Two Views of History: Part I

The start of a new year is a step a bit further into the future, and also an opportunity to reflect upon the past. In this two-part series, then, I mean to consider history, and the two basic views of it that exist in the modern world. Most of the following ideas originate with other people (I wish I were such a genius that I could have thought of them all by myself), but I don’t quite think I’ve ever seen them collected and synthesized in one place before.

The two basic views of history current in the world are these: The Whig View of History, and The Cyclical View of History. Each of these two views has some subvariants that exist underneath their broad umbrella. While the two views themselves are mutually exclusive, the subvariants can overlap such that an individual can believe that multiple subvariants have some greater or lesser degree of validity to them. Some of them present the surface illusion of being (and are widely accepted as being) very different from each other, when in fact they are based on exactly the same underlying historical point of view. It is this that may be the most important idea to take away from all of this.

In the first part, let’s discuss the Whig View of History. If one was going to be linguistically proper, it would have to be called the Progressive View of History, but “progressive”, like so many other words (“gay”, for example), has been corrupted by the left and given its own, new, left-meaning. William S. Lind refers to these as the left’s “coded meanings”, and “progressive” has now become the left’s code word for themselves, which it adopted after Ronald Reagan destroyed the brand value of the word “liberal”, and which has become its most popularly understood meaning. And yet this view of history, being by far the most widely popular one, extends far beyond the mainstream left in all directions; to outright Marxism, virtually all of the mainstream right, and even to some of the libertarian movement (most notably its Objectivist wing). So even though this view of history is based on what Oswald Spengler called the “Idea of Progress”, we must not use the word “progressive” to describe it, so as to remove the possibility of brand confusion. Let us then use “Whig”, which is a word that is both historically accurate and has fallen out of common usage such that it is unlikely to be repurposed by the left anytime soon.

So what is the Whig View of History? It is the embodiment of Spengler’s “Idea of Progress” – at its most basic level, it is the idea that all of history is a journey towards a destination; that it is a steady progression, with some admittedly-genuine ups and downs along the way, towards a perfected state of the human condition. Positions vary among adherents to this view on whether the destination will be outright paradise upon the Earth, or just something far better than what humanity has now; and positions also vary as to what this perfected future will (or should) look like (thus the subvariations in the theme), but the essential concept remains the same among all of them. To them, while they may not anthropomorphize history, they still see it as having a purpose or a goal – the fulfillment of its journey and the establishment of this perfected world. Thus all of them are, to some varying degree or another, utopian in outlook.

Here are the currently-major subvariants of this belief. Remember that there can be overlap between them:

Marxist: The belief that world Communist revolution will eventually lead to the creation of an anarcho-socialist workers’ paradise. This paradise will contain no religion, no hierarchy, no traditional politics, no traditional family structure, no divisions of ethnicity or sex, no nations or borders, no money, and no private property, and will be inhabited by a new class of human being that has perfected itself through study of Marxist philosophy and application of it to every facet of life.

Mainstream Left: A less virulent variation on the same idea set as classical Marxism (But then, it is often the less virulent strains of a disease that are the most dangerous, for unlike the most virulent strains, they do not kill off the host before they can spread) that combines Marx’s philosophy with the Cultural Marxism of the Frankfurt School, built on a model of governance that most resembles a leftist version of Mussolini’s fascism. Like Mussolini, and unlike classical Marxists, the Mainstream Left will tolerate (if somewhat grudgingly) the existence of private property and enterprise, a political system (conveniently thus maintaining their own power), family structures, and religion (so long as it is kept a completely private matter and expelled completely from public life). But it will always be understood that the operating principle is, as Mussolini put it, “Everything within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state”. It is this system, using a powerful government led by “experts” as the engine of change, that will bring each nation into an egalitarian, irreligious, raceless, meritocratic, borderless, sexually libertine, gender-neutral, scientific, perfected future.

Techno-Utopian: Also known as “Star Trek Futurism”. This is an extreme fetishization of science and technology, based on an extrapolation of the past two centuries of scientific and industrial growth, which leads to the belief that man will invent machines that will allow him to build his utopia. These can be spaceships, powerful computers, replicators, cybernetics, cloning and other biotechnology devices, sources of clean and “free” energy, or any number of other technologies. Often, the fetishization of these technologies reaches religious fervor, with spaceships representing a Techno-Rapture that will deliver all good believers to Space Heaven. Thus, with a Techno-Utopian, it is usually useless to ask questions like whether manned space travel is really worth the monetary cost, expenditure of resources, and risk to human life involved when weighed against the benefits and resources that could realistically be gained from it absent a major and unforeseen breakthrough in theoretical physics. That’s a rational question, and for all their fetishization of science, they are not rational on issues like these. Your lack of enthusiasm for throwing any and every resource at the things that excite them risks denying them their trip to Space Heaven. You are, therefore, “Anti-Science”; a knuckle dragger, a snake-handler, a non visionary… a heretic.

Objectivist: In short, the belief that if we take the bright, ambitious, and amoral amongst us, and remove any and all restraints whatsoever from them, they will build amazing things, create untold amounts of wealth, and create a paradisiacal world full of wonders. Which is all probably true, to an extent. But it also a belief that runs afoul of that most stubborn archenemy of utopian schemes – human nature – and engages in the logical fallacy that Scott Adams referred to as “ignoring the downside risk”. (How, for example, did the Clinton/Bush, Jr. era policies of removing the restraints from the bright, ambitious, and amoral people who ran the American financial system work out in the end?)

American Exceptionalist: The belief that the United States of America is the fulfillment and apotheosis of all that came before it in human history. That it is an unparalleled, indispensable, shining city on a hill – a light unto every nation, which will, as a consequence, never be allowed by Divine Providence to fall, as every other indispensable nation in human history eventually has. This view was perhaps most clearly expressed in a book entitled The 5000 Year Leap – written by the former FBI agent W. Cleon Skousen and recently brought back into the public eye by his LDS co-religionist Glenn Beck – which argues that the founding of the United States was an advancement in terms of human progress greater than had been made in the previous five millennia (which, considering that Skousen was as likely as not to have been one of those who believe the Earth to be only 6000 years old, is really saying something). In this view of history, a few great people from the past (Jesus, for example) get to be understood as pre-Americans (just as the Romans would declare their deceased Emperors retroactively to have been gods), and a few more (like Churchill) get to be thought of as honorary Americans. But it is America, and Americans, who will lift the light unto the world that will dispel ignorance and illuminate the way unto the future. One of the main differences between this and the Mainstream Right/Neocon vision of history is that there is a long-established leftist form of American Exceptionalism as well; it is this that hit its stride first with the interventionism of Woodrow Wilson (who famously insisted upon invading foreign countries to “teach them to elect good men”), and continued with the wars of FDR, and eventually the “humanitarian” interventions of Clinton and Obama. Inside every foreigner, the American Exceptionalist believes, there’s an American waiting to get out, and once he does, the world, under the benevolent leadership of America, will be a far better place.

Mainstream Right/Neocon: This is the closest to the classical 18th century Whig view of history (the Republican Party did, after all, build itself upon the ashes of the failed Whig Party in the US). The key tome here may be Francis Fukuyama’s post-Cold War, pre-9/11 bestseller The End of History. In essence, this is the belief that the secret to how to properly organize human affairs has basically been solved once and for all by the key idea set embodied in secular democratic capitalism (“secular” is a term that requires clarification here, for the Mainstream Right means it in the sense that it was widely understood before the left gave it its new coded meaning as a euphemism for “irreligious”, “anti-clerical” or “anti-religious” – i.e. as an official government neutrality between religions combined with an overt respect for the faith of the majority). To visualize this world, one should view it as an eternal, global extension of America circa 1959, with better technology and a few minor sociopolitical adjustments (such as ridding ourselves of that nasty Jim Crow business). Though similar to, and often overlapping with, the American Exceptionalist view, the Mainstream Right/Neocon historical view focuses on a key idea set, rather than a specific nation embodying it, as the path to the future. Its adherents believe that this idea set that has finally cracked the puzzle that stumped philosophers, prophets, and wise men from Socrates to Confucius to Aquinas to Voltaire to Nietzsche: “How shall man live?”. As with Marxists, their outlook is missionary: this key idea set, being the indisputable solution to bringing prosperity and happiness to all of mankind, should and must be exported to every corner of the globe. That these ideas can and will work perfectly well everywhere and amongst every people, regardless of race, religion, culture, history, geography, and climate, is an article of faith. Once this has been achieved and all the people of the world finally do adopt these ideas, perfection will more or less be reached, and history will be over, with the nightly news then able devote itself to football scores and stories about kittens stuck in trees – forever.

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Though different in many details and on the surface irreconcilable, these historical viewpoints are all based on the same underlying assumption – that history progresses towards a definite destination; that history is, in fact, a means to an end. Furthermore, that the journey toward that end can be sped along by people who push tirelessly towards it, or slowed by doubters, naysayers, reactionaries, and those without the vision to see. The disagreement is all on details – on what specifically that end will look like and how exactly we’re all going to get there.

This belief explains a few interesting quirks that are common among adherents of the Whig View of History.

It explains, for example, the fetish that many of them have for Darwinian evolution. Here I do not mean to imply that all belief in evolution is motivated by ideology based in this historical view, or that having this historical view is the only reason why anyone would believe in evolution. And yet it is one thing to believe in an idea, and quite another to believe it with the passionate fervor that some who hold the Whig View (obviously more from the Marxist/Liberal/Techno-Utopian/Objectivist camps) have for Darwinian evolution. What explains this? The desire to try to discredit and destroy Christianity is part of it, certainly. And yet, there is something else there as well. Darwinian evolution is itself a process of the constant improvement and perfection of species. It is, for each plant and animal, a slow, steady, constant, implacable march towards a more perfected state of being. Thus, it mirrors perfectly the Whig View of history, and stands as evidence that not only is their view the way of human history, but are also the very ways of nature itself. If it can in fact be proven that this process of progression and perfection is simply the natural order of the universe, then no further proof of its validity as a historical viewpoint should be necessary. It is simply a law of nature, like magnetism or gravitation.

It explains their fetish for the term “progress”. Someone who does not share their view might ask: “Progress towards what?”, or even “What if we progress somewhere, and then find out that it kinda sucks?”. For adherents of the Whig View, the first question is silly; the second unimaginable.

It explains their general view of revolutions – American, French, Russian, Industrial, Digital – as essentially good things. Each one is a leap forward in the long walk towards the perfected future. It accounts for the popularity of the idea of Permanent Revolution, which, though the term was coined by Leon Trotsky and is most often associated with Communism, has variations and incarnations all across the spectrum of subvariants of the Whig View. The Mainstream Left version of Permanent revolution is busy imposing gay “marriage” – the latest insane and hellish invention of Cultural Marxism – upon the First World. The Neocon version of Permanent Revolution brought us the Bush Wars of the early 21st century. Wilsonian interventionists will never stop until the whole world elects the “good men” that Wilson wished and expected them to, no matter how long it takes. Technology fetishists believe that the “hockey stick” soaring line of progress out of the series of technological “revolutions” that have come along since the late 18th century can, must, and will continue forever. All of these revolutions must be permanent until utopia finally shows up, and it is the responsibility of all good believers to be Permanent Revolutionaries until that happens.

And it also explains the general resistance among those who hold the Whig View to learning anything from history. Indeed, if one accepts their idea as valid, why would they? If, a few temporary ups and downs aside, the present is always better than the past and the future always better than the present, then why would the present stoop to learning from the past? Why would the better ever want to learn from the worse? After all, as William Blake said, “The eagle never lost so much time as when he submitted to learn of the crow”. Thus, why would Marxists bother to learn any lessons from the horrific failure of 20th century Communism, or Objectivists learn anything from the unhappy example of 19th century robber barons, or American Exceptionalists from the history of Rome? That stuff is all in the past, and of course the future will be better – that’s just how the future is. Similarly, there is little to learn from people who lived in times past – we are obviously better people than them, because we live in the future, which is better than their times. Besides, if they were so smart, why didn’t they have iPads? We have moved past their times and their lack of vision, and as Blake recommended, we should drive our cart and our plow over the bones (and ideas) of the dead. Although each subvariant may disagree slightly on when precisely it might be, all of them agree that there is a point in the past – and a not very distant one – beyond which almost no wisdom (with a few exceptions – Rousseau for the leftist, the Bible for the rightist) can be found. Beyond that point, the past is to be forgotten or even dreaded – no one wants to “turn back the clock” to that. The Mainstream leftist swears that they will never let things go back to the way they were before the Social Revolution of 1968; the American Exceptionalist wonders in disbelief what sort of fool would want to undo The 5000 Year Leap!

And yet, from the next world, the ghosts of the Teutoburg Forest laugh. And yet, in the desert, the last bricks of Ctesiphon crumble into dust. And yet, from beyond the grave, Oswald Spengler sullenly shakes his head at us.

The second part of this article will deal with the other view of history – Spengler’s view, and my own – the Cyclical View.