The Past Is Evil/Evil Is Past: On Retrospective Politics, Philosophy of History, and Temporal Manichaeism

One of the most remarkable phenomena in current international politics is the increasing attention paid to “historical injustice.” Opinions on this phenomenon strongly differ. For some it stands for a new and noble type of politics based on raised moral standards and helping the cause of peace and democracy. Others are more critical and claim that retrospective politics comes at the cost of present- or future-oriented politics and tends to be anti-utopian. The warnings about the perils of a retrospective politics outweighing politics directed at contemporary injustices, or strivings for a more just future, should be taken seriously. Yet the alternative of a politics disregarding all historical injustice is not desirable either. We should refuse to choose between restitution for historical injustices and struggle for justice in the present or the future. Rather, we should look for types of retrospective politics that do not oppose but complement or reinforce the emancipatory and utopian elements in present- and future-directed politics. I argue that retrospective politics can indeed have negative effects. Most notably it can lead to a “temporal Manichaeism” that not only posits that the past is evil, but also tends to treat evil as anachronistic or as belonging to the past. Yet I claim that ethical Manichaeism and anti-utopianism and are not inherent features of all retrospective politics but rather result from an underlying philosophy of history that treats the relation between past, present, and future in antinomic terms and prevents us from understanding “transtemporal” injustices and responsibilities. In order to pinpoint the problem of certain types of retrospective politics and point toward some alternatives, I start out from a criticism formulated by the German philosopher Odo Marquard and originally directed primarily at progressivist philosophies of history.