History Won’t Judge

The verdicts that matter are rendered in the here and now

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History didn’t get a moment’s rest during the Trump years. The troller-in-chief twisted a renewed national conversation about slavery’s afterlives into yet another attempt at owning the libs. Anti-Trump liberals, meanwhile, conscripted history into the #resistance, deploying it alongside “truth” and “science” in an appeal to generic Enlightenment values. Whether by the 1776 Commission or The 1619 Project—which is to say, by a fatuous provocation or an earnest appeal—poor Clio, the muse of history, was asked to do a lot of work.

One of her main tasks seemed to be to pass judgment. “History will judge Donald Trump severely for his crimes against the United States,” declared David Remnick, The New Yorker’s editor in chief, after the Capitol riot of January 2021. A Gallup poll on the eve of Joe Biden’s inauguration found that six in ten Americans “believed that history will regard President Donald Trump negatively.” “With the outcome a foregone conclusion,” Nicholas Fandos wrote in the New York Times during the House’s second impeachment proceedings, readers could take solace in the thought that “the trial itself became an illuminating and cathartic act for history.” Such invocations conjured an image of History with a capital H, clad in black robes and powdered wig—perhaps even sporting a chic little RBG-style lace collar—gaveling Trump offstage to the jubilant cheers of the righteous. In this movie, Clio, our heroine, would triumph where the Access Hollywood tape, Robert Mueller, the emoluments clause, the Hatch Act, and two impeachments had stumbled.

The idea of history’s judgment was, and remains, seductive. It flatters our discernment, suggesting that we and History navigate with the same ethical compass. It reassures us that today’s wrongs will be righted in the future, regardless of our inability to remedy them now. It imagines that society will learn from past errors, as if human reason were an autonomous force. In the U.S. political context, it is best embodied by the refrain, borrowed by Barack Obama from Martin Luther King Jr. (who paraphrased it from the abolitionist Theodore Parker), that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Improvement, vindication, transcendence: these are its consolations, a redemptive promise for our secular age.

Yet this notion cannot withstand scrutiny, as Joan Wallach Scott’s On the Judgment of History shows. A work of political philosophy, the book argues that appeals to History as some kind of virtuous magistrate, however progressive the intent, in effect serve as a liberal alibi, deflecting demands for radical change and placing an outsized faith in the nation-state. At a time when political crises are resolutely global—eco-apartheid, ascendant right-wing nationalism, climate-driven mass migration—Scott argues we need to develop bolder, more capacious understandings of justice. Put simply, we cannot cede today’s political imperatives to the good favor of tomorrow’s retrospection.

Judgment Day

Scott opens her book with the same event that Biden claims spurred him to run against Trump: the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in mid-August of 2017. There, as police passively looked on, white supremacists hoisted swastikas, Confederate flags, and torches, chanting “Jews will not replace us” and “white lives matter” as they attacked antifascist counterprotesters, killing one and injuring dozens. Scott was aghast by the scene, which seemed to represent a “refusal of what was supposed to have been history’s judgment.” Had slavery and Nazism not been consigned, permanently, to the dustbin? What happened, she asked herself, to “never again”?

We cannot cede today’s political imperatives to the good favor of tomorrow’s retrospection.

One might question whether this event was truly the driving motivation for either Biden or Scott. A pioneering feminist historian best known for her 1988 book Gender and the Politics of History, Scott has spent her career critically analyzing knowledge production through her studies of sex, secularism, and academic freedom. Having written widely on social difference, she was surely less surprised about the persistence of white supremacy than she makes herself sound. (For his part, Biden had been dreaming of the presidency for more than three decades.) Nevertheless, Scott’s point is well-taken. Even for those who ought to have known better—a group in which she generously includes herself, as one can hardly imagine a male author doing—the fantasy of history’s judgment holds a magnetic appeal.

Where did this idea come from? Scott provides a capsule summary in her prefatory chapter, “History, Race, Nation.” Her story begins with the dawn of Enlightenment modernity, when a group of philosophers set out to break the hegemony over politics and knowledge hitherto exercised by the Church and aristocracy. To supplant the apocalyptic Christian notion of a Last Judgment or divine reckoning, Enlightenment thinkers developed the concept of a rational History which moved inexorably forward, in the direction of progress and civilization. Hegel and Schiller declared history “the world’s court of judgment” and “the world’s tribunal,” respectively. Kant argued that history’s course was governed by “constant laws of nature,” wherein good could be neatly separated from evil, justice from injustice, truth from falsehood. While they purported to be resolutely secular, these philosophers attributed to History many of the qualities previously reserved for sacred authority: moral probity, sanctity, and unimpeachable wisdom. In this account, the future would always be superior to the past, even if the advances it guaranteed were long in coming.

From the first, this vision of history was bound inseparably to the modern state, which in Europe, as in the territories invaded by European states, served as the primary instrument of secularization. Drawing on Carl Schmitt, Michel Foucault, Reinhart Koselleck, and Judith Butler, among others, Scott discusses how states foreclosed alternative forms of political organization, such as those of indigenous communities, religious minorities, or federated entities of different but equal polities. Enforcing their power with armies and police forces, they administered it through mechanisms of law, with courts sorting right from wrong and hearing appeals to justice. The sovereign state thus styled itself as “the ultimate culmination of history’s forward-moving path.”

As the state form came to encompass the nation, these institutions would be charged with defending the interests of people deemed “nationals” against competing claims from others defined as inferior—or, worse, stateless, and therefore without history altogether. Even before the dust had settled on France’s storied revolution, for example, the new republic moved in 1791 to crush a rebellion of the enslaved and reinstitute slavery in its colony of Saint-Domingue. It didn’t happen then, but in 1802, France tried again. That led to the free Black state of Haiti declaring its independence two years later. And even by 1825, France hadn’t given up the imperial hypocrisy: France circled Port-au-Prince with gunships until the fledgling government agreed to pay a staggering indemnity, structured as a long-term debt, to compensate for the erstwhile colonizer’s lost “property.” History, sovereignty, self-determination—for me, but not for thee. The anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot has argued that the Haitian Revolution offered “the ultimate test to the universalist pretensions of both the French and the American revolutions. And they both failed.”

During the nineteenth century, this liberal historicity became fertile soil for the growth of nationalism, imperialism, and what Hannah Arendt calls “race-thinking,” as recent books by Priya Satia, Jennifer Pitts, Mahmood Mamdani, and Duncan Bell have shown. Yet a conflict emerged: between law’s universalist principles of human rights, transcending any particular political formation, and the specific practices of individual nation-states, which could (and did) clash with one another. Mediating among countries while respecting the principle of nation-state sovereignty, the institutions of international law founded after World War I—the League of Nations, the United Nations, and the International Law Commission—attempted to resolve the paradox. But Scott argues that by distinguishing good sovereign states from bad ones, they only further enshrined “the state as the universal agent of history.”

Remembrance of Crimes Past

Scott uses three case studies to unpack what she describes as the unwittingly statist fantasy of history-as-judge: the 1945 International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg; the 1996 Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in South Africa; and the movement demanding reparations for slavery in the United States. (It is ironic that a book critiquing the nation-state should limit its analysis of the reparations movement, which has long been transnational, to the U.S. context; more on this later.) All three confronted state-run systems of racist violence and exclusion, but each made a different appeal to history’s judgment.

At Nuremberg, the Allies appointed themselves the dispensers of an avenging justice. The Tribunal’s chief American prosecutor, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court Robert Jackson, promised to deliver the “ultimate verdict of history . . . so painstakingly and with such clarity that the world can never forget.” And yet, the Tribunal took a narrowly juridical approach, defining its remit as a collection of crimes perpetrated by individuals, prosecuting Nazis without indicting the ideology of Nazi-ism. Its aim was less to expunge fascism than to shore up the Allies’ own moral and sovereign standing. The Allies signed the London Charter, which established the terms on which Nazi crimes would be prosecuted, the day before the United States bombed Nagasaki and two days after it had bombed Hiroshima. That Hitler had modeled German race law after the United States’ treatment of Native Americans went, naturally, unaddressed.

Few today remember that Nuremberg prosecuted not just the Holocaust and the Final Solution, that is, “war crimes” and “crimes against humanity,” but also—and arguably with greater emphasis—Germany’s “aggressive warfare” against other European states, which was contrasted to “civilized warfare.” This contorted framework vindicated the (good) nation-state as a rescuer of victimized populations, upholder of rights, and administrator of history’s judgment. The Martinican writer Aimé Césaire saw the bait-and-switch clearly. For him, the Allies’ true animus toward Hitler resided in “the fact that he applied to Europe colonialist procedures which until then had been reserved exclusively for the Arabs of Algeria, the ‘coolies’ of India, and the Blacks of Africa.”

South Africa’s TRC rejected Nuremberg-style retribution in favor of reconciliation—not least because National Party officials had self-indemnified before apartheid’s end. Yet it retained a juridical ethos, reducing the apartheid system to so many one-off incidents for which individual criminal responsibility could be assigned. The TRC also drew a legal equivalence between crimes committed by and in resistance to the state, collapsing politics into lawfare. This was how it sought to preserve—or, better said, establish—the legitimacy of liberalism’s rule-of-law, casting itself explicitly as a kind of “bridge” between South Africa’s poisoned past and redeemed future, a Canaan where the state would serve as a protector, rather than abuser, of human rights.

The transition was meant to be a one-way trip, though things would not pan out so smoothly. Scott notes that the TRC underestimated “not only the persistence of the past into the present and future, but also the enduring effects of political compromise and the structures that support it.” Socioeconomic inequalities, notably the overwhelming concentration of landownership in white hands, were left unremedied. A new state was built upon apartheid’s foundations without dismantling them. As at Nuremberg, then, lofty pronouncements about how South Africa had moved beyond dark times and enacted history’s judgment masked that the ultimate victor was raison d’état.

Like Nazism and apartheid, slavery was a wound so grievous it could never be repaired. But unlike at Nuremberg or the TRC, according to Scott, the movement for reparations has not assumed that “the past is past.” Arguments for retroactive compensation for slavery date at least to the eighteenth century, when formerly enslaved individuals began demanding restitution, as the historian Ana Lucia Araujo and others have documented. From there, collective movements took shape in the second half of the nineteenth century, with particular intensity in the United States following the Civil War. They have existed throughout the Americas, Europe, and Africa at varying levels of intensity ever since.

These movements have resisted the language of trauma, positioning the recipients of reparations not (exclusively) as victims but as creditors and as judges. Rejecting the state’s monopoly over historical judgment, they insist that it is not for governments to decree when recompense has been served. In the struggle for reparations, the point is not to yield some kind of verdict on the sins of yesteryear but rather to hold the nation, today, to account. In the U.S. context, it is to force a broader reckoning with the country’s history: a wholesale rewriting that offers, Scott writes, “not a linear story of gradual progress, but a record of an ongoing, unfulfilled struggle to achieve justice.” Producing or disseminating more enlightened historical content is not enough; the movement aims to change history’s place in national consciousness.

Scott’s conclusion here is somewhat unsatisfying, but that is the point. The notion of history’s judgment, whereby societies can stamp “case closed” on a box of damning evidence and send it off to permanent storage—this is nothing more than a “consoling fantasy we have inherited from the Enlightenment.” The progressive mythology of history harms us all. It naturalizes past imbalances of power and the institutional forms that reproduce them. Perhaps more important, it demobilizes us in the present, suggesting that progress stems from evolution and destiny rather than struggle. Humanity is just as apt to reprise past injustices as to repudiate them, which is why vigilance must be valued over transcendence. “Never again” is an illusion; it should be replaced with “always, still.”

This is not to suggest that radical change is impossible. In a chapter epigraph, Scott cites Walter Benjamin’s injunction that the working class’s “spirit of sacrifice” is “nourished by the image of enslaved ancestry rather than that of liberated grandchildren.” In much the same way, she urges us to refocus our gaze away from the distant horizon. “It is not the fear or promise of history’s ultimate judgment that moves us,” Scott writes, “but the sense that—in the face of what we deem to be injustice—we have no other choice.”

Pictures from an Institution

It is a compelling enough case, though the way Scott makes it does not lack for tension and incongruity. Part of the issue is her comparative framework. Germany and South Africa were subject to global condemnation, prostrated by war and economic catastrophe; the contemporary United States is a beleaguered but still functioning global hegemon. A tribunal established by victorious nations after war, a truth commission set up by a single state, and a social movement: in many ways, these are incommensurable examples.

Nor does Scott attend to the matter of institutional form. As anyone working in historical reckoning initiatives knows, much is lost when demands from below are forced into the bureaucratic strictures of something like a truth commission—and more still in attempts to flatten the contingencies of thick history into the thin accounts of victimization and perpetration demanded by courts. Scott herself points out that radical groups (such as the Black Consciousness Movement) fueled grassroots resistance to apartheid. Yet they were sidelined by the sausage-making of official reconciliation, which was ultimately a project of state formation. A comparison of the TRC and an ongoing struggle in the United States would have been more productive if accompanied by a strategic analysis of why the South African case unfolded as it did—and how things might have gone differently.

History will not judge, exonerate, or redeem us.

This is not exactly a hypothetical matter. Thanks largely to years of Black Lives Matter militancy, the House Judiciary Committee recently advanced a bill to create a commission exploring the possibility of paying reparations to Black Americans. The bill is known as H.R. 40, in reference to the forty acres and a mule promised to the formerly enslaved after the Civil War. It has been introduced yearly to Congress for three decades by John Conyers and Sheila Jackson Lee but never voted out of committee until 2021. Getting it through the House and Senate remains a long shot. Still, it’s worth asking: How best could the U.S.-based reparations movement resist the immense concessionary pressure that, say, a national reparations program would exert? The problem cannot be sidestepped: only the federal government has the power and resources to pay reparations at anything approaching the necessary scale. Would the “defiant rereading of the history of the United States” championed by Scott even be recognizable after passing through a legislature in which significant numbers of representatives refuse the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election, let alone the legitimacy of Black claims for redress?

The world over, efforts at reckoning with histories of violence show that symbolic recognition usually prevails over social and economic repair. This year, Germany recognized its colonial-era genocide against the Herero and Nama peoples of what is today Namibia, pledging roughly a billion dollars in development aid to be paid out over thirty years. It refused, however, to use the word “reparations,” emphasizing that its move implied political and moral responsibility but not legal liability. “That kind of an agreement,” responded Herero paramount chief Vekuii Rukoro, “constitutes a complete sellout on the part of the Namibian government.”

But it would be remiss to focus too narrowly on the outcome of institutional processes. Truth commissions, reparations programs, or court cases aren’t ends in and of themselves but rather tools. Some are more effective than others. Some have longer afterlives than others. Some are taken up in new ways decades later, while others languish, forgotten. All these initiatives are concerned with producing new knowledge about the past, with an eye toward its practical application in the future. And for popular movements, it has proven worthwhile to at least try to seize the means of historical production.

Latin America, whose experiments in truth-seeking served as inspiration for South Africa’s, offers some intriguing comparisons. Take Guatemala and El Salvador, where Cold War-era governments waged massive U.S.-backed terror campaigns against popular movements, and UN-brokered peace agreements subsequently established truth commissions, also overseen by the UN, to tally and analyze human rights violations. Both countries’ legislatures had granted amnesty to their militaries; both postwar governments were controlled by right-wing parties with close military ties; both commissions issued reports in the 1990s holding state security forces responsible for an overwhelming preponderance of the violence. But the two commissions couldn’t have diverged more sharply in their philosophies of history.

El Salvador’s report did exactly what Scott critiques, suggesting that the country had successfully moved “from madness to hope.” It drew false equivalences among the experiences of different social sectors in a war whose casualties were predominantly the rural poor: “The victims were Salvadorians and foreigners of all backgrounds and all social and economic classes, for in its blind cruelty violence leaves everyone equally defenseless.” Failing to engage with the actual stakes of a conflict pitting a leftist peasant insurgency against an alliance of oligarchy and military, the report faulted both sides, claiming that the violence was due to “warped psychology” and “delirium,” resulting in massacres of civilians presumed to be aligned with the enemies of the regime—while also stating, in a classic instance of the era’s “theory of the two demons,” that “the opposing side behaved likewise.”

The Guatemalan commission did something very different. It situated the country’s Cold War-era political conflict within a longue durée: five hundred years of racism, dispossession, and economic exploitation of the majority indigenous Maya population by a tiny elite. More importantly, it depicted state terror not as a tragic breakdown of liberal ideals, but as the foundational work of nation-building. The report, Greg Grandin has argued, “refused to draw too clear a line between a past marred by unspecified intolerance and a contemporary polity based on pluralism and proceduralism,” exposing how the constitutional order being forged from the profoundly unequal terms of the peace agreement represented “an extension of the counterinsurgency.” The Guatemalan example shows that it is possible to undertake truth commissions that do not appeal to the moral judgment of History. Its historicity foregrounded conflict and contradiction rather than resolution and relief.

In any event, when assessing any society’s effort to reckon with how its past structures its present, it is helpful to remember that no trial, truth commission, or reparations program—or monument, museum, curriculum revision, renaming initiative, official apology, mass grave exhumation, or public education project—stands alone or exists in a vacuum. These varied mechanisms are relational and interrelated; many of them can, do, and should coexist, even (and perhaps especially) along a lengthy timescale such that earlier initiatives can nourish subsequent ones. And they will necessarily address different audiences. After all, it is not only that ugly, violent pasts are never past—it is that the work of wrestling with those ugly, violent pasts is itself never past. And it never can be. Rather, it is the very heart of politics, beating not far below the surface.

The Worst Year

Scott contends that the goal of the U.S.-based reparations movement is to provoke a confrontation with what Ta-Nehisi Coates describes as “the facts of our history.” This would reveal the chasm between self-image and reality, forcing “the nation to recognize a debt that can never be repaid.” As evidence that this call has entered mainstream discourse, Scott cites The 1619 Project, which reframed the nation’s past around a new origin point: not 1776, but 1619, “the country’s true birth date,” when enslaved Africans were first made to set foot in the English colony of Virginia.

If anyone still doubted that the telling of history is intensely political, the backlash against The 1619 Project would make them reconsider. Trump’s 1776 Commission was only the tip of the iceberg. Since then, states have passed legislation banning use of The 1619 Project in schools and proposed to cut funding to those that disobey. A right-wing donor at the University of North Carolina intervened to deny a tenured position for Nikole Hannah-Jones, the journalist who directed the project. Conservative local school boards counterpose it against what they call “patriotic history.”

As if anticipating this last line of attack, The 1619 Project made clear its devotion to the concept of the United States. “Black Americans have also been, and continue to be, foundational to the idea of American freedom,” wrote Hannah-Jones in her lead essay. “It is we who have been the perfecters of this democracy.” She built upon W.E.B. DuBois’s observation that African Americans “worshiped” the idea of freedom with “unquestioning faith” precisely because it was for them largely honored in the breach. “We were told once, by virtue of our bondage, that we could never be American,” she concluded. “But it was by virtue of our bondage that we became the most American of all.”

This is important work in a country where Black claims to full citizenship are still persistently undermined. Yet if the Whiggish narrative of American democracy is to be truly dismantled, we will need to popularize a more profound revision still: reevaluating not only domestic white supremacy but also its imperial projection out into the world. 1619 may have been when the English first brought enslaved Africans to North American colonies. But by then European slave trafficking had been well underway for a century—including to territories like what is today Florida, initially colonized by Spain—as had the enslavement of indigenous peoples. Later, the United States forcibly incorporated Native Americans, Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, and Pacific Islanders, all of whom have valid claims for reparations. And it continues to coerce the lives of untold millions around the world, a fact that has not escaped the Movement for Black Lives, which has embraced the cause of Palestinian liberation. It is one thing to struggle for inclusion in the United States, something quite different to find ways of subverting the national project altogether.

It may seem easier to surrender our reliance on the idea of History’s judgment than our belief in the nation-state. And yet, as Claire Vergerio reminds us, the modern state system that now seems “the self-evident way of organizing political communities” was, only seventy or so years ago, “just one of the options available to our collective imagination.” Adom Getachew, for example, shows in Worldmaking after Empire that the intellectual leaders of African decolonization imagined a globally expansive project, wherein self-determination would be secured through regional federations and a transformed international economic order. More recently, the Andean societies of Bolivia and Ecuador, both with significant indigenous populations, have reconfigured themselves as plurinational through innovative constitutional reforms. Another world, the Zapatistas of Chiapas have long argued, is possible: un mundo donde quepan muchos mundos.

Given the planetary scale of the crises confronting us, we have no choice but to imagine forms of social and political organization beyond the nation-state. History will not judge, exonerate, or redeem us. But it reminds us that what has been made can always be unmade. It therefore assists in that most crucial work of imaginative reconstruction: building a future whose past no longer comes wrapped in a country’s flag.

Kirsten Weld teaches history at Harvard University. She is the author of Paper Cadavers: The Archives of Dictatorship in Guatemala.

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