The Return of History (but not as we know it)

As the world reacts to the news that Donald Trump is president-elect of the United States following an unprecedented upset in polling to see of Democratic Party nominee Hilary Clinton, I have been struck by the nature of how people keep referring to this as “setting the clock back fifty years” or seeing his victory as a “return to the 1930s”.

Some have noted that today is the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. This event and the collapse of Communism in the USSR which followed on, was hailed at the time by champions of liberal democracy and capitalism as “the end of history”. The phrase is a much used (and occasionally abused one) but has become popular again in the years since the recession of 2008. Many saw the revived interest in left-wing thinking and writing as a sign of change.

That late capitalism’s crisis was proof that the late 1980s and early 1990s triumphalism of hawkish American commentators that history had ended in a decisive victory for the liberal and neo-liberal project had been proven as nothing more than hubris. The rise of left-wing populism in Greece with Syriza, Podemos in Spain, and the choice of Jeremy Corbyn as the new leader of British Labour was seen as a sign of things changing. So too did the prospect of a Bernie Sanders Democratic run.

This was the strand of hope that Greece’s Golden Dawn, Farage’s UKIP, Le Pen’s Front National and more besides throughout the world who used capitalism’s crisis to push a right-wing populist agenda would ultimately be beaten. But earlier this year, we saw British Labour all but tear itself apart over Corbyn and the leadership contest when the Tories took Government for themselves. We have seen what happened to Syriza. UKIP helped drive and succeed in achieving Brexit which the Tories now seem intent on pushing through (the recent High Court decision notwithstanding).

The election of Trump seems to have put the nail in the coffin of any such hopes for now. The possibility that a man so uniquely unqualified, so evidently unfit to be President should convince so many people otherwise says something about the failure of traditional politics to be convincing to huge numbers. It also says something about the failure of the various strands of left-wing politics from capitalising on global capital’s single greatest crisis. Whatever message of hope the left offered, it isn’t what the majority seems to want right now.

This is a historic day. It is a watershed moment in the history of the United States and the western world. What it isn’t is a return to the past. It is, as well as the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the anniversary of the Eighteenth Brumaire, when Louis Napoleon ended the First French Republic with a coup.

While it might be tempting to ring out the phrase “first as tragedy and then as farce” from Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, this is more than a farce. This is a crisis – of democracy and the belief that we have been making our societies better now for the past century and more. As Marx wrote in 1852:

Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.

Trump’s victory will weigh heavily too. History is made by understanding it. Teaching history, warts and all, needs to be done. Hearing it’s warnings is important if we are to avoid this date entering infamy in the same way that another anniversary of November 9th has done.


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