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Downhill All the Way

The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914–1991

by Eric Hobsbawm
Pantheon, 627 pp., $30.00

Among historians in the English-speaking world there is a discernible “Hobsbawm generation.” It consists of men and women who took up the study of the past at some point in the “long nineteen-sixties,” between, say, 1959 and 1975, and whose interest in the recent past was irrevocably shaped by Eric Hobsbawm’s writings, however much they now dissent from many of his conclusions. In those years he published a quite astonishing body of influential work: Primitive Rebels, which first appeared in 1959, introduced young urban students to a world of rural protest in Europe and overseas that has now become much more familiar to us, in large measure thanks to the work of scholars whose imaginations were first fired by Hobsbawm’s little book. Labouring Men, Industry and Empire and Captain Swing (with George Rude) substantially recast the economic history of Britain and the story of the British labor movement; they brought back to scholarly attention a half-buried tradition of British radical historiography, reinvigorating research into the conditions and experiences of the artisans and workers themselves, but bringing to this engaged concern an unprecedented level of technical sophistication and a rare breadth of knowledge.

If the conclusions and interpretations of these books seem conventional today, that is only because it is difficult now to remember what their subject matter looked like before Hobsbawm made it his own. No amount of revisionist sniping or fashionable amendment can detract from the lasting impact of this body of work.

But Hobsbawm’s most enduring imprint on our historical consciousness has come through his great trilogy on the “long nineteenth century,” from 1789 to 1914, the first volume of which, The Age of Revolution, 1789–1848, appeared in 1962. It is hard to assess the influence of that book precisely because it has become so indelibly part of our sense of the period that all subsequent work either unconsciously incorporates it or else works against it. Its overall scheme, interpreting the era as one of social upheaval dominated by the emergence and rise to influence of the bourgeoisie of northwest Europe, eventually became the “conventional” interpretation, now exposed to steady criticism and revision. It was followed in 1975 by The Age of Capital, a masterly survey of the middle years of the last century that drew on a remarkable range of material and depth of understanding. That book remains, in my view, Hobsbawm’s single greatest work, drawing together the many mid-Victorian transformations of the world and framing them in a unified and still forceful historical narrative. In The Age of Empire, which appeared twelve years later, there was an unmistakable elegiac air, as though the leading historian of the last century were somehow sorry to see it come to a close at his hands. The overall impression is of an era of protean change, where a high price was paid for the rapid accumulation of wealth and knowledge; but an era, nonetheless, that was full of promise and of optimistic visions of radiant and improving futures. The nineteenth century, as Hobsbawm reminds us in his latest book, was “my period”; like Marx, he is at his best as a dissector of its hidden patterns, and he left little doubt of his admiration and respect for its astonishing achievements.

It comes, therefore, as a surprise that Eric Hobsbawm should have chosen to add a fourth volume dealing with the “Short Twentieth Century.” As he admits in the preface, “I avoided working on the era since 1914 for most of my career.” He offers conventional grounds for this aversion: we are too close to the events to be dispassionate (in Hobsbawm’s case, born in 1917, he has lived through most of them), a full body of interpretative material is not yet at hand, and it is too soon to tell what it all means.

But it is clear that there is another reason, and one which Hobsbawm himself would certainly not disavow: the twentieth century has ended with the apparent collapse of the political and social ideals and institutions to which he has been committed for most of his life. It is hard not to see in it a dark and gloomy tale of error and disaster. Like the other members of a remarkable generation of British Communist or ex-Communist historians (Christopher Hill, Rodney Hilton, Edward Thompson) Hobsbawm directed his professional attention to the revolutionary and radical past, and not only because the Party line made it virtually impossible to write openly about the near present. For a lifelong Communist who is also a serious scholar, the history of our century presents a number of near insuperable obstacles to interpretation, as his latest work inadvertently demonstrates.

Nonetheless, Hobsbawm has written what is in many ways an extraordinary book. Its argument is explicit and directly reflected in its tripartite structure. The first section, “The Age of Catastrophe,” covers the period from the outbreak of World War I to the defeat of Hitler; the second, “The Golden Age,” is an account of the remarkable and unprecedented era of economic growth and social transformation that began around 1950 and ended in the mid-Seventies, provoking “The Landslide,” as Hobsbawm calls the third and final section of his book, which deals with the history of the last two decades. Each section has a dominant theme, against which are set the details of its history. For the decades following the assassination at Sarajevo, the author depicts a world stumbling for forty years “from one calamity to another,” an era of misery and horrors, a time when millions of refugees wandered helplessly across the European subcontinent and when the laws of war, so painstakingly forged over the previous centuries, were abandoned wholesale. (Of 5.5 million Russian prisoners of war in World War II, approximately 3.3 million died, one statistic among many that would have been utterly inconceivable to an earlier generation.)

Of the “Golden Age” following World War II, Hobsbawm notes that it was the moment when, for 80 percent of humankind, the Middle Ages finally ended, a time of dramatic social change and dislocation in Europe no less than in the colonial world over which the European powers now relinquished their control. But the explosive success of postwar Western capitalism, generating economic growth at an unprecedented rate while distributing the benefits of that growth to an ever-increasing number of people, carried within it the seeds of its own corruption and dissolution. It is not for nothing that Eric Hobsbawm has acquired a reputation for sophisticated and subtle Marxist readings of his material.

The expectations and institutions set in motion by the experience of rapid expansion and innovation have bequeathed to us a world with few recognizable landmarks or inherited practices, lacking continuity and solidarity between generations or across occupations. To take but one example, the democratization of knowledge and resources (including weapons) and their concentration in uncontrolled private hands threaten to undermine the very institutions of the capitalist world which brought them about. Without shared practices, common cultures, collective aspirations, ours is a world “which [has] lost its bearings and slid into instability and crisis.”

In short, Eric Hobsbawm’s history of the twentieth century is the story of the decline of a civilization, the history of a world which has both brought to full flowering the material and cultural potential of the nineteenth century and betrayed its promise. In wartime certain states have reverted to the use of chemical weapons upon unarmed civilians (their own included, in the case of Iraq); the social and environmental inequities arising from uncontrolled market forces are on the rise, while any collective sense of shared interests and inheritances is shrinking fast. In politics, “the decline of the organized mass parties, class-based, ideological or both, [has] eliminated the major social engine for turning men and women into politically active citizens.” In cultural matters everything is now “post-” something:

post-industrial, post-imperial, post-modern, post-structuralist, post-Marxist, post-Gutenberg, or whatever. Like funerals, these prefixes [take] official recognition of death without implying any consensus or indeed certainty about the nature of life after death.

There is a Jeremiah-like air of impending doom about much of Hobsbawm’s account.

However, this does not detract from its strengths. Like everything else Hobsbawm has written, “the age of extremes” is described and analyzed in simple, clean prose, utterly free of jargon, pomposity, and pretension. Important points are made in brief, striking, often witty phrases: the political impact of World War I is captured in the observation that “no old government was left standing between the borders of France and the Sea of Japan”; we are reminded of Hitler’s low estimation of democracies—“The only democracy he took seriously was the British, which he rightly regarded as not entirely democratic.” Hobsbawm’s own rather low opinion of the New Left of the Sixties is made explicit:

At the very moment when hopeful young leftists were quoting Mao Tse-tung’s strategy for the triumph of revolution by mobilizing the countless rural millions against the encircled urban strongholds of the status quo, those millions were abandoning their villages and moving into the cities themselves.1

The reference to the peasant millions is a reminder that though unashamedly Eurocentric, Eric Hobsbawm has a unique range.2 His sympathetic and firsthand knowledge of Latin America in particular enriches his account of the worldwide impact of the Depression, just as his comparison of Poland’s Solidarity with the Brazilian Workers’ Party, both of them nationwide popular labor movements that developed during the Eighties in opposition to the politics of a repressive regime, is suggestive and original. To be sure, his omnivorous reading is directed toward the South rather than the East, with unfortunate results to be discussed below; but he has apparently kept up his close acquaintance with the literature on Peruvian radicals and Neapolitan bandits (and with the men themselves), which he uses to telling effect in his discussion of social and economic transformations in backward societies. And he can with equal ease introduce evidence from the 1982 Food and Food Production Encyclopedia (an article on “Formed, Fabricated and Restructured Meat Products”) to make a point about consumerism.

This book is also a reminder that Eric Hobsbawm is by training and inclination an economic historian, and an analytical one at that. He is at his best when discussing the Depression, or the nature and consequences of the postwar “boom,” and mostly avoids military or political narrative. His descriptions of the economic absurdities of the Soviet world (“an energy-producing colony of more advanced industrial economies—i.e., in practice largely its own Western satellites”) or of socialist economics as a “rather archaic industrial system based on iron and smoke” are distinctly superior to his political surveys of those same societies.

In a similar way he is more at ease when treating fascism as a product of the world economic crisis than in his rather brief discussion of its political sources. His account of the dramatic collapse of Communist regimes in 1989 verges on the economically determinist; this is not to deny that debt crises and economic mismanagement were important factors in the downfall of Communism—far from it; but in discussing them Hobsbawm is clearly on familiar territory, where he prefers to remain. However this gives considerable strength to his account of Western developments since the turning point of 1974. He gives a clear and convincing analysis of the long-term dilemmas of the international economy. Equally lucid is his description of the crisis of national welfare economics that arose when national leaders sought to avert the political costs of economic downturn by taxing a shrinking working population to subsidize the victims of their policies.

  1. 1

    For all that he was a hero to many radical students in the Sixties, Eric Hobsbawm never conceded anything to the leftist fashions of the day. In his words, “Nobody with even minimal experience of the limitations of real life, i.e. no genuine adult, could have drafted the confident but patently absurd slogans of the Parisian May days of 1968 or the Italian ‘hot autumn’ of 1969.” In this he is mildly reminiscent of Albert Soboul, the great French (Communist) historian of the sans-culottes. Many young French gauchistes, admirers of his work, assumed before encountering him that Professor Souboul must share the sartorial informality and egalitarian social style of his professional subjects. No one ever made that mistake twice.

  2. 2

    Any history of the world in our century is of necessity a history in large measure of the things Europeans (and North Americans) did to themselves and to others, and of how non-Europeans reacted to them and were (usually adversely) affected. That, after all, is what is wrong with the twentieth century, seen from a “third world” perspective, and to criticize Hobsbawm, as some reviewers have done, for understanding this and writing accordingly, seems to me incoherent.

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