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

Reviewed by Victor

*Eric Hobsbawm, Fractured Times: Culture and Society in the Twentieth Century (New York: New Press, 2013), xv + 319 pp., $27.95

All that is solid melts into air.
– Marx and Engels, 1848

Almost nothing that we have inherited can any longer be taken for granted.
– Eric Hobsbawm, 2002

Hobsbawm’s Fractured Times is a tour de force of erudition. The author, here as in his many previous works, shows that he is conversant with a wide range of national traditions, artistic genres, and currents of thought. He offers an intriguing overview, at times sweeping and at times minutely detailed, of some of the defining ironies of the present-day world and their genesis in late-19th-century Europe.

The book is a collection of essays, some previously unpublished, of which the earliest dates from 1964 but most are from the last twenty years of the author’s life (he died at the age of 95 in 2012). Some of the chapters were originally given as lectures, some were commentaries on exhibitions, and some were review essays. They are in turn scholarly, reflective, and conversational, touching alternately on suggestive historical details (such as the early frequency of women among Nobel laureates) and on important issues for the present (such as how to overcome capitalism’s cultural impoverishment of the working class).

Hobsbawm distills the upshot of these explorations (in his Preface) as being to show “that the logic of both capitalist development and bourgeois civilization itself [was] bound to destroy” the prior rule of a “progressive elite minority.” Progressiveness seems to be equated here with scientific rationality, high culture, and an acceptance of “limited” constitutional government. What would replace its hegemony, as Hobsbawm observes across many dimensions, is a condition of chaos (the “fractured times” of his title) in which the most extraordinary advances in technology coexist with – and are even deployed on behalf of – the most retrograde (often religiously inspired) agendas.

One can readily share Hobsbawm’s implicit regret at the shrinkage of public space, the migration of technology to spheres beyond most people’s comprehension, and the ease with which power-holders now revert to the most elemental paradigms of aggressive competitiveness (as in the multiplication of US military bases around the world). And one could add other alarming trends that don’t draw more than a passing nod in the present collection, such as the dramatic rise in inequality and poverty, and the relentless onrush of environmental disaster. But when I stretch my gaze as widely as one must in reading a book like this, I do so in hopes of finding insights that can enhance the fruitfulness of current political debates.

The extent to which Hobsbawm offers such insights will be something for each reader to decide. What I would say at a minimum is that he has given us a collection of brilliant essays, with neat juxtapositions of various cultures and with provocative suggestions on themes ranging across the arts and sciences, and referring not only to ideas and discoveries, but also to institutions and audiences.

In examining how the various trends he speaks of manifest themselves, Hobsbawm reflects on gender as well as class factors, often remarking upon the presence or absence of women in a given movement. He looks also at aspects of national identity. Drawing on his own background growing up in early 20th-century Vienna, he evokes the intellectual richness of the German-speaking world of Central Europe (Mitteleuropa) and discusses the place of Jewish intellectuals within it. This cosmopolitan culture would be shattered by the two World Wars, although its heritage would be preserved for a time in the outsized role that he finds public intellectuals playing – at least in Europe – during the period from World War II to the collapse of the Soviet Union.

As we arrive at the present, the unifying role previously played by scientific rationality is under siege from many directions. To whatever extent public intellectuals had held the spotlight, they have been replaced (as Hobsbawm notes) by media-enhanced celebrities, who, even when they advocate progressive causes, reinforce a spectator culture – also manifested in charismatic Protestant sects, not to mention spectator sports – which diminishes the space for collective initiatives from below.

All these developments help frame the conditions in which any future initiatives from below will have to take root. To them, we might of course add – a dimension noted only briefly by Hobsbawm – the new forms of instantaneous communication that lubricate everything from stock-speculation to social networking. I imagine that the phenomena of shortened attention-spans and declining social skills associated with an increasingly “wired” (even if wireless) existence would fit nicely into Hobsbawm’s scenario of fragmentation or fracture. The upshot is that even as so much of what has kept us going (as a species) falls apart, the hegemony of the capitalist class remains unbroken. Indeed, the collapse of cohesion in all the other spheres of society has made the capitalists’ immediate hold on power even stronger, albeit dragging the whole human enterprise closer to the brink of total failure.

Any real movement to transcend this condition must also recover the spirit of informed rejection toward the dominant consensus that characterized Marx’s own writing and that of later revolutionary thinkers inspired by his work. Hobsbawm, despite his sophisticated application of Marxist structural hypotheses (not to mention his firm lifelong commitment to the Communist party), shows a surprisingly uncritical acceptance of conventional (bourgeois) wisdom on two matters of significant detail – at once highly specific yet deeply revealing – in his present narrative.

The first is his reference to “a small segment of the ultra rich, including some who have shown themselves willing to subsidise good causes on a virtually cosmic scale, such as George Soros, Bill Gates and Ted Turner” (50). The assumption that such powerbrokers could support causes that from a working-class or popular perspective are “good” is itself astonishing. The reality is quite different. Soros habitually funds projects aimed at weakening regimes that he sees as threatening capitalist hegemony, and his ideological protégé is the Open Society Foundation, which radically rejects socialism. Turner is the founder of the Cable News Network, which is a leading outlet of the U.S. corporate mass media. Gates, through his foundation and in alliance with other corporate interests, promotes such “good causes” as the privatization of public education, the use of standardized tests as the criterion for educational success, the application of genetic engineering to agriculture, and the subsidization of private foreign companies to provide vaccines and drugs to Third World countries.1 Beyond the actual effects of all these projects, their incubation within the domain of corporate power should raise immediate alarm-signals for a critic such as Hobsbawm.

Hobsbawm’s other surprising declaration comes when he says that the distinguished British biologist and Sinologist Joseph Needham “– wrongly – accused the USA of using bacteriological weapons in the Korean War” (186). In fact, there is a lot of evidence that the accusations were true.2 What is striking is Hobsbawm’s apparent assumption that the charges were so far beyond the pale that they could be dismissed out of hand.

These ideologically portentous misperceptions on Hobsbawm’s part do not diminish the insights he offers on other topics, but they do remind us that, at least in the last years of his life, he tended to view history more as a field for reflection than as an instrument for remaking the world. The narrative of Fractured Times is one of disintegration. We are shown the paradoxes and the absurdities of the present – along with its horrors – but we are not offered any intimations of a historically viable alternative. The previously chosen alternatives, as Hobsbawm acknowledges, have failed. In confronting that failure, some new or rediscovered approaches are beginning to gain a hearing, especially in the spheres of environmental justice and workers’ control.3 The current challenge for intellectuals is to explore the foundations on which such budding initiatives can flourish.

Victor Wallis
Berklee College of Music, Boston

* This review, written in 2015, was commissioned for the Savannah Review of Nigeria by its founding editor, F. Abiola Irele. Sadly, Dr. Irele died in 2017, and the Savannah Review ceased publication. The review is published here for the first time, in his memory. See his article, “The Political Kingdom: Toward Reconstruction in Africa,” Socialism and Democracy 21:3 (November 2007).

1 See, e.g., Andrew Bowman, “The Flip Side to Bill Gates’ Charity Billions,” New Internationalist, April 2012 (

2 The most complete treatment is Dave Chaddock, This Must Be the Place: How the U.S. Waged Germ Warfare in the Korean War and Denied it Ever Since (Seattle: Bennett & Hastings, 2013). The book cites many sources readily available before 2009 (the year Hobsbawm wrote the chapter in which his above-quoted statement appeared). For discussion and references in a classic study of U.S. foreign policy, see William Blum, Killing Hope: U.S. Military and CIA Interventions Since World War II (Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press, 1995), pp. 26-27. [Addendum (2017): See also Thomas Powell’s articles on biological warfare in Korea, in Socialism and Democracy 31:1 and 31:3 (March and November 2017).]

3 For a preliminary discussion, see my essay “The Search for a Mass Ecological Constituency,” International Critical Thought 3:4 (2013).