The Corner


History Doesn’t Take Sides

The “wrong side of history” is a phrase, wrote Robert Conquest, the great historian of the Soviet Union (and much, much more besides), with a “Marxist twang” about it. Put less politely, it is nonsense. History doesn’t take sides. 

In the course of a piece written (broadly speaking) from the left, in Prospect, Darran Anderson echoes Conquest’s comment and provides additional context:

The essence of the idea [in this case, of a “right” side of history] is a religious one, coming from and rooted in the teleological Judeo-Christian tradition. The universe is not chaotic nor is it cyclical. We are moving towards something that might be said to be God’s kingdom. Even secular Marxism emerged from this train of thought, with its historical materialism, dustbins of history and so on. In all the numerous variations of this outlook, with all the disputed messiahs and expectant end times, it has always been a matter of faith.

And faith can deceive. Two recent articles, one focused on the US, the other on the EU, provide examples of where a belief in the right side of history can lead.  

In a striking piece for New York magazine, Andrew Sullivan reminds us how identity politics are eroding the Enlightenment principles that, however flawed in execution (not infrequently, horrifyingly so), are seen as an integral, natural part of the American order.

[T]he whole concept of an individual who exists apart from group identity is slipping from the discourse. The idea of individual merit — as opposed to various forms of unearned “privilege” — is increasingly suspect. The Enlightenment principles that formed the bedrock of the American experiment — untrammeled free speech, due process, individual (rather than group) rights — are now routinely understood as mere masks for “white male” power, code words for the oppression of women and nonwhites. Any differences in outcome for various groups must always be a function of “hate,” rather than a function of nature or choice or freedom or individual agency. And anyone who questions these assertions is obviously a white supremacist himself.

Why this is happening is a discussion for another day, but that it has been allowed to happen to the degree that it has is partly a function of complacency generated by the conviction that those Enlightenment principles are irreversible, complacency reinforced at one level by the legal protections guaranteed by the Constitution, but, more profoundly, by the idea that those principles are somehow hard-wired into history.

They are not.

Meanwhile in The American Interest, Damir Marusic demonstrates how historical determinism may now be creating divisions between Europe’s east and west, a division, incidentally, that is also the subject of a fascinating article by our own John O’Sullivan in a recent edition of the (London) Spectator.  I would not agree with some of the ideas Marusic endorses. For example, it is not right to describe (and, to be fair, he explains that this is an oversimplification) the project of European unification as having been something that was later imposed “on a set of trade treaties”: In reality it was always there, sometimes hiding in plain sight, sometimes hidden, and always post-democratic.

Nevertheless, Marusic’s broader point is spot-on (and the whole piece is well worth reading): Those steering the EU believe that the arc of history naturally bends their way. That strikes me as a belief that showcases both historical illiteracy and the ability of faith to ignore fact, but it is indeed the belief that they hold. It’s a belief that comes with blinders:  It left them unwilling or unable to (take your pick) understand or accept the true nature of Eastern Europe’s break with the Soviets and, in particular, how much it was driven by a desire to restore national self-determination. That desire was difficult to reconcile with the ruling ideology in Brussels, an ideology according to which not only nationalism, but also the nation-state itself, were notions that history was leaving behind. Their ending was central to the European version of what Marusic labels “democratic determinism”, something he describes as “a vulgarized version of Frank Fukuyama’s more nuanced “End of History” thesis”.

Citing both historian Stephen Kotkin’s Uncivil Society and, in much more detail, a recent essay by Branko Milanovic, a former lead economist at the World Bank, Marusic writes:

Average “Eastern” citizens… were mostly glad to be rid of the threat of Soviet tanks rolling in to prop up a rotten, thieving nomenklatura, and were looking forward to prosperity which they believed would come as a result of adopting Western ways of doing things. This entailed embracing markets and competitive elections, but not, as Milanovic points out, ethnic heterogeneity within their borders. “For Westerners this may be an obvious implication of democracy and liberalism,” he argues. Not so for the Easterners, who had no intention of sacrificing their key accomplishment—national consolidation—“in order to satisfy some abstract principles” they never endorsed in the first place.

That word ‘average’ has to carry a lot of weight. ‘Eastern Europe’ is not a monolith.  Estonia is not Poland. Nevertheless, the debate over ‘ethnic heterogeneity’ and, more precisely, whether the EU should have the ability to force its eastern members to accept some of the migrants so carelessly ‘welcomed’ by Angela Merkel, is real enough.

Back to Marusic:

[I]nsofar as Milanovic’s model is correct, an “Easterner” listens to the incessant complaining coming from democratic determinists in Brussels and bemusedly scratches his head. His legitimately elected leaders are merely protecting values dear to him and his country from a bunch of messianic foreigners preaching an idealistic universalism he’s never signed up for, and that he doubts exists. He just doesn’t see what the big deal is.

And he also might wonder just how democratic ‘democratic determinists’ really are.

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