Hobsbawm's fourth age


Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century 1914-1991
By Eric Hobsbawm
Michael Joseph, 1994. 627 pp., $45 (hb)
Reviewed by Phil Shannon

There is a new addition to Eric Hobsbawm's superb Marxist historical trilogy (Age of Revolution, Age of Industry and Age of Empire) with the arrival of Age of Extremes.

Hobsbawm's trilogy had taken his readers from the French Revolution to England's swaggering imperial dominance of the globe prior to the outbreak of imperialist war in 1914. Age of Extremes picks up the story in the 20th century through the sub-ages of the Age of Catastrophe (war, depression, fascism, war), the Golden Age (the postwar economic boom) and the Landslide (the economic recessions and political instability from the end of the boom in the early '70s).

Age of Extremes, by and large, shows an undiminished political, economic and cultural acumen, and the same sprightliness of prose, that Hobsbawm's previous Ages displayed. Hobsbawm's organising theme is that Cold War, real war, fascism, even liberal welfare states like Australia, were all direct responses to, or owed some indirect but essential legacy to, the main motif of 20th century politics — the "struggle by the old order against social revolution".

The post-World War I right-wing backlash, which eventually resulted in the spread of fascism, was a reaction to the "upsurge of working class power, confidence and radicalism" that the war unleashed and which "froze the blood of conservatives". The Bolshevik revolution was the majestic symbol of what the international working class could hope and struggle for and thus earned the undying enmity of reactionaries everywhere, even when the revolution died from its isolation in a single, backward country.

Hobsbawm is untainted by the mindless anticommunist clich‚s about evil Bolsheviks. The revolution was justified and popular, he argues, and if, by the end of 1920, working-class democracy was critically restricted, this was because the Bolsheviks had been forced to come through "years of unbroken crisis and catastrophe, German conquest and a penal peace, counter-revolution, cold war, foreign armed intervention, hunger and economic collapse", circumstances which imposed no strategy but to choose between policies that would lead to immediate survival or immediate disaster of the socialist republic and its people.

The Soviet Union then served, whether in its Leninist golden age or its Stalinist negation, as an ogre to frighten the children and scare the profit-gougers. As Hobsbawm argues, the Stalinist-Brezhnevite Soviet Union (and certainly not Lenin's) was never the real threat to the world's poor. It was not expansionist but it did serve to divert attention from the "maintenance of a real US supremacy", and as Senator McCarthy and FBI boss J. Edgar Hoover found, it proved to have a political utility for smearing the enemy within (trade unions, political and community activists, even mild liberals).

The Soviet bogey was reinforced by post-World War II capitalist prosperity (an "exceptional and unique boom"), which underpinned the decline of domestic unrest and oversaw two decades of political stability in the developed West. Social security legislation and rising real wages kept the political temperature down. There was a crisis, not of the working class (it had not disappeared), but of its consciousness — "prosperity and privatisation broke up what poverty and collectivity in the public place had welded together". It was not until the student rebellions in 1968 that workers were sparked into heightened class struggle for greater wage rises than the prosperous times could afford and which politicised many workers over issues of workers control and over class rule in society more generally.

In the postwar decades, however, it was the anti-colonial agitations and revolutions in the Third World that drew the literal fire of the old imperialisms and the new US tough on the block, and which revealed, especially through the USA's defeat in Vietnam and associated economic decline, the disarray in international politics of the last two decades. The break-up of the Soviet bloc into an "anarchy of poverty and greed" added to the fragmentation of old world orders.

Hobsbawm, unfortunately, develops a bout of the political blues from this changed international landscape. He sidles up very close to propositions shared by "everyone" that social revolution in the tradition of October 1917 (mass action, insurrection, Marxist parties, proletarian power) is now "exhausted", the role of the working class no longer crucial to socialism.

Although he rejects the "unlimited pursuit of profit" as any way to run an economy or save the world from ecological catastrophe, he offers no answers on alternatives. He acknowledges that the masses' intervention is still crucial to political change, but whilst noting that the "mere clump of the massed citizens' feet can not make revolutions", he does not indicate any political strategies, as the Bolsheviks did, for turning this mass energy to practical, revolutionary effect.

Hobsbawm's disorientation stems from a certain discouragement at the break-up of the old Soviet bloc. He has a residual attachment to what he calls "international communism" under its Soviet leadership. Although fully aware of the horrors of Stalinism (10-20 million victims in the Soviet Union alone), he still dismisses critics of the communists' treacherous behaviour during the Spanish Civil war as "ultra-left purists", and he tends to see the essence of socialism as centralised state economic planning, rather than as workers' democracy. The failure of the centralised economy in the Soviet bloc now leads Hobsbawm to flirt with some form of market socialism.

Age of Extremes lacks the sureness of vision, and the motivating power to go forth and right wrongs, of Hobsbawm's earlier works about earlier times. Nevertheless, he has written a worthy book, grounded in solid economic earth, with a commitment to the world's labouring poor, and a flexible and informative understanding of the relation between society and the arts and sciences.

But his sense that the river of revolution has not so much run dry as branched off into meandering streams leading nowhere very much, gradually predominates as the century closes. Socialists who aren't still navigating with one eye on an old Soviet compass, however, have cause to be more hopeful about the Age To Come.

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