The People’s Scholar: Eric Hobsbawm in Fractured Time




The People’s Scholar: Eric Hobsbawm in Fractured Time by Dennis Dworkin

June 30th, 2014 reset - +

ERIC HOBSBAWM is one of the great historians of the 20th century. When he died in October 2012 at the age of 95, the British newspaper The Guardian noted his “unique position in the country’s intellectual life” and described him as “arguably Britain’s most respected historian of any kind.” Hobsbawm was a left-wing public intellectual who, especially in his later years, in some cases helped shape political debates. At the time of his death, past and present Labour leaders — Neil Kinnock, Tony Blair, and Ed Miliband — paid tribute to Hobsbawm’s passionate commitment to economic, political, and social justice and acknowledged his influence over their political views and development. 

At a time of expanding specialization and proliferating subdisciplines in the profession of history, Hobsbawm was a throwback to the great narrative tradition of 19th-century historical writing. While he published specialized studies, he is best remembered for his grand syntheses of the past written in a clear and lucid style. They were not only intended for professional historians, but also for a more general reading public. Hobsbawm’s output was staggering. His books, essay collections, and edited volumes total more than 30. 

Hobsbawm was a polymath, fluent in several languages, and wrote on a seemingly endless variety of subjects, exploring everything from the Sicilian Mafia and millenarian movements to American cowboys, Marxist theory, and jazz, one of the great passions of his life. With the English social historian E. P. Thompson, Hobsbawm was among the pioneers of “history from below,” which sought to rescue the lives of ordinary people (originally the working class) from (what Thompson famously described as) “the condescension of history.” Such work launched a revolution in modern historical writing known as the “new social history,” whose influence has been pervasive: evident in history textbooks worldwide. Instead of only considering the political events of a time, Hobsbawm insisted that we consider cultural, religious, economic, and social practices in order to better understand the past. He likewise helped shape the narrative of the British national story. His social and economic history of modern Britain, Industry and Empire: The Birth of the Industrial Revolution (1968), updated in 1999, is arguably the closest to a standard account on the subject. Above all, Hobsbawm’s four-volume history of global capitalism since the French and Industrial Revolutions, written over a more than 30-year period, culminating in The Age of Extremes (1994), is one of the great masterpieces of modern historical writing. At the time of Hobsbawm’s death, the right-wing historian Niall Ferguson (by no means a political ally) suggested that it was still the best starting place to understand the modern world.

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During his lifetime, Hobsbawm maintained a longstanding commitment to the communist movement. His embrace of communism has long been a stumbling block, for some, to a wider appreciation of his work — especially when others of his generation who had been in the party had left it. His stubborn defense of this commitment in his autobiography, Interesting Times (2002), only provided more fodder for his critics. Hobsbawm was neither a Stalinist nor a dogmatic Marxist. However, he defended the broad aims of international communism, and welcomed to the end events and trends that promised to undermine global capitalism, even while acknowledging that the working class was no longer an agent of revolutionary change.

How are we to understand Hobsbawm’s communist commitment? He was a second-generation British Jew whose family network was rooted in the Habsburg Empire. His mother’s family was Austrian, his father’s father had been an immigrant cabinetmaker in London; he was born in Alexandria, Egypt and spent his first 14 years in Vienna, Austria. He was the product of the now virtually extinct culture of Central European middle-class Jewry, a milieu that in his formative years was rapidly disintegrating. For a young and precocious Jewish intellectual trying to find a political identity in a fragmented world the choice appeared to be between communism and Zionism or a combination of the two. In 1931 at age 14, following the death of his parents, he moved to Berlin to live with the family of his father’s brother. Simultaneous with Hitler’s ascent to power, he joined a communist youth group and subsequently became part of the radical student movement when he attended Cambridge in the mid-1930s.

As a young man, Hobsbawm regarded the Soviet Union of the 1930s as an alternative to the crumbling world of Western capitalism. He was inspired by the broad-based, anti-fascist Popular Front that surfaced in France in 1934, revived following the brief interlude of the 1939 Hitler-Stalin pact, and, following World War II, made major gains throughout Europe. While many communists left the party during the Cold War, Hobsbawm’s commitment to it seemed to intensify, in part because he made common cause with a group of creative historians who formed the Communist Party Historians Group. Avoiding Stalinist pieties, they laid the groundwork for the new social history that took off in the 1960s. 

The revelations of Stalin’s crimes, exposed in Khrushchev’s 1956 speech at the Soviet Union’s Twentieth Party Congress, produced what Hobsbawm in his autobiography described as the political equivalent of a nervous breakdown. He and his fellow historians played critical roles in advocating inner-party democracy within the communist movement. The great majority of his colleagues eventually left the party, but Hobsbawm stayed. In part, as he suggested in his autobiography, it was because of stubbornness and pride. In 1984, he told me that to be a Marxist intellectual necessitated affiliation with a revolutionary working-class party (however flawed), and he could not imagine being simply a radical scholar in a university. His reasons for staying are also attributable to his personal and political formation. His decision to become a communist was rooted in the fragmentation of his family and the tragedy of European Jewry: communism, in effect, was an alternative to the disintegrating world of his youth, the party a substitute extended family. It was this that made it harder for him to leave.

Hobsbawm may have stayed in the party, but he was not a doctrinaire Marxist nor did he tow the party’s line. He supported the emerging British new left, which in the late 1950s attempted to create a socialist humanist politics — an alternative to both the blandness of Labour and the rigidity of the Communist Party of Great Britain. Hobsbawm was less enthusiastic about the 1960s student movement and the later new lefts that followed. In his autobiography, he described 1960s radical politics as “enormously welcome and enormously puzzling.” “We seemed to be using the same vocabulary,” he wrote, “but we did not appear to be speaking the same language.” He enthusiastically supported the expanding left-wing intellectual culture, which raised his profile and standing. He did not share the younger generation’s faith in an immanent revolution. For Hobsbawm, the challenge for Marxist parties in the advanced capitalist West was to carve out a meaningful role where no such possibility existed. Such a challenge was intensified during the Thatcher years, which, in his view, was the closest that Britain came to a social, political, and cultural revolution in the 20th century. Hobsbawm’s political response to Thatcherism was anchored in the anti-fascist Popular Front politics of his youth. For the Left to succeed under such inhospitable and reactionary conditions, he argued, it must put aside its differences and build a broad-based coalition united behind the Labour party. Hobsbawm’s support for and contributions to the politically pluralist and sometimes post-Marxist journal Marxism Today in the 1980s helped lay the ideological groundwork for the triumph of Tony Blair’s New Labour in the 1997 parliamentary elections.

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A new book by Hobsbawm is something of an event. The publication of his last completed work, Fractured Times: Culture and Society in the Twentieth Century, is particularly notable. It provides an occasion to reflect upon the book’s relationship to the long trajectory of his intellectual and political career. Fractured Times does not break new ground as other Hobsbawm’s books have done. Yet it is unfailingly interesting, revealing much about the man and his historical vision. 

The essays in Fractured Times — which include book reviews, unpublished lectures and essays, and revised versions of published ones — are populated with stints of memoir and personal reflection. Most were either written or given as lectures since 1990, the last 2011–12. Rather than being detailed monographs with elaborate citations, they have an immediate quality about them, particularly the ones originally given as talks. They are often suggestive, exploratory, and speculative, comprising a wide spectrum of topics: the Central European Jewish culture of his youth, Art Nouveau, international festivals, and the American cowboy, among others.

The book largely consists of relatively recent work, but the thinking underpinning it represents the thought of a lifetime. In his autobiography, Hobsbawm explains he was originally drawn to Marxist theory because of its distinctive approach to understanding literature and the arts. He further states that this interest continued into the present, perhaps an implicit reference to essays included in Fractured Times. Hobsbawm’s analysis of culture and the arts is rooted in Marx’s metaphor of base/superstructure, the basis of Marxist cultural theory. Marx did not use the term “culture” himself, instead referring to the products of culture — art, philosophy, law, ideology, and religion — as the “superstructure.” However, his theory had implications for the historical understanding of that superstructure. Rather than see these cultural practices as autonomous, Marx argued that they were conditioned by material life, what he called the “structure” or the “base,” notably the means of production — society’s ties to that production, and class relations. This idea has been one of the most influential in understanding cultural processes, as it made it possible to view culture in relationship to power, conflict, and social change. It has likewise proved problematic: it was often conceived in terms that were rigidly deterministic, static, and reductive, ignoring the causal impact of the superstructure itself. 

Hobsbawm uses the base/superstructure framework in at least two ways. His goal in Fractured Times is to trace the terminable decline of 19th-century bourgeois culture, which never recovered from the cataclysm of World War I, but lived on in attenuated form well into the 20th century. In what strikes me as a blend of nostalgia and good riddance, he contrasts the confidence and achievement of pre-World War I bourgeois culture founded on male exclusivity with the more democratic but rudderless cultures of today. The unprecedented commodification that characterizes the latter inaugurates the end of any clear sense of cultural value. Hobsbawm recognizes that globalization is producing new possibilities and potentialities. It only superficially produces homogeneity. What seems like the spread of a universally dominant pattern had in fact produced increasing heterogeneous and syncretic forms. 

Hobsbawm understands these developments through the spirit, if not the letter, of Marx’s Communist Manifesto, which views the political and ideological transformations of modernity in the context of the structural contradictions of industrial capitalism. Following Marx, Hobsbawm argues “that the logic of both capitalist development and bourgeois civilization itself were bound to destroy its foundations.” He suggests that there are three “blows” that produce the transformation: the revolution in science and technology, the proliferation of consumer capitalism, and the “decisive entry of the masses on the political scene as customers as well as voters.” For a Marxist of Hobsbawm’s generation, these changes made it possible for the revolutionary working class to create a new kind of society. In the present situation, evident throughout Fractured Times, no clear alternatives exist. The result is a world of barely organized chaos.

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Admittedly, Hobsbawm is better at recognizing what is in decline in 20th-century culture than what is emergent — understandable perhaps given that he was in his 90s when he wrote many of the essays. Moreover, readers will have to go elsewhere if they want to know how, for instance, race and ethnicity are connected to these broad developments. Yet these limits focus his argument, which is valuable. He explains, for instance, not just the breakup of a certain culture originating in 19th century Europe, but also, by implication, what has happened to its educational expression — the liberal arts and general education — whose position in today’s universities is precarious. A history professor at an underfunded state university, I have witnessed increasing resistance to a liberal arts education among some faculty and students as well as a rapidly declining number of undergraduates choosing history as a major. There are many reasons for this of course, but certainly it is connected to the commodification of knowledge, which makes being a history major seem “impractical.” In the university more broadly speaking, knowledge production is increasingly measured by a faculty member’s ability to produce grants. Hobsbawm’s argument helps us see that such recent developments are in fact part of a wider historical process. 

In his second deployment of base/superstructure, Hobsbawm analyzes which cultural forms are likely to continue to flourish and which are likely to diminish in importance. Here he adapts the approach of the German Jewish cultural critic Walter Benjamin, who in the interwar years departed from the classical Marxist tradition by arguing that the superstructure was not merely a reflection of the base but constituted its own forms of “cultural production.” For Hobsbawm, the book will survive because of the growth of literacy and the limitations of computer and electronic books. Sculpture is in trouble because there is a decline in public memorials. Architecture is likely to flourish, as it is impossible to do without it, especially when it comes to sports arenas, shopping malls, and hotels. Painting is in crisis as it is fighting a losing battle against a multitude of visual forms, initially film and television and more recently computer generated ones. Classical music is in terminable decline. It has been twice saved economically — first by records and then by CDs — but its cultural significance is rapidly shrinking. Its repertoire has become static, as audiences have been mostly reluctant to embrace 20th-century music. Its sclerosis is evident in the aging audiences that attend concerts. This might be true of classical music, but it is problematic when it comes to jazz, which Hobsbawm views similarly. Undoubtedly jazz no longer has the prominence it did during the swing era of the 1930s. But it, as Hobsbawm well knows, has dramatically different roots than the classical tradition. They may both have produced avant-gardes, thus limiting their audiences, but jazz has developed a multitude of new forms worldwide that suggest a different picture than Hobsbawm portrays. 

Hobsbawm’s materialist analysis offers us insights into general trends in the “fine arts,” but there are limits to it as well. Avoiding the reductionist tendencies of the base/superstructure model, his analysis almost never discusses particular works of arts, music, or literature. Indeed, in one of the few essays that is about a single cultural producer, the early 20th-century Austrian Jewish journalist and playwright Karl Kraus, he abandons the Marxist model altogether. The essay, one of the book’s most memorable, views Kraus as powerfully capturing the crumbling Jewish culture of Hobsbawm’s youth. Hobsbawm then tends to views cultural practices from Olympian heights. He rarely seeks to understand the nitty-gritty of cultural production or engages in textual analysis. 

In essays in Part III, he reflects on 20th-century artistic avant-gardes, who assaulted bourgeois conventions and sought to revolutionize visual language. He sees these artists as engaged in a last ditch struggle to maintain the centrality of the fine arts, particularly painting, at a time when they were threatened by new technologies in visual expression. Movements such as conceptual art underscore the futility of such effort. Though he begrudgingly admits that avant-garde artists in the 20th century have contributed to changes in our visual perception, Hobsbawm sees them as ultimately having failed. Their work has never really been widely accepted outside of elite audiences. He ultimately portrays their projects as being sterile.

In the same section of the book, Hobsbawm considers, among other things, intellectuals committed to revolutionary transformations in the 20th century. He recaptures, for instance the project of the communist social relations of science movement in the interwar years. Its faith that science, technology, and planning could liberate the human race went hand in hand with endorsing the Soviet Union. Hobsbawm’s portrayal of the British communist scientists blends nostalgia for what they once were (and could have been) and tragedy for what they became, as the movement ended up becoming a tool of Stalinism. His treatment of J. D. Bernal, the most brilliant among them, is particularly poignant: it is the story of a man whose passion for the potentialities of the Soviet Union resulted in his sacrificing the scientific values that he cherished. Bernal’s defense of the patently propagandistic science of Lysenko in the early 1950s is nothing short of heartbreaking. 

Hobsbawm’s analysis of these cultural and intellectual movements tells us something important about him. His prose is unmistakable: lucid, detached, and often blunt. He speaks with such certainty and confidence that it is difficult not to be persuaded. This is accentuated by the remarkable depth and breadth of his knowledge. Underneath this somewhat remote persona is a passionate and committed scholar who dedicated his life to social justice, whatever we might think of some of his political choices. Hobsbawm’s clear preference for the communist scientists over the artistic avant-gardes ultimately rests on these political commitments. Both movements were comprised of elites. The former reached out to the masses; the latter disdained them. In Fractured Times, it is the voice of the activist scholar, seeking to make connections with “the people,” that ultimately makes the deepest impression.

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Dennis Dworkin, PhD, is a cultural historian and professor of history at the University of Nevada, Reno.

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