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Hobsbawm, 1848 and 2011. And Barack Obama. December 23, 2011

Posted by Garibaldy in History, The Left.

Hard to resist posting everytime I come across a new interview or whatever from Hobsbawm. Besides which, at least one of us is awaiting Hobsbawm’s How to Change the World from Santa. The BBC has an interview with Hobsbawm, in which he discusses the parallels between the revolutions that swept Europe in 1848 and the Arab Spring of 2011, and goes on to offer some thoughts on other forms of protest, such as the occupy movement. The full interview is going to be on the World Today from the World Service.

The renowned historian Eric Hobsbawm has watched the revolutions of 2011 with excitement – and notes that it’s now the middle class, not the working class, that is making waves.

“It was an enormous joy to discover once again that it’s possible for people to get down in the streets, to demonstrate, to overthrow governments,” says EJ Hobsbawm at the close of a year of revolutionary upheaval in the Arab world.

Not that he is holding out much hope for the short-term successes of these revolts, hence the comparison with 1848.

“If there is to be a revolution, it should be a bit like this. At least in the first few days. People turning up in the streets, demonstrating for the right things.”

But, he adds: “We know it won’t last.”

The historian in him draws a parallel between the Arab Spring of 2011 and Europe’s “year of revolutions” almost two centuries earlier, when an uprising in France was followed by others in the Italian and German states, in the Hapsburg Empire, and beyond.

Arab democracies?
“It reminds me of 1848 – another self-propelled revolution which started in one country then spread all over the continent in a short time.”

As Hobsbawm notes,

Two years after 1848, it looked as if it had all failed. In the long run, it hadn’t failed. A good deal of liberal advances had been made. So it was an immediate failure but a longer term partial success – though no longer in the form of a revolution.

He suspects only Tunisia is likely to emerge as a western-style liberal democracy, and argues that despite the similarities we are different revolutions, rather than a single revolution sweeping the Arab world.

We are in the middle of a revolution – but it isn’t the same revolution.

What unites them is a common discontent and common mobilisable forces – a modernising middle class, particularly a young, student middle class, and of course technology which makes it today very much easier to mobilise protests.

Hobsbawm argues that the model for the importance of technology for mobilising previously quiet forces was in fact Obama’s election campaign and the way he used the internet to mobilise young people behind him. But you get a sense of scepticism about some of what has been going on.

The actual occupations in most cases have not been mass protests, not the 99%, but the famous ‘stage army’ of students and counter culture. Sometimes that has found an echo in public opinion – and in the anti-Wall Street, anti-capitalist occupations, that is clearly the case.

He notes the difference between today and what revolutionaries of his generation had expected would happen.

The traditional left was geared to a kind of society that is no longer in existence or is going out of business. It believed very largely in the mass labour movement as the carrier of the future. Well, we’ve been de-industrialised, so that’s no longer possible.

The most effective mass mobilisations today are those which start from a new modernised middle class, and particularly the enormously swollen body of students.

They are more effective in countries in which, demographically, young men and women are a far greater part of the population than they are in Europe.

He also sounds a note of caution, based on the experience of the Iranian revolution.

The people who had made concessions to Islam, but were not Islamists themselves, were marginalised. And that included reformers, liberals, communists.

“What emerges as the mass ideology is not the ideology of those that started off the demonstrations.

So quite a pessimistic view then. Welcome proof that revolution is still possible, but also what is in effect a warning that the collapse of a regime is far from being the same as a revolution that radically alters the political, never mind social, nature of power in a given society. And also a warning that reaction can come in different forms, including from within the opposition to the original regime. His argument that the Arab Spring probably won’t last seems reasonable enough to me, as does concern about what will happen if the Islamists prove to be the main beneficiaries of the revolts. Let’s hope history isn’t repeating itself, either with 1849-50, or 1979.


1. LeftAtTheCross - December 23, 2011

Books Upstairs in Dublin has a pile of “How to Change the World: Tales of Marx and Marxism 1840-2011” on special offer at €14.95. Santa picked up a copy for me there yesterday 🙂


Garibaldy - December 23, 2011

What a man he is


sonofstan - December 23, 2011

*cult of personality alert*


Garibaldy - December 23, 2011

For Santa or Hobsbawm? 😉


2. WorldbyStorm - December 23, 2011

I really like Hobsbawm politically, with some fairly minor reservations, and very honest about the turns of fortunes and motivations of CP members during the middle part of the 20 century, and historically I think he’s spot on, but Garibaldy, historian as he is apart, wouldn’t he be just a little euro-Communist for your tastes? 😉


Garibaldy - December 23, 2011

He would indeed. I did have a reference to The Forward March of Labour Halted when I was first typing this post, but took it out. At least though he went Eurocommunist because he applied a Marxist analysis of society, even if I’d disagree with his conclusions. I’m not sure you can say the same about a lot of the other people who took on that appellation to cover a retreat from class politics.


WorldbyStorm - December 23, 2011

There’s definitely that.


3. make do and mend - December 24, 2011

I’m no historian and I know these are only excerpts from an article but the entire narrative is rather linear and trite.

This whole hoopla about modern technology is becoming grating. People in compact ghettos in 1848 didn’t need the technology to communicate their uprising. The uprisings happened anyway. So what’s the big advantage? Also the pamphlateers of yore did a very good job of distributing information (small i). Today one is more likely to get a reguritated RTE newscast tripe thrown at you, almost verbatum, in a polite political discussion. The quality of information matters more than the veneer, but most people are happy to spew the vaneer as if it was content. Far too many people cannot differentiate between opinion and content.

Also, the class analysis via de-industrialisation is rather superficial. I cannot see a whole pile of difference between workers who process slabs of meat on an assembly line and those who process office paper. The appearances of the classes are changing but the definition of class, at its basic, is not. If you are vulnerable via your wage level and lack of bargaing power the rich and their alcolytes will repress you. Today we call this repression austerity.

[My consumer culture holiday spending less than €100 this year – €63.48 to be exact. I wonder if I can keep it under £50 next year? Or will I even have £50, lol?]

best to all – holiday jibber jabber smilely type thingy


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