Friday, 8 February 2019

Eric Hobsbawm-A Life in History-Richard J. Evans in conversation with Martin Jacques and Donald Sassoon

To mark the publication of Eric Hobsbawm: A Life in History (Little, Brown) by Richard J. Evans, the Department of History, Classics and Archaeology at Birkbeck and the Institute of Historical Research held a meeting on 7th February 2019.

The publication of A Life in History is a significant event, and the book deserves a wide readership. The meeting itself contained no surprises and minimal controversy. The most exciting part of the evening happened before the event.

People entering the meeting were met by workers protesting at the deplorable conditions faced by outsourced workers at Britains leading universities, Birkbeck included. The protestors had called for a boycott of the meeting. Evans was accused of ignoring the boycott by holding the meeting.

According to his Twitter account, Evans has sent out contradictory statements regarding the boycott, In one of his latest tweets he said  “At the launch of my 'Eric Hobsbawm: A Life in History' yesterday at London's Senate House last night, I took a bundle of the protesters' leaflets into the meeting so people could read them. I am sure we all support the end of outsourcing labour there. I certainly do. I think it is right that outsourced labour should be brought under the aegis of the University of London and given the same working terms and conditions as those employed by the university directly. I understand that the university is making efforts to do this.” 

However, in an earlier tweet, he states “Misleading press reports on last night's launch of my "Eric Hobsbawm: A Life in History -undermining-workers-protest …. Hobsbawm would not have approved of the protest, which was mounted by a small sectarian group unaffiliated with the TUC. It was not a picket line mounted by workers”.

Maritza Castillo Calle, University of London branch chairwoman of the IWGB union,  said “It is disappointing that these respected academics chose to ignore the boycott in order to talk about a Marxist historian that we are sure would be on our side in this struggle, Castillo Calle said the boycott was “a last resort following countless strikes”. She added: “We hope the stand taken by our supporters will make university management finally see sense.”

Calle’s point is valid. The meeting could have spent some time discussing the issue. Evans said he would “bring it to the attention of the meeting. However, Evan’s, regius professor emeritus of history at Cambridge University, did not open such discussion at the meeting. A statement from Birkbeck University said the institution was “strongly supportive of the University of London’s decision to bring currently outsourced staff into direct employment of the university – a process which is currently underway”.

A comment disputed by an  IWGB spokesman who said “The bulk of outsourced workers – including maintenance, cleaners and catering – will remain outsourced at least until their contracts are up for tender in 2019, 2020 and 2021. At that point, an in-house bid will be presented alongside other commercial bids, leaving the door open for the workers to remain outsourced indefinitely.”

The meeting itself was a disappointment. The discussion held between Richard J. Evans author of The Pursuit of Power: Europe 1815-1914, Martin Jacques Editor of Marxism Today from 1977 to 1991 and Donald Sassoon author of One Hundred Years of Socialism was polite, jovial. Given that Hobsbawm was an extraordinarily complex and controversial figure most of the issues that made him so were not discussed. One of these issues was Hobsbawm’s attitude towards the 1917 Russian revolution.

To what extent this was deliberately avoided is open to debate but given that Eric Hobsbawm (1917–2012) was one of the most influential historians of the twentieth century his views on one of the most important events of the Long Twentieth Century are essential.

A member of the Communist Party of Great Britain, he wrote extensively on the modern history of Europe and the world, notably on the rise of industrial capitalism, nationalism, and the socialist movement. He taught at Birkbeck College in London from 1947 to 1982 and held the post of visiting professor in the political science department at the New School for Social Research in New York City from 1984 to 1997.

According to the Marxist writer and expert on Leon Trotsky David North believes that Hobsbawm’s writing on the Russian Revolution mostly portrays the revolution as being “doomed to failure” and a “fatal enterprise.” Hobsbawm believed that the demise of the Soviet Union was the “Shipwreck of Socialism.”


North admits Hobsbawm has produced some excellent work but,” the subject of the Russian Revolution is dangerous territory for Professor Hobsbawm, for in this field his scholarship is compromised by his politics. Hobsbawm once confessed that as a member of the CPGB he had avoided writing about the Russian Revolution and the 20th century because the political line of his party would have prevented him from being entirely truthful. Why he chose to remain a member of a party that would have compelled him to tell lies is a question to which he has never given a convincing answer. At any rate, it would have been best for him and no loss to the writing of history, had he continued to limit himself to events before 1900”.