In his book about how the world has become a more peaceful place for human beings over time, The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker has to explain why two massively violent and deadly wars were fought in the 1900’s. If humans are becoming less violent and fighting each other less, then why did we see two incredibly large and deadly conflicts that engulfed the leading nations of the time so recently that the conflict could be recorded on video? Part of the explanation, Pinker explains, is a Hegelian doctrine that history was an inexorable dialectic of progress. This is not a view that Pinker supports, but rather a view that many leaders in the 1900s held, pushing them into conflict.
Pinker quotes historian Evan Laurds as summarizing the doctrine by writing, “all history represents the working out of some divine plan; war is the way that sovereign states, through which that plan manifested itself, must resolve their differences, leading to the emergence of superior states.”
This mindset is what put the world on a pathway to war in the 20th century. There were states that exercised their superior to others, justifying the brutal conquest of lesser states. In the mindset of megalomaniac leaders, the conquering and effective genocide of such inferior states was natural and unavoidable, effectively ordained by a deity. It was this kind of thinking that eventually gave way to Nazism. “Eventually the doctrine spawned the messianic, militant, romantic nationalist movements of fascism and Nazism,” Pinker writes.
In an age of ideas, where states existed to carry out the will of the people, and in an age where states could posit that they were manifestly superior to others, this meant that states were not only justified to conquer others, but that it was imperative they do so. Failing to dominate and destroy other inferior nations would have been viewed as a failure to keep history on its intended track and purpose.
And this didn’t just happen with the nation state. Pinker continues, “A similar construction of history as an unstoppable dialectic of violent liberation, but with classes substituted for nations, became the foundation of 20th-century communism.”
What is important to recognize, and what Pinker calls out in the final quote, is that these are constructions of history. They are particular interpretations constructed by human minds. They are narratives about the past that are used to dictate and shape the future. They are not objective readings of history, or even objective attempts at interpreting and understanding history. These constructions are self-serving, reductionist, and revisionist.
When we look around us, when we look at our past, and when we think about our future, it is important that we recognize such narratives and constructions. This Hegelian doctrine is nothing more than a narrative that we can discard if we find it unhelpful and lacking in how it describes the true nature of reality. There is no one narrative or construction to which we must adhere. We can evaluate and chose those which are beneficial for our purpose, and which hopefully are more objective and less likely to push us down pathways to war and violence.