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New Left Review I/206, July-August 1994

Eric Hobsbawm

Barbarism: A User’s Guide

I have called my lecture ‘Barbarism, A User’s Guide’, not because I wish to give you instructions in how to be barbarians. [1] This article was given by Eric Hobsbawm as a talk on 24 February 1994 in this year’s series of Oxford Amnesty Lectures. None of us, unfortunately, need it. Barbarism is not something like ice-dancing, a technique that has to be learned—at least not unless you wish to become a torturer or some other specialist in inhuman activities. It is rather a by-product of life in a particular social and historical context, something that comes with the territory, as Arthur Miller says in Death of a Salesman. The term ‘street-wise’ expresses what I want to say all the better for indicating the actual adaptation of people to living in a society without the rules of civilization. By understanding this word we have all adapted to living in a society that is, by the standards of our grandparents or parents, even—if we are as old as I am—of our youth, uncivilized. We have got used to it. I don’t mean we can’t still be shocked by this or that example of it. On the contrary, being periodically shocked by something unusually awful is part of the experience. It helps to conceal how used we have become to the normality of what our—certainly my—parents would have considered life under inhuman conditions. My user’s guide is, I hope, a guide to understanding how this has come about.

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