The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914-1991
by Eric Hobsbawm
(Pantheon, 627 pp., $30)
We shall soon be flooded with books that seek to explain this blood-drenched century, but I doubt that we shall get a more penetrating and politically valuable one than Eric Hobsbawm’s The Age of Extremes. A history of the “short” century that began with World War I and ended with the collapse of communism, the book offers a powerful interpretation of the wellsprings of an age of unprecedented economic transformation, mass slaughter and social upheaval. With great analytical force, Hobsbawm tells the story of capitalism’s greatest crises, its triumph over the challenges of communism and fascism, and its current strengths and weaknesses.
The simplest facts roll off Hobsbawm’s pages like thunderbolts. Between 1914 and 1990, the population of the world trebled, even though more people were killed or allowed to die by human decision than ever before, an estimated 187 million people, or 10 percent of the population of 1900. And the Golden Age, which lasted from the end of World War ii to the early 1970s, “marked the end of seven or eight millennia of human history ... if only because it ended the long era when the overwhelming majority of the human race lived by growing food and herding animals.” But it is the Russian Revolution that is at the heart of Hobsbawm’s reading. He sees it as the principal spur to the great changes of the century. In his view, the revolutionary challenge from the left compelled capitalism to institute the deep restructuring that was required for its survival. (He also acknowledges, subtly and without reductionism, that capitalism’s political class was also responding to a Nazi threat.)
Hobsbawm limns the weaknesses of capitalism in his discussion of the “Age of Catastrophe,” or the years between 1914 and 1945. Those years featured two world wars, and despite twenty-two years of what jocularly passed for peace, they amounted to a thirty-one-year world war of unprecedented savagery. They also featured an economic depression that, for the first time in history, threatened to destroy the capitalist system itself. The Great Depression of the 1930s was the worst and most politically dangerous in the history of capitalism. It threatened to reverse the historic pattern of capitalist development; as Hobsbawm observes, “in important respects the secular rise in its curve seemed to break.”
For the first time in the history of the business cycle, it appeared that a deep depression would not generate a higher level of prosperity in its aftermath. No wonder we got a “stagnation thesis,” which asserted that capitalism had permanently run out of steam. After World War I, economists and politicians put capitalism back on course, upward and onward; but the Great Depression inspired widespread fears that the aftermath of World War ii would bring a renewed economic crisis. It did not happen. To the contrary, the Golden Age from 1945 to the early 1970s produced an astonishing economic transformation and an unprecedented prosperity. The bourgeoisie learned its lessons and revamped its economic system in ways that socialists, or at any rate Marxists, had believed impossible.
The failure of the socialist challenge absorbs much of Hobsbawm’s attention. He virtually concedes, though he does not mention it, the conservative charge that socialism and communism developed as secularized versions of an apocalyptic religious faith. He observes that even before 1914, the socialist movement promised, as assorted Christian sects had promised before, “a society without unhappiness, oppression, inequality and injustice.” The social democrats, it is true, abandoned revolutionary utopianism and preferred political moderation, partly in revulsion against the excesses of Bolshevism and partly in response to the evidence that the capitalist class was restructuring the economy and polity. Still, the consequences of social democracy--and here Hobsbawm falls silent--were unfortunate in one big way.
The social democrats abandoned utopianism in practice, but they retained much of it in theory. Thus they continued to propagate illusions, and they opened themselves to charges of bad faith from the left and the right. The communists indicted them for their abandonment of revolution, and the conservatives for their continued appeal to the utopian ideas of their deceased ideology. For this we are paying dearly. For left-liberalism and radicalism have become indistinguishable in an American left that practices reformist politics while it advances a social and cultural agenda that makes sense only on the basis of a wildly utopian worldview that few sane men would defend if forced to speak coherently.
The catastrophe of the left was the work of Lenin, of his decision in the immediate aftermath of the Russian Revolution to split the international movement between reformists and revolutionaries. As Hobsbawm demonstrates, the timing of Lenin’s schism expressed a high irrationality. For the Soviet Union promoted the Communist International, or Comintern, at the very moment that its leaders were acknowledging the defeat of the revolutionary left in Germany and the collapse of the communist regime in Hungary, and concluding that the prospects for world revolution had faded. More and more they had to focus on a task that they had not anticipated: building a socialist society, or at any rate a noncapitalist one, in the Soviet Union without the economic support that they had expected to receive from the revolutionized advanced countries, notably Germany. Thus, they opted for the “politically calamitous” course of splitting the international socialist movement and promoting revolutionary communist parties precisely when those parties had no chance for success, when a fierce right-wing reaction was setting in everywhere.
Hobsbawm pays proper tribute to the selflessness and the heroism of the cadres that sacrificed themselves in attempts at socialist revolution and in subsequent anti-fascist struggles. But he chillingly demonstrates that the revolutionary movements of the left, which always spoke in the name of “the people” or “the working class,” consisted of only that--cadres. Contrary to all the predictions and all the hopes about the inevitability of socialist revolution, the masses did not rise. Worse, the ghastly economic crisis that brought capitalism to its knees primarily benefited the fascists, to whom a distressingly large section of those masses rallied. Hobsbawm makes an effective criticism of Soviet development from an essentially Marxist point of view. He acutely analyzes the principal features of Soviet history: the initial assumption by Bolsheviks and other leftists that the Russian Revolution was a holding action that could not long survive without the assistance of a revolutionized Germany; the desperation implicit in the slogan of “socialism in one country”; the forced collectivization of agriculture and the war against the peasantry; the crucial and heroic industrialization bought at a horrible price in human lives.
But still Hobsbawm raises hackles, especially with his argument that the collectivization of agriculture saddled the Soviet Union with economic inefficiencies from which it never recovered. Here he betrays a small dose of the Bukharinite romanticism that would have had the Soviet Union choose a slower, steadier economic course. His evidence, and the soberest parts of his generally lucid analysis, suggest what he finally and virtually concedes, which is that Stalin knew what he was about, while Bukharin was whistling Dixie. The survival of the Soviet state required a forced-march industrialization at any cost, and the economic and political exigencies of such an industrialization required collectivization. The problem was not the economic burden of collectivization. It was Stalin’s penchant for solving every problem in the most brutal way, in his insistence upon making a virtue and principle out of every tactical necessity, in the unwillingness or the inability of his successors to drop the scaffolding of a collectivized agriculture after the industrial house had been built. Hobsbawm would more profitably treat the struggle over collectivization as he treats the Nazi-Soviet Pact, in which he wisely separates himself from knee-jerk criticism of the pact itself while exposing the political and ideological catastrophe that Stalin’s cynical defense of the pact imposed upon the left worldwide.
Stalin’s forced-march industrialization prepared the Soviet Union for an astonishing victory in World War ii, and at the very moment at which the capitalist countries were wallowing in a crisis so broad and deep as to cast widespread doubts about capitalism’s chances for survival. The prestige of the Soviet Union in the West, notwithstanding the mounting evidence of a cruel dictatorship replete with vast bloody purges, becomes understandable only in this context. And so does the increasingly widespread acceptance of “economic planning” as the necessary alternative to what Marx had called “the anarchy of the market.”
Hobsbawm’s account of the Nazi phenomenon, like much else in The Age of Extremes, ought to be required reading for those concerned with the future as well as the past. Hobsbawm offers a strong, if not entirely satisfactory, analysis of fascism and more particularly of National Socialism, an analysis that dispels decades of left-wing and liberal misunderstanding. Gone is the nonsense about fascism as a creature of big capital. Instead Hobsbawm draws a clear picture of the Nazis’ broad social base; their ability to capture, if only after they came to power, the formerly “Red” working class by delivering on economic promises; and the belated and reluctant acceptance by big business of what it could not prevent but could live with. ”Fascism,” he properly insists, “existed by mobilizing the masses from below.” The fascists were “the revolutionaries of counter-revolution.”
Hobsbawm too readily dismisses the notion that Fascism and National Socialism constituted genuinely revolutionary movements. He prefers to believe that they revamped and revitalized old regimes, though his evidence and his analysis cast doubt on such a conclusion. In any case, he acknowledges that the Nazis swept away much of the old imperial elites and drastically altered the life of the masses in ways that were calculated to win broad support. With his customary candor, Hobsbawm writes that only Nazi Germany, of all the Western states, eliminated unemployment during the terrible years 1933 to 1938. He thereby refutes, although without specific mention, the erroneous notion that the Nazis did it through re-armament: the recovery preceded the re-armament. Unfortunately Hobsbawm does not explain how they did it. The question remains: Can the economic performance of the Nazis be separated from the barbarism that accompanied it? In refuting the notion that big business happily brought Hitler to power, Hobsbawm makes a useful comment. Big business, he writes, “can come to terms with any regime that does not actually expropriate it, and any regime must come to terms with it.”
Hobsbawm’s account of the historic coalition of capitalist states and the Soviet Union has the special virtue of highlighting the extraordinary challenge that the Nazis posed to all peoples, countries and movements born of the Enlightenment. Thus he flatly asserts that Hitler “caused” World War ii--a solid judgment, but a surprising one from a historian who has always stressed large social and economic movements. If conservatives, even Churchill, had been forced to choose between an alliance with communism or an alliance with fascism of the Italian variety, they would, in Hobsbawm’s view, have chosen the latter; but Hitler represented something entirely new and not to be borne.
Hobsbawm’s treatment of the cold war breaks ranks with customary left-wing interpretations, again with admirable results well beyond anything that can be outlined here. He argues that, as the century advanced, the image of world politics “as a duel between the forces of two rival social systems ... became increasingly unrealistic.” As a consequence of that widespread unrealism, the cold war became “a contest of nightmares.” Hobsbawm argues, reasonably but not altogether convincingly, that the cold war posed much less of a threat of nuclear war than seemed to be the case, and the fact does remain that the United States and the Soviet Union never did come to blows except by proxy and on a restricted scale. Despite the blather about the rollback of communism and the inexorable progress of world revolution, both sides accepted the division of the world into spheres of influence or power blocs. He may be pushing a good insight too far here, but he is probably right to insist that, notwithstanding the communists’ ritualistic invocations of the inevitable triumph of socialism, the United States bears responsibility for the apocalyptic tone of the cold war.
In reviewing the century, Hobsbawm sensibly demonstrates the continuing analytical relevance of Marx; and yet his readings parallel, to a remarkable extent, the views of conservative theorists whom, with the exception of Schumpeter, he does not mention. He builds on Schumpeter’s development of Kondratieff’s theory of long waves in capitalist development, and on Schumpeter’s development of Marx’s ideas about the way in which capitalism relentlessly destroys the pre-capitalist institutions and values necessary for its social and political stability. Hobsbawm also recognizes, with refreshing frankness, that the ideological wars of the twentieth century have echoed the religious wars of earlier times, and that socialist, communist, fascist and even liberal ideologies emerged as secularized versions of Christian dogmatism or, more accurately, of the great Christian heresies. On this matter, he offers an analysis much closer to Eric Voegelin’s dissection of “modern gnosticism” than he might wish to admit.
And the interesting correspondences do not end there. Hobsbawm never mentions Vilfredo Pareto, the Italian social thinker of the early decades of this century who was a pioneer in economic theory and its application to social change; but Hobsbawm’s book conjures up nothing so much as Pareto’s “circulation of elites.” And his interpretations of twentieth-century history have unmistakable parallels to those of John Lukacs, the conservative Catholic historian who shares with Hobsbawm an encyclopedic range, a penchant for independent thought and an impatience with theories that do not work. Lukacs and Hobsbawm were on different sides during the cold war, they could hardly be further apart philosophically, and they never mention each other, but I can think of no more productive way to study the twentieth century than through a careful comparison of their work.
On one matter after another Hobsbawm, who remains devoted to the left, destroys its pet notions. But then he has been doing so all his life. More than twenty years ago, while the American left was wallowing in dreams of Third World revolutions that would somehow do for us what we could not do for ourselves, Hobsbawm was warning of failure and disillusionment, and buttressing his warnings with cold-eyed analysis of data that might be ignored but could not be discredited. In his new book, similarly, he makes short work of the self-defeating left-wing habit of treating every manifestation of conservative politics as “fascist.” Quietly but firmly he annihilates the silly description of Franco, Petain and Pinochet as fascists. He reminds American readers that the roots of Huey Long’s movement lay in the populism of the left. And he recalls that the regimes of Juan Peron and Getulio Vargas, which the left routinely describes as fascist, arose on the basis of the very kind of proletarian movements that Mussolini and Hitler destroyed.
Closer to our own day, Hobsbawm takes only a few sentences and a single, priceless footnote to expose the irrationality of radical feminist theory and, by extension, of much of the claptrap that now passes for radical social theory. But the American left, at least its radical part, has learned little or nothing from Hobsbawm, despite the ceremonial bows and the polite applause. The fault is partly his own, and it stems from his most attractive qualities. He has never had a taste for sectarian polemics and factional brawls. He prefers to articulate his positions by speaking calmly and scrupulously, giving no offense, and appealing to reason and deliberation. And so the radical left has been able to pretend not to notice what he is saying. Or worse, it may not be pretending. It may not have noticed. I cannot recall a single serious, concentrated discussion in American radical circles of the many historical and political insights that Hobsbawm has advanced in his books. He is the greatest of Marxist historians, but his influence on American Marxist historians has been marginal. Maybe nice guys do finish last.
And there is another count against his influence. Hobsbawm sets a largely unfollowed example in his realistic assessments of political adversaries. Thus he pays tribute to Ronald Reagan’s “simple-minded idealism.” He notes that the more sober elements of the British left have finally admitted that some of what Margaret Thatcher did had to be done. I wish he had given us an explanation for the British left’s inability to indulge in constructive self-criticism before Thatcher came to power, so that it could have recognized the positive features of her program in time to offer constructive alternatives. I wish, too, that he would offer his thoughts on the comical refusal of the British left to see—as Hobsbawm himself saw and got savaged for saying--that the remarkable woman whom admirers call The Iron Lady was very much a radical and anything but another right-wing politician. After all, who except Hobsbawm would be willing to brave the wrath of his left-wing compatriots by writing that “the history of the European Resistance movements is largely mythological”? Who but Hobsbawm would acknowledge that the foreigners who fought for Franco were neither mercenaries nor adventurers but men who “went to fight for a cause”?
Hobsbawm writes as a historian, but he always aims to contribute to political thought and political action, and never more than in this book. In retrospect Hobsbawm finds that “the strength of the global socialist challenge to capitalism was that of the weakness of its opponent.” And, in truth, many of us who supported the socialist bloc to the bitter end believed for a long time that the political Byzantinism, mass murders and bureaucratic rigidities of socialism would be overcome, that those horrors were all that was keeping capitalism afloat. We overestimated the weaknesses of capitalism and we underestimated the weaknesses of socialism. In effect, we remained convinced that capitalism could not solve its problems, but that socialism would solve its own. But those latter problems were not passing, they were intrinsic. And so our blunder, as blunders go, was a beaut.
Occasionally and without much conviction, Hobsbawm suggests that some new form of socialism might have a future, but nothing in his book encourages such a hope. He attributes the Soviet collapse in part to the decision of the Brezhnev regime to try to match the United States in the arms race, but he also makes clear that Brezbnev’s decision merely exacerbated the rigidities of a command economy. Those rigidities appeared with full force when detente opened the way to the integration of the socialist economies into the global economic structure. Read Hobsbawm’s acute analysis any way you want to read it and you end with two conclusions: a command economy cannot compete with a capitalist economy, and there is no reason to’ believe that a different kind of socialism could compete more effectively.
Indeed, everything in this book supports the notion that a “mixed economy” is superior to either socialist or freemarket economies. Finally one is left with the impression that Hobsbawm now agrees that a mixed economy, however difficult to defend intellectually, is morally as well as economically preferable to the alternatives. If he wishes to believe, with some social democrats, that a mixed economy is “socialist,” so be it. He knows that such a “socialism” is a far cry from what we thought we were fighting for when we joined or supported the communist or left-socialist movements.
The implications of Hobsbawm’s realism are far-reaching. He seems to think that the coming struggles will take place between right-wing and left-wing versions of what we might call, for want of a better name, social corporatism, a politically regulated and socially responsible system of private property. The left-wing version may lessen inequality, reshape social stratification and render it more humane, replace current elites with more attractive ones and redefine the principle of authority in political, economic and social life. And yet, contrary to the dreams of a grand human “liberation” that are once again inundating us, the hard-headed analysis in Hobsbawm’s book suggests that a left-wing social corporatism will not be able to do away with inequality, or stratification, or elites, or firm authority in economic, social and political life.
Hobsbawm’s heart remains with the radical left, but his formidable head demolishes its every shibboleth, and so he cannot easily defend the egalitarian and radical-democratic ideals that he still occasionally still invokes, with a noticeable decline, in conviction. Thus, despite some pulling of his punches, Hobsbawm exposes the contemporary rage for personal liberation as the cutting edge of a socially atomizing individualism that primarily serves the interests of the international conglomerates. Those conglomerates, as Samuel Francis has recently argued from the traditionalist right in Beautiful Losers: Essays on The Failure of American Conservatism, are working hard to transform everything and anything into commodities.
Hobsbawm is especially good at dissecting the effects of the rise of a youth culture that has snapped “the links between generations.” Still, I confess to sniffing a bit at his assault on Hitler and Stalin for stifling avant-gardism in the arts. No, I do not wish to defend the repressions of Hitler and Stalin; but I do wish-that Hobsbawm had considered the possibility that the avantgarde’s assault on “bourgeois” culture, on all structures of authority, nourished the nihilism from which only the Nazis benefited during the first half of the century, and from which the most dangerous elements in our political life stand to benefit during the century ahead.
In a flash of graveyard humor, Hobsbawm describes the twentieth century as having ended both with a bang and a whimper. He has no blueprint for the coming century. He expresses some deep anxieties, but he does not surrender to a paralyzing pessimism. Thus he fears for the environment, and briefly but convincingly he identifies the threat to it from free-market policies. But he also makes clear, as few on the left do, that much contemporary environmentalism is a form of hysteria, and betrays a bourgeois contempt for the necessary trade-off between conservationism and an economic growth vital to poorer countries, and often manipulates public opinion in the service of sectarian political and ideological ends.
His grimmest thoughts recall those of’ Schumpeter a half-century ago. Schumpeter noted that during the next long wave of capitalist development the United States would be able to support millions of people on the dole, but that the economic, social and political costs might prove unacceptable. Writing toward the end of that long wave, Hobsbawm reasonably questions the ability of the economy to sustain even the economic cost of so vast a crime against humanity. That is, he raises sharply the question of just how much “welfare” the best-devised mixed economy and welfare state can afford. His nightmare is that the rich countries will find the poor countries economically “uninteresting” and decide to let them rot. And he notes that those who rot may well acquire nuclear weapons with which to express their unhappiness about rotting. And no less ominously he worries that those same advanced societies may find their own poor also uninteresting and condemn also them to rot. Hobsbawm serves up no panaceas; but he does define the problem with penetrating clarity and he does suggest that any solution, from the most humane to the least humane, will probably have to be worked out within the contours of a mixed economy in a world of irreversible economic integration and, paradoxically, of continued nation-state tensions.
Hobsbawm has often been charged, with some justification, with slighting the power and the persistence of nationalism, but his thoughtful formulations require much more careful attention than the critics normally offer. In his new book, he suggests that any solutions to the problems posed by an irreversible worldwide economic integration will have to lie in worldwide political integration. Astutely he notes that international big business could live easily with a plethora of small, weak nation-states. It would seem to follow, therefore, that only a supra-national political organization could make the economic establishment socially responsive. He may be only half-right. Under the actual conditions of world politics, the nationalist drives throughout the world, notwithstanding the risk of a descent into destructive tribalisms, may offer the only basis for resistance to the worldwide domination of big capital cut loose from social moorings.
Hobsbawm’s sniping at America’s intervention in the Persian Gulf, and at George Bush’s clumsy assertion of a New World Order, does not prove helpful. Unlike most leftist critics, he takes a sober view of the mounting danger of nuclear, chemical and biological war in an era freed from the control of rival superpowers. But does not the responsibility for preventing the explosion of regional, continental and world wars fall upon a few powerful states, led by the United States? If so, the problems posed by the explosion of nationalism and the power of nation-states may be transformed drastically, but they are not likely to be overcome in the foreseeable future.
Eric Hobsbawm is one of the few genuinely great historians of our century. He is also the one genuinely great historian to come out of the Anglo-American Marxist left. I admit to my prejudice. He has been the strongest influence on my own work as a historian, and in 1979 1 dedicated a book on black slave revolts to “Eric Hobsbawm: Our Main Man.” I have made a great many mistakes in my life,, but reading and rereading Hobsbawm’s powerful new book I am relieved to see that I got at least that much right.
This article originally appeared in the April 17, 1995 issue of the magazine.