The Age of Extremes

Eric J. Hobsbawm’s The Age of Extremes (1994) stands unequaled as a penetrating history of the “Short Twentieth Century”—the designation he gives the period from the First World War (itself the traumatic end of the “Long Nineteenth Century” of liberal progress) to the end of “really existing socialism” in the early 1990s.

The book’s dialectical form is as appropriate to its author’s Marxist commitments as it is to his subject’s character; the twentieth century’s three eras (Crisis, Boom, Landslide) are plumbed for their inherent contradictions, analyzed from different vantages and pursued variously along divergent but mutually illuminating paths. Such a method—and the sheer magnitude of data, events, memory—leads not to a confusion of chronology and trivia, but rather to a totality that emerges greater than the sum of its parts. It is a revelation on nearly every page, witty, engrossing, and a truly eye-opening history of the present moment, despite its 30-year age.

Age of Extremes is a capstone to Hobsbawm’s previous historical trilogy of the modern era, running through the Ages of Revolution (1789-1848), Capital (1848-1875), and Empire (1875-1914). It is thus tempting to read this final installment solely as a sober, almost reproachful account of the failures of the social revolutionary politics which had their greatest articulation in the socialist movements of the nineteenth century, from a committed Communist Party author who had lived through these failures. (Although this cool manner is perhaps more suited to dousing the optimism of end of history arguments on the “successes” of capitalism, successes which look even less convincing from the year 2021.) At the end of the century, the critical brilliance of Marx’s scientific analysis of the capitalist mode of production had devolved into its own religion, propped up with its own dogmatic illusions and martyr worship; the once-promising socialist experiments now stood in ruins, unable to advance an alternative economic system to challenge global capitalism.

And yet, Hobsbawm is able to offer a keenly nuanced picture of the Soviet Union (to take only the most visible example, whose life was coterminous with the Age of Extremes) that escapes both condemnation and adulation. For instance, the early failures of the USSR are shown to owe more to the limitations of its prevailing social/political conditions (i.e., population decimation from WW2, political isolation, a majority peasant mode of production) rather than to faults inherent to the Bolshevik project or command economies per se. Although Stalin was “uniquely suited” to the reign of terror in the wake of the first five-year plan, a rapid program of industrialization, given the conditions, was almost inevitably bound to be brutal—a fact which then set the stage for further problems.

Similarly, the USSR’s fall is lamented as tragic near-inevitability—it was due not to any popular discontent (as in the rest of the Eastern bloc) but because of the disintegration of central power from above and the pressures of a world economic system eroding conservative economic policies tied to old projections of growth. Perestroika ironically destroyed the one thing needed to chart a course through the failures at the end—the credibility of political authority.

As tempting as it is to fantasize on what could have been, the historian’s task, Hobsbawm quips, is to analyze what was. And so despite his sympathies and disappointments, Hobsbawm does what no ideological historian can do, but which only the best Marxist thinkers are capable of: to show how history develops out of (indeed, is synonymous with) the constant clash between political will and the subterranean demands of a historically changing capitalist mode of production, which gained greater power and reach over the course of the century.

In this respect, Hobsbawm renews the spirit of Marx’s historical-material analysis for times that Marx never could have dreamed of seeing. The pressures of economic realities, material conditions, and class conflicts are brought to bear upon the politics, decisions, and acts that we come to know as history. There is no better example of this method and its insights than in the growth of the global capitalist economy in the post-war era, as distinct from the capitalist (First World) and socialist (Second World) governments that tried to chart a course through it. For a brief time after 1945, these governments were both constructed as political strongholds keeping the fluctuations of the market and destructive side of capitalism at bay—in the former, by “reforming capitalism out of all recognition,” in the latter, through a full command economy. Everything was fine as long as growth and productivity continued apace, and there was indeed massive growth everywhere.

But problems started to arise, as Marx analyzed and predicted so perceptively, because of contradictions inherent to the mode of production itself, which only compound as the system gains greater force and reach, as the logic of accumulation continues its despoliation. Against the political strongholds of states, the world economy truly starts to become an independent entity, outside of political control. (The image that resonates with me, simplistic though it may be, is typified in the global economic situation after the breakdown of the Bretton Woods system—the dollar is no longer tied to any specific government or international agreement; rather, we have the reign of the dollar itself.)

Historically, this framing sets up a compelling (and not often discussed, even in Marxist circles) reading of the economic shifts of the 1970s and after, leading up to our present era. This story explains simultaneously the collapse of most of the socialist states and the birth of a neoliberal orthodoxy wielded by Western capitalists. After the general/global crises of the 70s (which can be traced to many proximate causes), the socialist economies were not able to weather the impact of global shifts because of their static, rigid systems. Their success thus far had been premised on completely shutting out the tentacles of the global market. (Incidentally, Hobsbawm relates the fascinating fact that the socialist bloc was actually more conservative—culturally, socially, economically—than the West because it froze in place the societies of early twentieth century through revolutions that left the peasantry largely untouched.)

However, once the economic iron curtain was broken, so to speak, the end was not far off for these static economies. As the subterranean pressures of the capitalist mode of production became greater, as technology facilitated a more interconnected global system, as the dollar became liberated from governmental control, as the world became more complex in general, the socialist economies as they existed for decades could not sustain themselves, nor avoid getting sucked in to the capitalist orbit. (Again, it’s important to note that these limitations were not due to the inherent nature of socialist or command economies per se.)

Interestingly, China was one of the few socialist economies still able to utilize political authority to stem the tide. Far from taking a “neoliberal” turn in the 70s, as writers like David Harvey claim, it makes more sense to see China’s reforms as slowing the wave that crushed everyone else. The example of China also highlights how the loss of the USSR and the Second World as a “shield” allowed capitalism even more free reign to take over the planet. Though China may stand as a lone, last bulwark against total neoliberal domination, its situation and future are an open question, a fact only further heightened as it becomes increasingly the target of imperialist interests in a new Cold War.

On the other hand, the more dynamic capitalist economies dealt with the 70s crises by fully adopting the once-discredited and now dubiously rehabilitated neoliberal doctrines of a completely laissez-faire, supply-side market. But it’s clear (again, against some of Harvey’s arguments) that this was not necessarily a conscious choice imposed by class elites from above, so much as it was a convenient theory used ex post facto to justify what market pressures had made inevitable. The ideology of neoliberalism (“self-reliance,” “pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” etc.) comes after the crisis-induced socio-economic necessity to strip the public commons of its wealth.

There is much more in this book beyond political struggles and the development of capitalism. There is also the most definitive discussion of fascism that I have ever read—fascists were the “revolutionaries of counter-revolution,” utilizing modern mobilization of the masses from below to transform society toward a “past which was an artefact.” In other words, and certainly illuminating for our times, fascism was abhorrent to (and itself abhorred) the pure traditionalists and reactionary conservatives of the previous century; not God and King but blood and soil. There are also revelatory insights on the youth culture of the 1960s, avant-garde art, the revolution in quantum physics, the end of colonialism, the birth of the Third World, and everything in between. A book to be read and reread and thought about again.