As a philosopher rather than an historian, I came along to Brighton University’s conference on Eric Hobsbawm who died just recently to listen rather than take active part. Also I had to leave promptly at the end, so I am using cyberspace to make two particular comments which occurred to me – only one directly connected to Hobsbawm himself.
First, the point was made by Mark Perryman that Hobsbawm believed that patriotism could run along with militant class consciousness (on Marxist lines) and that he had opposed Scottish nationalism. Tom Hickey, another contributor, objected that patriotism can never fit the Marxist bill because it is always linked to tradition and history. Now, whilst I would agree with Hickey on that theoretically, it needs to be remembered that most, if not all, Communist and allied movements in fact tried to combine patriotism with their other aims. This applied not only to regimes in the Communist world (we need only think of the Soviet designation of their war against Hitler as The Great Patriotic War) but also to those ‘national liberation’ movements in Asia, Africa, or central and south America during the 1950s to 1970s which clearly appeared as patriotic as well as Marxist in their ideology. In their case the chief problem was probably that the combination with patriotism made it even more likely that these movements would turn into tyrannical dictatorships if they gained power than the Marxist ideology alone would. That is a different problem from that of conservatives who try to fight the social problems of modernity with patriotism only to find they have to modernise in order to hold onto their identities and traditions in the first place, although again tyranny can result therefrom.
Second, in talking about student protests of 2010 rather than Hobsbawm himself, Lucy Robinson suggested that in some situations it might be important not to tell the truth, but to ‘make the truth happen’ as she put it. I have to say this seems to me to be an incredibly dangerous position to take. To begin with, any black propagandist from Goebbels to McCarthy would be delighted to find such a notion of truth accepted – simply there would never be a problem with being accused of lying or deception whatever you say or do; all you are doing is trying to make truth happen (for you). In addition, it is probably fair to say that none of the various philosophical theories of truth would accept such an idea. However, a danger with the pragmatic or coherence theories is just that they could lead in that direction because in reality it is impossible to be sure that the rational and expert judgment which those theories rely on is really as trustworthy as they need it to be. That is, the thought sequence ‘Let’s make the consensus and then we make the truth to fit what we want’ is a possibility in these cases; for instance, because experts can be misled, bribed or intimidated. So, I would plead with Ms Robinson to think again.