What if We’re Wrong?
Some time ago I attended a ‘Question Time’ type meeting at a local college. Selected members of the audience put questions to a panel of politicians; one of which was a question of mine. I asked: ‘When was the last occasion that you were clearly wrong about something of political importance?’ As I had intended, this caused an initial confusion in those who had made a career out of being publicly confident. Any admission of being mistaken about anything is anathema to professional politicians. But in ‘real life’ when we meet someone with absolute certainty about anything we are usually wary of them. In terms of character assessment the line between confidence and arrogance can be a very fine one. Given the complexities of life is it ever possible to be certain or even unduly confident about anything? And if we can be certain about anything surely politics is one of the last arenas where this is a possibility. Does a person’s certainty tell us everything about his or her character and nothing about the subject of their confident assertions?
For a confident bunch like us socialists it is an unnerving concept that we might be mistaken in our values and beliefs. But what we all know, with absolute certainty, is that anyone can be wrong – including us. It is an interesting experiment to try and come up with an historical individual who was never wrong. Leaving aside the gods and demigods of religious belief (to whom we will return later) there seems to be no individual or school of thought, with which they are associated, that is not subject to various levels of relevant criticism. Phrases like: ’he was a man of his time’ or ‘the science of genetics didn’t exist then’ are used to explain why many respectable theories of the past are now rejected and consigned to a dusty bookshelf as a subject of academic interest only. How many of our contemporary theories will also become just of interest to the academics and esoteric historians of the future? Many lack this kind of historical perspective and are continually seduced by the latest theory when a closer look might reveal it as merely a repackaged version of an old idea. Technologically and scientifically our species has made great advances but can we say the same of our philosophy? We know that human technological progress provides the context for the concepts and language of his beliefs and values so why is it that some of the phrases of people like the Buddha, Socrates, Confucius, Shakespeare and Marx still have a powerful contemporary resonance?
One thing that all of these people shared was, of course, confidence. And we can be certain that if they were resurrected and placed in a contemporary philosophical debate they would all give a good account of themselves. Why? Because they all had a grasp of historical perspective and context. In this age of ideological consumerism there seems to be little room for history. Politics is seen as an intellectual riddle where all of the information needed for its resolution is entirely contemporary – there is a great contempt for the past. But the reality is that many of these shiny new economic and political theories are superficial philosophical regurgitations with flimsy ideological facades. Culturally capitalism has reached a dead end and the theories used to defend it are, like the food in supermarkets, just repackaged basics.
Socialists see capitalism historically as the last incarnation of private property society. We see no reason why this form of economic exploitation will not vanish as did its predecessors slavery and feudalism. The reason for the decline of these former societies was the emergence of new classes that deposed the old ruling elites. This same dynamic, the class struggle, still rages remorselessly. With this perspective history takes on a meaning and trajectory that no society can resist for long. This is the element that provides such confidence for Marxists/socialists. Without fail all attempts in the past to counter or ignore this momentum have been disastrous. It would seem that this theory of historical materialism has passed every test in terms of both explanation and prediction. To an outsider this may, however, sound quasi-religious in its certainty and its ability to predict.
To allocate meaning to history has a very long pedigree and, as with most of European intellectual activity, it has some of its roots in the Judaeo-Christian tradition. But rather than seeing it, as many critics of Marxism do, as a reformulation of a traditional messianic vision we can turn it on its head and see the prophets and saints of religion as merely projecting the essentially human need for justice, righteousness and meaning onto a non-existent supernatural realm. The reason that some of what these religious individuals had to say continues to resonate is because they were witness to similar injustices, in terms of economic exploitation etc., that we still endure today. In an increasingly secular society any undue expression of political confidence can be interpreted as religious. Certainly the dualism of the final resolution of the class conflict has an uncomfortable parallel in Christianity’s Armageddon where good and evil will fight it out for the last time. Socialists’ belief that the revolution will redeem our lost humanity can also be seen in this pseudo-religious light. We are therefore sometimes condemned as yet another sect of prophets that, as with those in the Christian context, will all be proven to be mistaken.
So is it possible that we are wrong and that history has no meaning? As we have said, the theory that backs up this belief continues to be robust and successful. The great irony is that even if we’re mistaken in attributing meaning to history once a great majority believe it to be true then, for the first time, we will have the ability to impose meaning and direct our future accordingly – we will make our own history rather than just be manipulated by it. Humanity will no longer be subject to the vicissitudes of an amoral, destructive and perpetual class struggle and will finally emerge from the long dark age of private property.