The Labor and Logic called Culture: Through Historical Materialist Lens

Rahul Vaidya

(A book review of ‘Fractured
Times- Culture and Society in the Twentieth Century’ By Eric Hobsbawm; Little,
Brown Great Britain, published in 2013, pp. 319
Eric Hobsbawm was one of the most celebrated historians of the 20th
century, not just in Britain but all over the world.  As a Marxist, his contribution and
intervention was seminal for debates around the rise of industrial capitalism,
socialism, and nationalism. ‘Fractured Times’, posthumously published in 2013,
is his last work.

In this book, ‘Hobsbawm examines the conditions that both created the
flowering of the ‘Belle époque’
held the seeds of its disintegration: paternalistic capitalism, globalization
and the arrival of a mass consumer society. Passionate but never sentimental,
he ranges freely across his subject: records the passing of the golden age of
the ‘free intellectual’ and explores the lives of forgotten greats: analyses
the relationship between art and totalitarianism; and dissects phenomena as
diverse as surrealism, the emancipation of women and the myth of the American
It is unnecessary to state the obvious worth and stature of Hobsbawm’s
contribution to our understanding of society. His firm historical materialist
vision, his erudition, scholarship is well acknowledged and celebrated. Rather
than harping upon those familiar aspects, I will first put forth the larger
themes which drive Hobsbawm’s work, his critical arguments and questions which
remain imperative for any serious follower of culture and its politics. Then I
will try to highlight and extend the categories arising from these themes and
will conclude with their implications and possibilities.

Over the twentieth century, culture has increasingly become the focal
point of our social conditioning, cognition, theorizing, politics and economy. Definitions
of culture, its social role, boundaries; who, what and why constituted culture
etc. matters increasingly found an independent, autonomous space of their own-
under different auspices at different times and locations: be it Dadaism,
expressionism, cinema, ‘kulturcritic’, cultural studies, base-superstructure
debates in Marxist circles, Western Marxism, Frankfurt school; pop culture, not
to mention of post-modernism itself- all these developments are firmly rooted
and related to nature and shifts of contemporary capitalism. As a Marxist
historian, Hobsbawm naturally explains this co-terminal manner in which our
cultural shifts have occurred. The
democratization of arts and culture on one hand and radical shifts occurring in
the content and form of cultural expressions, their implications is a constant
theme of Hobsbawm’s endeavor
, almost reminiscent of Engels and his description
of transformation of quantity into quality and vice versa[2].  
Hobsbawm has rightly argued that one cannot properly understand the
true nature and impact of this democratization of culture and consequently, the
predicament of ‘high culture’ today without understanding what happened to the
‘European bourgeoisie civilization’ of the 19th century, which
‘created the basic canon of ‘classics’ especially in music, opera, ballet, and
drama as well as in many countries the basic language of modern literature’
i.e. the ‘world of yesterday’ of Stephen Zweig, which couldn’t recover from
deadly blows of first world war. As the dominant class positions underwent a
sea change with shifts in capitalism; the production, circulation and
consumption of arts also changed radically. With his characteristic wit,
erudition and ability to invoke multiple disciplines; Hobsbawm lays out the
cycles and turns in cultural world. Taking stock of fortunes of classical
opera, avant-garde, architecture, sculptures, expressionism etc. he raises
certain critical questions over the present and future of arts and culture which
I would like to deal with more elaboration. Following are some of his
Why brilliant fashion designers, a notoriously
non-analytic breed, sometimes succeed in anticipating the shape of things to
come better than professional predictors, is one of the most obscure questions
in history, and for historian of the arts, one of the most central[3].
 How much
passion for a piece of music or a picture today rests on association- not on
the song being beautiful, but on its being ‘our song’? We cannot say, and the
role of the living arts, or even their continued existence in the twenty-first
century, will remain unclear until we can do so[4].
will remain more than supermarkets where we provide for ourselves according to
our personal tastes. First, the syncretic global culture of the modern consumer
society and the entertainment industry is probably part of all our lives. But
second, in the post-industrial age of information, the school is important than
ever before, and forms, both nationally and worldwide, a unifying element, not
only in technology but also in the formation of classes. (He further argues
that ‘a system of education that decides who in society will attain wealth and
civil power cannot be determined by postmodern jokes)[5].
Warhol and pop artists did not want to destroy
or revolutionize anything, let alone any world. On the contrary, they accepted,
even liked it. They simply recognized that there was no longer a place for
traditional artist- produced visual art in the consumer society. A real world,
flooding every waking hour with a chaos of sounds, images, symbols,
presumptions of a common experience, had put art as a special activity out of
Like so many British discussions of mass
culture, they (Stuart Hall and Paddy Whannel in their work ‘The popular art’) rarely quite face the
question whether ‘standards’ of the traditional kind really fit the subject. At
one extreme, they tend to search for that crock at the end of the rainbow, good
as distinct from bad mass art, sometimes with the question-begging
qualification ‘good of its kind’[7].

First quick impression: One is constantly reminded of Fredric Jameson[8]
and his work while reading ‘Fractured Times’. Fredric Jameson has extensively
elaborated upon the themes of post-modernism as a logic of late capitalism and
the cultural turn taken in the late twentieth century capitalism. He emphasizes
upon various phenomena of post-modern arts such as lack of depth, pastiche,
loss of aura around a ‘work’ of art, and the broader dialectic of replacement
of ‘sublime’ as something meaningful to be achieved which characterized the
spirit of modernity with ‘beauty’ without any such ambition in post-modern
times. He also elaborates upon the close link of cultural categories with
finance capital and their implications in fields as varied as music and
Hobsbawm brings a different entry point and raises some key questions
as a practicing Marxist historian would, in order to anticipate the future. The
key concern is about content and form of artistic expressions. His questions b and c above are polemical arguments to recognize that art forms become
popular which are synchronous to the sense and sensibilities of the given time
period. Hence, novel as an art form became popular only with advent of
industrial capitalism. Absurd theatre as an art form would be incomprehensible
and remains incomprehensible even today if the context of world wars,
destruction, Fordist bureaucratic capitalism, alienation, existentialism etc.
is not available/ cognizable[9].
Hence historical context plays a
significant, decisive role in determining the worth of an art form.
Apart from the highlighting historical context as a key determinant in
‘meaning’ and ‘goodness’ of art, Hobsbawm raises another fundamental point over realism as a determinant. Although he
has not spelt the concerns about realism and its antagonism with expressionism
in as much words as the famous debates between Bloch and Luckacs as well as
Brecht and Luckacs[10];
certainly he treats questions over what is ‘good’ popular art as symptomatic of
same moralizing ideal of the 19th century bourgeoisie which canonized
the arts and classics. He points that rather, the attention should turn to
reasons why a particular art/ cultural product become popular. He rightly
acknowledges the greatness of artists like Warhol who recognized that
subjective expressionism of modernist inspirations is no longer worth. Now,
whether this turn towards complete assimilation with existing mode of
production can be termed ‘realist’ or not depends on one’s politics. Be that as
it may, it would be important for future enquiries to examine the possibility/
feasibility of realism as counter to post-modernism and what could be the
propelling points for such development. In short, the real wager is not really
good versus bad art as a bourgeoisie moral framework would require; but rather
should be put as the renewed forms and ventures into realism vis-à-vis the
dominant meta/ post- cultures with collage or self-referentiality as their
With regard to realism- it should be made clear that invocation of
realism doesn’t mean going back and reviving schemes of Soviet Montage (montage
was later adapted and commoditized widely in capitalist art production), Brecht
(didactic art), Benjamin (enthusiasm for mechanical reproduction and
possibilities of film for revolutionary politics) or Luckacs in toto. Jameson,
in his conclusion of ‘Aesthetics and Politics’ makes an elaborate effort to
make it clear that what we need is a new realism aware of fully blown
capitalism and its exploitation of technological progress as means to ‘co-opt’
cultural forms as another extension of commodities. This new realism will have
‘to resist the power of reification in consumer society and re-invent the
category of totality which, systematically undermined by existential
fragmentation on all levels of life and social organization today, can alone
project structural relations between classes as well as class struggles in
other countries, in what has increasingly become a world system’[11].
The mention of propelling points brings us to the question of role of technology and capitalist
play.   Hobsbawm,
continuing in Benjamin’s manner of explaining ‘the art in the age of mechanical
reproduction’, highlights the ‘aura’ around classics and classic bourgeoisie
civilization being destroyed with inherent democratization. While doing so, the
‘culture industry’ and commoditization is not ignored. However, his belief in a
cosmopolitan world progressing towards a better future and his quest to
delineate the contours for the same is at odds with the material reality of imperialism. One is certainly tempted to
qualify this optimism, as well as not share the optimism of progress
considering the role imperialism has played in collaborating with regressive,
fundamentalist elements in perpetuating warfare, one cannot see Hobsbawm’s optimism
drawing from football and its globalised culture as a future possibility.
Nation-states and uneven relations are a stark reality and so are the cultural
amalgams. The Jameson-Ahmad debate over Third world literature[12]
is still instructive to make one aware about the reality of imperialism and at
the same time the unevenness in the class relations within the post-colonial
nation-states as well. What happens to languages, cultures of economically
less-developed people today? What has the changing stance of regional
bourgeoisie vis-à-vis metropolitan capital meant for the anti-imperialism and
its postures through culture and language? The cultural hegemony is certainly
operative only through the larger domination of finance capital and empire. It
is not that Hobsbawm is completely unaware or blind to this reality. In fact,
in the book itself, he has brilliantly deconstructed the ‘myth of American
Cowboy’ as an international myth and reasons for it becoming so. However, his
despair is that the technological advancement of the day bringing about further
mutations in culture is something we can only speculate about, and with not
much hope.

So then, should we merely despair in hopelessness, and repeat what
Hobsbawm says about ‘Heritage’? :
‘how much of the great simultaneous circus show of sound, shape, image, color,
celebrity and spectacle that constitutes the contemporary cultural experience
will even survive as a preservable heritage, as distinct from changing sets of
generational memories occasionally revived as retro fashions? How much of it
will be remembered at all? As the cultural tsunamis of the twentieth century
prepare for those of the twenty-first; who can tell?[13]
Yes and no. Culture remains a site of politics and resistance no
matter what post-modern preaching. In fact, such cultural turn openly in favor
of surrender to capital, in fact deriving ‘Jouissance’ out of it- this itself
is part of a political position. The attempts to organize a counter-culture
need to be fully aware of larger economic set up, its modalities as well as the
cultural logic prevalent that one is at war with. G.P. Deshpande has elaborated
upon the dangers of praising and canonizing any work of oppressed as it easily
fits into the bigger scheme of commoditization and recycling. And hence, it is
here the warning of Hobsbawm against Hall- Whannel’s scheme of good-bad pop art
is important. He doesn’t elaborate upon realism. He doesn’t enter the debates
about hegemony and imperialism. However, what he does, and does with admirable
clarity, is to present a breathtaking view of evolving cultures over past two
centuries, and the causalities for the same. His method, his indicative
ruminations are the best signs of his political message- if we are to counter the
capitalist logic of the day, we need to fully understand it, come to terms with
it, in order to locate the ‘change’ and be part of it. That really is the crux and
beauty of Hobsbawm’s last magnum opus.


Fractured Times, Eric Hobsbawm, from the blurb
Friedrich Engels, Dialectics of Nature
Fractured Times, Eric Hobsbawm, pg. 6
Ibid. pg. 19
Ibid. pg. 31
Ibid. pg. 254
Ibid. pg. 266
Jameson is an American literary critic and Marxist political theorist. He is
best known for his analysis of contemporary cultural trends. Jameson’s
best-known books include Postmodernism: The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism,
The Political Unconscious, Cultural Turn and Marxism and Form.
G.P. Deshpande, in his collection of Marathi essays titled ‘Charchak Nibandh’
elaborates the criticality of historical context in popular appreciation of a
given art form
Refer to ‘Aesthetics and Politics’ edit. Fredric Jameson for these debates
Pg. 212, Aesthetics & Politics,
ed. Fredric Jameson.
Refer Jameson’s essay ‘Third-World
Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism
’, Social Text, No. 15
(Autumn, 1986) as well Aijaz Ahmad’s response ‘Jameson’s Rhetoric of Otherness and the “National Allegory’, Social
Text, No. 17 (Autumn, 1987)
Fractured Times, pg. 155