Hobsbawm's Age of Extremes

The Extremes of Age or how Stalinists effortlessly become Democrats - A review article on The Age of Extremes The Short Twentieth Century 1914-91 by Eric Hobsbawm (Michael Joseph 1994)

A comrade asked why we were reviewing this book in ICR. It is a fair question. After all, Hobsbawm was one of the stalwarts of the British Communist Party who metamorphosed along with “the movement” first into a Eurocommunist and eventually - with the Martin Jacques school at Marxism Today - abandoned any pretence of defending socialism (whatever he understands by that term) at all. Like the rest of the left-wing of the capitalist class he is loudly proclaiming his attachment to “democratic values”. In doing so he is part of the bourgeoisie’s ideological offensive against the working class. Something which is overlooked by would-be revolutionary intellectuals who are thrashing around in the famous “swamp”. Unthinkingly bits of Hobsbawm are regurgitated to furnish their confused and demoralised ruminations with something approaching facts.

The Working Class as Object of History

For the internationalist communist Left Hobsbawm has never been anything other than a class enemy, despite his nominal adherence to Marxism. At best his “Marxism” could be described as that of a scholastic and antiquarian kind. In reality though Marxism is the science of proletarian revolution. It means nothing if it is stripped of its revolutionary kernel. But this kind of Marxism has no interest for the ex-Professor Emeritus of History at Birkbeck College, London whose view of the proletariat is as an abstract historical force which can be manipulated by intellectuals like himself. This is clear even in his earlier and better works (“better” in so far as they fill in the historical flesh around the analyses of Marx and Engels in the Nineteenth Century). Take for example the Luddites as portrayed in his The Age of Revolution. It is debatable how far the Luddites were really part of the modern proletariat. They were, after all, fighting the loss of their status as a privileged guild and fighting against the establishment of a system of generalised wage labour. They tended to look back rather than to look forward. However their fight can also be seen as an archetypal struggle of the working class in that they were trying to maintain a struggle against capital’s encroachment on the living standards of all workers. In doing so they had the support of thousands of other workers in other industries at the beginning of the last century. For Hobsbawm however the Luddites were nothing but “simple minded labourers” who “reacted to the new system by smashing the machines which they thought responsible for their troubles”. (1)

Such hauteur does violence to the facts. The Luddites were often the most literate and educated of their class and did not confine their activities to smashing machines but to a thoroughgoing defence of their livelihood and those of other workers against the millocracy. They managed to get the British Government to commit more troops to defending mills in three Yorkshire valleys than it felt able to give Sir Arthur Wellesley (the future Duke of Wellington) for his Peninsular Campaign against Napoleon! But then such haughty dismissals are the trademark of Hobsbawm. Born of Viennese parents in 1917 his Marxism has all the professorial detachment of the “Austromarxists” of that era. Like the Austrian Social Democrats, Hobsbawm has an intellectualised approach to the working class. Trotsky described this mentality precisely when he was in Vienna in 1912 and saw

... a phalanx of young Austrian politicians, who having joined the party in the firm conviction that an approximate familiarity with Roman law gives a man the inalienable right to direct the fate of the working class.

Trotsky My Life quoted in I. Deutscher The Prophet Armed p.186

From here the class struggle is easily reduced to a struggle by this or that leader. The writing of the working class out of history is even more pronounced in The Age of Extremes. The events of May '68, for example, are dismissed in a typical sentence which refers only to “a student movement”.

The student revolt of the late 1960s was the last hurrah of the old world revolution. (p.446)

Ignored is the fact that it was the 10 million workers on strike, the largest general strike in history, who were the real threat to the French bourgeoisie at this time. Perhaps this is because the Communist Party in France was the agent of the bourgeoisie in that struggle. It was the Communist Party who controlled the working class and prevented the crisis from overwhelming the state. As De Gaulle trembled in the Elysee Palace it was the French Stalinists who ran to the aid of the old order and negotiated the deal which took the workers back to work. As an old Stalinist himself it is convenient for Hobsbawm to ignore this unwelcome fact. Also ignored is the wave of strikes and workers resistance to capitalist attacks as the crisis accompanying the end of the cycle of accumulation after World War Two hit the major economies. From 1968 to 1974 workers from Barcelona to Buenos Aires and from Portugal to Poland took to the streets in massive movements not seen for decades. These movements failed to become real threats to the system because workers still trusted the Stalinists and Social Democrats who ran the trades unions. These Parties, in turn, demonstrated their capitalist credentials by ensuring that no strike ever posed the question of state power. The working class did gain some revolutionary organisations (like ourselves) from these events but carrying forward revolutionary clarity has so far remained the burden of a tiny minority of our class. Hobsbawm, for whom “really existing socialism” is the only “socialism”, simply pours scorn on the whole period. Incapable of escaping from his Stalinist timewarp he concludes

Indeed the most dramatic proof of the fading of world revolution was the disintegration of the international movement dedicated to it.

p. 448

By this he means the USSR’s bloc. It seems he didn’t notice Stalin abandoned any idea of world revolution in 1926 when he adopted the programme of “socialism in one country”. He did not notice that the (long dead) Comintern was formally dissolved in 1943 to please Stalin’s imperialist partners in World War Two. He did not notice that Stalin’s rape of Eastern Europe after World War Two was no different from the actions of imperialists down the ages. What was there left to disintegrate in the late 1950s when the Sino-Soviet split (Hobsbawm’s real tragic moment) occurred?

The Observer long ago called Hobsbawm’s histories “part of the mental furniture of educated Englishmen” which means the English middle class. But even the ultra-right can find in his “Marxism” something congenial. Describing the third of Hobsbawm’s nineteenth century trilogy, The Age of Empire 1875-1914 , Norman Stone - the rabidly right wing Professor of Modern History at Oxford - was moved to think its central chapters “among the finest pieces of historical exposition that I have ever read”. Hobsbawm’s writing ability is not in dispute. The twenty five page description of the French Revolution, for example, in The Age of Revolution is brilliant. But what has to be rejected is the idea that he has any connection with Marxism or the working class. By taking us on to contemporary territory The Age of Extremes fully reveals what was only implicit in much of his earlier writings. More significantly, it demonstrates the gulf between the old Stalinoid pseudo-Marxism of the past and the present revolutionary Marxism of the internationalist communist left.

A Question of Method

The Age of Extremes is a sloppy work in many ways, full of errors of a minor factual nature (you just can’t get the right calibre of research assistants these days!). Fulgencio Batista, pre-Castro dictator of Cuba is described as “tortuous” and the dating of some events is very approximate (Hiroshima, for example). Confusions and contradictions abound. The Triple Entente before 1914 is mistaken for its rival the Triple Alliance whilst the Spanish Civil War was “not the first phase of the Second World War” on p.156 but “it anticipated the politics of the Second World War” only five pages later. This sloppiness then also extends to the arguments. arguments which are not so much an attempt to interpret history but an exercise in personal self-justification. “The Short Twentieth Century” is, in fact, his life time and his analyses are based more on his subjective impressions at various points of his life rather than any hard-headed re-assessment of the facts. This he freely admits. The book he tells us rests on “curiously uneven foundations” because he comes to it “without the knowledge of the scholarly literature”. Which begs the question of why he wrote it in the first place. The answer becomes clear as you read it. It is one long apologia to explain why it was OK to be a Stalinist in the 1950s, then a Eurocommunist in the 1970s, and finally a democrat living in New York in the 1990s.

The Cleansing of Stalinism

When writing a book entitled The Age of Extremes you might expect the writer to reappraise his past support for Stalin and Stalinism. Hobsbawm not only fails to make this leap but manages to justify his past views alongside his present support for capitalist liberal democracy. His book deals with Stalin by telling us the “Few men have manipulated terror on a more universal scale” but he manages to avoid telling us who were Stalin’s victims or how many perished. The numbers of dead remain a matter of conjecture but at least 5 millions died in the gulags. Hobsbawm only twice manages to mention the gulags. Once to state that their population was between 4 and 13 millions and the second time to describe their emptying under Gorbachev. His amnesia affects his talk about post-1945 Russia where there were five women to every three men as a result of “the sex-discriminating killings of the great wars”. The sex-discriminating arrest of a disproportionate number of males by the secret police under Stalin was equally a cause of the gender imbalance in Russia but Hobsbawm chooses to forget this. This also allows him to make smug statements about the history of the USSR in the 1970s where he can contrast the rise of terrorism in the West with the “relative tranquillity of socialist life” in the Eastern bloc. Forgotten is the Stalinist legacy of a state based on terror (which Hobsbawm doesn’t think we should call ‘totalitarian’) and ignored is the fact that terrorism in the West was generally financed or armed by the imperialist USSR bloc in its struggle with its more powerful rival in the Western bloc.

But by now he has moved into full-scale apologia mode. Stalin’s economy, he tells us, gave workers

work, food, clothes and housing at controlled (i.e. subsidised) prices and rents, pensions, health care and a rough equality until the system of rewards by special privileges for the “nomenklatura” got out of hand after Stalin’s death.

p. 382

So Stalin was a fine lad really if we just ignore the fact that no-one in history was personally responsible for the deaths of more communists or more workers. “Socialism” is reduced to a sort of benign despotism (the “Uncle Joe” figure of Hobsbawm’s younger days is nostalgically before him). The fact that wage slavery still existed in the USSR or that wage slaves had no say in what they were producing or in the kind of society they were building is of little consequence for Hobsbawm. It is the same shoddy story that workers have been fed by Stalinists, and even some Trotskyists, down the years. It suits a bourgeois intellectual to accept such a tawdry view of “real socialism” which comes from a god on high rather than built through the involvement of the mass of the working class but as Rosa Luxemburg and Lenin in 1917-18 both stated that is the only way to reach socialism. A centrally directed economy is entirely compatible with capitalism as the Western bourgeoisie’s equally demonstrated in their post war welfare and nationalisation schemes to claim that capitalism was transforming itself and that Marxism was now irrelevant.

However, Hobsbawm’s real defence of Stalinism stems from when he was in his twenties, the era of the Second World War and its curtain-raiser, the Spanish Civil War.

The Spanish Civil War and Defence of Democracy

The fact that the Spanish Civil War has had an extraordinarily strong impact on Hobsbawm’s mentality can be seen even in his earlier books. He makes three references to it in The Age of Revolution which is supposed to cover the period 1789-1848! In The Age of Extremes it becomes the anchoring reason to justify his adherence to Stalinism. The anti-fascist cause is the one which unites his present support for liberal democracy of a broadly social democratic character to his previous Stalinism. Naturally both are also anti-working class.

The Spanish Civil War initially stemmed from Spanish causes. Spain’s historical development had been slightly different from the rest of Europe’s since at least the wars against Napoleon. On this we can agree with Hobsbawm. However this only meant that Spain’s workers were a little late in participating in the post-war revolutionary wave which had definitely ended everywhere else by 1926. Instead the run-up to the Second Imperialist Slaughter of 1939-45 had already begun. The capitalists knew that the working class would never buy the slogans of the past of “fighting for King and Country” or “Defence of the Fatherland”. This meant that a new ideology was required. Outside of the areas where fascism had already triumphed it became “defence of democracy” or defence of “freedom-loving peoples” in its other form. After 1935 the Popular Front emerged. Originally the French Communists and Socialists got together to support the Blum government with the official blessing of the Seventh Comintern Congress of November 1935. The Popular Front was soon extended to include liberals, radicals and other “progressive bourgeois” forces as the Stalinist ideology of the time put it. Trotsky protested that this was a caricature of the old United Front and that bourgeois forces should not be included. But the old United Front was also a front with the bourgeoisie. The old Socialist Parties had supported imperialism in World War One and had massacred revolutionary workers in defence of democracy against communism after the war. They had clearly passed over to the class enemy (and Trotsky was soon to get his French followers to try to enter the same French Socialist party).

With or without the “progressive bourgeoisie” the Popular Front was a multi-class alliance to defend the capitalist state.

Stalin however, was not concerned about Trotskyist hair-splitting. He was trying to forge an alliance of the USSR and the Western democracies to meet the expected German threat. This was why the Stalinists gradually came to take over in Spain (there were only 6,000 Spanish Communist Party members in 1936) and then suppress any incipient revolution (which was in any case isolated). Stalin wanted no suspicion of revolution in Spain to put off the British and French bourgeoisie from his proposed alliance. They in turn were more intent on appeasing Hitler in the hope that he would attack the USSR and leave them alone.

Hobsbawm, as usual is out to find a rationale for supporting Stalinism. His main plank is laid on p.144

In short, the frontier ran not between capitalism and communism, but what the nineteenth century would have called “progress” and “reaction” - only that these terms were not quite apposite.

In short we can forget class politics (Hobsbawm never noticed them) and the real position for any civilised intellectual was support for anti-fascism. This sets his position squarely in the imperialist camp.

The arrival of the Spanish Republic in 1931 was for Hobsbawm a progressive event. However he can only arrive at this conclusion by approaching its history without his glasses. Such is his myopia he can describe the repressions of the right-wing government of the Black Two Years in Spain (1933-5) but goes on to describe the equally anti-working class left government of 1931-3 as “well-meaning liberals”. The victims of the massacre of Casas Viejas must have thought otherwise. The Popular Front which succeeded the Black Two Years was a direct response to the Comintern’s appeal and the experience of the Blum Government in neighbouring France. It gave the Spanish Communist Party (PCE) an importance out of proportion to its size when the Franco-led army coup took place and provoked the workers’ uprising of July 1936. Hobsbawm fails to tell is that “the legitimate and duly elected government of the Republic, now extended to include socialist, communists and even some anarchists” tried not to arm the workers. As the war progressed the material aid from the Soviet Union gave the PCE more and more importance. Basing itself on the anti-revolutionary fears of the petty bourgeoisie it grew in size and gradually took over the state. Hobsbawm finds its role exemplary. It was the only organisation which came near to giving the Republic “a single military will” and he talks proudly of how the PCE (led by the Italian, Palmiro Togliatti) not only opposed the social revolution in words but also “did what they could to control and reverse it... Revolution ... was not the issue: defence of democracy was”. He then goes on to point out that this was “not mere opportunism” but by defending democracy in the short term it would destroy conservatism in the long term. He concludes that

In short, the logic of anti-fascism led towards the Left.

By “Left” he means support for the imperialist democracies and the equally imperialist USSR in the Second World War. In short the logic of anti fascism led workers towards imperialist war.

It is a Stalinist story that has survived many re-tellings but Hobsbawm proudly quotes Togliatti (under his pen name “Ercoli”) and the 1936 Comintern pamphlets as though they were reliable witnesses of the time. What he doesn’t talk about are the thousands shot by the SIM (the Spanish equivalent of the Russian GPU) led by this same “Ercoli”. “Ercoli”, who as leader of the Italian Communist Party was also responsible for the murders of our comrades in the post-war struggles in Italy. (2) There is indeed a river of blood between the apologists of Stalinism and the revolutionary working class which Hobsbawm’s anti-fascism only underlines.

Understanding the Crisis and Class Struggle

Some might still argue that Hobsbawm’s work, for all its reactionary purposes, is still useful as a guide to understanding the present evolution of the crisis. They could point to some astute observations about the nature of the present period. Hobsbawm unlike some other bourgeois (and not-so-bourgeois) observers can see that

The history of the twenty years after 1973 is that of a world which lost its bearings and slid into instability and crisis.

p. 403


The last part of the century was a new era of decomposition uncertainty and crisis - and indeed for large parts of the world such as Africa, the former USSR and the formerly socialist (sic) parts of Europe, of catastrophe.

He backs this up with some excellent observations about the changes taking place in global capitalism under the impact of the new age of uncertainty. He clearly charts how national capitals lost control of exchange rates and money supply as a result of the continued tendency of capitalist concentration and centralisation (one of the few references he actually makes to Marxist economics). He underlines this by showing that the sales of 200 of the world’s biggest firms (85% of them in the USA, Germany, UK and Japan) in 1960 equalled 17% of the non-USSR bloc GNP and that by 1984 this had reached 26%. He also astutely points out that

The most convenient world for multinational giants is one populated by dwarf states or no states at all.

p. 281

It is no accident therefore that we are seeing an increasing demand for separatism in places throughout the planet. There are many other such observations of similar weight in the chapters devoted to the post-1973 economy. However to describe is not to explain. Or as Trotsky put it in the first few lines of his History of the Russian Revolution

The history of revolution, like every other history, ought first of all to tell what happened and how. That however is little enough. From the very telling it ought to become clear why it happened thus and not otherwise. Events can neither be regarded as a series of adventures nor strung on the thread of some preconceived moral. They must obey their own laws. The discovery of these laws is the author’s task.

Hobsbawm offers us no laws at all. He correctly rejects those who put the onset of the 1973 crisis down to “the greed of the OPEC oil sheikhs” but cannot offer us any coherent alternative. Amusingly he tells us that

Any historian who puts major changes in the configuration of the world economy down to bad luck and avoidable accidents should think again.

Though that is exactly what he does say when talking about the failure of the old Stalinist command economy to transform itself into the social democratic model because

It was precisely their bad luck that the crisis of the communist systems (sic) coincided with the crisis of Golden Age capitalism, which was also the crisis of social democratic systems.

p. 420

It does not seem to have occurred to him that this simultaneous global crisis is just further proof that Stalinism was not socialism but another variant of state capitalism. It was not bad luck that all these economic systems went into crisis together nor was it an avoidable accident that it was the most inflexible and overcentralised bloc that experienced the first collapse. Hobsbawm cannot see this because he still believes that the old USSR was the living embodiment of “socialism in one country”. Whilst revolutionaries have long seen that the creation of socialism in one country, especially one that was “spectacularly backward” (p. 497) was impossible, Hobsbawm continues to believe that what collapsed with the USSR was a form of communism. He concludes, a little lamely that “the failure of Soviet socialism does not reflect on the possibility of other kinds of socialism” but by this he means some form of social democracy. The idea of the working class making their own revolution on a world scale taking up where the October Revolution failed, is beyond his vision. But, as we demonstrated above, his vision of social change has always been an affair of the cognoscenti, the Men of Gold like himself.

His philosophy of despair finally brings us back to the class which rarely appears as the subject of Hobsbawm’s histories - the working class. When talking of the impact of the crisis on the restructuring of world capitalism he bemoans the decline of the manual worker in manufacturing industry (now 25% in most of the advanced states). He comments

It was a long way from the old Marxist dream of populations gradually proletarianised by the development of industry until most people would be (manual) workers.

This is a misuse of the term “proletarian”. Marx does talk of the decline of the middle class and the peasantry and the rise of the labouring classes but, as he makes clear in Wage Labour and Capital , that means those who have nothing to sell but their labour power. If the nature of work has altered so that wage workers now push computer buttons in power stations where they once laboured at shovelling coal, this does not represent a change in the relationship of the worker to the means of production. On the contrary, what has changed is the proletarianisation of many previously salaried jobs which were supposed to offer greater rewards and security to those of the labourer. What has happened is that in certain areas capitalism requires a more technologically skilled workforce of increasingly high productivity but this process has been going on since the dawn of capital. (3)

In the end all Hobsbawm leaves us with is the sense of his own defeat. This is not because he is a repentant Stalinist who doesn’t know how to say “sorry” to the working class. In the first place he isn’t interested in the working class and in the second he isn’t repentant. No, basically he regrets the passing of the Eastern Bloc. For him Stalinism was the best product of its time and it has simply been superseded by history. Since there is no point making great fuss about its collapse all Stalinists have to do is painlessly become social democrats (but with a smaller s and a bigger d). For us they are what they have always been - the Left of capital and they are simply moving Right with capitalist ideology. Hobsbawm’s work cannot therefore clarify anything for the working class about the Twentieth century in either its short or its long forms.

(1) Op.cit. p. 55.

(2) See Workers Voice 78 “What do workers commemorate from 1945”, Revolutionary Perspectives 1 “The Lessons of the Spanish Civil War” and Quaderni di Battaglia Comunista “Il proceso di formazione e nascita del Partito Comunista Internazionalista”. Revolutionary Perspectives 3 will devote itself to a longer analysis of events in Spain.

(3) For more on class composition read the following issues of Internationalist Communist Review.

  • No. 6. The New Technologies of Capitalist Exploitation
  • No. 8 The Economic Crisis and the Working Class Thatcherism and the British Experience
  • Nos. 12 and 13 Towards the revival of the Proletariat.