Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century, 1914-1991 
by Eric Hobsbawm.
Joseph, 627 pp., £20, October 1994, 0 7181 3307 2
Show More
Show More

A powerful and unsettling book, Eric Hobsbawm’s Age of Extremes brings to a close the series of historical studies he began in 1962 with The Age of Revolution: Europe 1789-1848, and followed in 1975 and 1987 respectively with The Age of Capital, 1848-1875 and The Age of Empire, 1875-1914. It is difficult to imagine that anyone other than Hobsbawm could have approached – much less achieved – the consistently high level of these volumes: taken together, they represent one of the summits of historical writing in the postwar period. Hobsbawm is cool where others are hot and noisy; he is ironic and dispassionate where others would have been either angry or heedless; he is discriminatingly observant and subtle where on the same ground other historians would have resorted to clichés or to totalistic system. Perhaps the most compelling thing about Hobsbawm’s achievement in these four books is the poise he maintains throughout. Neither too innocent nor too knowing and cynical, he restores one’s faith in the idea of rational investigation; and in a prose that is as supple and sure as the gait of a brilliant middle-distance runner, he traces the emergence, consolidation, triumph and eclipse of modernity itself – in particular, the amazing persistence of capitalism (its apologists, practitioners, theoreticians and opponents) within it.

The four books also record the growth of a world consciousness, both in Hobsbawm himself and in the history he writes. In the 1780s, for example, the inhabited world was known to Europeans only patchily; by the time he gets to the rise of empire a century later, Hobsbawm’s subject is Europe’s discovery of the rest of the world. Yet the growth of the historian’s mind, so to speak, never reduces itself to tiresome self-contemplation. On the contrary, Hobsbawm’s solutions to the problems of his own epistemology become part of his quest for knowledge. This emergent global consciousness is at its most memorable in the opening of The Age of Empire, where he records the peregrinations of his mother and father – one from Vienna, the other from Britain, both originally from Eastern Europe – and their arrival in Alexandria, which while prosperous, cosmopolitan and recently occupied by Britain, ‘also, of course, contained the Arabs’. His parents met and married there; Alexandria became Eric’s birthplace. This accident of his birth suggests to Hobsbawm that Europe alone can no longer be his subject, any more than his audience can only be academic colleagues. He writes ‘for all who wish to understand the world and who believe history is important for this purpose’, but he does not minimise the fact that as he approaches the present he must deal with that ‘fuzzy’ period he calls ‘the twilight zone between history and memory; between the past as a generalised record open to relatively dispassionate inspection and the past as a remembered part of, or background to, one’s own life’.

There is considerable overlap between history and memory in Age of Extremes. The period at hand is now Hobsbawm’s own lifetime. Although he says that this composite of the public and the private can be understood as the ‘Short 20th Century’ in world-historical terms, the result is necessarily an account that rests on ‘curiously uneven foundations’. The historian is now less a guide than a ‘participant observer’, one who does not, indeed cannot, fully command the historiography of our century. Yet Hobsbawm’s disarming admissions of fallibility – he speaks candidly of his ignorance, avowedly controversial views, ‘casual and patchy’ knowledge – do not at all disable Age of Extremes, which, as many reviewers have already noted, is a redoubtable work, full of its author’s characteristic combination of grandeur and irony, as well as of his wide-ranging scope and insight.

What gives it special appeal is that Hobsbawm himself appears intermittently, a bit player in his own epic. We see him as a 15-year-old with his sister on a winter afternoon in Berlin on the day that Hitler becomes Chancellor of Germany. Next he is a partisan in the Spanish Civil War. He is present in Moscow in 1957, ‘shocked’ to see that the embalmed Stalin was ‘so tiny and yet so all-powerful’. He is part of ‘the attentive and unquestioning multitudes’ who listen to Fidel Castro for hours on end. He is a deathbed witness to Oskar Lange’s final days, as the celebrated socialist economist confesses that he cannot find an answer to the question: ‘Was there an alternative to the indiscriminate, brutal, basically unplanned rush forward of the first Five-Year-Plan?’ At exactly the time that Crick and Watson were doing their breakthrough work on DNA’s structure, Hobsbawm was a Cambridge fellow, ‘simply unaware’ of the importance of what the two men were up to – and in any case ‘they saw no point in telling us’ about it.

These very occasional glimpses of Hobsbawm the participant lend a special credibility to his account of changes that took place between 1914 and the Nineties. One, of course, is that by about 1950 ours had become the most murderous century of all time; this prompts the conclusion that as the century advanced there was ‘a marked regression in standards’ once considered ‘normal’. Torture, murder, genocide have been officially condoned. To complicate matters, our world is now no longer Eurocentric (even though wealth and power remain essentially Western): the globe is a single unit, a fact already the subject of numerous studies by so-called world system theorists, economists and historians. But the most drastic transformation of all, Hobsbawm writes, has been ‘the disintegration of the old patterns of social relationships and with it, incidentally, the snapping of the links between generations, that is to say, between past and present’. This gives historians a peculiar relevance since what they do impedes, if it does not altogether prevent, the destruction of the past. Their ‘business is to remember what others forget’. Hence, Hobsbawm says, ‘my object is to understand and explain why things turned out the way they did, and how they hang together.’

Three massive blocks constitute his design for this job. Part One, ‘The Age of Catastrophes’, covers the period from World War One through the Second World War to ‘the end of empires’ – i.e. the immediate post-war period. Part Two is slightly longer, and is (perhaps ironically) entitled ‘The Golden Age’. It starts with the Cold War, moves through the social, cultural and economic revolutions of the Sixties through to the Eighties, glances at the emergence of the Third World, and culminates in a brisk discussion of ‘real socialism’. Part Three, ‘The Landslide’, traces the collapse of most things – the world economy, socialism, the artistic avant garde – as the story limps to a not particularly cheering conclusion, waiting for the millennium surrounded by poverty and ‘consumer egoism’, all-powerful media, a decline of state power, a rise in ethnic hatred, and an almost total lack of vision. An exhausting and somewhat joyless segment of the trip, this, with Hobsbawm still admirably adroit and rational despite all the catastrophes and declines.

He is at his best identifying and then drawing conclusions from major political and economic trends in the metropolitan West: the rise of socialism and Fascism, life under bureaucratic socialism and advanced capitalism, the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. No one has more chillingly recited the costs of total war and repression than Hobsbawm, and few chroniclers of great power politics have seen them in their folly and waste with a steelier gaze than he. For him the central story of the century is the battle for the hearts and minds of Europeans and (principally North) Americans. He sees the double paradox of capitalism given life by socialism, and of Fascism as belonging not ‘to an oriental feudalism with an imperial national mission’ but ‘to the era of democracy and the common man’. A moment later, as if cautioning against the too rigorous application of his own observation, he remarks that, whereas European Fascism destroyed labour movements, the Latin American fascist élites ‘they inspired created them’; and as anti-Fascism in Europe led to the left, so, too, did anti-colonial movements in Africa and Asia incline to the Western Left, ‘nursery of anti-imperialist theory’.

He is magnificent in charting the progress and indeed the lived texture of socialism, not as theory according to Hegel, Marx, Lukács or Gramsci, but as a practice dedicated to ‘universal emancipation, the construction of a better alternative to capitalist society’. And it needs pointing out, as he does a moment later, that the devotion and self-sacrifice of individual militants is what kept the thing going, not just the lies and repression of brutally stodgy bureaucracies. ‘A Russia even more firmly anchored in the past’ is how Hobsbawm (unflinchingly) judges ‘real socialism’ as practised by the Bolsheviks, with ‘an undergrowth of smaller and larger bureaucrats, on average even less educated and qualified than before’. (There isn’t enough said, however, about the disappointment later generated in the same committed people, many of whom were mystified by the sudden cancellation of the whole enterprise and the abject and ugly concession to ‘free market’ doctrines that followed.) Hobsbawm’s sharp-eyed and demystifying account of the Cold War is similarly trenchant; he writes very effectively of its irrational and gloating lurches, its mindless squandering of resources, its impoverishing rhetoric and ideological corruption, in the US especially.

His account of the Golden Age in general, to someone a good part of whose life coincides with it, is satisfying and at times very insightful. The descriptions he gives of the rise and progress of the international student movement and of feminism are sober, if only moderately enthusiastic in tone, particularly when he has to keep reminding us that traditional labour – from steel workers to telephone operators – declined in importance, as did the peasantry, which had all but died by the latter third of the century. And there were strange inversions of history as a result: ‘On city street-corners of Europe small groups of peripatetic Indians from the South American Andes played their melancholy flutes and on the pavements of New York, Paris and Rome black peddlers from West Africa sold trinkets to the natives as the natives’ ancestors had done on their trading voyages to the Dark Continent.’ Or when upper and middle-class youth start to take on the clothes, music and language of the urban poor. Strangely absent from this account, however, is the enormous change in popular attitudes to, as well as modes of partaking in, sexuality that begins in the Sixties; there is a continuity between this period and the next, in which the new sensibility produced by gays and lesbians, and of course the scourge of Aids, are central motifs.

Each of Hobsbawm’s major claims about periods in world history is provocative and, in the best sense, tendentious. Certainly there is something almost poetically inevitable about the last of his three divisions, ‘The Landslide’: ‘the history of the twenty years after 1973,’ he says, ‘is that of a world which lost its bearings and slid into instability and crisis.’ What does the slide include? The fall of the Soviet Union and the Eastern European Communist states; the re-division of the world into rich and poor states; the rise of ethnic hatred and xenophobic nationalism; guerrilla movements both in the ascendancy and in almost bathetic decline; politics as the art of evasion, and politicians as assuagers rather than leaders; the unprecedented importance of the media as a worldwide force; the rule of transnational corporations; the surprising renaissance of the novel, which in places like Russia, Latin America, and parts of Asia and Africa is an exception to the general eclipse of the major traditional aesthetic genres. Interspersed is a particularly gripping (for the layman at least) chapter on the triumphs and changes in modern science. Hobsbawm gives the best short account of how scientific theory and practice traverse the distance between the laboratory and the marketplace, in the process raising fundamental issues about the future of the human race, now clearly undergoing ‘a renaissance of barbarism’.

His conclusion, laced with understandable fatigue and uncertainty, is scarcely less pessimistic. Most of what he has to say about the fin de siècle in his final pages is already perceptible in earlier sections of the book. The general loss of Marxism and of the models for political action developed in the 1890s is balanced by the bankruptcy of counter-alternatives, principal among them a ‘theological faith in an economy in which resources were allocated entirely by the totally unrestricted market, under conditions of unlimited competition’. The worldwide assault on the environment, the population explosion, the collapse of state power and the appearance of fundamentalist mass movements with ‘nothing of relevance to say’ about the modern world, all these show how ‘the fate of humanity in the new millennium would depend on the restoration of public authorities’. It is clear that Hobsbawm sees link hope in a solution that prolongs either the past or the present. Both have proved themselves unworthy models.

A very disquieting book this, not only because its conclusions seem so dispiriting but also because, despite one’s deep admiration for it as a performance, a muffled quality surfaces here and there in its author’s tone, and even at times a sense of self-imposed solemnity that makes it more difficult to read than one would have expected. In part the grandeur of Hobsbawm’s project precludes the kind of buoyancy one finds in the brilliantly eccentric earlier books, like Primitive Rebels or Bandits. For most of the time here he is so measured, responsible, serious that the few disputable judgments and questionable facts that turn up in the book seem disproportionately unsettling. Most of them occur in discussions either of the arts or of non-European politics: that is, in areas which he seems to think are mainly derivative and hence inherently less interesting than in the altogether (to him) more important realms of Western politics and economics. At one point he says with quite unmodulated certainty that ‘the dynamics of the great part of the world’s history in the Short 20th Century are derived, not original.’ He clarifies this by saying something pretty vague about ‘the élites of non-bourgeois societies’ imitating ‘the model pioneered in the West’. The trouble with this, as non-Western historians like the Subaltern Studies group (an influential collective of Indian historians headed by Rangjit Guha, which has been dedicated to the idea that Indian history must be written from the perspective of the real history-makers: the urban masses and the rural poor, not the nationalist élite) have tried to show, is that it leaves out huge gobs of non-élite historical experience which have their own, non-derivative integrity. What about conflicts between nationalist élites and resistant non-élites – in India, China, parts of Africa, the Arab world, Latin America and the Caribbean? Besides, how can one so easily detach the original from the derivative? As Fanon said, ‘the entire Third World went into the making of Europe.’

It is not just Hobsbawm’s occasionally dismissive tone that troubles one but the sense one has of a long-held, quite unexamined decision that in matters non-Western the approved Western authority is to be preferred over less conventional non-Westerners. Hobsbawm registers little awareness that a debate has been raging in Islamic, Chinese, Japanese, African, Indian and Latin American studies about authority and representation in the writing of history. This debate has often relegated not only traditional authorities but even the questions raised by them to (in my opinion) a well-deserved retirement. In his recent Nations and Nationalism since 1780 (1990) Hobsbawm expresses an impatience with non-European nationalism which is often quite justified, except that that very impatience also seems to contain a wish not to deal with the political and psychological challenges of that nationalism. I recall with some amusement his characterisation there of ‘Arabian’ anti-imperialist nationalism as ‘the natural high spirits of martial tribes’.

Hobsbawm is therefore peculiarly ill-equipped to deal with the rise and ascendancy of ‘politicised religion’, which is surely not, as he implies, an exclusively Muslim phenomenon. The US and Israel, whose Christians and Jews respectively are in many ways ‘modern’ people, are nonetheless now commanded – or at least deeply affected – by a theologically fervent mentality. The last thing to be said about them, or the Muslims (in the understanding of whose world Hobsbawm is surprisingly banal) is that they ‘have nothing of relevance to say’ about their societies. Barring a few cranks (like the Saudi Arabian cleric who persists in preaching that the world is, and always will be, flat), the contemporary Muslim movements in places like Egypt and Gaza have generally done a better job of providing welfare, health and pedagogical services to an impoverished populace than the government. Christian and Jewish fundamentalists also answer to real needs, real anxieties, real problems, which it will not do to brush aside as irrelevant. This blindspot of Hobsbawm’s is very surprising. With Terence Ranger, he is a pioneer in the study of ‘invented tradition’, those modern formations that are part fantasy, part political exigency, part power-play. Yet even about this subject, clearly related to the new appearance of religious mass enthusiasm, he observes a mysterious silence in Age of Extremes.

The more positive aspect of Hobsbawm’s reticence is that it enables his reader to reflect on the problem of historical experience itself. Age of Extremes is a magisterial overview of 20th-century history. I accentuate the word ‘overview’ because only rarely does Hobsbawm convey what it was (or is) like to belong, say, to an endangered or truly oppressed class, race or minority, to a community of artists, to other embattled participants in and makers (as opposed to observers) of a historical moment. Missing from the panorama Hobsbawm presents is the underlying drive or thrust of a particular era. I assume that this is because he thinks impersonal or large-scale forces are more important, but I wonder whether witnesses, militants, activists, partisans and ordinary people are somehow of less value in the construction of a full-scale history of the 20th century. I don’t know the answer to this, but I tend to trust my own hunch that the view from within, so to speak, needs some reconciling with the overview, some orchestrating and shading.

The absence of these things in turn produces a remarkably jaundiced view of the arts in the 20th century. First, Hobsbawm seems to believe that economics and politics are determining factors for literature, painting and music: certainly he has no truck with the idea (which I myself believe in) that the aesthetic is relatively autonomous, that it is not a superstructural phenomenon. Second, he has an almost caricatural view of Western Modernism, which, as far as he is concerned, has not, since 1914, produced an adequate intellectual self-justification, or anything of note, other than Dadaism and Surrealism. Proust apparently counts for nothing after 1914 and neither do Joyce, Mann, Eliot or Pound. But even if we leave imaginative writers aside – and Hobsbawm’s constricting dating system does not help his case – there is good reason to argue that in the arts and disciplines of interpretation, Modernism plays a considerable role. What is Lukács’s History and Class Consciousness or even Auerbach’s Mimesis if not Modernist? Or Adorno and Benjamin? And when it comes to trying to understand the often bewildering efflorescence of Post-Modernism, Hobsbawm is stubbornly unhelpful.

The irony here is that both Modernism and Post-Modernism represent crises of historical consciousness: the former a desperate attempt to reconstruct wholeness out of fragments, the latter a deep-seated wish to be rid of history and all its neuroses. In any case the Short 20th Century is, more strikingly and jarringly than any before it, an age of warring interpretations, of competing ideologies, methods, crises. The disciples of Nietzsche, Marx, Freud, the apologists for culture and counter-culture, for tradition, modernity and consciousness, have filled the air, and indeed space itself, with contestation, diatribe, competing viewpoints; our century has been the age of Newspeak, propaganda, media hype and advertising. One reason for this – as Gramsci, unmentioned by Hobsbawm, was perhaps the first to appreciate – is the enormous growth in the number and importance of intellectuals, or ‘mental workers’ as they are sometimes called. Well over 60 per cent of the GNP in advanced Western societies is now derived from their labour; this has led to what Hobsbawm calls in passing ‘the age of Benetton’, as much the result of advertising and marketing, as of the changed modes of production.

In other words, the 20th century saw, along with the appearance of genocide and total war, a massive transformation of intellectual and cultural terrain. Discussions of narrative moved from the status of story to the hotly debated and fought-over question of the nation and identity. Language, too, was an issue, as was its relationship to reality: its power to make or break facts, to invent whole regions of the world, to essentialise races, continents, cultures. There is therefore something unsatisfyingly unproblematic about Hobsbawm’s decision to try to give us facts, figures and trends shorn not so much of their perspective as of their disputed provenance and making.

Viewed as deliberately standing aside from the interpretative quarrels of the 20th century, Age of Extremes belongs to an earlier, manifestly positivist moment in historiographic practice; its calm, generally unexcited manner takes on an almost elegiac tone as Hobsbawm approaches his melancholy conclusion that history ‘is no help to prophecy’. But as a somewhat younger and far less cautious student of Hobsbawm’s other great work, I would still want to ask whether there aren’t greater resources of hope in history than the appalling record of our century seems to allow, and whether even the large number of lost causes strewn about does not in fact provide some occasion for a stiffening of will and a sharpening of the cold steel of energetic advocacy. The 20th century after all is a great age of resistance, and that has not completely been silenced.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 17 No. 10 · 25 May 1995

Maybe Edward Said should make up his mind as to whether The Age of Extremes (LRB, 9 March) represents ‘one of the summits of historical writing in the post-war period’ or is only the by-product of ‘an earlier, manifestly positivist moment in historiographic practice’. Since positivism has a very bad reputation (I believe wrongly) among Modernists, Post-Modernists and Post-Marxists, this hardly strikes me as a compliment. Especially when this final statement follows two columns of suggestions on what Hobsbawm has missed, or should have taken into account.

Must we assume, then, that the distinguished British historian is somehow politically incorrect? In his Introduction Eric Hobsbawm reminds us that people of his – and my – generation, who lived and acted through most of the ‘short century’, talk and think ‘like men and women of a particular time and place, involved, in various ways, in its history as actors in its dramas’. He acknowledges that it is difficult to speak to ‘readers who belong to another era … for whom even the Vietnam War is prehistory’.

Of course Edward Said does not belong to this last ‘era’: he stands in the middle. Could it be, though, that he might have been affected by at least some of those ‘religious or ideological confrontations’ of his times ‘which build barricades in the way of the historian’? He tells us that Hobsbawm has made a major effort, considering his personal history, to stay away from the ‘interpretative quarrels’ of his times, so restoring our ‘faith in the idea of rational investigation’. But the ‘aesthetic is relatively autonomous’, and is not ‘a superstructural phenomenon’. Is there ‘aesthetic correctness’ too, then?

I would suggest, to the contrary, that Chapters 6 and 11 of The Age of Extremes give us the most compelling and up-to-date view of the main characteristic of the cultural revolution of our century, which has been the ‘common desire’ to come to terms with reality, making it the ‘century of the common people … dominated by the arts produced by and for them’.

Walter Benjamin and Antonio Gramsci would probably agree. And Sir Leslie Stephen would join them. In his last lectures of 1904 on the 18th century he had already suggested that so-called élite literature might be considered only as ‘a kind of by-product of the whole social activity’, and that its ‘characteristics’ correspond to those of a ‘very small minority of the nation’. According to Stephen, ‘the most important changes’ in the arts of the 18th century were already ‘closely connected with the social changes’ which had ‘entirely altered the limits of the reading class’. Now that the reading class has become an ‘audience’ is this any less true?

Gianfranco Corsini

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences