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.

Despite this emphasis on long-term economic trends and broad secular patterns (a feature of all Hobsbawm’s writing), The Age of Extremes is also his most personal book; indeed the mood oscillates between a rather formal interpretative perspective and a close, almost private, commentary. He says that he has studied the twentieth century by “watching and listening,” and we believe him.3 The inflation after World War I is caught in the image of his Austrian grandfather cashing in his matured insurance policy and finding himself with just enough money for a drink at his favorite café, while Hobsbawm’s own aesthetic distaste at the urban blight of the Sixties is contrasted with childhood memories of “the great architectural monuments of the liberal bourgeoisie” of Vienna. When he writes that he believes the fall of colonial empires did not seem imminent in 1939, this is based on personal recollection; he and others in a school for young Communists from Britain and the colonies did not expect it at the time.

For evidence of social change in Palermo, unemployment in Sao Paulo, or the risks of introducing capitalism in China he can draw on conversations with Sicilian bandits, Brazilian labor organizers, and Chinese Communist bureaucrats (it is not for nothing that in his entry in Who’s Who he gives as his recreation “travel”). As a fellow of King’s College, Cambridge, he knew Alan Turing, the ill-fated inventor of the computer, while his Communist connections allow him to draw on the private testimony of the (Communist) mayor of Bologna concerning the favorable conditions for an emerging agro-industrial economy in the Emilia-Romagna region.4

There is also a disarming directness and honesty about Hobsbawm’s account of his personal experience of the century.5 He includes himself among the “attentive and unquestioning multitudes” who listened to Castro rambling for hours on end; he reminds us that the “left tradition” has preferred not to acknowledge the support that fascism, once in power, could count on from formerly socialist and Communist workers; and he recounts the innocent shock of a (London-based) British Communist organizer at discovering the comparative affluence of Coventry workers: “Do you realize that up there the comrades have cars?”

He himself was sometimes wrong and says so, and on more than one occasion he expresses his admiration for professional journalists who saw things that he, the Marxist scholar, missed. The prophecy forty years ago, by a China correspondent for the Times of London, that by the twenty-first century communism would have disappeared everywhere except China, where it would have been transformed into the national ideology, shocked Hobsbawm at the time, as he admits; but today it sounds distinctly plausible. Toward the end of the book, musing on the dilemmas of our own time, he concedes that Marx, too, was wrong: mankind does not always “set itself only such problems as it can solve.”

If the virtues of this book derive from its engaged and personal quality, so do its defects—or rather its defect, for there is really only one, though it takes many forms. Because this is a story of Hobsbawm’s own lifetime—a lifetime devoted since youth, as he recently reminded us on BBC Radio, to a single cause—he is understandably inclined to see the main outlines and conflicts of the era much as he saw them when they were unfolding. In particular, the categories right/left, fascist/Communist, progressive and reactionary seem to be very firmly set, and pretty much as they first presented themselves to Hobsbawm in the Thirties. Thus he readily acknowledges the tragic errors of Communist strategy, or the curiously similar public aesthetic preferences of fascist and Communist leaders, and even the sheer awfulness of communism as a system. But it does not for a moment occur to him to reconsider the conventional polarities of the time and treat fascism and communism as more than just occasional and paradoxical allies.

This seems to me a missed opportunity. For Hobsbawm, the Spanish Civil War and the alliances and allegiances it helped shape remain “the only political cause which, even in retrospect, appears as pure and appealing as it did in 1936.” But for just that reason the Spanish Civil War, and more generally the circumstantial divisions of the Thirties, are now an obstacle to a radical rethinking of the illusions to which they gave rise.

Thus Hobsbawm not only does not discuss the use to which the Spanish conflict was put by Stalin, who settled local and international scores under the guise of supporting an anti-fascist war; he also neglects to consider the way in which the whole experience of “anti-fascist unity” helped forge a new image for international communism following the military, economic, and strategic disasters of its first two decades. If we are to understand the twentieth century this radical refashioning of communism (which was repeated in a minor key after 1943) needs to be appreciated. Instead the pattern of Communist thought and practice is described here much as it was understood and presented at the time, even down to the language and categories used, so that the phenomenon of Bolshevism is accorded no critical analytical attention except on its own restricted terms.

Hobsbawm is thus quite explicit in treating the Bolshevik revolution and the subsequent Communist regime as “a programme for transforming backward countries into advanced ones,” a line of reasoning that was once widespread among “revisionists” and other sympathetic critics of the left in their attempts to explain the way Lenin’s revolution had become Stalin’s autocracy. But he does not consider whether it was not also and above all the first and greatest of the “third world” coups d’état that he describes so well elsewhere, in which revolutionary modernizers capture the capital city and forcibly seize power in an archaic society. The distinction may seem minor, but it is crucial. By excluding the Bolshevik revolution from the category of mere “coups” and by insisting throughout that it was a revolution made possible by the “masses,” Hobsbawm preserves the sui generis quality of the Communist experience, and thereby cleaves to an interpretation of our century which seems increasingly inadequate now that that experience is behind us.

In a similar way, Hobsbawm’s treatment of fascism misses the chance to consider the extent to which Hitler’s war amounted, de facto, to a major European revolution, transforming Central and Eastern Europe and preparing the way for the “socialist” regimes of the postwar years which built upon the radical change Hitler had brought about—notably the destruction of the intelligentsia and urban middle class of the region, first through the murder of the Jews and then as a result of the postwar expulsion of Germans from the liberated Slav lands. Because he is concerned to play down any “revolutionary” qualities in fascism, Hobsbawm’s treatment of World War II is thus uncharacteristically conventional, neglecting the irony inherent in the process whereby Hitler prepared the way for Stalin. This, too, seems to me a consequence of continuing to see the world the way it seemed at the time, when both ideologically and militarily fascism and communism were in total conflict, and Stalin represented the “left wing” of the victorious forces of the Enlightenment.

The results of this approach are most obvious, however, in Hobsbawm’s treatment of Eastern Europe—or rather his nontreatment of it; “real socialism” in the lands between Germany and Russia merits just six pages in a book nearly six hundred pages long, with the infamous show trials of the Fifties accorded less than a paragraph. In his mildly revisionist account of the origins of the cold war Hobsbawm suggests that it was only after the Americans had pressured Communists out of office in France and Italy (in May 1947), and threatened intervention if the 1948 election in Italy went the “wrong” way, that “the USSR followed suit by eliminating the non-communists from their multi-party ‘people’s democracies’ which were henceforth re-classified as ‘dictatorships of the proletariat.’ ” Until then, in his words, “where Moscow controlled its client regimes and communist movements, these were specifically committed to not building states on the model of the USSR, but mixed economies under multi-party parliamentary democracies…”

The precise allocation of responsibility for the cold war may be a subject for debate, but the timing and purpose of the Communist strategy within Eastern Europe is surely unambiguous. Whatever Stalin and his followers had in mind in 1945 for the “friendly” regimes of the region, it was certainly not “multi-party democracies” in any intelligible sense of the word. The construction of “geographically-contiguous replica regimes” (as the political scientist Kenneth Jowitt put it) was under way well before the Italian elections of April 1948. The most obvious instances are Romania (where Andrei Vyshinsky arrived in February 1945 to dictate who could and who could not join the “coalition” government) and Bulgaria (where Nikola Petkov, leader of the Agrarian Party, was arrested in June 1947 and executed three months later following a disgraceful show trial).

In Czechoslovakia and Hungary the situation was more confused, at least until 1947, although in the Hungarian case Communist intimidation of the popular Smallholder Party forced its representatives to withdraw from the Parliament in 1946. Even in Czechoslovakia, where the local Communists had strong popular support and had obtained 38 percent of the votes cast in the 1946 elections, their electoral backing was falling away sharply during 1947. In response the Communists used their influence in the police and in the interior ministry to slander and discredit their opponents (notably the Slovak Democratic and Czech National Socialist parties) and, in February 1948—two months before the Italian elections of that year—they took power in a political coup.6

In Poland there were no illusions about a “multi-party democracy.” In the postwar cabinet of 1945 fourteen of the twenty-two members had been in the Communists’ Committee of National Liberation (the “Lublin” Committee) designated in July 1944 by the Soviet forces to administer liberated Poland. The results of a referendum of July 1946, following a violent campaign in which the government harrassed and intimidated non-Communist activists, were cynically rigged, as were the January 1947 general elections: Peasant Party spokesmen were kept off the radio and their supporters arrested by the thousands; their electoral lists were disqualified and accusations of espionage were made in Parliament and elsewhere to discredit their leadership. Even so, the ballot boxes had to be stuffed to prevent a Communist defeat. The result provoked international protest, to no avail. In October 1947 Stanislaw Mikolajczyk, the Peasant Party chief, fled abroad in fear for his life. Here as elsewhere these tactics had resulted by early 1949 in what was effectively a one-party state, with non-Communist parties licensed only as allies or obedient vassals, their leaders in exile, in prison, or dead. To suggest that this process was instituted only as a direct consequence of American intervention in the domestic affairs of its Western partners, and not until then, is simply wrong.

That so meticulous a historian as Eric Hobsbawm should make such an odd mistake cannot, as he might say, be an accident. The difficulty seems to be that, like Marx, he is not much interested in these little nations. To refer to the years 1950–1974 as a “Golden Age” cannot help but sound ironic to someone from, say, Prague. And it takes a degree of uncharacteristic insouciance to write thus: “What happened to Warsaw in 1944 was the penalty of premature city risings: they have only one shot in their magazine, though a big one.” As a proposition about urban revolt it is of course broadly true, but as an account of what happened in Poland when the Red Army waited for the Nazis to destroy the Polish Resistance before crossing the Vistula it is historically disingenuous, to say the least.

But like another famous British historian of the left, Hobsbawm seems to find something mildly annoying about “the lands between.”7 How else shall we account for his justification of the Bolshevik model as the only alternative in 1917 to “the disintegration which was the fate of the other archaic and defeated empires, namely Austria-Hungary and Turkey. Unlike these, the Bolshevik Revolution preserved most of the multinational territorial unity of the old Tsarist state at least for another seventy-four years.” That this is no casual remark is made clear later in his book when he describes the disintegration of the USSR as leaving an “international void between Trieste and Vladivostok” for the first time since the mid-eighteenth century.

For residents of that “void,” the history of the twentieth century looks rather different. But then they are perforce “nationalists,” and nationalism (like religion) is a rather neglected subject in this book. Even from a purely analytical point of view this seems a mistake; whatever one thinks of national sentiment (and Hobsbawm accords it very little sympathy, here as in his other works), its place in the history of our time surely merits more than dismissive remarks about the “collective egoism” of Slovenes, Croats, Czechs, and their ilk. National self-determination may be a silly and “emotional” reaction to problems which it cannot address, as Hobsbawm puts it; but to say this is to risk missing something fundamental about our times. Without a fuller understanding of faiths of all sorts—secular and religious alike—the historian of the twentieth century is placed under a serious and self-imposed handicap. 8

The problem of faith brings us back to the Thirties, and Hobsbawm’s own relationship to his material. While he labors under no illusions about the former Soviet Union, he is reluctant to concede that it had no redeeming features (including that of maintaining or imposing stability upon the map of Europe). He thus insists that it had at least the virtue of bequeathing the idea of economic planning to the West, thereby ironically saving capitalism by simultaneously threatening its existence and furnishing it with the means for its survival. But it was not Gosplan that lay behind the enthusiasm for planning among young radicals of the Thirties and that culminated in the mixed economies of postwar Western Europe.9 What Hobsbawm neglects to note is that many of the postwar planners got their ideas not from Moscow but from Rome (or, in the French case, Vichy): it was often fascist, not Communist planning which appealed to the technocrats who took over in the Forties. Admiration for Soviet Five Year Plans, on the other hand, was most widespread among intellectuals—the Fabians, André Gide, and others, including left-wing students of Hobsbawm’s own generation. Here, too, the history of our times falls too easily victim to private memory.

The desire to find at least some residual meaning in the whole Communist experience seems, finally, to lie behind a rather flat quality to Hobsbawm’s account of the Stalinist terror. In his summary of the case for breakneck industrialization he draws upon the analogy with a war economy:

As in a war economy…targets for production can, and indeed often must, be set without considering cost and cost-effectiveness, the test being whether they can be met and when. As in all such life-or-death efforts, the most effective method of fulfilling targets and meeting deadlines is giving urgent orders which produce all-out rushes.

To which one might reply that there wasn’t a war on and anyway the “life” at stake was that of the Bolshevik regime, while the “death” was that of millions of human beings. On the subject of these human losses Hobsbawm rightly says that there can be “no justification”; but one longs for a fuller and more historically and humanly sensitive description of the whole tragedy. Here, by contrast, is Hobsbawm’s own trenchant comment on optimistic and well-meaning nineteenth-century apologies for the New

Poor Law of 1834:

I daresay the Poor Law reformers honestly believed that paupers were morally improved by the separation of wives and husbands in the workhouse;…So far as the victims of these views were concerned, the results were as bad as—perhaps worse than—if they had been achieved by deliberate cruelty: inhuman, impersonal, callous degradation of the spirit of men and women and the destruction of their dignity. Perhaps this was historically inevitable and even necessary. But the victim suffered—suffering is not a privilege of well-informed persons. And any historian who cannot appreciate this is not worth reading.10

The fact that the Soviet Union purported to stand for a good cause, indeed the only worthwhile cause, is what mitigated its crimes for many in Hobsbawm’s generation. Others might say it just made them worse.11 In any case, the end of communism was a source of much happiness for many millions of people, even if that happiness has been diluted by the difficulties that followed, and it rather calls into question Eric Hobsbawm’s conclusion that “the old century has not ended well.” One is tempted, after all, to ask, “For whom?” The somber, almost apocalyptic tone of the final section of the book obscures the fact that the Eighties were also a decade of liberation for many, and not only in Eastern Europe. It is certainly true, as Hobsbawm says on more than one occasion, that no one any longer seems to have any solutions to offer to the world’s problems, that we are tapping our way through a global fog, that we live in a world where “the past…has lost its role, in which the old maps and charts which guided human beings…no longer represent the landscape through which we move.” But it is not self-evident that confident large-scale solutions of the sort we have lost were ever such a good thing—on balance they did a lot more harm than good.

In 1968 I was a member of an attentive and admiring student audience whom Eric Hobsbawm was addressing on the theme, as I recall, of the limits of student radicalism. I remember very well his conclusion, since it ran so counter to the mood of the hour. Sometimes, he reminded us, the point is not to change the world but to interpret it. But in order to interpret the world one has also to have a certain empathy with the ways in which it has changed. His latest book is a challenging, often brilliant, and always cool and intelligent account of the world we have now inherited. If it is not up to his very best work it should be recalled just how demanding a standard he has set.

But there are one or two crucial changes that have taken place in the world—the death of communism, for instance, or the related loss of faith in History and the therapeutic functions of the state about which the author is not always well pleased. That is a pity, since it shapes and sometimes misshapes his account in ways that may lessen its impact upon those who most need to read and learn from it. And I missed, in his version of the twentieth century, the ruthlessly questioning eye which has made him so indispensable a guide to the nineteenth. In a striking apologia pro vita sua, Eric Hobsbawm reminds us that historians are “the professional remembrancers of what their fellow-citizens wish to forget.” It is a demanding and unforgiving injunction.

This Issue

May 25, 1995