'If Men Were Angels. . . ' : Reflections on the World of Eric Hobsbawm

'If Men Were Angels. . . ' : Reflections on the World of Eric Hobsbawm

Mini Teaser: Historians have recently begun to see the twentieth century as lasting from 1914 to 1989 (the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe) or to 1991 (the end of the Soviet Union), what Eric Hobsbawm in his new book calls "the short twentieth century.

by Author(s): James Kurth

As the twentieth century draws to its end, we can expect a parade of books that will purport to tell us its meaning. The last fin de siècle was rich in artistic innovation; this one is more likely to be rich in historical reflection.

But in a certain sense the twentieth century has already ended. It did so half a decade ago. Historians for quite some time have seen the nineteenth century as really lasting from 1789 (the beginning of the French Revolution) to 1914 (the beginning of the First World War), and they have accordingly termed it "the long nineteenth century." So too, historians have recently begun to see the twentieth century as lasting from 1914 to 1989 (the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe) or to 1991 (the end of the Soviet Union), what Eric Hobsbawm in his new book calls "the short twentieth century." As it happens, the two historical centuries--the long nineteenth and the short twentieth--add up neatly to two conventional centuries.

Hobsbawm is an obvious candidate to be the premier historian of the short twentieth century. He has already written a long (three volumes, 1300 pages) history of the long nineteenth century, and he intends this volume on the short twentieth century to be the fourth and concluding volume in a series. He has also written a dozen other major books that deal with basic themes of the two centuries--industrialization, labor movements, revolutionary politics, and even jazz music. He is widely recognized as the most distinguished British historian of a Marxist persuasion.

Hobsbawm's own life began in 1917, soon after the beginning of the short century. While his book is indeed, as its subtitle states, a history of the world, it is also in a sense a biography of Eric Hobsbawm. Both the strengths and the weaknesses--the extremes as it were--of The Age of Extremes, are a result of Hobsbawm's combination, and at times confusion, of the two.

Hobsbawm divides the twentieth century into three distinct eras: "the Age of Catastrophe" (1914-1945); "the Golden Age" (1945--1973); and "the Landslide" (1973 to the present). This particular periodization has become conventional among historians of the twentieth century, and it is a useful way to order things. Each age is given its own section or Part. Somewhat less explicitly, Hobsbawm also divides his account into three broad areas: the advanced capitalist world (especially Western Europe and the United States); the "socialist" or communist world (the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, and China); and the underdeveloped world. This too is conventional, corresponding to the long-established, but now-obsolete, division into First, Second, and Third Worlds. As we shall see, some of the flaws in Hobsbawm's book result from particular, and peculiar, combinations of his three-part era periodization with his three-part area division.

A Tale of Three Ages

Hobsbawm's account of the Age of Catastrophe in Part One is generally excellent. His chapters on the two world wars, and the Great Depression that linked them, masterfully integrate events around the world, as well as the realms of politics, economics, and culture. In these chapters, he is focusing principally upon the advanced capitalist world. Although this account presents nothing that is particularly original, it is generally comprehensive, coherent, and concise.

In it, however, one chapter, that on "The World Revolution" and the Soviet Union, fits in oddly. For although this chapter is included in the part that covers the Age of Catastrophe, there is virtually no mention in it of the great catastrophes that occurred within the Soviet Union itself during the 1920s-1930s: the Russian Civil War, the Russian famine, the Ukrainian famine, the Great Terror, and the Gulag Archipelago. These catastrophes were as extreme as the others that occurred during 1914-1945--together, they took the lives of more than thirty million people--but they are almost completely omitted from this chapter and indeed from the whole of Part One. Rather, the picture given in "The World Revolution" is one of the political creativity of Lenin, the worldwide enthusiasm for the Bolshevik Revolution, and the heroic exertions of the Soviet Union in the Second World War. We shall return to this anomaly shortly.

Hobsbawm's account of the advanced capitalist countries in the Golden Age (Part Two) is also generally excellent. Once again, he masterfully integrates events around the world, as well as the realms of politics, economics, and culture. Because this age is closer to the present, it has not received the full treatment that historians have given the Age of Catastrophe, and there is less of a settled, consensual interpretation. But although Hobsbawm again presents little that is particularly original, he does draw upon the best accounts of others, ones that are both innovative and sound. He demonstrates that the Golden Age of economic prosperity and social peace resulted from the lessons that the advanced capitalist countries drew from the preceding catastrophes.

In the same Part Two, Hobsbawm includes a chapter that is entitled "Real Socialism." This is a discussion of the Soviet Union and communist Eastern Europe. But, curiously, unlike the rest of this section of the book, this chapter on the communist world does not begin after 1945. Instead, it begins with 1917, thus returning to the period already addressed in Part One. And now, for the first time, we learn of those early Soviet catastrophes--particularly the Ukrainian famine and the Stalinist terror--although the length of the treatment is still hardly up to the scale of the events described.

The chapter on "The Third World" and the Marxist movements within it during the 1940s-1970s has some of the tone of the earlier chapter on "The World Revolution" during 1917-1945. And just as with the treatment of the Soviet Union, in this first chapter on the Third World and communist China, there is no mention of the great catastrophes that occurred in these regions during these years, especially the Chinese famine that followed the "Great Leap Forward," and the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Treatment of these disorders is delayed and given out of sequence in Part Three.

Hobsbawm's account of the Landslide in Part Three is probably the most innovative section of the book. He is consistently penetrating and realistic about events in each of the three worlds. He is particularly lucid and useful in demonstrating how the very economic achievements of the Golden Age in the advanced capitalist countries undermined the foundations of their national states and welfare societies. The result is that we are now living in the midst of a long slide into political paralysis, cultural squalor, and social disintegration. Hobsbawm ends his book with a chapter entitled "Towards the Millennium." In it, he concludes: "The structures of human societies themselves, including even some of the social foundations of the capitalist economy, are on the point of being destroyed by the erosion of what we have inherited from the past. Our world risks both explosion and implosion. It must change."

The Case of the Misplaced Catastrophes

What explains the odd disjunction between when the communist catastrophes occurred in history and when they appear in Hobsbawm's book? Why are the catastrophes of Soviet communism during the 1920s-1930s described not in Part One, where they chronologically belong, but in Part Two dealing with the period 1945-1970s? And why is the treatment of the catastrophes of Chinese communism and Third World Marxism during the 1960s-1970s postponed from Part Two, where they chronologically belong, to Part Three, dealing with the period from the 1970s to the present?

The answer is, I believe, that if Hobsbawm had chosen to describe the Soviet catastrophes in their proper place, it would have been clear that the World Revolution was as great a catastrophe--as much a contributor to the Age of Catastrophe--as were the two world wars. Further, it would have been clear that such extreme catastrophes should have been evident to an honest and intelligent observer even at the time that they occurred, particularly during the 1930s. Someone in the 1990s, after reading such an account, could reasonably conclude that anyone in the 1930s who did not see Soviet communism as a catastrophe was likely to be either a fraud or a fool. But it was precisely in that decade that the young Hobsbawm chose to follow the path of Soviet communism.

Similarly, if Hobsbawm had chosen to describe the catastrophes of Chinese communism and of Third World Marxism in the appropriate part of his narrative, it would have been clear that they should have been evident even at the time that they happened, in the 1960s-1970s. Again, a reader in the 1990s, presented with such an account, could reasonably conclude that anyone who did not see Chinese communism and much of Third World Marxism as a catastrophe was either dishonest or not very bright. But it was in the 1960s-1970s that the mature Hobsbawm chose to follow, or at least to cheer on, Marxist revolutions in the Third World.

In short, Hobsbawm's first chapter on Soviet communism does not present the actual history of that movement in the interwar years. Rather, it presents an historical elaboration on the romantic ideas that the young Hobsbawm held about Soviet communism at the time.

But Hobsbawm is now a distinguished historian. Consequently, he has written a second chapter on the same subject, and this chapter does present much more of the actual history of Soviet communism during that decade. He delays this, however, to Part Two, which otherwise covers the third quarter of the twentieth century--the period during which the mature Hobsbawm gave up his youthful romantic ideas and acknowledged the actual truth about Soviet communism in the 1930s.

Hobsbawm replaced his romanticism about Soviet communism with realism, and redirected his romanticism to Third World Marxism. Consequently, we see a repetition of the pattern of disjuncture. Hobsbawm's first chapter on Third World Marxism and Chinese communism does not present the actual history of those phenomena so much as an historical elaboration of the romantic ideas that the now-middle-aged Hobsbawm held about Marxist revolutions in the Third World in the 1960s. However, Hobsbawm's present identity as a distinguished historian must also be expressed. Consequently, he has written a second account of Third World Marxism and Chinese communism in the 1960s-1970s and this chapter does present much more of what actually happened. But, again, this account is held back until the section of the book which otherwise covers the fourth quarter of the twentieth century--the period when the more mature Hobsbawm gave up his earlier romantic ideas and acknowledged the actual truth about Marxist revolutions in the Third World.

In both these cases, then, the logic and sequence of the history is subordinated to the logic of the political autobiography that Hobsbawm is simultaneously offering us, if only in code.

The Limits of Understanding

There are, then, both pronounced strengths and pronounced weaknesses in Hobsbawm's history of the twentieth century. There is also a pattern to them.
Hobsbawm is excellent at analyzing the advanced capitalist world, in particular the capitalist economies and liberal democracies of Western Europe. He is, in other words, excellent at analyzing the working out in the twentieth century of the two great movements of the late eighteenth century that he presented more than three decades ago in the first volume in his four-volume series (The Age of Revolution). These were the industrial revolution in Britain and the political revolution in France, what he called then "the dual revolution." Through two centuries of history and four volumes of writing, Hobsbawm has consistently been sound and sure in his accounts of developments in Britain and France, and in Western Europe more generally.

But Hobsbawm loses the soundness of his understanding and the sureness of his footing when he travels outside Western Europe. This is most obvious when he travels east to analyze Central and Eastern Europe and especially Russia. But it is also evident when he travels west to analyze America.

Whenever Hobsbawm discusses Central and Eastern Europe, especially the Habsburg Empire and its successor states, he becomes unoriginal, superficial, and mechanical. This is all the more curious since he grew up in Vienna. Why is this so? The answer lies in the fact that the countries of Central and Eastern Europe have never really been comfortable with the Enlightenment. Hobsbawm has always been a man of the Enlightenment, of the Age of Revolution. The peoples of Central and Eastern Europe, however, have often been in reaction against the Enlightenment and its revolutions. Hobsbawm never enters into the mentality of most Central and Eastern Europeans. In particular, he demonstrates no empathy with Roman Catholicism, with ethnic nationalism, with populist authoritarianism, or even with the national independence of small countries in the region. Each of these is integral to the experiences of most Central and Eastern Europeans. Toward each, however, Hobsbawm's view has always been that of the outsider, even when he was growing up in the midst of them in Vienna in the early 1930s.

Just as Hobsbawm loses the soundness of his understanding and the sureness of his footing when he travels to the east of Western Europe, so too does he as he travels to the west. When he discusses the United States during the first three quarters of the twentieth century, he again becomes unoriginal, superficial, and mechanical. On occasion he sounds like just another typical and predictable "Brit crit." It is only in his account of the United States in the Age of the Landslide that he rises to the high level of his analyses of Western Europe.

This shallow understanding of the United States is a serious weakness in a book about the twentieth century. As Hobsbawm himself observes, it was the actions of the United States that were decisive in the outcomes of the First and Second World Wars and in the origins of the Great Depression, central events in the Age of Catastrophe. It was the actions of the United States that provided the leadership and established the framework for the Golden Age, not only for America itself but for the capitalist economies and liberal democracies of Western Europe.

Why does Hobsbawm misunderstand the United States? One obvious explanation lies in his Marxism. Just as this led him to overestimate the possibilities for the Enlightenment in the Soviet Union, so too it led him to underestimate them in the Soviets' adversary, the United States. A deeper explanation lies in Hobsbawm's particular version of the Enlightenment, a particular combination of the Industrial Revolution and the French Revolution. Since the industrial revolution in eighteenth-century Britain eventually reached its highest development in the twentieth century in the United States, this first track of the Enlightenment could have led Hobsbawm to a rich understanding of twentieth-century America, and indeed he does demonstrate such an understanding of the U.S. capitalist economy. However, the second track of the Enlightenment, the political revolution in eighteenth-century France, leads Hobsbawm away from the United States. The French Revolution never took root in America, because the political territory had already been filled by the earlier American Revolution. Rather, the French Revolution can be seen to have eventually reached its logical conclusion in the twentieth-century Soviet Union.

The American Revolution was certainly an expression of the Enlightenment in some sense of the term, although not in the sense of either the British industrial revolution or the French political revolution. But the American Revolution, and certainly the American Constitution, were also an expression of the age immediately preceding the Enlightenment. As is well known, the Founding Fathers had a skeptical view of human nature. In Federalist Paper No. 51, James Madison put their view thus: "But what is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary." This skeptical conception of human nature is not as explicit as the Christian conception of human sin, but it is consistent with it. It led naturally to the ideas of "ambition checking ambition," "power checking power," "checks and balances," the separation of powers, and the protection of mediating institutions existing between the government and the people.
For the most part, Hobsbawm has always been utterly uninterested in the American Revolution. It has never occurred to him that it might join in significance his two European revolutions. He has also been utterly uninterested in the American version of the Enlightenment. Indeed, he probably thinks that there was no American Enlightenment at all.

The Long March to the East

It is the French Enlightenment and the French Revolution that have always been most meaningful to Hobsbawm. The French Enlightenment, in contrast to the American one, had a confident conception of human perfectibility, one that was consciously and consistently anti-Christian. This confident conception led naturally to the ideas of enlightened despotism, absolute power, and the elimination of mediating institutions between the government and the people, between the state and the society.

In the French conception, the state would be composed of those people who were already enlightened and therefore perfected. Its mission would be to enlighten and perfect the rest of the population. Since the state was enlightened and perfect, while the society remained unenlightened and imperfect, there would be, regrettably but inevitably, a period during which there would be a sharp conflict between the state and the society, as the state forced the society to do what was best and for its own good. The division between state and society was reflected in other divisions familiar to France, such as that between "the legal nation" and "the real nation," and that between "the Red and the Black." The gap represented by these dichotomies was great enough in France to divide the nation for a century and a half. It reached its denouement in the contrast between the Popular Front of 1936-1938 and the Vichy Regime of 1940-1944.
The ideas of the French Enlightenment were spread by the armies of the French Revolution. In the course of the nineteenth century, they came to be held by the political and cultural elites not only in France, but also in other countries of Western Europe. But when these ideas traveled beyond France, they traveled to countries that were usually less developed and less enlightened than was France itself. This meant that the enlightened part of the country was smaller and the unenlightened part larger than they were in France--which in turn meant that the state would be even more unrepresentative of the society, and that its methods would have to be even less democratic and more dictatorial.

When the political conceptions of the French Enlightenment traveled across the PyrenŽes and across the Alps into Spain and into Italy, they resulted in a series of weak liberal regimes, which could maintain power only through the use of political corruption and rigged elections. These weak liberal systems eventually broke down in the early 1920s under the pressures of the First World War, strong labor movements, and class conflict. They were replaced by authoritarian regimes that consciously rejected the Enlightenment.

When these same political conceptions traveled across the Rhine into Germany, they entered into a multitude of small states. The enlightenment party was probably as numerous as it was in France, but it was fragmented into many different political units. Further east, in Prussia and in Austria, the political units were again on the scale of great powers, but the enlightenment party was too weak to ever take and maintain political power.

Still further east, in Russia, the enlightenment party was at its weakest. As Hobsbawm observes, European Marxists at the beginning of the twentieth century were united in agreeing that Russia was not the place for the first Marxist revolution. Russia was far too backward to provide a substantial working class and to support an authentic Marxist mass movement. When the Bolsheviks nevertheless made their revolution in Russia in 1917, most European Marxists continued to hold this view. Indeed the Bolsheviks themselves believed that the Revolution had occurred only because of the "icebreaker" of the First World War, and that it would only be viable if it quickly spread westward, particularly to Germany.

Hobsbawm praises Lenin for making the Bolshevik Revolution, but he is clearly uneasy about how appropriate and how authentic it really was. He argues that a revolution in Russia and the overthrow of the Czarist system were inevitable. This is plausible enough, but a revolution in this general sense is not the same thing as a Bolshevik revolution based upon professional revolutionaries purporting to represent a tiny industrial working class. The natural political regime in Russia would have been one similar to what arose in parts of Eastern Europe, particularly in Bulgaria and Yugoslavia, after the First World War--an authoritarian regime of populist leaders purporting to represent a large peasant class. This probably would have been the outcome in Russia if the Social Revolutionaries rather than the Social Democrats (Bolsheviks) had taken power. Hobsbawm also argues (somewhat inconsistently with his argument that revolution was inevitable) that Lenin's brutal methods were necessary to preserve the revolution. In fact, they were only necessary to preserve Lenin's own particular unnatural and artificial revolution against other, more natural and authentic, kinds.

Hobsbawm also argues that Lenin's brutal methods were necessary to maintain the new Soviet Union as a multinational state and as a great power like its predecessor, the Russian Empire. This multinational argument is plausible enough also. (Indeed, the advent of democracy in Gorbachev's Soviet Union in 1988-1989 brought into being national political movements which soon brought an end to the Soviet multinational state.) But although a non-Leninist Russia would have been stripped of its non-Russian territories and peoples, like the Russia of the 1990s, it still would have been a great power. Russia would have been at the center of a sphere of influence in which the lesser, non-Russian countries would have been politically independent, but militarily and economically dependent upon the Russian center.

The Soviet Union that Lenin created was in fact the most unnatural and artificial political system in the history of the twentieth century. To maintain the power of this unnatural state over its natural society, the most brutal methods, indeed the most extreme terror, had to be employed. The direct result was several of the worst catastrophes in the Age of Catastrophe. When the French Enlightenment, bringing its political conceptions of human perfectibility and enlightened centralized power, arrived in Russia, it was a catastrophe waiting to happen. The Bolshevik Revolution and its creation, the Soviet Union, constituted that catastrophe.

Could Hobsbawm have seen any of this in the late 1930s, when he was a very young man and at the very time that the Soviet catastrophes were culminating in the Stalinist terror? Probably not. For of course it was also at this very time that the Nazi threat was culminating in Hobsbawm's native Austria, and it is not surprising that the threat all around him might blot out the terror further away. As well, at this particular moment during the late 1930s, the central political drama, indeed political romance, was the Spanish Civil War. Hobsbawm, writing in The Age of Extremes almost sixty years later, states that it was "the only political cause which, even in retrospect, appears as pure and appealing as it did in 1936." In this romance, fascism (represented by Germany and Italy) was ruthlessly winning, liberal capitalism (represented by Britain and France) was callously appeasing, and communism (represented by Stalinist Russia and by no other great power) was heroically resisting. It is altogether natural that the young ŽmigrŽ escaping from fascist Central Europe should come to believe in communism and the Soviet Union. (It is not so natural, however, that he chose to emigrate, not to the Soviet Union, but to England, the center of liberal capitalism.)

Could Hobsbawm have come to see any of this by the 1950s and 1960s, when he was a mature scholar? It was at this very time that the Soviet catastrophes had become well-known, partly acknowledged by the Soviets themselves during the Khrushchev era. But of course it was also at the very time that the Soviet Union was going through the nearest approximation to a Golden Age it was ever to have--rapid economic growth, modest but steady increases in consumer goods, Sputnik, and some normalization of political life.

It was also at this time that Hobsbawm could engage once again in a political romance, this time with the Marxist revolutionary movements in the Third World, especially with the Cuban Revolution, which evoked themes and emotions reminiscent of Spain. It is altogether natural that the mature scholar should seek to recapture his youthful enthusiasm in turning his attentions to this new locale. (Again, however, he chose not to emigrate to some revolutionary Third World country, but to continue teaching in Britain and increasingly to take up teaching in the United States, the new center of liberal capitalism.)

The Real Extremes

Hobsbawm entitles his book The Age of Extremes, but he never directly says what these extremes were. Perhaps this is because he does not like some of the obvious identifications.

The real extremes of the twentieth century were the experiences of Russia and the experiences of the United States. If the Age of Catastrophe was 1914-1945, the country of catastrophe was Russia and the Soviet Union. It was the country that experienced the worst of the First World War, the Russian Revolution, the Russian Civil War, the Russian famine, the Ukrainian famine, the Great Terror, the Gulag Archipelago, and the Second World War. In three decades, this terrible parade of catastrophes killed more than sixty million people by war, murder, and starvation.

Conversely, if the Golden Age was 1945-1973, the golden country was the United States, and not only during the Golden Age itself. As Hobsbawm describes, the United States came out of both the First World War and the Second World War richer and stronger than it went in. It was, of course, the only major power to do so. By itself, this was enough to make what was the Age of Catastrophe for most of the world into the American Century for the United States.
We can see what happened when the political conceptions of the French Revolution migrated eastward from France, the country that gave them birth. They became progressively less authentic and more alien the further east they traveled. Finally, when they reached the eastern extreme of the European world, Russia, they mutated into a catastrophe.

We can also see what happened when these conceptions migrated westward. They had progressively less impact. In Britain, the potential ground for the conceptions of the French Revolution had already been partly filled up by the moderate ideas of the Glorious Revolution a century before. In the United States, the potential ground for these conceptions had already been completely filled up by the alternative conceptions of the American Revolution a decade before.
When the French Revolution reached the eastern extreme of the European world, it produced a catastrophe; when it reached the western extreme of the European world, it produced nothing at all.

What, however, was the historical trajectory of that other great revolution of the Age of Revolution, the British industrial revolution? Did the economic conceptions of the industrial revolution undergo their own transformation when they migrated outside of Britain, the country that gave them birth?
As it happens, there is a well-known theory about what happened when the industrial revolution traveled eastward from Britain. In the same year (1962) that Hobsbawm published his Age of Revolution, the distinguished economic historian, Alexander Gerschenkron, published his Economic Backwardness in Historical Perspective. Gerschenkron argued that the later a country industrialized, the more organized the industrialization process had to be. In Britain, industrialization could be undertaken by family firms, but in France it had to be undertaken by investment banks, and in Germany by even larger industrial banks. Finally, in Russia (Gerschenkron's professional specialty), industrialization had to be undertaken by the largest, most centralized organization of all, the state. In short, as industrialization migrated from West to East, the weight of the state became progressively heavier.

Building upon Gerschenkron, we can see that in Russia both the French Revolution and the industrial revolution, the political dynamic and the economic dynamic, grossly magnified the power of the state. When the two tracks converged, when Lenin's authoritarian organization and Stalin's forced-draft industrialization combined, the result was the most total, indeed totalitarian, state in history.

In his second volume, The Age of Capital, Hobsbawm briefly addresses Gerschenkron's theory. The model actually fits very well the historical account that Hobsbawm gives of the spread of industrialization in nineteenth- century Europe. But after noting the theory, Hobsbawm dismisses it inconclusively. The likely reason is that Russia illustrates the Gerschenkron model perfectly; indeed it was the terrible telos toward which the theory pointed. For Gerschenkron, the economic backwardness of Russia meant that industrialization there had to be monstrous, which perverted the Marxist revolution. For Hobsbawm, the economic backwardness of Russia was overcome by the political innovations of Lenin, which redeemed the Marxist revolution. As it turned out, both Gerschenkron and Hobsbawm were right in their own way. Russian industrialization was indeed monstrous, and Leninist and Stalinist methods made it even more so.

The Industrial Revolution Goes West

But what happened when the industrial revolution migrated in the opposite direction to the West, in particular to the United States?
Since the American Revolution was a political revolution, it had already occupied the potential space for a French-style political revolution. But being a political revolution, it did not occupy the potential space for a British-style industrial revolution. On the contrary, by creating an independent nation with a federal government empowered to enact protective tariffs for national industries (the industrial program of Alexander Hamilton), the American Revolution and especially the American Constitution opened the space for an industrial revolution in America.

Essay Types: Book Review