Friday, 23 December 2011

Hobsbawm, revolution and class

It won't, I think, be too controversial to observe that Eric Hobsbawm's record as a historian is superior to his record as an analyst of contemporary politics.

From sticking to the official Communist line when many of his fellow left-wing intellectuals rebelled against it (and formed the New Left) after 1956, to his claims about the allegedly disappearing working class in the 1980s, he has generally fared better when his eyes have been fixed firmly on the past. This disjunction between historian and political analyst (and activist) continues with an interview he's given to the BBC World Service.

For now, I'm relying on the website article for Hobsbawm's perspective. The full interview may give a more rounded picture, though his views seem fairly clearly defined. The historian compares 2011 to another landmark revolutionary year: 1848. But he's on surer ground analysing 1848, a year of democratic political revolutions and uprisings in several European countries (which half a century ago he wrote about insightfully in his classic 'The Age of Revolution: Europe 1789-1848') than when assessing the meaning of 2011.

He does make a few valid points. Hobsbawm is surely right to note that a political revolution's effects often show up many years later, so early setbacks or even defeats should not lead anyone to despair. Revolution is a process not an event and we have to take the long view - and it is therefore well worth examining past revolutions and their legacy.

He is also correct to note the centrality of a layer of young people to the Arab revolts - and resistance elsewhere - and the similarities between movements in different parts of the world. Many of these people have, however, been young unemployed graduates or young workers not students.

The interviewer tells us: 'with the possible exception of Tunisia, he sees little prospect of liberal democracy or European-style representative government in the Arab world.' Why is that? It's not entirely clear, but we're later offered this quote from Hobsbawm, referring to the Iranian Revolution of 1979:

"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."

This appears to be why he doesn't believe a Western-style bourgeois democracy will follow the Arab Spring, i.e. Arab societies are too in thrall too Islamist ideology for that to be possible. The rise of Iranian-style Islamism, or at least a modified version of it, is presumed to be the successor of this year's uprisings.

It's a surprisingly simplistic view that ignores the fact that Islamism is itself complex and varies across different settings, e.g. Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood is very different to a Khomeini-style theocracy, while the balance of forces between Islamist currents and other political forces in Egypt and Tunisia today is different to Iran thirty years ago. Nobody would deny that Islamist parties have the upper hand in Egyptian electoral politics, but let's not limit ourselves to the ballot box - especially at a time when the action on the streets is, on a daily basis, challenging a narrow notion of democracy as limited to putting a cross on a ballot paper.

Hobsbawm neglects what is actually currently happening in Egypt, which is not an Islamist takeover but a battle between those wanting to extend and deepen the revolution against ruling elements (the military council, supported most of the time but not always by political leaders in the Brotherhood) who want to curtail the revolution and defend the status quo.

The real danger posed by the Brotherhood is not an Islamist dictatorship but reformist compromise. And there are considerable tensions within the Brotherhood, notably with many of the youth dissenting and supporting the ongoing revolutionary movement. Viewing Islamism as a monolithic bloc - across time and space - won't help us.

Hobsbawm locates the motor of resistance, from Tahrir Square to Occupy Wall Street, in a new middle class:

"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."

It is rather jarring, in 2011, to witness someone referring to a 'student middle class'. Haven't we reached the point where it's obvious that students are not necessarily from middle class backgrounds? This is as true in Arab countries - many of which, including Tunisia and Egypt, have high student populations - as in the West. Even when students are from propserous backgrounds, it's possible for them to face a distinct lack of such propserity after graduating.

This observation is no mere slippage in terminology. It is linked to an argument Hobsbawm has put for at least three decades: the working class is disappearing. The Chinese working class is today bigger than the global working class in 1848, but I suspect that is something Hobsbawm wouldn't acknowledge - partly due to a narrow conception of what it means to be working class, partly due to confusion about 'Communist' societies. Hobsbawm says:

"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."

This under-estimates the role of workers in resistance both in the Arab world and the West: as John Rees notes in his end-of-2011 retrospective, at key moments the power of the organised working class has merged with broad street-based movements, most crucially in toppling Ben Ali in January and again in the final two days before Mubarak fell in February. Likewise, Hobsbawm overstates the role of students - important, undoubtedly, but he seems to be assuming anyone under 30 is a student - and fails to grasp that students have been most powerful when combining with other social groups.

His comments also echo claims he's made previously which rest on assuming that 'industrial' and working class are synonymous. Someone as well-versed in Marx and Engels' writings as Hobsbawm must know that is very different from how the marxist tradition's founders defined class relationships. It's worth quoting Terry Eagleton, in his review of Hobsbawm's recent book 'How to Change the World':

'It is true that the industrial proletariat had dwindled [by the 1980s], but Marx himself did not think that the working class was confined to this group. In Capital, he ranks commercial workers on the same level as industrial ones. He was also well aware that by far the largest group of wage labourers in his own day was not the industrial working class but domestic servants, most of whom were women. Marx and his disciples didn’t imagine that the working class could go it alone, without forging alliances with other oppressed groups. And though the industrial proletariat would have a leading role, Marx does not seem to have thought that it had to constitute the social majority in order to play it.'

In any case, the really interesting and productive questions to explore concern how the working class has evolved, and what that means for the nature of resistance, rather than repeating the old line about a disappearing proletariat.

Hobsbawm also ignores the mass participation of the kind of poor people who, even by the broadest definitions, couldn't possibly be categorised as 'middle class' in the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions. It's true that middle class elements often (but far from exclusively) played a leading or catalysing role in the upheavals, but when millions took to the streets throughout Egpyt it was in large part because the poor joined in on a massive scale. Yet Hobsbawm seems to be simultaneously writing off the working class as an objective entity and dismissing any subjective agency from anyone who isn't identifiably 'middle class'.

Hobsbawm is also on shaky ground when he traces the Occupy movement back to Barack Obama's election campaign. I'm not aware of anyone inside the Occupy movement claiming this, so it stretches credibility. One of his reasons for making this connection seems to be the role of social media in mobilising activists. I think he has an exaggerated view of the internet's role - in relation to both the Obama camapign and Occupy - but it also obscures the political differences between these two cases, by focusing on form (social media) at the expense of political content.

An important difference is that the Obama campaign was geared entirely to the realm of established electoral politics, which the Occupy movement tends to ignore or even reject. Some of the impetus behind the US-based movement is in fact widespread disenchantment with the Obama administration - which tends not to be targeted as the problem, but it definitely isn't seen as the solution either.

It is reasonable to observe that the 'traditional left' has been marginal to the wave of protests, occupations and uprisings in 2011. It is perhaps unsurprising, considering his background, that Hobsbawm pins this on the supposed decline of the working class rather than paying attention to, say, the impact of the legacy of Stalinism on people's perceptions of socialism and left-wing organisations.

But if we simply account for the left's marginalisation by alluding to a vanished class of industrial labourers, we can't even begin to consider how the left might be rebuilt. Indeed the logical conclusion of Hobsbawm's line of reasoning is that the left cannot be built. Socialism becomes nothing more than a nostalgic fetish, a nice idea but without a material basis.

Renewing the left - and successfully building on the inspiring resistance of this year - requires a recognition of the continuing existence (and potential for collective struggle) of a changing working class. It rests, too, on an accurate understanding of what social forces are involved in today's struggles, and how they can combine to powerful effect.

There are possibilities and pitfalls in the current movements. To build on those possibilities, and avoid the pitfalls, will require strategies for winning based on an accurate view of current conditions - not the erroneous picture Eric Hobsbawm gives us.


1 comment:

  1. The Obama campaign was important for OWS, but not in the way Hobsawm thinks. It was part of the political maturation of the American left and the 99% more broadly, proving in practice that only direct action can get us what we need. I neglected to mention this element in my own analysis of why OWS succeeded where previous efforts failed: