By Barry Rubin
The history of Western civilization, democracy, and capitalism is one of success, the greatest civilizational achievement in world history. All of its problems, shortcomings, and injustices should be discussed fully but the priority should be on explaining how the system’s was able to overcome these things while other systems have done either far worse or collapsed in catastrophe.
In his little book, “England in the Nineteenth Century,” first published in 1950, the historian David Thomson wrote the following passage, discussing an 1816 report on London:
“Hardships began to be talked about only when they are no longer taken for granted:….Sweated labor and cellar dwellings were not invented by the men who made the industrial revolution: they were discovered by them, discussed by them, and in the end partially remedied by them.”
This was once a standard approach in the great historical works. Past centuries saw tremendous poverty and suffering, usually due to natural conditions, enhanced by human nature. But in Western democratic states leaders, citizens, and systems strove to make things better and eventually succeeded in doing so. As people saw the possibility of improvement in their lives due to democracy, education, growing wealth, and technological advances, they sought to achieve more though, of course, change was also limited by resources and the nature of society.
The liberal school of history understood this progress and extolled the democracy and Western civilization that made it possible. It well understood that dictatorships, ideological extremism, those who promised utopia or who wanted to go too far and too fast threatened to wreck the very mechanism that made possible a better, freer life. It also comprehended that greed had to be restrained and power balanced, as in the need to manage both the tremendous wealth concentrated during the industrialization process, the ambitions of individuals or institutions, and the excessive control governmental institutions might wield.
True, it was well understood, as Thomson and many other historians showed, that the concentration of land ownership in England and the industrialization process worsened the situation of many people during a historical period, but it also made possible their improvement through increased production of food and goods. Similarly, the shortcomings of capitalism were noted yet so was the indispensibility of a reasonably regulated system of free enterprise. As Winston Churchill put it, there were many terrible things about the system but it was better than any other that might be devised.
And so, it was precisely those “dark satanic mills” that eventually produced the highest living standards for the most people ever seen on this planet.
Thomson, for example, does not stint on discussing the suffering, injustice, and conflict involved. A few pages earlier in his book, he quotes the reformer William Cobbett who wrote of the new social problems in the early nineteenth century:
“Talk of serfs! Are there any of these, or did feudal times ever see any of them, so debased, so absolutely slaves, as the poor creatures who…are compelled to work fourteen hours a day, in a heat of eight-four degrees, and who are liable to punishment for looking out of a window o the factory!”
Still, the lesson is that the system established—political democracy, capitalism with limited state regulation, a culture based on individual rights—was capable of constant improvement while keeping out changes that would have destroyed all of the good things it offered. Trade unions evolved not to promote revolution but to secure the workers’ reasonable share in the products of their labor.
Victorian England, the very place where Karl Marx saw only a dead end leading to revolution, instead provided scientific progress, rising living standards, expanding liberties and their extension to an ever larger proportion of the population, freedoms, integration into a single society yet with freedom for pluralism, and a wonderfully productive culture.
Thus, historians generally saw an ever-improving civilization and were proud of that fact. They did not need to hide the problems—like slavery in the United States—because they could record how those problems were resolved over time. This is what we have always called liberal history.
Like so many things, however, the intellectually barbarous era we live in today has turned history on its head, attacked liberal history, and replaced it with radical history. The emphasis is not on how solving problems proved the system’s validity but on the existence of problems showing the system’s evil and hypocrisy. Rather than endorsing Enlightenment values and Western civilization, the theme is to prove that these things should be destroyed. Instead of stressing a workable society, the emphasis is on the endless spending of resources beyond the society’s capability. Rather than equal opportunity, the complaint is the failure to achieve identical results regardless of merit, labor, or productivity.
Thus, history becomes portrayed as a series of Western crimes—imperialism, sexism, class exploitation, racism—which are matters of permanent shame. Marxism or neo-Marxism has become the mainstream approach, an ideology aimed at revolutionizing society rather than studying it. (Though some great historians did employ this approach in a scholarly manner, I’m referring to Eugene Genovese and not the hack Howard Zinn.)
Rather than show how well the society has worked, history becomes a tool for discrediting it, covering it in crime, and thus (not unintentionally) showing that it is unworthy of continued existence.
There are four other aspects in which history has been distorted and turned upside down in this battle.
One of them is the search for the single discrediting action or quote, or deed taken out of the context of the times in order to besmirch and discredit the heroes of the past. Rather than producing a balanced picture (mostly good, some bad) the goal is to delegitimize them–and thus their work and the country as a whole–completely. This technique has been applied to such as George Washington (slave owner) Andrew Jackson (mistreating Native Americans) to Mark Twain (something he said that might be purposefully misconstrued as racism) or Franklin D. Roosevelt (internment of Japanese). Thus, American history is turned into a series of evils and much is left out, including their criticisms of injustices and attempts to resolve them.
Second, there is the throwing out of the main narrative of historical developments for the sake of studying aspects of it. While it is certainly true that the history of various races, women, and workers, for example, was neglected in the past, there has been more than fifty years of rectification going on in that regard. The story of the United States should be kept in proportion.
The fact is, however, that Marx was wrong and therein sits the key to understanding. Marx believed that Western democratic capitalism was on a dead-end street. He “scientifically ” proved that capitalism could never improve the lot of the workers to the point where they could enjoy high living standards, the very goods that they produced.
That flaw explains precisely why Communism failed and socialism mellowed in the West, and why the radicals of today had to dump class and move on to gender and race. Yet on both of these issues, once society had ripened, the West adapted with remarkable ease. The time it took to go from thinking it would be ridiculous to have a female or African-American president to the overwhelming majority of Americans accepting the idea was about three decades. And this transition happened with incredibly little violence or conflict. Yet supposedly this story proves that American society is evil?
With so much progress here, the radicals have to once again move on (gender has been pretty much abandoned politically by them though race is still a mainstay) to advocate the existence of the nation-state as evil and to extol its destruction by unlimited immigration (in practice, even if illegal), multiculturalism, and a passionate endorsement of even the most regressive and repressive Third World revolutionaries.
Herein is a delicious irony: those who denounce the Western past as having accepted racism, religious obscurantism, slavery, oppression of women, and murderous denial of rights are the same people who advocate these things in the present! They back precisely the same things once known as racism—non-Europeans were said to be incapable of democracy and unsuited for liberty–under the guise of multiculturalism!
The liberal Victorians, whatever their shortcomings, advocated the spread of Enlightenment and progress, while the progressives of today cheer the maintenance and reinforcement of feudalism and the triumph of oppressive traditionalism as supposedly respect for the (presumably never-changing) culture of others! It is as if someone toured the South in the 1850s and then justified that institution by saying that it was, after all, the local culture and Northerners had no right to reject it.
Third, is the academic sin of historicism, reading the present into the past and failing to understand the past on its own terms. The past, in William Shakespeare’s memorable phrase, truly is another country. What often happens today, however, is the transformation of difficult and complex issues into conspiracies in which a vicious ruling class seeks to keep down the masses.
One aspect of this is the demand that the past conform to the present. A good example of this is the ludicrous decision of a federal judge in California claiming that the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, designed to protect the rights of former slaves, made any ban on gay marriage unconstitutional. Whatever one thinks of the contemporary issue, this is a travesty in terms of interpreting the past.
Another example is the idea that the Federal government’s powers are unlimited, that the Executive Branch can create legislation, or that new rights can be created and then read into the Constitution.
Finally, there is the fascinating, dangerous, and counterproductive act of burying the truly bad examples of the past, sometimes because those who created disasters had good intentions, often because those very cases show the mistakes being made by radicals at present.
A good example in the United States is the story of post-Civil War Reconstruction. In truth, and there is massive documentation, the imposed governments on the Southern states engaged in such excesses of corruption, overspending, incompetence, and arrogant disregard for their citizens as to fail. The result was disastrous for all concerned.
If the terror of the Klu Klux Klan and white supremacy succeeded in setting back the cause of equal rights by about 90 years (1877 to 1965) the mistakes of the Radical Republicans and Carpetbaggers were critical to that outcome through discrediting themselves and ensuring a mass base for their opponents. The radicals of today would do well to consider these lessons. If the post-Civil War era had been conducted better, racial equality would have come to America a century earlier.
Critical lessons can also be learned from foreign examples. The French (26 years of war, 56 years of restoration of the old order) and Russian (70 years of bloody tyranny) revolutions were catastrophes, despite the humanitarian-sounding rhetoric that emerged from them. There is no better way to teach the virtues of the Western democratic, free enterprise plus reasonable regulation, individual rights system than to see where the alternatives led. Yet while the sins of Western capitalism (or fascism, which is essentially used as a stick to beat the status quo, not the threat of radical statist ideologies) are taught manifold times, the far worse and more massive crimes of Communist statism are hidden from the students’ view.
One might add the distortion of Third World history into a near-exclusive blame on colonialism for the problems that exist today. It is doing those countries no favors by disregarding their social and political problems that ensure they fall behind. Western modernization theories of the 1950s and 1960s showed how countries needed to change in order to succeed. In contrast, radical slogans ensure that the wrong policies will be followed, preach demagogic hatred that produces violence, and guarantees the continued oppression of tens of millions of people.
How ironic that the forces portraying themselves as progressive have become the reactionaries of our time, the worst threat and enemy of liberalism.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) CenterMiddle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict, and Crisis (Palgrave Macmillan), Conflict and Insurgency in the Contemporary Middle Eastand editor of the (seventh edition) (Viking-Penguin), The Israel-Arab Reader the paperback edition of The Truth About Syria(Palgrave-Macmillan), A Chronological History of Terrorism (Sharpe), and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley).