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Hobsbawm’s Century

Eric Hobsbawm The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914–1991 (New York: Pantheon, 1995), 349 pp., $27.95, cloth.

Justin Rosenberg is Lecturer in International Relations at The London School of Economics and Political Science. He would like to thank Winifred Amaturo, Chris Boyle, Simon Bromley, and Gregory Elliott for helpful comments and suggestions.

The Challenge of the Twentieth Century

In 1902, the Rationalist Press Association issued a pamphlet entitled A New Catechism. Like the classic Roman Catholic statement of belief on which it was modeled, the document comprised a long list of questions and answers. However, the faith which it rehearsed was not belief in Christianity, but rather belief in secular human reason. The pamphlet opened with a stirring dedication:

We baptize the twentieth century—in the name of Peace, Liberty, and Progress! We christen her—the People’s Century. We ask of the new century a Religion without superstition; Politics without war; Science and the arts without materialism; and wealth without misery or wrong!

It is, surely, impossible for us, standing ninety-three years later at the end of that twentieth century, to read these words without sensing the enormous contrast with what has actually come to pass in our times. For whatever else it has been, this century, baptized in the name of Peace, Liberty, and Progress, has also turned out to be a century of world wars on a scale never before witnessed, of tyrannies which have visited unexampled terror on their tormented populations and, by some accounts, a generalized regression into barbarism (even by constitutional states) which would have appalled our forebears of the nineteenth century.

In turn, we cannot sense this contrast without asking further: why has the twentieth century turned out so differently from the rosy prognostications of the Rationalist Press Association? However, it is not only the calendrical vantage point of the approaching centenary which would prompt such a mood of retrospection. For the apparently sudden and complete collapse of historical communism, culminating in the formal dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, has generated a much deeper sense of an ending, of a historical period now closed and moving irrevocably into the past. And there is thus a widely shared feeling that we can finally look back on the tumult of our times with what has been called "that secret weapon of the historian, hindsight." The unity of a historical epoch has been laid bare. The time has now come to explain it and to make moral and political and sociological sense of what has happened.

This task has a particular relevance in the intellectual climate of the l990s. For it seems that so great have been the traumas of the twentieth century, and so disorienting the course of its events (above all the manner of its ending) that they have thrown into question the fundamental Enlightenment belief in progress itself. In its place we increasingly find a postmodernist disillusionment which rejects any attempt—especially a Marxist one—to provide a systematic explanation of the course of modern world history (linking this to discredited Grand Narratives). This is accompanied by a retreat from all universalist forms—but especially socialist forms—of political commitment (which are now regarded as inherently oppressive).

Buried within this double skepticism there lies, in fact, a definite historical claim. This is the claim that the period now ending is not just the specific convulsion of the twentieth century, but rather the two-hundred- year political history of the Enlightenment itself—namely, of that period in which it seemed that the advance of reason and the movement of history both pointed to social changes that would bring about freer and more just societies in the future. Implicit in any assertion of "postmodernity" is the belief that this "modern" age of the Enlightenment is now passed. If this historical claim could be validated by reference to the course of the twentieth century, it would surely be postmodernism’s strongest card. If not, however, then the whole posture of linked skepticism and defeatism might turn out rather to be a symptom of intellectual and political disorientation—a sign of the times, indeed, but no basis for understanding them.

Well, does the record of the twentieth century really warrant such claims? Does its course decisively refute a Marxist understanding of history? And are we now in a postmodern age in which socialist politics is out of date? In order to answer these questions, we need first to stand back and try to view the century as a whole. The publication of Eric Hobsbawm’s The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914–1991, gives us an early opportunity to do this.1

By definition, it is not yet possible for a history of the twentieth century to be written by anyone but a "participant observer." The Age of Extremes thus "rests on curiously uneven foundations." Its numerous gaps and idiosyncrasies reflect the preoccupations of Hobsbawm’s own personal formation. Yet simply the effort at an overview is illuminating. For what his account shows is that, as it begins to emerge uncertainly into the light of historical perspective, the course of the twentieth century certainly appears paradoxical; but it is not incomprehensible. The problems which humanity faces at the end of it are indeed daunting—in fact, Hobsbawm himself is deeply pessimistic about our chances of overcoming them; but they are not unrecognizable. And finally, the need for a progressive politics which grasps how these problems are rooted in the very nature of capitalist development is as real as ever. In short, this is no time for epistemological skepticism and political disengagement.

Hobsbawm’s Century

Before turning to The Age of Extremes, it may help to recall the approach used by Hobsbawm in his celebrated trilogy on the "long nineteenth century," to which the present book forms the successor volume. In the opening pages of that trilogy, Hobsbawm had provided a classic statement of a Marxist understanding of modern world history. This statement combined four key assertions. First, the world that we know today has its origins in the linked industrial and political revolutions toward the end of the eighteenth century, revolutions which launched the greatest transformation of human society in history. Second, this transformation itself has a particular sociological character which is the key to explaining its dynamics and consequences: it is driven not by the spread of industry as such, but rather by the spread of capitalist industry. An understanding of capitalist society is therefore indispensable for making sense of the modern world which it has created. Third, however, this revolutionary transformation did not erupt simultaneously across the world. On the contrary, it began at particular places—England and France—and then spread outward from there over an extended period of time. Thus its development into the (still far from complete) global phenomenon we see today includes not only its own internal dynamics of growth, but also those set in train by its encounter with, and uneven transformation of many other societies of different kinds. Finally, modern world history has increasingly been (and hence needs to be understood as) the history of this process of combined and uneven development: its major events are linked with the struggles which arise from both the external expansion of capitalism across the world and the maintenance of its internal structures of domination and exploitation.

In his trilogy on the nineteenth century, Hobsbawm followed this process up to the start of the First World War. And it is by carrying forward the narrative of its further progress that he now proposes to explain the upheavals and transformations of the twentieth century. In an opening "bird’s-eye-view" of this century, he observes that it seems to fall into three quite distinct historical periods or conjunctures. In an initial period of turmoil (the Age of Catastrophe,1914-1945), the liberal capitalist world of the nineteenth century collapsed into world war and general crisis. This was followed by a middle period, (the Golden Age,1945- 1973), in which a restructured capitalism, chastened and balanced by the existence of the Soviet Union, entered onto a phase of unprecedented expansion. Finally, however, this Golden Age itself gave way to a third period (the Landslide,1973-1991) characterized by a renewed loss of control and partial collapse. Explaining this overall rhythm, which comprises the distinctive movement of the twentieth century, is the central purpose of the book.

The Age of Catastrophe, 1914–1945

"Capitalist society faces a dilemma," wrote Rosa Luxemburg in the midst of the First World War, "either an advance to Socialism or a reversion to barbarism."2 So it must have seemed, as "the great edifice of nineteenth-century civilization crumpled in the flames of world war" (p. 22).3 And yet the disasters which followed had a more specific sociological content than the term "barbarism" would suggest. They were recognizably the outcome of a general crisis of capitalism. Indeed, all the leading actors in this Age of Catastrophe—communism, fascism, and the "New Deal" United States—came into existence as responses to this crisis. (Can one even imagine the emergence of the Soviet Union in any historical world except one defined predominantly by its capitalist character?) And it was to be the bloody resolution of this same crisis of capitalism that would decisively shape the course of the short twentieth century as a whole—thus forming "the hinge of twentieth-century history and its decisive moment" (p. 7). The First World War began as an inter-imperialist conflict among the leading capitalist powers. But it opened the way to a series of huge blows which, in this Age of

Catastrophe, would threaten the continued existence of capitalism itself. As the war dragged on, the senseless slaughter and deepening economic exhaustion combined to generate a wave of political instability across the continent which ultimately "swept away all regimes from Vladivostok to the Rhine" (p. 673). This revolutionary tide was stemmed in Central Europe, but in defeated Russia a full- blown communist challenge had emerged, surviving attempts to overthrow it through civil war and outside military intervention. From now on, capitalism would have to live with the dual domestic and international threat to its existence represented by the, October Revolution. As a result,

with the significant exception of the years from 1933 to 1945, the international politics of the entire Short Twentieth Century since the October Revolution can best be understood as a secular struggle by the forces of the old order against social revolution. (p. 56)

In fact, the Soviet Union’s self-image as the geopolitical gravedigger and historical successor to capitalism never approached reality. Created in conditions of exceptional capitalist breakdown, its fate was sealed by the failure of the revolution to spread westward to Germany. For this left the Bolsheviks cut off from outside support, and faced with the peculiar dilemmas of an anticapitalist revolution catapulted to power over a largely precapitalist empire of peasants. (As late as 1926, peasants formed over 82 percent of the population.) Ultimately it was these dilemmas which ensured that Soviet communism would take the form of an authoritarian program for "modernizing" peasant economies, rather than a society which could hold out to liberal capitalism the image of its own future. As Hobsbawm puts it: "The tragedy of the October Revolution was precisely that it could only produce its kind of ruthless, brutal, command socialism" (p. 498).

In the crisis-ridden 1920s and 1930s, however, the governments of European states were in no position to take this for granted. What made the October Revolution doubly threatening was the continued political tensions and economic instability in the West, aggravated by the terms of the Versailles settlement. The drastic penalties imposed on Germany gave this settlement the form of a diktat, and the effective withdrawal of the United States left it resting on a temporary and unviable Anglo-French condominium. Meanwhile, the intercontinental structure of debt which grew out of the system of reparations both increased the difficulties of postwar recovery and contributed to the causes and intensity of the next great shock: the Slump of 1929-1931. This slump brought the world economy to its knees—producing a 60 percent collapse in international trade and a huge corresponding leap in the numbers of unemployed across Europe and the Americas. Moreover, it accelerated that European retreat of constitutional liberalism in the face of right-wing authoritarianism which so darkened the skies in the interwar period.

World war, communist revolution, an unviable peace, economic slump, the retreat of liberalism: it is in this dynamic historical sequence of deepening crisis in the capitalist world that Hobsbawm locates the origins and momentum of fascism as a political movement. At once a violent counterrevolution against communism (domestic and international) and a radical rejection of liberal constitutional politics, historical fascism represented a comprehensive refusal of the universalist, rationalist, democratic, and egalitarian aspirations of the Enlightenment itself. For this reason, the historical meaning of the Second World War—"almost certainly the largest [catastrophe] in history"—is utterly different from that of the First, even though they took the same form of a German bid for dominance (p. 52). The Age of Catastrophe had opened with an inter-imperialist war. It ended three decades later with an apocalyptic struggle between "on the one hand the descendants of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment and the great revolutions including, obviously, the Russian revolution, [and] on the other, its opponents" (p. 144).

The general crisis destroyed forever the world of the long nineteenth century—a world dominated by colonial empires with Europe at their center. Fatally weakened by the strains of war, these enormous empires would be dissolved in a mere three decades after 1945. Meanwhile, Europe itself was to be divided and occupied by two new "superpowers." "Probably the most lasting economic effect of both world wars," says Hobsbawm, "was to give the U.S. economy a global preponderance during the whole of the Short Twentieth Century" (p. 48). Soviet power too was forged in the crucible of the general crisis created in the aftermath of military defeat, industrialized during the Slump and Depression, and hugely advancing its strategic significance through its victory over fascism. Thus the Age of Catastrophe ended by projecting the central political conflict of the modern world—that between capitalism and communist revolution—onto the geopolitical stage of world politics for the first time.

It was, however, a paradoxical, partial, skewed expression of this conflict, full of historical ironies, political non sequiturs and unintended consequences. For Hobsbawm argues that far from destroying liberal capitalism, the Soviet Union was in fact instrumental in saving it—first by destroying the German army, and then by pioneering the use of economic planning, a Keynesian version of which would help stabilize capitalist growth after the war. In addition, he suggests that the Western working classes would benefit from the preemptive social welfare programs which capitalist states undertook in the face of the Soviet challenge. The progressive influence thus exercised on capitalist development by the Soviet threat was, however, deeply paradoxical: for the same uneven development which had made Russia the weak link that snapped in the general crisis also ensured that it could not go on to provide a progressive image of a communist future. On the contrary, a generation of Western communists now found that their hopes for that future were associated with an "enormous hulk of a territory which was virtually a synonym for economic and social backwardness in Europe" (p. 376). And with a regime, moreover, which (in its brutal collectivization program and insane purges) had made its own ample contribution to "that…renaissance of barbarism, which runs like a dark thread through this book" (p. 392).

In the years that followed, many communists found these contradictions impossible to resolve in practice—as witnessed by the steady demise of pro-Soviet Communist parties after 1956. Hobsbawm’s own peculiar treatment of Stalinism in this work shows him to be still wrestling with them.4 They are not, however, inexplicable. We can see how they reflected the tangled political outcome of the Age of Catastrophe—an outcome which, in the form of the Cold War, would now cast a long shadow over the rest of the century.

The Golden Age, 1945–1973

The mid-century "Golden Age" in which this singular contest unfolded was in fact marked by the conjunction of three major historical processes. The first of these was the "long boom," a quarter- century surge of economic growth which produced the most rapid material expansion of capitalism in its two-hundred-year history. Second was the dissolution of the European empires, which gradually replaced the colonial world order with a system of sovereign states. Finally there was the Cold War itself, in whose linked domestic and international politics the superpowers and their allies pursued the conflict between capitalism and the Communist challenge. In the interweaving and the political and military management of these three processes lies the history of the Golden Age.

In many ways they reinforced each other. For example, the Cold War was a significant enabling factor for the long boom. The Communist challenge to the political stability of the capitalist world drew the U.S. state into an unprecedented role in managing the global economic and geopolitical system—a role centered on the reconstruction of its European and Japanese rivals. Beyond the direct effect of the Marshall Plan, the huge U.S. expenditures on the construction and maintenance of military bases in Europe and the Far East provided an important outflow of liquidity to a dollar-starved international economy. The huge expansion of this expenditure at the time of the two major U.S. military operations of the Cold War—Korea and Vietnam—proved to be milestones in the postwar "take-off" of the Japanese and South Korean economies respectively.

At the same time, the Cold War also exercised an important influence on the process of decolonization. The granting of independence was accelerated by the existence of two superpowers, both ideologically opposed to traditional colonialism. The rigid bipolarity of the Cold War international system into which the new states emerged provided a stable geopolitical environment and meant that indigenous elites whose legitimacy was only weakly rooted in their own societies could look to outside support to remain in power. Furthermore, the U.S. desire for politically stable Third World allies led it to tolerate high levels of tariff protection and state control of industry in these countries. In turn, these strategies of national development based on import substitution were themselves enabled by the favorable conditions of the long boom which provided stable expanding metropolitan markets for Third World exports.

A central feature of the Cold War—though one only partly explored in Hobsbawm’s account—was the powerful interconnection between its domestic and international aspects. For although the United States ringed the Soviet Union with hostile military alliances (NATO, CENTO, SEATO, etc.) this was always much more than a geopolitical confrontation. The fact that the Soviet Union had grown out of a conflict that was internal to capitalist society meant that the external territorial containment of the Soviet Union was unavoidably linked to the internal political management of class conflict.

For every capitalist country contained at the heart of its own social structure the conflicting elements of the international confrontation. And in the aftermath of the general crisis, several still had electorally strong Communist parties.

Furthermore, no Third World country could industrialize on the Western model without bringing into existence within itself these same antagonists. Decolonization was thus fraught with dangers which—especially after the loss of China to Communist revolution in 1949—no U.S. administration could ignore. These dangers lay in the explosive mixture of new and unstable states, often emerging into independence after a campaign of anti-imperialist struggle, ambitious for a rapid transition to industrial growth and attracted by the apparent success of the non-Western model of the Soviet Union. For the series of Soviet five-year plans begun in 1928 had, at enormous human cost, forcibly collectivized agriculture and constructed a heavy industrial base whose production tripled between 1929 and 1940. The capacity of this command economy to push through social transformation on such a scale made it appear an alternative model for Third World development in the postwar period. And indeed, "the major and lasting impact of the regimes inspired by the October revolution was as a powerful accelerator of the modernization of backward agrarian countries" (p. 9). It was not for nothing that Walt Rostow had described communism as a "disease of the transition" and had subtitled his famous primer on development economics "A Non-Communist Manifesto."5: Eight years later, Samuel Huntington warned that the West needed to provide alternative models of political organization to compete with Leninism in the Third World.6

In short, for all the cynicism of great power maneuvering and the insanity of the nuclear arms race, the Cold War too had a real political content: the political stabilization of West European capitalism following the general crisis and the counterrevolutionary management of social change—if necessary by direct intervention—in the Third World.

The combined processes of the Golden Age wrought a huge change in the material and social conditions of human existence. Under the stabilizing influence of expanding and interventionist welfare states, world manufactured output rose by four times between the early 1950s and the 1970s, while international trade multiplied tenfold. Much of this growth and deepening interdependence was accounted for by the explosion of new mass markets, which spread U.S.-style consumer capitalism to Europe. Associated with the private car, mass air-package tourism, telephones, transistor radios, and televisions, it was underpinned by a series of technological advances which remade the fabric of everyday life. In the long term, however, the Golden Age would be remembered most of all for bringing about "the greatest, most rapid, and most fundamental (economic, social, and cultural transformation) in recorded history" (p. 8). By this Hobsbawm means the end of an 8,000-year period in which most humans in most societies lived directly off the land, and the corresponding emergence of an increasingly urbanized and industrialized world. With the exceptions of India, China, and Sub-Saharan Africa, the numerical collapse of the peasantry in this period across the world was indeed dramatic—more rapid even than the dissolution of Europe’s peasantries in the nineteenth century. In Japan it fell from 52.4 to 9 percent of the population between 1947 and 1985. Across Latin America it more or less halved, from 50 to 25 percent of the population. And to take an extreme though not entirely unrepresentative example from the Middle East, Algeria’s peasant population fell from 75 to 20 percent in only thirty years. In short, "for 80 per cent of humanity, the Middle Ages ended suddenly in the 1950s…" (p.288).

The Landslide, 1973-1991

"The history of the twenty years after 1973," says Hobsbawm, "is that of a world which lost its bearings and slid into instability and crisis" (p. 403). It is the systematic nature of this undoing, climaxing in the Soviet collapse of 1991, which enables us to look back and see the shape of the passing century as an interconnected whole. And yet, if there was one thing which the passage of the twentieth century had not done, it was to carry the world into a "postmodern" age. If we look forward, he says, we find that the problems confronting humanity at the end of the short twentieth century hang on a single question: can some form of social control be reimposed on the global process of capitalist development before it is too late? For historically, the public authority of the state had provided the only known institutional and political controls on the chaotic effects of capitalist growth and crisis. Yet, according to Hobsbawm, the principal effect of the landslide was a sharp reduction in the power of the nation-state, as an increasingly transnational world economy wrested itself free of sovereign controls.

This crisis did not take the form of a return to the 1930s. The world economy did not collapse as a whole, growth in the advanced capitalist countries continued—though slowed— and international trade went on growing. What darkened the picture, however, was the reappearance of cyclical slumps in growth, coupled with a secular rise in unemployment which no longer rose and fell with the economic cycle.

Since the principal expression in the West of this renewed economic turbulence was the failure of Keynesian state policies to sustain stable growth, the period witnessed a sharp electoral retreat of social democracy. However, the neoliberal policies of deregulation which succeeded it only accelerated further the loss of control by national states over the operation of the transnational economy which had been enormously expanded during the golden age.

This transnationalizing of the world economy was reflected in all three areas of finance, trade, and production. The rise of the Eurodollar market (from $14b in 1964 to $500b in 1978) contributed to a partial loss of state control over exchange rates and world money supply. The dramatic increase in the numbers of transnational companies eroded the international character of the world market. By the 1980s they accounted for perhaps three quarters of U.S. exports and half its imports. This in turn accelerated a third process: a partial relocation of old industries out of the core capitalist countries, to create a new international division of labor. Between 1970 and 1983 the Third World share of global industrial exports doubled—partly due to indigenous development, but partly also to incorporation within these new global production processes. In this way, finance, trade, and production in the world economy all loosened their national moorings as the Golden Years wore on.

A minority of (mainly East Asian) Third World economies maintained high rates of growth, thus achieving the first significant extension of capitalist industrialization beyond the OECD. For most Third World states, however, the Landslide coincided with a widespread collapse of national development strategies. Across Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia, the Third World plunged heavily into international debt, generating a series of crises which seemed capable in the early 1980s of endangering the international financial system itself. Moreover, this economic crisis was accompanied by an ideological crisis of secular modernization on either the Western or Eastern models. Thus although the 1970s saw a string of Third World revolutions, these no longer looked back to 1789 or even 1917 for their inspiration. Those in Africa (the majority) were mainly quasi-tribal revolts against the failing Portuguese empire: "The only relevance of Marxism-Leninism to these countries was a recipe for forming disciplined cadre parties and authoritarian governments" (p. 451). Meanwhile, the Iranian revolution was carried out by "a populist theocracy whose professed program was a return to the seventh century AD" (p. 455).

Disillusionment with "modernization," however, did not mean escape from the modern world. On the contrary, as the 1980s wore on, and under the pressure of its debt obligations, virtually the entire Third World was drawn into a rolling program of "structural adjustment." In return for continued financial support, and albeit to varying degrees, dozens of governments gave up the sovereign direction of their economic policies to the OECD-controlled International Monetary Fund. In the 1990s, the Third World was followed into this new web of capitalist power by the former Communist states. With this development, the IMF-coordinated proliferation of "structural adjustment packages" became surely the most comprehensive attempt ever made to extend the disciplines of the capitalist market across the world.

The Soviet Union went down with the short twentieth century which had created it, increasing further the level of disorder in the international system, and leaving behind a resurgent, disorganized capitalism to frame the problems of the next millennium. It is on these problems that Hobsbawm focuses in the closing pages of the book.

So far as the world economy is concerned, the problem is not growth but the distribution of wealth. For with the weakening of the control of the nation-state over the transnational economy (and the continuing erosion of traditional support systems such as the family), the victims of its uneven development, including the millions of unemployed in the OECD countries, find themselves increasingly abandoned by their own societies. Meanwhile, the disappearance of the Soviet Union has removed the major strategic incentive for the West to address the widening international gap between the rich countries and the poor. Hobsbawm foresees increasing international conflict along this fault line; and although the North may be immune to any conventional military threat from the South, it badly needs the latter’s cooperation in order to address the two looming global crises of the twenty-first century. The first of these is the continuing population explosion in the South (which has already, in the course of the century, halved the demographic weight of the OECD countries to some 15 percent of the world’s people). Not only will this increase the pressure on the environment and exacerbate conflicts within the Third World: its conjunction with an aging and perhaps contracting northern workforce seems likely to result in further mass labor migration to the North, with its attendant problems of rising ethnic tensions. Second, there is the ecological crisis itself, deepening with the continuing failure to control the accelerating spread of industrialization: "From the environmental point of view, if humanity was to have a future, the capitalism of the Crisis Decades could have none" (p. 570).


Does the course of the twentieth century justify the linked intellectual and political skepticism of postmodernism? Three main conclusions may be drawn from this brief discussion of Hobsbawm’s account.

First, grand narrative or no grand narrative, the attempt at a systematic or "totalizing" explanation of modern world history is not simply a willful obsession of deluded intellectuals: it is a requirement given empirically by the nature of that history itself. This was already becoming apparent in the nineteenth century, as the relentless logic of European expansion incorporated more and more of humanity into a single geopolitical system for the first time. By the end of the twentieth century, however, the willfulness lies patently with anyone who seeks to deny the need for large-scale, systematic, historical explanation. For this has been an age of world wars, of ideological conflicts superimposed on a global state-system, of booms and slumps that were worldwide in their impact, and of (ecological and political) challenges which now confront the whole of humanity.

Hobsbawm believes that exploring the capitalist character of this historical crescendo is the key to understanding it. One might question how well he has gone about this task.7 One might even challenge the central premise itself. But in that case, it is necessary to provide a better explanation of these events: a retreat from explanation into epistemological skepticism will not suffice.

Yet when, secondly, we do look at the course of this century, do not its traumas and ironies precisely refute any rationalist nineteenth-century optimism, rendering obsolete the progressivist political theories produced at that time? Are we not in this respect living in a different, "postmodern" age? Here a slightly different point needs to be made. For Marx’s understanding of the movement of history was not based on a simple belief in progress. The author of Capital would never have put his name to the Rationalist Press Association’s baptism of the twentieth century. On the contrary, much of his intellectual energy was devoted to a monumental critique of Enlightenment thought, showing why the capitalist society associated with it was an obstacle to the realization of its ideals. For the political freedom of the individual which it proclaimed was inseparable from new "economic" class relations of domination and exploitation. And the enormous increase in human productive powers which it accomplished, precisely because it was driven by the anarchical competitive logic of the market, was achieved at the cost of forsaking rational direction over the course of social development. The twin forms in which these contradictions found expression were a continuing class struggle and periodic economic crises. And although Marx did not give up the Enlightenment’s faith in the possibility of human development, it was in these contradictions peculiar to capitalism as a kind of society, rather than in any transhistorical laws of progress, that he anticipated the pressure for socialist transformation.

What Hobsbawm’s history shows is that it is these same contradictions, not in some pure theoretical form, but refracted through the real course of uneven development, which have shaped the short twentieth century, just as (in different ways) they shaped the nineteenth century before it. What, after all, are we to say of a century dominated by a general crisis of capitalism and its Cold War aftermath, a century which accelerated the dissolution of the world’s peasantries and ended on the precarious verge of the greatest geographical expansion of capitalism yet- into the former Soviet bloc and China? It has certainly been by turns horrific, inspiring, bewildering, breathtaking, and frightening. But postmodern? Surely not.

It follows that a theory of capitalism remains central to any understanding of the twentieth century and the challenges which humanity faces at the end of it. It also follows that any progressive politics which seeks to address those challenges must be rooted in an engagement with the capitalist social relations that are their source.

A last conclusion must point beyond what Hobsbawm has been able to provide in this book. Images of capitalism as a juggernaut racing to destruction have formed a recurrent motif over the two centuries of its existence. And this book too is not short of forebodings. Hobsbawm’s narrative of the twentieth century begins with "the lamps…going out all over Europe" and ends almost despairingly on the word "darkness" (p. 22). Perhaps understandably. But is such pessimism really the necessary conclusion to a Marxist history of the twentieth century? Or is not this century, like the nineteenth century before it, pregnant with the contradictory possibilities of capitalist development? In Hobsbawm’s case, it is striking how much of his despair is actually connected with the demise of the Soviet Union. For him this demise marks a double defeat. It proves the ideological bankruptcy of the only existing alternative to capitalism. And it removes a political and geopolitical counterweight whose existence had compelled the Western states to reduce the social inequalities generated by capitalism and bring its anarchical tendencies under temporary control. There is some sense to this, but it is far from being the whole story. The Age of Extremes is largely silent about the sources of opposition and demands for justice within capitalist societies. Yet it was these internal pressures, expressed in the struggles and demands of the labor movement—much more than any external cause—which lay behind the welfare states and social democratic politics of the postwar era. It is almost as if Hobsbawm had forgotten that the real ground of socialist politics never was the existence of the Soviet Union but rather the existence of capitalism.

If so, then it is little wonder that he should be so dispirited; but equally, his pessimism is not wholly warranted. Indeed, one could argue that few things did more to discredit socialism in the twentieth century than the existence of the Soviet Union. And the very least we can say about the future is that if capitalism is entering a new phase of global development, that new phase cannot help but give rise to new forms of political struggle and contestation. It is on these real historical struggles that the socialist politics of the twenty-first century will be built.


  1. Michael Joseph, London 1994.
  2. Rosa Luxemburg, Selected Political Writings R. Looker ed., 1972. Luxemburg was in fact quoting Engels.
  3. Numbers in parentheses indicate references to The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914–1991 (New York: Pantheon, 1995).
  4. The chapters dealing with the Age of Catastrophe contain no significant discussion of Stalinism. Rather, in a striking and unexplained disruption of the chronological organization of the work, treatment of the Stalinist degeneration of the 1930s is deferred to part 11 of the book, covering the Golden Age (from the late 1940s to the early 1970s).
  5. The Stages of Economic Growth, 1960.
  6. Political Order in Changing Societies (New Haven, 1968).
  7. For example, his sociology of "modernization" in the postwar Third World is sketchy in the extreme, often not advancing beyond a statistical register of demographic and occupational shifts. And in an epoch which must have seen the emergence of more sovereign states than any other, there is no consideration of the processes of state-formation.
1995, Volume 47, Issue 03 (July-August)
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