The culture war against the past

The culture war against the past

Our elites have become uncomfortable with Western civilisation itself.

Frank Furedi


The cultural conflicts that have engulfed much of the Western world threaten to detach our societies from their past. Almost seamlessly the numerous disputes that have erupted over identity, race, gender and family life have reinforced one another and intermeshed. But in the end the venom is directed towards one central target – Western society’s past. This project has little to do with the honourable mission of learning from the past. It is about treating the past as if it were current, and condemning historic figures and institutions as if they were our contemporaries. In this way, culture warriors seek to demonstrate their moral superiority over the centuries-old target of their outrage. Paradoxically, this crusade seeks to detach the present from the past.

It is important to understand that the culture war against the past is not confined to the vandalisation of old memorials and statues. The numerous demonstrations denouncing the misdeeds of Western empires or attacking historical figures like Jefferson, Gladstone or Churchill are in reality only the most vivid and striking symptoms of the cultural malaise afflicting the West.

The most significant feature of the war against the past is the complicity of cultural institutions and their leaders in these projects of estranging society from its traditions and history. It is not merely universities that promote a vision of the nation’s past as one that people should view with shame. The claim that contemporary cultural institutions bear the burden of guilt for the crimes committed by their ancestors is widely internalised by the cultural elites. From their perspective, Western history is a story of unremitting violence and greed. There are no ‘good old days’ that can serve as a focus for redemption and nostalgia. Instead of nostalgia, the current regime promotes a vision of the past as ‘the bad old days’, inciting guilt, shame and self-loathing. This corrosive orientation towards one’s history leads to constant performances of apology.

In the UK, take the example of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby. Recently, Welby announced that church statues will be reviewed ‘very carefully’ at major places of worship to see ‘if they all should be there’. Welby explained that not even Canterbury Cathedral or Westminster Abbey would be spared from this review.

Welby used ecclesiastical doublespeak to justify his call for potentially cancelling bits of his church’s history. He stated that forgiveness can only be granted ‘if we change the way we behave now and say this was then and we learn from that and change how we are going to be in the future’. Here, ridding churches of historic monuments is an act of contrition and repentance.

When an institution like the Church of England, charged with upholding England’s traditions, decides that its new role is to call into question the very legacy it is meant to protect, it is clear that the culture war against the past is not only being fought by demonstrators. And if the Church of England has become so enthusiastic about cancelling the past, it is not surprising that secular cultural institutions have also embraced this crusade.

Curators in cultural institutions and museums promote a script that attributes a negative connotation to anything that is Western, particularly objects from the past. It was in this vein that, last summer, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London posted signs outside an exhibition on the history of British humour, stating ‘this display confronts uncomfortable truths about the past’. This phrase suggests that the exhibition was not about displaying old objects, but confronting them, as if they were in the here and now.

At a Paul Gauguin exhibition at London’s National Gallery, a trigger warning posted on the wall noted: ‘Gauguin undoubtedly exploited his position as a privileged Westerner [in French Polynesia] to make the most of the sexual freedoms available to him.’ An audio guide raised the question, ‘Is it time to stop looking at Gauguin altogether?’. The very posing of this question indicates that it is not just monuments and statues, but also objects of art that are potentially tainted by their association with Western civilisation. As recent events demonstrate, one way of answering the question posed by the audio guide is removing Gauguin’s paintings from sight altogether.

The history of Western art is increasingly regarded as a potential site of interest for the crusade against the past. Anticipating trouble ahead, Yale University has acted swiftly. The Yale Daily News reported in January:

‘Decades old and once taught by famous Yale professors like Vincent Scully, “Introduction to Art History: Renaissance to the Present” was once touted to be one of Yale College’s quintessential classes. But [its cancellation] is the latest response to student uneasiness over an idealised Western “canon” — a product of an overwhelmingly white, straight, European and male cadre of artists’

Of course, in the current climate the Western canon is anything but idealised. On the contrary, it has become pathologised to the point that convenors of university humanities courses are constantly in search of new recruits to fill the gap left by cancelled Western artists and authors. Cultural institutions are bending over backwards to demonstrate their hostility and estrangement from anything that is remotely associated with Europe’s historical legacy.

It is important to comprehend that the culture war against the past is inspired by an aesthetic impulse that is not just anti-Western, but also characteristically anti-civilisational. In recent times, mathematics, philosophy and classical music have all come under attack for being too Western or too white. Unsurprisingly, language, which has always been an important site of the culture war, has become a focus of renewed conflict.

Traditional grammar itself is now supposedly tainted with white privilege. That is why, in her wisdom, Rebecca Walkowitz, head of the English Department at Rutgers University, has decided to incorporate ‘critical grammar’ into her institution’s ‘pedagogy’. Critical grammar is another way of saying that the rules of grammar need not be taken seriously. As she explains, her approach ‘challenges the familiar dogma that writing instruction should limit emphasis on grammar / sentence-level issues so as to not put students from multilingual, non-standard “academic” English backgrounds at a disadvantage’.

Walkowitz added that her approach ‘encourages students to develop a critical awareness of the variety of choices available to them w/ regard to micro-level issues in order to empower them and equip them to push against biases based on “written” accents’. In effect, the English Department at Rutgers has opted to distance itself from traditional grammar in favour of cultivating poor literacy.

The culture war against the past is increasingly directed not at flawed historical individuals, but against the civilisational accomplishments of humanity as a whole. When art, philosophy and the rules of grammar can be so casually cancelled, it is evident that far more than the fate of a statue of a Confederate general is at stake.

To understand the current conjuncture, it is necessary to explore the four distinct stages in Western society’s estrangement from its historical legacy, and its adoption of an increasingly negative orientation towards its past. There is always the potential for a modern society to become alienated from its historical traditions, but it is only in recent years that this sentiment has acquired a self-consciously ideological and political form.

Phase 1: The past is no longer relevant

Previously, the impulse to reject the past was closely linked to the optimistic modernist outlook, which claimed that the past was no longer relevant. Until the 19th century, the authority of the past remained relatively intact. However, during the 19th century many liberals adopted a one-dimensional orientation towards the future. As Dorothy Ross explained in her important study, The Origins of American Social Science, this orientation had the regrettable consequence of weakening ‘historical understanding’ (1). She noted that leading liberal and utilitarian thinkers ‘associated history with the Tory defence of the past’:

‘[T]hey believed a modern society had nothing to learn from the past and should go directly to the universal principles of human nature… [To] those engaged in understanding the historical course of progress, the whole past could be telescoped into a single stage which progress was leaving behind’

In its initial phase, this modernist estrangement from the past did not necessarily mean disrespecting it. Many leading liberals, such as JS Mill, wrote at length about the achievements of human civilisation and understood that they were the beneficiaries of its legacy.

Phase 2: The past as an obstacle to progress

During the late 19th century there was an important shift from regarding the past as no longer relevant to perceiving it as an obstacle to further progress. This sentiment was most consistently articulated by commentators and intellectuals associated with the American progressive movement. This view reflected a sensibility that was totally estranged from the past. As the economist ERA Seligman noted in 1903: ‘The American of the future will bear but little resemblance to the American of the past.’ (2)

The belief that the past constituted an obstacle to progress gained momentum during the years after the First World War. This terrible tragedy was widely perceived as the outcome of ideals and values that were rooted in the past. Progressive thinkers argued that it was essential to overcome the obstacles represented by old ways of thinking by educating young people to embrace new values and attitudes. By the 1920s, these sentiments resonated with a significant section of society, who agreed that the values and customs of their parents and grandparents were not only outdated, but were also an obstacle standing in the way of realising the potential provided by science and technology.

At the time, the German philosopher Edmund Husserl wrote about how Western society was caught up in the ‘spell’ of ‘our times’. He feared that the powerful mood of presentism, which had overtaken society, led to ‘cultural breakdown, weariness of spirit and disintegration’ (3). The tendency to regard the ways of life of the past as an obstacle to progress was also boosted in the aftermath of the Second World War, which was often blamed on the attitudes of the past. This sentiment was forcefully voiced by the Canadian psychiatrist Brock Chisholm, the first director of the World Health Organisation, who claimed that the survival of humanity required ridding ourselves of the obstacles of the past:

‘In many of the most important questions of life it is evident that the minds of large numbers, indeed almost all, of the human race are not freely open to consider how true or untrue old ideas are, or to consider any advantages which might be found in new ideas.’ (4)

Chisholm – like many of his colleagues running the newly established, post-Second World War international institutions – felt global organisations would help to remove the obstacle represented by ‘untrue old ideas’.

Phase 3: The past as principally malevolent

Back in the interwar era, the German sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies pointed to the tendency of modernist technocratic institutions to react to the customs and traditions of community life with ‘veiled hatred and contempt’. This point was confirmed in 1972, by the American political scientist CJ Friedrich, who in his fascinating review of this development observed that ‘in the 20th century, tradition became a pejorative term’. Since the end of the Second World War, and especially since the 1960s, this sentiment of intolerant anti-traditionalism has become increasingly directed towards those who refuse to move along with the times and adopt a post-traditional identity. This attitude explicitly distances itself from the past and seeks to rupture the links that bind society to its historical traditions. From the 1960s onwards, the past has frequently been portrayed as not only an obstacle to progress, but also as a principally malevolent influence on the present.

Historical continuity is presented as a curse. Many of the institutions of Western society regard the need to break with the past as a cultural imperative. This sentiment even dominates the teaching of history, where often anything that precedes the end of the Second World War is portrayed as ‘the bad old days’. From this standpoint, 1945 is Year Zero and anything that precedes it is interpreted through the prism of scepticism and malevolence.

This deep-seated mistrust of the pre-Year Zero era runs deep. Mothers and fathers are even told to be wary of the child-rearing practices used by parents in previous times. So-called parenting professionals advise mothers and fathers to heed the advice of child-rearing experts instead. Indeed, in Western societies, this silent crusade against the past directs its energy towards altering the way that the adult world socialises young people. The advice and views of grandparents is frequently disregarded as irrelevant and possibly prejudicial to the development of the child. As a result, children are not socialised into the values held by their grandparents, and certainly not those held by their more distant ancestors. This is why, in schools, the teaching of history is far more devoted to the project of highlighting the blemishes of a nation’s past than to drawing attention to its achievements.

Phase 4: The past as clear and present danger

In recent times, the past has been so thoroughly pathologised that it has become a taken-for-granted outlook, permeating the educational and cultural life of Western society. Hatred towards the past has become a cultural resource that can be used by movements who claim to be the past’s historic victims. As a result, hostility towards the past has acquired a quasi-ideological form. It is frequently blamed for many of the problems faced by people today. Conflicts in the present are increasingly fought out through the prism of the past.

History has become a political issue. This is why demonstrators are able to claim that old statues constitute a threat to their mental health. What is fascinating about this movement is that often its target is not simply a specific statue, but almost any monument that is old. This is why, for example, supporters of Black Lives Matter have vandalised statues that have no direct link with racial oppression. The sin of such historical objects is that they symbolise the past.

This review of the different phases of the war against the past suggests that its origins can be located within the modernist sensibility that arose in the 19th century. What began as a positive, future-oriented sensibility gradually turned into its opposite, as the cultural elites of the Western world began to feel estranged and increasingly detached from their past. It is this group that bears responsibility for inciting the culture war against the past. The protesters and rioters toppling statues are merely acting out a script that began to be written more than a century ago.

So what should be done? We can and must understand the past. The past is not our enemy, and we must not confuse it with the present. Unless we learn to draw a line between the present and our history, we risk becoming imprisoned in a timeless vacuum, where we lash out at the past rather than take control over our destiny.

Frank Furedi’s Why Borders Matter: Why Humanity Must Relearn The Art Of Drawing Boundaries is published by Routledge.


(1) The Origins of American Social Science, by Dorothy Ross, 1991, Cambridge University Press, p16.

(2) Ibid, p150.

(3) See Husserl’s Crisis of the European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology: An Introduction, by Dermot Moran, Cambridge University Press, pp11 and 26.

(4)‘Can Man Survive’, by Brick Chisholm, A Review of General Semantics, Vol4, No2 (Winter, 1947), p107.

Picture by: Getty.

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Jack Sprat

4th August 2020 at 4:13 pm

BLM “ cultural colonialism” has scored another victory against primitive native culture by forcing a Morris Dancer group to stop blacking up ….even though the “black “originated from the group being formed by coal miners and had nothing to do with race. The real ominous scandal that it was the national Morris Dancer group on their knees forcing them to do it on behalf of their BLM masters. My local MD group also blacks up from an origin of forest highway men who blacked up to leap on passers by at night. Will they have the ba*** to get BLM to get stuffed ? Doubt it.

David Cockayne

2nd August 2020 at 12:29 pm

Rebecca Walkowitz, chair of the English Department of Rutgers, writes:

“Traditional grammar is now subjective and a stylistic choice as it pertains to students’ cultures.”

Such a statement is not merely a betrayal of the notion of linguistic standards but an elitist denial of the fact of language as the evolved communal property of it native speakers. Her use of ‘now’ is especailly interesting.

We can look forward to academic articles which are not only incomprehensible in terms of their subject matter but also stylistically execrable. On second thoughts, perhaps we’ll hardly notice.


2nd August 2020 at 9:37 pm

Wot d u meen? An Australian is trying to get parts of body ie Adam’s Apple renamed as ‘sexist’ etc. It will be fun when the medical students start making a mistake or pharmacists have to work out the new names of medicine.

steve moxon

30th July 2020 at 11:21 pm

Frank Furedi still rambles on, missing the central point that THE LEFT HATES US.
It is US, the mass of ordinary people, the Left hates. All else is proxy.
For ‘Western civilisation’, read ‘the entire proletariat of advanced capitalist societies who refuse to follow Marx’s prescription and prediction’. IOW, ‘the workers’ are turncoats — blacklegs — for not following in the wake of those Rusky mere serfs (who, furthermore, were not supposed to buy revolution, because they didn’t reside in an advanced capitalist country). This, entailing the ever clearer assertion of nation over internationalism, rubbished Marx from the get-go, and the Left has never lived this down, and never forgiven us for the egg on their faces it has caused.
See ….. THE ORIGIN OF ‘IDENTITY POLITICS’ & ‘POLITICAL CORRECTNESS’: Not Consideration for Minorities but Hatred Towards the Mass of Ordinary People; Specifically ‘the Workers’ — Tracing the Roots of Why and How it Arose and Developed Reveals the Greatest Political Fraud in History.
‘Identity politics’ — often or even usually dubbed ‘political correctness’, though it’s not the same thing, having a different, parallel origin; PC is the mode of enforcement of ‘identity politics’, as in speech codes and cancel culture — is the result of a political-Left major backlash against the mass of ordinary people (in Europe and ‘the West’), beginning in the 1920s, in the wake of the persistent failure of Marxist theory to be realised in European ‘revolution’ or any real change through democracy. In shifting the blame away from Marxist theory and its adherents, and on to those the theory had prescribed and predicted would have been the beneficiaries — the workers (if only they had responded accordingly) — then the cognitive-dissonance within the political-left mindset caused by this crisis to an extent was salved.
The intellectual rationalisation was to build on false notions of Engels (co-author with Marx of The Communist Manifesto) that ‘capitalism’ created the family and ‘false consciousness’, by theorising mechanisms of how ‘the workers’ were somehow prevented from revolting. This was by invoking Freud’s now comprehensively discredited notion of ‘repression’, first to attempt to explain a supposed impact on ‘the workers’ of ‘capitalism’ acting within the context of the family. With most workers (the group considered the principal ‘agents of social change’ in a ‘revolution’) being male, then the theoreticians had in mind the male as ‘head’ of the family. It was a simple extension in political-Left imagination for ‘the worker’ to change from being the putative conduit of the impact of ‘capitalism’ to its embodiment, leaving by default women to be deemed a replacement supposed ‘oppressed’ and ‘disadvantaged’ ‘group’. The false notion of ‘repression’ was also considered in a wider sense to produce ‘false consciousness’ in the ‘proletariat’, supposedly obscuring what was in their own best interests.
This implausible and unfalsifiable non-scientific nonsense mainly festered within academia until circa 1968 the New Left in the USA, spurred by, indeed aping the Chinese ‘cultural revolution’, co-opted a movement which, though having nothing do do with the Left, appeared to be akin to the revolutionary activity predicted by Marxism: US ‘civil rights’. This added to the ‘new oppressed’ another category, which like that of women could be envisaged as an inversion of a retrospective stereotype of ‘the worker’. In the wake of the similarly seeming revolutionary Stonewall riots of 1969, the ‘gay rights’ lobby also was co-opted (again, despite having had nothing to do with the Left) to further add by inversion to the abstract demonised aspects of ‘the worker’, thereafter retrospectively stereotyped as male plus ‘white’ plus heterosexual.
This prizing into the role of being emblematic of Marxist struggle naturally rendered the specific conflicts more generalisable, allowing expansion into more widely encompassing categories. US Afro-Americans, in being championed as the ‘ethnic minority’ supposed warriors of the Left thereby meant anyone generically of an ‘ethnic minority’ was deemed to belong to the club. Likewise, ‘gays’ became generic ‘homosexuals’. The problem thereby arose of false identification. The category non-white / ethnic minority includes such as migrant Indians and Chinese, who by no criteria are ‘disadvantaged’ or ‘oppressed’. Likewise lesbians drawn into the category homosexual. As for women, by objective, non-ideological analysis, women are privileged, as they are bound to be with the female being the limiting factor in reproduction. As has been regularly pointed out, Western middle-class women are the most privileged large ‘group’ in history. The ‘groups’ are far too heterogeneous to be in reality ‘oppressed’ or ‘disadvantaged’, providing a window on the sophistry and origin of this politics as other than it purports.
The strands of the ‘new oppressed’ naturally combined as a new (neo-Marxist) conceptualisation to account for these political shifts after the fact, which came to be termed identity politics (or more pejoratively though actually more accurately, cultural Marxism). The deemed ‘groups’ replacing ‘the workers’ subsequently were not only expanded in their scope but added to — by the disabled, the elderly, trans-sexuals, the obese … . Again, all are abstractions rather than groups per se. This relentless expansion and then the use and abuse of these mis-identifications of under-privilege by educated individuals belonging to one or more of the categories, has been dubbed ‘the oppression olympics’, making ‘identity politics’ a gravy train for the already privileged, serving actually to substantially increase inequality. Worse still, it is an instrument of oppression against the very ‘group’ perennially disadvantaged and the victim of prejudice, which formerly had been identified as worthy of the liberation Marxism promised: the vast majority of (necessarily lower-status) men — ‘the workers’. This was the whole point of the political development, of course.
The pretence to egalitarianism is perfect cover for what actually is ‘identity politics’: the very perennial and ubiquitous elitist-separatism (status-grabbing) the political-Left ethos (supposedly) is to attack, and which Left zealots vehemently deny exists in themselves. Leftist bigotry betrays either unusually high status-seeking motivation or particularly deep frustration in the quest for status, which is ‘projected’ on to everyone else, who actually have normal levels of motivation to achieve status and manage to ride the ups and downs of life without requiring such dysfunctional ideation. The Left’s egalitarianism is a feint for selfishly pursuing the very opposite. If everyone else is held at a uniformly low status, Leftists thereby become ‘the chosen few’. Transparently, this is an ideology in the wake — a residue — of Christianity. A quasi-religion of supposed inevitable progress towards ‘the promised land’, rendered a utopia of equality-of-outcome. The high priests of this faith — the social justice warriors — are the ‘saved’ striving to convert the rest of us on the promise of entry to ‘heaven’. This represents a continuation of secularisation: a shift in religiosity from envisaging a ‘god’ as being in man’s image, through the humanist deification of mankind, to worship of a supposed dynamic of teleological social change (Marxism). ‘Identity politics’, in being profoundly not what it pretends to be and so deeply entrenched across the whole and every facet of the establishment in Anglophone nations especially and to a large extent in ‘the West’ generally, can properly be regarded as the greatest political fraud in history.

Glenn Bell

30th July 2020 at 10:38 pm

Western Civilization did not invent slavery, intolerance, racism, greed, genocide and everything else the extremists are blaming it for. All this existed long before western civilizations came into being and prospered, in India, Asia, Africa, South America there were civilizations which used slavery of other peoples to build their cities etc and genocide to rid themselves of “undesirables” Then there was ritual sacrifice of “undesirables” to appease their gods. And no amount of rewriting history will change it.

Ian Murray

30th July 2020 at 8:20 pm

Presumably every German village should have a statue of Hitler.

Tolar Owen

30th July 2020 at 10:18 pm

As a 10th generation Southern American, I wish we could get away from the Hitler equivalency, at least here. Statues of slave-owners and slavery-apologists stateside, anyway, are much more akin to statues of anti-semites, if any remain, in Germany or across European populations.

The American South was not some bizarre Slave State that had developed a theory over 10 years and then a totalitarian regime to enforce it–it was about three to five decades at most behind the majority of Americans in the Union (which included two “slave states,” by the way.) When SJWs want to pretend that this was some one-off movement like the Third Reich, they deny the complicity of every white person in the Western world–if you ever ate sugar or molasses or wore cotton or rode in a ship–you were complicit–and plenty of African slavetraders and a few slave-holding Black and mixed-race persons. The American South was a more recalcitrant version of a particular version of white supremacy, which in some part saw itself as a romanticized counterpoint to the evils of industrial capitalism. One could say that the Union and South fought over different versions of white supremacy, not white supremacy per se.

So, the analogy to me is not with the Third Reich but with the long anti-semitism among various European populations (I’d say countries, but their boundaries changed over the centuries). The Third Reich took eugenics (including US laws and our nasty manifest destiny habit), the populist zeitgeist, anti-communism, and a desperate rising nationalism, grafted it onto existing anti-semitism, and created one of the vilest regimes in the past three centuries.

So, removing our past American statues over slavery and Jim Crow is like removing every past European who was ever anti-semitic. Even though I don’t think the confederate soldier memorials should come down (because they held beliefs quite common among the Union soldiers at the time), I get THAT analogy–they did fight a war to preserve slavery, so even though I don’t think they believed in genocide like many Nazis, I can understand that moving them to museums and graveyards is preferable. But to move everyone who had anything to do with the slave trade or racism is akin to removing every anti-semite in history. That’s a lot of statues to tumble if you want to apply that standard. I could be wrong–it may be that there’s not a single statue of anyone in Germany from any century who held anti-semitic beliefs. They have pretty strong hate speech laws there. Who knows?

Mor Vir

30th July 2020 at 10:59 pm

English history is full of such persons and there are many statues to them, eg. KIng Edward I expelled them all from England for centuries and he has lots of statues around the country. Churchill also wrote about a ‘worldwide conspiracy’ and there are statues to him. The list would likely be pretty long.

Ian Murray

30th July 2020 at 7:40 pm

I would suggest that, country to the argument presented here, it is far more common to present the past as an idealised improvement upon the present. Ask any Brexiteer.

Vivian Darkbloom

30th July 2020 at 11:22 pm

Hello Ian. Are you fighting a war against the past? Those who voted Remain supported the status quo, i.e. the way things have always been done, at least since 1975. By definition, voting against the past for a new future is progressive in the sense that it moves the situation forward. How can the past be an improvement on the future? I don’t understand. Time is linear; we can’t go back, only forward, for better or worse.

Ian Murray

30th July 2020 at 7:38 pm

I would bet my house that Frank wasn’t teaching this when he was a revolutionary academic state employee.


Ian Murray

30th July 2020 at 5:36 pm

The former revolutionary marxists that make up most of Spiked’s payroll have certainly changed – actuallymorphed into Daily Mail conservatives. Amazing what a bit of money will do.

David J

30th July 2020 at 5:05 pm

The so-called Liberals Democrats’ campaign slogan in the last UK General Election summed it all up rather well.

Crude, vulgar, and tasteless, “b******s to Brexit” presumed that consigning the largest vote in UK history to the scrapheap was not just acceptable, but a desirable aim.

Thankfully, the LibDems were shown the door.

As for the Church of England, its Archbishops have been dismally poor leaders most of my life, and will probably continue to be so, long after the present incumbent is history.

Vivian Darkbloom

30th July 2020 at 11:33 pm

David: “Bollox to Brexit” was a disastrous slogan; I remember laughing my fat arse off when I saw it. It’s astonishing that these “clever” people would choose something so stupid to front a campaign. They outed themselves as morons. No wonder they were slaughtered electorally. So very funny. If you were to design an anti-Lib-Dumb campaign you couldn’t have done better.

David McAdam

30th July 2020 at 1:59 pm

A visit to Tate Gallery reveals a clash of the past and present cultures. The former celebrates life, the latter brutalises it. The image accompanying this article is as ugly as the present gets.

John Little

30th July 2020 at 1:32 pm

They’re uncomfortable with the past in the same way that the Jacobins, the Bolsheviks and the Maoists were. History, like truth is their enemy. This is because, as with earlier revolutionaries they want power and control. Was it Orwell who said that if you control the past you also control the present and the future? They see themselves as the new elite, indeed most of them come from middle, upper class and highly privileged backgrounds. Don’t be deceived by the careful down dressing. This is no movement of or for the people. In fact they loathe the working classes and see society as a whole as something to be shaped and moulded into whatever form their ideological vanity sees fit. For this reason, just as with their forbears above, they will bring tyranny and oppression if they are allowed to achieve their aims. That’s why the Woke must be fought and resisted tooth and nail. Otherwise liberty, truth, justice and the rule of law will become distant memories.

ubik ubik

30th July 2020 at 2:03 pm

George Orwell, probably the most important British writer of the 20th century and a man of the left with serious left-wing credentials, noted that English lefty intellectuals had nothing but contempt and actually loathed those who they presumed to speak for.

It’s also interesting that the further left on the political spectrum you go the more Orwell is reviled and hated. At first this catches you off balance but the reason is quickly identified. Orwell was often highly critical of his lefty comrades and being very much his own man could not be bullied or pressured to adopt whatever party orthodoxy was currently in vogue. In other words, he was what the ideological hard left fear most of all, a fiercely independent thinker who could not be “bought” or told to “shut up”. I doubt Eric Blair would even be allowed access to the BBC visitor’s lobby today.

Now J.B.S. Haldane, a brilliant scientist and polymath plus a card carrying communist, couldn’t obey party diktats fast enough, if ordered to “jump” his only response was “how high?”.

Mike Jackson

30th July 2020 at 8:13 pm

“Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.” is the quote, if I remember right. Said by Big Brother!

Michel Houllebeq

30th July 2020 at 11:54 am

BLM Targetted the Churchill Memorial when without him there would not have been a single Black Person in the UK or indeed Europe. Walking around large parts of our cities you would wonder what it was all for – one thing is for sure 99% of the soldiers would not have fought the Germans knowing how things have turned out. BLM should read history.

James Knight

30th July 2020 at 12:53 pm

BLM don’t need to target anything, institutions don’t need pressure from BLM take down statues or re-shape cultural institutions.

BLM – or the more grotesquely narcissistic side of the movement – is just a reflection of the culture young people have been raised. They did not create that culture.

Ian Murray

30th July 2020 at 6:08 pm

How about the black soldiers?


31st July 2020 at 4:50 pm

How many black African regiments were there in WW1 and 2? Don’t include the Indian army and Sikh regiments

Jack Sprat

4th August 2020 at 4:17 pm

Does anyone know of a crowd funding initiative to pay for a statue of Tippu Tip ?

Mor Vir

30th July 2020 at 11:35 am

“we risk becoming imprisoned in a timeless vacuum, where we lash out at the past rather than take control over our destiny.”

‘What is to be done?’ is an interesting evocation of Lenin but it seems eccentrically employed here unless its aptness can be elucidated.

Reading through Frank’s article, it is interesting stuff and it is nice to have an articulation of trends that we can all observe around us. Through much of it, I was waiting for a response to the objection, ‘OK, but what does it matter if people are no longer traditionalists who identify with the past?’ The last sentence addresses that but more as a gesture, as a bare assertion that we cannot take control of our future unless we are traditionalists.

The ‘modernists’ (simply to employ the handy antithetical term) would and do argue that this is us taking control of our destiny, which lies in the future not in the past. ‘The future will be different from the past, it will be better in its own terms, and that involves criticising the past and leaving it behind.’ Many today likely harbour a suspicion that traditionalists propose traditionalism as a good in itself simply because of their own personal, subjective identification and attachment to it, that it is a personality quirk, a ‘weirdness’ amid the normality of modernism, and that it has no real bearing on the present or the future.

Frank highlights the fluidity and development of attitudes toward the past as they become ever more critical and detached, indeed in a futurist, modernist program. The obvious explanation is that ideas do not exist in a vacuum, and that society has indeed developed not merely ‘out of’ the past but away from it; ideas reflect that forward trajectory. Society is dynamic and that dynamism is reflected in ideas.

That development obviously did not start in the 19 c., and already by then traditionalists resorted to a Romanticism of neo-feudal aspiration. Capitalist economic development had already been breaking down the old social forms, ideas, institutions, touchstones, identities and ways of life for centuries by then, especially in the more advanced capitalist societies. The present is a continuation of that ongoing social transformation, that objective, social detachment from the past that has always had an ideational antipathy toward and detachment from the past. The ideational and cultural tendency is inherent in capitalist development itself and reflects dynamic social transformation.

Frank seems correct to highlight WWII (and the founding of the UN) as a pivotal point. Imperialism and nationalism have largely given way to economic, institutional and cultural globalisation and that has radical implications for the future. We are no longer located simply within the nation or the imperialist nation; indeed we are no located simply within a single historical civilisation. That has been transcended in the locus of a meeting point of all civilisations in a global singularity of interconnected global development.

Thus the ‘past’ from which we are now detached is not simply a period from the past of ‘our’ society, like Victorianism, or a broader era, like feudalism – but a past in which ‘our’ civilisation had an independent existence, identity and history from others. Western civilisation is now a facet of a broader past possessed by the emergent global civilisation, as are all other past civilisations, Indian, Chinese, whatever. Thus modernisation now has a broader ‘past’ to transcend. No longer is ‘our’ past civilisation the broad framework within which change occurs; it is subsumed into a broader, global developmental framework in which it is itself transcended and left behind.

And indeed, the current demographic shift entails that for many ‘citizens’, those are not ‘our’ ancestors, it is not ‘our’ civilisation, ‘our’ history, ‘our’ cultural traditions. Many citizens have their locus in the post-imperialist, post-nationalist moment. Their presence has its locus in the development of society away from that past and toward post-war globalism. They are apt and disposed to live out that rupture with the past, with which they do not identify anyway and to further the transition to the future. The onward development reinforces itself, even in the composition of the citizenry.

So, much of what Frank says is true and apposite; what remains unclear to me is whether his historical scope is broad enough, whether the trends to which he objects are unavoidable and simply part and parcel of historical development, and whether and why traditionalism is desirable. There must be some criterion beyond traditionalism itself to justify traditionalism in practical or aesthetic terms. Modernism has the momentum and an attachment to the past can no longer be assumed. My own feelings are that one cannot expect to do a King Canute in opposition to historical, deeply embedded, and indeed global trends. It has been tried before. And why would one really want to?

Kevin Turner

30th July 2020 at 11:04 am

Really interesting genealogy of the culture war against the past.

On thing that strikes me about the current conjuncture, is that it is both ahistorical and anachronistic: it is all about a present with no past and yet it seeks to impose contemporary moral values on the past.

When Nietzsche called for a revaluation of all values, I’m not sure that this is what he had in mind.

Gerry Mander

30th July 2020 at 10:59 am

If people want to come to live here in the UK, one would imagine it is because they want to be like us, but it seems most want to change us to be like them. Mass immigration is not only a failure, it causes racism.

CJ Hawes

30th July 2020 at 11:07 am

Gerry – only some maestro. The large majority are very appreciative of being where they are and dare I say that it is more an “indiginous” issue. Non of the afore means that things shouldn’t be improved for the benefit of all however but from time to time the pendulum swings a bit too far in the opposite direction and settles back to a more central path over time. The trick is to prevent obviouly retrograde activities from gaining hold.

Mor Vir

30th July 2020 at 11:52 am

They are like you – on the whole they go to work, they go shopping, they obey the law, that is what it means to be a citizen. Beyond that they are free to pursue their own happiness in whatever way they like. People come here to do their own thing not to ‘mimic’ anyone. Immigration has worked fine.

George Whale

30th July 2020 at 2:00 pm

Grooming gangs, Islamist terrorism, FGM, English communities wiped off the map, growing anti-white hatred, immigrant ghettoes, wage stagnation, loss of jobs and homes to foreigners, vast swathes of countryside concreted over to accommodate them. All together now: Diversity is Our Strength.


31st July 2020 at 5:05 pm

Immigration works when the immigrants want to absorb the culture and obey the laws of the host country. That does not necessarily mean forgetting the original culture of their ancestors. But neither does it mean continuing practices such as FGM and garbing women from head to foot in black.
The mistakes which the less educated immigrants ( of which there are many) make is in clinging to the customs of their original country as those customs were 50 years previously when they left. The country modernises but people living in another country don’t modernise and bring up their children as they were raised.
The other problem is when uneducated males are unable to cope with the freedom of western women. Hence the rape gangs, and the problems currently being encountered all over western countries which have taken in recent immigrants.

CJ Hawes

30th July 2020 at 10:56 am

The use of the word culture I find problematic. The common understanding of the word is very different to its actual meaning (or the other meaning) and I find today’s antics as anything but cultured.

Claire D

30th July 2020 at 10:43 am

Interesting article.
Though I think there may be a misapprehension that history was important to generations prior to the 19th century, it was’nt, it barely existed. Ways of life, customs and traditions continued more or less as they always had, because communication technology was only of the newspaper or pamphlet kind and many people were still struggling to survive.
As usual I’m going to say the Industrial Revolution changed everything, forcing people forward towards a consumer society, encouraging individuality over community. Wherever you have native British communities still, traditions carry on quite strongly, but the impetus in towns and cities is different, especially if there are large numbers of incomers and immigrants who have no interest in our collective past and in fact may be critical of it.

The Western Canon is a fairly recent concept, and in a way, it was grasping at the idea as civilisation rushed on by. That does’nt mean I don’t value it, I do, only a fool would’nt.
A small percentage of intelligent people will carry on reading and studying in depth, they always have and they always will, you cannot expect the rest of the people to always understand or want to support that. Quite the opposite, if they are not equally capable, they will be resentful and jealous, particularly when they’ve been led to believe that we are all equal, and you can achieve anything you want to if you try hard enough, which is the modern mantra for the young. To hell with reality.

As for learning from history, if only humanity would do that. I think we can only try and keep the flame alive as best we can, and hope for the best.

Gerry Mander

30th July 2020 at 10:31 am

So comments now just disappearing—–censorship in thi s journal? Surely not!

Ian Murray

30th July 2020 at 5:36 pm

The entire concept of moderation is surely against the declared principles of Spiked. A bunch of hypocrites if you ask me.

Gerry Mander

30th July 2020 at 10:30 am

So Spiked is just “disappearing” comments now——censorship in this journal ? Surely not!

Stephen J

30th July 2020 at 9:26 am

Dismiss history at our peril, the key is to sort history, and improve on both the good bits and the bad bits. Only by studying history with an open mind can one see what is good and what is bad, by forgetting it, you condemn your children to making the same bad mistakes that were made previously.

Presentism, without reference to history, is more truthfully called selfishness and offers no insight for future generations.

We are sowing the seeds of war.

Dominic Straiton

30th July 2020 at 9:22 am

The Victorians invented everything. They stamped out slavery where ever they found it. They created India and made sure it wasnt invaded by Russia (what a crap hole that would be today). They created the civil service and civil society creating metropolitan governance with clean water. They created hospitals and medicine that lay the groundwork for our longevity.In short they created. Their children invented everything else and laid down their lives to make sure they bequeathed a better world than the one they lived in. Their world is still all around us and we have their monuments to remind us of their greatness.Boomers invented the personal computer. We are a smouldering ember of the people sjws look down upon. Its truly pathetic.

michael harris

30th July 2020 at 8:58 am

The picture at the top of this article is of the ‘elite’? Enough said.

ubik ubik

30th July 2020 at 2:24 pm

Indeed, the late and sorely missed philosopher Roger Scruton (now there’s a serious intellect if ever there was one), observing the rioting and destruction by Parisian mobs in the 1960s, noted, “I don’t know exactly what I believe in but I know it’s not this”.

Philip Humphrey

30th July 2020 at 7:51 am

Excellent article. One jarring thing about “progressivism” is that the obsession with the past is combined with almost wilful ignorance of it. What fascinates me is how times of great scientific and technological progress and inventiveness such as the 1950s have come to be demonised in the ” progressive” mind. Look at the recent output and obsession of TV drama with that era, the portrayal is almost entirely one of repression, closed minds, poverty and stagnation. Of course there was poverty and a great deal of suffering but the portrayal lacks any balance between that and the hope, optimism and dynamism of that time. The middle ages are similarly demonised as a backward time in Europe dominated by a brutal, dogmatic and oppressive Church, but no mention or explanation of how somehow science, technology and culture progressed within that culture to eventually overtake the various Islamic empires and all other cultures within that time frame.

Linda Payne

30th July 2020 at 1:19 pm

compare the drama of the 50’s and 60’s (even the 70 and 80’s to a certain extent) to the drivel that is put out now and you will see how the writing has deteriorated, a few notable exceptions such as Jim McGoven although even he is writing to order these days, would a film like ‘This sporting Life’ be made now with the contemporary feel,? It’s what we need in this culture, new great ideas to inspire people

John Lewis

30th July 2020 at 6:54 am

Fine words (sarc) from the university named after its principal benefactor, Elihu Yale, who made his money as President of the East India Company. One of Elihus clever little wrinkles was to endure that at least ten slaves were to be carried in every ship bound for Europe.

Not surprisingly “Yale News” published a lengthy piece this month entitled “Cancel Yale, No Likely” written by Steven Pincus a firmer Yale Professor of History (you don’t say!). His words are long on deflection and distraction but rather short on actual justification for his revisionist assesrtion that Elihu was in fact strongly opposed to slavery. In one cringeworthy paragraph Pincus refers to an inconvenient portrait of Elihu as follows:-

This later involvement, Pincus said, was the likely inspiration of a controversial 1708 portrait of Elihu Yale that used to hang in the Yale Corporation Room in Woodbridge Hall until its removal in 2007. The picture, titled “Elihu Yale; William Cavendish, the second Duke of Devonshire; Lord James Cavendish; Mr. Tunstal; and an Enslaved Servant,” features white noblemen sitting while a dark-skinned servant — with a padlocked collar around his neck — looks on from the lower right-hand corner.

So, using Pincus’s logic, now that those nasty statues of Confederate generals have been removed it is presumably just fine and dandy to continue to us to use their names in contemporary settings.

The hypocrisy is strong in this one. Not an unusual observation when viewing present day academia.

John D Henry

30th July 2020 at 1:15 am

The UK, Commonwealth, & USA can be very proud of their achievement in defeating Hitler and his Nazis cronies. There is a danger of course in forgetting the lessons learnt in history, and repeating the same mistakes. And it would appear that many of the SJW tearing down/vandalising statues and monuments, have a very poor grasp of history. Otherwise they wouldn’t target the likes of Churchill, Queen Victoria, The Cenotaph, George Washington, Columbus, Charles Dickens, Robert Peel, William Wilberforce etc. Also these SJWs appear to have a poor grasp of the actual atrocities going on now, such as modern day slavery, where Africa remains the biggest offender.

So agree with the author of this excellent essay; that it appears that it is Western History per se they are attempting to eradicate. However, if Western History is so bad, perhaps we should select other areas glorious history to follow instead? Such as Somalia, Lebanon, or North Africa and their ilk as suitable examples, so we can achieve a suitable Utopia. Being sarcastic of course, being ex Royal Navy I’ve travelled to many non Western Countries, and most appeared sheer hell.

All I can see with the current woke sheep is a total lack of respect for our ancestors, many of whom achieved great things, including laying down their lives, so we can enjoy relative peace today. Furthermore the current crop of SJWs appears incapable of creating anything useful or positive themselves, just endless negativity and destruction. They live in the delusion they can do better than those who actually did great things in trying times. Judging by their current conduct of endless violence, vandalism, and warped view of the Western World coupled with ignoring atrocities such as MD slavery, FGM, third world misogynistic practices etc. they would most likely have been just as useless and destructive had they lived in the past they wish to tear down, as they are now.

CJ Hawes

30th July 2020 at 10:59 am

John – some may argue that non Western places are in a state due to Western colonialism / intervention.

John D Henry

30th July 2020 at 12:11 pm

Yes indeed, and there are examples where Western intervention clearly appeared to make matters worse (Iraq). However, this doesn’t explain why barbaric practices existed in some countries prior to Western intervention. Also there are many examples of former British Empire countries, now Commonwealth that are relatively civilised today
– India, Singapore, Jamaica, Trinidad & Tobago, Barbados, Bahamas to name but a few. We have in recently years in the Middle East similar outcomes of destruction and violence, whether the West intervenes or not.

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