Alex Callinicos Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

Alex Callinicos


Struggling through the fog

(November 1994)

From Socialist Review, No. 180, November 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century 1914–1991
by Eric Hobsbawm
Michael Joseph £20

The events of 1989–91 – the East European revolutions of 1989, the end of the Cold War and of the superpower partition of Europe, the reunification of Germany and the collapse of the Soviet Union – plainly marked a watershed in world history. Making sense of the historical epoch that came to such a sudden and dramatic conclusion then may be of use in navigating the uncharted waters in which we now find ourselves.

And who would seem better qualified to perform the task than the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm? Now he has turned his attention to summing up the ‘short 20th century’, 1914–91. This period can be subdivided in two. There is first what Hobsbawm calls ‘the Age of Catastrophe’, the years between 1914 and 1945 which saw the long European peace of the 19th century descend into war, revolution, fascism, and depression. The era after 1945, by contrast, was ‘welded into a single pattern by the peculiar international situation that dominated it until the fall of the USSR’, the Cold War between the superpower blocs.

This subdivision serves to highlight the fact that the most important theme spanning the history of the short 20th century is the Russian Revolution of October 1917 and its fate. This revolution was the decisive upheaval of the 1914–45 ‘Thirty One Years War’. Its monstrous offspring, the Stalinist regime, was one of the two chief actors during the Cold War. The historian of this epoch must therefore be able to offer a cogent account of October and its consequences.

Yet here Hobsbawm’s own history is peculiarly disabling. He has been a particularly eloquent defender of the strategy pioneered by Stalin in the 1930s of building popular fronts uniting the workers’ parties with ‘progressive capitalists’.

This historical baggage does not mean that Hobsbawm is particularly dishonest in those parts of Age of Extremes devoted to the October Revolution and Stalinism. It is more that the collapse of the political project to which Hobsbawm has devoted his life seems to have left him with no clear understanding of what went wrong. Thus we are told it was the failure of the October Revolution to spread and Stalin’s personality and the Leninist tradition which led to Stalinism, without any attempt to weigh the relative importance of these alleged causes. More generally, Hobsbawm often in this book falls into what is sometimes a frenzy of equivocation, apparently bold assertions being so hedged in with qualifications that the reader sometimes loses track of what is being said. The text bears signs of excessive haste, with some cases of repetition and an annoyingly incomplete bibliography.

Age of Extremes is by no means all bad. Hobsbawm is admirably clear about the enormous economic, social, and cultural transformations wrought by capitalism on a world scale as a result of the long boom of the 1950s and 1960s. He argues that this ‘golden age’ has been followed by a period of economic crisis comparable in many ways to the depression of the 1930s.

But where is the world going at the end of the 20th century? Hobsbawm seems to be struggling through the ‘global fog’ which he says descended on us after the watershed of 1989–91. The collapse of the Stalinist order has left Hobsbawm brooding pessimistically on a future which may end, according to the book’s concluding sentence, in ‘darkness’.

One source of this pessimism is a long standing confusion in his historical and political writings about the relationship between the working class and the labour movement. Hobsbawm for example claims that racism has grown thanks to ‘the weakening of traditional socialist labour movements ... since these had been passionately opposed to such discrimination, and thus damped down the anti-social expression of racist feelings within their constituency’. So the decline of the Communist and indeed of the social democratic parties has removed a barrier against racism.

The underlying assumption is that the labour movement, the mass organisations of the trade unions and the reformist parties, was the bearer of historical progress. As for workers themselves, they are a raw material which needs to be shaped by these organisations, and protected against their own ugly passions.

Yet it is arguable that Britain in the past generation has seen, despite the decline of the Labour Party and the eclipse of the Communist Party, a weakening of popular racism in its most intense and organised form (the last real race riot, for example, was in Notting Hill in 1958). Mass immigration has created a working class that is often genuinely multi-ethnic. Hobsbawm cannot recognise this more complex issue because he tends – as in his famous lecture The Forward March of Labour Halted – to equate the decline of a particular labour movement with that of the working class itself.

Compromised by his own past and unable to see beyond some historically specific organisational forms, Hobsbawm seems to regard the world at the end of the 20th century as on the verge of a relapse back into barbarism. It is an expression of what is undoubtedly a widespread mood among left wing intellectuals since the fall of Stalinism. It is certainly of only limited use as a source of historical understanding.

Alex Callinicos Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 1 May 2017