Editorial: Puzzling history
Would life be better if we knew all the answers?
In our interview with the Russian philosopher Michail Ryklin for this issue he used the phrase “unlocking the puzzle of history”. This is what the early enthusiasts for the Russian Revolution thought they were doing. Armed with the new science – dialectical materialism – they were convinced that they had made a decisive break with belief and discovered the truth of how things really are. All they were doing was giving a helping hand to the inevitable unfolding of history. Of course, as Ryklin dryly notes, the idea that they had moved beyond belief into the realm of science was itself their primary article of faith. It is this that leads him to argue that communism was – not like, or modelled on, but actually – a religion.
It’s easy, at first sight, to sympathise with the desire to unlock the puzzle. How wonderful if there was a key to understanding human affairs, a logic to the universe or a code of life to be broken, once and for all. It is this desire that is mocked so enjoyably by Douglas Adams in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – he gives his characters the answer to “Life, the Universe, and Everything” (42 in case you’ve forgotten), but of course this hardly resolves Arthur Dent and Zaphod Beeblebrox’s problems, as they may have the answer but no one can remember the original question.
Adams was poking fun at religion, something he was very fond of doing, but it also seems applicable to other forms of ideology. The desire for there to be a simple solution to our frustratingly contingent world, and to be one of those who share the secret, seems to be the common thread running through fundamentalist religious faith, conspiracy theories and dogmatic political ideologies. Evidence of this kind of certainty appears throughout this issue – from the extremist sabre-rattling of both pro-Islam and pro-Israeli factions threatening to drown out good sense at the UN, to the Islamist dogmatists of Hizb ut-Tahrir that Kenan Malik writes about in his new book, to the self-regarding political pieties of a new generation of online pundits, dissected by Stephen Howe – those who think they have the puzzle solved, and can’t believe the rest of us don’t see it, seem to be everywhere.
Even science, which is supposed to be ever open to changing its mind based on new evidence, can harden into dogma. At least so argues Eliane Glaser, who revisits CP Snow’s “two cultures” idea and argues that we have all recently been seduced by science’s claim to explain the world best, and have forgotten the vital insights to be gleaned from the humanities – insights that are better suited in the end to challenging the certainties of “revealed truth”.
Those of us who are pretty sure there is no get-smart-quick solution to history’s puzzle, and are glad of it – which could be the definition of a humanist – have to do the hard work of thinking things through in their complexity. We offer some of that too.
In our cover story Paul Collier, one of the most distinguished and ingenious economists working on issues of global justice, makes the startling proposal that in order to ensure the emergence of a truly democratic Africa the West should be prepared to harness the power of the military coup. And Steven Lukes addresses head-on one of the fundamental dilemmas for the non-believer: in the absence of a “good” book of rules, on what basis can we make moral judgements? We think it’s a pretty good issue. But you will have to judge for yourself.
Finally we note with sorrow the recent death of Harold Blackham, aged 105. He was the first director of the BHA and a great humanist. Read a full obituary on our website.