Richard J Evans: 'When I began to go through his unpublished private papers, I realised just how rich they were'

This article is from 2019

Richard J Evans: The History of Eric Hobsbawm

credit: Torsten Silz

Ahead of his event at Edinburgh International Book Festival, Evans discusses his biography of Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm

In January 1933, a 15-year-old Eric Hobsbawm was among the 130,000 communists who gathered in Berlin to protest Hitler's imminent rise to power. Months later, this young man of Austrian Jewish descent fled to Britain, where he would become one of the great Marxist historians. As his biographer Richard J Evans puts it, Hobsbawm saw 'history not just as a matter of kings and battles, politics and diplomacy … but including social, economic and cultural aspects as well: history in the round, with Britain treated as part of Europe.' That he was able to reach a wide readership is, Evans argues, testament to his ability to give new interpretations to important topics, 'conveyed in a brilliant and highly readable style.'

For Evans, author of Eric Hobsbawm: A Life In History, the late historian's greatest strengths were his 'combination of big ideas and concepts, literary flair, the telling examples and quotations, and the enormous geographical range of his knowledge.' A long-time admirer of Hobsbawm the historian, Evans was keen to find out more about the man himself. 'I'd read his own memoir with interest and appreciation, but when I began to go through his unpublished private papers, I realised just how rich they were.' One particularly intriguing strand is his great love of jazz.

Later in life, Hobsbawm confounded old comrades with his support for New Labour. As Evans notes, 'he believed that all the various parties of the Left should co-operate with one another in order to achieve power, as they did in France for the Popular Front in 1936. New Labour in his view, at least at the beginning, was based on the co-operation of the traditional industrial working class with progressive elements of the bourgeoisie. Only as it became clear that Tony Blair was following many of the basic ideas and policies of neo-liberalism did Hobsbawm change his mind.'

For Evans, Hobsbawm's arguments for a broad alliance of the left are 'more relevant than ever.' As for his legacy as a historian, Evans notes that his arguments and interpretations are still being debated today. Asked to name a favourite work, Evans cites Bandits, 'a terrific, short survey that conveys a romantic enthusiasm for the "social bandit", the Robin Hood type of rural rebel, [which] draws in examples from all over the world, and assimilates them all to an overarching and provocative interpretation. It's full of wonderful stories and vivid characters.'

Richard J Evans: An Age Of Extremes, Charlotte Square Gardens, 14 Aug, 12.30pm, £12 (£10).

Richard J Evans

Eric Hobsbawm spent his life investigating the trends and changes shaping our world. Now, one of his colleagues has written a study of the man and his ideas. In A Life in History, fellow historian Richard J Evans reveals Hobsbawm the thinker and person: the passionate fan of jazz and poetry; the young radical in Weimar…