The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914-1991.
By Eric Hobsbawm.
Pantheon Books. 627 pages, $30
Eric Hobsbawm ranks among the most prolific and most influential British historians of the entire postwar era. He is also a person who, throughout his long career, has without apology identified himself as a man of the left. So he remains today.
For Hobsbawm, history is the continuation of politics by other means. In exploring the past, the historian’s true purpose is to shape the future. Thus, whether acknowledged or not, real history, serious history, is always deeply political. Neither predisposed to avoid controversy nor willing to confine himself to arid subjects of antiquarian interest, Hobsbawm makes no pretense of dispassionate objectivity. His is political history in the grand manner: he appropriates the largest canvas within reach and attacks it with bold, slashing interpretative strokes. And Hobsbawm appears to relish controversy. His overall aim is less to inform the ignorant or to enlighten the befuddled than to rally the like-minded and to antagonize the opposition.
Among Hobsbawm’s best-known works is a trilogy on the “long nineteenth century,” his term for the period from 1789 to 1914 during which European influence reached seemingly unassailable heights. The Age of Extremes forms a sequel to that trilogy, charting the course of what Hobsbawm has labeled the “short twentieth century” extending from the outbreak of World War I (and the ensuing demise of Europe) through the end of the Cold War-a history, not incidentally, of Hobsbawm’s own time.
This is a deeply personal account. Although the narrator seldom intrudes directly into the story, Hobsbawm’s version of the “short century” revolves to a large extent around the great controversies that animated the era’s myriad progressives, social revolutionaries, and proponents of secular utopia-in short, the sundry groups that comprise the modern left with which Hobsbawm has aligned himself and that (with few exceptions) derived singular inspiration from the upheaval that in 1917 overturned the old order in Russia and gave birth to that beacon of social justice and humanitarian virtue, the Soviet Union. The Age of Extremes can best be understood as a testimonial to that left, Hobsbawm’s effort to explain how such a worthy enterprise has now ended in abject and humiliating failure, its ideals discredited, its vast pretensions demolished. Above all, in recounting the “short twentieth century’s” descent into barbarism, Hobsbawm seeks to absolve the left of any responsibility for the era’s various horrors and to refute any suggestion that the Grand Cause itself might have been from the very outset misguided, if not inherently malignant.
It’s a tough case to make, one requiring both bravado and guile. Hobsbawm offers plenty of both. He regales his reader with tales of his heroes: “the noble Ho Chi Minh,” “the pacifically-minded Khrushchev,” and, of course, “Fidel”-”strong and charismatic [and] determined to demonstrate personal bravery and to be a hero of whatever cause of freedom against tyranny.” Hobsbawm acknowledges, but cannot quite bring himself to condemn, the crimes of Joseph Stalin. To do so would undermine his overall depiction of the Soviet Union as brave and admirable, unappreciated and willfully misunderstood. Thus, he advises, “the victory over Hitler’s Germany was essentially won, and could only have been won, by the Red Army.” (Emphasis added.) Having thus delivered the world from the scourge of fascism, communism next proceeded to save capitalism from itself “by providing it with the incentive, fear, to reform itself after the Second World War.” Such fear on the part of the West was, of course, quite misplaced, since the Soviet Union at war’s end yearned for nothing so much as to sustain “the framework of the all-embracing anti-fascist alliance, i.e., it looked forward to a long-term coexistence, or rather symbiosis, of capitalist and Communist systems.”
Responsibility for the ensuing Cold War thus rests squarely upon the West (above all, upon the United States), which whipped itself into a frenzy over “the supposed Soviet threat.” That such a threat never existed, according to Hobsbawm, is patently obvious. Stalin entertained no imperial aspirations. There was no Soviet monolith, merely “a consortium of Communist states, organized around the Soviet Union.” (Did the residents of, say, Budapest in 1956 or Prague in 1968 somehow misconstrue the privileges accruing to them as members of this consortium? On this point, Hobsbawm is silent.) Wherever its political influence extended beyond its own borders, the USSR was “specifically committed to [building] mixed economies under multiparty parliamentary democracies.”
Moreover, the economic and technological superiority of the West was from the outset so evident that for the capitalist bloc to feel challenged by communism was clearly absurd. The Cold War, “from the start, was a war of unequals.” Thus, if we are to believe Hobsbawm, the Soviet Union was simultaneously so mighty that it alone possessed the strength to crush Nazi Germany and so benign and so weak that mindless hysteria along could explain why anyone would suspect Stalin’s peaceful intentions.
And so it goes: that “passionate reformer” Mikhail Gorbachev is commended for singlehandedly extricating the world from the jaws of the Cold War; Israel is stigmatized and then quickly dismissed as simply a “new anti-Arab state”; the Catholic Church is repeatedly denounced for siding with the forces of political reaction against the forces of enlightenment. Indeed, Hobsbawm’s antipathy for virtually all religion forms a recurrent underlying theme.
Were The Age of Extremes merely an apology for the left, it would be of limited interest. To the author’s credit, his book is much more than that. According to Hobsbawm, future generations contemplating the furious ideological rows that fixed the attention of elites in the decades after 1917 may well wonder what all the fuss was about-not that the arguments over fascism or communism were pointless, but that in the long run they will turn out to be of less consequence than the massive technological, social, and cultural changes that have so transformed global society during the short twentieth century. The result, Hobsbawm argues, is that the world in which democratic capitalism has triumphed is, in fact, a world on the brink of profound crisis.
That Hobsbawm all too predictably attributes that crisis entirely to the crimes and excesses of capitalism is a point that need not detain us. That the maladies to which he points do indeed constitute a crisis of historic proportions is an argument that merits thoughtful consideration. Many items in his bill of particulars-recurring episodes of unspeakable violence and savagery decades after civilized peoples proclaimed “never again,” growing desperation throughout much of the so-called Third World, the malaise of affluent societies suffering from the increasing “privatization of life” and the growth of “consumer egoism,” the inadequacy and corruption of politics even in mature democracies, the diminished capacity of established institutions to respond to the challenges that they face-transcend ideology. Hobsbawm is on to something: with regard to the problems confronting mankind today, there is something different, larger, and particularly frightening.
To turn to Hobsbawm and his colleagues on the Old Left for a remedy to those problems, however, would be hazardous if not downright reckless. They have had their moment and the world is still tallying up the cost of the havoc they wreaked. Yet the collapse of the left’s visions for a secular utopia-however welcome-does not detract from the validity of its critique. Rather, the very depth of that failure might remind us that the ultimate solution to our present crisis-if solution there be-is likely to be found not in the realm of politics but in the realm of the spirit.
A.J. Bacevichis Executive Director of the Foreign Policy Institute at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C.