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What Is Left of History?

There is a gently comic moment in John le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold in which the novel’s jaded, cynical protagonist, a British intelligence agent named Alec Leamas, quizzes Liz Gold, the young librarian who is about to become his lover, about her beliefs. He asks her if she is religious, and Gold replies that she doesn’t believe in God. “Then what do you believe in?” Leamas presses. “History,” she answers. “Oh, Liz…oh no,” Leamas exclaims. “You’re not a bloody Communist?” She nods, blushing.

In the 1960s, communists were not the only ones who believed in History with a capital H. If The Spy Who Came in From the Cold was one British publishing sensation of 1963, another was E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class, which, despite the book’s departure in many respects from an orthodox Marxism, professed a powerful faith that modern societies would eventually evolve in a progressive direction. “After all,” Thompson wrote hopefully in the preface, “we are not at the end of social evolution ourselves. In some of the lost causes of the people of the Industrial Revolution we may discover insights into social evils which we have yet to cure.” The early 1960s were also the heyday of “modernization theory,” beloved by Cold War liberals, which held that an essentially identical path of historical development would eventually bring all “traditional” agricultural societies into an industrial, urbanized, capitalist, and democratic modernity.

More than a half-century later, any kind of faith in the future—which is to say, any faith in History—is hard to come by. Between catastrophic climate change, the resurgence of authoritarian and racist populism, the ever-growing inequities generated by contemporary capitalism, and a seemingly endless pandemic, it can be difficult to discern much meaning in history at all, let alone a hopeful one. In this new and despairing state of affairs, it is perhaps also no surprise that many people have turned so harshly judgmental about so much of the past itself. If you believe that each successive historical age becomes more enlightened, then it is easier to attribute misdeeds in the past to their authors’ unfortunate lack of enlightenment relative to us. If you believe in progress as an inevitable force, it may not seem worth the trouble to develop elaborate condemnations of these misdeeds, since you can rest assured that the bright and happy future will see and judge them with ever-greater clarity. But if history appears to have no necessary direction to it, then there is less reason for charity toward a supposedly benighted past and no reason at all to have confidence in the way the future will judge it.

This new intellectual climate is one in which many Americans now condemn the United States as a country whose founding principles are irretrievably tarnished and corrupted by Native dispossession and Black enslavement. The late historian Tyler Stovall leveled the charge with particular force in his recent book White Freedom, but he is hardly the only writer to do so. If there is no necessary forward direction to history, a reckoning with the past may be all that we have: to see where things went wrong, to hold people to account for it, and to find alternate forms of political possibility.

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