Issue 85 of INTERNATIONAL SOCIALISM JOURNAL Published Winter 1999 Copyright © International Socialism

The 20th century: an age of extremes or an age of possibilities?


'The most terrible century in Western history.' 'A century of wars and massacres.' 'The most violent century in human history'.1

The quotes are from one of Britain's best known liberal philosophers, a radical French agronomist and a conservative Nobel prize winner for literature. They are brought together at the beginning of Eric Hobsbawm's history of the world since 1914, which is titled, appropriately, The Age of Extremes. They sum up a century which has seen bloodletting and barbarity on an immense scale--20 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 1940s, 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 1980s and 1990s. The century began with the barbarity of the Boer War (in which Africans and Boers 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 1890s 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.

This process could come to fruition without the 'dissolution of the modern state system'.3 All that was necessary was a further spread of parliamentarianism, with socialists embracing a thoroughgoing 'liberalism'4 and a policy of piecemeal reform within the existing system.

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: throughout history, changes in the forces of production had always, eventually, led to changes in the relations of production, and they would do so now, if people only waited patiently. 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 1950s5 to Francis Fukuyama in the early 1990s. But even Luxemburg could not foresee in the 1890s 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.7

Recognising the recurrent barbarity of the 20th century is one thing, explaining it another. Not, of course, that everyone is prepared even to recognise it. It hardly fits into the Third Way. I don't believe there is a Barbarity Zone in the Millennium Dome alongside the Spirit Zone and the Money Zone. Nevertheless, the mainstream thinkers quoted earlier have recognised this barbarity, and so does a lot of mainstream history. It is to be found, for instance, in several episodes of the BBC TV series A People's Century. 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 1990s: the 'great man' theory of history gives way to the 'evil man' theory of history. 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. There have been several very important works on aspects of the century inspired by Marxism--above all Trotsky on 1905 and 1917, but also lesser writers like Harold Isaacs on the Chinese revolutions of the 1920s, Angelo Tasca (writing under the name Rossi) on the rise of Italian fascism, C L R James on the revolution in Haiti, Broué on the German Revolution of 1918-1923 and the Spanish Revolution of 1936, Deutscher's biographies of Trotsky and Stalin. 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. It was also to a large extent a product of Stalinism: looking at the present might lead to unpleasant challenges to the party line, and so the best British Marxists looked at the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries, the best French ones at the heroic years 1789-1794.

The one recent exception is Eric Hobsbawm's The Age of Extremes. It is probably the most accessible account of the century, providing a total vision which combines economics, politics, science and art. It is, for instance, much more successful by being more coherent than the BBC's A People's Century. It is seductive in its ambition and riveting in its drive. Yet it is also defective in a central way that is easy not to notice. I remember when I read it, to do a review for Socialist Worker, I noticed on all sorts of points of detail it was mistaken. I also thought it was fundamentally wrong on Stalinism. But I thought it provided an overview of the century which would be of immense value to people. What I did not really grasp until I began work on my own book, A People's History of the World, was what was missing from it.

On the face of it, Hobsbawm's book seems to be in the classic Marxist tradition--of relating 'base' and 'superstructure', of 'history from below' and 'history from above'. It connects global economic trends of slump and boom, the rise and fall of political movements (its 'extremes'), intellectual fashions, changes in popular culture. In doing so it seems very different to much recent academic Marxist history, which has dealt simply with particular movements through 'history from below', without connecting them with wider, global trends. This means he conveys something missing from much academic Marxism, a sense of the system's repeated lurches towards barbarism--1914, 1929, 1933, 1939 and, it is implied at the end, the early 21st century.

What is missing, however, is any real notion of an alternative to this, apart from trying to hold fast to what exists at present. Faced with the First World War, Hobsbawm's conclusion is to bemoan the split in the working class movement between openly reformist and revolutionary wings. Faced with the rise of Nazism and fascism in the 1930s, the only hope for him was with the Popular Front movements concocted in France and Spain, even through they failed miserably in their goal (the Popular Front majority elected to the French National Assembly in 1936 voted Pétain to power in 1940). Faced with the domination of Europe by German Nazism, the only alternative lay in an alliance of socialists with British and US capitalism and Russian Stalinism--although the alliance led to Hiroshima, Nagasaki, the Cold War, the Korean War, the Algerian War and the Vietnam War. He justifies this by claiming that the choice was 'between what in the 19th century would have been called 'progress and reaction'.8 Faced with the horror of the 20th century, the alternative, it seems, was to...move back to the methods of the 19th century! The choice of socialism or barbarism becomes 'bourgeois democracy or barbarism'. The centre cannot hold--and so we must all rush to the centre!

Socialism does get a mention through much of the book. But it is the socialism of the Russia (and to a lesser extent China, Vietnam and Cuba) which is seen as still embodied in Stalinism and dying with the events of 1989-1991: four revolutions and a long drawn out funeral. And, even here, the force classical Marxism saw as the historical protagonist of socialism hardly appears. The Russian Revolution receives a very positive treatment (a welcome contrast to so much ignorant historical gibberish which has paraded as a history of the revolution since 1989); but the factory workers and the soviets (workers' councils) which were key to it get only a couple of passing mentions.

This is no isolated aberration. The working class is the great missing link throughout Hobsbawm's book. It hardly appears at all in the first half of the book, and finally makes its appearance towards the end to be discussed solely in terms of lifestyle. An index is often a good guide to a book's subject matter. 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. From this history you would never imagine that the occupation of factories was a key turning point in post First World War Italian history or the sit-ins of June 1936 in 1930s French history. Even the huge concentrations of workers which characterised much of 20th century capitalism are missing: the River Rouge plant, Renault Billancourt, FIAT Mirafiori, the Lenin shipyard in Gdansk.

In the previous volume of Hobsbawm's history, The Age of Imperialism, the working class did get a chapter. But in The Age of Extremes it is absent. It is as if Hobsbawm's attitude to the working class is same as that which Marx says the bourgeoisie has towards history: it has been, but is no more. In fact, even in the previous volume, the working class was a secondary factor. Hobsbawm wrote of the period leading up to the First World War:

Hobsbawm's whole approach is to look at big politics and big economics simply in terms of bitter rows within ruling classes and between states. But the politics of such rows are incomprehensible without looking all the time at how successful rural rulers are in wresting resources from the rest of society--that is, at their struggles to extract a surplus from the exploited classes. The drive of British, French and German capitalisms towards war in 1914 is incomprehensible without looking at this. It is what underlay their rows over spheres of influence, empires, support for client states, and so on. Similarly, you cannot begin to understand why the German ruling class embraced Hitler after his vote had fallen by 2 million in the elections of the autumn of 1932, or why it allowed him to embark on the policies which led to the Second World War, unless you start with its concern with the surplus.

But the other side of this is recognising as a central, not marginal, fact of the 20th century the way in which upsurges of working class revolt throw their politics into disarray. You can describe certain aspects of 20th century economics, politics, art and culture without seeing this. But you cannot grasp their inner connection. For that you have to see how key moments of class struggle influence the parameters within which everything else occurs. Such key moments were the syndicalist wave before 1914; the succumbing of workers to war in 1914; the revolutions in Russia 1917 and Germany 1918-1919; the occupation of factories in 1920 and the defeat of Italian workers in the two years after; the defeat of the union drive in steel in the US in 1919 and the collapse of the triple alliance in Britain in 1920; the rise and defeat the anti-colonial movements in Egypt, India, China, Ireland and Morocco in 1919-1927; the collapse of the German workers' movement in the face of Nazism in 1933; the upsurge of the workers' movements in France in 1934-1936; the rise of the CIO in 1936; the rising against the Francoist coup in Spain in July 1936; the containment of movements from below after 1936 opening the way to the Second World War; the resistance movements in Greece, Poland, Italy and, to a lesser extent, France; the containment of movements after the war; the victories of the anti-colonial movement in India and of the People's Liberation Army in China; the solidification of the Cold War structure with the defeats and splitting of the workers' movements in France, Italy and Greece; the anti-Stalinist risings of 1953 and 1956; the workers' and students' movement of 1968; the anti-Francoist strikes of 1974-1976, and the Portuguese Revolution of 1974-1975.

To provide an account of the 20th century which misses out these moments is to have the play Hamlet not only without the Prince of Denmark, but also without Ophelia, Claudius, Horatio, Gertrude, Polonius, and even Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Yet most of them are missing from Hobsbawm's book, as much as from any conventional history of the century. There is not even the sense that, at minimum, class struggle always, at every point, lays down limits within which the system operates. Still less is there any awareness that there were points when workers were close to breaking through. For Hobsbawm, the class-in-itself rarely makes its presence felt; the class-for-itself, never.

The 20th century was the century in which capitalism truly became a global system. There had been a global market before that. But most of the participants in that market were pre-capitalist ruling classes or small producers controlling their own means of production; it is worth remembering that until the 1940s a huge proportion of the world's population were still subsistence farmers, capable of surviving on their own produce even if they had to sell some of their crops to pay rents and taxes. It is only with the 20th century that you see the relentless spread of production based on wage labour to embrace the whole globe. In 1900, of the world's population of some 1000 million, perhaps 50 million were wage workers; of today's population of 6,000 million, probably more than 2 billion are.

The more wage labour spreads, the more the only source of surplus becomes its exploitation, rather than the extraction of rents and taxes from the peasantry; today there are very few countries in which the majority of national income is still produced in agriculture, and a growing portion of agriculture is capitalist agriculture, even in Third World countries. Under these circumstances, success--and sometimes even survival--for any ruling class depends on reducing labour costs by keeping a lid on wages and forcing up productivity. The labour costs which matter are not just those of 'traditional' manual workers, but also of people in occupations that were still regarded at the beginning of the century or even in the 1950s as 'middle class'--clerical workers of all sorts, technicians, teachers and lecturers, nurses. Forms of work supervision and payment systems that were confined to groups of manual workers a century ago are now being introduced across the board under the guises of 'flexibility', 'payment by results', 'market testing' and so on. There is a homogenisation of conditions and in consequence, to some extent, of lifestyles. Marx in 1843 first referred to workers as 'the universal class'. In fact, it is only at the end of the 20th century that such a class begins to exist worldwide as more than a relatively small proportion of the population.

Under such circumstances, the whole system is marked, as never before, by the flows of alienated wage labour. Unless you map these flows, you cannot see the logic of the system--and the logic of conflict between classes within the system. Mainstream historians and sociologists do not do this. Historians do not see that these flows underlie the contingencies of economic, political and social history; sociologists mistake form for content, and see the proletarianisation of the working conditions of the salaried middle classes as an embourgeoisiment of the lifestyles of the working class. Hobsbawm falls into both traps. His is a history which has room for some of the mechanical contrivances used by the system and for the lifestyles of some of the people within it, but no room for the connecting links--the pumping out of surplus value, the distribution of surplus value within the ruling class, the accumulation of surplus value, the waste of surplus value. It therefore has no room for explaining either the centrality of class conflict or the dynamic of class conflict.

This is not just a matter of the past, but also of the future. The barbarities of the 20th century were not just confined the period 1914-1945. Even the 'golden years' for the advanced industrial countries during the long boom of the 1950s and 1960s were accompanied by horrific wars against parts of the Third World and by the piling up of the means of mass destruction. We were promised, with the collapse of the Eastern bloc and the end of the Cold War at the end of the 1980s, 'an end of history', with a 'New World Order' and a 'peace dividend'. Instead the 1990s witnessed economic collapse in much of the former Eastern bloc, a prolonged recession in Europe and Japan, a rash of civil wars, the aerial bombing of Baghdad and Belgrade, and a profound economic crisis across East Asia; at the time of writing there is endless speculation among mainstream economists as to how long the US stock exchange boom can keep going, and what the implications for the world as a whole are if it collapses. The emergence in major western European countries as a serious force of fascist parties that used to be regarded as a near joke suggests that the ghosts of the 1930s are far from vanquished.

On top of all this, there are new threats never imagined in the first half of the century. An epidemic disease, AIDS, is slashing into life expectancy in wide areas of Africa and threatening to engulf much of Asia too; yet those who control the world's wealth refuse to release the relatively low level of funds needed to bring it under control, and the great pharmaceutical companies do not see it as worthwhile to invest any great sums in looking for a vaccine against it (or, for that matter, against that old enemy, malaria). The endless pumping of carbon dioxide and other 'greenhouse' gases into the atmosphere is beginning to radically destabilise the world's climate, threatening both to flood major inhabited areas and to upset the balance of world food supplies; every major government acknowledges the threat; every major government continues with transport, energy and industrial policies which increase the level of greenhouse gases and the danger of a worldwide disaster. Finally, advances in technology continue to be transmuted into increased levels of destructive weaponry; the greatest economic military power, the US, has resumed the search for a 'Star Wars' anti-missile system which will free it from the fear of retaliation if it ever launches a nuclear 'first strike'; a whole range of lesser, medium size powers are trying to develop their own 'micro' means of mass destruction to threaten each other with and to deter the US (or its nuclear client state, Israel) from one day threatening them with the aerial bombardment used against Baghdad and Belgrade; the result is that the 21st century will inevitably be a world no longer subject to the horrific deterrent logic of Mutually Assured Destruction; under those circumstances, the chances of nuclear war must be quite high if the system is allowed to continue for more than a few decades. If the 20th century witnessed recurrent barbarity, barbarism in the full sense of Rosa Luxemburg's use of the term is a very real prospect in the 21st century.

One merit of Hobsbawm's book is that he comes close to recognising this. He concludes:

But having made the diagnosis, Hobsbawm can offer no cure. His suggestions,11 made soon after the book was published, amounted to going along with Tony Blair's vision of New Labour, even if he has been slightly more critical since. He can offer no others, because the working class has disappeared from his scheme of things.12

Yet the last quarter of the 20th century saw several major states shaken by new upsurges of workers, even if workers did not take advantage of their successes to establish new states acting in their own interests. It was the entry of oil workers into struggles which pulled the carpet from under the Shah's regime in Iran in 1979; it was workers who showed how easy it was to puncture the totalitarian pretensions of the late Stalinist states with the Polish movement of 1980-1981, and it was workers who dealt a death blow against forces looking towards a repressive solution to the problem of these states with the miners' strikes in the Soviet Union in 1989 and 1991; it was workers who shook the French conservative government, with its record parliamentary majority, in November and December 1995. In none of these cases were workers the major beneficiaries of their own actions: in Iran the gainers were the section of the bourgeoisie around Ayatollah Khomeini; in the Eastern bloc those sections of the old ruling class who jumped ship to embrace the market and their own versions of capitalist democracy; in France the rejuvenated social democracy of Jospin. The power the workers deployed was real enough; so too was their ability momentarily to draw behind them all the other discontented and oppressed groups in society. Their weakness was ideological, a willingness to accept definitions of what should be done provided by some of these other groups, especially the radical intelligentsia and disaffected members of the old ruling class. The result was what may be called 'deflected workers' movements'.

Yet the ideological weakness should not surprise anyone with a modicum of knowledge of past class struggles. New classes that emerge with changes in production always start off life by accepting the definitions of society imposed on them by the old order. Their members have never known any other sort of society and take its assumptions for granted. Only as they are driven to struggle by the conditions under which they find themselves do they begin to develop new ways of seeing things, and even then they do not uniformly and immediately reject the old ways. What emerges is what Gramsci called 'contradictory consciousness' or what Lenin, speaking of the Russian working class at the beginning of the 20th century, called 'trade union consciousness'--a defensive challenge to certain aspects of the old society and its ideology, while continuing to accept other aspects. The history of the rise of the bourgeoisie is one of several hundred years of such contradictory conceptions--of on the one hand making wealth in ways very different to the feudal lords and adopting correspondingly new ideas, and on the other wanting to rise within existing society and accepting its old ideas. Such contradictory notions cost the bourgeoise dear in many of its early battles to defend itself as society moved into crisis: its deference to the old order led it to suffer devastating setbacks in places like northern Italy, Germany and France in the 16th and 17th centuries; when it broke through in England in 1649 and France in 1789-1794, it was because a minority emerged within the bourgeoisie which was prepared to work with poorer sections of the middle class to impose its will on the rest as well as on the defenders of the old order.

There is no reason to expect the working class to do what the bourgeoisie never did, and to jump straight to a new, pure and a non-contradictory world view. The history of industrial capitalism so far has been of sections of workers moving in this direction, but then repeatedly being defeated and demoralised, losing faith in their ability to change things. The second quarter of the 20th century saw defeats on a massive scale, with the isolation of the Russian Revolution and the rise of Stalinism in Russia, and then the defeat of the German working class and the conquest of most of mainland Europe by Nazism. The defeats a class suffers can have the effect of bringing on more defeats; people lose faith in their own ability to change things and put their trust in those from other classes who are necessarily going to lead them to more defeats; after the defeat in Germany the most militant workers, desperate for an alternative to Nazism but lacking faith in their own ability to fight successfully, put their faith in Stalinism on the one hand and the 'democratic' bourgeois politicians on the other. This led the great waves of workers struggles, in 1934-1936 and in 1943-1945 into compromise with the system and to defeat.

In the second half of the 20th century another important factor came into play. The very rapidity of growth of the working class in many countries meant there were vast numbers of workers with no historic link to the past. They were the children of peasants, not of previous generations of class conscious workers--and often of peasants living many thousands of miles away. Only a minority of those who occupied the French factories in 1968 were the children of those who had done so in 1936; very few of the Spanish workers who took on Francoism in the mid-1970s had more than tenuous links with the revolutionary anarcho-syndicalist and socialist workers of the mid-1930s; virtually none of the Russian miners who were so important in 1989 and 1991 had any connection back to the very much smaller (possibly one tenth the size) working class of 1917. Every lesson had to be learnt over again; it could not all happen in one go. The ideological development of a growing class had to start again near the beginning.

The beginning is not the end. The workers' movements of the last quarter of the 20th century, deflected though they were, were also a foretaste of what we should expect from the larger than ever, more universal than ever working class which enters the new millennium. The most literate, the most cultured, the most homogenous exploited class the world has ever known faces a period every bit as dangerous as Hobsbawm suggests. Where he is wrong in his forecasts is where he is wrong in his history. He does not see that the dynamics of the system itself will force workers to struggle, and that when they struggle they will have the potential to adopt the new world view necessary to lead humanity as whole away from barbarism and towards socialism. Whether this potential is realised cannot be foretold in advance. That depends upon the degree to which the minority of workers and intellectuals who are already won to the new world view are successful in agitating, organising and educating their fellows.


Return to Contents page: Return to International Socialism Journal Index Home page