A history of the short twentieth century (1914-1991)

The weekends in my village don’t miss their highlights: I bought this time the volume by Eric Hebswam’s “The Age of Extremes”, the much acclaimed volume in his series of “Ages” of Capital and Revolution and many others. This volume I didn’t have had the time till now to go through. So when the pressure to buy a book on my trip home I just picked up the volume at the Crossword book shop in Bangalore. As soon I had the time I settled down for a non-stop reading and what a trip through the entire world of the twentieth century, covering 1914-1991.
Hebswam by new is a household word everywhere, all over the world, more so in India where he has a large number of friends in the academic as well as in the political sphere. Knowing him as a Marxist historian and more so as a member of the British Communist party I had always read him to have some unique insights into the events of the most important historic phase of the modern world. He is as far as I knew is a master of the modern world of European Enlightenment and the post-Enlightentement era.

In the volume here the covers the 20th century from 1914 to 1991, covering the break of the first world war to the breakup of Soviet Russia. He calls this as the “short 20th century”. The many chapters cover different phases of the first war period, that effectively ends the age of Empires. Then comes the Gold War period and the second war which was ended effectively by Gerbachew, when he attempted to restructure (Perostroika) by openness (glannost) he found himself up against the technological costs (of nuclear race) as against America and the economic costs (the rise in oil prices and the very sheer pressures to keep up a command economy, that was facing the enormous forces of free market economy, free market capitalism that proved too much to resist. Hence, the disintegration of the soviet Russia took place, much against anyone’s expectation. The collapse of the Soviet Russia happened suddenly that took everyone by surprise. There are some nice, moving and thrilling descriptions in the pages of this volume that describe the final years of Soviet Russia’s period.

The three great strong points of this volume seems to be the summing up of the Soviet Communism, we get rare insights into the minds and works (acts) of Lenin and Stalin. Two monsters of the early twentieth century, we can now confidently say. Hebswaw has to be read very carefully with due secpticism. Otherwise, we are likely to be misled believing all of his views and opinions. He says : (page 76) “The force for the movements for world revolution lay in the communist form of organisation, Lenin’s “party of a new type”, a from edible innovation of the twentieth century social engineering, comparable to the Christian and other orders of the Middle Ages”.

So Lenin emerges, acquired a reputation for intolerance of dissent, his pragmatic Stalin’s “Stalin who presided over the iron age of USSR, was an autocrat of exceptional ferocity, ruthlessness and lack of scruple. Few men have manipulated terror on a more universal scale”(p.380).

Intolerance knowns no limits
Stalin a tiny and yet a so-all powerful, just 5 ft. 3 ins. tall (figure of demonio person! Hitler, a demon and yet had ” a sense of personal destiny, the chariama and self-confidence which made Hitler accepted master, loyalty without coearcion” (p.390). But Stalin held personal power by terror and fear (p.390).

Lenin refused to back Stalin(391). Between 1934 four or five million party members, officials arrested on political grounds, four or five hundred thousands of them were executed without trial, the next (eightieth) party congress in 1939, contained a bare 37 of the 1827 delegates who were present in the previous congress in 1934 (p. 391).
What the historian doesn’t tell us is the fact that since he wrote, that is since even 1993, there have been mountains of new volumes and new date about Stalin’s crimes and the actual number of people killed so ruthlessly by this human monster. Unfortunately, there are still many thousands in India, few hundreds of Indian scholars and intellectuals who are apologists to this human butchery! A butchery, unparralled even to the Hitler’s record of killing some 5 crore of innocent people, who perished in the second war. My purpose of this review of an important book like the one before is world not to go ever what Hitler, Stalin and other monsters did to humanity. How rather we in India, in Asia and even in Europe living today should respond to this sort of history? I found Hobsbawm’s sense somewhat distorted. He is too much of a doctrinaire Communist or Marxist?

Yes, he, who has so much to historical say, evening such brilliant prose, bring out the big picture he got of the so much human miser, has in contrast very little to say about the alternatives the leaders of men were practising at the same time these human disasters were caused. The historian didn’t have space for such men like Gandhi or other leaders who in Asia, at any rate, of course very soon from other parts of the Third world, were challenging the British and other Empires by peaceful means? There is very little about India’s resistance of the British, the success of the same in 1947. Then a series of development that “decolonised” much of the old colinal lands, the French, the Dutch and the Portugheese were all on the retreat. Nor Hobsbawm has any sense of the historic perspective that saw the emergence of Non-Aligned movement that in a significant way checked the execcesses or the possible excesses of the Col War rattlings, the Cuba crisis and many other such posturings by both the USA and the USSR, much before Gorbachew came on the scene. His assessment of Gorbachev seems fair and objective but here again he takes a sort of pro-British view, he seems to me too much of a pre-Thatcher academic. In India such a narrow and prejudiced view of the world even then was unacceptable. Now, in the late Nineteens and in the new century such views of world, not to seek of the British men writing history from a rather complicant grasp of their information can be dismissed with some authority.

In all through the pages we read some of the bracy prose that narrates the rise of arts, culture and the sciences. These are new material for a historian and to that extent he brings more perspective to our view of the modern world. Here too, I have too many criticisms in place. Seeing the world from the vantage position of Bangalore, the Indian Silicon Valley, there are too many developments that are shaking up the entire world, the computer revolution, Information Technology Revolution, the Internet, the rise of the Indian software services industry, outsourcing of jobs, the BPO and much else had lifted India into a world super. India is posed, along with China, to occupy the world centre stage, in the software next few decade. Much more important, is India’s emergence of as a vibrant democracy is overdue. India’s many democratic institutions, the Supreme judiciary, the Election Commission and the free press all seem to be more free than what the free nation assume their institutions to be. BBC is tamed, awed by the IO, Downing stree manipulations. US press is subdued, judiciary is found wanting in independence or activist role, or the British as a world influence is much more visible to large parts of the world.The final nail in the supremacy of the development of USA or UK as role models is destroyed by the so-called doctrine of pre-emtive strike, the world’s two powers, USA/UK have become prepounders of the evil doctrine. The UN is completely destroyed. Who did this? There is no one forthcoming to ask, let alone give an answer! Such is the world we live in!

As Hobsbawm says in the introduction, writing the history of the twentieth century is rather too difficult, we are all very nearer to the events. So, this history “trade” is no arena to ask the question I had asked. Nor for that matter need we give up asking such awakward questions.

But I feel Indians must learn to stand up and ask such highly relevant and yet inconvenient question. Indian scholars, young and old, living in the USA/UK for a “living” or whatever you choose to call your career, wont ask questions. I have carefully gone through several “learned” these and discourses , by our men settled down in the cosy environments of US academia. They are, it seems to me, as afraid as our academics in India afraid of our political masters, the BJP wallahs and their kinky views of history or political ideology formation. But these of us who have the advantages of some freedom from outside these campuses, can and must ask some of the questions that cry for asking! I is for the experts to respond to how these question can be beneficially asked and we can shape the destiny India in the new century. Though the author, a friend of some prominent Indians, politicians and academics, mentions India’s democracy (348) ” as the most impressive example of a Third World “democracy” he doesn’t brings himself to give the needed emphasis to point India as a great democratising influence on the rest of the “new democracies”, even including in the ex-communist states in the Eastern Europe.

Why, he doesn’t bring his story to Russia’s own democratic changes, he stop with Yelstin’s coup and even then goes on the Soviet economic problems. He quotes Osker Lange (The polish economist whom the author met on his London hospital bet and the two, as he narrates, were good fortune to listen to Oskar Lange’s one lecture which he delivered at Oxford in 1959/60). It is not the liberating power of democracies in the many new countries that he is seeing as most positive forces, but decrying the downfall that seems to occupy his mind. As the new century proceeds, new democracies, new wealth creating IT, Internet industries create and distribute wealth in the Asian and other Third World and small countries, the new faces of “New Economy Capitalism” would be seen as the two strong forces for good.

In the place of “adventures” foreign occupation policy of the US, new forces of equilibrium would emerge the world’s new smaller countries would coals, as new expanded EU had democrated and we can rest our hope only on international co-operation, WTO, Economic Forum and other G-20 countries joining together for a more equitable world trade, of course a nuclear non-proliferation treaty should eliminate the fears of the nuclear war and USA would come under greater pressure on a host of issues including on environment, balanced trade and much else.
From an Indian perspective, these are more hopeful signs than a lament for the past adventures, of men who turned monsters! The new century also starts with much violence, fundamentalisms of a religious kind and the international terrorism. The short answer is not the one found by Bush. That’s all what we can say at this point of time.

The author, a friend of some prominent Indians, politicians and academics, mentions India’s democracy (348) as the most impressive example of a Third World “democracy” he doesn’t brings himself to give the needed emphasis to point India as a great democratising influence on the rest of the “new democracies”, even including in the ex-communist states in the Eastern Europe.

It is not the liberating power of democracies in the many new countries that he is seeing as most positive forces, but decrying the downfall that seems to occupy his mind. As the new century proceeds, new democracies, new wealth creating IT, Internet industries create and distribute wealth in the Asian and other Third World and small countries, the new faces of “New Economy Capitalism” would be seen as the two strong forces for good.

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