm tells the story of the triumph and consolidation of the capitalist system, not the rise and consolidation of nationalism. Only in the context of 1848 did he treat the point. Revolution, especially in the French political sense, was marginalized. However, together, The Age of Capital and his installment, The Age of Empire (1987), became the story of capitalist development, where the prospects of revolution, bourgeois or working-class, steadily receded, while nationalism became increasingly significant by tying it together with capitalism.

In the latter book, imperialism has a Marxist meaning, most famously expressed in Lenin´s work Imperialism, the Highest State of Capitalism. However, empire describes a mode of political rule, not an economic process.[4] The focus shifts away from the bourgeoisie, whether as agents of revolutionary change or servants of capital, to the global forms of rule developed first by Britain and then by other capitalist powers. Such a form of rule—imperialism—created the basis for new and powerful forms of nationalism, both the imperial nationalism of the major powers, as well as nationalist opposition to imperial rule. The development of capitalism during the “Age of Empire” pushed the world in the direction of state rivalry, imperialist expansion, conflict and war. This came to a head in 1914 and managed to rally the national components of the working classes to the detriment of revolutionary prospects. When the First World War broke out, in August 1914, almost all the socialist parties of the Second International abandoned their commitment to internationalism and supported their national governments.[5]

Age of Extremes (1994), considered Hobsbawm´s masterpiece, crescendoed and made plain his pessimism about nationalism and revolution. If revolution became less relevant in The Age of Capital and The Age of Empire, it became again pivotal in Age of Extremes. Nonetheless, revolution is not portrayed as it was in Age of Revolution with its dual revolution dialectic, where the Marxist predictions of either bourgeois or proletarian revolution prevailed in his analysis. Politically, both nationalists and social democratic movements operated within the increasingly accepted context of the nation-state rather than ‘internationalism’, revolution had been replaced by war as the principal form of collective violence as he had identified beginning in 1848. Even the October Revolution arose from the turmoil produced in Russia by popular revulsion against the war and from the chaos that it generated. The problems with the October Revolution, as Hobsbawm acknowledged, were that it did not happen according to the Marxist schema of revolution, but rather a national revolutionary scheme made prevalent over the course of the nineteenth century. Not only that: with the Communist International, Lenin established the Bolshevik model of a vanguard party as the revolutionary method to be adopted globally. Hobsbawm believed that the Leninist model of revolution had undermined the cause of nationalism in recognising and accepting nationalism among oppressed people and advocating their national right to self-determination. In Lenin´s idea, he pandered to nationalist sentiment as a tactic in his longer-term strategic internationalist revolutionary  goal, but in doing so he set in place an institutional structure that would eventually used to undermine this objective.[6] Its failure in 1991 proved Hobsbawm, and Lenin, wrong. In fact, the end of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the retrenchment of nationalism in Europe after its demise sparked Hobsbawm´s negative views on nationalism, which he blamed as one of the causes of the fall of Communism. Nationalism is no longer to be class-driven, but as a mass movement that stressed the centrality of the nation. Nationalism eliminated any possibility of a class revolution.

It was in the wake of communism´s collapse that Hobsbawm made his most original contribution. He turned to the Enlightenment as a tool to imagine a future beyond nationalism. In his article “Barbarism: A User´s guide,” published shortly before Age of Extremes in 1994. In rethinking revolution, Hobsbawm argued that the only way to stimulate a renewed international revolutionary agenda was to reimagine the political project of the Enlightenment. He understood Enlightenment as an emphasis on reason and science that could appeal to broad social forces from liberals to communists since these political movements were born from it. This claim were made in the context of 1994, a year of strong nationalist violence in Europe (in Yugoslavia) and in Rwanda, where the Hutus perpetrated genocide against the Tutsis “justified” by a type of racial nationalism. These two events sparked not only the attention of western audiences, but also highlighted the violence that nationalism generated and the return of the shadow of genocide in the European imagination. Hobsbawm reframed Rosa Luxemburg’s famous two ultimatem, as laid out in her 1915 pamphlet against the First World War: socialism or barbarism.[7] For Hobsbawm, the choices were between the “Enlightenment” (Liberalism, socialism, communism) or Barbarism (nationalism). As he wrote:

“I believe that one of the few things that stands between us and an accelerated descent into darkness is the set of values inherited from the eighteenth-century Enlightenment (…) it is also the only foundation for all the aspirations to build societies fit for all human beings to live in anywhere on this earth, and for the assertion and defense of their human rights as persons.”[8]

In sum, between The Age of Revolution (1962) and Age of Extremes (1994), Hobsbawm became increasingly pessimistic about the prospect of revolution. By 1994, he concluded that revolution was no longer possible, as nationalism was on the rise as a reactionary force that led to extreme violence in places like Yugoslavia and Rwanda. The re-calibration of Enlightenment values, as he saw them, was Hobsbawm´s last attempt to accommodate his post-communist identity to a world dominated by global capitalism and nation identities that blinded one another to the global systems of oppression working against their own interests.                                             

Iker Itoiz Ciáurriz is a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh researching the political commitment of Eric Hobsbawm and his passion for politics since 1977. His current research interests lie broadly in the history of the European Left, political theory, political violence, and historical memory. He is on twitter @ICiuarriz.

Title image: Eric Hobsbawm with Ticlia, adopted by his family in 1971. Photograph taken of Marlene Hobsbawm


[1]Hobsbawm´s concept of a dual revolution was problematic in Marxist terms. Hobsbawm´s division of an economic revolution in Britain and a political one in France disaggregated two aspects of revolution usually combined in the Marxist concept of Bourgeois revolution which is central for the transition to capitalism. Moreover, at the time, Hobsbawm was challenging the idea that the transition to capitalism occurred in the 17th century after the Civil War and the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688-1689, as he and others such as Christopher Hill had argued during their years in the Communist Party Historians´ Group (1946-1956). See: David Parker, Ideology, Absolutism and the English Revolution: debates of the British Communist historians, 1940-1956 (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 2008).

[2] Eric Hobsbawm, Age of Capital, 1848-1875 (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1975), 15.

[3] Richard Evans, Eric Hobsbawm. A life in History (London: Little & Brown, 2019), 474-479.

[4] On how Marxists, including Hobsbawm, have interpreted and analysed ‘imperialism’, see:  Anthony Brewer, Marxist Theories of Imperialism. A critical Survey (New York: Routledge, 1990).

[5] On the contradictions of Marxism internationalism and national identity in this period, see: Robert Stuart, Marxism and National Identity. Socialism, Nationalism, and National Socialism during the French Fin de Siècle (New York: State University of New York Press, 2006).

[6] For a recent state of the filed on Soviet communism and nationalism, see: Peter Shearman, Rethinking Soviet Communism (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015)

[7] For a deeper understanding of Rosa Luxemburg´s analysis of nationalism, see: A. Walicki, ‘Rosa Luxemburg and the Question of Nationalism in Polish Marxism (1893-1914)’ in The Svalonic and East European Review (Seer), Vol. 61, No. 4, October 1983, 565-583.

[8] Ibid, 336.

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