Profession(s): Academic, historian
Books: The Age of Revolution: Europe 1789-1848 (1962), Echoes of the Marseillaise: Two Centuries Look Back on the French Revolution (1990).
Eric Hobsbawm was one of the 20th century’s most prolific historians, and arguably its most famous left-wing historian. Hobsbawm was the scion of a Jewish family, born in Egypt but raised in Germany and Austria. The family fled the Nazis and emigrated to London, where Hobsbawm completed his secondary education. He studied history at Cambridge, earning a doctorate, before enlisting and serving in World War II. He returned to academia after the war, lecturing at the University of London. Unabashedly Marxist, Hobsbawm was a member of several communist groups, affiliations that caused him some difficulty during the Cold War. Hobsbawm was a prolific writer who penned dozens of books over more than half a century. His broad history of Europe, The Age of Revolution: 1789-1848, covers the French Revolution in considerable depth and scope. Hobsbawm sees the revolution in France, as well as subsequent revolutions on the European continent, as ‘dual revolutions’, where the demand for political change came on top of rapid industrial and economic changes. This stood in contrast to England, which was only ever subject to moderate political change (the Glorious Revolution of 1688) or socio-economic change (the Industrial Revolution). In the context of the French Revolution, Hobsbawm places particular importance on the formation, rise and influence of the capitalist bourgeoisie. Their paradoxical demands for access to noble privileges and political representation helped to unleash dynamic revolutionary forces in France.
“All over continental Europe the nobleman elbowed his low-born rivals out of offices of profit from the crown.”
“France made its revolutions and gave them their ideas, to the point where a tricolour of some kind became the emblem of virtually every emerging nation… France provided the vocabulary and the issues of liberal and racial-democratic politics for most of the world. France provided the first great example, the concept and the vocabulary of nationalism. France provided the codes of law, the model of scientific and technical organisation, the metric system of measurement for most countries… This was the work of the French Revolution.”
“Alone of all the contemporary revolutions, the French Revolution was ecumenical. Its armies set out to revolutionise the world; its ideas actually did so. The American Revolution has remained a crucial event in American history, but except for countries directly involved in it, it has left few major traces elsewhere. The French Revolution is a landmark in all countries.”
“The conflict between the official framework and the vested interests of the old regime and the rising new social forces was more acute in France than elsewhere. The new forces knew fairly precisely what they wanted.”
“[With the Estates General] the revolution began an aristocratic attempt to recapture the state. This attempt miscalculated for two reasons: it underestimated the independent intentions of the Third Estate – the fictional entity deemed to represent all who were neither nobles nor clergy, but was in fact dominated by the middle class – and it overlooked the profound economic and social crisis into which it threw its political demands.”
“The French Revolution was not made or led by a formed party or movement in the modern sense, nor by men attempting to carry out a systematic program. It hardly even threw up ‘leaders’ of the kind to which 20th century revolutions have accustomed us… Nevertheless, a striking consensus of general ideas among a fairly coherent social group gave the revolutionary movement effective unity. The group was the bourgeoisie; its ideas were those of classic liberalism.”