History Does Not Exist

Check out this post from the World Policy blog, “Democracy in China: The Popularity of Alexis de Toqueville in the Middle Kingdom” (emphasis added):

First there was Confucius. Then there was Mao Zedong. And now Alexis de Tocqueville tops the must-read list for avid Chinese intellectuals and bloggers.

The French aristocrat who limned the definitive political sociology of the United States almost two centuries ago might seem an unlikely crux of controversy in 21st-century China. But it is Tocqueville’s other classic, L’ancien régime et la Révolution—with its thesis that revolutions come not when masses are downtrodden, but when their lot is improving—that has sparked today’s hot debate.

After all, China arguably offers the ideal test of Tocqueville’s thesis. As one Chinese blogger puts it, “Don’t you feel that China now is nearly a copy of France in those [prerevolutionary] days?”

Or, as Cheng Li, director of Chinese research at the Brookings Institution, putsit, Chinese developments today seriously challenge the Western academic consensus that the Chinese Communist Party has somehow found the magic wand of “resilient” (or “adaptive”) authoritarianism to maintain its power indefinitely.

[…]

What the two [main] camps [within the CCP] are feuding about is, in essence, the verity of de Tocqueville’s apercu that revolutions erupt not when people suffer the most, but rather when their lives start improving, as the lives of today’s young generation have done spectacularly. Both camps tacitly see today’s China as anancien regime that is in crisis. Hardliners contend that the only way the Chinese Communists can hang on to power is by suppressing dissent. Reformers argue instead that the only way the party can stave off being swept away by the gathering storm is to loosen its tight bureaucratic control voluntarily and invite outsiders into the political game gradually.

For his part, Cheng Li thinks that time is short, but reform now could still forestall revolution by soliciting support from the 200,000 lawyers and other newcomers in China’s increasingly pluralist society. “If the CCP wants to regain the public’s confidence and avoid a bottom-up revolution, it must embrace genuine systematic democratic change in the country,” he contends. “[Like Taiwan in the 1980s] the CCP must now either make changes to be on the right side of history or be left behind.” Even if there is no “real consensus for the rule of law” in the party now, “sometimes the development of the rule of law happens through necessity, not due to the noble ideas of political leaders.”

This was an interesting post, but I want to take issue with the highlighted part, this idea of “History” with a capital “H” as something like a train moving inexorably forward.  On this view, history is more or less a force of nature, and a progressive one at that, steadily and unstoppably moving forward and making human societies more just as it does so.  To reject democracy in China–or the advances of the US Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, or the ongoing wave of legalization of gay marriage in many US states, and so on–is to be on the “wrong side of history,” to be in opposition to advances that were going to arrive sooner or later.  Because they are right.

The problem with this is that there is no History, not in the sense described above.  History is just the ensemble of stories we tell about people’s individual and collective actions in their societies and the ways these have changes over time.  If ethical progress is the yardstick we use to measure these actions, we should recognize that people are capable of taking 10 steps forward, 1000 steps back, and any variation or combination thereof.  History does not march forward; it’s not even linear!  We as individuals and as groups always have highly complex sets of choices to make that can take us in a number of directions, many of which with ethically ambiguous results.  That’s not to say that progress isn’t possible–I firmly believe it is–but we have to recognize that it isn’t automatic, and it can be rolled back.

I think the “history as History” view is problematic for a number of reasons.  It’s not very good history, methodologically speaking: it obscures the actions and dynamics that led to a certain situation or result.  It makes understanding progressive outcomes’ implications for the future much more difficult.  And it leads to a certain ethical complacency.  In my research in France I recently came across a work by an American historian named Todd Shepard called The Invention of Decolonization, in which he argues that metropolitan French authorities made use of the term “decolonization” to explain Algeria’s political independence from France, which came about in 1962.  It was easier and more politically expedient, Shepard argues, to see Algeria’s independence as just one instance of a larger historical process known as “decolonization,” which sooner or later brought about the end of direct colonial relationships, than to attend to the reasons for and dynamics of French colonialism and racism and to the effects the events of Algeria’s independence would have on Algerian and French society and the relationship between the two.

This seems to me a really powerful argument and one that applies to many, many other topics.

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