FRACTURED TIMES: Culture and Society in the 20th Century, by Eric Hobsbawm. Little, Brown, 2013, 336 pp., £25 (hardcover)

When you call a thinker a “conservative communist,” you sound as if you are making a weak joke. To understand the late Eric Hobsbawm’s peculiar genius, however, you must see him as just that, and accept there is no contradiction.

Hobsbawm stayed loyal to the Soviet disaster to the very end. But long before the Berlin Wall fell, he told the British left that socialism was dead and put his formidable authority behind the movement that led eventually to Tony Blair. In theory, he believed in the overthrow of the British state. In practice, he accepted that most refined of honors, the Order of the Companions of Honour, from no lesser personage than Her Majesty the Queen.

“Fractured Times” shows this revolutionary traditionalist at his best. It is an account of the collapse of the high bourgeois culture of the 19th century, and an examination of the ruins it left behind in the 20th century. He loved them both, but understood why they could not last. All the certainties of the 19th century turned out to be lies. Instead of progress there were total wars and genocides that mocked liberal optimism. Instead of a rational science, there was quantum physics, which no one, not least quantum physicists, could understand. The scientist J.B.S. Haldane, a comrade of Hobsbawm on the Marxist left, who is celebrated in these pages, suspected in 1927 that the universe would turn out to be not only “queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose” — his suspicion has been vindicated.

Above all, mass consumer culture and democracy have undermined old elite tastes and certainties.

Hobsbawm can never see them coming back. No historian was better at deploying a killer fact to make an argument stick in your mind. As he makes his case that classical music is now a museum art form, he says “of the 60 operas performed by the Vienna State Opera in 1996-97 only one was written by a composer born in the 20th century.”

As that statistic implies, the “revolt against tradition” by what we can loosely call the modern movement, even if it is now very old, failed. The artisan crafts of classical music, fine art, sculpture, jazz and, Hobsbawm believed, maybe rock ‘n’ roll, too, are for aging audiences in the wired 21st century.

None of Hobsbawm’s excuse-making for communism, that other revolt against all traditions, appears here. Instead, there is a moving reflection on the life of Karl Kraus, the Viennese writer who saw the horrors of the 20th century before anyone else, and satirized the dying Habsburg empire with brilliant cruelty. You can satirize and protest in half-free societies like Franz Joseph’s Austria or Leonid Brezhnev’s Russia, says Hobsbawm. But Kraus said of Hitler “on the subject of national socialism nothing occurs to me,” and the same satirical silence falls over Stalin’s Soviet Union. “To this day,” Stalin’s old supporter accepts, “no one makes fun of it, not even in retrospect.”

Yet regret at the passing of his certainties still lingers. Writing the introduction just before he died, Hobsbawm says he was, “looking forward with more troubled perplexity than I recall in a long lifetime, guideless and mapless, to an unrecognizable future.”

Really? The world is more troubled now than during the battles between dictators of the 1930s and 1940s? Or during the “mutually assured destruction” of the cold war? I do not think that this is just the pessimism that comes with age.

American economist Brad de Long was the first to notice that for as long as the Soviet Union survived, Hobsbawm believed that humanity was progressing in some form, as a Marxist should. Once it was gone, despair engulfed his writing. This rings true. My grandfather was Hobsbawm’s mentor in the British Communist party. He died before the Soviet Union did, but I noticed that his friends gave up once it had gone.

There is another problem. “Fractured Times” is not a fully worked book but a collection of essays from the 1960s on. I wish Hobsbawm had found the time to reconsider some of his judgments before he died. He repeats his beautifully nonchalant line, “Why brilliant fashion designers, a notoriously nonanalytic breed, sometimes succeed in anticipating the shape of things to come better than professional predictors, remains one of the most obscure questions in history.”

That was once true. While the old 19th-century order carried on as if nothing could change, artists, including fashion designers, somehow anticipated the chaos that was coming in their work. Can they still do that?

One of the many staggering features of the great crisis of our lifetime was how few artists and writers were interested in the roaring, rapacious financial sector that was hurtling toward disaster in front of their eyes. So comprehensive was their indifference that the BBC, after the crash, had to revive “Little Dorrit,” Charles Dickens’ story of a banking crisis from 1855, while the National Theatre had to make do with Sir David Hare wandering the stage trying to explain what had gone wrong.

That I would love to know what Hobsbawm thought about the silence of the artists is one of the many, many reasons why his death last year was such a loss to British culture and, for he was always an internationalist, to the world’s culture, too.

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