The long view

A great historian’s last essays illuminate an era of social and artistic change, writes Roger Morgan

April 11, 2013

Eric Hobsbawm (1917-2012) was such a formidable producer of books, right up to his last years, that the posthumous publication of this stimulating collection of essays comes as no surprise. Of the roughly two dozen texts assembled here, some originally appeared in the London Review of Books or elsewhere (some only in German); some began as lectures connected with music festivals or art exhibitions; and several are published for the first time. As Hobsbawm’s preface explains, the selection and arrangement of the contents represents an attempt to answer some large, difficult questions about the present state of society, how we got here, and where we may be going next.

The titles of Hobsbawm’s books are always well chosen. In the 1960s and after, when he issued his magisterial four-volume history of the world from 1789 to the 1990s, he was confident of being able to summarise each epoch in a word: The Age of Revolution, The Age of Capital, The Age of Empire, The Age of Extremes. His memoirs (published in 2002) bore the more ambiguous title Interesting Times: “interesting”, of course, partly in the sense of challenging or downright dangerous. Now, Fractured Times announces reflections on a world beset by the multiple contradictions of globalisation, a society preoccupied by awareness of - to use a fashionable term - an “identity crisis”. By the late 20th century, he says, many asked: “Where did we belong, on a human scale and in real time and real space? Whom or what did we belong to? Who were we?” For Hobsbawm, we have been living through “an era of history which has lost its bearings, and which in the early years of the new millennium looks forward with more troubled perplexity than I recall in a long lifetime, guideless and mapless, to an unrecognisable future”.

He explores the fracturing links between, on the one hand, the mounting economic and social tensions of a disorientated world and, on the other, the manifestations of “arts” or “culture” that have accompanied them. His own generation was “brought up in the framework of a culture made by and for the nineteenth-century bourgeoisie”: a culture that defined the rules and conventions of opera houses, art galleries, architecture and literature. He sees a major cause of our present troubles thus: this bourgeois society “vanished with the generation after 1914, never to return”, but some of its cultural norms survive, like pallid and persistent ghosts. Perhaps the most revealing key to Hobsbawm’s approach to what followed 1914 lies in his partial retraction of the “vanished society” thesis, when he comments with a telling “alas” that “the society of which ‘the arts’ were an integral part” did not end with the First World War.

From Hobsbawm’s long-held Marxist viewpoint, bourgeois capitalism was in any case doomed to disappear, giving way to some form of socialism. The fact that this failed to happen, and that bourgeois society - at least some of its essential aspects - survived, to be confronted by challenges from a new and unexpected set of socio-economic forces, appears to have led Hobsbawm to a new conclusion: that since this society ought to have disappeared, its cultural tastes and usages, although apparently surviving, must in reality be mere posthumous mirages, doomed in time to vanish. Perhaps, despite everything, they might even take the remains of the old society with them.

Hobsbawm identifies three forces that are accomplishing the task of undermining the remains of ‘classical bourgeois high culture’

Hobsbawm identifies three mighty forces that, he says, are accomplishing the task of undermining the remains of “classical bourgeois high culture” and potentially ending them, given their growing irrelevance: first, “the twentieth-century revolution in science and technology, which transformed old ways of earning a living before destroying them”; second, “the consumer society generated by the explosion in the potential of the Western economies”; and third, “the decisive entry of the masses on the political scene as customers as well as voters” - an innovation that means that “with the democratisation of power, power increasingly became public theatre”. This amounts to an apocalyptic array of challenges, and indeed we do appear to have entered a society in which “a techno-industrialised economy has drenched our lives in universal, constant and omnipresent experiences of information and cultural production - of sound, image, word, memory and symbols”. In this new world the traditional individual appreciation of “art” gives way to what the sociologist David Riesman described more than 60 years ago as the “other-directed” conformism of a “lonely crowd”. What’s more, in Hobsbawm’s view, it means that “the arts” lose the privileged status they had enjoyed in the old bourgeois society, “their function as measures of good and bad, as carriers of value: of truth, beauty and catharsis”.

If taken literally, this claim that in the pre-1914 world the arts were accorded the status of arbiter of “good”, “bad” and “truth” for society as a whole (as well as their obvious role of reflecting that society and sometimes commenting on it) is really enormous. It has to be tackled head on or quietly ignored. Hobsbawm chose the latter course (rightly, in this essayistic form of writing) and the central question remains that of how well he makes his case that the traditional arts, with some exceptions, have responded to their assailants by subsiding towards oblivion.

In the visual arts, he knowledgeably awards a high mark to the Russian avant-garde of the first Soviet decade (including Wassily Kandinsky, Marc Chagall and, for the all-important cinema, the early work of Sergei Eisenstein such as Battleship Potemkin), although emphatically not the sterile Stalinist socialist realism that followed. In architecture and design, the Bauhaus concept (whose roots Hobsbawm fascinatingly traces back to William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement) is praised as a creative and forward-looking antidote to the pomposity of the belle époque. Only in his critique of the musical world of the past 100 years does Hobsbawm really let rip, unfairly castigating concert programmes for an allegedly near-exclusive obsession with composers who died long before 1914 (“music from the grave”), performed for a dwindling band of ageing frequenters of venues such as London’s Wigmore Hall.

At one point, Hobsbawm remarks that “actually it is inappropriate to ask a historian what culture will look like in the next millennium. We are experts in the past. We are not concerned with the future” (and, he suggests, venture our forecasts of it only because the professional futurologists are so useless). A certain contrast between Hobsbawm’s different delivery styles in this book does rather bear out this judgement. Its really outstandingly solid and evocative passages concern the historian’s question “where have we come from?” - especially if this was The World of Yesterday, Stefan Zweig’s world and Hobsbawm’s, the old Austro-Hungarian Central Europe. Some of the essays here give brilliantly illuminating analyses of this world’s 19th-century development, including the decisive (and later tragically ironic) contribution of its Jewish population to making it a vast area of predominantly German culture and language: then, but not since the Holocaust.

Hobsbawm was unique as a scholar who combined a profound comprehension of history with an imaginative, combative and controversial determination to explain the present and the future, and this, his final book, is certain to appeal to a wide readership.

The author

“My first contacts with a professional historian as a schoolboy were unpromising,” Eric Hobsbawm recalled in Times Higher Education in 2002.

“He was a small, round man who dashed round the classroom of a Berlin gymnasium pointing a ruler as he asked pupils for the dates of the German emperors. The joke was that this exercise must have bored our teacher as much as us…Like us, he was a victim of the curse of interwar secondary school teaching. It almost turned me off history for good.”

But not quite: “Fortunately, I discovered the Communist Manifesto in the school library.” The rest, of course, was history on a grand scale. His scholarly career was notable not only for its political engagement and duration - in 2012, aged 94, he would publish How to Change the World: Tales of Marx and Marxism - but also for its breadth and acclaim.

Born in Alexandria, Egypt, and raised in Vienna and Berlin, he moved to London in 1933. He read history at King’s College, Cambridge, at least in part because, he said, “my history teacher at St Marylebone Grammar School thought I was good at it, and decided at a certain stage to put me up.” But “with few exceptions, the Cambridge history faculty was a discouraging spectacle: self-satisfied, insular, culturally provincial, deeply prejudiced against theories, explanations and ideas, and even against too much professionalism - suspicious of anything that came too close to the present,” he said.

Inspired by those few exceptions, Hobsbawm went on to be an academic, beginning his lifelong association with Birkbeck, University of London in 1947. Speaking at his 90th birthday celebrations, he voiced his admiration for Birkbeck students, so many of whom were “committed not just to self- improvement, but to making a better world.”

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