Hobsbawm's 19th century "Age" trilogy is great. His 20th century Age of Extremes is less good--profitable as a work of history, but also, alas, profitable as an index of the impact decades of doublethink can leave on a good mind…
Hoisted from the Archives from back in 1995, in that decade between the Fall of the Berlin Wall and the Fall of the Towers:
In the beginning was Karl Marx, with his vision of how the Industrial Revolution would transform everything and wash us up on the shores of Utopia. Marx saw the economy as the key to history: every forecast and historical interpretation must be based on the economy's logic of development. Sometimes--as in much of Eric Hobsbawm's previous work on the history of the nineteenth century--this functioned relatively well.
But sometimes it led to very bad results indeed. And when Marx and Engels's writings became sacred texts for a world religion called Communism, things passed beyond the absurd: the belief that the logic of development of the economy was the most important thing about society became entangled in the belief that Joe Stalin was our benevolent master and ever-wise guide.
Now it is over. The red stars of the Soviet Union no longer shine from the tops of the Kremlin towers at night. Radicals still seek Utopia, but they no longer think the road leads through the economy. Instead, they study culture--as if to change the world just by understanding it. It is difficult to see a future in which authors with the intelligence, industriousness, and audience of Eric Hobsbawm are disciples of Karl Marx in anything like the sense that Eric Hobsbawm is a disciple of Marx.
Now Eric Hobsbawm has written a history of the twentieth century, The Age of Extremes. It has by and large received good reviews: Stanley Hoffman in the New York Times Book Review; Eugene Genovese in the New Republic; Edward Said in the London Review of Books.
But my reaction to The Age of Extremes was different. It struck me as history gone awry: a sketch of the twentieth century not as it has been lived here on earth but as it might have been lived somewhere else, on some "planet Hobsbawm" that might be found in one of those parallel universes often visited in Star Trek episodes, where what looks familiar at first glance turns out on close examination to be alien indeed.
Let me give an example: the last word of the book is darkness: it ends "one thing is plain. If humanity is to have a recognizable 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." But a decade ago, when Hobsbawm finished an earlier book, Hobsbawm was optimistic: looking forward to a twenty-first century much better than the twentieth if nuclear war were successfully avoided.
What has happened in the past decade that has so darkened his vision of our human future?
The past decade has seen good news along a number of important dimensions: The environment is in better shape: the clean-up of the first world continues; the clean-up of the ex-Communist world has begun; and the third world is more aware of environmental degradation. Progress has been made in creating the international climate to guard against ozone depletion and global warming. Nuclear war is much less likely. China and India, more than one-third the human race, had their best economic growth decades in the 1980s.
In addition, many of the Communist régimes that ruled more than half the human race have fallen. Awful tyrannies have passed into history. Hundreds of millions have a chance for a more normal life--not spending six hours a day waiting in some commodity distribution line, not being spied on by one out of every ten of their eighbors, not seeing one out of every fifteen neighbors killed by the state's bullet, labor camp, or political famine.
Good news on the environment, on the danger of nuclear war, on Asian and Latin American (albeit not African) development, on the spread of democracy, and on the end of tyrannies have been the major developments of the past decade. If you were optimistic about the human future before the mid-1980s, you should be ecstatic today.
Yet Eric Hobsbawm is much gloomier than he was a decade ago.
There is no doubt that his gloominess is due to the end of European Communism. This is not to say that Hobsbawm still worships the post-1917 pre-1991 Soviet Union. The days are gone when he saw directives from Moscow as the logos of History speaking through the Party. He no longer judges "heroic" communists' obedience to Stalin's instructions to undermine Britain's World War II effort against Hitler (before June 22, 1941, that is), or claims "my International right or wrong."
Yet traces remain of the Eric Hobsbawm who was once a fanatic acolyte of the despotically-governed world religion of Communism. Judgments made then remain unexamined, or unsuccessfully reexamined, parts of the structure of his thought. It is as if a star--belief in the world religion of Communism--died, but light emitted before its death continues to reflect off planets and moons. The remains of Hobsbawm's commitment to the religion of World Communism get in the way of his judgment, and twist his vision.
On planet Hobsbawm, for example, the fall of the Soviet Union was a disaster, and the Revolutions of 1989 a defeat for humanity. On planet Hobsbawm, Stalin planned multi-party democracies and mixed economies for Eastern Europe after World War II, and reconsidered only after the United States launched the Cold War. On planet Hobsbawm, Hungarian--collectivized--agriculture is more productive than modern French agriculture.
Perhaps worst of all, on planet Hobsbawm modern democracy is not a good thing: elections are "contests in fiscal perjury" among voters with "no qualifications to express an opinion," that create governments that work only when they "did not have to do much governing." If there is a good word about really existing democracy--as a check upon official paranoia, as way of ensuring that people can lead a quiet life, or as a way of ascertaining the public interest--I missed it.
Let me briefly note one more belief that is false, but that was once part of the worldview of Stalin's acolytes:
The book has one single substantive sentence about the Korean War: "Shaken by the communist victory in China, the U.S. and its allies (disguised as the United Nations) intervened in Korea in 1950 to prevent the communist régime in the North of that divided country from spreading to the South." (p. 237). Now this simply will not do. It is not fair to tuck Kim Il Sung's army and Stalin's tanks into that little word, "spreading." The only other mention of Kim Il Sung's rule--264 pages later, in a discussion of the arts--calls it a "megalomaniac tyranny."
I find it odd that Hobsbawm chooses to describe North Korea's government by the colorless word "régime" in the context of the Korean War: If Kim Il Sung is a megalomaniac tyrant when talking about the arts, he should also be a megalomaniac tyrant when talking about the Korean War.
And it matters: a war undertaken to stop military conquest by a megalomaniac tyranny is a different thing from a war undertaken to oppose the "spread of a régime."
Hobsbawm's Cold-War polemics would not, by themselves, necessarily greatly harm the book: Readers could speculate whether the change in description of Kim Il Sung's government is Hobsbawm's deliberate and conscious avoidance of any hint that the Cold War might have been a struggle between bad guys and less-bad guys. They would argue over whether the change of Kim Il Sung's government from a "megalomaniac tyranny" to a "régime" as it enters the context of the Cold War is the result of unbreakable habits of doublethink created by decades of Communist Party membership.
But Hobsbawm's past as a Communist acolyte does much more additional damage to his book. It warps its themes. Hobsbawm's history has one major theme that takes up nearly forty percent of available space: Communism as the Tragic Hero of the twentieth century. Too many other aspects of the century are crammed into the corners left over, with the positive aspects of the terrible and glorious twentieth century--the rise of political democracy, the technologically-driven explosion of material wealth, and the creation of social democracy with its mixed economies and welfare states--allowed less than one-tenth of available space.
And this is the wrong focus for anyone's history. The proportions should be reversed.
The fundamental source of the distortion is that, for Eric Hobsbawm, World Communism was the Tragic Hero of the twentieth century. It was born in unfavorable circumstances in a backward agricultural country. Lagging behind historians' judgments, Hobsbawm believes that it by and large succeeded in its historical task of industrialization. And before its death, according to Hobsbawm Communism saved the west and what little there is of good in the twentieth century twice:
The victory of the Soviet Union over Hitler was the achievement of the regime... [of] the October Revolution.... Without [Communism] the Western world today would probably consist (outside the USA) of a set of variations on authoritarian and fascist themes.... It is one of the ironies of this strange century that the most lasting result of the October Revolution... was to save its antagonist, both in war and in peace--that is to say, by providing it with the incentive, fear, to reform itself after the Second World War.
There is some here that is true, but much here that is false. There is an enormous and eternal debt for the defeats of Hitler's armies at Stalingrad (1942), Kursk (1943), 2nd Kiev (1944), the Beresina (1944), the Vistula (1945), and Berlin (1945) that collectively broke the back of the Nazi war machine. But this debt owed to Stalin and Stalin's régime? No. It is owed to the people of the Soviet Union.
Before Hitler attacked the Soviet Union, Stalin decimated his army through purges, attacked Finland and adding it to Hitler's allies, and fed the Nazi war machine with raw materials it could not get through the British naval blockade. Had Stalin joined the allies in September 1939, he would have had three allied armies--Polish, French, and British--fighting on the continent of Europe, and a neutral Italy. Add in the role played by the Comintern in gleefully helping to destroy the democratic center that lay between Hitler and Weimar Communists in Germany, add in what Hobsbawm calls "Stalin's... extraordinarily inept interventions into military strategy," and conclude that Stalin made the Soviet people's task in 1941-1945 more difficult.
One of the major themes of twentieth century history must be barbarism and mass murder. This is a century in which perhaps 160 million civilians have been killed by governments--through execution, overwork in prison camps, terror-bombing with no proportional military effect, and mass famine induced as an aim of policy. Perhaps three quarters of these civilians have been killed by their own governments. Thomas Hobbes wrote that people pledged allegiance to governments to protect them from the fear of violent death. In the context of the twentieth century Hobbes was a utopian optimist: governments--Communist governments above all--have been the principal source of violent death.
Hobsbawm's book contains some eloquent passages describing the tyrannies of Stalin and Mao. But they are oddly disconnected from the narrative of the "Age of Catastrophe" that was the first half of this century. For Hobsbawm, this disconnectedness serves a purpose: it allows him to write as if Stalin's Soviet Union was part of the solution in the struggle against tyranny in the twentieth century, rather than a large part of the problem.
As odd--and indefensible--is Hobsbawm's attempt to find roots of what he calls the post-World War II "Golden Age" in the October Revolution. It is even harder to see post-war success--prosperity, democracy, the welfare state, and greater economic equality--as due to World Communism. Hobsbawm wants the October Revolution to have provided "[Capitalism] with the incentive, fear, to reform itself after the Second World War." But "capitalism" is not a live, breathing, intelligent creature that feels fear and thus undertakes to reform itself. Concepts like "capitalism" do not make history. Humans make history--even if not just as they please, but under circumstances dictated by the past.
The post-World War II order in the industrial west was made by the voters who chose the Trumans, the Adenauers, and the Attlees, and who set the parameters of the politically possible within which politicians seeking to maintain public support and provide for the general welfare could operate. A secondary role in making the post-World War II order belongs to the politicians themseles, who drafted, negotiated, and enforced the laws that created the mixed economies, welfare states, and social democracies of the post-World War II industrial and democratic west.
They did a good job.
In the United States, they would have done a better job had Communism not existed; Stalin's presence brooding offstage was not helpful. In western Europe as well, the subservience of national Communists to Stalin meant that social democracy could only assemble majorities by taking several steps to the right, and thus limiting the coverage and scope of the welfare state. In the developing world, countries that adopted the Soviet model did so at an enormous price.
Hobsbawm half-recognizes that he has misused his space. He muses on "the changes in human life... brought about [by economic growth in the twentieth century] all over the globe" and calls them "as profound as they were irreversible." He notes that the twentieth "century marked the end of the seven or eight millennia of human history that began with the invention of agriculture." He concludes that "[c]ompared to this, the history of the confrontation between 'capitalism' and 'socialism'"--the major theme of his book--"will probably seem of more limited historical interest."
Yet he has only eleven pages--257 to 268--for the century's economic revolution, and only two chapters--10 and 11--for the consequences of the end of the ten thousand year era in which most humans worked growing or making things with their bare hands.
Hobsbawm would have served himself and his readers infinitely better if he had cut by three-quarters the space devoted to Communism and its struggles, and devoted it to the central theme of twentieth century history. Call it the "elevator to modernity," the explosion in productivity seen in the economies of the industrial core. A first corollary is the "escalator to modernity": the third world today is far from levels of prosperity found in the industrial core, but for more than three billion people this century has seen the beginnings of the industrial, urban, educational, and communications revolutions. And a second corollary is the triumph of social democracy: the combination of political democracy, the mixed economy, and the welfare state.
The Elevator to Modernity
This year--1995--the U.S. Commerce Department will report that the gross value produced in the United States by the average employed worker is about $56,970. A century ago--1895--historical statistics tell us that the gross value produced, divided by the number of workers, is some $14,150 measured at 1995 prices (and $408 when measured at 1895 prices). The average American worker produces some four times as much as a century ago according to this set of numbers, which roughly answer the question: "What would 1895's production be worth if we had it to sell today?"
But we are most interested in a different question: roughly, how much better is today's economy than that of a century ago in making what humans need and want? And simply valuing last century's goods at today's prices leaves out the important fact that we, today, produce a much wider range and quality of goods than a century ago. Anyone taken back in time to 1895 would feel cramped and harassed by the absence of so many of the goods and services we take for granted: no airplanes, limited telephones, no communications media or compact-disk players, limited prepared foods, no automobiles and no asphalt or concrete roads, no electrically-powered consumer durables.
How much does the expanded range of choice made possible by the inventions--new goods and new categories of goods--of the past century matter? If you try to duplicate in the past the capabilities we have today in the past, you fail. The capability of your compact-disk player--that of listening to, say, Don Giovanni in the evening in your home at whim--could not have been provided two centuries ago at any price.
Let me use Alan Greenspan's guess that the invention of new goods, new kinds of goods, and new features for old goods boosts our true standard of living by one-half to one and one-half percent per year: combining the fourfold multiplication in measured output per worker with the one-fifth decline in hours and the increase in the scope and range of goods and products, America as a society today is at least eight and perhaps as much as twenty-three times as wealthy as America a century ago. The average American today has a "real standard of living" higher than 999 out of every thousand Americans alive in 1895.
Perhaps the nineteenth century saw a doubling of real standards of living in the industrial core. Perhaps there was some progress not just in technology but in standards of living in the previous eighteen centuries of the Christian era--although I would not place high odds that the median Frenchman in the age of Louis XIV had a higher standard of living than the median Athenian at the birth of Christ.
Nevertheless, the difference between economic growth in any previous century and economic growth in the twentieth century is a large enough quantitative to invoke not just one, but several qualitative transformations. It is like the difference between climbing a ramp, and riding up the World Trade Center in an elevator.
Why has the twentieth century been so different from all previous centuries? Market economies have the standard advantages of giving manufacturers and traders every incentive to use resources most efficiently, and which have the additional advantage of providing that "sunset" for relatively inefficient organizations. Enterprises that are relatively inefficient cannot pay their bills, and vanish. This automatic weeding-out of inefficient organizations that fail the test of the market is so lacking where state enterprises draw on the general taxation or money-printing power of the state.
But markets alone do not generate the tenfold multiplication of human productive potential that the twentieth century has seen. Previous mercantile capitalisms, like Classical Athens, Sung dynasty China, Mediterranean Islam circa 1000, northern Italy in the late middle ages, or Augustan Britain have been relatively bright spots in human history. But they are only pale shadows of what we have seen this century.
If I had to lay odds on the necessary additional factors, I would bet on two: first, democracy; second, technological density.
Before our century, a productive mercantile economy was a goose that laid golden eggs--but there was always the temptation to squeeze the goose a little tighter to pay for a slightly greater degree of courtly splendor or a slightly higher military effort on whatever was the current active conquest frontier. History is littered with the corpses of golden geese. The loss of control by a mercantile aristocracy to a military one, or to a despot, meant that the best days of the local mercantile economy were past.
Successful democracy changes the calculus. Courtly splendor and an overmighty military become of less interest and less urgency than keeping real wages, employment, and profits rising--for political parties that are either unlucky to catch an unfavorable wave of the business cycle or unskillful enough to disrupt economic growth vanish rapidly. Economic growth and market institutions certainly coexist with political despotism for a while, but there is good reason to doubt their long-term compatibility.
But we need "technological density" as well: research and development has to become an industry in itself, rather than an avocation of a few learned gentlemen reading papers before a Royal Society, to maintain the pace of invention and innovation that we now take for granted. Only the confluence of all three, market institutions, political democracy, and high technological density, could generate the economic revolutions of the twentieth century.
This is the proper central theme of twentieth century history: the pace of economic transformation--its causes, its implications for productivity, for the structure of employment, for the use of education, for the value of capital, for society and social order, for cultural events, for politics. This is where a truly Marxist analysis could have been extremely powerful. For if there was ever an age in which changes in the material conditions by which humans produce and reproduce the necessities and conveniences of their life dominate every other sphere of human activity, it is the twentieth century.
The upward jump of productivity and wealth is not confined to the core of the world economy. In 1987, 97 percent of households in Greece, not usually considered one of the world's industrial leaders, owned a television set. In Mexico there was one automobile for every sixteen people, one television for every eight, one telephone for every ten.
On our low estimate of the pace of growth in the twentieth century, some 44 countries today--from South Africa and Estonia to Botswana and Brazil, from Slovenia and South Korea to Japan and Switzerland--are as rich as or richer than the United States was a century ago. And the United States a century ago was a society with a level of wealth previously unseen in world history. On our high estimate of growth, not 44 but 76 countries are wealthier today than the U.S. was at the turn of the cneuty.
The world's distribution of wealth, today, is probably more unequal than at any time in the past: the explosion of wealth in the industrial core carried them far above the four-plus billion below. But when future historians look back at the third world in the second half of the twentieth century, they will say that this was a period in which three billion humans climbed onto the escalator to modernity.
A second theme of any history of the twentieth century should be the triumph of democracy over a large chunk of the globe, and the consequent arrival of the developed welfare state with its web of support services and social insurance programs.
A look back at human history can be read to suggest that, unless the extraordinary wealth generated by the twentieth century has had some subtle impact on political dynamics, that our current democracies may not survive for even half a millenium. Those writing history four or five centuries from now might live under imperial régimes: emperors whose dynastic titles are based on keeping relative peace, ruling through aristocracies that negotiate semi-consent with the ruled. Imperial aristocracy may be in the future, as it has been in the past, the canonical form of human government.
Nevertheless, just as the Classical experience with semi-democractic and republican forms of government has always been of great interest to Europe's historians and politicians, so our experience with democracy in the industrial west--even if it ultimately ends--will be of as great interest to historians and politicians in the future. As Thucydides, Plutarch, Livy, and Sallust spoke to Niccolo Machiavelli as he tried to preserve the Florentine and to James Madison as he tried to establish the American Republic, so we should try to speak to our possible successors perhaps a millennium hence.
The rise of stable democratic governments has transformed not only how governments work but what they do. The industrial, democratic west has for the past half century been the realm of the social insurance state. Whether called "mixed economy," "social democracy," or "social market economy," the major business of government has become social insurance: progressive tax systems, income support, and benefit provision programs to partially counterbalance the extremes of economic inequality produced by the market distribution of income, and to create countries that are more middle-class societies.
Thus the past fifty years in the industrial, democratic west marks one of the few eras in history in which the distribution of wealth and economic power is to a degree the result of political choice, instead of the distribution of economic power largely determining political organization. Opposing pressures have balanced: populist calls for taking "unearned increment" from the rich balanced by an admiration for entrepreneurs and savers, and a realization that economic life is a positive sum game; compassion toward the poor balanced by resentment of those seen as trying to get something for nothing--even if the something is pitifully small by middle-class standards.
But the political and economic balancing act of social democracy appears possible only if economic growth continues. And the record of the twentieth century is that modern mixed economies are not stable, and require the most delicate management to avoid economic chaos.
Go to Wall Street. Look around. Wall Street is, in a very real sense, the investment planning department of the human race. Power to purchase commodities that owners of property have earmarked for savings flow into Wall Street and, in a complicated social and economic dance, are distributed to enterprisers and bureaucracies seeking permission to invest, develop new enterprises, or expand old ones.
The future becomes visible only slowly: one day at a time. Our technological capabilities, individuals' preferences for spending and saving, and natural resources change very slowly. Thus Wall Street should be a quiet place. Financial prices are the shorthand that Wall Street-considered-as-investment-planning-department uses to assess the desirability of investment projects. They should move glacially, as an extra day's information causes forecasters to revise so very slightly their image of the economy's bottlenecks twenty years down the road.
But this is not how Wall Street works. Today Mexico is fifty percent off--the valuation of all things Mexican, whether the cost of employing a worker, the value of a house, the worth of Mexico's currency, or the long-term profits to be gained from investment in a Mexican enterprise, is today fifty percent less than what it was in the late summer of 1994. If you had wanted to buy insurance against a fall in the peso in the late summer of 1994, you could have done so extremely cheaply. Few saw a peso collapse of the magnitude seen in the winter of 1994-1995 as possible; no one saw it as likely.
What has caused such a change? In part, financiers now believe that they were overoptimistic about the economic future of. In large part, however, financiers concluded that other financiers' downgrading of Mexico meant that Mexico would be starved of capital and short of international means of payment, and that as a result of this shift in mood the Mexican economy would perform more poorly.
This is an old story: a régime that bet a large chunk of its chips on rapid industrial development financed by capital inflow from world financial markets finds itself suddenly subject to a panic. In the United States, 1873 saw British investors lose confidence that American railroads and infrastructure were that day's equivalent of investments in the Pacific Rim. The largest investment house in the United States--that of Jay Cooke, politically well-connected industrial visionary who financed Abraham Lincoln's armies, and whose picture the Treasury Department's antique custodians will not release for me to hang in my office--went bankrupt.
Then there was no International Monetary Fund, no Bank for International Settlements, no Exchange Stabilization Fund, no one willing to guarantee the liquidity of the financial system that had funneled capital to America from Europe. As a result of the collapse of Jay Cooke and Company the City of London sneezed. The U.S. economy caught pneumonia. The share of America's non-agricultural labor force building railroads fell from perhaps one in ten in 1872 to perhaps one in forty by 1877--a seven percentage point boost to non-agricultural sector unemployment from this source alone.
Now we have a keen awareness of what is lost when a crisis of confidence is allowed to lead to the unraveling of a financial network. We have governments and institutions willing to take action. Unlike the United States in the 1870s, Mexico in the 1990s will not undergo anything near to a great depression.
Nevertheless, for at least three centuries capitalist financial markets have been working their erratic will. No one has a preferable alternative to allowing financial markets to do our collective investment planning: Wall Street's vision of where investment capital should be directed is infinitely better than the vision any group of planners. All would agree that financial markets require the most delicate political regulation and management. But it is rare that you find any two agreeing on exactly what form that political regulation and management should take.
There are a number of rules-of-thumb for economic management: Run a government surplus to keep the government's hunger for resources from draining the pool of resources for society's non-governmental investments. Use "automatic stabilizers"--decreases in tax collections and increases in social welfare spending in recessions--to cushion declines in employment and increases in poverty that occur when financial market shifts trigger depressions. Guarantee the safety and soundness of the credit system as a whole in emergencies, even though it rescues many who made overrash bets and provides some encouragement for future overrash. Guarantee not just the domestic but the international credit system.
Governments balance conflicting goals: high investment to boost productivity growth, stable prices so that private economic planning decisions focus on productivity rather than on exploiting quirks in the price-adjustment process, and high employment. The terms of the tradeoff are lousy. Election cycles tend to emphasize short-term as opposed to long-term performance.
And even good macroeconomic management is no guarantee that the average over the business cycle will produce the levels of employment or of income distribution that you want. Structural policies to level out the income distribution and maintain a high average level of employment face their own tradeoffs. Structural labor market policies are expensive; if you try to do them on the cheap you wind up with an unfavorable distribution of income, or a high level of employment; if you commit the appropriate level of resources to education and training, to job search assistance and employment subsidies, you will surely hear complaints--sometimes justified--that taxes are too high to sustain growth and investment.
Moreover, the entire system can lose forward motion completely. It is possible to mismanage a capitalist economy so badly as to bring a halt to essentially all economic growth. Consider Argentina, on a par with France and ahead of Italy in GDP per worker, agricultural productivity, and some areas of industry in 1950. Yet Argentina today may have no higher a standard of living than it had in the aftermath of World War II.
Given the importance of the issue, for the world economic system is more fragile than anyone would wish and has gone completely off its rails once in this century, government management of the business cycle and the economy would seem worth an extended and thoughtful treatment. It should, say, receive more space than a discussion of the policy dilemmas facing Soviet planners trying to build authoritarian socialism-in-one-country in the 1920s and 1930s.
But Hobsbawm is not equipped to provide such a treatment, and shows no sign of wishing to equip himself. Perhaps I feel the flatness and ineptness of his narrative more because of my own particular training. But I would have expected at least a little curiosity about, say, why the Great Depression was so much larger than any previous or subsequent depression. It was more than three times as deep and more than twice as long as any other. Yet all Hobsbawm has to say to account for the Greatness of the Depression is to chant words--speculation, over-production, credit boom--that have equal force applied to earlier and later recessions and depressions, of one-tenth the size of the Great Depression.
Eric Hobsbawm might complain that I have been unfair: that my real gripe is that I wish that he had written another, different book. He might say that I want a Book Written for the Ages, that reflects what historians in future centuries will find of greatest interest. And he is right, I do. By contrast, he might say, his book is "written by a twentieth-century writer for late-twentieth-century readers," to whom "the history of the confrontation between capitalism' andsocialism'...[s]ocial revolutions, the Cold War, the nature, limits, and fatal flaws of `really existing socialism' and its breakdown" are worth discussing at length. He is writing for readers who take the central theme of twentieth century history to be the tragical-heroic course of World Communism.
But the tragical-heroic course of World Communism is simply not the central theme of twentieth century history. For what audience is Hobsbawm writing his book? To what "late twentieth century readers" can we recommend The Age of Extremes as covering the pieces of twentieth century history they want and need to learn?
For new students seeking a genuine overview, the flaws, euphemisms, and silences arising from Hobsbawm's past political commitments are too mischievous. Hobsbawm's past political commitments lead him to believe both that (a) Kim Il Sung was a megalomaniac tyrant, and that (b) U.S. intervention to stop his extending his empire by conquest was a backward step for humanity. You cannot understand the twentieth century without finding an answer to the question of how as keen-eyed an analyst as Eric Hobsbawm can have held both these beliefs--without apparent strain--for more than forty years.
Yet Hobsbawm's book is constructed as if he wants to make it as hard as possible for a new student to figure out that this is an important question to ask.
For informed and experienced students seeking an overview of how the twentieth century changed the world, its focus is awry. Forty percent of space on the world religion of Communism and ten percent on the triple successes of social democracy--material prosperity, political democracy, and successful creation of middle-class societies--is the wrong balance. Ten percent on the world religion of Communism and forty percent on social democracy would be infinitely preferable
For students of Communism who believe that on balance it--a social movement that has, after all, contributed two of the twentieth century's three members of the I-killed-thirty-million club (Hitler, Mao, and Stalin), and at least four members of the I-killed-one-million club (Kim Il Sung, Pol Pot, Vladimir Lenin, Mengistu)--was not one of the brighter lights on humanity's tree of good ideas, the book will be profitable. But it will be profitable as an index of the impact decades of doublethink can leave on a good mind, as well as as an interpretation of history.