“The Age of Revolution” by Eric Hobsbawm

# history# books

Eric Hobsbawm was one of England’s most distinguished and respected historians. The Age of Revolution is the first book in Hobsbawm’s monumental four-part summary of modern European history. The book covers the period from the French Revolution in 1789 through to the European political upheavals of 1848.

Hobsbawm, who died in 2012, was a communist. He doesn’t waste time lyricizing about the economic gains or innovations of the Industrial Revolution. Instead, he goes straight into the living reality of the time.

Such as it was, the world of 1789 was overwhelmingly rural, and nobody can understand it who has not absorbed this fundamental fact… even in England itself, the urban population only just outnumbered the rural population for the first time in 1851.

From this starting point, we understand that the history of the “long 19th century” is a history of the relationship between people and the land that provided their livelihood — a relationship that grew increasingly alienated year by year.

The book focuses on the Industrial and French revolutions as coincident revolutions that both completely changed the economic structure of society, pushing England and France from traditional feudal societies to early market-based societies. By the end of the period, for the first time in history Europe had an economic system where land and labor could be easily bought and sold. Humans who had always worked the land for themselves now understood that their basic needs — food, hygiene, housing — came from a market.

A lynchpin in the story is the invention of the cotton gin, which automated the processing of cotton. Over the 18th century, America had built a massive industry of cotton production. But it still took considerable time and effort for enslaved people to process the cotton so it could be used for textiles. The cotton gin removed this effort and opened the floodgates of industry. Cheap cotton flooded the market, originating in the American South and entering Europe through Scotland and Northern England.

All of a sudden, cloth became a material that ordinary people could cheaply buy and use. The production of cotton exploded in the United Kingdom as the British sold it domestically and then abroad. England flooded with money from cotton, and that money launched the Industrial Revolution.

At the same time, the demand for cotton fed an explosion of slaveholding in America, which would grow over the following decades until reaching a breaking point with the Civil War.

This is the period of European history when power shifted from the aristocracy (traditional land owners) to the bourgeoisie (market capitalists). In the United Kingdom, the transfer of power passed through industrialization. In France, the transfer passed through violent revolution.

France’s revolution also solidified the idea of the nation. After French revolutionaries rose up and created a new constitution, they believed that they had a righteous mission to spread their politics abroad. Napoleon, who had risen to prominence through the revolution, seized on this nationalism to lead France through a series of wasteful and ruinous wars across Europe, which ended in defeat and disaster.

This is a rough summary based on what I can remember of what I have read so far. I’ll take time to update it as I proceed.


The book “is not a detailed narrative, but interpretation.”

The book is for the person “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.”


The period between 1789 and 1848 “forms the greatest transformation in human history since the remote times when men invented agriculture, metallurgy, writing, the city and the state… The great revolution of 1789-1848 was not the triumph of ‘industry’ as such, but of capitalist industry; not of liberty and equality in general, but of middle class or ‘bourgeous’ liberal society; not of ‘the modern economy’ or ‘the modern state’ but of the economies and states in a particular geographical region of the world whose center was the neighbouring and rival states of Great Britain and France.”

”… the twin crater of a rather larger regional volcano.”

“it is more relevant… that they could not with any probability have been expected to occur at this time in any other part of the world.”

“Our problem is to explain not the existence of these elements of a new economy and society, but their triumph.”

Chapter 1

The world in the 1780s was relatively empty: large blank swaths on the map, criss-crossed by trade routes. Much of the world was unknown. Inhabited territories of Europe were largely marsh, brush, and underutilized grazing territory.

“Europeans were, on the whole, distinctly shorter and lighter than they are today.”

People moved slowly by foot, cart, or boat. They “lived and died in the county, and often in the parish, of their birth: as late as 1861 more than nine out of ten in seventy of the ninety French departments lived in the department of their birth.” “There were no newspapers.”

“The world of 1789 was overwhelmingly rural, and nobody can understand it who has not absorbed this fundamental fact.”

Even “the provincial town still belonged essentially to the economy and society of the countryside.” The town professionals worked in auxiliary industries.

“The provincial city had declined sadly since its heyday in the later middle ages. It was only rarely a ‘free city’ or city state; only rarely any longer a centre of manufactures for a wider market or a staging-post in international trade.”

“The provincial town of the late eighteenth century might be a prosperous and expanding community… but that prosperity came from the countryside.”

Early economists assumed that land and land rent was the sole source of income. “The crux of the agrarian problem was the relation between those who cultivated the land and whose who owned it, those who produced its wealth and those who accumulated it.”

Europe divides into three areas:

  • Overseas colonies were where farm workers are unfree, either on latin feudal estates or American slave plantations
  • Eastern Europe was mostly agrarian serfdom, so the typical farm worker was unfree
    • “the flood of serfdom which had risen almost without a break since the later fifteenth or early sixteenth centuries.”
    • “the typical peasant was a serf, devoting a large part of the week to forced labour on the lord’s land, or its equivalent in other obligations. His unfreedom might be so great as to be barely distinguishable from chattel slavery.”
    • The colonies and the East largely served Western Europe as dependent economies.

The West was modernizing, though “In most countries of Western Europe the fuedal order implied by such ways of thinking was still politically very alive… Economically, however, western rural society was very different. The characteristic peasant had lost much of his servile status in the late middle ages… The characterisc estate had become a system of collecting rents and other money incomes.” The peasant was “more or less free,” and paid rent or a share of crops to a landlord or a local lord. England had already progressed well towards capitalist agriculture. As English smallholding and cottage industry was stripped away in the 18th century, there remained a bourgeois class of agricultural entrepreneurs and an agrarian proletariat.

The UK became incredibly powerful through economic development, and “by the 1780s all continental governments with any pretence to a rational policy were consequently fostering economic growth, and especially industrial development.”

(p. 36)

© Sam Littlefair, 2023