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Eric Hobsbawm: A Life in History

Sir Richard J. Evans, Visiting Professor at Birkbeck’s Department of History, Classics and Archaeology, was joined by former students and colleagues of Eric Hobsbawm to discuss his new biography of the great historian.

Eric Hobsbawm: A Life in History event

How do you portray the life of one of the most widely read and influential historians in the world, known as much for his politics as his academic work, both a controversial figure and eminently respectable? This was the task before Sir Richard J. Evans, Visiting Professor at Birkbeck’s Department of History, Classics and Archaeology and Fellow of the College, when he embarked upon a biography of Eric Hobsbawm, former President of Birkbeck.

Eric Hobsbawm: A Life in History (2019) is the culmination of these efforts, and in an exhilarating exchange on Thursday 7 February, an audience filled with friends and former students of Hobsbawm gained a deeper, more personal insight into the historian and his biographer. Evans was joined in discussion by Martin Jacques, former editor of Marxism today, and Donald Sassoon, who wrote his PhD at Birkbeck under Hobsbawm’s supervision and went on to author One Hundred Years of Socialism: The European Left in the Twentieth Century (1996).

Introducing the evening, Tim Whiting of Little, Brown praised Richard Evans for depicting not just the “academic, literary” aspect of Hobsbawm’s life, but the “personal domestic” side as well. As Sassoon noted, this is something Hobsbawm himself felt disinclined to do in his autobiography Interesting Times (2002), which focused more on the changing world around him than on himself. Indeed, Evans discussed his pleasure as a historian of having access not just to Hobsbawm’s published work, but memoirs, teenage diaries, and unpublished poems and treatises, with which he could construct a fuller picture of the individual.

The work may be unusually long for a modern biography, but Evans was unapologetic on this front, attributing the book's length to Hobsbawm’s long life and the depth and breadth of his interests and knowledge, which encompassed not only history and politics but also literature, art, languages and jazz. Evans recalled encountering an intimidating list of all the books Hobsbawm had read each week in his diary entries, ranging from Lenin and Marx to French plays and German poetry. Describing Hobsbawm as “a master of prose in his private and public writing”, Evans said this was what he wanted to share with readers. It seems these efforts were successful, as Jacques recalled that “threading his way through the book is Eric - his voice is there, his jokes are there.”

In a discussion about Hobsbawm’s life and work, inevitably his political views were also mentioned, even if just to criticise past reviewers, who never failed to mention his membership of the Communist party. In this area, too, Evans suggested a more complicated picture. In his portrayal, Hobsbawm’s communism was aligned far more with twentieth-century Italian politics than with the Communist party of the time in the UK.

Zehra Miah, a former Hobsbawm scholarship student was also in attendance and presented at the event. She said: "By returning each year to the annual Eric Hobsbawm memorial lecture and events like this, I can share my journey and hopefully encourage further donations so that the scholarship can continue to support students like me. If there is one thing that I, as an aspiring academic battle with, it is feeling like I am here by sheer luck and that I might get found out. The scholarship though, along with the opportunities that it has given me are helping to change that mindset.

"When I arrived at Birkbeck in 2009 with a number of mediocre GCSEs achieved years before I would have laughed if I had been told that in October 2019 I would be starting a PhD - but that is exactly what I am doing. The support I have received from the department and its academics (and of course David Jones and Daniel Binney in the office), my peers and this scholarship have literally changed my life."

The conversation ended by turning to questions of present-day politics, with Sassoon arguing that in today’s world there is no place for histories of the kind Hobsbawm wrote in The Age of Empire, as “the world is being turned upside down.” The questions and answers following the discussion were punctuated with lively comments both from Hobsbawm’s former students and current History students, some of them supported by the Hobsbawm scholarship fund. Hobsbawm’s commitment to critical enquiry and social change seems alive and well – while the famous conclusion of his autobiography seems more relevant than ever : “the world will not get better on its own.”

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