By Keith Flett
30 December 2011
The year-end articles which fill the media at this time of year have noted in the most part that it has been a momentous year.
Comparisons have been made with 1968 and, reaching back, to 1848. Most have taken the comment little further than that.
However the veteran Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm has given an interview to the BBC which situates the question in a sounder historical framework.
Hobsbawm argues that the events of 2011 are similar to those of 1848 because they started with people, often middle class, on the streets making protests.
He goes on to argue that these protests, which turned into revolutionary moments throughout much of Europe, were in every case defeated.
However that was only in the short term because in the longer run the impact on society in terms of forcing change for the benefit of ordinary people was considerable.
It may not have been what those who fought in 1848 wanted, but it underlined that protest does work, even if not always in the way envisaged by the protesters.
So far so good. Hobsbawm is making the sound historical points that social and political change come about through the actions of ordinary people but often takes longer than hoped.
That is a good assessment of 1848 and after and a useful framework in which to understand 2011.
Hobsbawm also has some more historically controversial things to say.
While he sees the revolutions of 1848 as leading to significant political change, he does not draw the same conclusion about the events of 2011.
In a sense, historically that is fair enough. However we define a "classical" revolution, nothing in 2011 quite met that, even if the potential was there to do so. So it is a little soon to say how matters will go on.
That is not the point Hobsbawm is making.
Rather he echoes his points of 30 years ago in the Forward March of Labour Halted. Namely that revolution in the old sense is no longer possible because the industrial formations and working class that Marx knew have disappeared.
Frankly this makes even less sense now than it did when Hobsbawm first wrote it.
We may accept that the nature of the workforce is changing but the mobilisations of March 26 and November 30 this year in Britain - the biggest for generations - do not exactly suggest a diminishing number of people who see themselves as workers and act collectively as such.
But more generally the point does not make historical sense. The scale of industry and the size of the working class globally now is far greater than it was when Marx wrote.
Just the Chinese working class on its own dwarfs the numbers of the working class in 1848.
Moreover the country at the epicentre of events in 2011- Egypt - has the most significant working class in the region, one that continues to grow and has formed numbers of independent trade unions in recent times. The same point is true of industry in Egypt. The country is a significant industrial centre.
None of this guarantees revolutionary developments.
Hobsbawm as a historian is right to be cautious about that. That will require political ideas, organisation and leadership.
Hobsbawm expresses concerns that the Arab Spring may turn in less than welcome Islamist directions and that the Occupy movement is middle-class focused. Both might be disputed but the historical point is that this is work in progress for socialists to contest.
But Hobsbawm is right overall. 2011 does provide the left with reasons to be cheerful.