The Man Who Knew Almost Everything, The Nation

Eric Hobsbwam, Fractured Times: Culture and Society in the Twentieth Century. Little, Brown and Company. 213. Pp xv+319.

I first read Eric Hobsbawm as a doctoral student in Kolkata in the 1980s. I started with his books on popular protest, Primitive Rebels (1959) and Bandits (1969), before moving on to his trilogy on the ages, respectively, of revolution, capital, and empire. In October 2012, when Hobsbawm died, aged ninety-five, I happened to be in London. Curious to see how a historian of such enormous influence was remembered, I picked up every paper at the newstand next to my hotel. The Guardian had a large photograph of Hobsbawm on the front page, a fulsome full-page obituary (written by two former members of the Communist Party), and an editorial saying the death was ‘a shared national loss’. Another news report in the same paper carried the heartfelt homage of the Labour leader Ed Miliband (whose father, the Marxist political theorist Ralph Miliband, had been a friend of Hobsbawm’s). Hobsbawm was ‘an extraordinary historian … who brought history out of the ivory tower and into people’s lives’, Miliband the younger proclaimed.

The Guardian is, of course, the standard bearer of left-liberalism in Britain (and beyond). Meanwhile, the centrist Times and Independent both ran long and respectful obits. However, the conservative Daily Telegraph carried a skeptical signed piece by the distinguished anti-communist historian Michael Burleigh. Captioned ‘A believer in the Red utopia to the very end’, it overlooked Hobsbawm’s contributions to history from below, dismissed the synthetic global histories (such as the Age of Capital and Age of Empire) with faint praise (‘dazzles readers with the author’s apparent fluency as he zigzags from First to Third world contexts—unless you happen to be an expert on Cuba, Mexico or Venezuela’), and ended by saying that ‘Hobsbawm’s implacable refusal to recant his [Marxist] views when faced with their grotesque consequences tells us something about the belligerent mindset of the wider British Left’.

Clearly, even as the Guardian composed its editorial the national consensus was under stress, to break down completely when the Daily Mail’s assessment appeared. Headlined ‘He hated Britain and excused Stalin’s genocide. But was hero of the BBC and the Guardian, Eric Hobsbawm a TRAITOR too?’, this claimed that ‘Hobsbawm himself will sink without trace. His books will not be read in the future. They are little better than propaganda, and, in spite of the slavish language in the obituaries, are badly written.’

A year after his death, many of Hobsbawm’s books are still in the stores, still read by history buffs, still assigned in university courses. And new ones have begun appearing, composed of essays and lectures in scattered publications that have never before appeared between hardcovers. Just before he died, a collection of his writings on Marx and Marxism, entitled How to Change the World, was published. Now appears this posthumous collection, Fractured Times, dealing chiefly with culture and the arts. It is likely that more thematic anthologies will appear in the months and years ahead. Evidently, the hard-nosed capitalists at the helm of today’s global conglomerates think that the works (and words) of this Marxist can still make them some money.

And one can see why. To be sure, Hobsbawm was a lifelong member of the Communist Party of Great Britain, but since his historical works chiefly dealt with the 18th and 19th centuries his political allegiances did not really disfigure his scholarship. (It was only late in his career, when he came to write on the events of his own lifetime, that one could see the biases more clearly.) And as a historian qua historian he was without equal among his contemporaries.

In both disciplinary and geographical terms, Hobsbawm was an anti-chauvinist. He had paid his dues in the archives, but also read widely in sociology, anthropology, and philosophy. He had a keen interest in the arts, and a keener interest in music, being especially knowledgeable about jazz (about which he wrote a column for the New Statesman under the pseudonym ‘Francis Newton’). And while most other British historians concerned themselves exclusively with their home (or Home) country, Hobsbawm—born in Alexandria, raised in Vienna, a high school student in Berlin before fleeing Hitler for Britain—was fluent in French, German, Russian, Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese (and possibly Polish and Czech too). He was familiar with the intricate details of virtually every European nation—with their ethnic composition, the programmes of their political parties, their wars won and lost, their most renowned (or most notorious) artists and writers, et al. Furthermore, he had taught for long periods in the United States, and travelled a great deal in Latin America as well.

Hobsbawm’s best-known books focused on the material side of human life, or on what Marxists term the forces and relations of production—namely, technological trends, wealth creation, class formation, and class struggle. But on the evidence of Fractured Times, inside this materialist there was an aesthete waiting to come out. The collection constitutes a close, fascinated, and intensely observed history of the cultural 20th century, and a worthy complement to the economic, political and social histories that he had previously written.

The book begins with Hobsbawm recalling the imperial centre of the Vienna of his boyhood: dominated by a ring of great public buildings housing the stock exchange, the theatre, the university, the art and natural history museums, ‘and, of course, the heart of every self-respecting nineteenth century bourgeois city, the Grand Opera’. However, despite the occasional note of nostalgia, this is an excavation of, rather than a paean to, the era of European cultural hegemony that was eclipsed by the rise of a more generalized mass culture with an American inflection took over.

As a good internationalist (and perhaps as a good European too), Hobsbawm is sanguine about the prospects of resistance to wholesale Americanization. An essay entitled ‘A Century of Cultural Symbiosis?’ mentions a community of Indian weavers in Ecuador, whose youth wear jeans and Reebok shoes, while retaining their traditional hats and long plaits (as well as their language). Hobsbawm thinks—or hopes—that Ecuador is emblematic, that in remote places being rapidly exposed to the modern, globalized world, what we are witnessing is not a conquest of one culture or way of life by another but the emergence of ‘a heterogeneous world of cultural confusion, coexistence or even a world of syncretisms’. Even the West is now becoming more open, more willing to allow external cultural influences to proudly exhibit themselves. In the 1930s, when Jews dominated Hollywood as directors and producers, the films themselves had no sign of Jewish influence. More recently, however, the growth of an Italian community in the United States has produced ‘the genre of the glamorising Mafia film’. Likewise, from a culinary point of view, India has now conquered England, as immigrants from South Asia have found acceptance through their food (or at least a simplified, customized version of it), so that the most xenophobic Englishman has no problem consuming samosas and chicken tikkas, while the more broad-minded Englishman comes to see these dishes as part of his own ‘national’ cuisine.

Hobsbawm outlined this argument in a lecture in Vienna in 2000, where he also directed the attention of his former fellow townmen to the French, whose victory in the recent soccer World Cup had led to a surge in admiration for players of African origin. He told his audience that ‘the course of historical development leads in the direction of [the footballer Zinedine] Zidane and not in that of [the anti-immigrant Austrian politician] Jörg Haider’. This rosy view fell apart in 2005, with the race riots in Paris and the subsequent resurgence of the chauvinist National Front.

To be sure, Hobsbawm was not the first, nor shall he be the last, historian to definitively delineate trends that would soon go awry. But his language is noteworthy. Is there a clear, readily identifiable, course of historical development? Or is such language (and are such hopes) a residue of a progressivist Marxism that saw itself as a science, an activist science, confidently charting humanity’s future and willing the rest of us along to fulfil it? Hobsbawm’s historical apparatus was sensitive and supple—he knew his Weber as well as he knew his Marx, and although he never wrote a full-fledged biography, he could write of individuals with an empathetic understanding unusual for a Marxist. Yet human history for him had a certain logic, a clear direction. That chance and contingency played a massive role in determining the future of nations and cultures was not something he would easily acknowledge.

One of Hobsbawm’s more appealing prejudices is with regard to contemporary art. He insists that fine arts, and especially painting, have been killed off or at the very least perverted by the rise of the camera, the motion picture, and the mass market. Since their traditional preserve, pictorial representation, has been lost to them by the advent of photography, artists ‘have ideas, sometimes bad ones’, these leading to installations and videos ‘that are less interesting than the work of stage designers and advertising specialists’. Avant-garde art, he states pungently, is merely ‘a subdepartment of marketing’.

Hobsbawm knows almost everything about Europe, as well as a great deal about the Americas. His grasp of the East is less sure. This leads him to some rare errors of generalization, as when he claims that the poem was never intended ‘as a work for public performance’. It certainly was in South Asia, where Urdu poets declaimed to audiences of many thousands—likewise, Parsi poetry and Arabic poetry were meant, above all, to be read aloud. There are also errors of projection, as when, while lamenting the ‘narrowness of the core public for live [Western] classical music’, he hopes that wealthy Indians and Chinese shall fund its revival. I can’t speak for the Chinese, but the Indians have their own traditions of classical music, the Hindustani and the Carnatic, which this great Europeanist did not know of or perhaps didn’t consider to be proper art forms. Incidentally, while in New York audiences for performances of Mozart and Beethoven may be shrinking, in the city of Chennai (formerly Madras) there is an astonishing efflorescence under way, with the annual winter ‘season’—a month-long show, spread across many venues, with as many as a dozen performances daily—attended by tens of thousands of people, these being both local residents and non-resident Madrasis flocking home from all parts of India and the world.

If one central theme of the book—the fate of the cultural artefacts of high European civilization—is connected to Hobsbawm’s own upbringing in early 20th century Vienna, a second theme is linked to his ethnic origins. In his book-length works, Hobsbawm did not write of Jewish history per se. Included in Fractured Times, however, are two brilliant, late essays, which consider the astonishing contributions of Jews to science, literature, music and politics in the 19th and 20th centuries. In many of these fields (such as the sciences) the Jews had not previously made major contributions to global scholarship. Why now? The answer, argues the historian, lies ‘not [in] genetic association, but [in] lack of fixity, and therefore innovation’. As a result of emancipation, and their exposure to a world far wider (in all senses) than the ghetto, gifted young Jews were, he argues, for the first time in their history able to participate in the cultural and intellectual life of the nations of which they were previously an isolated, segregated, part. Now, liberated at last, they composed superb symphonies, starred as piano and violin soloists, wrote evocative plays and novels, invented new technologies and scientific theories, and led and staffed major political parties and movements.

Hobsbawm goes on to note that while Jews continue to enormously enrich world literature, art, music, and science, these contributions come disproportionately from Jews living in North America and Europe. Despite its large population of Jews, Israel had made ‘a relatively rather disappointing contribution’. And so this non-Jewish Jew concludes that ‘it would seem that living among and addressing the gentiles is a stimulus for the higher creative efforts, as it is for jokes, films and pop music. In this respect it is still much better to come from Brooklyn than Tel Aviv’.

A third theme of Fractured Times is connected to the author’s profession, that of the professional academic, who influences a classroom, colleagues, and perhaps the world at large by his or her research and writing. One essay laments the declining influence of intellectuals in the general culture. Movements for global justice for example, now turn to the singer Bono for endorsement and validation, whereas they might have once turned to the likes of Bertrand Russell.

Hobsbawm sketches portraits of two remarkable British scientists with whom he shared several things in common: allegiance to the same academic institution, a serious interest in disciplines other than their own, an internationalist vision (this both intellectual and personal, as in a love of travel overseas), and, not least, a shared enchantment with Marxism leading to a close affiliation with, and sometimes a blind loyalty to, the Communist Party of Great Britain (which was itself in a position of subservience to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union).

One of these scientists is J. D. Bernal, a senior colleague of Hobsbawm’s at Birkbeck College, London. Bernal did pioneering research in crytallography, and mentored several Nobel laureates. The second is Joseph Needham, like Hobsbawm a Cambridge man. Needham did excellent work in biochemistry, but is better known for his monumental histories of science in China. Notably, he admired Mao as much as Bernal admired Stalin. These two men were part of a wider circle of scientists who ‘tended to combine the imaginations of art and science with endless energy, free love, eccentricity and revolutionary politics’.

One wishes Hobsbawm had written an essay on the biologist J. B. S. Haldane as well. Haldane was a more influential scientist than either Bernal or Needham, and an equally political animal. He too was close to the Communists until, disgusted by Stalin’s promotion of the charlatan biologist T. D. Lysenko, who rejected Mendelian genetics, he broke decisively with the Party. Shortly afterwards he moved to Calcutta, took up Indian citizenship, and became a keen student of the life and legacy of Mahatma Gandhi. In his last years Haldane tried heroically to synthesize his inherited Darwinism with his acquired Gandhism. ‘India has made many contributions to world culture’, he remarked: ‘Perhaps the greatest is the ideal of non-violence. Europe’s greatest contribution is the scientific method. If these can be married, their offspring may raise mankind to a new level.’

It may be that Haldane does not appeal to Hobsbawm because he repudiated Marxism. Bernal and Needham, on the other hand, had some reservations, were occasionally ambivalent, but on the whole went along with the Party line. Hobsbawm enters a special plea on behalf of his Birkbeck colleague, saying that there has ‘never been any evidence or any serious suggestion of relations with the Soviet intelligence services’. Of Bernal’s senseless endorsement of the bogus biological theories of Lysenko, his loyal friend claims that in doing so, ‘possibly he was moved by concerns about world peace and the hope of influencing developments within the Soviet Union.’

Even so, Hobsbawm is constrained to admit that Bernal’s ‘total public identification with Stalinism did him serious harm’. Hobsbawm’s own identification did him less harm, because it was largely private, and because as a historian he largely worked on the 19th century, writing thus of themes and controversies in which Lenin and Stalin and their Party played no part. (When he came closer to our own time his interpretations were more problematic, as in his analyis of collectivization in his late work Age of Extremes, which more or less runs along the lines that one cannot make an omelette before breaking eggs.)

A close reading of Fractured Times reveals Hobsbawm simultaneously affirming and partially distancing himself from his political beliefs. He tells us—on the first page of the book’s first chapter—that his ‘intellectual life’ began at the age of fifteen, when as a schoolboy in Berlin he read Marx and Engel’s Communist Manifesto, which, on that and subsequent readings, impressed him both for its ‘wonderful, irresistible style’ and ‘its soaring analytical vision of world change’. On the next page, he deplores the replacement of ‘manifestoes’—once so ubiquitously offered by social movements, political parties and groups of artists alike— by the ‘mission statement’, that ‘appalling invention’ of the late 20th century, a product of business society and its hordes of MBA, and composed always and invariably of ‘badly written platitudes’.

From these statements one may conclude that Hobsbawm’s Communism is both unreconstructed and unrepentant (we may note also that he maintained his membership of the CPGB until the party dissolved itself in 1991). A later essay, however, refers in passing to the ‘twilight years of the Soviet Empire’, and, a few pages later, to ‘the grim times of Josef Stalin’. In another essay we read of how Soviet Communism ‘claimed to be democratic in theory and nomenclature, but was in practice an unlimited dictatorship’.

This spare, direct, accurate description was written in the year 2007. But surely, to a person as smart and knowledgeable as Hobsbawm, this should have been clear in 1957 (after the Soviet invasion of Hungary) if not 1937 (when the facts about the Gulag and the purges were becoming widely known). Why did it take him so long to see this? Why did he stick so stubbornly to the Party, even when his closest colleagues and friends in the historical profession (such as E. P. Thompson and John Saville) had left it? It was only well after the break up of the Soviet Union that Hobsbawm ever wrote anything remotely critical of Stalin and Stalinism.

Still, one can—must—be unforgiving of Hobsbawm’s blinkered politics while saluting his magnificent scholarship. Even this late work, composed chiefly of lectures and occasional essays, brims over with stimulating insights and analyses. Consider these three statements, from among the many small and large pieces of knowledge that I gleaned from Fractured Times:

* The best known cultural festivals of today are held not in New York or London, Berlin or Paris—the great centres of Western economic and political power—but in smaller towns and villages, such as Hay-on-Wye in Britain, Mantua in Italy, and Segovia in Spain.

* Among the most active suffragettes in the early 20th century were upper-class Englishwomen. As many as three duchesses, three marchionesses, and sixteen countesses served as office-bearers of the Conservative and Unionist Suffrage Association.

* In the year 1965, the French fashion industry, for the first time, produced more trousers than skirts.

This attention to historical detail is matched with a penetrating comparative sociology. In an essay (appropriately the last in the book) on the myth of the American cowboy as represented in novels and films, Hobsbawm remarks that the lone man riding on a horse into the sunset represents ‘the ideal of individualist freedom’ (sometimes shading into ‘anti-immigrant racism’). This is unexceptionable, and perhaps also commonplace. Then, in a contrast that may not so easily (if at all) appeal to the American historian, Hobsbawm notes that the nation to the north also has its horseman-hero, who is however seen not as a self-willed individualist but as a loyal member of a public institution. Such is the member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the ‘Mountie’, who—on his horse— symbolizes ‘the myth of the imposition of government and public order’ rather than (as with the cowboy) the ‘myth of a Hobbesian state of nature mitigated only by individual and collective self-help’.

Hobsbawm’s comparativism also informs an essay on the increasing role of religion in politics worldwide, which he links to the declining influence of elites in the public sphere. The educated men (and they were all men) who ran governments, labour unions and political parties in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were largely secularised individuals. However, with the coming of universal suffrage, groups prone to religosity and faith—such as women, peasants and the unorganized poor——came to play an ever increasing role in mass politics.

Hobsbawm considers, and then contrasts, two major two right-wing movements—those of Wahabist Islam and Evangelical Christianity respectively. This socialist cosmopolitan has little enthusiasm for either, but the historical sociologist is yet compelled to point to one critical difference between them. Radical Islam is both reactionary and authoritarian. It erases local cults and mystical traditions, imposing a single standardized version of the faith on all believers. On the other hand, evangelical groups like the Pentecostals—sweeping all before them in Latin America¬—foreground ecstatic rituals such as tongues and divine healing. They are conservative and communitarian, rooting themselves in specific local contexts and hence appealing greatly to erstwhile Catholics taught to take their orders from a distant Pope.

At a first reading, this seems convincing. Then some questions began to surface. So, one asks, while the account appears true of Latin American evangelicalism, is the North American variant so free of totalizing and imperialist tendencies? Did it not influence George W. Bush’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? And, speaking of Latin America itself, what impact might the selection of an Argentinian Pope have on bringing lapsed Catholics back into the fold?

That these questions come to mind are proof perhaps of the originality of Hobsbawm’s mind and scholarship. Workmanlike historians merely educate their readers. The really skilled ones stimulate and provoke them as well. His (at times shame-faced) loyalty to Soviet Russia notwithstanding, Eric Hobsbawm’s work may have been more consequential—for both scholar and lay reader—than that of any historian since Marc Bloch, incidentally also a Jew who lived among and addressed gentiles.

Ramachandra Guha’s books include India after Gandhi and Environmentalism: A Global History. His biography of Gandhi is forthcoming from Knopf in 2014. He lives in Bangalore.

by Ramachandra Guha
(published in The Nation, c. November 2013)

Tags: ,