Hobsbawm's 19th century "Age" trilogy is great. His 20th century Age of Extremes is less good--profitable as a work of history, but also, alas, profitable as an index of the impact decades of doublethink can leave on a good mind…
Hoisted from the Archives from back in 1995, in that decade between the Fall of the Berlin Wall and the Fall of the Towers:
Brad DeLong: Hobsbawm's Age of Extremes:
In the beginning was Karl Marx, with his vision of how the Industrial Revolution would transform everything and wash us up on the shores of Utopia. Marx saw the economy as the key to history: every forecast and historical interpretation must be based on the economy's logic of development. Sometimes--as in much of Eric Hobsbawm's previous work on the history of the nineteenth century--this functioned relatively well.
But sometimes it led to very bad results indeed. And when Marx and Engels's writings became sacred texts for a world religion called Communism, things passed beyond the absurd: the belief that the logic of development of the economy was the most important thing about society became entangled in the belief that Joe Stalin was our benevolent master and ever-wise guide.
Now it is over. The red stars of the Soviet Union no longer shine from the tops of the Kremlin towers at night. Radicals still seek Utopia, but they no longer think the road leads through the economy. Instead, they study culture--as if to change the world just by understanding it. It is difficult to see a future in which authors with the intelligence, industriousness, and audience of Eric Hobsbawm are disciples of Karl Marx in anything like the sense that Eric Hobsbawm is a disciple of Marx.
Now Eric Hobsbawm has written a history of the twentieth century, The Age of Extremes. It has by and large received good reviews: Stanley Hoffman in the New York Times Book Review; Eugene Genovese in the New Republic; Edward Said in the London Review of Books.
But my reaction to The Age of Extremes was different. It struck me as history gone awry: a sketch of the twentieth century not as it has been lived here on earth but as it might have been lived somewhere else, on some "planet Hobsbawm" that might be found in one of those parallel universes often visited in Star Trek episodes, where what looks familiar at first glance turns out on close examination to be alien indeed.