There was a time, not so long ago, when history was concerned with the past. And so historians and others argued about what had happened in earlier times to get to agreed facts and, then, how to interpret them. Not any more, alas.
The put-down that someone or other is on “the wrong side of history” or is “not on the right side of history” is not new. It was much used by ideologues of the left who maintained that political conservatives were on the wrong side of history and probably has its origins in what Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote about their concept of historical materialism.
Strange, then, that this word usage is still with us today. Some examples illustrate the point. On August 11, ABC TV 7.30 presenter Sarah Ferguson put it to Opposition Leader Peter Dutton that he was “trying to get on the right side of history”.
The following day Bernard Keane, politics editor of the leftist Crikey newsletter, wrote an article that a sub-editor titled “Peter Dutton leads a Liberal Party stranded on the wrong side of history”.
Then on Monday Ferguson interviewed former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, who recently junked his earlier argument that the proposed voice to parliament would resolve into a third chamber. With respect to his recent metamorphosis, Ferguson asked, “Do you think you were perhaps on the wrong side of history?”
The suggestion that someone is on the wrong side of history is just another way of shutting down debate. If history has been determined now and into the future, then there is little point in challenging the status quo. Historian Robert Conquest, who between 1937 and 1939 was a member of the Communist Party of Britain, knew a lot about the teachings of Marx. He is reported to have described the concept that someone is on the wrong side of history as having a “Marxist twang”. In 1968, Conquest’s book The Great Terror: Stalin’s Purge of the Thirties was published. It was the first in-depth study in the English language of communist dictator Joseph Stalin and his totalitarian regime in the Soviet Union.
To the continuing communists in the West circa 1968, Conquest was regarded as being on the wrong side of history. Yet, within a quarter of a century, the Soviet Union collapsed – a vivid demonstration that history is of the past, not the future.
Frank Knopfelmacher, an influential academic at the University of Melbourne from the mid-1950s to the mid-’80s, used to say that one detriment of an individual’s influence turned on when his or her views were espoused without the recipient being aware of the source. A committed anti-communist, Knopfelmacher had Marx and his disciples in mind.
Marx died in 1883 but the ideology of Marxism influenced those who established what was termed the Marxist-Leninist regime after the Bolshevik revolution in Russia in late 1917.
German-born Marxist Herbert Marcuse receives quite a few mentions in Mark R. Levin’s book American Marxism (Simon & Schuster, 2021), a critical analysis of the American left. In 1965, Marcuse published his influential essay titled Repressive Tolerance in which he argued for “intolerance against movements from the right and toleration of movements from the left”.
Most individuals on the contemporary left have probably never heard of Marcuse. But his advocacy of repressive tolerance is what lies behind the cancel culture that prevails in many Western nations today.
This leads to a situation whereby those who hold what are presented as progressive or left-of-centre views are entitled to be heard in the public debate whereas many of those with politically conservative views are to be censored, or cancelled. No doubt unbeknown to the powers that be at taxpayer-funded organisations such as the ABC and many writers festivals, they are presiding over the implementation of Marcuse’s notions of repressive tolerance.That’s why they present so many panel discussions where almost everyone agrees with almost everyone else on almost everything, in a left-of-centre kind of way.
In my Media Watch Dog blog on August 12, I profiled Allan Ashbolt (1921-2005). He is little known in Australia today but both historian Ken Inglis and journalist David Bowman have referred to him as one of the leading intellectuals of his time.
Ashbolt was a self-declared Marxist operative as is evident in his An American Experience (1967) and An Australian Experience (1974). Ashbolt arrived at the ABC in 1954 as a committed leftist entering what he regarded as a conservative organisation.
Inglis, who was no conservative and who was a member of the Friends of the ABC organisation,wrote an unofficial two-volume history of the ABC from 1932 until 2006, in which he acknowledged the influence on Ashbolt of Marx and Marcuse.
In important producer roles on ABC news and current affairs programs, Ashbolt consciously recruited a group of young left-wing journalists who were nicknamed “Ashbolt’s kindergarten”. In time they were to advance through the institution of the public broadcaster, appointing and promoting others of like mind. Over time, Ashbolt’s kindergarten became Ashbolt’s campus. By the time he retired in 1977, the ABC was on its way to becoming a conservative-free-zone.
Inglis regarded Ashbolt’s work at the ABC as “adventurous”. It was – but only in a leftist kind of way. Bowman, an admirer of Ashbolt, described him as a “radical activist” who was too left-wing for the NSW Labor Party.
It does not matter all that much that Crikey’s staff believe that there is a right and wrong side of history. After all, there are other subscriber publications that can carry right-of-centre views. However, it is a matter of concern when the presenter of ABC TV’s leading news and current affairs program maintains that there is a wrong and a right side of history.
Those who hold such a view are bound to argue more forcefully against someone who is seen by them to be on the wrong side of history. Assuming that such a person is invited to express their views in the first place – rather than being cancelled as is the case today with some Australian political conservatives.