On the 15th May 2011, a mass demonstration was held in Madrid. Thousands of young people marched through the centre of the city, demanding jobs, better economic conditions and ‘real democracy’, meaning democracy that was grassroots, participatory and direct, based on people’s assemblies and consensus decision making. Although different associations were involved, the main organisers were Juventud Sin Futuro [Youth Without a Future], a student organisation born in the Schools of History, Philosophy and Political Sciences at the Complutense University of Madrid. The demonstrations quickly transformed into a grassroots movement that occupied several plazas in Spain, such as Puerta del Sol square in Madrid. Five days later, the Washington Post, known for its conservative outlook, wrote about a ‘Spanish Revolution’ in which ‘La Puerta del Sol in Madrid is now the country’s Tahir Square, and the Arab Spring has been joined by what is now bracing to become a long European Summer.’
Among the demonstrators was a young 19 year old undergraduate student in history who felt he belonged to an international community of left-wing activists: a feeling that was widely shared. They dreamt that they were beginning a new revolution, and that the events unfolding in the Arab countries, Spain and later Occupy Wall Street, in the United States was the beginning of a new historical movement to put an end to the neoliberal austerity regime in place since Thatcher and Reagan. They also saw this new activism as a continuation of the fights of their parents against the Spanish dictatorship in the seventies, and those who fought fascism in the thirties, during the Spanish civil war.
The undergraduate in question was, of course, me. But the ‘15M’ or ‘Indignados Movement’ was not only a moment of global solidarity; it was also a moment of discovery. Of the many intellectual exchanges in Puerta del Sol square, one of them was reading of Age of Extremes by British historian Eric Hobsbawm. This book made a powerful impact on me. It was not only the history Hobsbawm was telling, but the feeling that we were living the same story again. In a left that lacked a vision of the future since the fall of Communism, the Indignados Movement became a moment of political imagination, a space to imagine a better future. Dwelling in the past through the struggles of Eric Hobsbawm, an old communist who lived in Berlin when the Nazis came to power, who was in Paris in July 1936 at the height of the French Popular Front, who travelled to Spain in the midst of its Civil War, were inspiring to a new generation of committed historians like me.
But how could a man, 92 at the time I read him, who published Age of Extremes in 1994, and which focussed on the political failure of communism- the cause he had committed his entire life to- connect to a young generation born after the fall of the Berlin wall, demonstrating in Madrid in 2011? For us, the words and sounds of Hobsbawm’s narrative of the thirties matched our perception of 2011: the deepest economic crisis since 1929, the discrediting of the main political parties, the failure of the free-market and (neo)-liberalism, the rise of far-right parties in Europe and German imposition of austerity on the rest of European countries, especially in southern Europe. If Hobsbawm was fighting the fascists of the thirties, we were fighting the ‘fascists’ of the 2010s. We imagined ourselves as the new antifascist front against the threat of neoliberalism, austerity and the far-right.
This personal account encapsulates Hobsbawm’s skill as a historian. When writing about the past, he inspired political commitments- in this case left-wing activism in the present- through political imagination. Hobsbawm’s skill was not solely his capacity as an historian to digest the twentieth century, but his ability to connect through the symbols of antifascism and his lived experience in the thirties with readers who lived in different times and places. His status as a communist who witnessed the rise of fascism and anti-fascism in Spain in the 1930s made ‘authentic’ his narrative to us in 2011.
Eleven years after this event, in the midst of industrial action in the UK, this episode reminds me of how historians and their historical work can shape our political commitment and our sense of solidarity across different countries and times. The Indignados movement was my political birth. I have carried on the hopes and learnings from this experience in the aim to fight for our pensions in the UK.