Eric J. Hobsbawm (1917-2012)
The Age of Revolution. Europe 1789–1848

London. Folio Society. 2005. xviii, 412 pages.

Chapter 1
The world in the 1780s
Le dix-huitième siècle doit être mis au Panthéon.—Saint-Just 1


The first thing to observe about the world of the 1780s is that it was at once much smaller and much larger than ours. It was smaller geographically, because even the best-educated and best-informed men then living—let us say a man like the scientist and traveler Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859)—knew only patches of the inhabited globe. (The ‘known worlds’ of less scientifically advanced and expansionist communities than those of Western Europe were clearly even smaller, diminishing to the tiny segments of the earth within which the illiterate Sicilian peasant or the cultivator in the Burmese hills lived out his life, and beyond which all was and always would forever be unknown.)

Much of the surface of the oceans, though by no means all, had already been explored and mapped thanks to the remarkable competence of eighteenth-century navigators like James Cook, though human knowledge of the sea-bed was to remain negligible until the mid-twentieth century. The main outlines of the continents and most islands were known, though by modern standards not too accurately. The size and height of the mountain ranges in Europe were known with some approach to precision, those in parts of Latin America very roughly, those in Asia hardly at all, those in Africa (with the exception of the Atlas) for practical purposes not at all. Except for those of China and India, the course of the great rivers of the world was mysterious to all but a handful of trappers, traders or coureurs-de-bois, who had, or may have had, knowledge of those in their regions. Outside of a few areas—in several continents they did not reach more than a few miles inland from the coast—the map of the world consisted of white spaces crossed by the marked trails of traders or explorers. But for the rough-and-ready second- or third-hand information collected by travellers or officials in remote outposts, these white spaces would have been even vaster than in fact they were.

Not only the ‘known world‘ was smaller, but the real world, at any rate in human terms. Since for practical purposes no censuses are available, all demographic estimates are sheer guesses, but it is evident that the earth supported only a fraction of today's population; probably not much more than one-third. If the most usually quoted guesses are not too wide off the mark Asia and Africa supported a somewhat larger proportion of the world's people than today, Europe, with about 187 million in 1800 (as against about 600 million today), a somewhat smaller one, the Americas obviously a much smaller one. Roughly, two out of every three humans would be Asians in 1800, one out of every five European, one out of ten African, one out of thirty-three American or Oceanian. It is obvious that this much smaller population was much more sparsely distributed across the face of the globe, except perhaps for certain small regions of intensive agriculture or high urban concentration, such as parts of China, India and Western or Central Europe, where densities comparable to those of modern times may have existed. If population was smaller, so also was the area of effective human settlement.

Climatic conditions (probably somewhat colder and wetter than today, though no longer quite so cold or wet as during the worst period of the ‘little ice age’ of c. 1300-1700) held back the limits of settlement in the Arctic. Endemic disease, such as malaria, still restricted it in many areas, such as Southern Italy, where the coastal plains, long virtually unoccupied, were only gradually peopled during the nineteenth century. Primitive forms of the economy, notably hunting and (in Europe) the territorially wasteful seasonal transhumance of livestock, kept large settlements out of entire regions —such as the plains of Apulia: the early nineteenth-century tourist's prints of the Roman campagna, an empty malarial space with a few ruins, a few cattle, and the odd picturesque bandit, are familiar illustrations of such landscapes. And of course much land which has since come under the plough was still, even in Europe, barren heath, waterlogged fen, rough grazing or forest.

Humanity was smaller in yet a third respect: Europeans were, on the whole, distinctly shorter and lighter than they are today. To take one illustration from the abundance of statistics about the physique of conscripts on which this generalization is based: in one canton on the Ligurian coast 72 per cent of the recruits in 1792–9 were less than 1.50 metres (5 ft. 2 in.) tall 2. That did not mean that the men of the later eighteenth century were more fragile than we are. The scrawny, stunted, undrilled soldiers of the French Revolution were capable of a physical endurance equalled today only by the undersized guerillas in colonial mountains. A week's unbroken marching, with full equipment, at the rate of thirty miles a day, was common. However, the fact remains that human physique was then, by our standards, very poor, as is indicated by the exceptional value kings and generals attached to the ‘tall fellows’, who were formed into the élite regiments of guards, cuirassiers and the like.

Yet if the world was in many respects smaller, the sheer difficulty or uncertainty of communications made it in practice much vaster than it is today. I do not wish to exaggerate these difficulties. The later eighteenth century was, by medieval or sixteenth century standards, an age of abundant and speedy communications, and even before the revolution of the railways, improvements in roads, horse-drawn vehicles and postal services are quite remarkable. Between the 1760s and the end of the century the journey from London to Glasgow was shortened from ten or twelve days to sixty-two hours. The system of mail-coaches or diligences, instituted in the second half of the eighteenth century, vastly extended between the end of the Napoleonic wars and the coming of the railway provided not only relative speed—the postal service from Paris to Strasbourg took thirty-six hours in 1833—but also regularity. But the provision for overland passenger-transport was small, that for overland goods transport both slow and prohibitively expensive. Those who conducted government business or commerce were by no means cut off from one another: it is estimated that twenty million letters passed through the British mails at the beginning of the wars with Bonaparte (at the end of our period there were ten times as many); but for the great majority of the inhabitants of the world letters were useless, as they could not read, and travel—except perhaps to and from markets —altogether out of the ordinary. If they or their goods moved overland, it was overwhelmingly on foot or by the slow speeds of carts, which even in the early nineteenth century carried five-sixths of French goods traffic at somewhat less than twenty miles a day.
Couriers flew across long distances with dispatches; postillions drove mail-coaches with a dozen or so passengers each shaking their bones or, if equipped with the new leather suspension, making them violently seasick. Noblemen raced along in private carriages. But for the greater part of the world the speed of the carter walking beside his horse or mule governed land transport.
Under the circumstances transport by water was therefore not only easier and cheaper, but often also (except for the uncertainties of wind and weather) faster. It took Goethe four and three days respectively to sail from Naples to Sicily and back during his Italian tour. The mind boggles at the time it would have taken him to travel overland in anything like comfort. To be within reach of a port was to be within reach of the world: in a real sense London was closer to Plymouth or Leith than to villages in the Breckland of Norfolk; Seville was more accessible from Veracruz than from Valladolid, Hamburg from Bahia than from the Pomeranian hinterland. The chief drawback of water transport was its intermittency. Even in 1820 the London mails for Hamburg and Holland were made up only twice a week, those for Sweden and Portugal once weekly, those for North America once a month. Yet there can be no doubt that Boston and New York were in much closer contact with Paris than, let us say, the Carpathian county of Maramaros was with Budapest. And just as it was easier to transport goods and men in quantity over the vast distances of the oceans—easier, for instance, for 44,000 to set sail for America from Northern Irish ports in five years (1769–74) than to get five thousand to Dundee in three generations—so it was easier to link distant capitals than country and city.

The Bastille Prison Fortress in 1790

The news of the fall of The Bastille reached the populace of Madrid within thirteen days; but in Péronne, a bare 133 kilomètres from the capital, ‘the news from Paris’ was not received until the 28th.
The world of 1789 was therefore, for most of its inhabitants, incalculably vast. Most of them, unless snatched away by some awful hazard, such as military recruitment, lived and died in the county, and often in the parish, of their birth: as late as 1861 more than nine out often in seventy of the ninety French departments lived in the department of their birth. The rest of the globe was a matter of government agents and rumour. There were no newspapers, except for a tiny handful of the middle and upper classes—5,000 was the usual circulation of a French journal even in 1814—and few could read in any case. News came to most through travellers and the mobile section of the population: merchants and hawkers, travelling journeymen, migratory craftsmen and seasonal labourers, the large and mixed population of the vagrant and footloose ranging from itinerant friars or pilgrims to smugglers, robbers and fairground folk; and, of course, through the soldiers who fell upon the population in war or garrisoned them in peace. Naturally news also came through official channels— through state or church. But even the bulk of the local agents of such state-wide or ecumenical organizations were local men, or men settled for a lifetime's service among those of their kind.
Outside the colonies the official nominated by his central government and sent to a succession of provincial posts was only just coming into existence. Of all the subaltern agents of the state perhaps only the regimental officer habitually expected to live an unlocalized life, consoled only by the variety of wine, women and horses of his country.


Such as it was, the world of 1789 was overwhelmingly rural, and nobody can understand it who has not absorbed this fundamental fact. In countries like Russia, Scandinavia or the Balkans, where the city had never flourished excessively, between 90 and 97 per cent of the population were rural. Even in areas with a strong though decayed urban tradition, the rural or agricultural percentage was extraordinarily high: 85 per cent in Lombardy, 72–80 per cent in Venetia, more than 90 per cent in Calabria and Lucania, according to available estimates 3. In fact, outside of a few very flourishing industrial or commercial areas we should be hard put to it to find a sizeable European state in which at least four out of every five inhabitants were not countrymen. And even in England itself, the urban population only just outnumbered the rural population for the first time in 1851.
The word ‘urban’ is, of course, ambiguous. It includes the two European cities which by 1789 can be called genuinely large by our standards, London, with about a million, and Paris, with about half a million, and the score or so with a population of 100,000 or more: two in France, two in Germany, perhaps four in Spain, perhaps five in Italy (the Mediterranean was traditionally the home of cities), two in Russia, and one each in Portugal, Poland, Holland, Austria, Ireland, Scotland, and European Turkey. But it also includes the multitude of small provincial towns in which the majority of city-dwellers actually lived; the ones where a man could stroll in a few minutes from the cathedral square surrounded by the public buildings and the houses of the notables, to the fields. Of the 19 per cent of Austrians who, even at the end of our period (1834), lived in towns, well over three-quarters lived in towns of less than 20,000 inhabitants; about half in towns of between two and five thousand.
These were the towns through which the French journeymen wandered on their Tour de France; whose sixteenth-century profiles, preserved like flies in amber by the stagnation of subsequent centuries, the German romantic poets evoked in the background of their tranquil landscapes; above which the cliffs of Spanish cathedrals towered; among whose mud the Chassidic Jews venerated their miracle-working rabbis and the orthodox ones disputed the divine subtleties of the law; into which Gogol's inspector-general drove to terrify the rich, and Chichikov to ponder on the purchase of dead souls. But these also were the towns out of which the ardent and ambitious young men came to make revolutions or their first million; or both. Robespierre came out of Arras, Gracchus Babeuf out of Saint-Quentin, Napoleon out of Ajaccio.
These provincial towns were none the less urban for being small. The genuine townsmen looked down upon the surrounding countryside with the contempt of the quick-witted and knowledgeable for the strong, slow, ignorant and stupid. (Not that by the standards of the real man of the world the sleepy back-country township had anything to boast about: the German popular comedies mocked ‘Kraehwinkel’—the petty municipality—as cruelly as the more obvious rural hayseeds.) The line between town and country, or rather between town occupations and farm occupations, was sharp. In many countries the excise barrier, or sometimes even the old line of the wall, divided the two. In extreme cases, as in Prussia, the government, anxious to keep its taxable citizens under proper supervision, secured a virtually total separation of urban and rural activities. Even where there was no such rigid administrative division, townsmen were often physically distinct from peasants. In a vast area of Eastern Europe they were German, Jewish or Italian islands in a Slav, Magyar or Rumanian lake. Even townsmen of the same religion and nationality as the surrounding peasantry looked different: they wore different dress, and indeed were in most cases (except for the exploited indoor labouring and manufacturing population) taller, though perhaps also slenderer i. They were probably, and certainly prided themselves on being, quicker in mind and more literate. Yet in their mode of life they were almost as ignorant of what went on outside their immediate district, almost as closed-in, as the village.
The provincial town still belonged essentially to the economy and society of the countryside. It lived by battening on the surrounding peasantry and (with relatively few exceptions) by very little else except taking in its own washing. Its professional and middle classes were the dealers in corn and cattle, the processers of farm-products, the lawyers and notaries who handled the affairs of noble estates or the interminable litigations which are part of land-owning or land-holding communities; the merchant-entrepreneurs who put out and collected for and from the rural spinners and weavers; the more respectable of the representatives of government, lord or church. Its craftsmen and shopkeepers supplied the surrounding peasantry or the townsmen, who lived off the peasantry. 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. As it had declined, it clung with increasing stubbornness to that local monopoly of its market which it defended against all comers: much of the provincialism which the young radicals and big city slickers mocked, derived from this movement of economic self-defence.
In Southern Europe the gentlemen and even sometimes the nobles lived in it on the rents of their estates. In Germany the bureaucracies of the innumerable small principalities, themselves barely more than large estates, administered the wishes of Serenissimus there with the revenues collected from a dutiful and silent peasantry. The provincial town of the late eighteenth century might be a prosperous and expanding community, as its townscape, dominated by stone buildings in a modest classical or rococo style still bears witness in parts of Western Europe. But that prosperity came from the countryside.


The agrarian problem was therefore the fundamental one in the world of 1789, and it is easy to see why the first systematic school of continental economists, the French Physiocrats, assumed as a matter of course that the land, and the land rent, was the sole source of net income. And the crux of the agrarian problem was the relation between those who cultivated the land and those who owned it, those who produced its wealth and those who accumulated it.
From the point of view of agrarian property relations, we may divide Europe—or rather the economic complex whose centre lay in Western Europe—into three large segments.

To the west of Europe there lay the overseas colonies. In these, with the notable exception of the Northern United States of America and a few less significant patches of independent farming, the typical cultivator was an Indian working as a forced labourer or virtual serf, or a Negro working as a slave; somewhat more rarely, a peasant tenant, share-cropper or the like. (In the colonies of the Eastern Indies, where direct cultivation by European planters was rarer, the typical form of compulsion by the controllers of the land was the forced delivery of quotas of crops, e.g. spice or coffee in the Dutch islands.) In other words the typical cultivator was unfree or under political constraint. The typical landlord was the owner of the large quasi-feudal estate (hacienda, finca, estancia) or of a slave plantation.
The characteristic economy of the quasi-feudal estate was primitive and self-contained, or at any rate geared to purely regional demands: Spanish America exported mining products, also produced by what were virtually Indian serfs, but nothing much in the way of farm-products.
The characteristic economy of the slave-plantation zone, whose centre lay in the Caribbean islands, along the northern coasts of South America (especially in Northern Brazil) and the southern ones of the USA, was the production of a few vitally important export crops, sugar, to a lesser extent tobacco and coffee, dyestuffs and, from the Industrial Revolution onwards, above all cotton. It therefore formed an integral part of the European economy and, through the slave-trade, of the African. Fundamentally the history of this zone in our period can be written in terms of the decline of sugar and the rise of cotton.

To the east of Western Europe, more specifically to the east of a line running roughly along the river Elbe, the western frontiers of what is today Czechoslovakia, and then south to Trieste, cutting off Eastern from Western Austria, lay the region of agrarian serfdom. Socially, Italy south of Tuscany and Umbria, and Southern Spain belonged to this region, though Scandinavia (with the partial exception of Denmark and Southern Sweden) did not. This vast zone contained its patches of technically free peasants: German peasant colonists scattered all over it from Slovenia to the Volga, virtually independent clans in the savage rocks of the Illyrian hinterland, almost equally savage peasant-warriors like the Pandurs and Cossacks on what had until lately been the military frontier between Christian and Turk or Tartar, free pioneer squatters beyond the reach of lord and state, or those who lived in the vast forests, where large-scale farming was out of the question. On the whole, however, the typical cultivator was unfree, and indeed almost drenched by the flood of serfdom which had risen almost without a break since the later fifteenth or early sixteenth centuries. It was least obvious in the Balkan areas which had been, or still were, under the direct administration of the Turks. Though the original agrarian system of the Turkish pre-feudalism, a rough division of the land in which each unit supported a non-hereditary Turkish warrior, had long degenerated into a system of hereditary landed estates under Mohammedan lords, these lords seldom engaged in farming. They merely sucked what they could from their peasantry. This is why the Balkans, south of the Danube and Save, emerged from Turkish domination in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries substantially as peasant countries, though extremely poor ones, and not as countries of concentrated agricultural property. Still, the Balkan peasant was legally unfree as a Christian, and de facto unfree as a peasant, at least so long as he was within reach of the lords.
Over the rest of the area, however, 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, as in Russia and those parts of Poland where he could be sold separately from the land: a notice in the Gazette de Moscou in 1801 advertised ‘For sale, three coachmen, well-trained and very presentable, also two girls, aged 18 and 15, both of good appearance and skilled in different kinds of manual work. The same house has for sale two hairdressers, one, aged 21, can read, write, play a musical instrument and do duty as postilion, the other suitable for dressing ladies' and gentlemen's hair; also pianos and organs.' (A large proportion of serfs served as domestics; in Russia almost 5 per cent of all serfs in 1851 5.)
In the hinterland of the Baltic Sea—the main trade-route with Western Europe—servile agriculture produced largely export crops for the importing countries of the west: corn, flax, hemp and forest products mostly used for shipping. Elsewhere it relied more on the regional market, which contained at least one accessible region of fairly advanced manufacturing and urban development, Saxony and Bohemia and the great capital of Vienna. Much of it, however, remained backward. The opening of the Black Sea route and the increasing urbanization of Western Europe, and notably of England, had only just begun to stimulate the corn-exports of the Russian black earth belt, which were to remain the staple of Russian foreign trade until the industrialization of the USSR. The eastern servile area may therefore also be regarded as a food and raw-material producing ‘dependent economy’ of Western Europe, analogous to the overseas colonies.

The servile areas of Italy and Spain had similar economic characteristics, though the legal technicalities of the peasants' status were somewhat different. Broadly, they were areas of large noble estates. It is not impossible that in Sicily and Andalusia several of these were the lineal descendants of Roman latifundia, whose slaves and coloni had turned into the characteristic landless day-labourers of these regions. Cattle-ranching, corn-production (Sicily is an ancient export-granary) and the extortion of whatever was to be extorted from the miserable peasantry, provided the income of the dukes and barons who owned them.
The characteristic landlord of the servile area was thus a noble owner and cultivator or exploiter of large estates. Their vastness staggers the imagination: Catherine the Great gave between forty and fifty thousand serfs to individual favourites; the Radziwills of Poland had estates as large as half of Ireland; Potocki owned three million acres in the Ukraine; the Hungarian Esterhazy's (Haydn's patrons) at one time owned nearly seven million acres. Estates of several hundreds of thousands of acres were common ii. Neglected, primitive and inefficient though these often were, they yielded princely incomes. The Spanish grandee might, as a French visitor observed of the desolate Medina Sidonia estates, ‘reign like a lion in the forests whose roar frightens away whatever might approach him’ 7, but he was not short of cash, even by the ample standards of the British milord.
Below the magnates, a class of country gentlemen of varying size and economic resources exploited the peasantry. In some countries it was inordinately large, and consequently poor and discontented; distinguished from the non-noble chiefly by its political and social privileges and its disinclination to engage in ungentlemanly pursuits such as work. In Hungary and Poland it amounted to something like one in ten of the total population, in Spain at the end of the eighteenth century to almost half a million—or, in 1827, to 10 per cent of the total European nobility 8; elsewhere it was much smaller.


In the rest of Europe the agrarian structure was socially not dissimilar. That is to say that for the peasant or labourer anybody who owned an estate was a ‘gentleman’ and a member of the ruling class, and conversely noble or gentle status (which gave social and political privileges and was still nominally the only road to the highest offices of state) was inconceivable without an estate. In most countries of Western Europe the feudal order implied by such ways of thinking was still politically very alive, though economically increasingly obsolete. Indeed, its very economic obsolescence, which made noble and gentle incomes limp increasingly far behind the rise in prices and expenditure, made the aristocracy exploit its one inalienable economic asset, the privileges of birth and status, with ever-greater intensity. All over continental Europe the nobleman elbowed his low-born rivals out of offices of profit under the crown: from Sweden, where the proportion of commoner officers fell from 66 per cent in 1719 (42 per cent in 1700) to 23 per cent in 1780 9, to France, where this ‘feudal reaction’ precipitated the French Revolution (see below Chapter 3). But even where it was in some ways distinctly shaky, as in France where entry into the landed nobility was relatively easy, or even more in Britain where landed and noble status was the reward for any kind of wealth, provided it was large enough, the link between estate-ownership and ruling-class status remained, and had indeed lately become somewhat closer.
Economically, however, western rural society was very different. The characteristic peasant had lost much of his servile status in the late middle ages, though still often retaining a great many galling marks of legal dependence. The characteristic estate had long ceased to be a unit of economic enterprise and had become a system of collecting rents and other money incomes. The more or less free peasant, large, medium or small, was the characteristic cultivator of the soil. If a tenant of some sort he paid rent (or, in a few areas, a share of the crop) to a landlord. If technically a freeholder, he probably still owed the local lord a variety of obligations which might or might not be turned into money (such as the obligation to send his corn to the lord's mill), as well as taxes to the prince, tithes to the church, and some duties of forced labour, all of which contrasted with the relative exemption of the higher social strata. But if these political bonds were stripped away, a large part of Europe would emerge as an area of peasant agriculture; generally one in which a minority of wealthy peasants tended to become commercial farmers selling a permanent crop surplus to the urban market, and a majority of small and medium peasants lived in something like self-sufficiency off their holdings unless these were so small as to oblige them to take part-time work in agriculture or manufacture for wages.
Only a few areas had pushed agrarian development one stage further towards a purely capitalist agriculture. England was the chief of these. There landownership was extremely concentrated, but the characteristic cultivator was a medium-sized commercial tenant-farmer operating with hired labour.
A large undergrowth of smallholders, cottagers and the like still obscured this. But when this was stripped away (roughly between 1760 and 1830) what emerged was not peasant agriculture but a class of agricultural entrepreneurs, the farmers, and a large agrarian proletariat. A few European areas where commercial investment traditionally went into farming, as in parts of Northern Italy and the Netherlands, or where specialized commercial crops were produced, also showed strong capitalist tendencies, but this was exceptional. A further exception was Ireland, an unhappy island which combined the disadvantages of the backward areas of Europe with those of proximity to the most advanced economy. Here a handful of absentee latifundists similar to the Andalusian or Sicilian ones exploited a vast mass of tenants by means of extortionate money-rents.
Technically European agriculture was still, with the exception of a few advanced regions, both traditional and astonishingly inefficient. Its products were still mainly the traditional ones: rye, wheat, barley, oats and in Eastern Europe buckwheat, the basic food of the people, beef cattle, sheep, goats and their dairy products, pigs and fowl, a certain amount of fruit and vegetables, wine, and a certain number of industrial raw materials such as wool, flax, hemp for cordage, barley for beer, etc. The food of Europe was still regional. The products of other climates were still rarities, verging on luxury, except perhaps for sugar, the most important foodstuff imported from the tropics and the one whose sweetness has created more human bitterness than any other. In England (admittedly the most advanced country) the average annual consumption per head in the 1790s was 14 lb. But even in England the average per capita consumption of tea in the year of the French Revolution was hardly 2 ounces per month.
The new crops imported from the Americas or other parts of the tropics had made some headway. In Southern Europe and the Balkans maize (Indian corn) was already quite widespread—it had helped fix mobile peasants to their plots in the Balkans—and in Northern Italy rice had made some progress. Tobacco was cultivated in various principalities, mostly as a government monopoly for revenue purposes, though its use by modern standards was negligible: the average Englishman in 1790 smoked, snuffed or chewed about one and a third ounces a month. Silkwork culture was common in parts of Southern Europe. The chief of the new crops, the potato, was only just making its way, except perhaps in Ireland where its ability to feed more people per acre at subsistence level than any other food had already made it a staple of cultivation. Outside England and the Low Countries the systematic cultivation of root and fodder crops (other than hay) was still rather exceptional; and only the Napoleonic wars brought about the massive production of beet for sugar.
The eighteenth century was not, of course, one of agricultural stagnation. On the contrary, a long era of demographic expansion, of growing urbanization, trade and manufacture, encouraged agricultural improvement and indeed required it. The second half of the century saw the beginning of that startling and henceforward unbroken rise in population which is so characteristic of the modern world: between 1755 and 1784, for instance, the rural population of Brabant (Belgium) rose by 44 per cent 10. But what impressed the numerous campaigners for agricultural improvement, who multiplied their societies, government reports and propagandist publications from Spain to Russia, was the size of the obstacles to agrarian advance rather than its progress.


The world of agriculture was sluggish, except perhaps for its capitalist sector. That of commerce, manufactures, and the technological and intellectual activities which went with both, was confident, brisk and expansive, and the classes which benefited from them, active, determined and optimistic.
The contemporary observer would be most immediately struck by the vast deployment of trade, which was closely tied to colonial exploitation. A system of maritime trade currents, growing rapidly in volume and capacity, circled the earth, bringing its profits to the mercantile communities of North Atlantic Europe. They used colonial power to rob the inhabitants of the East Indies 3 of the commodities exported thence to Europe and Africa, where these and European goods were used to buy slaves for the rapidly growing plantation systems of the Americas. The American plantations in turn exported their sugar, cotton, etc. in ever vaster and cheaper quantities to the Atlantic and North Sea ports whence they were redistributed eastwards, together with the traditional manufactures and commodities of European East-West trade: textiles, salt, wine and the rest. From ‘the Baltic’ in turn came the grain, timber, flax. From Eastern Europe came the grain, timber, flax and linen (a profitable export to the tropics), hemp and iron of this second colonial zone. And between the relatively developed economies of Europe—which included, economically speaking, the increasingly active communities of white settlers in the northern British colonies of America (after 1783, the Northern USA)—the web of trade became ever more dense.
The nabob or planter returned from the colonies with wealth beyond the dreams of provincial avarice, the merchant and shipper whose splendid ports—Bordeaux, Bristol, Liverpool—had been built or rebuilt in the century, appeared to be the true economic victors of the age, comparable only with the great officials and financiers who drew their wealth from the profitable service of states, for this was still the age when the term ‘office of profit under the crown’ had its literal meaning. Beside him the middle class of lawyers, estate managers, local brewers, traders and the like, who accumulated a modest wealth from the agricultural world, lived low and quiet lives, and even the manufacturer appeared little better than a very poor relation. For though mining and manufactures were expanding rapidly, and in all parts of Europe, the merchant (and in Eastern Europe also often the feudal lord) remained their chief controllers.
This was because the chief form of expanding industrial production was the so-called domestic or putting-out system, in which the merchant bought the products of the handicrafts-man or of the part-time non-agricultural labour of the peasantry for sale in a wider market. The mere growth of such trade inevitably created rudimentary conditions for an early industrial capitalism. The craftsman selling his wares might turn into little more than a worker paid on piece-rates (especially when the merchant supplied him with his raw material, and perhaps leased out productive equipment). The peasant who also wove might become the weaver who also had a small plot. Specialization of processes and functions might divide the old craft or create a complex of semi-skilled workers from among peasants. The old master-craftsmen, or some special group of crafts, or some group of local intermediaries might turn into something like subcontractors or employers. But the key controller of these decentralized forms of production, the one who linked the labour of lost villages or back streets with the world market, was some kind of merchant. And the ‘industrialists’ who were emerging or about to emerge from the ranks of the producers themselves were petty operators beside him, even when they were not directly dependent upon him. There were a few exceptions, especially in industrial England. Iron-masters, men like the great potter Josiah Wedgwood, were proud and respected, their establishments visited by the curious from all over Europe. But the typical industrialist (the word had not yet been invented) was as yet a petty-officer rather than a captain of industry.
Nevertheless, whatever their status, the activities of commerce and manufacture flourished brilliantly. The most brilliantly successful of eighteenth-century European states, Britain, plainly owed its power to its economic progress, and by the 1780s all continental governments with any pretense to a rational policy were consequently fostering economic growth, and especially industrial development, though with very varying success. The sciences, not yet split by nineteenth-century academicism into a superior ‘pure’ and an inferior ‘applied’ branch, devoted themselves to the solution of productive problems: the most striking advances of the 1780s were those of chemistry, which was by tradition most closely linked to workshop practice and the needs of industry. The Great Encyclopaedia of Diderot and d'Alembert was not merely a compendium of progressive social and political thought, but of technological and scientific progress. For indeed the conviction of the progress of human knowledge, rationality, wealth, civilization and control over nature with which the eighteenth century was deeply imbued, the ‘Enlightenment', drew its strength primarily from the evident progress of production, trade, and the economic and scientific rationality believed to be associated inevitably with both. And its greatest champions were the economically most progressive classes, those most directly involved in the tangible advances of the time: the mercantile circles and economically enlightened landlords, financiers, scientifically-minded economic and social administrators, the educated middle class, manufacturers and entrepreneurs. Such men hailed a Benjamin Franklin, working printer and journalist, inventor, entrepreneur, statesman and shrewd businessman, as the symbol of the active, self-made, reasoning citizen of the future. Such men in England, where the new men had no need of transatlantic revolutionary incarnations, formed the provincial societies out of which both scientific, industrial and political advance sprang. The Lunar Society of Birmingham included the potter Josiah Wedgwood, the inventor of the modern steam engine James Watt and his business partner Matthew Boulton, the chemist Priestley, the gentleman biologist and pioneer of evolutionary theories Erasmus Darwin (grandfather of a greater Darwin), the great printer Baskerville. Such men everywhere flocked into the lodges of Freemasonry, where class distinctions did not count and the ideology of the Enlightenment was propagated with a disinterested zeal.
It is significant that the two chief centres of the ideology were also those of the dual revolution, France and England; though in fact its ideas gained widest international currency in their French formulations (even when these were merely gallicized versions of British ones). A secular, rationalist and progressive individualism dominated ‘enlightened' thought. To set the individual free from the shackles which fettered him was its chief object: from the ignorant traditionalism of the Middle Ages, which still threw their shadow across the world, from the superstition of the churches (as distinct from ‘natural' or ‘rational' religion), from the irrationality which divided men into a hierarchy of higher and lower ranks according to birth or some other irrelevant criterion. Liberty, equality and (it followed) the fraternity of all men were its slogans. In due course they became those of the French Revolution. The reign of individual liberty could not but have the most beneficent consequences. The most extraordinary results could be looked for—could indeed already be observed to follow from— the unfettered exercise of individual talent in a world of reason. The passionate belief in progress of the typical ‘enlightened' thinker reflected the visible increases in knowledge and technique, in wealth, welfare and civilization which he could see all round him, and which he ascribed with some justice to the growing advance of his ideas. At the beginning of his century witches were still widely burned; at its end enlightened governments like the Austrian had already abolished not only judicial torture but also slavery. What might not be expected if the remaining obstacles to progress such as the vested interests of feudality and church, were swept away?
It is not strictly accurate to call the ‘enlightenment’ a middle class ideology, though there were many enlighteners—and politically they were the decisive ones—who assumed as a matter of course that the free society would be a capitalist society 11. In theory its object was to set all human beings free.
All progressive, rationalist and humanist ideologies are implicit in it, and indeed came out of it. Yet in practice the leaders of the emancipation for which the enlightenment called were likely to be the middle ranks of society, the new, rational men of ability and merit rather than birth, and the social order which would emerge from their activities would be a ‘bourgeois’ and capitalist one.
It is more accurate to call the ‘enlightenment’ a revolutionary ideology, in spite of the political caution and moderation of many of its continental champions, most of whom—until the 1780s—put their faith in enlightened absolute monarchy. For illuminism implied the abolition of the prevailing social and political order in most of Europe. It was too much to expect the anciens régimes to abolish themselves voluntarily. On the contrary, as we have seen, in some respects they were reinforcing themselves against the advance of the new social and economic forces. And their strongholds (outside Britain, the United Provinces and a few other places where they had already been defeated) were the very monarchies to which moderate enlighteners pinned their faith.


With the exception of Britain, which had made its revolution in the seventeenth century, and a few lesser states, absolute monarchies ruled in all functioning states of the European continent; those in which they did not rule fell apart into anarchy and were swallowed by their neighbours, like Poland. Hereditary monarchs by the grace of God headed hierarchies of landed nobles, buttressed by the traditional organization and orthodoxy of churches and surrounded by an increasing clutter of institutions which had nothing but a long past to recommend them. It is true that the sheer needs of state cohesion and efficiency in an age of acute international rivalry had long obliged monarchs to curb the anarchic tendencies of their nobles and other vested interests, and to staff their state apparatus so far as possible with non-aristocratic civil servants. Moreover, in the latter part of the eighteenth century these needs, and the obvious international success of capitalist British power, led most such monarchs (or rather their advisers) to attempt programmes of economic, social, administrative and intellectual modernization. In those days princes adopted the slogan of ‘enlightenment’ as governments in our time, and for analogous reasons, adopt those of ‘planning’; and as in our day some who adopted them in theory did very little about them in practice, and most who did so were less interested in the general ideals which lay behind the ‘enlightened’ (or the ‘planned’) society, than in the practical advantage of adopting the most up-to-date methods of multiplying their revenue, wealth and power.
Conversely, the middle and educated classes and those committed to progress often looked to the powerful central apparatus of an ‘enlightened’ monarchy to realize their hopes. A prince needed a middle class and its ideas to modernize his state; a weak middle class needed a prince to batter down the resistance of entrenched aristocratic and clerical interests to progress.
Yet in fact absolute monarchy, however modernist and innovatory, found it impossible—and indeed showed few signs of wanting—to break loose from the hierarchy of landed nobles to which, after all, it belonged, whose values it symbolized and incorporated, and on whose support it largely depended. Absolute monarchy, however theoretically free to do whatever it liked, in practice belonged to the world which the enlightenment had baptized féodalité or feudalism, a term later popularized by the French Revolution. Such a monarchy was ready to use all available resources to strengthen its authority and taxable revenue within and its power outside its frontiers, and this might well lead it to foster what were in effect the forces of the rising society. It was prepared to strengthen its political hand by playing off one estate, class or province against another. Yet its horizons were those of its history, its function and its class. It hardly ever wanted, and was never able to achieve, the root-and-branch social and economic transformation which the progress of the economy required and the rising social groups called for.
To take an obvious example. Few rational thinkers, even among the advisers of princes, seriously doubted the need to abolish serfdom and the surviving bonds of feudal peasant dependence.
Such a reform was recognized as one of the primary points of any ‘enlightened’ programme, and there was virtually no prince from Madrid to St Petersburg and from Naples to Stockholm who did not, at one time or another in the quarter-century preceding the French Revolution, subscribe to such a programme. Yet in fact the only peasant liberations which took place from above before 1789 were in small and untypical states like Denmark and Savoy, and on the personal estates of some other princes. One major such liberation was attempted, by Joseph II of Austria, in 1781; but it failed, in the face of the political resistance of vested interests and of peasant rebellion in excess of what had been anticipated, and had to remain uncompleted. What did abolish agrarian feudal relations all over Western and Central Europe was the French Revolution, by direct action, reaction or example, and the revolution of 1848.
There was thus a latent, and would soon be an overt, conflict between the forces of the old and the new ‘bourgeois’ society, which could not be settled within the framework of the existing political régimes, except of course where these already embodied bourgeois triumph, as in Britain. What made these régimes even more vulnerable, was that they were subject to pressure from three directions: from the new forces, from the entrenched, and increasingly stiff resistance of the older vested interests, and from foreign rivals.
Their most vulnerable point was the one where the opposition of old and new tended to coincide: in the autonomist movements of the remoter or the least firmly controlled provinces or colonies. Thus in the Habsburg monarchy the reforms of Joseph II in the 1780s produced uproar in the Austrian Netherlands (the present Belgium) and a revolutionary movement which in 1789 joined naturally with that of the French. More commonly, communities of white settlers in the overseas colonies of European states resented the policy of their central government, which subordinated the colonial interests strictly to the metropolitan. In all parts of the Americas, Spanish, French and British, as well as in Ireland, such settler movements demanded autonomy—not always for régimes which represented economically more progressive forces than the metropolis—and several British colonies either won it peacefully for a time, like Ireland, or took it by revolution, like the USA. Economic expansion, colonial development and the tensions of the attempted reforms of ‘enlightened absolutism’ multiplied the occasions for such conflicts in the 1770s and 1780s.
In itself provincial or colonial dissidence was not fatal. Old-established monarchies could survive the loss of a province or two, and the main victim of colonial autonomism, Britain, did not suffer from the weaknesses of the old régimes and therefore remained as stable and dynamic as ever in spite of the American revolution. There were few regions in which the purely domestic conditions for a major transfer of power existed. What made the situation explosive was international rivalry.
For international rivalry, i.e. war, tested the resources of a state as nothing else did. When they could not pass this test, they shook, cracked, or fell. One major such rivalry dominated the European international scene for most of the eighteenth century, and lay at the core of its recurrent periods of general war:

  • 1689–1713, 1740–8,
  • 1756–63,
  • 1776–83 and, overlapping into our period,
  • 1792–1815

This was the conflict between Britain and France, which was also, in a sense, that between the old and the new régimes. For France, though rousing British hostility by the rapid expansion of its trade and colonial empire, was also the most powerful, eminent and influential, in a word the classical, aristocratic absolute monarchy. Nowhere is the superiority of the new to the old social order more vividly exemplified than in the conflict between these two powers. For the British not only won, with varying degrees of decisiveness in all but one of these wars. They supported the effort of organizing, financing and waging them with relative ease. The French monarchy, on the other hand, though very much larger, more populous, and, in terms of her potential resources, wealthier than Britain, found the effort too great. After its defeat in the Seven Years' War (1756–63) the revolt of the American colonies gave it the opportunity to turn the tables on its adversary. France took it. And indeed, in the subsequent international conflict Britain was badly defeated, losing the most important part of her American empire; and France, the ally of the new USA, was consequently victorious. But the cost was excessive, and the French government's difficulties led it inevitably into that period of domestic political crisis, out of which, six years later, the Revolution emerged.


It remains to round off this preliminary survey of the world on the eve of the dual revolution with a glance at the relations between Europe (or more precisely North-western Europe) and the rest of the world. The complete political and military domination of the world by Europe (and her overseas prolongations, the white settler communities) was to be the product of the age of the dual revolution. In the late eighteenth century several of the great non-European powers and civilizations still confronted the white trader, sailor and soldier on apparently equal terms. The great Chinese empire, then at the height of its effectiveness under the Manchu (Ch'ing) dynasty, was nobody's victim. On the contrary, if anything the current of cultural influence ran from east to west, and European philosophers pondered the lessons of the very different but evidently high civilization, while artists and craftsmen embodied the often misunderstood motifs of the Far East in their works and adapted its new materials (‘china’) to European uses. The Islamic powers, though (like Turkey) periodically shaken by the military forces of neighbouring European states (Austria and above all Russia), were far from the helpless hulks they were to become in the nineteenth century. Africa remained virtually immune to European military penetration. Except for small areas round the Cape of Good Hope, the whites were confined to coastal trading posts.
Yet already the rapid and increasingly massive expansion of European trade and capitalist enterprise undermined their social order; in Africa through the unprecedented intensity of the awful traffic in slaves, around the Indian Ocean through the penetration of the rival colonizing powers, in the Near and Middle East through trade and military conflict. Already direct European conquest began to extend significantly beyond the area long since occupied by the pioneer colonization of the Spaniards and Portuguese in the sixteenth century, the white North American settlers in the seventeenth. The crucial advance was made by the British, who had already established direct territorial control over part of India (notably Bengal), virtually overthrowing the Mughal empire, a step which was to lead them in our period to become the rulers and administrators of all India.
Already the relative feebleness of the non-European civilizations when confronted with the technological and military superiority of the west was predictable. What has been called ‘the age of Vasco da Gama’, the four centuries of world history in which a handful of European states and the European force of capitalism established a complete, though as is now evident, a temporary, domination of the entire world, was about to reach its climax. The dual revolution was to make European expansion irresistible, though it was also to provide the non-European world with the conditions and equipment for its eventual counterattack.

i. Thus in 1823–7 townsmen in Brussels were on average 3 cm. taller than men from the surrounding rural communes, townsmen in Louvain 2 cm. There is a considerable body of military statistics on this point, though all from the nineteenth century 4.
ii. Eighty estates of over (roughly) 25,000 acres (10,000 ha) were confiscated in Czechoslovakia after 1918, among them 500,000 acres each from the Schoenborns and the Schwarzenbergs, 400,000 from the Liechtensteins, 170,000 from the Kinsky 6.
iii. Also to some extent of the Far East, where they bought the tea, silks, china, etc. for which there was a growing European demand. But the political independence of China and Japan made this trade as yet a somewhat less piratical one.

1. Saint-Just, Oeuvres complètes, II, p. 514.
2. A. Hovelacque, La taille dans un canton ligure. Revue Mensuelle de l'Ecole d'Anthropologie (Paris 1896).
3. L. Dal Pane, Storia del Lavoro dagli inizi del secolo XVIII al 1815 (1958), p. 135. R. S. Eckers, “The North-South Differential in Italian Economic Development,” Journal of Economic History, XXI, 1961, p. 290.
4. Quêtelet, quoted by Manouvrier, “Sur la taille des Parisiens”, Bulletin de la Société Anthropologique de Paris, 1888, p. 171.
5. H. Sée, Esquisse d'une Histoire du Régime Agraire en Europe au XVIII et XIX siècles (1921), p. 184, J. Blum, Lord and Peasant in Russia (1961), pp. 455–60.
6. Th. Haebich, Deutsche Latifundien (1947), pp. 27 ff.
7. A. Goodwin ed. The European Nobility in the Eighteenth Century (1953), p. 52.
8. L. B. Namier, 1848, The Revolution of the Intellectuals (1944); J. Vicens Vives, Historia Economica de España (1959).
9. Sten Carlsson, Ståndssamhälle och ståndspersoner 1700–1865 (1949).
10. Pierre Lebrun et al., “La rivoluzione industriale in Belgio, Studi Storici”, II, 3–4, 1961, pp. 564–5
11. Like Turgot (Oeuvres V, p. 244): ‘Ceux qui connaissent la marche du commerce savent aussi que toute entreprise importante, de trafic ou d’industrie, exige le concours de deux espèces d’hommes, d’entrepreneurs … et des ouvriers qui travaillent pour le compte des premiers, moyennant un salaire convenu. Telle est la véritable origine de la distinction entre les entrepreneurs et les maîtres, et les ouvriers ou compagnons, laquelle est fondé sur la nature des choses.’