A great historian's last essays illuminate an era of social and artistic change, writes Roger Morgan.
Fractured Times: Culture and Society in the 20th Century
By Eric Hobsbawm
336pp, Pounds 25.00
ISBN 9781408704288 and 9781405519748 (e-book)
Published 25 March 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 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". …