Tag Archives: Eric Hobsbawm

Turning the Ship of Ideas in a Different Direction

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Tony Judt, When the Facts Change,

Essays 1995-2010 , edited by Jennifer Homans

      In a 2013 review of Rethinking the 20th Century, I explained how the late Tony Judt became my “main man.” He was an expert in the very areas of my greatest, albeit amateurish, interest: French and European 20th century history and political theory; what to make of Communism, Nazism and Fascism; and, later in his career, the contributions of Central and Eastern European thinkers to our understanding of Europe and what he often termed the “murderous” 20th century. Moreover, Judt was a contemporary, born in Great Britain in 1948, the son of Jewish refugees. Raised in South London and educated at Kings College, Cambridge, Judt spent time as a recently-minted Cambridge graduate at Paris’ fabled Ecole Normale Supérieure; he lived on a kibbutz in Israel and contributed to the cause in the 1967 Six Day War; and had what he termed a mid-life crisis, which he spent in Prague, learning the Czech language and absorbing the rich Czech intellectual and cultural heritage.  Judt also had several teaching stints in the United States and became an American citizen. In 1995, he founded the Remarque Institute at New York University, where he remained until he died in 2010, age 62, of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, ALS, which Americans know as “Lou Gehrig’s Disease.”

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      Rethinking the 20th Century was more of an informal conversation with Yale historian Timothy Snyder than a book written by Judt. Judt’s best-known work was a magisterial history of post-World War II Europe, entitled simply Post War. His other published writings included incisive studies of obscure left-wing French political theorists and the “public intellectuals” who animated France’s always lively 20th century debate about the role of the individual and the state (key subjects of Sudhir Hazareesingh’s How the French Think: An Affectionate Portrait of an Intellectual People, reviewed here in June).  Among French public intellectuals, Judt reserved particular affection for Albert Camus and particular scorn for Jean-Paul Sartre.  While at the Remarque Institute, Judt became himself the epitome of a public intellectual, gaining much attention outside academic circles for his commentaries on contemporary events.  Judt’s contributions to public debate are on full display in When the Facts Change, Essays 1995-2010, a collection of 28 essays edited by Judt’s wife Jennifer Homans, former dance critic for The New Republic.

      The collection includes book reviews and articles originally published elsewhere, especially in The New York Review of Books, along with a single previously unpublished entry. The title refers to a quotation which Homans considers likely apocryphal, attributed to John Maynard Keynes: “when the facts change, I change my mind – what do you do, sir” (p.4). In Judt’s case, the major changes of mind occurred early in his professional life, when he repudiated his youthful infatuation with Marxism and Zionism. But throughout his adult life and especially in his last fifteen years, Homans indicates, as facts changed and events unfolded, Judt “found himself turned increasingly and unhappily against the current, fighting with all of his intellectual might to turn the ship of ideas, however slightly, in a different direction” (p.1).  While wide-ranging in subject-matter, the collection’s entries bring into particularly sharp focus Judt’s outspoken opposition to the 2003 American invasion of Iraq, his harsh criticism of Israeli policies toward its Palestinian population, and his often-eloquent support for European continental social democracy.

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      The first essay in the collection, a 1995 review of Eric Hobsbawm’s The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914-1991, should be of special interest to tomsbooks readers. Last fall, I reviewed Fractured Times: Culture and Society in the Twentieth Century, a collection of Hobsbawm’s essays.  Judt noted that Hobsbawm had “irrevocably shaped” all who took up the study of history between 1959 and 1975 — what Judt termed the “Hobsbawm generation” of historians (p.13). But Judt contended that Hobsbawm’s relationship to the Soviet Union — he was a lifelong member of Britain’s Communist Party – clouded his analysis of 20th century Europe. The “desire to find at least some residual meaning in the whole Communist experience” explains what Judt found to be a “rather flat quality to Hobsbawm’s account of the Stalinist terror” (p.26). That the Soviet Union “purported to stand for a good cause, indeed the only worthwhile cause,” Judt concluded, is what “mitigated its crimes for many in Hobsbawm’s generation.” Others – likely speaking for himself — “might say it just made them worse” (p.26-27).

      In the first decade of the 21st century, Judt became known as an early and fervently outspoken critic of the 2003 American intervention in Iraq.  Judt wrote in the New York Review of Books in May 2003, two months after the U.S.-led invasion, that President Bush and his advisers had “[u]nbelievably” managed to “make America seem the greatest threat to international stability.” A mere eighteen months after September 11, 2001:

the United States may have gambled away the confidence of the world. By staking a monopoly claim on Western values and their defense, the United States has prompted other Westerners to reflect on what divides them from America. By enthusiastically asserting its right to reconfigure the Muslim world, Washington has reminded Europeans in particular of the growing Muslim presence in their own cultures and its political implications. In short, the United States has given a lot of people occasion to rethink their relationship with it” (p.231).

Using Madeline Albright’s formulation, Judt asked whether the world’s “indispensable nation” had miscalculated and overreached. “Almost certainly” was his response to his question, to which he added: “When the earthquake abates, the tectonic plates of international politics will have shifted forever” (p.232). Thirteen years later, in the age of ISIS, Iranian ascendancy and interminable civil wars in Iraq and Syria, Judt’s May 2003 prognostication strikes me as frightfully accurate.

      Judt’s essays dealing with the state of Israel and the seemingly intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict generated rage, drawing in particular the wrath of pro-Israeli American lobbying groups. Judt, who contributed to Israeli’s war effort in the 1967 Six Day War as a driver and translator for the Iraqi military, came to consider the state of Israel an anachronism. The idea of a Jewish state, in which “Jews and the Jewish religion have exclusive privileges from which non-Jewish citizens are forever excluded,” he wrote in 2003, is “rooted in another time and place” (p.116). Although “multi-cultural in all but name,” Israel was “distinctive among democratic states in its resort to ethno-religious criteria with which to denominate and rank its citizens” (p.121).

      Judt noted in 2009 that the Israel of Benjamin Netanyahu was “certainly less hypocritical than that of the old Labor governments. Unlike most of its predecessors reaching back to 1967, it does not even pretend to seek reconciliation with the Arabs over which it rules” (p. 157-58). Israel’s “abusive treatment of the Palestinians,” he warned, is the “chief proximate cause of the resurgence of anti-Semitism worldwide. It is the single most effective recruiting agent for radical Islamic movements” (p.167). Vilified for these contentions, Judt repeatedly pleaded for recognition of what should be, but unfortunately is not, the self-evident proposition that one can criticize Israeli policies without being anti-Semitic or even anti-Israel.

      Judt was arguably the most influential American proponent of European social democracy, the form of governance that flourished in Western Europe between roughly 1950 and 1980 and became the model for Eastern European states emerging from communism after 1989, with a strong social safety net, free but heavily regulated markets, and strong respect for individual liberties and the rule of law. Judt characterized social democracy as the “prose of contemporary European politics” (p.331). With the fall of communism and the demise of an authoritarian Left, the emphasis upon democracy had become “largely redundant,” Judt contended. “We are all democrats today. But ‘social’ still means something – arguably more now than some decades back when a role for the public sector was uncontentiously conceded by all sides” (p.332). Judt saw social democracy as the counterpoint to what he termed “neo-liberalism” or globalization, characterized by the rise of income inequality, the cult of privatization, and the tendency – most pronounced in the Anglo-American world – to regard unfettered free markets as the key to widespread prosperity.

      Judt asked 21st century policy makers to take what he termed a “second glance” at how “our twentieth century predecessors responded to the political challenge of economic uncertainty” (p.315). In a 2007 review of Robert Reich’s Supercapitalism: The Transformation of Business, Democracy, and Everyday Life, Judt argued that the universal provision of social services and some restriction upon inequalities of income and wealth are “important economic variables in themselves, furnishing the necessary public cohesion and political confidence for a sustained prosperity – and that only the state has the resources and the authority to provide those services and enforce those restrictions in our collective name” (p.315).  A second glance would also reveal that a healthy democracy, “far from being threatened by the regulatory state, actually depends upon it: that in a world increasingly polarized between insecure individuals and unregulated global forces, the legitimate authority of the democratic state may be the best kind of intermediate institution we can devise” (p.315-16).

      Judt’s review of Reich’s book anticipated the anxieties that one sees in both Europe and America today. Fear of the type last seen in the 1920s and 1930s had remerged as an “active ingredient of political life in Western democracies” (p.314), Judt observed one year prior to the economic downturn of 2008.  Indeed, one can be forgiven for thinking that Judt had the convulsive phenomena of Brexit in Britain and Donald Trump in the United States in mind when he emphasized how fear had woven itself into the fabric of modern political life:

Fear of terrorism, of course, but also, and perhaps more insidiously, fear of uncontrollable speed of change, fear of the loss of employment, fear of losing ground to others in an increasingly unequal distribution of resources, fear of losing control of the circumstances and routines of one’s daily life.  And perhaps above all, fear that it is not just we who can no longer shape our lives but that those in authority have lost control as well, to forces beyond their reach.. . This is already happening in many countries: note the arising attraction of protectionism in American politics, the appeal of ‘anti-immigrant parties across Western Europe, the calls for ‘walls,’ ‘barriers,’ and ‘tests’ everywhere (p.314).

       Judt buttressed his case for social democracy with a tribute to the railroad as a symbol of 19th and 20th century modernity and social cohesion.  In essays that were intended to be part of a separate book, Judt contended that the railways “were and remain the necessary and natural accompaniment to the emergence of civil society. They are a collective project for individual benefit. They cannot exist without common accord . . . and by design they offer a practical benefit to individual and collectivity alike” (p.301). Although we “no longer see the modern world through the image of the train,” we nonetheless “continue to live in the world the trains made.”  The post-railway world of cars and planes, “turns out, like so much else about the decades 1950-1990, to have been a parenthesis: driven, in this case, by the illusion of perennially cheap fuel and the attendant cult of privatization. . . What was, for a while, old-fashioned has once again become very modern” (p.299).

      In a November 2001 essay appearing in The New York Review of Books, Judt offered a novel interpretation of Camus’ The Plague as an allegory for France in the aftermath of German occupation, a “firebell in the night of complacency and forgetting” (p.181).  Camus used The Plague to counter the “smug myth of heroism that had grown up in postwar France” (p.178), Judt argued.  The collection concludes with three Judt elegies to thinkers he revered, François Furet, Amos Elon, and Lesek Kołakowski, a French historian, an Israeli writer and a Polish communist dissident, representing key points along Judt’s own intellectual journey.

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      The 28 essays which Homans has artfully pieced together showcase Judt’s prowess as an interpreter and advocate – as a public intellectual — informed by his wide-ranging academic and scholarly work.  They convey little of Judt’s personal side.  Readers seeking to know more about Judt the man may look to his The Memory Chalet, a memoir posthumously published in 2010. In this collection, they will find an opportunity to savor Judt’s incisive if often acerbic brilliance and appreciate how he brought his prodigious learning to bear upon key issues of his time.

Thomas H. Peebles
La Châtaigneraie, France
July 6, 2016

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Filed under American Politics, European History, France, French History, History, Intellectual History, Politics, Uncategorized, United States History, World History

Late-Life Macro Reflections

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Eric Hobsbawn, Fractured Times:
Culture and Society in the Twentieth Century 

      Eric Hobsbawm was one of Britain’s most renowned historians of 19th and 20th century Europe, writing prolifically up to his death in 2012 at the age of 95.  Born into a secular Jewish family in 1917 and raised until age 16 primarily in Vienna, Austria, Hobsbawm migrated to Britain in 1933 and went on to teach for many years at Birkbeck College, University of London. His best known works include a trilogy on what he termed Europe’s “long 19th century,” from the French Revolution in 1789 to the outbreak of World War I in 1914: The Age of Revolution, 1789-1848; The Age of Capital, 1848-1875; and The Age of Empire, 1875-1914. Late in his career, he produced a magisterial work on Europe’s “short 20th century,” The Age of Extremes, a study of Europe from 1914 to the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. He also wrote a regular column on jazz for several years for The New Statesman.

       Fractured Times: Culture and Society in the Twentieth Century is a posthumously published collection of 22 Hobsbawm lectures, essays, book reviews, and articles, each a separate chapter. Several lectures were delivered originally in German at the annual Salzburg Festival, and are translated into English for the first time. Some of the essays have not previously been published. With the exception of one article dating from 1964, the republications originally appeared between 1993 and Hobsbawn’s death in 2012. This collection therefore constitutes late-in-life macro reflections on broad currents in European  history that lurk behind Hobsbawm’s many scholarly volumes.

      Hobsbawm ranges widely in the book’s 22 chapters, discussing culture, art, science, religion, and intellectuals, among other topics. His final chapter is on the American cowboy in the European imagination. But throughout, he is particularly interested in exploring European bourgeois culture in the decades prior to World War I; the emergence after World War II of what he terms “neo-liberalism,” often called “globalism,” the tendencies of modern capitalism associated with freer and increasingly inter-dependent markets; and the acceleration of these tendencies after the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991.

      Hobsbawm’s relationship to the Soviet Union represented to some a taint on his otherwise impeccable and abundant scholarship. Like many of his academic colleagues, Hobsbawm approached history from a Marxist perspective (another example is Issac Deutscher, the subject of David Caute’s Issac and Isaiah, reviewed here in December 2014). But Hobsbawm remained a member of Britain’s Communist Party, closely linked to Moscow during the Cold War, long after most of his colleagues and others initially attracted to the Soviet Union tried to put some distance between themselves and the Soviet regime. Hobsbawm criticized the Soviet invasions of Hungary in 1956 and of Czechoslovakia in 1968, yet did not quit the party.

     In one work here, Hobsbawm indicates that the Soviet Union “claimed to be democratic in theory and nomenclature, but was in practice an unlimited dictatorship” (p.231). But in a collection on late 19th and 20th century Europe, there is surprisingly little discussion of the Soviet Union and its domination of nearly half of the continent for some four and a half decades. Indeed, try as I might, I was unable to find much of anything in the arguments and interpretations in this volume that struck me as distinctly Marxist. Although Hobsbawm focuses on some features of class division in Europe and the phases of capitalism, these are hardly the exclusive province of the Marxist historian.

      One editorial weakness in this collection is that the origin of each work is provided only in a list at the end, between the footnotes and the index, which I missed while reading the entries in the collection. It would be helpful to know, for instance, that a chapter was originally a Salzburg lecture, a book review or a previously unpublished essay, and to have a date associated with each chapter. If there is a second edition of this collection, the editors should provide the origin of each entry with the entry itself.

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      Many of the works here explore what Hobsbawm terms Europe’s “bourgeois society” during the final years of the “long nineteenth century,” roughly coinciding with Hobsbawm’s “Age of Empire,” 1875 to 1914 — for Hobsbawm the “silver age or ‘belle époque’ of the European bourgeoisie” (p.129). In these years, decades, there was “little doubt in educated secular Western minds” that European civilization was “inevitability moving forward to a better future, faster or slower, whether continuously or discontinuously. Its reality could not be denied even by those who worried about its problematic consequences” (p.176). But World War I extinguished the secular faith in a better future. As he writes in his preface, Hobsbawm intends this collection to inform readers about “what happened to the art and culture of bourgeois society after that society had vanished with the generation after 1914, never to return” (p.ix).

    Drawing heavily upon examples of bourgeois art and culture from his personal background in Vienna, Hobsbawm focuses particularly incisive chapters on the centrality of the German language prior to World War I throughout “Mitteleuropa,” German for central Europe, and on the emancipation of central European Jewry and women. Of all the “emancipatory languages,” he writes, German was “by far the most crucial” because of its geographic sweep across “almost half of Europe, from Berlin as far as the depths of Greater Russia, from Scandinavia to the Adriatic, and into the remotest Balkans” (p.68). The German language paved the road “from backwardness to progress, from provincialism to the wider world . . . We tend to forget that this was once so. German was the gateway to modernity” (p.68).

       German was in particular the key to emancipation for Mittleuropa Jewry in the late 19th century in Poland, Hungary, and throughout most of the Hapsburg Empire. “To speak, read and write the same language as educated non-Jews was the precondition of joining modern civilization, and the most immediate means of desegregation,” Hobsbawm contends. However, the “passion of emancipated Jews for the national languages and cultures of their gentile countries was all the more intense, because in some any cases they were not joining, as it were, established clubs but clubs of which the could see themselves almost as founder members” (p.67). The difference between the Jews of Germany and emancipated Jews from the rest of the German culture zone was that the latter were “pluralicultural, if not plurilingual.” They “carried, perhaps even built, the German language in the remoter outposts of the Hapsburg Empire, since, as the largest constituents of the educated middle-class in those parts, they were the people who actually used standard literary German instead of the dialects spoken by the emigrant German diasporas of the East” (p.80).

      Bourgeois culture also made women’s emancipation possible. By the end of the 19th century, “high culture” — by which Hobsbawm means primarily art, architecture, classical music and dance — had become “more central to the bourgeoisie as a whole . . . largely through the emergence in the period after 1870, of a stratum of youth as a distinct and recognized entity in bourgeois public life.” Young women were “undoubtedly” included in this stratum on “far more equal terms than before” (p.111). Women of all ages emerged during this period, as “independent patrons of culture” (p.107). Hobsbawm cites the 1908 Anglo-French Exposition in London as significant for including a special “Palace of Women’s Work.” This portion of the exposition “celebrated women not as being but as doers, not as functional cogs in the machinery of family and society but as individual achievers” (p.97).

      “Thank goodness,” Hobsbawm exclaims in one of his Salzburg lectures, the “classical Western cultural tradition is still valued” outside Europe as a “sign of modernization” (p.41). The Marxist Hobsbawm’s reverence throughout this collection for bourgeois culture and his nostalgia for that culture during the “‘belle époque’ of the European bourgeoisie” is striking. If the bourgeoisie was the exploiter and enemy of the working classes and the lumpenproletariat, as standard Marxism would have it, none of that surfaces in this volume.

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      After the calamity of World War I, “only three pillars, reinforcing one another, still held up the temple of progress: the forward march of science; a confident, rationalized American capitalism; and, for ravaged Europe and what later came to be called the ‘Third World,’ the hope of what the Russian Revolution might bring: Einstein, Lenin, and Henry Ford” (p.176-77). Lenin might have seemed like a viable alternative to Henry Ford as a model for social and technological progress in some circles into the 1930s. But by the end of World War II, the Leninist model was a crumbling pillar, removed entirely with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. By that time, “rationalized American capitalism” had given rise to Hobsbawm’s other primary preoccupation in these pages, “neo-liberalism” — the assimilation of the world into a “single predominant pattern, in practice a Western or, more precisely, an American one” (p.26). Neo-liberalism, the natural outgrowth and next step in the development of industrial capitalism, has destroyed the remaining vestiges of classic bourgeois culture, Hobsbawm argues.

      The “logic of both capitalist development and bourgeois civilization itself were bound to destroy its foundation,” Hobsbawm argues in his preface (p.xiii).  The object of “neoliberal globalization” is “precisely to reduce the size, scope and public interventions of the state” and in this has been at least “partly successful” (p.198-99). Today’s capitalist societies in North America and Western Europe must therefore coexist in “uncomfortable instability” with the “independent force of an increasingly globalized and rapidly growing capitalist economy,” which may be a “more powerful engine of politico-ideological socialization and . . . homogenization” than the traditional nation-state (p.151).

     As it undermines the nation-state, neo-liberal capitalism has produced what Hobsbawm describes as a “world of consumer civilization, in which the (preferably immediate) fulfillment of all human wishes is supposed to determine the structure of life” (p.18). It has “knocked down” the “wall between culture and life, between reverence and consumption, between work and leisure, between body and spirit” (p. 19). The neo-liberal era of the early 21st century has thus “lost its bearing,” he writes despondently in his preface, with no guides or maps to lead it to an “unrecognizable future” (p.ix).

      Condemnation of the deleterious consequences of neo-liberalism — or globalism — may be found on both the political left and the political right. Those on the left in North America and Europe tend to emphasize the growing income disparity, wage stagnation, job losses and diminution of social welfare benefits which globalism seems to entail for working families. Those on the right, especially the traditional European right, are more inclined to focus on the blurring of national boundaries, the breakdown of traditional values — often religious values — and the spiritual poverty and homogenization which consumption-oriented neo-liberalsm purportedly encourages. Again, it is striking that the Marxist Hobsbawm’s critique of neo-liberalism sounds more like that of the traditional European right, focused on the cultural rather than economic consequences of neo-liberalism.

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     Unlike fellow Marxist historian Issac Deutscher, who died at age 60, Hobsbawm enjoyed a long life, in which he was productive to the end.  This remarkable collection is one result of Hobsbawm’s longevity.  The absence of a distinctly Marxist perspective to the collection may be a disappointment to some readers and a relief to others.  But all should find endearing Hobsbawm’s sometimes provocative, always erudite reflections on the vicissitudes  of European history and culture.

Thomas H. Peebles
La Châtaigneraie, France
October 18, 2015

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Filed under European History, History, Political Theory