On the wrong side of history

Modern English, George Orwell wrote, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. In his wonderful essay Politics and the English language he took aim at a number of common faults he saw in his time, chief among them a staleness of imagery, metaphor and phrasing. One phrase I wish we could avoid is ‘being on the right side of history’, a phrase that is not only stale but that points to a kind of antipolitical thinking I wish to avoid.

It was an article by contenders for the Green Party leadership that got me thinking about the phrase. The authors promised that a Green Party led by them would be on the right side of history on trans rights and anti-racism. I’m not naming them or making this about them because the phrase was one small part of their article, they are anything but stale, and this article really isn’t about them.

So why do I so dislike this phrase?

First, it suggests there is a right side in what most therefore be a two-sided debate. But politics is rarely two-sided.

Portraying political issues as simple them-and-us stories can help to mobilise coalitions, but it also runs the risk of switching off brains, closing our ears, our hearts. It can cause us to double down on highly polarising binary choices, and makes it hard for us to find shared ground and compromise.

The ‘history’ phrase is often used in relation to identity politics – the belief being that, just as gay rights won out over homophobia, so too other minority rights will win in time. It’s a simple story of progress.

In identity politics, concepts such as intersectionality have been abused to create binary divides that have become hugely unhelpful in issues that don’t conform to that simple story.

The need to promote and protect the rights of trans people needn’t come at the expense of protecting womens’ sex-based rights enshrined in the Equality Act. The tensions and clashes need to be worked through, the compromises and new understandings found. But the polarising tendency, amplified on social media, pushes everyone into two camps in which they find themselves with unwanted ‘allies’.

The need to promote anti racist politics needn’t lump issues of racism in with everything else, so that everyone is pitched against the rich cis white man. This denies agency to – for example – conservative black Americans who are on the ‘other’ side on many social issues. Ralph Leonard wrote powerfully of ‘the necessity of real politics, in which conflicting ideologies clash with one another, rather than identity politics, which treats people as members of racial or ethnic silos, as opposed to citizens of the United States’.

Quite often, the self-righteous who believe themselves to be on the right side of history dispense with dialogue altogether. They simply browbeat and castigate those they disagree with, confident that history will reward them. But what if your view is not yet held by the majority? History doesn’t unfold of its own account, change happens in part because we make it so through debate and persuasion.

Second, it suggests that history is a story of linear progress. The triumph of our viewpoint is inevitable, so you had better get on board.

In Dominion, Tom Holland roots the universalist western political philosophies firmly in Christianity. It was this strange middle eastern superstition that morphed into a religion that extirpated the moral horrors of the ancients from Europe, while absorbing Aristotle and Plato into its theology. Despite its sense of moral superiority, Christianity’s call to evangelism didn’t always find fertile ground, it couldn’t take root in every country and culture. And the western political philosophies of liberalism and democracy it inspired have faced the same fate. Civilisations with different, equally deep-rooted traditions, haven’t embraced western liberal ideas with open arms.

John Gray has written extensively against the Whiggish idea of history as linear progress. In recent decades, liberalism and democracy have been in retreat around the world, starkly illustrated by the tragic events now unfolding in Afghanistan.

In Afghanistan, China, Turkey, Russia, Venezuela, South Africa, indeed in the UK to a lesser degree, we could say we are headed into a dark period in which ‘the right side of history’ is something to be fought against, not celebrated.

From a Green perspective, I have been on the wrong side of history my entire life on some of the most important issues – carbon emissions have accelerated, ecological destruction has gained pace, and there is a diminishingly remote chance that we will reverse these trends in time.

Perhaps the arc of history does bend towards justice in a way that conforms to all my views, but I doubt it.

Third, this takes me to my concern that ‘progressive history’ is absolutely the wrong way to view a destabilising world. Global institutions and norms are already unravelling, or are under challenge. The climate and biodiversity emergencies are going to tear apart and reshape all of our assumptions about the way the world works.

Bruno Maçães argues that Covid – a simple virus – has cruelly exposed the powerlessness of many of our institutions, and that with climate change we lack a vaccine to cope with that failure. With a touch of hyperbole, he suggests ‘that the world is becoming more chaotic. You cannot rely on existing institutions, existing structures, existing norms, because all of them could disappear tomorrow.’

There’s a form of politics in which writing clever manifestos, painting optimistic visions and making the right arguments is sufficient. It is all too easy for political parties like the Green Party to take comfort in this. To concern itself with being right, and showing how others are wrong. But it is an impotent fiction.

In the real world of messy compromise and destabilising chaos, our politics need to engage with ever-changing assumptions and possibilities.

None of us is prescient enough to know how history will unfold. We need a politics that is able to generate new thinking, expose new clashes, create new coalitions. That is more concerned with its punch than its purity.

All of which is a rather windbaggish way of explaining my dislike of the ‘right side of history’ phrase. Because at its worst it points to an idea of political life which is self-righteous, close-minded, historically incurious and incapable of engaging with the challenges facing us today.

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