The Bourgeois Eric Hobsbawm

August 26, 2014 Topic: HistorySociety Region: United Kingdom Tags: Communism

The Bourgeois Eric Hobsbawm

The famed Communist historian had distinctly non-Marxist views of high culture.


IN NONE OF these essays does Hobsbawm let drop even a hint of contempt for the bourgeois settings in which the cultural developments in question took place. Unlike, say, Karl Marx, he does not poke beneath the surface of Enlightenment philosophy in search of a rancidly selfish “bourgeois ideology.” And unlike the cultural radicals of the sixties, he does not reject high culture as the suffocating exhalations of a dead, white, male Establishment. Quite the contrary. He speaks of the Enlightenment with pure admiration, and at the end of the book laments the retreat of its values, “faced with the anti-universal powers of ‘blood and soil’ and the radical-reactionary tendencies developing in all world religions.”

The chapters that deal with twentieth-century culture feel very similar in tone. Indeed, while Hobsbawm has characteristically smart things to say along the way, these essays also voice exasperation with cultural experimentation that sometimes verges on the curmudgeonly. Hobsbawm regrets the fact that so little contemporary classical music and opera reaches popular audiences, leaving performers to live on dead repertoires. “Overwhelmingly, operatic production . . . consists of attempts to freshen up eminent graves by putting different sets of flowers on them.” Contemporary sculpture, he says, has a “miserable existence,” while the break with pictorial representation a hundred years ago put avant-garde painting “on the way to nowhere.” Indeed, Hobsbawm speaks of the “historic failure” of pictorial art in the twentieth century. As for philosophy, he writes, a little cringe-inducingly, that its practitioners can no longer compete with “Bono or Eno,” or the “universal noise of Facebook.” An essay simply titled “The Avant-Garde Fails,” originally published in 1998, states, “Disney’s animations, however inferior to the austere beauty of Mondrian, were both more revolutionary than oil-painting, and better at passing on their message.”

These assessments may be defensible, but Hobsbawm, at least here, doesn’t really try to defend them. Rather, he simply pronounces, and therefore sounds too much like an indignant middle-aged museumgoer circa 1950 expostulating about the dots and drips of abstract expressionism. At least he does not try to assign blame for the “failures,” and makes sensible if unoriginal points about the way the invention of mechanical reproduction changed representational art. As early as 1850, he notes, critics were warning of the threat posed by photography to lithography and portraiture. But he leaves readers with the strong sense that he would have felt much more comfortable in the long-vanished cultural world of German-speaking Central Europe.


THESE EX cathedra judgments will hardly surprise longtime readers of Hobsbawm. One collection of his lectures bore the title Behind the Times: The Decline and Fall of the Twentieth-Century Avant Gardes. Much of what he says in Fractured Times he also said there, and in his autobiography. His four-part world history brims with sharp, confident pronouncements on all manner of artistic and literary endeavors. But this new collection underlines Hobsbawm’s belief in the essential autonomy of these endeavors. Politics and economics, in his view, can powerfully affect the arts—he considers periods of political anxiety and economic crisis particularly useful for spurring creativity. Technology can do so as well. But in no way can works be read primarily as reflections of their social and economic origins. For Hobsbawm, the difference between a bourgeois work of art and a proletarian one matters less than the difference between a good work of art and a bad one. In this, he not only indicates his own good sense, but also echoes the stance taken by the late nineteenth-century bourgeoisie, which embraced the idea of “art for art’s sake” and believed that raising children in the properly “cultivated” manner meant equipping them with the ability to make proper critical distinctions.

In the preface to Fractured Times, Hobsbawm relates its essays to the larger themes of his historical work, and formulates the following thesis. “The logic of both capitalist development and bourgeois civilisation itself,” he writes, “were bound to destroy its foundation, a society and institutions run by a progressive elite minority.” Technological innovation, mass politics and above all the rise of “mass consumption” made it impossible for the educated bourgeoisie to dictate taste to the rest of the population, or even to preserve their own cultural practices and institutions. In a world of mass entertainment, swept by constant technological innovation and the ceaseless pursuit of the new, artistic and literary production could no longer consist primarily of adding a steady stream of fresh, critically approved works to a stable canon. The traditional forms themselves—orchestral music, opera, framed painting—waned, and the cultural initiative passed to the producers of film, television and rock music. Symphony halls closed while Hollywood grew fat.

It is a compelling thesis, one that jibes well with the story Hobsbawm told in his histories about the power of capitalism to make and unmake societies: to hasten revolution, transform living conditions, beget empires and finally lead the world into the massively destructive “age of extremes.” But it does not cast capitalist development as the “structure” that determines the actual content of culture. And so it allows him, at least in part, to rescue the ideals that governed the bourgeois Jewish mitteleuropäisch world of his childhood from the cynical condescension of posterity. Hobsbawm freely admits the socially elitist nature of this world. He notes that on the eve of World War I, in Britain, France and Germany, only a tiny percentage of the population attended university. Total enrollment in higher education, out of a combined population of 150 million, barely reached 150,000. If pressed, Hobsbawm would certainly have conceded that even among these educated thousands, many came closer to the satirical figure known as the Spießbürger (the Philistine petty bourgeois) than to an embodiment of proper Kultur. He ends the preface with a frail paean to the “century of common men and women” which followed, and which produced new, original, hybrid art forms (jazz?), and he quotes the familiar mocking lines of “Prufrock” on the limits of bourgeois culture: “In the room the women come and go, / Talking of Michelangelo.” But in the end he cannot hide his fear that mass culture has fundamentally corrupted the arts, while the essays themselves, as noted, breathe with more than a little nostalgia for a world in which people did, at least, talk about Michelangelo.


AS A HISTORIAN, Hobsbawm’s great strength was always as a synthesizer. He was not an “archive hound” who lived to track down new facts amid the dusty cartons of a provincial public-records office. Nor was he a theorist who cogitated in thick, jargon-filled prose about the ideological structures underpinning historical change. He relied heavily on the work of other historians, and his writing was enviably lucid, witty and accessible. He was in fact a master of this style of history, which has long flourished in Britain, but also has something in common with the entertaining works (Stefan Zweig’s and Emil Ludwig’s, for instance) that appealed to the history-reading public of prewar Central Europe. For these reasons, while fellow historians generally speak of Hobsbawm with great respect, they do not actually cite him very often. There was never a real “Hobsbawm School,” and a generation from now, his works are unlikely to find a wide readership.

Yet Hobsbawm’s theses about capitalism and culture, however impressionistically sketched out, remain worthy of attention. In some ways, interestingly, they recall a far more self-consciously theoretical, far more difficult work by the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas, initially published in 1962 and entitled, in English translation, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. Habermas, born just twelve years after Hobsbawm, was then a Marxist of sorts, although an eclectic one. This work tells the story of how the commercial capitalism of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, thanks to the premium that merchants placed on timely and accurate news, spurred the development of new forms of public communication. Newspapers were born, and, along with them, new spaces to discuss the news, such as coffee houses, literary salons and lending libraries. New forms of public discussion followed, in which contributors participated as equals and placed few if any topics outside the reach of rational critique. From such forms of discussion and such spaces—the “bourgeois public sphere”—arose a spirit of critique and contestation that eventually expressed itself in revolutionary action. The vision of the public sphere as rational and free was always, Habermas recognized, more an ideal than a reality. Only educated men of a certain social class could actually participate, and a spirit of rational exchange did not always predominate. But however imperfect, it did exist—for a time. It could not, however, survive the further development of capitalism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. As voracious new business interests came to dominate newspaper publishing, and to dictate the content of publications, the older forms of free discussion were corrupted beyond recognition. Habermas’s book, while much debated, remains an intriguing, powerful and much-read account of the birth of the modern age.

Habermas’s story has quite a bit in common with Hobsbawm’s, despite their differences in emphasis, chronology and style. Each of these two Marxisant thinkers hoped to trace the way capitalist development, at one stage of history, helped to generate certain identifiably bourgeois ideals. Both then saw these ideals undermined by the further progress of capitalism. But both showed a surprising appreciation for the initial ideals—the “public sphere” for one, and the reverence for a tolerant, high-minded high culture for the other. In fact, both scholars took these ideals seriously enough to use them as yardsticks against which to measure the flaws of the modern age.