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Last Updated: Friday, 11 February 2005, 18:04 GMT
Progress, what progress?

Transcript of part one of Simon Heffer's series of essays for The Westminster Hour

In the days when to be a Tory and a respected academic was not a contradiction in terms, Herbert Butterfield, a thirty-year old fellow of Peterhouse, Cambridge, published his revolutionary essay 'the Whig Interpretation of History'. Butterfield's target was that school of historical thought that believed the state of the world at the present day was the natural and intended culmination of events that had occurred in the past. Butterfield ridiculed the notion that historical events had had no relevance in their own times, but were designed solely to bring about a far distant aim, usually of a 'progressive' nature. He was writing in 1931, when the upheaval of the Great War was still fresh in the memory, as were the revolutions in Russia and, to a lesser extent, Germany that were in part or in whole consequences of the conflict. Writing in an uncertain world, Butterfield defined his target as 'the tendency in many historians' to praise revolutions provided they have been successful, to emphasize certain principles of progress in the past and to produce a story which is the ratification if not the glorification of the present.' The Whig legacy today has been passed on to the liberal intelligentsia.

For Butterfield, life was not so simple as that, and history was not so cheap as that story of Man's stately progress out of darkness into light. He felt strongly that the idea of a historical continuum was bogus. It was bogus because, quite obviously, it did not happen. And, it was bogus because the propagation of this falsehood was used to justify the progressive, 'Whig' version of history that was used to suggest that a breaking down of existing orders was both natural and inevitable.

Butterfield's critique had a relevance beyond the writing of history. It should have made us all sceptical about the very notion of 'progress'. But an all-too-often simplistic belief in progress - which sees us all on some pre-charted journey - has survived and even flourished. So, over the next three weeks, I'll be going back to 'The Whig Interpretation of History' to find out what lessons Butterfield's text has for us and for our times.

In his view it was perfectly proper sometimes to take the line that certain revolutions had been damaging, that progress had been achieved in spite of them rather than because of them. Above all, he argued that the neat idea that the present 'ratified' past events' or (worse!) the characters of historical personages was a simplistic nonsense. Butterfield sought to use history as an explanation and exposition of the truth as it had occurred at the time: and he stigmatised the Whig habit of using history purely as propaganda to shore up a sometimes rocky world view.

Three-quarters of a century has passed since he expounded this thesis. They are 75 years packed with the most cataclysmic events. As one looks back over a period scarred by Stalinism and Nazism, and by other lesser but still vile manifestations of totalitarianism, the challenge to the Whig historian and to liberal Intellectuals generally remains a profound one. To paraphrase Butterfield, it is not so easy to stand here in 2005 and organise a scheme of history from the point of view of the present day. As Butterfield saw it, the greatest fallacy of the Whigs was they sought 'finality' in history, something that it simply cannot provide. A later historian, Francis Fukuyama, wrote, at the end of the 1980s and at the end of the Cold War, a provocative book entitled 'The End of History': but history has no end, and can have none until such times as the world itself does. The events history contains do not necessarily lead to the present day; if they lead to anything, they lead beyond the present day and into an infinite future - but the destination is not fixed. More to the point, historical events can only properly be understood in the context of their times, and their relevance is to that. This cold piece of logic did not, of course, serve the interests of propaganda that would further the Whig view. Butterfield categorised this difficulty not as a problem of historical philosophy, but as one of the psychology of historians.

If we look at the main events of the years since Butterfield wrote, his notion that it was foolish for the historian to busy himself 'with dividing the world into the friends and enemies of progress' has been proven time and again. In the years immediately after he had outlined this thesis, various supposedly intelligent people went to Stalin's Russia and praised it for the way in which it had liberated the working man from the tyranny of the Tsarist autocracy. They claimed to have seen the future and they declared it worked. Others event then saw that the old tyranny had been replaced by another new, even worse and more murderous one. So much for progress. But in the century of the common man, such a view would take some years to prevail, and would be seriously retarded by the alliance between Britain and Russia after June 1941, when Hitler tore up the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact.

Equally, there were those who were quick, in the 1930s, to praise the revolution - albeit democratically engineered - that Hitler wrought in Germany. After all, people were put back into work. The economy was stabilised after the insanities of the Weimar years. Children were better schooled. The people were healthier and fitter. The industry and infrastructure of his country leapt ahead into the 20th century. On the new autobahns, workers had their Volkswagens to take them about at their liberty. Wasn't that 'progress'?

Yet, of course, all this was being accomplished in an atmosphere of repression, persecution and savagery that many outside Germany were slow to appreciate. Taking sides in history, or making judgments about historical events, is never easy. Because of Hitler's unspeakable evil, and because Stalin was for a time on our side, it has only been in the last decade or so that it has become acceptable for historians to argue that Hitler's bestiality was not unique: Stalin, judged as a murderer, was as bad if not worse. So too - according to that grim calculation 'body count' - was Mao Tse-Tung.

Hitler, though, was quickly exposed as being unworthy of Whig sympathies - not merely because he was our enemy, but because he was in political (though not in economic) aspects a reactionary. But for decades, even after the full extent of Stalin's crimes began to be exposed by Khruschev in 1956, many were reluctant to damn Uncle Joe. This was because the Communist movement of which he had been the figurehead for nearly 30 of its formative years was still held to have been on balance what the authors of 1066 And All That would have called 'a good thing', because of its supposedly progressive principles. All Stalin had done, supporters of communism argued, was to pervert a good cause. We now know that to be rubbish. However, it was rubbish that, because of the determination of historians still to take sides, and still to try to argue that there has been some sort of 'continuum of progress' that has brought us to the present day, took a devil of a time to sweep away. Butterfield had warned against judging historical figures according to whether they had helped accelerate progress or stood in its way. But at least one generation of historians - and political commentators for that matter - failed to heed the lesson.

Because of our continuing failure to analyse historical events properly we might, for example, today be misjudging the present state of Russia in its early post-Soviet phase. Having been spared external conquerors of the sort who tend to dictate terms in the aftermath of victory, individual Russians who in the Cold War period held power at various levels have largely got away with their crimes during the years of communist rule.

There have been no war (or peace) crimes trials in Russia; and no pressure is or probably can be applied by the victors of the cold war for there to be such a reckoning. There is a lingering belief that, however ghastly the Soviet years might have been, they had their benefits, such as modernising a feudal state and levelling out inequalities, and all has turned out all right in the end. Because, somehow, Sovietisation was seen to be on the side of 'progress', a move down modernity's road like 'electrification', and to have had a benign effect on assisting 'progress' in other countries, it is not stigmatised in the way that Nazism quite correctly is. The buildings of Albert Speer were dynamited; the ludicrous 'wedding cake' towers of Moscow, far cruder in their design and execution, still stand. Eisenstein's films are rapturously received, despite the vulgarity of their propaganda and the relentless way in which they uphold the often violent prejudices of the Stalinist era. Leni Riefenstahl's, cinematographically, every bit as fine, are shown accompanied by stringent moral health warnings. I am not disputing that Nazism deserves its taint, nor that even fine artistic achievements produced in homage to it should be seen as distasteful; but the same standards are not applied to the works born of the other totalitarianism and they should be.

It all seems to come down to the fact that we still believe that the 1917 revolution in Russia was about 'progress', even though in reality it replaced one form of near-slavery with another even more vicious type of it. Books now frequently appear detailing the persecutions conducted by Stalin and his successors. The now-liberated Eastern Europe is making plain the extent of the deportations, executions and other sufferings inflicted upon it by the Soviet regime. Yet, as the files are declassified and the museums of Soviet genocide against the people whose lands Stalin occupied open their doors, people still remain hesitant to condemn that system and its products. Why? Because that same psychology that Butterfield condemned among the Whig historians has taken hold among the intellectual class as a whole.

Consider some examples. Fidel Castro, many of whose people live in fear and unnecessary poverty in a police state, is regarded as a lovable old man. Robert Mugabe, despite the overwhelming evidence of the corruption of his regime, his hand in the genocide of Matabeles over 20 years ago, and the racism he practises against black and white tribes alike, is considered by many Africans as a martyr to the wickedness of the colonial oppressor though his first-world fan club is now seriously depleted.

These brutes have been beneficiaries of the desire to interpret history in a Whig way. Too many people are still predisposed to argue that the revolutions that brought them to power, having succeeded, are somehow legitimised by their consolidation, and the acts of the tyrants with them.

Today's Whigs have not learned to define what 'progress' really means. Nor can they quite see that there was another route to the freedoms now enjoyed in Eastern Europe and, to a lesser extent, in Russia today than that pursued by the socialist revolutionaries of the period between 1917 and the late 1980s. Life in the old Soviet bloc countries is a complete contradiction of the existence before the end of the Cold War, a triumph now of liberty and capitalism that must cause some Whigs great difficulties if they have swallowed what many of them did about the benefits of Communism. Equally, what has happened in Russia in recent months has simply reinforced the point about the impossibility of looking for a coherent continuum, and that the reintroduction of Soviet-style rule is not exactly compatible with a conventional or glib definition of 'progress'.

Mr Putin has lately made hitherto elected governorships part of his own patronage. He has interfered with supposedly free broadcasting organisations. Most alarmingly of all he has, it seems, locked up without trial a man whose only crime we so far know of was to be rich enough to pose a political threat to Mr Putin. But then in a regime run by and peopled with those who learned the art of political management at the school of Leonid Brezhnev, who can be surprised? Those commentators who saw the old, democratic Mr Putin as the natural end result of the whole Soviet experience since the revolution must now argue that the new, undemocratic Mr Putin is equally the natural end result of the whole Soviet experience since the revolution. Good luck to them. To the rest of us, he is the living incarnation of the fallacy of the Whig interpretation of history.

Butterfield said that 'it is part and parcel of the Whig interpretation┐that it studies the past with reference to the present.' He saw this, quite correctly, as an obstruction to understanding what had really happened in the past, and why what is happening in the present is actually occurring. He also saw it as a peculiarly self-regarding thing: that to historians of a certain political cast of mind the past could only be important if it had some application to the present, or if it could be proved that it was always leading to the present. The idea of a 'line of causation' in history he dismissed as being merely a 'mental trick'. We must not see our own age as the 'absolute' to which every other age is 'relative'. As Butterfield says, the past was once upon the time the present, its people, ideas and events were as valid and momentous as our people, ideas and events. To try to suggest otherwise is not merely fallacious but absurd. And to do so risks leading us into the errors I have already outlined, where an entirely false idea of what constitutes progress can be constructed. Instead of arguing that the century of the common man was precipitated by the Russian revolution, might the historian not be better employed in asking why it was that, even once the revolution was secured, the revolutionaries were dedicated to killing some people and denying freedoms to others?

Butterfield stated that 'the more we examine the way in which things happen, the more we are driven from the simple to the complex'. Historical change, or progress, is almost never a matter of the straightforward line of causation. Events have to be seen in their own context, and in their own time, and not consciously viewed from, or acting as justification for, the present. They have to be seen, correctly, for having usually had a multiplicity of causes. Above all, Butterfield's main achievement ought to have been to rid us of the notion of black and white in history. It is simply not accurate, and is pure propaganda, to argue that the Whigs (or 'progressives') are the faction to which the world owes every positive development in thought, policy and action, whereas the Tories' (or Reactionaries) role has always been that of systematic obstruction. I shall deal more closely with that fallacy next week, in looking at Britain's history and progress - or lack of it - since 1945. Goodnight.

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