Everyone takes stock at New Year and views the future with a whole range of feelings. Resolutions are a significant part of this: even if often they are fairly trivial, they do indicate a determination to behave differently, for the sake of health and wellbeing. I had a difficult year last year but feel I can look forward to the coming year with a fair amount of optimism. I didn’t make a resolution as such but I am determined to face the future in a more positive way. In many ways, my life is better than it was at this time last year.
At the beginning of last year, I was starting the process of separating from and divorcing my wife. The separation as it turned out involved leading separate lives but still living in the same house: never an easy option but not uncommon. Now I am in my own flat in a new town and in the process of making my flat my home. I have my two cats with me, which helps – although they are a responsibility too!
In a way, this is just one more instance of reinventing myself. I have had a number of career changes in the last 40 years, including the best decision I ever made: to leave my dull job in 1983 and go and study for the degree I should have taken when I left school. This also gave me the opportunity to study Russian and visit the Soviet Union at a very exciting time, just after Mikhail Gorbachëv had become Party leader and had begun the process of reform that eventually led to the abandonment of the socialist system in Eastern Europe. And I have now created a course looking at the social history of Eastern Europe after the Second World War and how internal issues contributed to the huge changes that happened in 1989.
This is described as the “failure of communism” but as I tell my students, what was attempted in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union is not what Karl Marx originally envisaged. The imposition of an ideology and forcing the people to accept it is turning upside down his original concept. We don’t really know whether Marxism as an ideology or an analysis of history “works” because a true revolution from below overthrowing the capitalist oppressors hasn’t actually happened. But of course, perhaps it never will.
But my students often counter with the “human nature” argument, saying that human nature is to be competitive and not cooperate. I still maintain that we don’t know; we don’t know whether in the distant future, everyone will recognise that the best course of action is to cooperate, with no one in control, giving orders and trying to dominate. Surely progress implies a better system of human interaction, not only the creation of electronic gadgets or tackling dangerous diseases.
Of course, there are a number of science fiction stories – books, films and TV series – that describe a dystopian future when the hopes for technology have been dashed and what has emerged is a disturbing distortion of human interaction. Some of these works are clearly satirical, using such visions to comment on today’s society, or on the aspirations of some in society for a better world – hence Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. But it’s important to recognise that these stories are often written as a warning that, human nature being what it is, the scenarios described could develop.
Fear of the future can be used as an excuse to try to put the clock back, with the explanation that we’ve gone to far and we need to go back to old values and traditions. Forms of extreme nationalism and religious fanaticism are symptoms of this fear. If people can truly feel a sense of comfort from these positions, I suppose they have some value – but mostly they promote intolerance and even extreme violence.
I’ve always believed that we should try to understand points of view that differ from our own, or political ideas and systems that differ from the one we live in. I wanted to learn Russian in the 1980s following the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan, an event that prompted many to predict a very gloomy future indeed. I wanted to be able to talk to Russians and find out their take on this. In the event, my Russian was never good enough to cope with complex arguments and I soon became aware that Soviet citizens would be unlikely to express their opinions freely. But my position remains valid. We still need to strive to find common ground with people and the only way to do this is to listen to their points of view. I believe that if we do this, the future will be better – and more importantly, I believe we can do this.
So I look forward to the future not just for myself as an individual, but also for the world in general.