History Is Not A Closed Circuit
One of the most pernicious half-truths told to budding historians is that old ditty, “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.”1 There are innumerable plays on the phrase, but its core remains the same: history as circular, inherently repetitive.
It’s nice, perhaps even comforting, to think of history as a series of interlocking concentric circles, their narrative arcs racing around the follies of our willfully ignorant leaders. However, recent events do not bear out such wishful thinking.
When the depths of the Great Recession became clear, many harbored a fear that the world was due to be roiled by anti-democratic pressures. Trepidations, in turn, that were born of our last “great” economic calamity, the depression.
Although it’s easy to forget given the course of events in the 20th century, the triumph of liberal democracy was no foregone conclusion in the 1930s. Democracy had become a dirty word, considered too divisive and inept to handle unprecedented economic upheaval. By 1935, the nascent Eastern European democracies born of Versailles had all been replaced by authoritarian regimes—except Czechoslovakia, which would later be sacrificed by its fellow democracies in the name of “peace in our time.”
While we all know what happened in Germany, Italy and Spain, the crisis of democracy was widespread. The dual rise of communism and fascism had an expansive hold on the imagination. The editors of UC Berkeley’s Blue and Gold yearbook, for example, decided it was appropriate to commemorate the graduating class of 1937 with a Nazi motif—one section even praised Germany’s “progressive commercial spirit.”
Those students, like many others, were no doubt enamored with the perceived modern character of Fascism. It is difficult to imagine now—their horrors firmly implanted in the collective conscience—but Fascism and Communism were once thought to be progressive ideologies.
They effectively utilized emerging mass communications technologies, emphasized unity in otherwise divisive societies, and seemed to promise the revitalization of the human spirit through the creation of some ill-defined “new man.” For many it seemed a sort of logical end game to human history, the only plausible manner to corral a world of inexorable complexity. Democracy, with its fractious politics and trifles over individual rights, seemed a relic of the past.
And, indeed, this time around there have been fresh challenges to democracy in countries gripped by economic anxieties. Hungary and Ukraine, for example, have witnessed a troubling consolidation of executive power. Across Europe in general there has been a startling rise of far-right parties with dubious democratic ideals. I would even go so far as to say the austerity regimes imposed on Greece, Portugal, and Italy harbor a conspicuous authoritarian character.
Discomforting developments sure, but there hasn’t been a return of the sort of apocalyptic fatalism that hung over the Great Depression. Rather, the central narrative of the past eighteen months has been the brazen and bloodsoaked struggle for freedom across the Arab World.
On December 17, 2010, a fruit vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi lit himself on fire in front of a provincial Tunisian government building. Bouazizi was reportedly despondent after his wares were confiscated and frustrated with a culture of pervasive corruption. What began as an act of desperation in an all-but-forgotten Tunisian town soon resonated and reverberated in countries as distant as Russia and China—one of those sweet elusive mysteries of capricious history.
News of Bouazizi’s self-immolation spread across the world, aided and abetted by the same sort of mass communication technologies that once precipitated the rise of democracy’s would-be usurpers. Within a month, the Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali had resigned and fled the country. Weeks later he would be joined by the regime of Hosni Mubarak. Muammar Gaddafi left this earth after a prolonged struggle and Syria has most recently exploded as the latest flashpoint in what came to be known as the “Arab Spring.”
In the not-so-recent past this sort of event would have been re-appropriated by a looming strongman lurking in the shadows. Instead, the event spurred a sort of a communal introspection; or to use the words of Anthony Shadid, “a people who once complained of their quiescence” had “seized control of their lives.”
What will ultimately become of all this? It is impossible to know, of course, but whatever it is it should be allowed to run its natural course—heavy-handed intervention doesn’t have a sterling track record in the region.
While there is persistent chatter about a menacing Islamist insurgency lying in wait, I think this reveals more about Western fears than a plausible outcome. The Iranian model is pretty widely discredited in the region. As a Syrian protestor recently told the New York Times, “ We are demonstrating here, very close to Iran’s embassy, to say to the Iranians, ‘Look, we are peaceful protestors who want democracy, dignity, and freedom’.” Any Islamist government would likely be modeled on the rule of the relatively moderate Turkish AKP, which has some troubling impulses but on the whole seems committed to democracy.
Yes, there are legitimate worries about what may follow in Summer and Autumn, but for now you can’t help but marvel at the impetuous course of history. When former CIA agent Robert Baer was asked by Terry Gross how the agency missed the Arab Spring, his answer was telling, “You can’t collect intelligence on ephemera, of a Tunisian vendor lighting himself on fire and sparking a revolt.”
What then accounts for the continued fascination with the perceived circular nature of history?
There has been a distinctly modern desire to reconfigure history as some sort of pseudo-scientific discipline. My middle school history classes even fell under the guise of “social science.” This reclassification has always struck me as dubious or misguided at best, and downright deceitful or intellectually dishonest at worst.
Science, by definition, is the act of extrapolation through repeated observation—there is an inherent certainty of outcome. I know, for example, that the combination of sodium and chlorine invariably produces salt. But if a man were to light himself on fire tomorrow in Moscow’s Red Square, I do not know if we’d be talking of a “Slavic Spring” in a few months.
What is so strange to me is that the whole “history as science” motif finds its roots in Marxism of all places. Marx, undoubtedly taking a very dialectic view of the world, rationalized that he had cracked history’s code—there was a determinable course to history’s ebbs and flows. I’ll give you a hint: it ended with socialism. While there are certainly things to be admired in Marx’s writing (including about history), this is definitely not one of them.
Subsequent “Marxists” understood this as giving them carte blanche to engineer history’s preordained destiny. History was wielded as a blunt object against whole classes and races perceived as having an innate aversion to its predetermined fate. Lives were trampled upon and real human suffering blithely ignored in the name of “science” and “progress.” It would have been roundly condemned as barbarism except, as Vaclev Havel once wrote, “the actors are scientists, people shielded by science, possessing an allegedly scientific worldview.”
The neat contours of science, guided by a sacrosanct method and peer review, are an ill-conceived model for history—its power lies in its fickle nature. It is in turns fascinating, terrifying, exhilarating, and exhausting. History, by its very definition, is the totality and truest embodiment of the human experience.
I once was having a discussion with my mentor about the development of the Balkan Peninsula. As we talked about its changing demography over time, he started to say, “If you look at its map throughout history…” Before he could continue, I beat him to the punch, “It’s like a living organism.”
Like an organism, the development of history is unpredictable, perpetually evolving, and adaptable to the ever-shifting winds of time. It is guided by nothing but humanity’s unceasing ability for reinvention and reaction. To truly study history is to be enamored with spontaneity—the often-futile attempt to imbue the present with meaning through the past’s cascading chaos.
However, if the world needs a pithy quote about history to stick in Facebook profiles, I recommend this as a replacement: “The revolution will not be televised. The revolution will be no rerun, brothers. The revolution will be live.”
1 The original quote is attributed to Edmund Burke, but has since become so commonly used that it has seemingly become disembodied of his authorship.