Which Side of History? │ Jake Scott
You’ll find in debates on social issues that the mantra of “the right side of history” will be trotted out, as always, by the progressives who tell those who defend the “old ways” that they will be on the wrong side, and that their failure is inevitable. This strange terminology, of “sides of history”, “progressives” and “reactionaries”, and “backward thinking” all finds its roots in the utopian thinking that dominated the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries’ political thinking.
The argument made by “progressives” on issues such as gay marriage, that “reactionaries” defend an outdated institution that will inevitably be removed in the movement of history, suggests that history only moves in one direction. But this is just not the case: societies all through history swing like pendulums between competing demands, ranging from security to liberty, from license to morality, from prosperity to bare survival. The same is true of humanity in general. Hegel got many things right, but the unidirectional nature of the movement of history was not one of them and, even if it were and his motivating force of the achievement of freedom was correct, his legacy bequeathed to Marx, who saw history as the process of class warfare, was not. But even more dangerous than the false science of socialism, was the legacy of Utopianism that Hegel breathed new life into.
Any utopian goal is derived from a strange combination of history and abstraction, in which the “lessons” of the past are wrenched out of the very context that bred them, turned into rootless formulae and revised as rules that apply in all places at all times. For instance, the historical communal ties and traditions of trust and reciprocity that created and maintained the parliamentary institutions of Great Britain could not be abstracted and transported to a country where the civil society is structured entirely differently, such as Russia, or where civil society barely exists at all, as in Iran.
Once the movements of history can be revised under these “eternal rules”, the “progress of mankind” becomes inevitable and something to be pursued – at any cost. It is the same motivation for action that led the Communists to believe they could hurry through the bourgeois and proletarian revolutions on the dictates of “history”, and the National Socialists to believe that the race they claimed to represent had the right to subjugate and oppress the different peoples of Europe on the dictates of “nature”. When the ends of the movement of history has already been decided, it is like knowing the destination to a road trip: the goal is all that matters, not the journey. All the distance between now and then can be eradicated, all the essential movements of history that might have led to the end goal that these rules have perceived can be hurried through, and anyone who objects, anyone who gets in the way, anyone who does not fit this template can be eradicated alongside.
But the problem with utopia is that it’s perfect, and human beings are not. Utopia is like a machine that never rusts, runs perfectly and is built for a single purpose; human beings decay, make mistakes and have no single purpose, save the metaphysical goal of happiness. Humans are intended to fit like parts into this utopian machine, which explains so clearly why utopian thinkers have little regard for individual human lives – parts are replaceable, and should be uniform, which means one of two things: that when a person is no longer “fit for service” they can be removed; or, should one part of the whole machine cease to work correctly, everything falls apart. The two options are equally as scary. Either people are treated as tools, or the whole, perfect machine rests on what Isaiah Berlin called “the crooked timber of mankind”.
Once we realise the lie behind the idea of utopia, we can start to do away with the terminology it breeds: there is no “wrong” or “right side of history”; there is no “progress” that has to be made; there are no “backward ideas” or “forward thinking”. There is only where we are, and where we have been. And since we have not left the same place we have always been, we need to recapture the value of the place where we are, and the importance of the traditions and institutions that bind us together.