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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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