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More and more they had to focus on a task that they had not anticipated: building a socialist society, or at any rate a noncapitalist one, in the Soviet Union without the economic support that they had expected to receive from the revolutionized advanced countries, notably Germany.
Thus, they opted for the “politically calamitous” course of splitting the international socialist movement and promoting revolutionary communist parties precisely when those parties had no chance for success, when a fierce right-wing reaction was setting in everywhere.
They also featured an economic depression that, for the first time in history, threatened to destroy the capitalist system itself.
The Great Depression of the 1930s was the worst and most politically dangerous in the history of capitalism.
The social democrats abandoned utopianism in practice, but they retained much of it in theory.
Thus they continued to propagate illusions, and they opened themselves to charges of bad faith from the left and the right.
After World War I, economists and politicians put capitalism back on course, upward and onward; but the Great Depression inspired widespread fears that the aftermath of World War ii would bring a renewed economic crisis. To the contrary, the Golden Age from 1945 to the early 1970s produced an astonishing economic transformation and an unprecedented prosperity.
The bourgeoisie learned its lessons and revamped its economic system in ways that socialists, or at any rate Marxists, had believed impossible.
Worse, the ghastly economic crisis that brought capitalism to its knees primarily benefited the fascists, to whom a distressingly large section of those masses rallied.
Hobsbawm pays proper tribute to the selflessness and the heroism of the cadres that sacrificed themselves in attempts at socialist revolution and in subsequent anti-fascist struggles.
But he chillingly demonstrates that the revolutionary movements of the left, which always spoke in the name of “the people” or “the working class,” consisted of only that--cadres.
He observes that even before 1914, the socialist movement promised, as assorted Christian sects had promised before, “a society without unhappiness, oppression, inequality and injustice.” The social democrats, it is true, abandoned revolutionary utopianism and preferred political moderation, partly in revulsion against the excesses of Bolshevism and partly in response to the evidence that the capitalist class was restructuring the economy and polity.
Still, the consequences of social democracy--and here Hobsbawm falls silent--were unfortunate in one big way.
A history of the “short” century that began with World War I and ended with the collapse of communism, the book offers a powerful interpretation of the wellsprings of an age of unprecedented economic transformation, mass slaughter and social upheaval.