“The future is dark, the present burdensome. Only the past, dead and buried, bears contemplation.” Thus G.R. Elton in The Practice of History, a book that I read at an impressionable age and so can still quote large chunks verbatim despite disagreeing with most of it. This line has always struck me as particularly, but interestingly, wrong; it encapsulates, tongue in cheek, the essentially conservative view of history as a means of escape into a past that is always conceived as preferable to the present – if only because it’s already over, so human suffering is more bearable (echoes again of Hegel’s account of history as the view from the shore of a distant shipwreck). It’s also linked to an explicit anti-determinism; there is no underlying logic to historical development, so the past speaks only to itself, not to the present, let alone to the future. Stuff happens, and we can grasp it properly only in retrospect.
My instinct, both as a historian and as a political being, is to reject such an attempt at presenting history as a mere luxury, an exercise in leisured reflection – doubtless from an expensively upholstered armchair in a private library – with no possibility of gaining any traction on the present. But in present circumstances, struggling to keep one’s head above the rising tide of crude historical analogies, it’s tempting to wish that more people shared Elton’s perspective. “How the reign of Galerius explains Trump! If you squint at it in the right way! Episode 173.”
Partly, it’s the superficiality of the historical account – a selection of ancient sources taken entirely at face value so long as they can be presented in presentist terms. Partly it’s the obsessive focus on (faint) resemblances between past and present, ignoring the vast differences. Partly, as I’ve discussed obsessively on here, it’s the unstated implications for understanding the nature of historical developments – including the political implications of seeing everything in terms of individuals and short-term events. In brief, the vast majority of these evocations of the past are Not Helpful (because largely trite and silly).
Of course, much of this can be explained by the fact that they’re not intended to be helpful, or at least not in my terms. This is exemplified by the claims of David Engels about resemblances between the fall of the Roman Republic and the likely fate of the EU; first developed in his 2013 book Le Déclin. La crise de l’Union européenne et la chute de la République romaine. Quelques analogies (German translation 2014) and revived last week by an interview with the German version of The Huffington Post, which was then picked up and celebrated by a range of right-wing websites. In brief, there are numerous points of comparison between Rome and modern Europe (unemployment, family breakdown, decline of traditional religion, fundamentalism, excessive consumption of honeyed dormice etc.), so inevitably Europe is going to fall into civil war until a charismatic figure appears in 20-30 years’ time to establish an autocracy.
Roland Steinacher and I have written a critical response to some of these claims (apologies to those who don’t read German; I guess an English version may appear at some point…); here, I want to reflect on something that doesn’t really belong in a sensible commentary, namely speculation on the underlying psychology of this sort of argument. Why are so many people longing for apocalypse? Studying history in order to feel powerless and doomed? Those who remember the past to see what we’re condemned to repeat?
At least the sorts of crude Marxist determinism that Elton hated were, in their own terms, optimistic: the past reveals the dynamics of history that are leading us through conflict and contradiction to Communism – or at any rate it reveals that capitalism is not eternal, it has not always existed and so won’t exist for ever. These contemporary analogies, in contrast, offer crude anti-progressivism and absolute pessimism: not just scepticism about the possibility of human improvement, hence a sense of the fragility of society and civilisation, but an active celebration of their imminent demolition.
This is explicit in the case of many of the right-wing sites that have picked up on the Engels interview, echoing Steve Bannon in their longing for chaos and apocalyptical destruction as the foundation of a new world order. Engels himself doesn’t appear to be celebrating the collapse of Europe that he predicts; he emphasises that, as a father, he finds the prospect alarming. But, if we take that claim at face value, why does he then promote such a vision at such length?
One possible answer might be offered by A.L. Rowse’s catty remark about Oswald Spengler: “Because the Germans were going the way to defeat, Western civilisation is to be regarded as coming to an end”. In other words, Engels’ particular situation as a resident of Brussels and its recent problems with social fragmentation/Islamist terrorism/etc. are being extrapolated to the whole of Europe (indeed, this can be seen in the way he substitutes an image of Europe fragmenting into isolated and mutually hostile ‘suburbs’ for the wholly implausible idea of a European civil war on the Roman model).
Is this also a vision of apocalypse that offers the prospect of escape for a few with foresight and luck? After all, there were winners in the Roman civil war, and the point of Bannon’s vision is that it conveniently sweeps away the old order so that people like him can build a new one. European readers delighting in the idea that a Proper Historian has predicted the collapse of the EU don’t think that it’s going to harm them (but the rest of the continent can burn…).
Failing that, I think we’re into the realms of psychology: Freud’s death drive, for example, coming to terms with one’s own mortality by willing the destruction of everything else as well. The crazy thing is that there are rational reasons for concern about the future prospects of humanity – but these are focused precisely on the sorts of things, like climate change, that the right wants to deny or at least ignore in the hope that they’ll go away. Yes, we’re all going to die – but we’re going to die in a manner approved of by precedent, as it’s all happened before…
[Update 17/2/17: David Engels has posted a substantial rejoinder to the article by Roland and me on the Huffington Post blog; don’t have time to go into it in any depth now, but one closing point is that we can wait 20-30 years and see who’s right – European civil war followed by autocracy, or something else? Fair enough…]