In 1894, the historian Henry Adams--the great-grandson and grandson of Presidents John and John Quincy Adams--mailed in his presidential address to the American Historical Association. Adams had quit academia, resigning his assistant professorship at Harvard (a position I later held myself) in the 1870s to move to Washington, since he, unlike myself, wanted to spend his life among the nation's movers and shakers. (The many parallels between his life and mine will figure in my forthcoming autobiography.) Yet he was the author of one of the half-dozen greatest works of US history, History of the United States during the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, a nine-volume work of extraordinary penetration, analysis, and humor. And the address he wrote posed what has turned out to be the critical problem of 21st century western civilization: the impact and fate of the Enlightenment tradition of which he was a part.
History, Adams wrote, had increasingly been dominated over the past half-century or so by a single ambition: to become a science that might reach valid conclusions about the future of the human race. He did not say, although he might have, that that quest was simply one aspect of the broader attempt that western civilization was making to use human reason to perfect politics and economics, creating a more just society. That was the idea that the west was going to spread around the world during the frist half of the twentieth century. Adams did not commit himself in his address to any one view of what conclusions a science of history might reach, instead listing three possibilities. Yet he put his finger on the key problem of attempts to order human society according to reason. Whatever conclusion historians reached, he argued, powerful interests would resist it. "Any science," he wrote, "assumes a necessary sequence of cause and effect, a force resulting in motion which can not be other than what it is. Any science of history must be absolute, like other sciences, and must fix with mathematical certainty the path which human society has got to follow. That path can hardly lead toward the interests of all the great social organizations. We can not conceive that it should help at the same time the church and the state, property and communism, capital and poverty, science and religion, trade and art. Whatever may be its orbit, it must, at least for a time, point away from some of these forces toward others which are regarded as hostile. Conceivably, it might lead off in eccentric lines away from them all, but by no power of our imagination can we conceive that it should lead toward them all." We now know that he was right.
Specifically, Adams said, history might eventually conclude that human society was heading towards socialism--and thus declare war on existing institutions. "Would property, on which the universities depend, allow such freedom of instruction?" he asked. "Would the state suffer its foundation to be destroyed? Would society as now constituted tolerate the open assertion of a necessity which should affirm its approaching overthrow?" Secondly, history might conclude that the characteristic features of contemporary society--"its huge armaments, its vast accumulations of capital, its advancing materialism, and declining arts—were to be continued, exaggerated, over another thousand years." In that case, no one would want to listen to historians, who would be regarded as prophets of despair. One other possibility remained: "If, finally, the science should prove that society must at a given time revert to the church and recover its old foundation of absolute faith in a personal providence and a revealed religion, it commits suicide." In my opinion, the history of the world going back to ancient times tells the story of a struggle among those three views, none of which is destined to prevail. That explains the unfortunate trends that have dominated the world for the last 40 years or so, and which show no signs of abating any time soon.
While socialism in its pure form of state ownership of the means of production only came to power in Communist nations--and there, significantly, only temporarily--certain socialist ideas did become conventional wisdom in Europe, North America, and elsewhere by the middle of the twentieth century. Governments, led by FDR's New Deal, assumed a responsibility for the welfare of their people that included attempts to reduce inequality of wealth. Economists and politicians recognized that a growing economy required that all classes of society share in economic growth--a result which, as Thomas Piketty reminded us four years ago, would not occur automatically if capitalism were left alone. Adams, however, was right: even this limited socialism provoked a powerful long-term reaction from those who held capital. By the 1990s the institutions and practices that had increased equality were disappearing and the march towards greater inequality had resumed. It is continuing all over the globe now, in Western Europe as well as the United States, even though it has not as yet gone quite as far on the other side of the Atlantic as here. The mid-century consensus rested on a sound scientific basis, but capital had to overthrow it not in spite of, but because of, that fact. And so it has.
Turning to another of Adams's possible outcomes, historians have not yet concluded that humanity must revert to religion, but many societies have. The secularism that went along with the Enlightenment reached a peak in worldwide influence sometime during the first half of the twentieth century, extending in Turkey even into the heart of the Muslim world, but orthodox religion has made a comeback not only there, but here in the United States, where it enjoys remarkable political influence, and in Russia, where the church is once again a powerful arm of the state.
Adams's other possibility--that a science of history might show that we are condemned to a continuation of existing things--strikes me as closest to a true historical conclusion, although it required a further proviso. We must understand "a continuation of existing things" as a dynamic rather than static description. Religion, science, greed and egalitarianism always live within human breasts and are always at war in our politics. Some are winning at any given moment but begin ceding ground later on. My generation, as it turns out, was born very near a turning point.
When will rationalism and a sense of the common good once again become the key elements of our political and economic life? Will it require more catastrophes like the two world wars, or perhaps the consequences of global warming, to make it happen? These are questions for the future. Meanwhile, it seems, Henry Adams laid the foundation for understanding the ups and downs of human history, and of our time.