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Life through Hobsbawm's lens

Baroness Joan Bakewell and Professor Sir Richard J Evans discussed the ideas of Eric Hobsbawm and today’s burning issues in conversation at Birkbeck.

L-R: Professor Richard J Evans and Baroness Joan Bakewell

On Tuesday 7 May, Birkbeck was honoured to host a lively discussion between President of the College Baroness Bakewell and Professor Sir Richard J Evans at the School of Arts’ Keynes Library on topics such as; Brexit, global insecurity and social justice through the lens of one of the greatest historians of the last century, Eric Hobsbawm.  

Head of the Department of History, Classics and Archaeology, Professor Jan Rüger introduced the talk, touching upon how the speakers have been influenced by Hobsbawm who began teaching at Birkbeck in 1947, later becoming President of the College in 2002. Baroness Bakewell was taught by Hobsbawm at Cambridge, and Sir Richard, who is currently a Visiting Professor at Birkbeck, published his biography, Eric Hobsbawm: A Life in History in 2019. Baroness Bakewell recalled being “taught by questioning” under Hobsbawm and how the prominent historian often made “learning a conversation”. Hobsbawm was one of the most influential thinkers of the twentieth century and his teachings have had a global reach that continues to inspire students and academics around the world.

Sir Richard began by speaking about Hobsbawm’s life, stating that it was during his adolescence that he decided to become an intellectual and took his first steps into a life committed to critical theory and political engagement. In 1956, following the Hungarian Revolution, he left the Communist Party and focused on his career as a historian. Sir Richard noted that Hobsbawm ushered in a new approach to writing history, using themes to structure his study and finding connections rather than documenting history chronologically. Although focused on socioeconomic issues for much of his life, Sir Richard noted Hobsbawm’s love of literature and culture, something which made him ‘unconventional’ in both his teaching and writing.

Baroness Bakewell questioned Sir Richard on what Hobsbawm may have thought about some of the most pressing issues facing us today. Sir Richard stated that Hobsbawm was opposed to nationalism and was “cosmopolitan by nature,” and therefore would have “loathed Brexit”. Hobsbawm’s legacy lives on at Birkbeck both through ideas and the Eric Hobsbawm Scholarships. The scholarships embody the College’s lasting commitment to offering a world-class, research-led education to talented students who could not otherwise afford to study at university. We look forward to welcoming the next Hobsbawm Scholars to Birkbeck in the autumn.

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