75 years ago in August 1941, George Orwell penned a critical essay on how liberalism struggled to understand Stalin and Hitler. The liberal he specifically takes issue with is H.G. Wells, author of “War of the World,” “The Time Machine,” and “The Invisible Man.” Wells wrote essays saying Hitler was doomed to fail because he wielded a little power in world politics. Specifically, Well pointed to Hitler’s weak military and cramped budget. Wells and other liberals continued to push this point while Hitler invaded countries. Orwell found the liberal arguments flawed due to their utopian worldview:
Mr. Wells, like Dickens, belongs to the non-military middle class. The thunder of guns, the jingle of spurs, the catch in the throat when the old flag goes by, leave him manifestly cold. He has an invincible hatred of the fighting, hunting, swashbuckling side of life, symbolised in all his early books by a violent propaganda against horses. The principal villain of his Outline of History is the military adventurer, Napoleon. If one looks through nearly any book that he has written in the last forty years one finds the same idea constantly recurring: the supposed antithesis between the man of science who is working towards a planned World State and the reactionary who is trying to restore a disorderly past. In novels, Utopias, essays, films, pamphlets, the antithesis crops up, always more or less the same. On the one side science, order, progress, internationalism, aeroplanes, steel, concrete, hygiene: on the other side war, nationalism, religion, monarchy, peasants, Greek professors, poets, horses. History as he sees it is a series of victories won by the scientific man over the romantic man. Now, he is probably right in assuming that a ‘reasonable,’ planned form of society, with scientists rather than witch-doctors in control, will prevail sooner or later, but that is a different matter from assuming that it is just round the corner. There survives somewhere or other an interesting controversy which took place between Wells and Churchill at the time of the Russian Revolution. Wells accuses Churchill of not really believing his own propaganda about the Bolsheviks being monsters dripping with blood, etc., but of merely fearing that they were going to introduce an era of common sense and scientific control, in which flag-wavers like Churchill himself would have no place. Churchill’s estimate of the Bolsheviks, however, was nearer the mark than Wells’s. The early Bolsheviks may have been angels or demons, according as one chooses to regard them, but at any rate they were not sensible men. They were not introducing a Wellsian Utopia but a Rule of the Saints, which like the English Rule of the Saints, was a military despotism enlivened by witchcraft trials. The same misconception reappears in an inverted form in Wells’s attitude to the Nazis. Hitler is all the war-lords and witch-doctors in history rolled into one. Therefore, argues Wells, he is an absurdity, a ghost from the past, a creature doomed to disappear almost immediately. But unfortunately the equation of science with common sense does not really hold good. The aeroplane, which was looked forward to as a civilising influence but in practice has hardly been used except for dropping bombs, is the symbol of that fact. Modern Germany is far more scientific than England, and far more barbarous. Much of what Wells has imagined and worked for is physically there in Nazi Germany. The order, the planning, the State encouragement of science, the steel, the concrete, the aeroplanes, are all there, but all in the service of ideas appropriate to the Stone Age. Science is fighting on the side of superstition. But obviously it is impossible for Wells to accept this. It would contradict the world-view on which his own works are based. The war-lords and the witch-doctors must fail, the common-sense World State, as seen by a nineteenth-century Liberal whose heart does not leap at the sound of bugles, must triumph. Treachery and defeatism apart, Hitler cannot be a danger. That he should finally win would be an impossible reversal of history, like a Jacobite restoration.
Note why the liberal cannot understand Hitler: The old “demons” roared back into control in Germany despite the people having access to the best enlightened thought. To the liberal worldview, morality only moves forward with time. Once a people have been bathed in the light of reason and the enlightenment, they will not revert back to a more barbarous state. But in fact, what we see is the exact opposite: enlightenment has rationalized the use of technological advancements to exterminate vast swaths of humans. The advanced country of Germany succumbed to these passions. Today, even though they claim to be enlightened still, they fear their past to such an extent that they ban speech of Nazism. For fear of allowing it to return. This isn’t a strong acknowledgment of reason, it’s the opposite: it says the mind is fully capable of falling into darkness. Technology, progress, and time do not thwart the old demons, instead they enhance the darkness already present within man.
Liberalism still has this problem. We see it in critiques of Russian President Vladimir Putin. We see it in critiques of Republican Nominee for President Donald Trump. We see it in critiques of Senator Bernie Sanders. We see it in how liberalism and progressivism deal with evil in the world. There is a belief, under the surface, that we have progressed as a society and are different, morally, than our ancestors. “Bernie Socialism won’t end the same way socialism has in the past.” “Putin is a weak player who is no actual threat to America. We have the larger military.” “Trump is just an old guy and he and his followers will die off after this election. We will progress.” They believe our technological progress has made us more inclusive, loving, and our “progress” will not slide backwards.
They are wrong. Social media and our technological advancements have only enhanced what has always inside man’s nature from the beginning. Enlightenment and science do not cleanse the soul or shift man’s inner thoughts.
The best liberal example of this blindness is the phrase: “being on the right side of history.” This is the liberal’s go-to argument on most morally wrong issues in the world. A person shouldn’t be on the wrong side of history because you don’t want your ancestors looking back and seeing what a morally wrong person you were in the past. A perfect example is President Barack Obama’s response to Putin’s invasion of Crimea in the Ukraine:
The strong condemnation that Russian has received around the world indicates the degree to which Russia is on the wrong side of history
As the Atlantic has noted, this phrase is one of the President’s favorites to imply a strong moral backing of his position. There are two problems with this phrase: 1) It assumes history moves forward morally in a progressive fashion, never backwards; and 2) It assumes whatever morals a future generation holds is superior to the previous generations. The result of these two beliefs is an inability to deal with evil when it arises in the world. As Orwell so succinctly noted with liberals in his day: they held so dear their notions of scientific progress that it was unthinkable that a Hitler could rise.
On the first point, history is not a line progressing forward in a “good” moral direction. Civilizations come and go with their moral quirks. Immorality often marks the decline of great empires. Some countries have been progressive, others have not. In each case, they fell and whatever “progress” they made in the name of liberalism was reversed. The Reformation and Enlightenment ushered in a new era of progress for mankind. But it has also seen the most bloodshed: The American Civil War, WWI and WWII, and the Vietnam War, to name a few. And despite those wars: slavery still exists, dictators still run countries, and there is still evil in the world. It may have taken a different personage, but it still exists. History has not vanquished evil.
On the second point, nothing in mankind’s history proves that any generation that has existed is morally superior to the others. There have been great clusters of people in certain generations, but there have also been clusters of evil in subsequent generations. The progressive may point to science as the light leading us out of the “Dark Ages,” but from the Enlightenment Era to this day we continue to deal with the same evils. The rationalized mind of reason dreamt about by the enlightened era has not cleansed the world of evil. Germany was a great scientific nation prior to Nazism taking hold. They could rationalize the evils of that ideology.
In other words: There is no right side of history, only vantage points. We cannot presume our future will be morally better than we are, just as we cannot assume to be morally superior to those in our past. A morality that sets right and wrong based on absolute truth survives time. It does not shift with history.
In some respects we sit in a similar spot as Orwell in 1941. There are no Hitler and Stalin to worry about in our time. But we can see how liberalism still fails to understand humankind’s pullback from “liberalism’s progress.” We can see how progressives in particular are blind to how people like Trump and Putin can exist freely in our world. They hold the same blindness as 1940’s liberals:
But because [Wells] belonged to the nineteenth century and to a non-military nation and class, he could not grasp the tremendous strength of the old world which was symbolised in his mind by fox-hunting Tories. He was, and still is, quite incapable of understanding that nationalism, religious bigotry and feudal loyalty are far more powerful forces than what he himself would describe as sanity. Creatures out of the Dark Ages have come marching into the present, and if they are ghosts they are at any rate ghosts which need a strong magic to lay them.
In our time, we see Putin, Trump, Bernie Sanders socialism, and the alt-right rising like ghouls from the past. The response from liberals and progressives is astonishment such things exist. The attack those things as being wrong, but assume good people cannot possibly believe such things. It’s not that they don’t believe evils exist, it’s that they believe such concepts are weak and on the wrong side of history. According to them, we are the children of those who were on the right side of history. Which makes us presumptively right. There is no side to history. We must understand how our ancestors defeated these evils. History is a story of what has happened, not an intrinsic force moving the universe towards better morality. We make these choices. Not an invisible hand.
History does not move in one direction. Evil can win battles. As a Christian I fully believe the end victory goes to Christ and goodness. But, there is nothing preventing evil from winning rounds between that time and now. America was founded by men who believed we were fully capable of losing our freedoms. They believed that the tree of liberty might require additional blood in order to survive. In modern times, the conservative movement successfully banished the alt-right crowd in the mid-20th century. Liberalism was forced to acknowledge socialism and communism were evil forces. For a time, both movements had that peace. But now, we’re watching the ghosts of these ideas roar back to power through Trump, Sanders, and their ideas. In Russia, Putin is reversing the gains of democracy in his country after the fall of the Soviet Union.
It took the combined efforts of the 20th Century to do it, but Reagan and his generation helped prove Marxism, Socialism, and Communism were failed ideologies. They reduced their countries to complete poverty and resulted in the deaths of countless millions. Not to mention innumerable violations of human rights. Yet, liberals and progressives spent the better part of the last year courting Bernie Sanders and his socialism. It took FDR, Churchill, and millions of lives lost in WWII to beat back the forces of fascism. A fascism that set out to kill people based on race, gender, religion, and ideology. But we see that same tyranny present in Trump’s authoritarian ways and hero-worship of Putin.
That is the problem. The false belief in a forward moving history has blinded liberalism to the very real threat in front of it: extinction. Like Orwell’s time, it was simply unthinkable. The problem is that the unthinkable is running for President of the United States of America.
There is a belief among many elites that what we’re witnessing is the last throes of the baby boomer generation. That this is merely a last gasp of power and relevance for them. Once this generation is gone, we will see evils fade into the distance. This is a critically flawed belief. These ideas are not new and can rise up in any generation. The belief that society will magically progress forward once one generation is gone is fanciful, ageist, and fatally assumes the future will be more morally pure than the past. There is nothing in all of human history that proves society is morally better as we move forward in time. We may believe ourself better than our ancestors, that does not make it true. We need to pop this bubble of historical self-delusion and understand the world we’re in. It’s not a utopian future. It’s a future where old ideas have to be defeated again.