The idea that history has a predetermined destiny has been responsible for some of humankind’s most destructive ideologies. But despite the failure of many of these schemes, there is such a thing as the best side of history. Ukraine reminds us what this might be.
There is a popular claim that nations and individuals like to make when their plans are at stake – that they stand on the “right side of history.” Never has there been a more misused and misunderstood justification for all sorts of atrocious governments. I want to suggest that it is the very repudiation of the claim of inescapable historical currents in human affairs that ironically does put society on the best side of history.
In a world of chaos, disorder, and unpredictability, in which politicians and economists want to put a leash on human affairs, not merely to successfully direct them, but to predict outcomes, it is enormously tempting to look for the undercurrents, the winds, that drive it in preferred directions. If only we could grasp those basic principles that fashion our societies, then we could build rational communities. Perhaps we could even build utopias through scientific planning, banish wars forever!
And so, since antiquity, with these elysian hopes over the horizon, humans have gone on an Arthurian quest to seek out and articulate the principles of society, convinced that, like the laws of gravitation, there must be scientifically determinable precepts that undergird our civilization. There can be little hesitation in saying that almost all these optimistic minds were motivated by benevolent intentions; they were visionaries and dreamers who wanted to make us better and achieve the eureka breakthrough that would end the darkness and bring order to our troubled existence.
Some of these idealists imagined that history was the result of single individuals, from Egyptian Pharaohs to Genghis Khan. This so-called “great man” view of history reduces our trajectories to the dictates and plans of dominating personalities. If only we could understand them, then the arc of human history could be comprehended in its wider sense.
Others disagreed. Humans were mere marionettes, connected by wires to unseen and hidden forces of much greater magnitude; notable personalities were mere manifestations of inevitable trends. To use another analogy, they were eddies and swirls on a river that hint at deeper currents running beneath these ephemeral surface expressions.
In the 20th century, the most powerful expression of this idea – and when I say powerful, I mean in its impact on vast numbers of people – was Karl Marx’s notion that the productive forces of society, brought into being by human labor, were the wellspring of historical destiny. Historical Materialism is a phrase that will be familiar to every Ukrainian of a certain age, and possibly it elicits a sort of chill.
In Marx’s view of society, because the “relations of production,” the necessary way in which people must interact to achieve things, cannot be readily decided by choice, society necessarily follows certain paths.
Rather than go on a long diversion about Marx and his ideas, I will get at once to my point. When a society is ordered by a particular theory that claims there are inescapable roads to development, then it follows immediately that any deviation from that predicted path is an aberration. If society is to keep on the straight and level, so to speak, then those anomalies must be corrected. If that requires sacrificing millions of individual lives to the gulag, then that is the necessary price to realize the unchangeable predestination.
In such societies, my decision, as leader, to kill you is not malfeasance on my part at all. I am merely allowing the strings of history to direct my movements. You are an unfortunate, but necessary price to be paid to successfully maintain the inevitable trajectory. In executing you, we are both doing our bit to ensure that society successfully achieves its meeting with destiny. Don’t worry, it’s nothing personal; we are both heroes.
But it requires no Marxist to use historical inevitability as a shield to hide abominations of political decisions or systems. Marx just happened to articulate a particularly prominent and egregious example in the modern age. Throughout human history, divine providence, “manifest destiny,” and “being on the right side of history” have all been invoked to claim an unassailable right to carry forward some type of masterplan.
I do not think there is a “right side of history,” in the sense of an immovable orbit from which there is no escape. In fact, I think it is a most pernicious idea. At every stage along the path of progress we can make choices, none are pre-ordained.
Does that mean that we must retreat into some sort of moral relativism that says no form of history or national plan should be considered the right side of history, that everything is relative? This is equally dangerous, as it invites the idea that any sort of society is as good as any other.
I do think there is a type of “right side of history” that we can pursue.
To understand what that might be, sometimes looking backwards can bring clarity. Compare ancient Athens just over two thousand years ago to its neighbor Sparta, the militarily conformist society that was no less successful in perpetuating itself and no less well-planned. Now I have no doubt that a few contrarians among us might prefer Sparta to Athens, but I think it’s true to say that most of us revere the ancient Athenians more. Why so?
If I had to give my personal view, it is because the Athenians pursued a society that sought the flourishing of the human mind and soul. It was a slave state, so by modern standards hardly enlightened, but it bred philosophy, theatre, medicine, astronomy, and the early sparks of what we would now call “science” – which continue to enthrall us. Yet it also inspires us because Athens sought a society of laws and of respect for human life, where families could live in safety. Their armed forces went to war to protect the homeland; their state made strenuous efforts to bring into existence early ideas that today we broadly call liberty.
As our societies develop and humanity advances, I believe that there are things most tolerant humans can agree on. Let me try a few: that we can criticize the people who rule over us without having to worry about being killed; that we can believe the sorts of religions and ideas we as individuals prefer; that we can assemble with other people to do things we enjoy, from setting up a reading club to a political organization, and in turn, we respect the right for others to do the same; and that we can live in peace, free of the threat of being bombed or invaded by our neighbors.
I believe these are things that most of us would consider good directions for decent societies, although we might argue about specifics. For example, is it acceptable for a group of people to set up a society that meets every week to try new culinary recipes for cooked dog? There is no hard rule here, many of these freedoms of which I speak are always open to healthy debate and they depend on our different cultures. Indeed, we might say that a free society is one in which the very meaning of the word freedom is open to constant discussion and the results of those deliberations can be implemented by the people.
But I do think that societies which choose to bring greater peace, happiness, self-respect, liberty, and fulfilment to their people, and to generally minimize coercive, tyrannizing government, are on the right side of history insofar as they represent a better state for humans to be in; they push humanity to less barbaric ends; they represent an advance on the depredations of the past.
Rather than the “right” side of history, which I’ve always thought has a tincture of arrogance about it, I prefer to think of it as the “best” side of history, the one with the most promise for us all to realize our best individual selves for the benefit of the whole, where our minds can find their freest and most creative and effective expression. In such societies, we can achieve the highest level of kindness and forbearance among all of us in our always various and conflicting aspirations.
We can all work to get on the best side of history. Ukraine has reminded us that this is no mirage of an idea. It’s worth defending.
Charles Cockell is Professor of Astrobiology at the University of Edinburgh.
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