The German philosopher Hannah Arendt writes in Tradition and the Modern Age that an unsettling paradox emerges in the modern worldâ€™s view of history. If history is a struggle towards a perfect political system, then when that system is achieved history will be complete — and then what will the purpose of mankind be?
The opening sentence of the Communist Manifesto is that â€œthe history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.â€ Note that this revolutionary statement is not about society itself, but about its history, and the rewriting of world history becomes the Communist objective. If Marx could persuade mankind to accept that historical narrative, then the establishment of Communism itself would go without saying, for it would be a historical inevitability.
By revaluing labor and violence as problems to be eliminated rather than part of the structure of civilization, Marx sets mankind on the path to rewrite history as a road to perfection. Distaste for gods and heroes of the past and desire to destroy their memory, dishonor towards oneâ€™s parents and teachers, and disdain for oneâ€™s culture are all encouraged by this philosophy, which teaches that we are moving from darkness into light. We must be â€œprogressiveâ€, accepting the natural progress of society towards this conclusion, or hastening it along.
Neglecting the terrible practical flaws of Communism for a second, Marx might as well have written that the history of society is a struggle between medicine and disease. Obviously we must always fight disease or we shall all perish. But when medicine wins the “war,” and all mankind becomes healthy and immortal, what happens next? People will be perfectly free of struggle, and thus have no goals worth pursuing whatsoever.
To imagine history as a teleological process is to imagine its completion. But this is fallacy, for man acts on the present based on his experience of the past. With the past eliminated there is no future. The end of history is the end of meaning, and imagining that history carries on without you towards its goal means that you imagine your own life to lack meaning.
It is often said that life is already meaningless by those philosophers who insist on pursuing this teleology. However, as long as we have a memory of the past, of our parents and those who came before us, and as long as words have authority to us and we have not been made enemies of our own language by ideologues who denounce it, life will have meaning as well.
And when we ask ourselves how we derive this meaning from our circumstances, we can see in the mystery of our membership in these lineages a spark of greatness, shining through from the past into the future.