Age of Extremes
The Short Twentieth Century, 1914 - 1991
The text I have chosen to analyse for this essay is Eric Hobsbawm's historical epic "Age of Extremes - The Short Twentieth Century 1914 - 1991". The text, originally printed in 1994, seeks to present a thorough yet necessarily broad analysis and (importantly) explanation of the world (albeit with a more attention given to Europe) of the twentieth century, or more specifically, what Hobsbawm calls the "Short Twentieth Century". Hobsbawm, in an attempt to make sense of his short century, which began in 1914 with the outset of World War One and ends with the collapse of the Union of Socialist Soviet Republics in 1991, breaks his work into three major periods. Firstly, The Age of Catastrophe (1914-1945), followed by the Golden Age (1950-1970) and, lastly, the Landslide (1970-1989). Hobsbawm himself describes the potential shortcomings inherent in a work that attempts to describe the period in which the historian has lived1, and despite these issues his attempt at explaining such a century is beyond admirable, even with the biases (for lack of a better term) that are predominant in this work. For Hobsbawm, Europe is incredibly significant in the history of the twentieth century, but eclipsed by the idea of communism. Hobsbawm, a Marxist historian, places a great deal of emphasis on communism and its associated nations and regimes in his work. In the case of 'The Short Twentieth Century', we find that communism is given a very interesting prominence in the history of the world, perhaps even more so than the idea of Europe in his work. To Hobsbawm the October Revolution is a crucial point in history that underpins, essentially, the course of twentieth century history. Hobsbawm's three time periods reflect this focus on communism (and where Europe is concerned) the USSR. The first time period, the Age of Catastrophe, is called such because it includes two truly devastating world wars and the Great Depression. To Hobsbawm it is the unprecedented carnage of the First World War and it's devastating consequences for Europe that leads to the Russian Revolution, which in turn established the ideological and economic dichotomy between capitalism and communism (and their two 'representative' powers, the USA and USSR) that would dominate the course of twentieth century history.
It is here, in the early part of Hobsbawm's history, that communism shows that it is a viable and working alternative to the traditional Western economic and social practices. As the western world succumbs to the "Great Slump" (the Great Depression) and liberal democracy almost vanishes2, communism (comparatively) thrives, encompassing a large amount of nations and governments internationally by the end of World War Two. Hobsbawm also gives communism a credit for two key aspects of bringing about the close of the Age of Catastrophe and the beginning of the Golden Age; firstly, communism and capitalism (represented by the USSR and the USA) together defeated the fascist forces of Europe allowing World War Two to come to a close. Here, Europe is an important aspect of the history of the twentieth century, but compared to the interactions between capitalism and communism, almost seems like a backdrop to Hobsbawm's more important doctrinal competition. Secondly, it is communism (alongside the Great Slump) that saves capitalism and liberal democracy. By forcing the West to reform core political and socioeconomic principles in the face of communist strength, capitalism and liberal democracy were then able to reassert themselves as modern and capable social, economic and political doctrines.3 With the competition of capitalism and communism now established, Hobsbawm argues that the Golden Age was made possible due to the very nature of the rivalry; the Cold War (more specifically the nuclear armaments of the USA and USSR) ensured that no nation from either doctrine would ever actually attack the...
Bibliography: Eric Hobsbawm, 'Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century, 19141991 ', Abacus Publishing, 1995
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