In This Review

The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914-1991
The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914-1991
By Eric Hobsbawm
Pantheon Books, 1995, 625 pp.

This is a work of great insight coupled with extraordinary blindness. As a history it reflects the author's great erudition and is impressive in the scope of the material that it masters. But it also constitutes a massive failure to come to terms with the central phenomenon it deals with: the extraordinary ability of capitalism to raise living standards, foster democratic political systems, and dynamically surmount the problems it itself creates.

Written by a venerable Marxist historian and intellectual, the book chronicles the "short twentieth century," from the outbreak of World War I in 1914 to the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Hobsbawm comes to the gloomy conclusion that capitalist democracy is now facing a serious crisis and will be unable to resolve the problems of global overpopulation and the environment. The only solution, according to the author, is a return to a strong public authority that will concentrate on redistributing rather than creating wealth. Hobsbawm seems not to have reflected on the dismal record of strong centralized governments in dealing with problems like ecology or wealth creation in the past, or the fact that he is simply moving the goalposts now that capitalism has succeeded in resolving those deadly "contradictions" posited by earlier generations of socialists. Phenomena that don't fit his argument like the rapid growth of capitalist Asia get short shrift (he for some reason believes that the latter comprises only two percent of the world's population).