Few historians could claim to be a bestseller from Brazil to Bombay, but such was the renown of Eric Hobsbawm. Famed for his trilogy of works on the "long 19th century" (1789-1914) and its companion volume, The Age of Extremes, which covered the "short 20th century" (1914-1989), Hobsbawm wrote history for the "educated non-expert", as he once put it. This he did superbly.
Hobsbawm was also famous - to some, infamous - for his lifelong allegiance to the Communist Party. Long after most western intellectuals abandoned the movement, Hobsbawm stayed on. "The dream of the October Revolution is still there somewhere inside me," he declared at the beginning of the 21st century. (As if on script, Hobsbawm was born in 1917, and died in October last year.) Until the end of his life, his detractors huffed and puffed, and demanded he account for such ideological perversions. Hobsbawm merely shrugged.
Yet Hobsbawm was hardly a doctrinaire leftist. His historiographical instincts, while Marxist, were, with a few glaring exceptions, canny and often profound. In his trilogy, he made sense of a century-plus of European war, revolution, economic growth, imperial conquest and capital accumulation. He wrote history with a sociological bent, breaking down the past into patterns, categories and social types. One of the great characters in this unfolding tapestry is the bourgeoisie. Part hero, part villain; part creator, part destroyer, this striving social class created a culture whose confused legacy remains to this day.
In his final book, assembled shortly before his death last year, Hobsbawm ponders "what has happened to the art and culture of bourgeois society after that society had vanished with the generation of 1914, never to return".
Fractured Times: Culture and Society in the 20th Century collects lectures, reviews and previously unpublished essays on a myriad of topics - the fate of avant-gardes, high culture, intellectuals, Jewish history, pop art, the performing arts. There are reflections here on the American cowboy, religion in the 21st century, and art nouveau. He writes admiringly of left-wing figures who popularised science and called for a better, more equal world. Ever comparative, his range is effortlessly global: Tex-Mex, tikka masala; Beethoven, Picasso; the Mona Lisa … and these references all in the same essay. This grab bag is organised around a (very) loosely constructed thesis - namely that "the logic of both capitalist development and bourgeois civilisation were bound to destroy its foundation". This civilisation, outwardly solid and all conquering, believing in progress, devoted to the arts and sciences, was in truth fragile to its core. "It could not resist the combined triple-blow of the 20th-century revolution in science and technology, which transformed old ways of earning a living before destroying them, of the mass consumer society generated by the explosion in the potential of the western economies, and the decisive entry of the masses on the political scene as customers as well as voters."
Hobsbawm's interest in European bourgeois civilisation isn't merely archival; he himself was a product of its last days. Raised in Vienna and Berlin - he emigrated to Britain in the early 1930s - Hobsbawm was intimately familiar with the German-speaking Mitteluropa (the subject of one essay) that produced Sigmund Freud, Robert Musil, Jaroslav Hasek and the scathing Viennese satirist and journalist Karl Kraus, who skewered the pretensions of his age. ("His public life consisted of [a] lifelong monologue addressed to the world," Hobsawm remarks with a deft wit.)