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“[Y]ou cannot deliberate about the inevitable, which is how progressives think of history. As we’ve been told for generations now, ad nauseam, you can’t turn back the clock. By the same token, however, you also can’t turn the clock ahead… Either you’re on the right side of history or the wrong side, where the right side is necessarily understood to mean the winning side, and the wrong side the losing one. Otherwise, this would not be a historical test but an abstract moral or philosophical one.”
— Charles R. Kesler, Crisis of the Two Constitutions, pp. 258-259
In his most recent book, Charles Kesler dismantles one of my many political pet peeves: the conceit of being “on the right side of history.” As I’ve said in debates countless times, history has no sides.
As an example, let me concoct a pair of 20th-century Russians. In 1910, Dmitri was a conscientious church deacon who fully supported Czar Nicholas II. Was Deacon Dmitri on the “right side of history?” Sure … at least until 1917, when Nicholas was forced to abdicate and was later shot. I suppose the deacon was on the wrong side of history from then on.
But his brother Ivan joined the Bolsheviks in 1910, so surely was on the right side of history — at least once the revolution was secured. He soon became an officer in the Cheka, was given a roomy Moscow apartment, and enjoyed the perks of party membership. Dmitri ended up in the Gulag; Ivan grew fat and happy.
During Stalin’s terror, Ivan watched nearly half of his friends — loyal Bolsheviks all — purged via the bullet or the labor camp. He gently raised concerns to an NKVD comrade, who turned him in. All of a sudden, Ivan was back on the wrong side of history despite never changing his views.
Pampered Ivan didn’t survive long, but Dmitri did. After his release and internal exile, he remained loyal to the church and prayed for Ivan’s soul and the end of communism. At the ripe old age of 101, he saw the USSR collapse. Looks like Dmitri was on the right side of history after all!
As demonstrated, claiming any policy is on the “right side of history” is incoherent. It relies on the outdated Hegelian konzept of an ever-enlightening progress of history, making society better all the time. Progressives bought into this from the late 1800s, pairing it with Darwin’s theory of ever-advancing species. They thought history itself acted as an impersonal god working through Progress (undefined) to lead mankind into the sunny uplands and the End of History.
“The history of the world is none other than the progress of the consciousness of freedom,” Hegel wrote, ignoring endless societal implosions that have haunted humanity since at least the Bronze Age Collapse. History sputters along in fits and starts, perhaps increasing “the consciousness of freedom” in central Europe the same year it reduces it in Southeast Asia.
No one can review human history and see a steady pattern of improvement. Technology is more advanced today than in 1922, but there are a lot more divorces and fatherless kids now. Some things have gotten better and others have gotten worse, as always. Ukraine is worse off today than it was 15 years ago and better than it was during the Holodomor. There is no steady march of progress and improvement and there never will be this side of heaven.
Kesler points out historicism‘s nonsensical nature, asking if “the right side always wins wars?” and including the progressive excuse that maybe one “loss” in a noble fight was just a mere battle in a broader war. He then asks progressives to imagine if Obamacare were repealed tomorrow:
American liberals would try to overcome their embarrassment by insisting that poor Obama was too far ahead of his time….
After the repeal of Prohibition, for example, how many observers concluded that the problem with the Eighteenth Amendment was that it was ahead of its time? After the dissolution of the USSR, how many Russians, or even Communists, defended the extinct Soviet Union as too good for this world, or tragically in advance of its age?
It’s one thing to claim grandiloquently to represent the future, to be the future, ever glorious and distant. It’s quite another to have been the future.
A progressive promoting universal healthcare should say she believes it will improve lives now and into the future. I support school choice for that very reason. Neither one of us will know if we’re on “the right side of history,” whatever that means. But our aim should be to attempt, in our own flawed way, to simply do the right thing in the here and now.
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