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John Rees

The light and the dark

(Spring 1995)

From International Socialism 2 : 66, Spring 1995.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Eric Hobsbawm
Age of Extremes, The Short Twentieth Century 1914–1991
London 1994, £20

The opening pages of Eric Hobsbawm’s great panorama of the 20th century are devoted to a series of 12 quotations from famous intellectuals, each no more than a sentence or two long, in which they struggle to catch the essence of their century. These views fall into three broad categories – optimists, pessimists and the fashionably agnostic.

For a minority, it is, in spite of everything, a century of scientific or human progress. ‘There have been revolutions for the better in this century’, as Rita Levi Montalcini, the Italian Nobel prize winner, argues, citing the ‘emergence of women after centuries of repression’.

The majority, however, incline to pessimism. In the case of novelist and concentration camp survivor Primo Levi such emotions are only too understandable. But even Isaiah Berlin and Spanish anthropologist Julio Caro Baroja, who both admit having suffered no personal hardship, find their age, respectively, ‘the most terrible century in Western history’ and a century of ‘terrible events which humanity has lived through’. For writer William Golding it is ‘the most violent century in human history’.

Fashionable agnosticism is perhaps under-represented by historian Franco Venturi. His remarks are composed of two sentences, the first of which seems to be a resignation note for his whole profession: ‘Historians can’t answer this question’. But, in the way of academics, his second sentence is a lifetime re-employment contract: ‘For me the 20th century is only the ever-renewed effort to understand it.’

It is not the least of Eric Hobsbawm’s virtues that he has stood out against this kind of postmodern defeatism. He is still committed to the idea that history can be understood, can be explained, and that there is a difference between the subjective prejudices of the writer and the real events which are being described.

A still greater virtue is that Hobsbawm does not give in to either the facile optimism or the understandable pessimism displayed by the comments he gathers together on the opening pages of the Age of Extremes. As the book’s title suggests, Hobsbawm sees the contradictory nature of our world: unimaginable wealth piled high beside indescribable poverty, machinery capable of unheard of productivity standing beside unbelievably destructive weapons, the most inhumane and brutal oppression calling forth the most courageous and principled resistance. Perhaps Yehudi Menuhin comes closest to catching this mood when he describes the century as one which has ‘destroyed all illusions and ideals’ yet also ‘raised the greatest hopes ever conceived by humanity’.

The structure of the Age of Extremes follows this pattern. It rightly sees the first half of the 20th century as the Age of Catastrophe – the period of the First World War, the rise of Italian fascism, the demise of the Russian Revolution, the slump of the 1930s, the rise of Nazi Germany, the defeat of the Spanish Revolution, and the Second World War. The second part of the book, The Golden Age, traces the long post-war boom which accompanied the Cold War and decolonisation. Finally, The Landslide charts the collapse of economic prosperity, the end of Stalinism (or socialism as Hobsbawm mistakenly calls it), the close of the Cold War and the re-emergence of economic crisis and political instability.

All this means that Hobsbawm has the broad measure of a century which threatened, even in its most prosperous years, mass destruction and which called forth, even in its blackest moments, forces which could secure a better world. This alone sets Hobsbawm apart from those theorists who assume that the history of the century, especially that of its closing years, self evidently shows the superiority of liberal democracy and free market capitalism – former US state department official Francis Fukuyama is probably the best known. [1] It also mostly sets Hobsbawm apart from those determinists for whom the growth of the world’s population and the progress of technology spell the doom of humanity, although Age of Extremes is not entirely above giving way to this kind of millennial gloom on occasions. [2]

Sometimes these strengths carry over into Hobsbawm’s account of the turning points of 20th century history. He is generally good, for instance, on Lenin and the Russian Revolution. [3] Hobsbawm stayed in the British Communist Party until it collapsed and so will have heard the McCarthyite view of the Bolsheviks all too frequently the first time round to be overly impressed now that it is being recycled in the wake of events in Eastern Europe. He is insistent that ‘Contrary to the Cold War mythology, which saw Lenin essentially as an organiser of coups, the only real asset he and the Bolsheviks had was the ability to recognise what the masses wanted; to, as it were, lead by knowing how to follow’. [4] More surprisingly, Hobsbawm gives due weight to the central perspective of the October Revolution:

Lenin’s programme … gamble[d] on the conversion of the Russian Revolution into a world, or at least a European, revolution. Who – he said so often enough – could imagine that a victory for socialism ‘can come about … except by the complete destruction of the Russian and European bourgeoisie’? [5]

Hobsbawm is similarly clear sighted about how the ‘years of unbroken crisis and catastrophe, German conquest and penal peace, regional breakaways, counter-revolution, civil war, foreign armed intervention, hunger and economic collapse’ undermined the revolution. The Bolsheviks, he rightly argues:

could have no strategy or perspective beyond choosing, day by day, between decisions needed for immediate survival and the ones which risked immediate disaster. Who could afford to consider the long term consequences for the revolution of decisions which had to be taken now, or else there would be an end to the revolution and no further consequences to consider? [6]

But once outside the narrow confines of the immediate revolutionary events Hobsbawm’s political background begins to show its darker side. It was Stalin who formulated the theory of ‘socialism in one country’, denying the possibility of Russia relying on the potential of world revolution. Hobsbawm seems to supply retrospective justification for this view. So, although we are told that ‘a wave of revolution swept across the globe in the two years after October, and the hopes of the embattled Bolsheviks did not seem unrealistic’, the general impression given does not do justice to the depth of the world revolution or to how close it came to hitting its mark. The crucial German revolution is, for instance, described at one point as ‘an illusion’ since ‘the bulk of German revolutionary soldiers, sailors and workers remained … moderate and law abiding’. [7]

Since Hobsbawm underestimates the intensity of the revolutionary upsurge, he is under no special obligation to explain its failure, which had a good deal to do with the Stalinisation of the Communist International. Nor does he have to present the rise of the Stalinist bureaucracy as anything other than the regrettable but unavoidable result of the pressure of events. This then establishes the continuity between the revolutionary era and the whole subsequent history of Stalinism – so that the chapter on world revolution generalises wildly and unconvincingly past the 1920s and on to Mao’s China and the ‘second great wave of world revolution, from 1944 to 1949’, by which he appears to mean the invasion of Eastern Europe by the Russian army. [8]

Indeed, Hobsbawm even goes so far as to write of the post-war world that ‘the net effect of 12 years of National Socialism was that large parts of Europe now lay at the mercy of the Bolsheviks’. [9] Yet he knows that virtually the entire leadership of the Bolshevik Party and a great proportion of its rank and file of 1917 had vanished into Stalin’s gulag during the 1930s. Certainly there was nothing of it remaining by 1945. Failure to acknowledge the reality and completeness of this counter-revolution necessarily distorts Hobsbawm’s view of the century.

The shame of Age of Extremes is that the strengths of Hobsbawm’s generally Marxist approach are so often cancelled by the legacy of his politics. The actual historical account therefore becomes an infuriating mix of interesting detail and description coupled to a failure to really explain the turning points of 20th century history. [10]

Nothing could better illustrate the bind in which Hobsbawm finds himself than his account of the Spanish Revolution of 1936. We are told that ‘the Spanish people’s reaction to the [Franco] coup was undoubtedly revolutionary’ and that, in spite of this, ‘the Spanish government and, more to the point, the communists who were increasingly influential in its affairs, insisted that social revolution was not their object, and, indeed, visibly did everything within their power to control and reverse it, to the horror of revolutionary enthusiasts’. He goes on, with commendable honesty, to admit that:

The interesting point is that this was not mere opportunism or, as the purists on the ultra Left thought, treason to the revolution. It reflected a deliberate shift from an insurrectionary to a gradualist … even a parliamentary, way to power. [11]

This electoralist approach is then praised because it described ‘with considerable accuracy the shape of politics in the anti-fascist war of 1939–45’ and that ‘the logic of anti-fascist war led towards the Left’.

The remarkable fact in all this is that we are never given any account of why, when confronted with such a successful policy, Franco triumphed. Neither are we told how it was that the poor old wrongheaded ‘revolutionary purists’ (in fact, figures as politically divergent as Trotsky and Independent Labour Party member George Orwell) were able to predict that the Communist Party’s policy would lead to the fall of the Republican government and to the destruction of the CP itself.

In reality of course the CP’s policy amounted to a policy of counter-revolution. It paralysed and disorganised working class resistance to Franco just when it most needed to be extended and defended. The CP attacked both physically and politically the leaders and organisations of the Spanish Revolution and used the authority they derived from the support given to the Republican forces by the USSR to ensure that the government bent to their will. Hobsbawm’s sole gesture towards explaining the defeat of the Republican side is to point to its internal divisions. But the CP was responsible for helping to create these divisions and for resolving them at the expense of workers’ control in the factories, the agrarian revolution and the existence of any organisation to the left of the CP. When the revolutionary momentum was halted, the right wing punished the error ruthlessly. [12]

And while the course of the Second World War certainly radicalised working people throughout Europe, it was the CP’s new found parliamentarianism which prevented this from resulting in any far reaching social transformation. Crucially, for instance, it brought Italian workers four generations of right wing government and French workers the de Gaulle regime. In both cases the CP’s strategy led to their own exclusion from real influence. [13] Certainly the logic of war led to the left, but the logic of the CP’s strategy led to defeat.

But Hobsbawm’s residual attachment to the disappeared world of Moscow centred ‘communism’ carries an even greater disabling burden: his explanation of the rise and fall of the long post-war boom, necessarily entailing an account of the collapse of the Eastern bloc, never rises above the level of description. The fundamental role of arms spending in sustaining and then destroying the boom is never analysed because to do so would mean seeing the Eastern bloc as regimes whose military and economic competition with the West defined the nature of the post-war world economy. [14] The way in which arms spending first boosted the world economy and then, since it was unequally born by the major powers, undermined the competitiveness of its biggest contributors and therefore its own effectiveness, is not fully grasped.

Even so, the insight and detail are often impressive – the chapter on Third World and Revolution, for instance, is strong on the class make up and aims of the leaders of the Third World revolutions of the 1950s to 1970s. The way in which the popular image of guerrilla struggles has obscured the contribution of working class actions to the process of decolonisation is well described. The fact that the leaders of these revolutions were young and middle class and the fact that they often harked back to an older, pre-1917 tradition of agrarian struggle is usefully recalled. The distance between their political programme – land reform plus modernisation plus national independence – and the original Marxist conception of revolution has been obscured by the Cold War desire to see every threat to American interests as emanating from Moscow. Hobsbawm redresses the balance. But still the significance of all this in the wider history of the Cold War is undermined by the weakness of the theoretical framework which cannot stand the weight of explanation demanded of it.

The same flaw reappears time and again. It is there in the cringe inducing praise for Gorbachev and the snide asides reserved almost exclusively for any political current to the left of the CP. Worst of all, Hobsbawn accepts that political defeat and technological change have undermined the power of the organised working class and so eroded both the possibility of revolution and the voting base of Labour and social democratic parties. This last claim is an extension of his original article, The Forward March of Labour Halted, published in the now defunct Marxism Today. It is a rather strange conclusion when, for instance, France has had a Socialist Party president, Spain a Socialist Party government and Sweden has had a social democrat government for nearly as long as the Tories have been in power in Britain – and when even here the Labour Party is now 40 points ahead of the Tories in opinion polls.

There are two other faults which, although minor, are worth noting. The first is that Hobsbawm has chosen to inject a personal tone into his narrative which is often irrelevant and nearly always irritating. Is it, for instance, the best way of illustrating the debilitating specialisation which has developed in academia in the 20th century to be told that Hobsbawm himself was at Cambridge at the same time as Crick and Watson were discovering the structure of DNA and that, ‘though I even recall meeting Crick socially at the time, most of us were simply not aware that these extraordinary developments were being hatched within a few tens of yards of my college gates, in laboratories we passed regularly and pubs where we drank’? [15] Hobsbawm, like Woody Allen’s Leo Zelig, seems to pop up all over the century giving us his particular view of events. But memoir and history, particularly the kind of grand history that Hobsbawm specialises in, are not comfortable bedfellows.

A second, related, point is that the personal judgments which Hobsbawm makes often seem based on no more than the kind of ill tempered snobbiness which readers expect from letter writers to the Daily Telegraph. What does it mean for Hobsbawm to tell us that ‘no one who has been asked by an intelligent American student whether the phrase “Second World War” meant that there had been a “First World War” is unaware that knowledge of even the basic facts of the century cannot be taken for granted’? [16] Is this the reflex anti-Americanism so common among CP members during the Cold War, or a lament for declining standards in education, or a donnish joke? Take your pick – but any one of them diminishes a book like this.

Similarly, Hobsbawm tells us that for his generation history was ‘part of the texture of our lives’ (in a way which it is not for younger people) because ‘streets and public places were still called after public men and events (the Wilson station in pre-war Prague, the Metro Stalingrad in Paris), when peace treaties were still signed and therefore had to be identified (Treaty of Versailles) … ’ [17] Now, were Hobsbawm to take a short trip outside his Hampstead home he might come across Hackney’s C.L.R. James Library (named after the black nationalist and sometime Trotskyist), the Isle of Dogs’ Jack Dash House (after the CP dockers’ leader), the huge granite head of Nelson Mandela outside the Royal Festival Hall (and a number of streets and public buildings now bearing his name) or the carved head of black nationalist Marcus Garvey in the entrance hall of the Tottenham Leisure Centre. And a brief glimpse at the daily papers might reveal not only that treaties continue to be signed (for instance, SALT I, SALT II and START) but that they are also sometimes still named after places (the treaties of Rome and Maastricht spring to mind).

This bad humour is more than the product of a liverish disposition or old age. It is the mark of a historian who knows that the century is ending as badly as it began, confronting humanity with the choice described in the Communist Manifesto: ‘either social revolution or the common ruin of the contending classes’. [18] Such a stark choice is inevitably posed once we raise our eyes from the small events of everyday life and look back over a century which has seen more wars and revolutions, more social crises and catastrophes, than any previous 100 year period. For those Marxists of Hobsbawm’s generation the decision for or against socialism was inevitably bound to the question of whether they were for or against Stalinism. Yet to be for Stalin was to be against genuine socialism and democracy in Russia and, eventually, as the Spanish Revolution demonstrated beyond question, everywhere else.

For a long time Hobsbawm’s historical work could avoid meeting this fact head on. As he has often said, the tacit agreement between the CP and the CP historians’ group was that they could be mostly free of party control so long as they avoided writing about the 20th century. Hobsbawm kept the bargain until the end, loyally elaborating the CP line where current politics were concerned but staying safely in the long 19th century when it came to historical writing. The death of the CP has released him from that bargain, but not from the attitude of mind which went with it. Age of Extremes is, consequently, a huge landscape painting of the century, but one painted by an artist who has lost his sense of perspective. And so, despite his initial denial of pessimism, Hobsbawm’s world stands in shadow, repeating the dilemma with which it opened:

If humanity is to have a recognisable future, it cannot be by prolonging the past or the present. If we try to build the third millennium on that basis, we shall fail. And the price of failure, that is to say, the alternative to a changed society, is darkness.

These very last sentences are a clarion call for change, but one issued more in the hope than the expectation that it will be answered. Hobsbawm’s version of Marxism can see the contradiction at the heart of the century but has long since failed to explain how working people can resolve it.


1. See his The End of History and the Last Man (Penguin 1993).

2. See, for instance, P. Kennedy, Preparing for the 21st Century (London 1993).

3. Hobsbawm seems, in this respect at least, to have recovered his composure after the shock of the collapse of the Eastern European regimes. His initial reaction was to distance himself much more completely from the whole experience of the October revolution. See his Waking from History’s Great Dream, Independent on Sunday, 4 February 1990, where the Russian Revolution is described as ‘a freak result’ of the age of catastrophe which might have been avoided if the Bolsheviks had heeded Menshevik warnings.

4. E. Hobsbawm, Age of Extremes (London 1994), p. 61.

5. Ibid., p. 63.

6. Ibid., p. 64.

7. Ibid., p. 68.

8. Ibid., p. 75.

9. Ibid., p. 175.

10. Perry Anderson has made a similar point in his Guardian review: ‘Hobsbawm stresses that the purpose of his book is to explain, not to describe events. But at three crucial turning points – the Great Depression, the onset of the post-war boom, and the slide into “stagflation” – he admits that real explanation lies beyond its scope, settling essentially for description.’

11. E. Hobsbawm, op. cit., p. 162.

12. It was only the Bolsheviks’ insistence on deepening the revolution in the face of the attempted military coup headed by Kornilov in 1917 which prevented, as Trotsky put it, fascism being a Russian rather than an Italian word.

13. See, for instance, the masterly Politics of War by Gabriel Kolko (second ed., New York 1990).

14. For an account of the arms economy see A. Callinicos, J. Rees, C. Harman and M. Haynes, Marxism and the New Imperialism (London 1994); C. Harman, Explaining the Crisis (London 1987); M. Kidron, Western Capitalism Since the War (London 1968).

15. E. Hobsbawm, op. cit., p. 527.

16. Ibid., p. 3.

17. Ibid., p. 4.

18. This non-deterministic approach was central to Marx, quite contrary to Hobsbawm’s claim that, for Marx, ‘the class struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat … could only have one outcome.’ As footnote 17 above, p. 57.

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