Eric Hobsbawm’s The Age of Extremes deserves to repeat the success of its predecessors, The Age of Revolution, The Age of Capital and The Age of Empire. In what is presumably his final volume in this series, Hobsbawm’s vivid style and humanist vision again illuminate an enormous range of empirical material. Is there anyone alive who wields so much material with such a light, subtle touch? Again the reader emerges considerably wiser—and, in the case of the atrocity-strewn twentieth century, rather sadder too. Hobsbawm writes as a disillusioned Marxian historian. Since I am none of these, I some-times disagree. Nonetheless, I have immense respect for what he here achieves. Other general histories of the twentieth century appear plodding, bitty or ideological by comparison.
Three periods provide the book’s framework. From 1914 to 1947 most of humanity, especially in the more developed world, went through an ‘Age of Catastrophe’. This began and ended with brutal world wars which
From such periodizations Hobsbawm moves downwards, through generalizations of the middle range, toward continental, national and local peculiarities. He reveals an extraordinary ability to make sense of global variety by a generalizing intelligence relying on telling detail. Here lie true riches—and only two disappointments. First, despite publisher’s and author’s claims to the contrary, Hobsbawm’s own life experiences—born in 1917, lived in Austria and Germany before emigrating to Britain, a long-term leftist and communist, eventually disillusioned—only rarely illuminate the general flow of events. I hungered for more, especially in his discussions of fascism and communism. Yet he shows reticence about his personal and political trajectory. Second, the later sections of the book would have benefited from more reference to empirical social science. Hobsbawm cheerfully admits ignorance of economics, but is also skimpy on political science and almost completely ignores sociology. On contemporary trends—for example on the international economy, on youth cultures or on poverty—he often writes as little more than an ‘intelligent layman’, without the benefit of the considerable research findings of contemporary social science.
The second possible route from Hobsbawm’s periodizations would be upwards to the realm of theory, to ask some why questions. Why the catastrophes, the golden oldies, the landslides? Hobsbawm treads lightly at this level, eschewing general theory, as he has always done. But while his previous volumes centred on a half-explicit Marxian model of modes of production and class conflict, this has become less evident as his hopes of class transformation have declined. The capitalist dynamic of development remains at the centre of his analysis, but classes, which at first figure large, then drop out. The centre is also occupied by other social processes: states, nations, wars and ideologies play ubiquitous roles while gender figures in his post-1945 narrative and generations appear after about 1960. Yet he does not seek to systematically relate these foci. Since I am a macro-sociologist, I will attempt more of this; since he is not, let me add that he is not responsible for my generalizations and simplifications.
Building on his work, amending it here and there, I will argue that twentieth century macro-institutions in the most developed societies have been
I start with the catastrophes of the first period. Hobsbawm begins with a triptych composed of World War I, the rise of socialism and the rise of fascism. All three were profound processes of mass mobilization. World War I he sees, conventionally enough, as ‘Total War’. It transformed war-making capacity by mobilizing entire national populations, its young men were organized to kill other young men in hitherto unimaginable numbers—though presaged by the American Civil War—and it involved goals without limits: global dominance and unconditional surrender. The war had major social and geopolitical consequences, many unintended. All the defeated—and some victorious—powers collapsed, replaced by regimes legitimizing themselves in terms of the masses. I might add that even liberal regimes changed their spots: liberals and conservatives also had to mobilize mass support.
Extreme leftists had emerged before the war, not merely socialists but also anarcho-syndicalists whose aim was to overthrow capitalism and institute a new moral, communal order, bypassing the state. Yet the war increased the significance of the socialist left. Hobsbawm only discusses one group at length, the Bolsheviks—he spends almost no time on democratic socialists in this volume. As he observes, the Bolsheviks provided ‘the most formidable organized revolutionary movement in modern history’ (p. 55), accomplishing the most radical transformation of society and state. Were it not for them, we could generalize about the capitalist twentieth century. I would add that, like other leftist groups of the time, they were overwhelmingly male and extremely young. Of the top sixty-eight Bolsheviks, sixty-four were men and the average age at which they had come to the attention of the Tsarist police was seventeen years and two months.footnote1 I return later to gender and generation.