The better past was not a fantasy, and we can come good again

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ON LENIN'S desk in the Kremlin, there used to be a bronze statuette of an ape. A kitschy echo of Rodin's Penseur, it showed a seated primate scowling with puzzlement at a human skull in its hand. It was a present to Lenin from the late Armand Hammer, then a young man exploiting mineral concessions in the Soviet Union.

Lenin seems to have thought that it represented evolution and progress. The ape, so the great Bolshevik imagined, was thinking itself into Homo sapiens and finally into Homo sovieticus. In fact, it meant the opposite. A mass-produced desk ornament, it toyed with fashionable pessimism in the West. It suggested that a day might come when ape-men would again rule the earth. Here are two conflicting visions. In the socialist-progressive view, Man and society evolve in an erratic line towards perfection. In the other view, pessimistic and reactionary, history goes in cycles - even in circles. Empires decay, and human achievements decline and revert to their primitive beginnings.

I thought about that statuette the other day when I went to Ribchester. A pretty little village on the banks of the Ribble, not far from Preston, it is built on the site of a Roman fortress. Here, in the second century AD, there arrived several thousand Sarmatian cavalrymen with their families and horses. The Emperor Marcus Aurelius had defeated a Sarmatian tribe, the Iazygians, in what is now Hungary, and recruited their best warriors into the Roman armies. Most of them were sent to the British province, stationed at Ribchester to watch the Pennine passes and keep an eye on the unreliable Brigantian natives.

But the Sarmatians never went home. By the time they reached retiring age, Rome had lost control of the Hungarian plains so that they could not be resettled there as Romanised farmer-veterans - the usual practice. Instead, these Iranian-speaking nomads stayed at Ribchester (Bremetennacum) for centuries. Each generation of Sarmatian veterans was settled locally as it grew past soldiering age, perhaps draining marshes for farmland, possibly as horse-breeders. When the legions left Britain, the Sarmatians almost certainly remained: by then a large, deeply rooted colony which would have survived the Saxon invasions and merged into the population of northern Britain. A DNA survey of genetic patterns on the lower Ribble might well pick up their traces, even today.

Sitting on the river bank on a sunny afternoon, I watched children playing among hunks of Roman masonry in the shallows (was this dark eye, that stocky torso an Indo-Iranian gene?). A cycle had certainly turned here. The clarity and order of the Empire, which could bring nomad 'barbarians' across a continent and a sea and turn them into Roman citizens, which gave its subjects work, land and pay, had dissolved. The walled town of Bremetennacum, its streets and buildings laid out on a plan standard to legionary bases from the Euphrates to the Moray Firth, has vanished.

History reverted. Literacy, security and uniformity gave way to a patchwork of petty kingdoms, warlords and weedy village fields. The world which the Sarmatians had left behind caught up with them again, and the Anglian and Saxon immigrants soon forgot who had erected the enormous, roofless buildings or paved the grass-grown city streets. Perhaps devils or giants? The ape-man turns the human skull over in his paw, but it means nothing to him.

I have always resisted this sort of sodden, elegiac mood. Edward Gibbon savoured it, listening to barefooted friars singing vespers in the ruined Temple of Jupiter, but then he believed in decline and fall, and in history as only 'the register of the crimes, follies and misfortunes of mankind'. My own instinct is the opposite. But I have to admit that cyclical views of history are back in fashion. The Gibbonian friars are growing noisier, more numerous and more doleful every day.

There are two of these barefooted choirs. One sings the lament about New World Disorder. Freed from the discipline of the Cold War, which (as we understand now) also meant the end of the Pax Americana, the human race is slithering backwards into the slime: fragmenting into tiny units, fighting genocidal wars, dishonouring treaties, digging up the corpses of Fascism and racism, embracing superstitious fundamentalism. A little longer, and we shall see the nation-states of Europe deserting their pacts and lining up against each other in arms: the scenario of 1914. This penitential psalm puts all the blame on one original sin: nationalism.

Most of this is reactionary tosh. Nationalism is rather like water; it is the main political force in the world which nourishes the crops of hope and keeps the wheels of improvement turning, and to demonise water because we often pollute it is merely silly. The post-Cold War scene is chaotic and dangerous. But it is the chaos of change rather than of decay, and we are beginning to pull out of it.

Looking back on the roller-coaster of events since the fall of Communism, the Polish journalist Dariusz Fikus wrote last week: 'There have been plenty of disillusions and failures, but the balance of these five years is positive. We are on the right track. It could have been a lot better; regrets

and accusations are well-founded. But we do not lose hope. Everything still lies ahead of us.'

The second choir is more melodious. It mourns the departure of a political order which was not about empire but about justice. We are beginning to believe that the 'welfare society' was a myth. We can scarcely imagine that there really was a time when full employment was the aim of governments, when school-leavers could actually select a trade or career, when public health was not a commodity to be bought but a moral duty of state, when trade unions protected workers and television was devoted to public service. That period was a passing fantasy, laments the choir: history's wheel rolls back to permanent joblessness, to no-go slums inhabited by a dangerous 'underclass', to government by the rich for the rich and to the dogma that poverty is a semi-criminal condition affecting biologically inferior minorities.

But there was such a time, and it was no fantasy. A generation grew up in it. The fact that it ended, in the late 1970s, does not mean it was a failure. The post-war consensus, supported by the longest boom in Western memory, was the true success story of Britain in the 20th century. In the end it grew too rigid - or, rather, politicians failed to adapt it to change. But that does not mean that a relentless wheel is rolling over to bring back the ape-men of Paleolithic capitalism. A humane political society, in which working is as important as consuming, can be made once more. Progress is not a straight line, but a wiggly one, dipping before it soars again, and even apes do not walk in circles.