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11:00 PM, Mar 31, 1996 • By DAVID HOROWITZ
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Like other radicals, Hobsbawm writes as though the debacles to which socialist ideas have led carry no implications for the Left's critique of capitalism. This underlies the really destructive intellectual contribution of The Age of Extremes, which is to preserve and extend the socialist indictment of liberal societies. It is the very indictment with which Hobsbawm began his Communist career. Nothing is more indicative of the ideological passion that informs The Age of Extremes than Hobsbawm's treatment of its final episode. The 20 years from 1973 to 1991 are described in a section called "The Landslide," by which Hobsbawm means global collapse. This was a moment that witnessed the destruction of history's largest and most oppressive empire and the spread of democracy around the globe. But through Hobsbawm's Marxist lens the victory of freedom over communism appears as a general disintegration. This, the final section of his book, opens with the following judgment: "The history of the twenty years after 1973 is that of a world which lost its bearings and slid into instability and crisis."

The triumph of Western freedom thus provides Hobsbawm -- who in his own life is one of its privileged beneficiaries -- with little comfort. In the vacuum created by the great collapse, the historian sees only "a renaissance of barbarism." This thought, too, is an echo of past illusions, in particular of Rosa Luxemburg's famous slogan at the end of World War I that summoned radicals to risk everything in their struggle to overthrow the existing order because the choice was one of "socialism or barbarism." Apocalyptic choices are the crucial term in any revolutionary equation, because they establish that society's flaws cannot be remedied by adjustment or reform. At 78, Eric Hobsbawm is still a prisoner of his reactionary faith. For him, capitalism is a doomed system unable to solve its "crises" except through revolutionary upheaval.


Not surprisingly, capitalist societies like America function in Hobsbawm's narrative as a diabolus ex machina of its tragic turns. Democratic America rather than its totalitarian adversary was responsible for the Cold War, in his view. Nor is the conclusion of the Cold War -- the collapse of the Soviet empire and the withdrawal of the Red Army from its occupation of Eastern Europe -- a victory for the West. ("We need not take this crusaders" version of the 1980s seriously," writes Hobsbawm.) Instead, Hobsbawm attributes the end of the Cold War to the wisdom of the Kremlin's regnant dictator, who "recognized the sinister absurdity of the nuclear arms race" and approached the other side to end it. "That is why the world owes so enormous a debt to Mikhail Gorbachev," he writes, "who not only took this initiative but succeeded, single-handed, in convincing the U.S. government and others in the West that he meant what he said." Gorbachev was able to achieve this near miraculous resolution of a global conflict only because the White House -- normally a center of war-mongering paranoia -- was occupied by a simpleton who somehow remained immune to these malign influences: "However, let us not underestimate the contribution of President Reagan whose simpleminded idealism broke through the unusually dense screen of ideologists, fanatics, careerists, desperadoes and professional warriors around him to let himself be convinced."

The Cold War is mercifully over and fatuities like this are no longer consequential. It is in his critical stance towards the present that Hobsbawm shows his ugliest face. If he were not so blinded by his anti-capitalist passion, he might have noticed how the underlying forces of Soviet collapse and Western triumph reflected an economic reality: the capacity of a society based on private property to unleash the powers of new technologies transforming the economic world (and, conversely, the inability of its state- managed rival to do the same). In a volume that devotes whole chapters to develop- ments in science and industry, there is only a one-sentence men- tion of the digital computer. There is not a single reference to Ed Cray, Bill Gates, or the other Rockefellers of this second industrial revolution, or -- except negatively -- to its implications. Hobsbawm ignores the Reagan boom, along with the liberating potential of the informa- tion age it helped to launch. Instead, his portrait of America's economy in the prosperous eighties is one of unrelieved gloom. He receives the news of technological advance as a society-threatening crisis: