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.
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:
The Crisis Decades [1973 to the present] began to shed labor at a spectacular rate, even in plainly expanding industries ....The number of workers diminished, rel- atively, absolutely and, in any case, rapidly. The rising unemployment of these decades was not merely cyclical but structural. The jobs lost in bad times would not come back when times improved: they would never come back.
Just as Hobsbawm the radical returns to the anti-capi- talist myths of his youth, so Hobsbawm the historian imagines the capitalist past forev- er recurring in its pre- sent: "In the 1980s and early 1990s the capital ist world found itself once again staggering under the burdens of the inter-war years, which the Golden Age appeared to have removed: mass unem- ployment, severe cycli- cal slumps, the ever- more spectacular con- frontation of homeless beggars and luxurious plenty." To this struc- tural dislocation, Hobs- bawm attributes Ameri- ca's growing culture of hate and what he per- ceives as a general social breakdown (including an alleged epidemic of mass murders). In oth- er words, Marx was right.
But Marx was not right. In fact, the Cold War decades coincid- ed with a period in which capitalist economies revolutionized the lives of ordinary working people to a degree previously unimaginable. It was an era that witnessed the great- est social transformation in human history -- the first time in 5,000 years that more than a tiny percent- age of the population of any society attained some degree of material well-being. This was at the heart of the demoralization and collapse of the socialist empire, whose peoples were condemned to abysmal pover- ty by Marxist ideas: the dazzling prospect of American progress in the era that stretched from Eisen- hower to Reagan.
The Age of Extremes can thus be seen as an elaborate defense of the two destructive arguments behind which the Left has caused so much 20th-century mis- ery-the evils of cap- italism and the promise of socialism. In the wake of its dis- asters, the false hope of the socialist future is now only tenuous- ly put forward by so- phisticated radicals like Hobsbawm. But the two arguments cannot really be sepa- rated, since the nihil- istic rejection of the present order is pred- icated on the dream of a social redemp- tion. The final words of Hobsbawm's trea- tise are intellectually as extreme as any manifesto by Rosa Luxemburg or Karl Marx:
We have reached a point of historic crisis. . If humanity is to have a recog- nizable future, it cannot be by pro- longing the past or the present. If we try to build the third millenni- um on that basis we shall fail. And the price of failure, that is to say the alternative to a changed society, is darkness.
Capitalist darkness or socialist light. For the Left, as Irving Howe once put it, "socialism is still the name of our desire." But to deny the connection between the radical idea and its practice, as Hobsbawm and his admirers do, is to court the delusion of every progressive gen- eration since 1789. Progressives who take this view of the disasters they create do not understand the way in which the futile quest for an earthly paradise is an integral theme of the human tragedy. *
David Horowitz is president of the Center for the Study of Popular Culture, in Los Angeles. His memoir, Radical Son, wkll be published shortly by Free Press.