Eric Hobsbawm’s Age of Extremes is a massive survey of social upheaval within the 20th century, synthesizing countless events and trends into a cohesive narrative. Not only is it an impressive feat, but it’s a goldmine for analysis. I just finished reading the book, and there’s a lot of parts which caught my eye. I’ll try to break them down in a series of short blogposts.
I’d describe the overarching theme of the book as being a “critique of ideology on the historical level”. Right off the bat, he goes to various lengths to demonstrate the radical upheaval that was occurring throughout the society. The extent to which industrialization, the administrative state, and decolonization came to affect society could not be understated. The crises of war, economic depression, and the breakdown of traditional social norms gave to all sorts of revolutionary movements in politics, technology, and the arts.
But what all of these visions shared, whether we’re referring to socialism, neoliberalism, fascism, the avant-garde, technocracy, or youth culture, was their inability to solve humanity’s problems. Leftist movements, reform movements, reactionary movements, all ended up becoming parodies of themselves, either totally collapsing or disintegrating into pure racketeering. No field of study, no ideology ultimately was able to prevail.
However, when attempts were made to institute such laissez faire economies to replace the former Soviet-socialist economies at short notice by means of the ‘shock therapies’ recommended by Western advisers, the results were economically dreadful and both socially and politically disastrous. The theories on which the neoliberal theology was based, while elegant, had little relation to reality. The failure of the Soviet model confirmed supporters of capitalism in their conviction that no economy without a stock exchange could work; the failure of the ultra-liberal model confirmed socialists in the more justified belief that human affairs, including the economy, were too important to be left to the market. It also supported the supposition of sceptical economists that there was no visible correlation between a country’s economic success or failure and the distinction of its economic theorists. However, it may well be that the debate which confronted capitalism and socialism as mutually exclusive and polar opposites will be seen by future generations as a relic of the twentieth-century ideological Cold Wars of Religion. [^1]
What ended up prevailing was capitalism, but not necessarily liberalism or democracy. Political movements found themselves openly being subsumed by bureaucracy and racketeering, cultural movements ended up reduced to pure aesthetic.
In any case, the attempt to assimilate ‘the work of art in the era of its technical reproducibility’ (Benjamin, 1961) to the old model of the individual creative artist recognizing only his personal inspiration was bound to fail. Creation was now essentially cooperative rather than individual, technological rather than manual. The young French film critics who, in the 1950s, developed a theory of film as the work of a single creative auteur, the director, on the basis, of all things, of a passion for the Hollywood B-movies of the 1930s and 1940s, were absurd because coordinated cooperation and division of labour was and is the essence of those whose business is to fill the evenings on public and private screens, or to produce some other regular succession of works for mental consumption, such as newspapers or magazines. The talents that went into the characteristic forms of twentiethcentury creation, which were mainly products for, or by-products of the mass market, were not inferior to those of the classic nineteenth-century bourgeois model, but they could no longer afford the classical artist’s role of the loner. [^1]
On the other hand, the term nomenklatura, practically unknown before 1980, except as part of CPSU administrative jargon, came to suggest precisely the weaknesses of the self-serving party bureaucracy of the Brezhnev era: a combination of incompetence and corruption. And, indeed, it became increasingly evident that the USSR itself operated primarily through a system of patronage, nepotism and payment. [^1]
What Hobsbawm is doing here very much mirrors Zizek’s “critique of ideology”, in that he very much draws attention to all these attempts by humanity to overcome itself, whether that be through revolutionary politics or “pragmatism”. Everything ends up headless, and as opposed to problems being solved, society becomes increasingly more and more absurd. Hobsbawm takes it a step further in the end, biting back against the neoliberal optimism of his contemporaries, reflecting cynically upon the future.
We live in a world captured, uprooted and transformed by the titanic economic and techno-scientific process of the development of capitalism, which has dominated the past two or three centuries. We know, or at least it is reasonable to suppose, that it cannot go on ad infinitum. The future cannot be a continuation of the past, and there are signs, both externally, and, as it were, internally, that we have reached a point of historic crisis. The forces generated by the techno-scientific economy are now great enough to destroy the environment, that is to say, the material foundations of human life. The structures of human societies themselves, including even some of the social foundations of the capitalist economy, are on the point of being destroyed by the erosion of what we have inherited from the human past. Our world risks both explosion and implosion. It must change. We do not know where we are going. We only know that history has brought us to this point and—if readers share the argument of this book—why. However, one thing is plain. If humanity is to have a recognizable future, it cannot be by prolonging the past or the present. If we try to build the third millennium on that basis, we shall fail. And the price of failure, that is to say, the alternative to a changed society, is darkness. [^1]
Hobsbawm is a historian, which allows him to perform this retrospectively. Contrast this with Zizek, who as a public intellectual, performs this contemporarily. Zizek is also part of what I’d call this “pessimistic left”, but as a contemporary commentator, it is not enough for him to reflect upon the failures of the past. He understands both the difficulty of speaking of revolutionary hope in the current age, but at the same time still feels an innate need to find something, if his punditry is anything to go off of. Zizek’s politics of support is strikingly unmoored: he’s a joiner to various populist movements, whether that be the 2016 campaign of Donald Trump or Occupy Wall Street. You see in both of these a continuous chasing of “anti-establishment” energy, but if the fizzling (and critical content, in retrospect) of both of these movements are anything to look at, it’s ultimately aimless. Time and time again, he’s gone out on these limbs, which have gradually eroded his reputation as a commentator, far from what it was twenty years ago.
Zizek can often be a very insightful intellectual with a strong grasp on Marxism and psychoanalysis. I’ve cited him quite a bit across my posts, especially since he does a good job distilling critical theory into relatively accessible terms. However, his intellectual ventures are not what he’s popularly known for: rather instead, it’s his off-handed remarks on culture wars, and positioning in the “current events” news-cycle as a populist commentator. The solid theoretical foundation Zizek has laid is still insufficient to actually allow him to respond to the concrete situation of the modern world. It’s here I think one can see the limits of “critique of ideology” as Zizek presents it. Once conducted from the standpoint of the subject within society as opposed to outside, it shows itself to have a disorienting impact. Zizek is capable of recognizing this, but it goes to show how deeply limbic this disorientation is, where his own actions as a historical agent end up repeating the same mistakes he so astutely observes as a theorist.
Hobsbawm has the benefit of that retrospective angle: he was an old man who had seen “The Short Century” come and go, and the object of his critique (the past) is separate from him. That allows him to come off as much more secure, which bodes well for his analysis. He need not critique his present self or the socialist movement around him, as that is relegated to “the future”. Writing as a 77-year old man in the relatively uneventful 1990s, the present was little more than a brief period for reflection.
But this still leaves the remaining question: what is the 21st century intellectual to do? The critiques against ideology have long been leveled. Should we keep them in mind? Yes. But the time to actually begin rebuilding the theoretical foundation for communism has begun. We may not have the benefit of being able to turn to our forefathers for advice, but that is fine. Just as Lenin analyzed the actually-existing situation in front of him and developed his politics accordingly, just as the Situationists did, we must do so too. It is here where Zizek of all people provides some valuable insight:
“Lenin” is not the nostalgic name for old dogmatic certainty; quite on the contrary, to put it in Kierkegaard’s terms, THE Lenin which we want to retrieve is the Lenin-in-becoming, the Lenin whose fundamental experience was that of being thrown into a catastrophic new constellation in which old coordinates proved useless, and who was thus compelled to REINVENT Marxism — recall his acerbic remark apropos of some new problem: “About this, Marx and Engels said not a word.” The idea is not to return to Lenin, but to REPEAT him in the Kierkegaardian sense: to retrieve the same impulse in today’s constellation. The return to Lenin aims neither at nostalgically reenacting the “good old revolutionary times,” nor at the opportunistic-pragmatic adjustment of the old program to “new conditions,” but at repeating, in the present world-wide conditions, the Leninist gesture of reinventing the revolutionary project in the conditions of imperialism and colonialism, more precisely: after the politico-ideological collapse of the long era of progressism in the catastrophe of 1914. Eric Hobsbawn defined the CONCEPT of the XXth century as the time between 1914, the end of the long peaceful expansion of capitalism, and 1990, the emergence of the new form of global capitalism after the collapse of the Really Existing Socialism. What Lenin did for 1914, we should do for 1990. “Lenin” stands for the compelling FREEDOM to suspend the stale existing (post)ideological coordinates, the debilitating Denkverbot in which we live — it simply means that we are allowed to think again.[^2]
Marxism is not a religion, nor is it an ideology of progress: Marx’s method was to analyze social phenomena as they actually functioned. This would also be the method of many of the revolutionary movements we treat as crystallized within history. Marx’s old critique of teleology still holds true, even when the teleology in question leads to the supposed “death of ideology”. The historian’s ideology continually reframes the past to have it lead up to the present. It is this myth which alienates human beings within their own position in history.
To say now that all former centuries, with entirely different needs, means of production, etc., worked providentially for the realization of equality is, firstly, to substitute the means and the men of our century for the men and the means of earlier centuries and to misunderstand the historical movement by which the successive generations transformed the results acquired by the generations that preceded them. Economists know very well that the very thing that was for the one a finished product was for the other but the raw material for new production. Suppose, as M. Proudhon does, that social genius produced, or rather improvised, the feudal lords with the providential aim of transforming the settlers into responsible and equally-placed workers: and you will have effected a substitution of aims and of persons worthy of the Providence that instituted landed property in Scotland, in order to give itself the malicious pleasure of driving out men by sheep.[^3]
History exists as long as men will. It stands not above people, but rather instead as a product of relations between them. Men have existed, men exist, men will continue to exist. Look to the past — not to resuscitate or mourn it — but only to strip these historicized concepts such as “past” and “present” of their mythology. This reflection constitutes a self-negation, but if only for a moment. The Kierkegaardian turn Zizek speaks of is instantaneous: should reflection last any longer it becomes perpetual. The unraveling of history made clear in light of historicity reconnects us back to the moment in front of us; the world becomes actual, we become agents. It is here I believe that one finds the revolutionary hope to depart from.
Or, to borrow the old quote from Marx:
“The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living… The social revolution of the nineteenth century cannot take its poetry from the past but only from the future. It cannot begin with itself before it has stripped away all superstition about the past. The former revolutions required recollections of the past in order to smother their own content. In order to arrive at its own content, the revolution of the nineteenth century must let the dead bury their dead.” [^4]
- Eric Hobsbawm, Age of Extremes
- Karl Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy
- Karl Marx, The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, 1852 (MECW 11), pp. 103-106. Quoted from https://endnotes.org.uk/articles/bring-out-your-dead
Evangelical Christian, Marxist, and a bit of a Luddite. I run this blog as a way to compile my various theories and arguments spanning a wide variety of subjects from technology to politics.