London, Asharq Al-Awsat – “Well, until now I could only claim to be Egyptian by birth,” the old man said with a naughty boy’s smile. “But now I can say that my heart is Egyptian.”
It was the early days of the “Arab Spring” when Tahrir Square in Cairo had suddenly become a beacon of hope for a region seemingly stuck in despotic darkness. The man talking, only half in jest was Eric Hobsbawm, acknowledged by friend and foe as the world’s last “great Marxist historian”. I had invited Hobsbawm and his wife Marlene and veteran Lebanese journalist Walid Abimerched to a Persian restaurant in Marylebone to see how the “Great Marxist historian” saw the thrilling tide of change sweeping across North Africa towards the Levant.
It was my second encounter with Hobsbawm in less than a year; the first time we had met in Bloomsbury in his tiny overcrowded office in Birbeck College of which he was President. At that time we had met to discuss the possibility of him visiting the Middle East to deliver some lectures. Although he was already 93 years old, Hobsbawm appeared keen to embark on such a visit, promising to find suitable opportunities in his busy schedule.
During the first meeting, Hobsbawm appeared downcast about prospects for meaningful change in the Middle East. Three years earlier he had ‘phoned to register his “disappointment” at the fact that I had supported regime change in Iraq. Now, while still angry with “the invasion”, he agreed that Iraqis should be given a chance to try and build something better than the edifice of oppression erected by Saddam Hussein.
Our last meeting at the Persian restaurant lasted more than two hours with Hobsbawm clearly rejuvenated by the promise of a pan-Arab revolution.
Knowing that Hobsbawm would be at his best when provoked, I suggested that the “Arab Spring” may well turn out to be a Middle Eastern version of the 1848 revolution that swept across Europe but, althouigh it inspired Marx’s ” Communist Manifesto”, ended up in Louis Bonaparte and Otto von Bismarck , its saving grace nothing but Wagner’s Ring operas.
Manifesting optimism in sharp contrast with the downbeat mood of our last meeting, Hobsbawm dismissed our concern as “premature.”
“In any case, a revolution’s success or failure cannot be measured by its immediate political consequences alone,” he suggested. “The fact that Arab societies have shown that they have the potential and the energy of revolutionary action is a success in itself.”
It was also wrong to dismiss the 1848 revolution as a failure. From a longer historical perspective, it was not. It changed the geopolitical map of Europe and paved the way for major social and political reforms of the half a century that followed. The “Arab Spring”, too, may end up in early political failure but is sure to inspire reform in the medium and long term.
Hobsbawm admitted that the Leninist model , in which the proletariat supposedly serves as the vanguard of revolution, is of little use in understanding the “Arab Spring” which was a largely spontaneous uprising generated by popular discontent. The fact that organized Islamist group had joined the uprising only after it had asserted itself was also significant. It showed that social and political, rather than religious, considerations and inspired the movement.
While Hobsbawm seemed to have little doubt that the passing of despotic regimes was a good thing he seemed unsure that “Arab Spring” might lead to Western-style liberal systems. Here, Hobsbawm sounded uncharacteristically Eurocentric by asserting that only Tunisia “because of its closeness to France and long history of influence from Europe” might move towards pluralism of the kind developed in Western Europe.
Hobsbawm was born in Alexandria, Egypt, into a Jewish family, in 1917, the year of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. Throughout his life, he liked to recall that coincidence as somehow meaningful in shaping his character and sustaining his undying, almost sentimental, attachment to the Russian Revolution and its dreams. Even the crimes committed by Stalin, claiming the lives of tens of millions of people, did not persuade Hobsbawm to probe the possibility that the Russian Revolution was destined by its very nature to serve as a vehicle for mass murder.
When pushed into the defensive, Hobsbawm has one last card to play in support of his sentimental attachment to the Russian Revolution and the Soviet Union that was its fruit. “Humanity owes the Russian Revolution a lot,” he would say. “It was the USSR that rid the world of Nazism.”
Disingenuous as it was, the argument ignored key historic facts. The fact, for example, that Stalin had signed a pact of friendship with Hitler and divided Poland between them. Or that the USSR entered the war only when it was attacked by Nazi Germany and had no choice but to fight back in self-defense.
Hobsbawm never liberated himself from his Marxian dogmas. But in the final years he demonstrated a broadening of ideological horizons inspired by greater familiarity with the values first developed by the age of the Enlightenment. He spoke of his attachment to such values as “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” phrases that feature in the Constitution of the United States, for long regarded as an “Imperialist” oppressor of the world.
In a rare life experience, Hobsbawm spent part of his teen-age years in Austria and then Berlin and witnessed the collapse of European Social Democracy, the massacre of Communists and the rise of Fascism. His family fled to Great Britain before Hitler shut the gates for Jews and started building his gas chambers. After a passage through the University of Cambridge, Hobsbawm quickly established himself as a Marxist historian offering a “people-based” narrative of events that have shaped the world. Partly, thanks to Marxism being fashionable in Western Europe in the 1950s and 1960s, Hobsbawm established himself as a best-selling historian. However, it would be unfair to assert that his success was solely due to fashion if only because he retained a large audience long after Marxism has ceased to be a la mode.
I can think of at least two reasons for his success.
The first is that he lived in Britain, a liberal democracy in which diversity and otherness are not only tolerated but actively encouraged. It was no accident that the Queen of England granted Hobsbawm the same rank and honor as she did to one of her former prime ministers John Major.
The second reason for Hobsbawm’s abiding success was his limpid prose and his almost novelistic ability to narrate history from his own peculiar point of view. One may not agree with Hobsbawm’s view of historic events; but one always enjoys his take on them. His history is not a tale of rulers and conquerors but the story of ordinary people whose lives, when pieced together, provides a richer picture of what actually happened.
Hobsbawm who managed to retain a surprising youthfulness right to the end- and that despite his long fight with leukemia- added another layer of complexity to his personality by becoming one of Britain’s leading authorities on jazz about which he wrote with astonishing facility.
One of few historians whose books are constantly in print, Hobsbawm helped entice millions of people across the world to reading history. For that alone he is likely to be missed for a very long time.