“Will you debate Eric Hobsbawm? We want a paper from you presenting your understanding of nationality, to which Hobsbawm will write a response”. This was the invitation to the 2004 Nationalism Debate at the Old Theatre of the LSE. I had no desire to debate with Hobsbawm, having critically reviewed his Nations and Nationalism since 1780, a book that is little more than a workmanlike, politicised adaptation of Ernest Gellner’s too-clever-by-half, materialist analysis of nationalism. I accepted the invitation only because the conference marked the retirement of Anthony D. Smith, the distinguished scholar of nationalism.
No need to repeat here the arguments of that paper and Hobsbawm’s response, as they have been published in a book, When is the Nation? However, given all that has been written about Hobsbawm since his recent death, two aspects of his views, beyond his unrepentant Stalinism, came to light in our verbal exchange: a pernicious view of education and an intellectual frivolity.
During the debate, Hobsbawm proclaimed his opposition to even the modest requirement of teaching the history of England. One suspects that he thought teaching the history of one’s country represented a swindle by those in power to manipulate the thoughts of students in the service of consolidating that power. Such a view accords with his understanding of the nation as an “artificial construct” by the “ruling classes to compete for the loyalty of the lower classes”. The result of this pernicious view of education can only be to scorn those hard-won achievements of a thousand years of English history: the inviolability of private property, the sacredness of the individual, religious toleration and the tradition of liberty. We should be proud of those achievements, and they should be continually affirmed for they are an important part of what defines us. The irony was that on the front of the lectern from which Hobsbawm presented his views was a plaque commemorating those alumni who sacrificed their lives defending their country in the Second World War. I hope that lectern with its plaque is still there.
The perniciousness of this view is obscured today because educational reform is masked by claims to neutrality that are buttressed by an appeal to multiculturalism — which is no culture at all and exists only because of the achievements that Hobsbawm dismissed. But he went further, describing our supposedly pervasive, postmodern condition as a welcome fracturing of the individual’s persona. In response, I challenged his frivolous historical understanding with this question: “Just what is new about this condition? Did not individuals like Thomas Becket and Thomas Cranmer face the problem of a divided self, of intense conflict over loyalties?” We have known for a long time that the nature of humanity is, as Edmund Burke observed, intricate. Hobsbawm, like a fly drawn to the glaring light of the latest intellectual fashion, did not respond. Apparently, all that mattered to him was to attack the existence of a national culture. But those attacks on the teaching of national history have consequences.
In 1990, Hobsbawm embarrassingly asserted that nations are no longer “a feasible prospect” just when the nations of Eastern Europe, now free from Soviet tyranny, reasserted themselves. Nationality broke the back of the Socialist Second International in 1914. It remains to be seen whether or not the freedom of national self-government will break the back of the latest attempt to re-establish a European empire. This latter attempt, combined with an indulgence of multiculturalism and an attendant policy of open immigration, has set in motion forces of darkness. It is precisely here that those pernicious and frivolous views must be called to account; for Hobsbawm and those like him bear some responsibility for the revival of these forces.