"We [Americans] don't hide from history. We make history."
-- John McCain
"A man has nothing to fear, he thought to himself, who understands history."
-- last line of Robert Stone's A Flag for Sunrise (1981)
In these two quotations, "history" is, respectively, a prize and a consolation. In McCain's congratulatory usage, the power to make "history" is what Americans award themselves for being Americans. In Robert Stone's novel, the anthropologist Holliwell, having blundered around in an imaginary Latin American country and helped wreck more than several lives, consoles himself by taking the long view. You can't make an omelet without breaking eggs, or something like that.
When Francis Fukuyama wrote his famous article "The End of History," later expanded into the book The End of History and the Last Man, he was careful to point out that he was not talking about history but about History in the Hegelian sense, the ostensibly progressive development or unfolding of collective human consciousness, or spirit (Geist). Did McCain's speech writer have Fukuyama somewhere at the back of his mind? Maybe. Or maybe not.
Hegelians and Marxists, among others, believe that History has a veiled or hidden logic, one that their theories grasp. History unlocks its secrets to those in possession of the key: Spirit rising to consciousness of itself, or the inevitability of socialist revolution. Marxism is not about "spreading the wealth," contrary to what certain denizens of the right-wing blogosphere said or implied during the just-concluded U.S. election campaign. Marx himself had nothing but contempt for anyone who concentrated on distribution as opposed to the forces and relations of production. He asserted that redistribution was not possible without a change in the mode of production:
"Any distribution whatever of the means of consumption is only a consequence of the distribution of the conditions of production themselves [Marx wrote in Critique of the Gotha Program].... Vulgar socialism...has taken over from the bourgeois economists the consideration and treatment of distribution as independent of the mode of production and hence the presentation of socialism as turning principally on distribution. After the real relation [between distribution and the mode of production] has long been made clear, why retrogress again?"When certain conservatives charged that Obama was a Marxist, they proved only that they had not read Marx.
This post seems to have wandered away from the rhetorical uses of "history." Perhaps that's just as well. When we get too serious about these things, we can count on Shaw to puncture the balloon. In Shaw's play The Devil's Disciple, set during the American war of independence, the British general Burgoyne, facing defeat at Saratoga, is asked by a horrified subordinate: "What will history say?" Burgoyne's answer: "History, sir, will tell lies, as usual."
P.S. A link to Critique of the Gotha Program.