Patrick West

Edward Colston and the problem with the ‘right side of history’

The ‘Colston four’ celebrate being cleared of criminal damage (photo: Getty)

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.

The Marxist faith in a future, communist utopia has constantly been frustrated by real events

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.

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