Eric Hobsbawm
Age of Extremes The Short Twentieth Century, 1914-1991
Sydney Morning Herald
, 17 December 1994, Spectrum, 9A

A few historians are foxes who know a little about everything. Most try to be hedgehogs, who know one thing thoroughly. Eric Hobsbawm is both. He recognises how each experience is understood best when placed within the totality of human activities.

This breadth of interest makes Hobsbawm exceptional. The specialisation of the assembly line long ago spread to academe, where Hobsbawm is both envied and ridiculed for a willingness to chance his arm at a global synthesis. A scholar would have devoted his career to research on the felt-hatters of south London during the 1870s.

Now, Hobsbawm has broken another rule of the profession by writing a history which comes up to 1994. Age of extremes concludes a sequence begun in 1962 with The Age of Revolution 1789-1848, followed by The Age of Capital 1848-1875 and The Age of Empire, 1875-1914. This quartet surveys the worlds of capitalism since the French Revolution, a sweep Hobsbawm undertook in 1968 for Britain with a single volume, Industry and Empire.

Meanwhile, he burrowed into the conditions of human labour to tackle such topics as the images of women in progressive propaganda. He also published on Bandits (1969), Nations and Nationalism (1990) and co-edited The Invention of Tradition 1983). The last continues to stimulate research into how much of what we revere as timeless was made up little more than a century ago, one example being popular affection for the British royals. Another of Hobsbawm’s fascinations has been the jazz scene, about which he published a collection of reviews under the name Francis Newton in 1969. That disguise was necessary to protect both his reputation as an English don and his good standing as a friend of the Soviet Union where jazz was treated as a weapon of US imperialism rather than as an expression of Afro-American folk cultures.

The range of daring of Hobsbawm’s approach cannot, however, excuse weaknesses in how he delineates the whole picture. Age of Extremes is a disappointment. Had I not had to review it, I would have not persisted with it. In that case, I would have missed the excellence of three short sections – one on the USSR before 1980, another about the industrialization of mass culture from 1914 to 1945, and a third chapter on the natural sciences.

The subtlety of his comments on science suggests that Hobsbawm has not lost the wish he had had while at Cambridge to become a geneticist or a physicist, if only his mathematics had been stronger. He shows shy scientists need to know the history of their disciplines if they are to avoid the errors that flow from the assumption that present models are irrefutable.

Apologists for any status quo reveal the barrenness of their thought through their inability to comprehend that the present is history. Hobsbawm opens his Age of Extremes by dismissing the triumphalism of the followers of Francis Fukuyama who look at the past six years and discern the “End of History”.

Fukuyama, at least, never suggested that we have seen the last of wars and revolutions. His point was that such conflicts will no longer express a global competition between ideologies about how to arrange human affairs. For Hobsbawm, who is the most esteemed of the surviving British-based historians attached to a Marxist tradition, this dispute is more than academic.

Hobsbawm’s project should be approached through his political and scholarly careers. Born in Austria in 1917, he was at school in Berlin as Hitler rose to power. He moved to Britain, where he became a fellow of King’s College, Cambridge, and, before retirement. Was a professor of social and economic history at the University of London.

His dozen or so books have become standards texts for the comprehension of the world since the late 18th century. Even teachers scandalised by Hobsbawm’s politics rest on his writings for their ideas, data or examination questions. The success of his much-translated books has been guaranteed by the clarity of his prose and the aptness of his erudition, supported by fluency in several European languages.

A Jewish refugee from fascism, Hobsbawm had joined the communist movement in the 1930s. More remarkable was that he stuck until the part was over. Despite this stubbornness, he has not been a militant in the manner of ex-embers such as the fellow left-wing historian E. P. Thompson. Instead of squatting in Trafalgar Square, Hobsbawm became a tourist of other peoples’ revolutions, especially across Latin America, about which he writes with a scholarship enriched by personal contact – whether listening to Castro orate for four hours, or a Peruvian farmer chat about village life.

One sub-text of the Age of Extremes is an autobiographic account of where the communists’ hopes went awry. Hobsbawm confronts the crimes associated with their realization. Indeed, far from severing bad Stalin from good socialism, Hobsbawm concludes that Stalin expressed his megalomania through the conviction that he was building a brighter future.

In the excitement left by the global triumph for liberalism, it is worthwhile to recall that, by late 1917, the choice throughout the Russian empire was not between the lemonade parliament of Kerensky and a dictatorship headed by Lenin. The alternative was either the Bolshevik or a fascism before the name.

The Bolshevik revolution came out of wars generated within capitalism, as would most of the socialist upsurges this century. The shadow of 1917 was cast by the pyramids of corpses from the Dardenelles to the Somme. To fight their foreign enemies, ruling classes had armed their conscripted populations who thereby had the chance win a civil war. By October 1918, the German and British high commands agreed to slop the slaughter out of fear that German troops would follow the example of the Russians and turn their guns against those who had expected them to do their duty.

Since the, the balance of social forces has been shifted towards a de-labourisation of warfare so that governments could fight each other without surrendering their monopoly over the power that grows out of the barrel of a gun.

Although Hobsbawm lavishes 20 pages on the collapse of the Soviet system, he is reduced to ascribing its course to “bad luck” and “worse luck”. He emphasizes how a boom from the sales of oil and gas to the West combined with easy foreign loans of the 1970s to relive the Brezhnev clique of the urgency to reform the Soviet economy. Further, that slush of revenues encouraged the Kremlin to blow out its arms race with the US through an increase in military expenditures by 4 per cent in real terms every year.

In a society which banned photocopiers because they could be used to spread subversion, Gorbachev realized that glasnost (political openness) was essential to perestroika (economic restructuring). But by letting out the truth about his regime, he surrendered the authority to redirect the productive system. Hobsbawm does not explore whether the flexibilities of computer-aided design and manufacture might coexist with a command economy and authoritarian culture. In their different ways, Mao and Gorbachev both failed because they put politics in command of the economy.

The same could be said of Age of Extremes, which does almost nothing to connect cultural and political developments with the logic of capital accumulation. Throughout his career, Hobsbawm has quoted Marx when apposite, without relying on his texts for ready-made answers. Indeed, on issues relating to the labour process in the 19th century, Hobsbawm introduced concepts needed to elucidate whether the skilled trades became an aristocracy of labour. Beyond those specialist realism, little in his writings has been specifically Marxist. Rather, we have heard the voice of a radical equalitarian, coloured by a fondness for the USSR.

Nonetheless, Hobsbawm still affirms the relevance of Marx to any analysis of capitalism. He knows that the collapse of the Soviet Union could not refuter Marxism as a method for investigating capitalism, since Marx did not write about how to run a socialist economy. The worst that can be attributed to Marx is that he did not offer any guidance on how to do better. Around 1930, the Soviets cobbled together their plan our of the experiences of the previous decade, during which the peasantry had been allowed to grow richer but did not contribute to industrialisation.

Perhaps we should stop judging socialist revolutions as attempts to build a different socio-economic order. Leninism appealed through its anti-imperialism, which is the complement of nation building. China’s revolutions were a protracted war of national liberation from the West as well as from the Japanese. Pol Pot’s supporters still direct their fire at Vietnamese settlers. In North Korea, Kim Il Sung declared that his program of national autonomy, known as juche!, had superseded Marxism-Leninism. Deng’s leap towards a powerful economy for China is as much a fulfillment of the nationalist aims of the Chinese who supported the communists from 1937 to 1949 as any betrayal of the utopian programs attempted under Mao.

No single volume or author discussing the past 80 years can satisfy every reader. Omissions, howlers and biases are inevitable. If one marker is the accuracy of Hobsbawm’s asides about Australia, Age of Extremes makes no mistakes, though he could have added the Sydney Opera House to his list of post-1950 architectural wonders. Instead, the longest comment on Australia is seven lines about Alan Bond’s acquisition of Van Gogh’s Irises with a loan from Sotheby’s.

The fairest basis upon which to judge a work as adventurous as Age of Extremes is according to its author’s own criteria. Hobsbawm declares: “It is not the purpose of this book to tell the story of the period … My object is to understand and explain why things turned out the way they did, and how they hang together.” Had he promised no more than a narrative, Age of Extremes would be more successful on its own terms, though nonetheless weighed down by catalogues of undirected examples.

The way historians divide up the past is as much a part of our argument as any body of evidence brought in to confirm our generalizations. Hobsbawm splits the short 20th century into three segments. The first he calls an “Age of Catastrophe” between 1917 and 1947, raked by two world wars, global Depression and the retreat of liberalism in trade along with the rise of fascism. Secondly, he sees a “Golden Age” from 1947 to 1973, when the US imperium dominated, most people had never had it so good and the colonies gained independence. Since 1973, we have been in “The Landslide”, where nothing works and no alternative offers a path out of the economic and ecological disasters generating a “social breakdown rather than a revolutionary crisis”. These eras are the extremes in the title.

Within these three periods Hobsbawm points up a trio of transformations: a decline of Eurocentrism; the Globalisation of economic, military and cultural affairs; an the fraying of a historically informed consciousness about society.

Hobsbawm, however, has not extended the fading in Eurocentrism to his own writing. Asia never stars in Age of Extremes. On 22 pages of references, nine times refer to China, seven to India, none to Indonesia and only three to Japan and, of those, two are linked to the USSR and one is survey of its fiction. Further, Hobsbawm writes about the Japanese government’s decision to make war if it a lump of dirt could think or act. He fails to specify which class, stratum or individuals within Japanese society imposed that choice.

Nor is the attempt made to comprehend the geopolitics of the Chinese revolution or to analyse Mao’s role in the same way as Stalin’s. Alert as Hobsbawm is to national differences across Europe, Africa and Latin America, he treats China as a monolith, and so never considers the possibility of its break-up in the near future. Instead of attending to the contours of China’s several regions, its revolution appears as an appendage to the story of the USSR. Does Hobsbawm consider China too wicked to investigate because Mao switched sides in the Cold War?

Reluctance to probe beneath the headlines about the 1989 massacres around Beijing’s Tiananmen Square of the Pol Pot years in Cambodia means that the Hobsbawm misses the opportunity to develop two of his themes, namely the peasantry and urbanization.

Hobsbawm underlines that “the third quarter of the century marked the end of the seven or eight millennia of human history that began with the invention of agriculture … the overwhelming majority of the human race [no longer] lived by growing food and herding animals”. The consequences of that change to how most human being live will be greater than all the conflicts that have earned the 20th century the title of “the second hundred-year war”.

Kemal Ataturk’s slogan that “The peasant is the master of his country” could be extended to “The peasant is the master of this century”. Kemal voiced the notion of popular sovereignty. Few dictators went without the rhetoric that their right o rule came up from the people, not down from the goods, the emperor or the military. Yet the peasants had to be mastered for cannon and factory fodder. Their earnings were expropriated to fund Soviet industrialization in the 1930s and Wall Street balance sheets since the 1980s.

Hobsbawm would not have been surprised that the communists have just won elections in Nepal on the promise of distributing land to the peasants. He would warm those peasants not to be surprised when those reforms are turned towards industrialisation.

Peasants gained significance when they flooded the cities. Before the 1980s, the achievement of the Maoist regime had been to prevent the urbanization of China. Now some 20 million disposed rural laborers are on the loose. Far more of these landless ones have been executed than students were killed. The urbanization of Cambodia in the early 1970s was another special case, having been enforced by the Pentagon’s policy of carpet bombing the country to deprive the fish (the guerillas) of an ocean (the peasantry) in which to swim. In driving the population back to the countryside, the Khmer Rouge responded more to that legacy of war than to any Parisian philosopher, the explanation recycled in Age of Extremes.

According to Hobsbawm, “how and why capitalism after the Second World War found itself … surging forward into the … Golden Age of 1947-73, is perhaps the major question which faces historians of the 20th century”. If so, he does not attempt to grapple with it. One obstacle for Hobsbawm is to have begun in 1914, where he left off in his previous volume, The Age of Empire. The notion of a short 20th century is misleading. Our contemporary period began around 1880 with the shift towards the concentration and export of capital, carried forward by a speed-up of technologies towards mass production and the inventing of the corporation as the vehicle for business.

Hence, World War I marks a turn in consciousness about transformations which had commended some 30 years earlier. As the French philosopher Paul Valery observed, that war was important observed, tat war was important because of the conditions o f European cultures when they had to absorb its assaults. Similarly, the Ottoman Empire had been a shambles long before Allenby led the British forces into Jerusalem. Likewise, the Tsarist regime was being undermined by its own being undermined by its own reforms before it tore its quasi-serfs from their villages and flung them into contact with machines along battlefronts. Almost 60 years after they had ceased to be chattels, war emancipated the serfs to become actors in history.

How might Hobsbawm’s admired author of Das Kapital have organised a history of this century? First, Marx would have considered how capitalism has met the socially necessary costs of reproducing labour power on a daily as well as on a generational basis. He would have shown how, despite cuts in the length of the working week, exhaustion has increased through accelerations to the pace at which work proceeds. This drive explains how work and leisure have become interlocked. Sony developed the home video recorder to allow for the time shifts directed by the long and broken hours required by getting and spending,

Marx also would have followed the money trail by exploring the expansion of credit within domestic economies for governments, corporations and consumers through such instruments as budget deficits, junk bonds and credit cards. The place of a reserve currency for international transactions would weave another thread – from the decline of sterling, the rise and fall of the US dollar and the dislodgement of gold as a safe haven through the ability to transfer funds electronically.

Then, Marx’s daughter, Eleanor, could bring changes to work and money together around the entry of mothers into the paid workforce so as to keep up the hire purchase payments on the consumer durables that reduce labouriousness and so leave them with the energy to go out to work. Ms Marx would also indicate how fast foods contribute to this cycle by reducing the time and energy, if not the costs, of refueling souse and offspring.

As a professional historian and a political leftist, Hobsbawm is worried about the loss of an historical sensibility which he sees as part of a dissolution of the social. He fears for a future disconnected from its past. Many Europeans, indeed, have been returned to the mentality of a continuous present comparable to the one in which peoples had supposed themselves to exist before the Renaissance.

In those days, the belief was that history could never begin. But the failure of bright US undergraduates to know that here had been a world war before that of 1941-45 is matched elsewhere by an inflation of memories about ancient abuse. In the Balkans, today’s political battles are dressed as age-old struggles – another instance of inventiveness by the traditionalists.

Eric Hobsbawm’s quartet of Ages will help us to remember and show why history cannot end.