What the Left and Right Both Misunderstand About History

Speculative philosophies of history generally fall into one of two types: the teleological type and the cyclical type.

Hegel’s immediate successors are typically distinguished into two streams—the Right Hegelians who used his thought to promote forms of conservative social thought, and the Left Hegelians who used his philosophy as the foundation for radical social and religious criticism. When one of the latter—a young man named Karl Marx—turned Hegel’s philosophical idealism on its head and connected it instead to materialism, the result was Marxism. The rest, as they say, is history—dark, bloody, and oppressive.

 

Just before the Battle of Jena in 1806, the great philosopher G. W. F. Hegel saw Napoleon riding by and, pointing to him, declared him to be the World Spirit. It was no empty or idle compliment. Rather, Hegel saw in Napoleon the culmination of the process of history. History was at an end in the person of the great general and emperor who had come to embody the post-revolutionary state.

Hegel is without doubt the most influential of the speculative philosophers of history. He sought to find the deeper dynamics (and thus the ultimate meaning) of the historical process by identifying patterns in history. Others had done so before—the Islamic scholar, Ibn Khaldun, for example—but the impact of Hegel is incalculable. His immediate successors are typically distinguished into two streams—the Right Hegelians who used his thought to promote forms of conservative social thought, and the Left Hegelians who used his philosophy as the foundation for radical social and religious criticism.

When one of the latter—a young man named Karl Marx—turned Hegel’s philosophical idealism on its head and connected it instead to materialism, the result was Marxism. The rest, as they say, is history—dark, bloody, and oppressive.

Speculative Philosophies of History

And that takes us to the heart—and the challenge—of speculative philosophies of history. Terry Eagleton recently observed that “Marxism is a theory and practice of social change.” That’s a fine summary not simply of the ambitions of Marxism but of all speculative philosophies of history, because they typically offer justification for particular political viewpoints or actions speciously rooted in alleged objective historical processes.

In doing so, they either grant moral legitimacy to courses of action or declare that moral judgment on them is irrelevant because history is ultimately a matter of impersonal processes, not free agency. These are the theoretical underpinnings of claims to being “on the right side of history” or about the moral direction in which the arc of history bends.

Speculative philosophies of history generally fall into one of two types. There’s the teleological type that sees history as moving forward in a specific manner, in which eras or epochs are marked by fundamental change with what has gone before and where the ultimate meaning of history lies in the future. Teleological philosophies of history tend toward utopianism and, in practice if not always in theory, toward totalitarianism.

Many Hegel scholars see his political philosophy in such terms, and his comment about Napoleon would certainly be evidence of that. But perhaps Marxism is the obvious example here, with its scheme of historical development whereby feudalism is replaced by bourgeois capitalism, which eventually collapses under the weight of its economic contradictions and is replaced by a state in which private property is abolished and history reaches its end. But the left has no monopoly on such teleological visions. Nearly 30 years ago Francis Fukuyama, a modern-day Hegelian, (in)famously declared history to be at an end with the collapse of Soviet communism and the triumph of Western free-market democracies. And the Nazi theory of racial conflict was also tied to teleology, as the work of its chief historical ideologist, Alfred Rosenberg, made clear.

The second type of speculative philosophy of history is the cyclical. Here there’s no future end inevitably to be attained by building on successive epochs. Rather history consists of a series of repeated patterns or cycles that simply continue indefinitely. Typical of such a philosophy of history is the idea that civilizations rise and fall in accordance with particular social dynamics. In the 20th century, Arnold Toynbee was without doubt the most articulate and influential example of this approach.

All of this might be of great interest to academic historians but of what relevance is it to the general populace or, more particularly, to Christians? So what if Marx turned Hegel on his head, or Toynbee thought civilizations all rose and fell in similar ways? Does that make any difference to how the typical Christian should think or live?

These are obvious and reasonable questions, the answer to which is: It makes a great deal of difference, in large part because such speculative philosophies of history have so permeated our culture that they shape how people think about the world and their place in it. As noted above, phrases such as “on the right side of history” are poker tells that clearly indicate the influence of such approaches.

Cyclical History and the Alt-Right

Recently, this influence has become more obvious with the rise of the so-called alt-right. At the heart of President Trump’s 2016 campaign stood Steve Bannon. Bannon is an open admirier of a book called The Fourth Turning, written by William Strauss and Neil Howe and first published in 1997. This work offers a cyclical view of history, specifically that of the United States, as its subtitle indicates: What the Cycles of History Tell Us About America’s Next Rendezvous with Destiny.

The basic thesis of the book is simple. America’s history “happens” in cycles of 80 to 100 years and follows a basic pattern:

  1. an era of peace and prosperity (the first turning);
  2. an era of rising political consciousness that leads to criticism of established institutions and a certain amount of social conflict (the second turning);
  3. a period of open cultural warfare (the third turning); and
  4. a major crisis that leads to the collapse of social institutions, a clearing of the cultural and social ground, and thus opens the way for rebuilding (the fourth turning).

Then society is back to its state of peace and prosperity.

The time period for this process—80 to 100 years—isn’t arbitrary but reflects the fact that the whole process is shaped by the values of, and relative distribution of power among, generations. Essentially, the four-fold scheme represents the rise and fall of four generations. The dominant class in each “turning” shapes the values of the next generation in a manner that will bring about the next phase, the next turn, in the process.

The pattern has a specious plausibility to it when applied to the United States. The American Revolution, the Civil War, and the World War II are all, according to the authors, “fourth turnings” and all occur within the 80- to 100-year cyclical range. And now, of course, we stand some 73 years out from the end of World War II and, according to Bannon, are ripe for a fourth turning that will shatter society as we know it and make way for the building of a new America in its wake.

Such a view of history is ripe for our current moment. On both right and left, there’s a pervasive fin-de-siècle ethos. The rise of Trump and populism has shattered the confidence of progressives. The fractious nature of identity politics has called into question what binds societies together. Liberal democracy is under huge strain. Previously undisputed social goods—freedom of speech, freedom of religion—are now matters of indifference or even objects of hostility. Throw in the rise of militant Islam and the financial crisis of 2008 and it doesn’t take too much effort to make the case that the outlook is conducive to anxiety. The idea that we’re living in a “fourth turning” time is highly plausible.

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