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They are brought together at the beginning of Eric Hobsbawm's history of the world sincewhich is titled, appropriately, The Age of Extremes. They sum up a century which has seen bloodletting and barbarity on an immense scale million dead in the First World War, 40 million dead in the Second World War, 6 million exterminated in the Nazi death camps, 10 million imprisoned, many to die, in Stalin's gulags, 4 million dead in the famine he brought to the Ukraine and Kazakhstan, another 4 million dead in the famine which British rule brought to Bengal in the early s, hundreds of thousands burnt alive in the bombing of Dresden, Hamburg, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a million killed in the French colonial war in Algeria, 2 million in the US war in Vietnam and Cambodia, millions more killed and forced to flee as refugees in the wave of civil wars that swept Africa, the Caucasus, Central America and the Balkans in the s and s.
The century began with the barbarity of the Boer War in which Africans and The twentieth century is an age alike died in their thousands in British concentration camps and the Belgian enslavement of the Congo; it ended with the barbarity of ethnic cleansing and aerial bombing in the Balkans and south east Turkey.
Historians can debate endlessly whether the century was absolutely more horrible than the 14th century in Europe, when the first great crisis of feudalism led to a halving of the population through famine, plague, war and civil war, or than the 17th century, when the devastation of the Thirty Years War reduced the population of central Europe by about a third.
But the absolute level of privation, misery, violence and killing is not the real issue. What is horrifying about the 20th century is that this was the first century in human history--or at least since the move from hunter-gathering to agriculture some 10 millennia ago--in which the material means existed to give everyone a better, hunger and disease-free, more fulfilling life.
It was the century of previously unimaginable technological change that opened up the prospect of ending forever the backbreaking toil that had been the fate of the mass of humanity. Yet the century saw the technology used to terrorise, dehumanise and kill on an unprecedented scale.
People in the s had not thought it would be like this. A cult of progress dominated much of intellectual life and popular opinion. It certainly exercised a growing sway over the socialist movements of the time.
This can be seen by looking at the debate which took place within the German movement over reform and revolution, between Eduard Bernstein, Karl Kautsky and the young Rosa Luxemburg. Bernstein felt able to claim that existing capitalist society was inevitably becoming more peaceful, more crisis-free, more humane, more egalitarian and more democratic.
In all advanced countries we see the privileges of the capitalist bourgeoisie yielding step by step to democratic organisations The common interest gains in power to an increasing extent as opposed to private interest and the elementary sway of economic forces ceases. Karl Kautsky, the party's main theorist, denounced Bernstein's argument.
Capitalism, he insisted, could not be reformed out of existence; at some point there had to be a 'struggle for power' and a 'social revolution'. But his practical conclusions were not very different to Bernstein's. The socialist revolution would come about, he argued, through the inevitable growth of the party vote, as the working class and the scientific intelligentsia alike saw the need for change.
Both Bernstein and Kautsky shared the optimistic 'scientism' or 'positivism' of the middle class intelligentsia and believed in the mechanical inevitability of progress.
For Bernstein, science, technology and increasing democracy were turning capitalism into socialism in the here and now. Kautsky saw the process as taking place in the future, not the present, but he was just as certain about its mechanical inevitability: Neither Bernstein nor Kautsky suspected that barbarism was being prepared alongside the prerequisites for socialism.
Rosa Luxemburg's contribution to the debate was the most far-seeing. She insisted that the very processes which Bernstein saw as democratising, civilising and moderating capitalism were leading to a new period of great crisis and imperialist conflicts.
There is no doubt that the 20th century vindicated Luxemburg and proved how facile Bernstein's position was--and the position of those who, in one way or another, have resurrected the notion of inevitable conflict--free progress since, from Anthony Crosland, John Strachey and Daniel Bell in the s5 to Francis Fukuyama in the early s.
But even Luxemburg could not foresee in the s the full horror of the century ahead. There is still a tone of the inevitability of socialism in her writings;6 it was not until she was faced with the mad delirium of the First World War that she returned to a formula of Frederick Engels--'socialism or barbarism'.
And by barbarism she did not just mean barbarity, but something more and worse--the destruction of civilisation and culture, as had taken place at the time of the collapse of the Roman Empire in the west. Not, of course, that everyone is prepared even to recognise it. It hardly fits into the Third Way.
Nevertheless, the mainstream thinkers quoted earlier have recognised this barbarity, and so does a lot of mainstream history. The problems arise when it comes to integrating the horror into the rest of the picture.
It all too easily can appear as a purely irrational aberration, as some inexplicable product of the human psyche, or as a product simply of deranged individuals--of Mussolini and Hitler in the inter-war years, or of Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic in the s: It can even be seen as the result of the attempt to recast society so as to get rid of its horrors--this was the explanation of people like Talmon in The Rise of Totalitarian Democracy and Popper in The Poverty of Historicism and The Open Society and its Enemies 40 or 50 years ago.
More recently it has been the explanation of influential postmodernists, for whom totalitarianism is the product of totalising theories.
Rousseau and Marx get the blame for Hitler and Stalin--and, presumably, Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic such theorists forget, of course, the horror perpetrated by Henry Kissinger and encouraged by Madeleine Albright.
The one approach to history that should be able to explain the 20th century is Marxism. But there has been an absence of attempts to provide an overview of worldwide developments. This is partly because, as we should never forget, the first generation of 20th century Marxists usually ended up murdered--Rosa Luxemburg, Trotsky, Bukharin, Andres Nin, Radek, Hilferding, Volosinov and scores of others, or driven to premature deaths like Gramsci.
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THE AGE OF EXTREMES is eminent historian Eric Hobsbawm's personal vision of the twentieth century. Remarkable in its scope. The Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century, – is a book by Eric Hobsbawm, published in In it, Hobsbawm comments on what he sees as the disastrous failures of state socialism, capitalism, and nationalism ; he offers an equally skeptical take on the progress of the arts and changes in society in the latter half of the twentieth century.
The golden age of electricity is usually considered the turn of the 20 th century as so many inventions were being innovated to improve people’s everyday lives, inventions that utilized electricity.
However, the origins of electricity go a little bit farther back. There are only four references in the The Age of Extremes' index to trade unions. There are no references to such key expressions of working class power in the 20th century as the Spanish CNT, the American CIO, the French CGT, the Central Budapest Workers Council; the Polish Solidarnosc is mentioned once.