Eric Hobsbawm's Age of Extremes Term Paper

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Hobsbawm's Age Of Extremes

Eric Hobsbawm's magisterial the Age of Extremes is packed with facts and interpretations. Its ambitious field is world history from 1914 to 1991, from the First World War to the downfall of the Soviet Union. This review will focus on three questions: why does he call [HIDDEN] the "thirty-one years war," how was the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 a central event, and what were the major social changes in the 1950s and 1960s?

In Hobsbawm's view, 1914 ushered in a period of global war waged for unlimited ends with little peace. He names the period between 1914 and 1945 alternatively the "Age of Total War" or the "Age of Catastrophe." The components of this period that point to a real and symbolic "thirty-one year war" were several. Abstracting from communism in the Soviet Union and the revolutions to which it gave rise -- what he calls "revolution as a global constant in the century's history" (Hobsbawm 54) -- these were: the First World War and its failed solutions, the subsequent economic collapse and the rise of fascism against liberal democracy, and the demise of imperial colonialism. Hobsbawm uses all these factors to support an argument that between 1914 and 1945, there was a "thirty-one year war," which was quite simply a time of perpetual global turbulence that contrasted with prior peace and was bounded by the two world wars.

The First World War was an obvious indicator. Before 1914, wars were localized, fought with limited ends in mind and within a limited geography. This changed with the global war from 1914-1918. He says, "Virtually all independent states of the world were involved, willingly or unwillingly" (Hobsbawm 24). Troops were sent outside their regions. War was perpetrated on a vaster scale than previously known and used new technologies such as the tank and submarine. It was gruesome and barbaric. His major point is that the war ended inefficaciously. The mass destruction of lives and resources led only to weakening and self-defeat. He writes, "It drove the defeated into revolution, and the victors into bankruptcy and physical exhaustion" (Hobsbawm 30). In his view, the way it ended made peace impossible since it was inherently unstable. The peace-settlement (Treaty of Versailles) was unjust, unacceptable, and "failed in the most spectacular manner" (Hobsbawm 32). The League of Nations was ineffective. Most of the nations involved in penal redistribution after the war were dissatisfied (especially Germany, Japan, and Italy) and the post-war economy was not restored to prosperity. These factors meant that lasting world peace was not attainable. Out of this failure came the impetus for the later Second World War, which, like the first, was fought without limit, without thought of expense, and without compromise.

A second principal reason for the "thirty-one year war" was the rise of aggressive fascism in the wake of the economic collapse of the 1930s. Advances in organization, management, technology, and mechanization were used horribly and impersonally in rational warfare, so that it became easier to engage in killing. At the root of the further violence was the world economic collapse, which rendered fascism viable. Hobsbawm writes about the world economic breakdown, "But for it, there would certainly have been no Hitler" (Hobsbawm 86). It also fostered communist revolutions which saw in communism an alternative to the broken down capitalist system. Primarily, however, there was a shift toward the authoritarian Right. Up until the 1930s, capitalism had seen nothing but growth, technical progress, and global expansion. Afterwards, "the integration of the world economy stagnated or regressed" (Hobsbawm 88). Unemployment and price collapse undermined economic and political liberalism. In Europe, Japan, and Latin America, many governments underwent substantial changes toward authoritarian regimes (whether toward the Left or Right). Perhaps most significant for the creation of the second world war coming out of the Depression was the nationalist fascism in Germany, Italy, and Japan. In sum, out of the almost universal upheavals of the Great Slump, tremendous and violent political change happened to deal with the instability. By and large, the movement was toward fascism and not socialism (for fear of social revolution).

A key example of this was Spain during its Civil War from 1936-39, which foreshadowed the larger war like a bad omen: "It anticipated the politics of the Second World War that unique alliance of national fronts ranging from patriotic conservatives to social revolutionaries, for the defeat of the national enemy, and simultaneously for social regeneration" (Hobsbawm 161). The fateful move toward fascism in the fall of liberalism meant the need for war, since aggressive expansion was built into the domination system. He says that appeasement was unrealistic: "Yet compromise and negotiation with Hitler's Germany were impossible, because the policy objectives of National Socialism were irrational and unlimited" (Hobsbawm 154). In this context, war was unavoidable.

The final argument that may be mentioned was the struggle against imperialist power in colonized countries. Hobsbawm links this with the economic collapse, saying, "In the vast colonial sector of the world, the Slump brought a marked increase in anti-imperialist activity" (Hobsbawm 106). Out of this developed political and social unrest that challenged the ruling colonial governments "even where political nationalist movements did not emerge until after the Second World War" (Hobsbawm 106). At the same time, it was linked with anti-fascism. Hobsbawm sees the colonial liberation movements as overwhelmingly connected to the Left and the U.S.S.R. "The fundamental reason," he says, "is that the Western Left was the nursery of anti-imperialist theory and policies, and that support for colonial liberation movements came overwhelmingly from the international Left" (Hobsbawm 172). He explains this in terms of activists and future leaders of independence movements being more comfortable in non-racist and anti-colonial environments of liberals, democrats, socialists and communists. It kept violent struggle in the forefront of world politics.

The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 in Russia came on the heels of the breakdown of 19th century bourgeois society during the First World War. War weary Tsarist Russia was ready for social revolution. Lenin capitalized on popular anarchist sentiment in the political vacuum to claim power for the Bolsheviks, using slogans and peasant notions of division of land into family farms. He described it as a worker's party. It survived under the force of a strong Communist Party that was willing to hold the state together and to let the peasantry take the land. It was so vitally important because, in Hobsbawm's view, it gave the world an alternative to the old socioeconomic regime. It was a signal "for the peoples to rise, to replace capitalism by socialism, and thus to transform the meaningless sufferings of world war into something more positive: the bloody birth-pains and convulsions of a new world" (Hobsbawm 55). It was central as well because it expanded outward in an organized manner. He says, "Its global expansion has no parallel since the conquests of Islam in its first century" (55). One third of humanity forty years after the revolution was living under a model of Communism.

Thus, from the Bolshevik Revolution rippled out other revolutions. Such events as anti-war demonstrations, political strikes, the Austro-Hungarian navy's sailor's revolt, or the Kuomintang-Communist alliance in Chinese revolution took their model from Russia. He says, "The revolution, which thus swept away all regimes from Vladivostok to the Rhine, was a revolt against the war and, for the most part, the achievement of peace defused much of the explosive it contained" (Hobsbawm 67). It had "a government, a disciplined international movement, and, perhaps equally important, a generation of revolutionaries committed to the vision of world revolution under the flag raised in October" (Hobsbawm 71).

Most important was that the Bolshevik Revolution showed an alternative to capitalism. "Universal emancipation," he writes, "the construction of a better alternative to capitalist society was, after all, its fundamental reason for existence" (Hobsbawm 72). Guerilla movements rose to overthrow governments (e.g., in South Africa). There was apocalyptic inspiration to abolish evil and restore happiness, equality, and justice. "Marxism offered the hope of the millennium the guarantee of science and historic inevitability; the October revolution now offered the proof that the great change had begun" (Hobsbawm 72). Loyal, professional revolutionaries were inspired by social revolutionary success in Russia. The October Revolution became the only template and resource option for those who wanted to overthrow capitalism.

Its force was in communist organization. He calls it Lenin's innovation of social engineering. "It gave even small organizations disproportionate effectiveness, because the party could command extraordinary devotion and self-sacrifice from its members, more than military discipline and cohesiveness, and a total concentration on carrying out party decisions at all costs" (Hobsbawm 76). The organization was based on vanguards leading the masses. It attracted young intellectuals from the old elite. Often in the form of military coup over capital or extensive rural armed struggle, the military life gave good career prospects for educated men without family links and wealth.

Ironically, the Revolution spawned fascism to a large extent, which was another central event.… [END OF PREVIEW]

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