• Mass-Producing Traditions by Eric Hobsbawm •

• Mass-Producing Traditions by Eric Hobsbawm •

Eric Hobsbawn was a British Marxist historian.
Below is an excerpt from an essay contained in
The Invention of Tradition, published in 1983.


The most universal political traditions invented in this period [1870-1914] were the achievement of states. However, the rise of organized mass movements claiming separate or even alternative status to states, led to similar developments. Some of these movements, notably political Catholicism and various kinds of nationalism, were keenly aware of the importance of ritual, ceremonial and myth, including, normally, a mythological past. The significance of invented traditions is all the more striking when they arose among rationalist movements which were, if anything, rather hostile to them and lacked prefabricated symbolical and ritual equipment. Hence the best way to study their emergence is in one such case – that of the socialist labour movements.

The major international ritual of such movements, May Day (1890), was spontaneously evolved within a surprisingly short period. Initially it was designed as a single simultaneous one-day strike and demonstration for the eight-hour day, fixed on a date already associated for some years with this demand in the USA. The choice of this date was certainly quite pragmatic in Europe. It probably had no ritual significance in the USA, where ‘Labor Day’ had already been established at the end of summer. It has been suggested, not implausibly, that it was fixed to coincide with ‘Moving Day’, the traditional date for ending hiring contracts in New York and Pennsylvania. Though this, like similar contractual periods in parts of traditional European agriculture, had originally formed part of the symbolically charged annual cycle of the pre-industrial labouring year, its connection with the industrial proletariat was clearly fortuitous. No particular form of demonstration was envisaged by the new Labour and Socialist International. The concept of a workers festival not only was not mentioned in the original (1889) resolution of that body, but was actively rejected on ideological grounds by various revolutionary militants.

Yet the choice of a date so heavily charged with symbolism by ancient tradition proved significant, even though as Van Gennep suggests – in France the anticlericalism of the labour movement resisted the inclusion of traditional folklore practices in its May Day.  From the start the occasion attracted and absorbed ritual and symbolic elements, notably that of a quasi-religious or numinous celebration (Maifeier’), a holiday in both senses of the word. (Engels, after referring to it as a ‘demonstration’, uses the term ‘Feier’ from 1893. Adler recognized this element in Austria from 1892, Vandervelde in Belgium from 1893.) Andrea Costa expressed it succinctly for Italy (1893): ‘Catholics have Easter; henceforth the workers will have their own Easter’; there are rarer references to Whitsun also. A curiously syncretic ‘May Day sermon’ from Charleroi (Belgium) survives for 1898 under the joint epigraphs ‘Proletarians of all lands, unite’ and ‘Love one another’.

Red flags, the only universal symbols of the movement, were present from the start, but so, in several countries, were flowers: the carnation in Austria, the red (paper) rose in Germany, sweet briar and poppy in France, and the may, symbol of renewal, increasingly infiltrated, and from the mid-1900s replaced, by the lily-of-the-valley, whose associations were unpolitical. Little is known about this language of flowers which, to judge by the May Day poems in socialist literature also, was spontaneously associated with the occasion.

As it happened, the First of May was initiated at a time of extraordinary growth and expansion in the labour and socialist movements of numerous countries, and might well not have established itself in a less hopeful political atmosphere. The ancient symbolism of spring, so fortuitously associated with it, suited the occasion perfectly in the early 1890s.

It thus became rapidly transformed into a highly charged annual festival and rite. The annual repetition was introduced to meet a demand from the ranks. And indeed, the public parade of the workers as a class formed the core of the ritual. It was, as commentators noted, the only holiday, even among radical and revolutionary anniversaries, to be associated with the industrial working class and no other; though in Britain at least – specific communities of industrial workers had already shown signs of inventing general collective presentations of themselves as part of their labour movement. (The Durham miners’ gala was first held in 1871.) Like all such ceremonials, it was or became, a basically good-humoured family occasion. Most crucially, it asserted the working-class presence by that most fundamental assertion of working-class power: the abstention from work For, paradoxically, the success of May Day tended to be proportionate to its remoteness from the concrete every-day activities of the movement. It was greatest where socialist aspiration prevailed over the political realism and trade union calculation which as in Britain and Germany, tended to favour a demonstration on the first Sunday of the month over the annual one-day strike on the first of May. Victor Adler, sensitive to the mood of the Austrian workers, had insisted on the demonstrative strike against the advice of Kautsky, and the Austrian May Day consequently acquired unusual strength and resonance. Thus, as we have seen, May Day was not so much formally invented by the leaders of the movement, as accepted and institutionalized by them on the initiative of their followers.

The strength of the new tradition was clearly appreciated by its enemies. Hitler, with his acute sense of symbolism, found it desirable not only to annex the red of the workers’ flag but also May Day by turning it into an official ‘national day of labour’ in 1933, and subsequently attenuating its proletarian associations.  We may, incidentally observe that it has now been turned into a general holiday of labour in the EEC.

May Day and similar labour rituals are halfway between ‘political’ and ‘social’ traditions, belonging to the first through their association, with mass organizations and parties which could – and indeed aimed to – become regimes and states, to the second because they genuinely expressed the workers’ consciousness of their existence as a separate class, inasmuch as this was inseparable from the organizations of that class. while in many cases – such as Austrian Social Democracy, or the British miners – class and organization became inseparable, it is not suggested that they were identical. ‘The movement’ developed its own traditions, shared by leaders and militants but not necessarily by voters and followers, and conversely the class might develop its own ‘invented traditions’ which were either independent of the organized movements, or even suspect in the eyes of the activists. Two of these, both clearly the product of our period, are worth a brief glance. The first is the emergence – notably in Britain, but probably also in other countries – of costume as a demonstration of class. The second is linked with mass sports.

It is no accident that the comic strip which gently satirized the traditional male working-class culture of the old industrial area of Britain (notably the North East) should choose as its title and symbol the headgear which virtually formed the badge of class membership of the British proletarian when not at work: ‘Andy Capp’. A similar equation between class and cap existed in France to some extent and possibly also in parts of Germany. In Britain, at least, iconographic evidence suggests that proletarian and cap were not universally identified before the 1890s, but that by the end of the Edwardian period – as photographs of crowds leaving football matches or mass meetings will confirm – that identification was almost complete.

Keir Hardie’s demonstrative entry into parliament in a cap (1892) indicates that the clement of class assertion was recognized. It is not unreasonable to suppose that the masses were not unaware of it. In some obscure fashion they acquired the habit of wearing it fairly rapidly in the last decades of the nineteenth and the first decade of the twentieth century as part of the characteristic syndrome of ‘working-class culture’ which then took shape.

The adoption of sports, and particularly football, as a mass proletarian cult is equally obscure, but without doubt equally rapid. Here the timing is easier to establish. Between the middle 1870s, at the earliest, and the middle or late 1880s football acquired all the institutional and ritual characteristics with which we arc still familiar: professionalism, the League, the Cup, with its annual pilgrimage of the faithful for demonstrations of proletarian triumph in the capital, the regular attendance at the Saturday match, the ‘supporters’ and their culture, the ritual rivalry, normally between moieties of an industrial city or conurbation (Manchester City and United, Notts County and Forest, Liverpool and Everton). Moreover, unlike other sports with regional or local proletarian bases – such as rugby union in South Wales, cricket in parts of northern England – football operated both on a local and on a national scale, so that the topic of the day’s matches would provide common ground for conversation between virtually any two male workers in England or Scotland, and a few score celebrated players provided a point of common reference for all.

The nature of the football culture at this period – before it had penetrated far into the urban and industrial cultures of other countries – is not yet well understood. Its socio-economic structure is less obscure. Originally developed as an amateur and character-building sport by the public-school middle classes, it was rapidly (by 1885) proletarianized and therefore professionalized. The structure of British football professionalism was quite different from that of professionalism in sports with aristocratic or middle-class participation (cricket) or control (racing), or from that of the demotic entertainment business, that other means of escape from the working-class fate, which also provided the model for some sports of the poor (boxing).

Unlike Central European Social Democracy, the British labour movement did not develop its own sporting organizations, with the possible exception of cycling clubs in the 1890s, whose links with progressive thought were marked.

To establish the class presence of a national middle-class elite and the membership of the much larger middle class was a far more difficult matter, and yet rather urgent at a time when occupations claiming middle-class status, or the numbers of those who aspired to them, were increasing with some rapidity in industrializing countries.

For the upper middle classes or ‘haute bourgeoisie’ the criteria and institutions which had formerly served to set apart an aristocratic ruling class provided the obvious model: they merely had to be widened and adapted. A fusion of the two classes in which the new components ceased to be recognizable as new was the ideal, though it was probably not completely attainable even in Britain, where it was quite possible for a family of Nottingham bankers to achieve, over several generations, intermarriage with royalty. What made the attempts at such assimilation possible (insofar as they were institutionally permitted) was that element of stability which, as a French observer noted of Britain, distinguished the established and arrived upper bourgeois generations from the first-generation climbers. The rapid acquisition of really enormous wealth could also enable first-generation plutocrats to buy them- selves into an aristocratic milieu which in bourgeois countries rested not only on title and descent but also on enough money to carry on a suitably profligate life-style. In Edwardian Britain the plutocrats seized such opportunities eagerly. Yet individual assimilation could serve only a tiny minority.

The basic aristocratic criterion of descent could, however, be adapted to define a relatively large new upper-middle-class elite. Thus a passion for genealogy developed in the USA in the 1890s. It was primarily a female interest: the ‘Daughters of the American Revolution’ (1890) survived and flourished, whereas the slightly earlier ‘Sons of the American Revolution’ faded away. Though the ostensible object was to distinguish native white and Protestant Americans from the mass of new immigrants, in fact their object was to establish an exclusive upper stratum among the white middle class. The D.A.R. had no more than 30,000 members in 1900, mostly in the strongholds of ‘old’ money – Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania though also among the booming millionaires of Chicago. Organizations such as these differed from the much more restrictive attempts to set up a group of families as a quasi-aristocratic elite (by inclusion in a Social Register or the like), inasmuch as they provided nation-wide linkages. The less exclusive D.A.R. was more likely to discover suitable members in such cities as Omaha than a very elitist Social Register. The history of the middle-class search for genealogy remains to be written but the systematic American concentration on this pursuit was probably, at this period, somewhat exceptional.

Far more significant was schooling, supplemented in certain respects by amateur sports, which were closely linked to it in the Anglo-Saxon countries. For schooling provided not only a convenient means of social comparability. between individuals or families lacking initial personal relations and, on a nation-wide scale, a means of establishing common patterns of behaviour and values, but also a set of interlinked networks between the products of comparable institutions and, indirectly, through the institutionalization of the ‘old boy’, ‘alumnus’ or ‘Alte Herren’, a strong web of intergenerational stability and continuity. Furthermore it provided, within limits for the possibility of expanding an upper-middle-class elite socialized in some suitably-acceptable manner.

Secondary schooling provided a broad criterion of middle-class membership, but one too broad to define or select the rapidly growing, but nevertheless numerically rather small, elites which, whether we call them ruling class or ‘establishment’, actu- ally ran the national affairs of countries. Even in Britain, where no national secondary system existed before the present century, a special sub-class of ‘public schools’ had to be formed within secondary education. They were first officially defined in the 1860s, and grew both by the enlargement of the nine schools then recognized as such (from 2,741 boys in 1860, to 4,553 in 1906) and also by the addition of further schools recognized as belonging to the elite class. Before 1868, two dozen schools at most had a serious claim to this status, but by 1902, according to Honey’s calculations, they consisted of a minimum ‘short list’ of up to 64 schools and a maximum ‘long list’ of up to 104 schools, with a fringe of perhaps 60 of more doubtful standing. 47 Universities expanded at this period by rising admissions rather than by new foundations, but this growth was sufficiently dramatic to produce serious worries about the overproduction of graduates, at least in Germany. Between the mid-1870s and the mid-1880s student numbers approximately doubled in Germany, Austria, France and Norway and more than doubled in Belgium and Denmark.” The expansion in the USA was even more spectacular. By 1913 there were 38.6 students per 10,000 population in that country, compared with the usual continental figure of 9-11.5 (and less than 8 in Britain and Italy). The problem of defining the effective elite within the growing body of those who possessed the required educational membership card was real.

In the broadest sense it was attacked by institutionalization. The Public Schools Yearbook (published from 1889) established the member schools of the so-called Headmasters’ Conference as a recognizable national or even international community, if not of equals, then at least of comparables; and Baird’s American College Fraternities (seven editions between 1879 and 1914) did the same for the ‘Greek Letter Fraternities’, membership of which indicated the elite among the mass of American university students. Yet the tendency of the aspiring to imitate the institutions of the arrived made it desirable to draw a line between the genuine ‘upper middle classes’ or elites and those equals who were less equal than the rest. The reason for this was not purely snobbish. A growing national elite also required the construction of genuinely effective networks of interaction.

Here, it may be suggested, lies the significance of the institution of the ‘old boys’, ‘alumni’ or ‘Alte Herren’ which non-developed, and without which ‘old boy networks’ cannot exist as such. In Britain ‘old boy dinners’ appear to have started in the 1870s, ‘old boy associations’ at about the same time – they multiplied particularly in the 1890s, being followed shortly after by the invention of a suitable ‘old school tie’. Indeed it was not before the end of the century that the practice of sending sons to the father’s old school appears to have become usual: only 5 per cent of Arnold’s pupils had sent their sons to Rugby. In the USA the establishment of ‘alumni chapters’ also began in the 1870s, ‘forming circles of cultivated men who would not otherwise know each other’, and so, a little later, did the construction of elaborate fraternity houses in the colleges, financed by the alumni who thus demonstrated not only their wealth, and the intergenerational links but also – as in similar developments in the German student ‘Korps’ – their influence over the younger generation. Thus Beta Theta Pi had 16 alumni chapters in 1889 but 110 in 1913; only a single fraternity house in 1889 (though some were being built), but in 1913. Phi Delta Theta had its first alumni association in 1876 but by 1913 the number had grown to about one hundred.

In Britain, it is safe to say the informal networks created by school and college, reinforced by family continuity, business sociability and clubs were more effective than formal associations. How effective may be judged by the record of such institutions as the code-breaking establishment at Bletchley and the Special Operations Executive in the Second World War. 55 Formal associations, unless deliberately restricted to an elite – like the German ‘Kosener Korps’ which between them comprised 8 per cent of German students in 1887, 5 per cent in 1914 – served largely, it may be suggested, to provide general criteria of social ‘recognizability’. Membership of any Greek Letter Fraternity – even the vocational ones which multiplied from the end of the 1890s – and possession of any tie with diagonal stripes in some combination of colours served the purpose.

However, the crucial informal device for stratifying a theoretically open and expanding system was the self-selection of acceptable social partners, and this was achieved above all through the ancient aristocratic pursuit of sport, transformed into a system of formal contests against antagonists selected as worthy on social grounds. It is significant that the best criterion for the ‘public-school community’ discovered is by the study of which schools were ready to play games against each other, and that in the USA the elite universities (the ‘Ivy League’) were defined, at least in the dominant north-east, by the selection of colleges choosing to play each other at football, in that country essentially a college sport in origin. Nor is it an accident that the formal sporting contests between Oxford and Cambridge developed essentially after 1870, and especially between 1890 and 1914.

The characteristic which singles out academic youth as a special social group (Stand) from the rest of society, is the concept of ‘Satisfaktionsfahigkeit’ [the acceptability as a challenger in duels], i.e. the claim to a specific socially defined standard of honour (Standesehre). Elsewhere de facto segregation was concealed in a nominally open system.

This brings us back to one of the most significant of the new social practices of our period: sport. The social history of upper-and-middle-class sports remains to be written, but three things may be suggested. First, the last three decades of the nineteenth century mark a decisive transformation in the spread of old, the invention of new, and the institutionalization of most sports on a national and even an international scale. Second, this institutionalization provided both a public showcase for sport, which one may (with tongue in cheek) compare to the fashion for public building and statuary in politics, and a mechanism for extending activities hitherto confined to the aristocracy and the rich bourgeoisie able to assimilate its life-styles to a widening range of the ‘middle classes’. That, on the continent, it remained confined to a fairly restricted elite before 1914 is another matter. Third, it provided a mechanism for bringing together persons of an equivalent social status otherwise lacking organic social or economic links, and perhaps above all for providing a new role for bourgeois women.

It is hardly necessary to document the fact that the institutionalization of sport took place in the last decades of the century. Even in Britain it was hardly established before the 1870s – the Association football cup dates back to 1871, the county cricket championship to 1873 – and thereafter several new sports were invented (tennis, badminton, hockey, water-polo, and so on), or de facto introduced on a national scale (golf), or systematized (boxing). Elsewhere in Europe sport in the modern form was a conscious import of social values and life-styles from Britain, largely by those influenced by the educational system of the British upper class, such as Baron de Coubertin, an admirer of Dr. Arnold. What is significant is the speed with which these transfers were made, though actual institutionalization took somewhat longer.

Middle-class sport thus combined two elements of the intention of tradition: the political and the social. On the one hand it represented a conscious, though not usually official, effort to form a ruling elite on the British model supplementing, competing with or seeking to replace the older aristocratic-military continental models, and this, depending on the local situation, associated with conservative or liberal elements in the local upper and middle classes. On the other it represented a more spontaneous attempt to draw class lines against the masses, mainly by the systematic emphasis on amateurism as the criterion of upper and middle-class sport (as notably in tennis, rugby union football as against association football and rugby league and in the Olympic Games). However, it also represented an attempt develop both a specific new bourgeois pattern of leisure activity and a life-style – both bisexual and suburban or ex-urban – and a flexible and expandable criterion of group membership.

Both mass and middle-class sport combined the invention of political and social traditions in yet another way: by providing a medium for national identification and factitious community. This was not new in itself, for mass physical exercises had long been linked with liberal-nationalist movements (the German Turner, the Czech Sokols) or with national identification (rifle-shooting in Switzerland), Indeed the resistance of the German gymnastic movement, on nationalist grounds in general and anti-British ones in particular, distinctly slowed down the progress of mass sport in Germany. The rise of sport provided new expressions of nationalism through the choice or invention of nationally specific sports – Welsh rugby as distinct from English soccer, and Gaelic football in Ireland (1884), which acquired genuine mass support some twenty years later’. However, although the specific linking of physical exercises with nationalism as part of nationalist movements remained important – as in Bengal – it was by now certainly less significant than two other phenomena.

The first of these was the concrete demonstration of the links which bound all inhabitants of the national state together, irrespective of local and regional dif- ferences, as in the all-English football culture or, more literally, in such sporting institutions as the cyclists’ Tour de France (1903), followed by the Giro d’Italia (1909). These phenomena were all the more significant as they evolved spontaneously or by commercial mechanisms. The second consisted of the international sporting contests which very soon supplemented national ones, and reached their typical expression in the revival of the Olympics in 1896. While we are today only too aware of the scope for vicarious national identification which such contests provide, it is important to recall that before 1914 they had barely begun to acquire their modern character. International sport, with few exceptions, remained dominated by amateurism – that is by middle-class sport – even in football, where the international association (F.I.F.A.) was formed by countries with little mass support for the game in 1904 (France, Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland). The Olympics remained the main international arena for this sport. To this extent national identification through sport against foreigners in this period seems to have been primarily a middle-class phenomenon.

This may itself be significant. For, as we have seen, the middle classes in the broadest sense found subjective group identification unusually difficult, since they were not in fact a sufficiently small minority to establish the sort of virtual membership of a nation-wide club which united, for example, most of those who had passed through Oxford and Cambridge, nor sufficiently united by a common destiny and potential solidarity, like the workers. Negatively the middle classes found it easy to segregate themselves from their inferiors by such devices as rigid insistence on amateurism in sport, as well as by the life-style and values of ‘respectability’, not to mention residential segregation. Positively, it may be suggested, they found it easier to establish a sense of belonging together through external symbols, among which those of nationalism (patriotism, imperialism) were perhaps the most significant. It is, one might suggest, as the quintessential patriotic class that the new or aspiring middle class found it easiest to recognize itself collectively.

The nationalism which gained ground was overwhelmingly identified with the political right. In the 1890s the originally liberal-nationalist German gymnasts abandoned the old national colours en masse to adopt the new black-white-red banner: in 1898 only 100 out of 6,501 Turnervereine still maintained the old black-red-gold.

What is clear is that nationalism became a substitute for social cohesion through a national church, a royal family or other cohesive traditions, or collective group self-presentations, a new secular religion, and that the class which required such a mode of cohesion most was the growing new middle class, or rather that large intermediate mass which so signally lacked other forms of cohesion. At this point, once again, the invention of political traditions coincides with that of social ones.


« Pariah Press | Blog