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Arc of Progress?

Does faith in historical progress explain colonial brutality? Priya Satia suspects so.

Nick Burns
Time’s Monster: How History Makes History
by Priya Satia (Belknap Press, 384 pp., $29.95)

Do lofty intentions create an equitable foreign policy, or do they risk justifying bad actions in the name of a crusade for some greater good? A debate at least as old as the Greek historian Thucydides seems likely to re-emerge in the Biden Administration, as Trump’s “America First” gives way to a restored sense of the importance of promoting human rights and democracy abroad.

Entering this fray, Stanford historian Priya Satia’s new book, Time’s Monster: How History Makes History, presents a surprising, contrarian argument about the history of colonialism. It argues the abuses committed by modern empires occurred not in spite of their belief in historical progress but because of it.

The book’s title points to the baleful role played in this process by the writing of works of history: One source of colonialism’s ills, according to Satia, was the suggestion by 19th-century historians that there would be some future moment at which the “arc of history,” in contemporary parlance, would finally arrive at its destination of perfect justice.

Authors like James Mill and Thomas Macaulay, modifying Christian eschatology, saw in the historical trajectory of nations an inevitable march toward ever more perfect conditions. Britain, through its empire, had the opportunity to help the sadly backward nation of India advance toward civilization; posterity, the account continued, would thank Britain for it, even if a few eggs had to be broken along the way.

Here, in Satia’s view, is the point at which notions of progress abetted British repression.

To this day, popular discussion of the legacy of the British Empire is conducted via a vocabulary inherited from the likes of Mill and Macaulay. The questions concern whether “civilizing” improvements like infrastructure outweigh costs like repression, the destruction of domestic textile production, and so on.

The book’s subject matter is somewhat narrower than its subtitle suggests. In fact, it describes the way historiography—the act of writing history—has made history in Satia’s particular field of expertise, the British Empire and its legacy. Before the book turns to this subject, we receive only a brief overview of Western historiography and its ethical implications, beginning with the Greeks.

Thucydides is credited with historiography’s original sin: introducing the idea that posterity judges the ethical character of historical actions. Whether actions are right or wrong cannot be known to participants in these actions but can be seen only in retrospect; therefore, the judgment of history, in Thucydides’ view, is akin to a “secular Judgment Day.” In Satia’s opinion, this view is terribly dangerous because it allows people to override their consciences and act badly if someone gives them reason to think that posterity may vindicate them.

Yet, even aside from the difficulty of imputing notions from secularized Christianity to a classical writer, ascribing to Thucydides the idea that history “vindicates” an actor gets the Greek historian exactly wrong. Nothing could be more foreign to Thucydides, a writer whose sublimity lies precisely in his scrupulous avoidance of straightforward moral judgment of the actions he describes. The objective of his history is to demonstrate the natural consequences of human actions. Simply to call actions right or wrong, in retrospect or otherwise, is an approach he plainly considers hostile to reaching a full understanding. In fact, one of his principal themes is the instability of ethical considerations in politics: He shows us how rhetoric can warp the concept of justice beyond recognition. Moreover, Thucydides wrote his history over the course of the very war he describes. He could not judge these events from the remove of posterity even if he wanted to do so.

A chapter-long reprise of an earlier book Satia wrote, however, about a purportedly pacifist Quaker gunmaker named Samuel Galton, who managed to profit from the 18th-century military-industrial complex, yields fascinating reflections on the development of modern public morality. Galton, accused of hypocrisy by his fellow Quakers, replied that for others to criticize him publicly was to threaten his right and duty to reckon with his own actions in the realm of private conscience, which was the only realm in which such an accounting could be made in good faith.

To make private conscience public, Galton’s argument went, was to make morality into mere appearance. Thus, he argued, his critics were not righting a wrong but creating a society in which what mattered was the appearance, not the fact, of virtue.

It is not hard to see in this controversy the origins of what now goes by the name of “cancel culture,” by which the malicious and vindictive often advance themselves and destroy others by amplifying claims of major or minor vices and indiscretions. When denounced, the most destructive thing someone can do is to apologize or change his or her behavior. In this sense, Galton predicted the phenomenon of Trump. This moral culture requires us either to simulate (but not practice) virtue or, failing that, to brashly admit to bad behavior.

Conscience was surrendered to the new liberal historical schema. Instead of hellfire, the ultimate sanction was obsolescence. Accounting for crimes came only at the end of history. This proved a useful formula for erasing regrets about colonial malfeasance.

But in Satia’s campaign against historical progress, she is picky about her allies. John Ruskin’s picture of India as a refuge from history does not appeal to her, nor does the Lawrence of Arabia idea of “geographical morality”—that the British abroad could feel content butchering prisoners or otherwise reverting to atavism because they were simply entering into the rhythm of the subcontinent or the timeless elemental barbarism of the desert.

Fair enough. But why her dismissal of Thomas Carlyle, whose contempt for the pieties of progress moved him to deliver famous cannonades against laissez-faire, or to remark that liberty was not so noble when it was merely the liberty to starve? Satia condemns him for his infamous, racist pamphlet against the abolition of slavery, but a more charitable approach might find something to salvage in his attacks on progress.

Bloody imperial setbacks like the 1857 Indian rebellion, which replaced the rule of the East India Company with direct crown rule of the British Raj, did not dislodge the progressive imperial ideology but did render it more pessimistic. There were fears that the empire’s civilizing mission would fail. These fears were allayed by a suspicion that permanent racial differences were involved, and such suspicions were abetted by Herbert Spencer’s social Darwinism. Perhaps the task of empire was the more modest one of merely raising the subject peoples to the level—the lower level—of their race’s potential. Perhaps the gifts of infrastructure, technology, and bureaucratic governance were not penance for the initial act of invasion but merely gifts.

Then, in the 20th century, the moment at which the imperial tutor was supposed to release the colonial pupils began approaching from the distant eschatological future toward the present, at first slowly and then, as historian Perry Anderson has put it, at literally breakneck speed. The indescribably violent partition of the British Raj into the modern states of South Asia was the direst example. In 1947, after decades of trying to delay subcontinental independence indefinitely, the British, with the eager collaboration of local political elites in the Indian National Congress, sliced up the Raj into India and Pakistan in only six weeks.

As the British made for the exits, more than ten million people became refugees in a vast, ghastly frenzy of intercommunal killing. Thus were the modern nations of India and Pakistan born.

How does Satia evaluate the end of the empire and its implications for notions of historical progress? With a near-exclusive focus on the British sphere once again, and with much ambivalence, she praises Muhammad Iqbal, who inspired the creation of modern Pakistan, for imagining an Islamic utopia as an alternative to the “telos of modern historicism,” with an attendant deontological vision that could have been an antidote to poisonous historicist ethics. Alas, however, the departing British co-opted this vision and parlayed it into a zero-sum nationalism in one last bid for divide et impera.

But it is not entirely clear the British were committed in advance to partition, and many nationalisms originated in utopian thinking which could—and did—touch the hearts of dreamers.

“Rather than the bonds of blood and soil central to much of modern nationalism,” Satia writes approvingly, “Pakistan was the brainchild of those invested in Enlightenment ideas.” But all modern nationalisms descend from this source; Adamantios Korais and Giuseppe Mazzini, respective fathers of Greek and Italian nationalism, were as much men of the Enlightenment as Iqbal, Korais quite literally.

Satia concedes that subcontinental elites bear some responsibility for the catastrophe of partition but lays the bulk of the blame on the British. Her reasons for doing so would make a Foucauldian quiver: She says the causes of the violence were a “weak police force” and the “absence of troops.” It is odd to suggest that the “absence of troops” is a frequent cause of ethnic cleansing; in other cases, the problem seems to have been their presence. Would more imperial repression have made things better? Is this an inadvertent rehearsal of the old colonial “unreadiness” argument?

What would a politics freed from belief in historical progress, whether in liberal or Marxist form, look like today? Satia’s version looks like garden-variety left-liberalism reflecting the Obama-era dictum that the “arc of the moral universe bends toward progress.” Satia devotes a great deal of space to pointing out how liberals unwittingly employ a secularized version of Christian eschatology, then discusses impending climate catastrophe without a hint of irony. The book ends with a call to return to a cyclical view of history, like the one suggested by Polybius or the Mahabharata; yet Satia is content to follow liberal opinion in declaring that the current age suffers from a “crisis of ‘truth,’” an epistemological hemorrhage unprecedented in human history.

The book’s core message is more poetic or psychological than political: Policy should take into account the “divided selves” created by the colonial experience, while modern nations should repudiate past malfeasance in order to make “new kinds of anticolonial history”—what kinds, we never quite glimpse.

There is only one clear political imperative: more power to the historians. Complaints that “academic historians’ policy-relevant research is often willfully ignored” form a constant drumbeat. The epilogue to Satia’s tale of misdeeds by historian-advisors to empires is a description of their replacement as contemporary political counselors by economists and political scientists—which, despite the historians’ aforementioned misdeeds, is presented as the opposite of an improvement.

Why should abandoning progress lead to these political positions and not others? Breaking with historicism led Leo Strauss to champion esoteric conservatism; a preference for the un-secularized version of Christian eschatology leads Catholic thinkers to look to dogma, not history, for their ethics. To the left of these figures, Quentin Skinner and others sympathetic to classical republicanism have suggested that our notions of liberty have become compromised and have called for a return to older, fiercer ones. To pull “progress” down from its pedestal is a praiseworthy aim; but it represents the beginning, not the end, of reckoning with pressing ethical and political questions.

Moreover, even apart from those pressing questions, what do historians really have to offer to politicians today? These scholars use their reason and their distance from the events they study, both political and temporal, to make judgments that we expect to be more reliable than those of participants in the actual events. In the very best case, taking a critical approach to opposed historical factions will enable a historian to remain aloof from contemporary political factions as well and thus render better, less tendentious judgments. But most academic historians in the United States fall short of this kind of performance. History professors at the elite universities are, as a class, as partisan as their fellow upper-class coastal liberals when it comes to contemporary politics.

In fact, Satia’s book dedicates much space to arguing that historians’ political judgment has generally been skewed. Can we blame Washington for not inviting academic historians to court?

The superior precision of the proverbial “judgment of history” comes chiefly from distance from the events at hand. There is little more to it than this. There is no initiation into the mysteries of History that makes academic historians uniquely suited to rule or advise. To think otherwise is just another form of the folly of progress.

Nick Burns is a contributing writer at the New Statesman.

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