The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 16 No. 3 (Fall 2014)

Bye-Bye, Bourgeoisie

Fractured Times: Culture and Society in the Twentieth Century

Eric Hobsbawm

New York: The New Press, 2013.

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 16.3 (Fall 2014). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Fall 2014

(Volume 16 | Issue 3)

A young man who isn’t a socialist hasn’t got a heart; an old man who is a socialist hasn't got a head.” That maxim, attributed variously to Winston Churchill and Georges Clemenceau, has few better tests of its truth than the intellectual career of the late historian Eric Hobsbawm (1917–2012). Born in Alexandria, Egypt, the son of an English father and Viennese mother, Hobsbawm lived most of his childhood in Vienna and Berlin, shaped by the Mitteleuropean culture of his Jewish family. A convert to communism in 1931, he became a party member just as Hitler rose to power and just before the family that had adopted him and his sister moved to England. Educated at Cambridge University, Hobsbawm remained a true believer through events that disillusioned many other fellow travelers: the Hitler-Stalin pact, the Ukrainian Holodomor (forced famine), and the Soviet invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia, to name but a few. Even during the last decades of the twentieth century, as his communism gradually modulated into something less doctrinaire, he continued to see the world through a Marxist lens. The dynamics of class and class struggle figured centrally in many of his some thirty books, perhaps most notably in his masterful trilogy on the “long century” from the French Revolution through the outbreak of World War I.

For his wide erudition and formidable powers of synthesis, Hobsbawm earned praise even from conservative historians. But his political commitments, and the evasions and elisions that resulted from them, troubled many of his admirers, including some on the left. What to make of the man and his work? Many of them previously unpublished, the twenty-two essays, articles, reviews and lectures collected in Fractured Times do not make the Hobsbawm question any easier to answer. Their unifying concern is bourgeois high culture in its twilight hour—a complex and refined tradition of art, thought, sensibility, and conviction whose shards survive in music festivals, publicly supported symphony orchestras, subsidized (at least in France) cinema, countless architectural gems, a vast (if increasingly unread) body of literature, a dwindling cohort of critical intellectuals, and, what was perhaps most important to Hobsbawm, an aspiration to class self-transcendence. This last element is mostly hinted at throughout the collection; yet what Hobsbawm says explicitly of art nouveau and related fin-de-siècle avant-gardes holds more broadly for his evaluation of the deeper project of bourgeois culture:

I am suggesting that it was very much the style of a certain moment in the evolution of the European middle classes. But it was not designed for them. On the contrary, it belonged to an avant-garde that was anti-bourgeois and even anti-capitalist in its origins, as was the sympathy of its practitioners. Indeed, if this avant-garde had any socio-political affinity, it was for the new, mainly socialist, labour movements that suddenly sprang up in the 1880s and early 1890s.

Hobsbawm followed architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner in claiming that William Morris and the English arts and crafts movement would inspire the dream of early twentieth-century modernism: “architecture as the construction of social utopia,” whose garden cities and suburban villages (such as London’s Hampstead) were intended to be communities “where the middle classes and the poor lived together in beauty and comfort.”

That such grand hopes, and not just in the realm of architecture and town planning, would go either unfulfilled or astray (Hampstead Heath becoming a “one-class settlement for prosperous professionals”) was the consequence of those deeper material forces of economy and technology reshaping not just bourgeois Europe and America but the entire, increasingly globalized world. Changing society, as Hobsbawm put it in another essay, “is more than schools of art and design alone can achieve.”

One clear consequence of the gradual worldwide triumph of commercialized mass culture has been the fracturing of old bourgeois culture into those remnants now receiving various degrees of life support. That culture could not compete with the revolution brought about by what Hobsbawm called the “combined logic of technology and the mass market, that is to say the democratization of aesthetic consumption,” achieved “chiefly, of course, by the cinema, child of photography and the central art of the twentieth century.” Losing to the new forms that were being accepted by the masses “because they had to communicate with them,” the avant-gardes that came after the 1960s “were no longer in the business of revolutionizing art, but of declaring its bankruptcy.” Yet unlike the Dadaists and other earlier mockers of art, the makers of pop and conceptualism were not interested in destroying or changing the world because they “accepted, even liked it.” About one who epitomized this new attitude, Hobsbawm wrote:

Warhol’s significance—I might even say the greatness of his strange and disagreeable figure—lies in the consistency of his refusal to do anything but make himself the passive, accepting conduit for the world experienced through media saturation. Nothing is shaped. There are no winks and nudges, no ironies, no sentimentality, no ostensible commentary at all, except by implication in the choice of his mechanically repeated icons—Mao, Marilyn, Campbell’s Soup tins—and perhaps in his deep preoccupation with death.

If the tone of these essays is predominantly elegiac, it can also be celebratory. One instance is Hobsbawm’s deft, affectionate portrait of the Viennese literary genius Karl Kraus, whose satirical periodical Die Fackel was required reading in early twentieth-century Austria and Germany, even among those whom he so viciously satirized. A devastating critic of journalism, Kraus considered its abuses of language, from its jingoistic phrases to its commercial jargon, a key contributor to the corruption of values it daily chronicled. Up to the moment of Hitler’s ascendancy, which drove Kraus into stony silence, “he found words for the unsayable,” Hobsbawm wrote, “at a time when it had not quite become unsayable.”

Nowhere did Hobsbawm weave elegy with celebration more closely than in his essay “Mitteleuropean Destinies,” which both defines the region (that part of central Europe largely coextensive with the old Habsburg Empire) and evokes the pathos of its high culture—German in language and literature, strongly Jewish in the demographic makeup of its educated elite, fecund in its output. While nationalists chafed under Habsburg rule during its last decades, many who had longed for their own states before 1918 looked back on the dissolved empire with regret. Indeed, Hobsbawm wrote, “it is probably the only empire that is recalled with nostalgia in all its former territories.”

It is hard not to see Hobsbawm himself, for all his brilliance and despite what should have been the advantages of hindsight, as one of the last of the Austrian socialists, dreaming of a kinder, gentler version of the late but once largely peaceable empire: this one uniting not just diverse peoples and nations but all classes under an enlightened leadership dedicated to building—at any cost—a “truly existing socialism.”

Jay Tolson is editor of The Hedgehog Review.

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