There has been much anger after the Colston statue verdict this week, in which a jury cleared four protesters of criminal damage over the toppling of the monument in Bristol. It is an affront to many that vandalism can be exonerated on the grounds of supposedly righting the wrongs of the past, owing to Edward Colston’s role in the slave trade.
Yet the most egregious aspect of the case was the plea, on the behalf of the defence, that the jury ‘be on the right side of history’ in reaching their decision. This ingratiating phrase has become popular among progressives in recent years. It’s not just annoying and absurd because of its pretentions to clairvoyance from those who utter it, from those who seemingly derive their morality from what it says on the calendar. The ‘right side of history’ argument is actually worrying because of the mentality of those who deploy it. This phrase so beloved by progressives today is also a phrase beloved by totalitarian regimes and the doctrinaire Marxists and fascists of yesterday.
As Karl Popper wrote in The Poverty of Historicism, those who insist that history is unstoppably moving in one direction will use it to punish dissenters and deviants from this ‘inevitability’. Those who are condemned become deviants first in the metaphysical sense and then in the moral sense: in straying from the supernatural laws of history they become dangerous and immoral.
People who question this dogma must therefore be re-educated. Or worse. This is why Popper dedicated his book to the ‘memory of the countless men and women of all creeds or nations or races who fell victim to the fascist and communist belief in Inexorable Laws of Historical Destiny’.
The belief in fate and historical inevitability is as old as humanity itself, of course, but it first became secularised in the 18th century when some philosophers, excited by the theories of Kepler and Newton which suggested that the universe was rational, orderly and therefore predictable, began to wonder if the same laws could be applied to mankind.
Chief among these thinkers was the Marquis de Condorcet, sometimes called the last of the philosophes, a benevolent soul and perfectibilist, who believed in ‘the idea that the general laws directing the phenomenon of the universe, known or unknown, are necessary and constant. Why should this principle be any less true for the development of the intellectual and moral faculties of man?’ As author of Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind, he was also one of the first advocates of modern historicism, believing history can be read to predict the future. Appropriately, he was also one of modern historicism’s first victims. He died in 1794 after being imprisoned by revolutionary fanatics who believed that through bloodshed society could be purged of impurities and thrust forward.
The notion that the course of human history could be scientifically deduced did not die with him. It was appropriated by the sociologist Auguste Comte, who also founded ‘The Religion of Humanity’, and whose philosophy of Positivism said that humanity would pass three stages of evolution before reaching a perfect era of scientific reason, in which all social problems would and could be solved.
Then, most ominously, came Karl Marx and dialectical materialism, which, after Hegel, also determined that humanity was on a course that could not be altered. It could only be hurried along or hindered, with obstacles removed when necessary.
Just as the Jacobins before them, latter-day Marxists and totalitarian regimes believed it imperative that the course of history be obeyed. Any opponents who died or were killed along the way were inevitable casualties in the march of progress.
In truth, no one knows the course of history, let alone decipher any laws. Because there aren’t any. The Marxist faith in a future, communist utopia has constantly been frustrated by real events. Even a watered-down, Whiggish-cum-liberal belief in the endless improvement of an ever-rational, universal humanity has constantly been thwarted.
It was not just the two world wars of the 20th century that shattered Victorian optimism of so many hues. The convulsions of living memory have also proved ‘history’ – past or future – to be bunk. Witness the retrogressive, irrational and tribalistic movements that have swept the globe, from Islamism, hard-right nativism, moral and scientific relativism, the otherworldly cult of identity politics – some of whose activists, beholden to arcane notions of racial essentialism and Orwellian desire to erase the past, are actually proud to be vandals and iconoclasts. If we are to be judged by our descendants, perhaps it is we who are on the wrong side of history.