The last writings of an eminent British historian.
Hobsbawm (How to Change the World: Tales of Marx and Marxism, 2011, etc.), who died in 2012, gathers 22 essays that represent his deep and wide historical interests: 19th-century European culture, the role of the public intellectual, and the relationship of art to science, revolution and power. Selections include book reviews, journal articles and lectures, half previously unpublished. Hobsbawm characterizes the present as intellectually shattered: “an era of history that has lost its bearing, and which in the early years of the new millennium looks forward…guideless and mapless, to an unrecognizable future.” Science, religion and the arts, he contends, have lost their cultural force, and the current distrust of science marks a vast change from the 19th-century belief that it “held up the temple of progress.” The author champions such influential thinkers as chemist J.D. Bernal, author of The Social Function of Science (1939), and biochemist Joseph Needham, author of a groundbreaking history of Chinese science; both men aimed to affect “changing relations…between science and society.” Hobsbawm sees a “major cause for alarm” in the “rise of radical but predominantly right-wing ideologies” within Protestant Christianity and Islam. Fundamentalist movements are concerned not with fostering community but with “powerful, individual spiritual experiences.” The arts, he writes, no longer “function as measures of good and bad, as carriers of value: of truth, beauty and catharsis,” but instead have become merely consumer items for personal satisfaction. “Who can tell,” he asks, “on what terms reason and revived anti-reason will coexist in the ongoing earthquakes and tsunamis of the twenty-first century?” Global movements toward widespread suffrage and representative governments, he asserts, are undermined by weak leadership and uninformed, thoughtless voters.
Hobsbawm speaks to the crucial need for engaged public intellectuals and the kind of rigorous social and political analysis so well represented by these urgent and important essays.