Popper, Hobsbawm and the Lost Cause - 2

So we have two kinds of history, one a social science, the other an artifact of oral tradition. And we have this sanctimonious party of individuals who erroneously identify themselves with social science going after the other party, traditionalists, on the basis that they are corrupting social science with their inexact statements about causes and courses of the war.

I'm referring to people outraged by the so-called Lost Cause belief system and those adherents to certain "Lost Cause" nostrums.

The English communist Eric Hobsbawm collected some very interesting essays with Terence Ranger on the subject of inventing tradition. I am going to simplify his position grotesquely by saying that to Hobsbawm, tradition is invented and is therefore a manipulation staged according to the irreduceable Leninsit question of who-whom. That is, one must ask who benefits from the tradition in order to discover its agency and purpose as a propaganda mechanism. This puts tradition into the category of conspiracy and takes it out of the realm of mythology.

A close reading of the attacks on Lost Cause beliefs suggest a consistently Hobsbawmian approach. The LC is seen as a manipulation; it apparently represents the conscious invention of traditions; it offers a calculated shading of history-as-truth; it seems intended to serve an alibi function for the modern white South, etc. These are the commonest lines of argument one sees in anti-LC polemic. I'm not suggesting that our critics of the LC are Hobsbawm readers but rather that they are manifesting a universal analytic tendency toward conspiracy theory.

Thirty years before the Hobsbawm and Ranger thesis, Karl Popper (photo, right) was having a Clausewitzian moment in a lecture called "Towards a Rational Theory of Tradition." Imagine Clausewitz's ideas on friction in war cast into the social milieu. Popper (original emphasis):
... it is one of the striking things of social life that nothing ever comes off exactly as intended. Things always turn out a little bit differently. We hardly ever produce in social life precisely the effect we intend to produce, and we usually get things that we do not want into the bargain.
Popper is questioning the viability of conspiracy theories in history. And as I have said, the current form of the attack on Lost Cause thinking is in such a form. Popper:
I think that the people who approach the social sciences with a ready-made conspiracy theory thereby deny themselves the possibility of ever understanding what the task of the social sciences is, for they assume that we can explain practically everything in society by asking who wanted it, whereas the real task of the social sciences is to explain those things nobody wants... The conspiracy theorist will believe that institutions can be understood completely as a result of conscious design; and as to collectives, he usually ascribes to them a group personality, treating them as conspiring agents , just as if they were individual men.
Popper's comments on tradition in this same lecture have huge implications for critics of Lost Cause memes:
It is only very rarely that people consciously wish to create a tradition; and even in these cases they are not likely to succeed.
Let that sink in before moving on to this:
On the other hand, people who have never dreamt of creating a tradition may nevertheless do so, without having any such intention. Thus we arrive at one of the problems of the theory of tradition: how do traditions arise - and more important how do they persist - as the (possibly unintended) consequences of people's actions.
I'll look at the Lost Cause as an unintended tradition next.