Those who weaponize history and language to fit their ideological vision know no boundaries in any matters. Enthralled by the phantoms of their psyche, they become the blind tyrants who destroy this real world for the fantasy of their world to come…
It has become customary for moderns to hear the phrase “the right side of History” or the “Judgement of History” or “History is watching us.” What is History? What is tyranny? History and tyranny, in the modern age, seem to go together. History, on one hand, is just a random collection of events that have occurred in the past. History, on another hand, is the inevitable march to a destination: That long arc of becoming that has enthralled progressives, revolutionaries, and reactionaries alike.
The idea of progress is tied to the idea of History as Robert Nisbet aptly summarized in The History of the Idea of Progress. Originally, “progressive” denoted someone who was slave to a vision of History who believed the course of human action and events were unfolding to a specific end—rather than humans having a telos this new understanding of History is what subsumed the telos of organic, natural, lifeforms. Progress only made sense if understood from the prism of an ideological directive yet to be realized where the movement toward consummation could be counted as “progress.” That is, Progress was the unfolding of History to its predestined end that humans had to conform to. History took on teleology and History became the “Nature” to conform to.
Within the tradition of historical progress three schools stand out. First is the Hegelian School, the originator of the idea of History, a loose history of philosophy that asserts great men are carried forth by the hand of Geist (Spirit) to do its biding as the world historical hero who is the instrument of historical achievement. Next, and most famously, is the Marxist School, which synthesized intellectual scientism with a revised Hegelianism to produce their revolutionary doctrines that History advanced through economic (class) conflict. Last is the scientistic, materialistic, mathematical, industrialist, and urban school that was the actual foundation of early twentieth century progressivism; this school emphasized humanity’s mastery of the natural world through scientific and mathematical advancement and that humans were machines meant to live in urban, industrial, and mechanized modes of life which found its antecedent roots in the works of Francis Bacon and the British Whig tradition in politics.
Chasing After History
The birth of progressivism coincided with the “discovery of History.” To the turn of the century progressives, the unfolding of History was becoming clear to them as History became the revelatory Deity temporalized on earth. History was revealing how best to organize society and what the instruments of that organization should be. Society was urbanizing, industrializing, mechanical productivity and the mechanical economy was taking over. Intellectual scientism, the bourgeois equivalent to Marxist “scientific-socialism,” was the underlying principle of early twentieth century progressivism in its Fabian or hyper-nationalist form. Intellectual scientism was all the rage among the early twentieth century progressive publications from the New Republic in America to Fabian socialist pamphlets in Britain.
John Dewey, the chief progressive propagandist in early twentieth century America, called Francis Bacon “the greatest philosopher.” Knowledge of Francis Bacon is essential to understanding the tyranny of the progressives who were, and remain, slaves to Bacon’s worldview and how it coincided with the new Historical consciousness of early twentieth century progressivism. Bacon articulated the mechanical view of man and of the world, then put to philosophy by his disciples like Thomas Hobbes and the mechanical philosophers of England and France.
The world was one giant factory waiting to be exploited to the benefit of man’s bodily and material satisfaction. The heirs of Bacon—Hobbes and Locke most explicitly—helped give birth to the movements that pristinely embodied the Baconian outlook, namely, utilitarianism and (modern) hedonism. It is no surprise, then, that the early twentieth century progressives turned to the Baconian tradition to see confirmation of the world as an industrialized, commercialized, factory and have this axiom be the basis of their new societies. Technological fundamentalism and corporatist precisionism are the contemporary expressions of Bacon’s foundation.
For Dewey the task of government policy was to speed up, or advance, this unfolding of History. Promotion of the homogenous machine-like human through education reform where all conformed to a single utilitarian standard was Dewey’s vision. As such, the homogenization of health and human services followed, and humans were cogs to the economy needing to be properly programmed—like the “machines” that they were in the eyes of the materialist physiologists and philosophers—to work the assembly line. Human uniqueness was destroyed as everything became standardized and homogenized through the forced legitimization of state policy.
The state’s role in the unfolding of History—for the progressive—was to align itself with the unfolding course of utopia and speedily remake humans, and human society, into the image of what they fictitiously conjured up in their reading of the past and unfolding present. The progressive activist, in fitting irony, must become a servile slave to History to be free because freedom was acting in accord with the unfolding nature of “Progress.” To be free was to embrace the new freedom unfurled by the march of History; to submit oneself to the unfolding dialectic of progress.
Huxley’s Challenge to Materialist Utopianism
The early twentieth century vision of the end of history on the part of the progressives was the Taylorite utopia, or the dystopia, so poignantly captured and satirized in Aldous Huxley’s novel Brave New World. Here was an artificial and technological world of an advanced controlled-economy where urban, industrial, and scientific life, undergirded by a mathematical understanding of everything, dominated.
Huxley’s new world is sterile, lacks color and liveliness, all vitality has been destroyed through grey and black uniformity in buildings and general aesthetic experiences. Babies are produced in factories because the pain of childbearing is too much for humans to want to cope with in their pursuit of a hedonistic and sacrifice-free life. Drugged up orgy parties serve as the catharsis of the new society.
More insightfully, Huxley’s brave new world is a unified unitary state. The World State operates from a command economy which is held together by a combination of technology and easy access to pleasure. Huxley’s World State is, of course, a simultaneous critique of the technocratic urban capitalist and Marxist command economies (one should never forget Marx is softly satirized behind the scenes in the character Bernard Marx who shares Marx’s name). Huxley saw the emergent “third way” social economy as the future; and it was not going to liberate the people but enslave them to their passions and to technology. How prescient, all things considered.
Moreover, there is an irony in how the protagonists Bernard, Helmholtz, and John are dealt with at the end. Helmholtz is banished for a heretical poem, like a professor fired for teaching something “politically incorrect”; but part of Helmholtz’s growing dissatisfaction rested in his growing non-conformity to educational orthodoxy (propaganda). Though Helmholtz still foolishly and naively embraces his banishment to practice writing, Helmholtz’s archetype of the future professoriate class engaged in propaganda rather than honest education, and banishment for critiquing the prevailing orthodoxy, is still profound given the present state of education and the academy.
Bernard’s banishment, on account of anti-social activity, is also ironic. Throughout the novel none of the characters have a truly social, intimate, life. Everyone is an atomized particle who occasionally bumps into another either for petty conversation or sexual self-gratification. The only moment when Bernard engages in genuine social activity—with Helmholtz—he is summoned to Mustapha Mond’s office to be banished for anti-social behavior. Huxley’s sardonic genius comes out in this moment.
The only character who exudes classical social behavior, lives in a traditional way of life, and deeply loves his parents (his mother), is John. John is derided as a “Savage” precisely because of his traditional way of life and beliefs. John’s death, however, is a tragic warning from Huxley—that traditional, “savage,” way of life has no place in the brave new world.
Tolstoy Confronts “Great Men” and Historicism
Post-Hegel Hegelians and Marxists, enamored by the discovery of History, enslaved themselves to the Geist, or Dialectic, and allowed themselves to be swallowed up by the tidal wave of unfolding History. The person did not matter. The sanctity of life, that great principle of Abrahamic religion rejected by Hinduism, Buddhism, Manicheanism, and Gnosticism, was abandoned in the endless and relentless pursuit of the millennium. No battle, no amount of terror, no amount of bloodshed was too much for these enslaved servants of History “to do what is necessary.”
As is almost always the case, the literati were those who first recognized the problem of the new historicism of Hegelianism and Marxism and subtly satirized these inhuman men captured by the possession of a demon. If Huxley saw the future of mechanistic and materialistic History leading to a dehumanized technological dystopia, Leo Tolstoy saw the future of the dehumanized and bloodthirsty world of total war that Hegelian historicism would unleash. War and Peace is more than just a story about the Napoleonic Wars, it is a tale of the violence of the Hegelian understanding of History and what the costs would be for the world if it didn’t abandon that first pursuit of Geist in the form of Napoleon Bonaparte.
The archetypal hero, the “great man” in Hegel’s anthropological historicism, is the man carried forth by the hand of the Spirit who does not understand what he is doing. He is blind to truth as he does not stand at the end of history but is the instrument of History. It is only later, after the fact, that people looking back upon the events of the day can understand what the hero did and what function it served under the fanciful law of “retrospectiveness.” These people subsequently venerate and glorify the hero. The hero, as Hegel said, is the founder of states.
Napoleon was the archetypal great man of history and the man who embodied the modern ideal of establishing the universal state. But Tolstoy captures the problem with the Hegelian hero better than Thomas Carlyle ever could. Where Carlyle praised the great man of history as he who managed to achieve the subordination of the wills of others to his own, Tolstoy showed the inhumanity of the great man of history and how the will of the great man—enslaved to the idea of glory and History—did not bring the welfare of others as Carlyle claimed (or the delusional great men claimed) but their utter ruination. And if those other great men of history chasing after the promised goal of History had something in common: Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Pot, and others, it was their inhumanity.
The soldiers of Napoleon’s armies were nothing more than toys to be thrown away on the battlefield. These men were nothing more than cheap instruments of History to be utilized in the battlefield because the advances of mathematical science and industry made equipping armies with standardized and efficient weapons easier than ever before. Whereas the preceding century of European warfare was based on drawn out campaigns of maneuver and retreat, the Napoleonic Wars unleashed upon History the idea of collectivized total war. Losing a battle was not the end of the war because men and material could be easily replaced and quickly trained in the age of the nationalized militias and standardized mass-produced firearms. Soldiers, who were considered so precious in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, were now little more than cannon fodder for generals to send charging to their death in grand clashes of hundreds of thousands to win the glory and honor of historical memory.
Tolstoy, brilliantly, besmirches Historical School epistemology. “In this case, apart from the law of ‘retrospectiveness,’ which makes all the past appear a preparation for the subsequent facts, the element of mutual interaction, too, comes in, confusing the whole of the subject.” Those historians, who sit at the end of history looking back upon the course of the day, see the past as the necessitated unfolding to have arrived at the present, thus giving the present more definitive meaning and purpose. But this, as Tolstoy says, only confuses the messiness of history. These slaves to History are always looking for that single moment of spectacular failure (the reactionaries) or monumental transformation (the progressives) to justify the means to their envisioned end.
Using the analogy of the defeated chess player, Tolstoy unleashes one of the best critiques of historicism ever penned:
A good chess-player, who has lost a game, is genuinely convinced that his failure is due to his blunders, and he seeks the blunder at the commencement of the game, forgetting that at every move during the whole game there were similar errors, that not one piece has been played as perfectly as possible. The blunder on which he concentrates his attention attracts his notice simply because his opponent took advantage of it.
War and Peace also navigates the two worlds that humans straddled in the wake of the discovery of History by Hegel and the slavish servitude by all the totalitarian movements that justified their actions in the name of History afterward. The novel ebbs and flows between human-to-human, relational and affectionate, interaction between people on one end, and the carnage of mass slaughter and chaotic battle on the other—that “tearful spectacle… heaped with the dead and wounded.” Tolstoy’s novel reads the two paths of humanity in a story aptly titled war and peace. The war for domination over others—as embodied in the ethos of Achilles—or the peace found in love, relationship, and forgiveness embodied by Christ.
It is important to remember that at the time of Tolstoy’s writing Hegelianism was all the rage among the Russian intelligentsia. Tolstoy, thus, does not just assail the French Hegelians who wanted to defend Napoleon’s greatness by making him immune to the inhumanity visible to the most human of readers of the terrible events that flooded Europe from 1792-1815. He also criticized the Russian Hegelians who glorified the desolation of the Russian countryside and the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians as a brilliant tactic that lured Napoleon into a trap.
In the end no one seems to even dwell upon the death and destruction unleashed in the 1812 campaign. “Napoleon’s historian, [Adolphe] Theirs, like others of Napoleon’s historians, tries to justify his hero by maintaining that he was drawn on to the walls of Moscow against his will,” writes Tolstoy. But just as suddenly as Tolstoy criticizes the French historians, he also critiques the Russian Hegelians who revised the events of Borodino and Moscow as skillful ingenious preplanned by the Russian general staff, “[Thiers] is as right as the Russian historians, who assert that Napoleon was lured to Moscow by the skillful strategy of the Russian generals.”
Napoleon’s blunder was because of the pre-planned genius of the Russians; permitted for the Russian Hegelians to see only because Napoleon was eventually forced to retreat from Moscow. Only that “retrospectiveness” could allow two schools of Hegelian historicism reach two wildly different conclusions despite having the same vantage point at the supposed end of history. What Tolstoy highlights in his criticism of the Hegelian historians within his novel, as well as through his imagining of that great and vain emperor—Napoleon—is that the servants of History, the historians or so-called great men, all lose sight of basic humanity. The historians, unconcerned with the carnage and bloodshed of the Russian campaign, busily write apologies to their heroes who were instruments of Fortuna giving little pause to the hundreds of thousands who died or the hundreds of thousands of families who had their lives ruined forever in the war.
Napoleon, the real blood and flesh tyrant of the story, is so lost in his grandeur that it is only through seeing the blood-stained fields of Borodino (along with having a cold) that finally clears his head to the point of his feeling sadness. In his sadness Napoleon becomes human. Only through an emotional feeling of “agony and death” does Napoleon become freed of being a slave to Geist and reflect upon the fragility of human life. As Tolstoy so poignantly states, “At that minute he felt no longing for Moscow, for victory or for glory.”
Of course, this moment of humanity is quickly lost as officers rush to Napoleon to report to him of the battle’s development whereby Napoleon once again hunkers down in the only thing he knows: giving orders to kill. And we shouldn’t be surprised, given that Andrei’s encounter with his hero at Austerlitz leads him to not to be overwhelmed by his “greatness” but his banality and emptiness, “Gazing into Napoleon’s eyes, Prince Andrei mused on the nothingness of greatness, on the nothingness of life.” On St. Helena, Napoleon even reminisces about how his invasion of Russia would have been justified had he succeeded in subjugating Russia because the end result would have been welfare and peace, “It was for a great cause the end of uncertainties and the beginning of security. A new horizon, new labours were unfolding, all full of welfare and prosperity for all.” What a familiar line of argumentation.
Throughout the work the enticing, yet cumbersome, systems that promise meaning fail to produce any meaning and only destroy life. Meanwhile it is in the ordinary where love and wisdom are found. To that end the loving relationship eventually consummated between Natasha and Pierre, and the love of others found in forgiveness reflected by Prince Andrei, that serve as the contrasted example to social climbing, war, sensuality, Masonry (though a positive influence on Pierre ultimately failed to provide full meaning to him), and Hegelianism, to where wisdom and meaning is found.
Orwell’s Rebuttal of Marxist “Love”
No genius more prophetically saw the trend of Marxism than did George Orwell. While other Marxist intellectuals—like the apologist for death, Eric Hobsbawm—tiredly made apologies about how the culling of tens of millions would be justified if “true communism” was established, Orwell broke with the partisans of inhumanity to show why these slaves to the Marxist dialectic would not produce utopia but a literal hell on earth. A hell in which humanity was ripped out of the soul of man and crushed under the weight of propaganda, terror, fear, and the corruption of language.
There is a certain irony with the communist and Marxist, or Maoist, apologists who flood Western universities and city streets these days. Mao launched an extermination campaign against the Eurasian sparrow because he considered it a public menace. The Soviet Union’s rapid industrialization came at the plunder of Siberia, as Alan Wood recounts in Russia’s Frozen Frontier. The argument that capitalism, alone, exploits the planet and others is demonstrably proven to be untrue by anyone not blinded by ideology. Men, not empty systems and structures, commit evil; and such evil men use systems and structures to their self-gratifying ends as St. Augustine knew.
The promise of freedom and liberation offered by the communists would result only in tyranny and enslavement as Orwell came to know. Rather than have a universal utopia of peace the communist vanguard would become the bourgeois elite and carefully and skillfully maneuver to hold onto their power against those whom they claimed to be helping. For tranquility is not what the revolutionary truly seeks but the thrill of the conflict of the dialectic itself. Therefore, the revolution must always have enemies. Revolution is not possible without the dialectical other to confront.
Vladimir Lenin’s “vanguardism” justified the dictatorship of the proletariat, which was already premised on the dialectic of Marxist class struggle, on the principle of perpetual revolution. The dictatorship of the proletariat needed to be established and maintained to thwart the counterrevolutionary threat of the capitalist class. This ever-present danger ensured the continuation of war communism and the entrenchment of the proletarian state and its apparatuses. Orwell brilliantly captures this reality through the ever present but imaginary phantom Emmanuel Goldstein. If the threat of Goldstein exists, just like as long as the threat of capitalist counterrevolution exists, the inner party—those in the vanguard movement—will forever hold power with the consciousness of perpetual war or counterrevolution demanding it so.
Orwell also comments throughout 1984 on how technology and media is utilized by the tyrants. A spam of constant, easy to consume, propaganda fills the streets and eyes of the citizens of Oceania. This follows the theory of education and intellectuals established by that other important turn of the century neo-Marxist Antonia Gramsci, who argued that intellectuals—as the organic head of the oppressed underclass—served to advance social awareness through control of the media and universities.
Bombarded by constant propaganda, the combination of media and technology serve to create that social awareness of the predicament of the proletariat. In Orwell’s reading, the consciousness offered by the communist propagandists is one of perpetual fear for it is through the fear of Goldstein and the war with Eurasians that the proletarian masses feel which leads to their docile submission for the need of the inner party and all its structures and forces to survive. (Like the dictatorship of the Proletariat.) The freedom and welfare of the proletariat is protected by, and only by, the inner party members and the structures they control “on behalf of the people” which only advances their interests and power.
Furthermore, there is a delicious irony in Orwell’s use of the “Ministry of Love.” When Carrington arrests Winston and Julia and they are imprisoned by the Ministry of Love, leading to the breaking of Winston to confess his love for Big Brother, Orwell is discussing how language is warped to serve the end of the slaves of History. This is not anything particularly new. Thucydides, Machiavelli, and Ludwig von Mises all wrote about the nature of the collapse of language and its distortion in times of crisis or to serve ideological ends.
That Winston is imprisoned and broken by the Ministry of Love who coerced a confession of love for Big Brother is Orwellian irony rivalled only by Platonic and Augustinian irony. Love, of course, in the Christian tradition that is a core cornerstone of Western thought and culture, is self-giving. God’s self-giving love is the reason for the Cosmos, God’s self-giving love is what led to his suffering on the Cross (forever memorialized on the Crucifix that emphasizes the suffering love of Christ), and, in the words of the Disciple whom Jesus loved, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” Love, in the Christian tradition, is a freely given gift of self to others; it is not coerced.
Locked up in the Ministry of Love, Winston is brutally beaten and broken down to give a coerced confession of his love for Big Brother. Orwell’s intention is very clear in this ordeal. The communists will use the language of love, destroying true love in the process, to coerce the desired outcome they already have in mind. There is no gift of self to Big Brother at the end of Orwell’s novel. Winston’s “revelation” that he loved Big Brother is the result of coerced methods of the so-called “Ministry of Love.” And do we not see this on blatant display today with all the talk of love overcoming hate which is then backed by coercive measures of the state?
The Tyranny of History
What these works highlight is how the slaves to History would justify their actions of instrumental use and abuse for the cause of the end of history. Unable to see straight like the Laputans or the Hegelian historians, cruelly justifying the deaths of millions in the promise of utopia, the toiling slaves of History—those supposed great men—don’t see the human faces and human souls which they run over in their pursuit of the millennium. Such men have lost their humanity in their servile toiling to the utopia that never comes.
We should be wary about those who weaponize History to justify their means. After all, ideology— ἰδέα and λογία—means to speak of a vision conjured up in the mind. And those who weaponize history and language to fit that vision know no boundaries in any matters. Enthralled by the phantoms of their psyche, the slaves to History become the most inhumane and inhuman among us. Those who become the slaves of the historical imagination become the blind tyrants of the real world who destroy this world for the fantasy of their world to come.
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Editor’s Note: The featured image is “El Tres de Mayo [The Third of May]” (1814) by Francisco Goya (1746-1828), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.