The Age of Revolution 1789-1848. Eric Hobsbawm (1996)
“The labour movement provided an answer to the poor man’s cry. It must not be confused with the mere collective revulsion against intolerable hardship, which occurs throughout recorded history, or even with the practice of striking and other forms of militancy which have since become characteristic of labour. These also have a history which goes back beyond the industrial revolution. What was new in the labour movement of the early nineteenth century was class consciousness and class ambition. The ‘poor’ no longer faced the ‘rich’. A specific class, the labouring class, workers, or proletariat, faced another, the employers or capitalists. The French Revolution gave this new class confidence, the industrial revolution impressed on it the need for permanent mobilization. A decent livelihood could not be achieved merely by the occasional protest which served to restore the stable but temporarily disturbed balance of society. It required the eternal vigilance, organization and activity of the ‘movement’—the trade union, the mutual or co-operative society, the working-class institute, newspaper or agitation. But the very novelty and rapidity of the social change which engulfed them encouraged the labourers to think in terms of an entirely changed society, based on their experience and ideas as opposed to their oppressors’. It would be co-operative and not competitive, collectivist and not individualist. It would be ‘socialist’. And it would represent not the eternal dream of the free society, which poor men always have at the backs of their minds but think about only on the rare occasions of general social revolution, but a permanent, practicable alternative to the present system.”
[op. cit., p. 209]
Hobsbawm offers us a magnificent portrait of one of the visions or utopias of the first half of the nineteenth century. Not that it is unreasonable, far from that. It just has that patina of “end of history”, an end in itself, as if everything would be different afterwards (what was quite right), but also as if everything would stay that way forever. Hobsbawm is a master in involving the reader in the meanders of History and, after, showing that things were not exactly as it was anticipated. Great reading.
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