Eric Hobsbawm on 2011: ‘It reminds me of 1848...’

Eric Hobsbawm at home, 20 August 2003

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.

He has lived his life in the shadow, or the glow, of revolutions.

Born just months before the Russian revolution of 1917, he was a Communist for most of his adult life - as well as an innovative and influential writer and thinker.

He has been a historian of revolution, and at times an advocate of revolutionary change.

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Today's most effective mass mobilisations start from a new modernised middle class - particularly the enormously swollen body of students”

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Now in his mid-nineties, his continuing passion for politics is reflected in the title of his most recent book How to Change the World - and in his keen interest in the Arab Spring.

"I certainly felt a sense of excitement and relief," he says, talking to me in his north London home, which is strolling distance from Hampstead Heath.

Books about jazz - he was once a jazz critic - jostle for space on the shelves with works of history in several languages.

"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."

Eric Hobsbawm

Eric Hobsbawm at home, 1 January 1976
  • One of the few British historians whose books are best-sellers, Hobsbawm has written works with global horizons and broad narrative sweep
  • Egypt is the land of Hobsbawm's birth, but his European Jewish parents moved to Vienna when he was two, and soon afterwards to Berlin
  • Orphaned as a teenager, with Hitler's grip on power tightening, in 1933 he came to London
  • After gaining a PhD from Cambridge, he became a lecturer at Birkbeck College London in 1947, publishing the first of more than 30 books in 1948

For those who once crowded Tahrir Square and are now worried about the fate of their revolution, he has a word of comfort.

"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."

However, with the possible exception of Tunisia, he sees little prospect of liberal democracy or European-style representative government in the Arab world.

Not enough notice has been taken, he says, of the differences between Arab countries in the throes of mass protests.

"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."

The importance of social media extends to the other global movement of the past year, the Occupy protests North America and Europe. That too has caught Eric Hobsbawm's attention, and to a large extent his admiration.

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  • Eric Hobsbawm was interviewed for the World Today on the BBC World Service
  • The World Today is a daily news programme

The movement dates back, he argues, to Barack Obama's election campaign, which successfully mobilised otherwise politically inactive young people, largely through the internet.

"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."

Yet across the world, the old left of which Hobsbawm was a part - as participant, chronicler and would-be moderniser - has been on the margins of the mass protests and occupations.

"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."

Wider push

Eric Hobsbawm doesn't expect the Arab revolutions to ricochet still further round the world, at least not as the harbinger of wider revolution.

Anti-military rule demonstration in Tahrir Square, Cairo, 2 December 2011 It's possible that Arab Spring reformers will be sidelined by Islamists, as they were in Iran

More likely, he believes, is a wider push for gradual reform of the sort which, in the 1980s, saw a movement of the young and middle class in South Korea wrest power from the military.

Of the political dramas still playing out in Arabic speaking nations, he makes a point of harking back to Iran in 1979, the first revolution to be couched in the political language of Islam.

One aspect of that revolution has found an echo in the Arab world in recent months.

"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."

While the Arab Spring has brought him joy, this aspect of it he regards as an "unexpected and not necessarily welcome" development.

Andrew Whitehead's interview with Eric Hobsbawm will be broadcast on the BBC World Service's World Today Programme.

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