A powerful and unsettling book, Eric Hobsbawm's Age of Extremes brings to a close the series of historical studies he began in 1962 with The Age of Revolution: Europe 1789-1848, and followed in 1975 and 1987 respectively with The Age of Capital, 1848-1875 and The Age of Empire, 1875-1914. It is difficult to imagine that anyone other than Hobsbawm could have approached - much less achieved - the consistently high level of these volumes: taken together, they represent one of the summits of historical writing in the postwar period. Hobsbawm is cool where others are hot and noisy; he is ironic and dispassionate where others would have been either angry or heedless; he is discriminatingly observant and subtle where on the same ground other historians would have resorted to clichés or to totalistic system. Perhaps the most compelling thing about Hobsbawm's achievement in these four books is the poise he maintains throughout. Neither too innocent nor too knowing and cynical, he restores one's faith in the idea of rational investigation; and in a prose that is as supple and sure as the gait of a brilliant middle-distance runner, he traces the emergence, consolidation, triumph and eclipse of modernity itself - in particular, the amazing persistence of capitalism (its apologists, practitioners, theoreticians and opponents) within it.
LRB 9 March 1995 | PDF Download