Hobsbawm's Age of Extremes Eric Term Paper

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He writes, "The rise of the radical Right after the First World War was undoubtedly a response to the danger, indeed to the reality, of social revolution and working-class power in general, to the October revolution and Leninism in particular" (Hobsbawm 124). The right-wing backlash against labor unions was crucial in setting up the rise of those fascist leaders who would be responsible for initiating the Second World War. As such it was partially responsible for creating the conditions for violence, but also, later, for unification between anti-fascist forces to defeat them. Socialist resistance to fascism was always strong, starting out peacefully until "resistance to fascism which did not envisage the use of arms could not succeed" (Hobsbawm 152). They were not that successful and went against the Stalin's Soviet view of a symbiotic alliance between capitalism and communism against fascism. Yet paradoxically, it was the strength of communism coming out of the October revolution that saved capitalism and liberal democracy. In the first place, the Russian upheaval helped form many of the European social democracies as a reaction to Bolshevism. It was also an inspiration for capitalism to reform itself. Finally, its indirect effect was to enable the defeat of Hitler. This happened through the unlikely alliance of Soviet communism with Western capitalism against fascism. Without the Soviet Union's instrumental help, Hitler's Germany may have triumphed.

Finally, the Bolshevik Revolution was a large factor in anti-colonialism. "The years after the Russian revolution opened the process of colonial emancipation and decolonisation and introduced both the politics of savage counter-revolution . . . And the politics of social-democracy to Europe" (83-84). The Soviet supported Left (since the Bolshevik 1920 congress) through the Commintern was a crucial encouragement for anti-imperialism. The leaders of countries seeking independence were aligned with communism more than fascism or liberal democracy in the overthrow stage of their movements. These Westernized anti-imperialist leaders adopted and imitated Russian notions of planned industrial and techno-scientific progress (as well as liberal capitalist models). It was seen as way to achieve modernization. Hobsbawm writes, "A Soviet-based communism therefore became primarily a programme for transforming backward countries into advanced ones" (Hobsbawm 376). This was due to its growing economy during the 1920s and 1930s under the plans designed to industrialize an undeveloped country rapidly (Stalin's Iron Age). Decolonization in dependent nations was emboldened by the Soviet revolution. He says, "The impact of the October Revolution and the general collapse of old regimes . . . made foreign empires look mortal for the first time" (Hobsbawm 210). Out of this came Egypt and Indian call for self-rule, and elsewhere in the Caribbean, Algeria, Vietnam and Malaysia. Protests and political mobilization by peasants with politicized minorities questioned colonial rule. By 1950, colonialism had collapsed.

In terms of the important social changes, the Cold War between the U.S.A. And the U.S.S.R. was ideologically important. This "politics of mutual intransigence" (Hobsbawm 234) was a symbol of democracy, individualism, and private enterprise vs. socialism, collectivism, and government regulation. This division overshadowed other rivalries that shaped world politics before it, stabilized the international situation, and perpetuated multiplied weapons (arms race).

Another social change came with new production techniques. By contrast with pre-WWII, he says, "The world economy was thus growing at an explosive rate" (Hobsbawm 261). The automobile came to Europe and Latin America. Trucks and buses became a major form of transportation. The whole new industry spread to Europe with its assembly line model of mass production. This technique had rippling effects in other areas such as food and house construction. Its social effect was huge. He writes, "Goods and services previously confined to minorities were now produced for a mass market" (Hobsbawm 264). In other words, the world became consumerist during the 1950s. Tourism was commercialized. Luxury objects such as the refrigerator, the washing machine, and the telephone became common standards of comfort. Affluence moved the standard of living up for all average people, who now had access to machines and devices that were once considered luxuries. All this occurred through a technological revolution based on scientific advances. Plastics revolutionized products. Integrated circuits, lasers, transistors, and batteries made things available (such as the radio and television) that changed the social fabric of life.

The switch away from natural to synthetic products came under the ideology of the new. Novelty was hyped up and bought into. He says, "For technological revolution entered consumer
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consciousness to such an extent that novelty became the main sales appeal" (Hobsbawm 265). Among the transformative innovations, many were portable. Another effect was an increase in research and development for economic growth. Finally, the new production technologies were capital-intensive and labor-saving. Lots of investment was needed but not lots of workers. The robotic model of assembly and automation dominated. During the Golden Age of the 1950s and 1960s, humans became primarily consumers and buyers.

This upswing after the Second World War was facilitated by reforms in capitalism and advances in globalism (international, not transnational, until the later 60s). Economically, he says, capitalism was restructured toward a mixed economy, which made management easier and increased demand. In other words, government intervened to steer capitalism along. This happened internationally (Japan, Singapore, France, and Spain). Because of the social commitment to employment, welfare, and social security, there was provided "a mass consumer market for luxury goods which could now become accepted as necessities" (269). This democratized the market. All was done under devotion to market regulation (to prevent another slump) and in the rejection of free market liberalism. Also established in the 1960s were many of the concepts that would develop into transnational practice of business (off-shore, the Euro currency, multinational corporations). Another factor was the increase of productive capacity through an international labor division. He sees this linked with revolutions in transportation and communication, so that it became feasible to divide the production of a single product between different countries. As a result, world economic structure changed, with the globe as its real unit.

In the Third World, a demographic explosion occurred. Mass migrations to cities occurred in South America for modernity's promise. No systematic agrarian reforms or land reforms actually worked. The 50s and 60s also began what he calls the "death of the peasantry." Farming folk since have gradually lost their populations through an exodus from the land. The more technology, the less humans were needed. In many parts of the world, people no longer grew their own food, but relied on imports as cash crops became cheaper to produce and import.

Another major social change was the rise of university education. Many occupations required higher education, and thus the number of people pursuing college degrees multiplied rapidly. Particularly by the late 60s, students had become an important sociopolitical force, as shown by the worldwide student uprisings. They were transnational, communicating, and well-educated. He writes, "As the 1960s revealed, they were not only politically radical and explosive, but uniquely effective in giving national, even international, expression to political and social discontent" (Hobsbawm 298). His argument is that the working class did not experience problems until the 1970s, but it experienced a tremendous change with the greater role of women workers and students. He says, "The mass entry of married women -- i.e. largely mothers -- into the labour market and the striking expansion of higher education formed the background, at least in the typical developed Western countries, to the impressive revival of feminist movements from the 1960s on" (Hobsbawm 311). This was mirrored internationally, for example, by women in public leadership roles (e.g., Bandaranaik in Sri Lanka). In the U.S. It was about equality and class leveling. His main point is that since women did not make that much money, the feminist movement was primarily a demand for freedom and autonomy. It wanted "for the married woman to be a person in her own right and not an appendage of husband and household" (Hobsbawm 319). Women's self-assertion was part of the beginning of what would be from the end of the 60s into the 70s a great cultural revolution to challenge gender, marriage, and sexuality.

Finally, youth culture was the matrix for cultural revolution. The youth pop market from mid-50s on was capitalized on by the music industry. He says, "The novelty of the 1950s was that the upper- and middle-class young, at least in the Anglo-Saxon world which increasingly set the global tone, began to accept the music, the clothes, even the language of the urban lower classes, or what they took to be such, as their model" (Hobsbawm 331). Rock music grew from working class inspiration, and the use of obscenities increased. He sees a general antinomianism and turn to the demotic in subcultures that went along with a revolutionary politics and the rejection of previous values. Sexual promiscuity rose with the introduction of antibiotics. "Making love and making revolution," he writes, "could not be clearly separated"…

Sources Used in Documents:


Hobsbawm, Eric. The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914-1991. New York: Vintage Books, 1996.

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