It’s been a bad week for Marxist historians. Last Thursday, southern historian Eugene Genovese died; over the weekend, the British scholar Eric Hobsbawm passed away. The two men had strikingly different career arcs: Genovese famously moved from left to right, embracing conservative politics in his late years. Hobsbawm remained on the left. There was at least one point of convergence: In 1995, Genovese reviewed Hobsbawm’s sprawling history of the 20th century in TNR.
Here’s what he wrote:
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.)