When Leon Trotsky was in exile the Soviet Union after losing his power struggle with Joseph Stalin, he still led a tiny splinter group. He expelled dissidents from the group, saying he had consigned them “to the dust bin of history.”
There are certain unstated assumptions in that remark, and in any statement about the right or wrong side of history. The assumptions are that (1) the course of history is predictable, (2) the outcome of history is just and (3) being on the winning side proves you were right.
I disagree with all these assumptions. I don’t think the course of history is predictable. I don’t think the outcome of history is necessarily just and I don’t think being a winner proves you are right.
Just to be clear, I agree that gay couples ought to enjoy the same rights as straight married couples. I think this is a question of right and wrong, not of the right or wrong side of history. However, I don’t think that people who were slower to see this than I was should be fired from their jobs or driven out of business merely because of their personal opinions.
But gay marriage is not the topic of this post. The topic is why philosophies of history are bad guides to moral and ethical philosophy.
The German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel believed that history proceeded in stages, each one on a higher moral and intellectual level than the one before, guided by a force he called the World Spirit. I’m not sure whether this was a metaphor or not.
One implication of Hegel’s philosophy was that a “world-historical” personality, such as Napoleon, was not limited by the everyday rules of morality. Helping along the historical process justified everything else.
A student of Hegel’s named Karl Marx took over this idea, but turned it on its head (or, as Marxists asserted, set it right side up). Marx like Hegel believed that history proceeded in stages, but the stages were stages of economic and technological development.
He believed that history as we know it would someday come to an end, probably with the achievement of a perfect society in which humanity would live happily ever after, but possibly with a reversion to barbarism, which would reset the historical process.
The attainment of Communism, which meant the end of human suffering, was for Marx a duty and at the same time a virtually inevitable result. This was and is a powerful meme that has attracted many important people.
An alternate philosophy of history, advocated by Oswald Spengler in his The Decline of the West and Arnold Toynbee in his 12-volume A Study of History, is that history is cyclical, that civilizations go through stages akin to childhood, youth, maturity, old age and senility, or to spring, summer, fall and winter, and that Western civilization is destined to repeat the history of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire.
However, people who believe in a cyclical theory of history are the same as people who believe in a straight-line theory of history in this. They think they know which way history is going, and they think it is useless to fight it.
To be fair, I don’t think that progressive Americans who talk about “the wrong side of history” resemble Hegelians or Trotskyites or Spenglerians. I think they are more akin to the 19th century Unitarian preacher Theodore Parker, who famously said that “the arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice”.
I would like to believe this, but if it is true, it is true only to the extent that people such as Rev. Parker and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. make it a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Nineteenth century Americans believed it was their manifest destiny to occupy the North American continent from sea to shining sea. This was a well-founded belief. The arc of the universe didn’t bend toward justice for the native Americans, or the Mexicans either.
The liberal evangelical Christian writer Fred Clark would say I have a wrong interpretation of being on the right and wrong side of history. He would say that being on the right side of history means acting in the way that you would wish people to remember you.
That can be a good philosophy to live by. The problem with it is that people are not always remembered accurately.
When I was young, my three American political heroes were Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Now that I am older and a little better-read, I see that Jefferson was a great embodiment of the principle, “Do as I say, don’t do as I do.”
I’m now reading Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton, and I now think that Hamilton was by far the greater man. But I think that for most Americans, Jefferson is a hero and Hamilton is a villain, and in that sense Hamilton is on the wrong side of history
Then again, he was greatly concerned about his reputation and tried to behave in a way in which he would deserve a good reputation. So maybe he was living by Fred Clark’s philosophy.
It’s complicated. For myself, I try to decide things based on my beliefs about what’s right and what’s wrong, and what’s true and what’s false, and not on my guess as to what people in the future might think. And when the historical tide seems to be running against the things that I believe in, my consolation is not that I think I have a key to history, but that I know that history is uncertain.
On Being on the Wrong Side of History by David Fitch for Reclaiming the Mission.