THE AGE OF EMPIRE, 1875-1914

By E.J. Hobsbawm

Pantheon. 404 pp. $22.95

THIS lavishly illustrated narrative of the pre-1914 era, replete with fascinating statistics and anecdotes, is the third of three volumes by Eric Hobsbawm about what historians term the longer 19th century: the period from 1776 to 1914. The first volume was called The Age of Revolution 1789-1848, and began with what the author calls the decisive double breakthrough; the first industrial revolution in Britain (which established the limitless capacity of capitalism's productive system) and the Franco-American political revolution (which established the model political institutions of bourgeois society). The second volume was called The Age of Capital 1848-1875, and dealt with the period when the triumphs of bourgeois society made its prospects look unproblematic. He says there were in Europe, then, fewer socialists and social revolutionaries than in any other period.

The subject of this volume, on the other hand, the Age of Empire, was a time when bourgeois society was riddled with contradictions of the kind that had seemingly been resolved. That society went racing through ever greater triumphs of progress but towards an ever more visible horror of world war; towards a total breakdown, from which it has never really recovered.

Hobsbawm says his book is not intended for the academic specialist, but for the general reader. He begins with an anecdote, about a young woman from Austro-Hungary traveling to Egypt in 1913, and there meeting (at the Alexandria Sporting Club) a young man whose family had recently migrated to England from Russian Poland. These were the historian's father and mother, and the anecdote indicates something of the personal interest he takes in the Age of Empire that made possible that conjunction of persons.

I read the first two chapters with considerable excitement, marking several passages to be copied into a notebook. This period does seem to me, as to Hobsbawm, somehow especially interesting, and even crucial for an understanding of our own situation. Unfortunately, before the end of the book, my pace had slowed, and I had to push myself even to finish. Not that there is not a great deal to learn from the book, but the experience of reading becomes dutiful because the writing is not dynamic.

I'm afraid the book is for the academic specialist, who -- it is conventional to assume -- advances across whatever he is reading like a regiment of tanks, breaking down all the arts and graces of style and form. Specialists are supposed to be indifferent to the ordinary personal relationships of reading and writing; meticulous with their facts, they are slovenly with their sentences. Indeed we gradually notice that Professor Hobsbawm's sentences are portmanteaux with too much stuffed into them and little care about the order in which it comes out again. His chapters, moreover, proceed too ponderously from economics to politics to nationalism; and so to "The New Woman." "The Arts Transformed" and "Certainties Undermined: the Sciences." To offer to cover in a chapter, for instance, all the arts of Europe in this period is to doom yourself to writing a survey that cannot but disappoint. Too many names have to be mentioned, about each of which there is too much to say. The only salvation lies, would have lain, in following up some single clue, in theme or form.

However, the book remains full of fascinating facts and ideas. The world's population was in 1880 twice what it had been in 1780, and Asians were only 55 percent at the later date, whereas they had been 66 percent. The Europeans had more than doubled in number, even though they had also migrated -- filling the Americas with 160 million by 1890.

These figures show how much the Empire being discussed was a continental and racial entity. It was the conquest by Europe of the other five continents, the conquest by the white race of the black, the brown, the yellow. It is not merely the British Empire that is reflected in those figures. That is, indeed, what the introductory anecdote suggests. Hobsbawm's mother's family, and his father's, came from Eastern Europe. Neither was British, and Egypt was not officially part of the British Empire. But they were carried thither in 1913 on the tides of a pan-European expansion, enfranchised by their white skins to travel and/or work wherever they pleased. Africa, or at least Alexandria, lay open to them.

If one uses the word empire this way, of course one must expand its meaning in time as well in political reference. The empire in this sense began long before 1776, and continues today. By 1950 the per capita income in the developed world (the empire) was five times as great as that of the Third World, and by 1970, it was seven times; while in 1913, when Mr. and Mrs. Hobsbawm met, it was only twice.

Hobsbawm wants to keep the phrase "the Age of Empire" for the period he is discussing here, and of course there is a special character to it from this point of view. There was a special self-consciousness about imperialism then, and a rare, though far from universal, frankness of exultation in colonial possessions. No doubt something would be lost if we insisted on using "the Age of Empire" to mean what began in the 17th century and continues now. However, half the facts this book regales us with push us toward that usage. So does the awareness that those facts feed, of racial responsibility and inherited antagonisms. The age of empire is not simply behind us; it is ahead of us too. ::

Martin Green teaches English at Tufts University. He is the author of "Dreams of Adventure, Deeds of Empire," and is at work on other studies of imperialism and adventure.