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11:00 PM, Mar 31, 1996 • By DAVID HOROWITZ
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Invading armies can be resisted, Victor Hugo once wrote, but nothing can stop an idea whose time has come. Hugo's famous sentiment captures the arrogant historicism of the Left, which is convinced that its agendas are " progressive" and that its progress is the destiny of mankind. But what about a false idea whose time has come? And not through any synchronicity with historic process but because it speaks directly to human weakness: resentment; envy; or merely a wish to believe that ordinary mortals can create heaven on earth? What if such impulses are so strong that large numbers of human beings are destined to believe bad ideas -- despite their destructive consequences -- to the end of time?

A case in point is Eric Hobsbawm's recent book, The Age of Extremes, which indicates just how full of life the bad ideas of the socialist Left remain, even after the close of the Soviet nightmare. The Age of Extremes is a history of the world from the outbreak of the First World War to the fall of communism, the conclusion to Hobsbawm's accolade-laden tetralogy on Western capitalism, which one American reviewer called a "Summa historiae of the modern age." Daldd Horowitz is presklent of the Cetter tier tile Stud), of Popldar Culture, in Los Attodes. His .teanob; Radical Son, will be published shonl), b), Free" Press. This final volume has been generally treated as a fitting crown and was awarded Canada's most coveted literary prize. A major assessment by Harvard's Stanley Hoffmann in the New York Times Book Review hailed it as magisterial. Even so astute a historian as Eugene Genovese was smitten: "We shall soon be flooded with books that seek to explain this blood- drenched century," he wrote in the New Republic, "but I doubt that we shall get a more penetrating and politically valuable one than Eric Hobsbawm's The Age of Extremes."

For most of his adult life, Eric Hobsbawm was a member of the British Communist party, and even though he is no longer the Stalinist he once was, he remains an unrepentant, if inevitably chastened, Marxist -- still a passionate reviler of democratic capitalism and still an acolyte of the socialist faith. The Age of Extremes, which has been published to such praise, is in fact a 600-page apologia for the discredited Left, a brief in defense of the very ideas that produced the world of misery under review. For all its attention to industrial and cultural developments, Hobsbawm's treatise is first and last an ideological argument: that the practical disasters of socialist societies do not refute the utopian hopes of the socialist premise; nor are they reasons to abandon the struggle against capitalism in behalf of a society based on a "social plan." "The failure of Soviet socialism," Hobsbawm sums up, "does not reflect on the possibility of other kinds of socialism."

Hobsbawm's defense of "real socialism" against the evidence of the " actually existing" kind is not original, but relies (without acknowledgment) on arguments developed first by Leon Trotsky and Isaac Deutscher. They attempted to explain away the failure of Marxism in Russia by its introduction into an inhospitable environment. (In his Times review, Stanley Hoffmann repeats this error: "Marx was right ... Socialism could only work in developed countries." But then why didn't it work in East Germany, the industrial heart of the Reich until Marxists took charge and proceeded to ruin what the Prussians had built?) Hobsbawm treats the Soviet revolution as a forced experiment under unfavorable conditions and, consequently, no test of the socialist ideas that guided it. The idea that the Soviet system was a competitor to the capitalist West was only plausible, he contends, because of capitalism's weakness during the era of the First World War and the Great Depression, a period he calls the "Age of Catastrophe." Ever protective of his radical constituency, Hobsbawm fails to mention the role that party intellectuals like himself played in fostering this destructive illusion.


During the Cold War that followed (the "Golden Age," in Hobsbawm's periodization), capitalist economies defied Marxist predictions about increasing misery and social crisis for reasons he is unable to explain. During this era, the industrial democracies of the West were able permanently to surpass the weaker Soviet system, which could not overcome its initial handicap of underdevelopment. Characteristically, it never occurs to Hobsbawm that Marxism itself might be responsible for this failure.