Is there such a thing as the right side of history?

Right Side of History tee shirt

When “the right side of history” comes up in a discussion, one is presented with a challenge to adopt a certain point of view or be left behind. This idea that History is heading to a better outcome and that we can know what that is was critiqued by Associate Professor Chris Watkin, an expert in modern philosophy, in a lecture at New College, UNSW. 

He suggested the “right side of history” trope usually belongs to a particular view of history – one that features incremental progress.

“Of course, we always like to paint ourselves as the winners and the sort of language that comes out of this view of history as incremental progress often takes the form of suggesting that certain ideologies or certain groups are on what is called the right side of history and other groups on what is called the wrong side of history,” Watkin said. “It is a very curious way of speaking, isn’t it? It assumes a definite shape to history as such. And I think it’s worth reflecting on that. 

“I think there’s something really quite problematic – how would we know whether something or someone or some idea ends up on the right side of history or not? What are the criteria we would need to be fulfilled to make that judgmental authority?”

With Aristotle, Watkin suggests that we will only know for sure at the end of the story.

Aside from the Christian view of the ending of history – with Jesus returning – currently, we have two feared scenarios: ecological catastrophe or nuclear disaster.

“In each of those cases, the modern secular West does not come out on the right side of history: because either it’s the cause of the environmental crisis or it’s the society that invented nuclear weapons that destroyed everyone, or it is found to have been mistaken in its secularism. And so the only context in which it would make sense to say that something is on the right side of history would put modern secular modernity on the wrong side of history. And so it is language I think that we should use cautiously.”

A rival view of history is that of radical revolution. Watkin quotes Maximilien Robespierre, one of the revolutionaries in France: “If the spring of popular government in time of peace is virtue, the springs of popular government in revolution are at once virtue and terror. Virtue without terror is fatal; terror without virtue is powerless. Terror is nothing other than justice: prompt, severe, inflexible. It is therefore an emanation of virtue… a consequence of the general principle of democracy applied to our country’s most urgent needs.”

Watkin asked his audience comfortably, sitting in the New College common room: “I don’t want us to dismiss this. I want this to sit with us for a moment. Do you see what’s at stake if you think that upon your decisions hangs the welfare of countless generations to come? And if you get this wrong, there may never be another opportunity from the time of nowhere until now. What would you do if you really believed that? What would you do?”

A third narrative doesn’t want to accept either adopted by Michel Foucault in his early writings, according to Watkin – that requires epistemic humility. Ways of understanding the world succeed each other – and each as an entirety to itself “has its own sense of what progress means.”

Watkin puts these three versions of history against the Bible.

“The Bible is also very cautious to claim to know exactly what God is doing in any particular event. Think of the Tower of Siloam in Luke, for example, and how everybody was quick to hypothesise about what this meant – These people must be greater sinners than everyone else because the tower fell on them.

“Jesus says, don’t jump to conclusions. Don’t think that you can read the providence of God off individual events of history in some sort of straightforwardly transparent way.”

Taking the three alternative stories of history, in turn, Watkin sees

• Incrementalism has a point about human progress, but the heart of human beings has not changed. The Bible is more level-headed than the incrementalists, acknowledging tragedy. He quotes J. R. R. Tolkien as a survivor of the Battle of the Somme: “Actually I am a Christian, and indeed a Roman Catholic, so that I do not expect ‘history’ to be anything but a ‘long defeat’ – though it contains (and in a legend may contain more clearly and movingly) some samples or glimpses of final victory.”

• For revolutionaries, Mary’s prayer, “He has mercy on those who fear him 

in every generation.

He has shown the strength of his arm,

he has scattered the proud in their conceit.

He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,

and has lifted up the lowly.

He has filled the hungry with good things,

and the rich he has sent away empty.”

looks forward to a new world where the last shall be the first. A more radical and complete revolution than Karl Marx envisioned. 

This means that Christians do have a vision of the shape of history –  different from the incrementalists and revolutionaries. 

Talking to an imaginary Karl Marx on stage, Watkin answers the charge that Christians’ vision of the afterlife will paralyse us in the present. 

“Your labour in the Lord is not in vain” – Paul tells the Christians in 1 Corinthians 15:58. After a chapter focussed on the afterlife –how death has lost its sting – he assures us of the value of our work on this world.

Watkin draws great assurance from this verse. The incrementalist can’t be sure of being on the right side of history, and neither can the revolutionary. But for the Christian, even the cup of water to the least of these – as Jesus commands – will not be in vain.