The practice of dividing time into discreet eras goes back a long way. The Greeks were already talking about the Age of Gold and Age of Silver in what we now call Classical Antiquity. The eras are always somewhat arbitrary, but useful for keeping the exuberance of the past in manageable and memorable pigeonholes.
It was the mention in the last post of the English historian Eric Hobsbawm that got me to thinking about this use of "ages" and "eras." Hobsbawm was a true and lifelong disciple of Marx. And with Marx (as with St. Augustine), history has a meaning, each age having its own particular role and responsibility in the procession of time.
The four volumes I am thinking of I purchased from the Folio Society back in 2005. They share a common format, and sit in a handsome single slipcase, emblazoned with a series title, "The Making of the Modern World."
But Hobsbawm didn't mean, at first, to write a four-volume account of recent history. As is so often the case, one thing led to another, and we are now fortunate to have the the following:
The Age of Revolution, 1789-1848
The Age of Capital, 1848-1875
The Age of Empire, 1875-1914
The Age of Extremes, 1914-1991
These are books I can heartily recommend. God knows I'm no Communist, but I honestly know of no series that compares for conveying the sense of breathtaking change that has overwhelmed the world these last few centuries. One need not share Hobsbawm's Marxist hopes to get caught up in the drama of this story.
And yet I come back to those titles--especially the incongruity of the last one. Marxist history, as I said above, has a definite shape. Class conflict gives rise to revolution, then to a new orientation of class relationships, based on newly emerging forms of the means of production. The nineteenth century form, bourgeois industrial capitalism, begins to crack when untrammeled competition forces it to make increasingly crushing demands on the industrial proletariat. Lenin's assertion that imperialism is the final last stage of capitalism then gives a plausibly Marxist rationale for capitalism's unexpected reprieve, the interval in which the entire world is roped into the system.
So far, so good. We have in the titles of Hobsbawm's first three volumes the three stages that Marxism-Leninism considers the prelude to the triumph of socialism. So why, I wonder, was the last volume not called The Age of Socialism.
After all, the period chosen encompasses, almost exactly, the lifespan of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the first and most powerful of the "workers' states," and the unchallenged leader of the international Communist movement. This period also sees the rise of the British Labour Party, the adoption of social democracy and the welfare state as the predominant form of government in Western Europe, and, even in the resisting United States, a vast expansion of the regulatory apparatus and the so-called "safety net": social security, mandatory unemployment insurance, the federal reserve, medicare, and the like. And fascism? We tend to forget that fascism was not an ideology of laissez faire capitalism or material consumption, but a corporate and centralized movement for collective effort; we overlook the fact that Hitler's "Nazism" was short for "National Socialism."
So why didn't the next stage in Marx's schema, which fits so well the world of 1914-1991, supply the title to Hobsbawm's last volume? Perhaps because it wasn't supposed to end that way...or even end at all. There is a certain sense to the Marxist eras. But history is not that clean or precise. Socialism, though denied in name, is a growing omnipresence. But revolutions have not ceased. Capitalism and imperialism, far from being abolished by socialism, aufgehoben out of existence, seem to be getting along quite well with socialism. Our syntheses are much muddier than the Hegelian-Marxist model might suggest.
This should not be a surprise. The future doesn't, and ought not, to yield so easily to our scrutiny. "No man knows the day or the hour." We really, really realize that the future is, essentially, surprise. Thus our own "Age of Anxiety," as we wonder where the next wonders, the next disasters, will arise.