Very early examples of 'the wrong [and right] side of history'
I found two very early instances of "the wrong side of history" and one very early instance of "the right side of history" that may or may not use these expressions in a manner consistent with later usage. One of these instances occurs in a review of Memoirs of Monsieur Claude, in The Spectator (May 9, 1908):
This is a very much condensed edition of an extremely curious book originally published in ten volumes. We have here the essence of five, and this volume will be found very interesting reading by every one who cares for the byways and the wrong side of history. Real students of nineteenth-century France—or indeed of Europe generally—only need directing to the original ten volumes. The police system of great Empire is none the less worth studying because, as the translator remarks, it has ceased to exist and is "long out of date."
It is hard to say what the reviewer means here by "the wrong side of history." The sense might be "elements of a past that have long since vanished from the scene," in which case it may have some connection to subsequent usage of the phrase "on the wrong side of history." Alternatively, it might refer to the demimonde of criminal life in nineteenth-century France, and might equate "the wrong side of history" with what the reviewer subsequently refers to as "the darker and more unlucky side of human nature." Either way, the instance is notable for the absence of any obvious moral or deterministic dimension in its assessment of "the wrong side of history" versus the right side.
Even older than that instance is an occurrence in "Sermon by Elder E.L. Kelly," delivered on January 4, 1891, reprinted in Autumn Leaves: Published for the Youth of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (September 1891):
And when we take the ground that or forefather, Adam, must have been in the night of bondage, so far as light and intelligence is concerned, and that the children afterwards, by unaided wisdom, have developed until they have come into the light of liberty and peace, we are on the wrong side of history. Truth in history reveals as fully the decline of the race as its rise; of the decadence of knowledge as its growth.
This example is especially striking because it argues that assuming that human progress will occur through "unaided wisdom" is actually anti-historical. The right side of history, the sermon implies, considers human decline as probable as human advancement, at least in the absence of divine intercession.
A third instance from this era involves the phrase the right side of history." From H. Pereira Mendes, In Old Egtpt: A Story About the Bible but Not in the Bible (1903):
"War claims its victims in many ways," said Merari.
"Yes, remarked Nachbi, whose grandson, like Setur's was destined to make a name, though not on the right side of history.
As nearly as I can tell, Mendes uses "not on the right side of history" to mean something like "a loser, in history's estimation"—that is, a person who competed for some exalted position and failed to achieve it.
Although these early instances of the phrase take it in different directions, none of them treat history as a foreordained process with a predictable conclusion and (consequently) a neat division of participants into those on history's right side and those on its wrong side.
Later (1946 and after) examples of the phrase's variable meanings
The earliest Google Books match for "wrong side of history" appears in remarks by Clemens France, testifying before the U.S. House of Representatives on May 2, 1946, reproduced in Amendments to Social Security Act: Hearings Before the Committee on Ways and Means (1946):
In the first place, I think it is extremely important that the Members of Congress, the President of the United States and all of the 130,000,000 American citizens at this point in history should not make a mistake and get on the wrong side of history. I think it is highly important to get on the right side of history. I have often thought that when some of us leave this veil of tears and go to the promised land, after we have done our task, perhaps the greatest satisfaction, as we look back on our lives would be to know that we were on the right side and not on the wrong side of history.
This seems to be an instance of the predictive, progressive application of "right side of history" and "wrong side of history."
In a speech given in (approximately) late February 1947, the great U.S. diplomat George Kennan used the phrase "on the wrong side of of history" in the sense of "the side of history that in the long run will lose out or be shown to be wrong":
The failure to distinguish what is indeed progressive social doctrine from the rivalry of a foreign political machine which has appropriated and abused the slogans of socialism. I am far from being a communist; but I recognize in the theory of communism: in the theory, ark you—not the practise—certain elements which I think are probably really the ideas of the future. I hate to see us here reject the good with the bad—throw out the baby with the bath, as they say in Europe—and place ourselves in that way on the wrong side of history.
From Stephen Spender, World Within World: The Autobiography of Stephen Spender (1951):
Indeed, I have never ceased to be astonished by the extent to which Communists are indifferent to awkward facts. For example, one day I asked Chalmers what he thought of the most recent Moscow trials in which Yagoda, who had been largely responsible for incriminating the victims of the previous purge, had himself been sentenced to death. Chalmers looked up, with his bright glance like a bird-watcher's, and said: 'What trials? I've given up thinking about such things ages ago.'
What he really meant, I suppose, was that having chosen to be a Communist by an act of will, he now admitted no point of view which was inconvenient to the Party. The dictatorship of the proletariat did not pretend to be bourgeois justice. Stalin had only to decide that someone was an enemy for him to become one. To criticize (except within the Party) what the Party did was to put oneself on 'the wrong side of history'.
Spender alludes to an incident (Yagoda's show trial) from March 1938, and his invocation of the phrase "on the wrong side of history" may be anachronistic as applied to that period, but I tend to think that the phrase was current even then as a way smooth over Stalin-era policy reversals within the Communist Party, which could not be reconciled except through appeal to an abstract and infinitely malleable principle such as the right and wrong sides of history.
In the same predictive yet aspirational tradition is this instance from Edward Olsen, School and Community, second edition (1954):
Re-thinking our philosophy. re-planning our policy, re-designing our efforts—difficult, yes, but what a fine challenge to interest and effort! What an opportunity to find new professional outlooks, new zest for living—and, above all, the great personal satisfaction of being on the right side of history, of doing our part now to build a better world through humane and democratic education.
This excerpt expresses great faith in the idea that the implacable march of history tends toward an exaltation of social progress and personal virtue. But a kindred certainty—albeit international in scale—infuses Gus Hall, "The United States in Today's World" (report to the CPUSA on January 20, 1961), reprinted in "Communist Youth Program" (May 17, 1965):
To grasp fully the meaning of the shift in the balance of forces of the world, one must in a basic sense understand that these two world coalitions of forces revolve around to diametrically opposite poles of society. The camp of imperialism revolves around the decaying and disintegrating system of capitalism, the economic system that history has clearly consigned to the ashcan.
Because imperialism cannot offer a way out, it does not attract the masses of people. Imperialism gains adherents only by buying them. It attracts only those elements who are willing to sell everything, including the independence of their nations, who for personal gain become puppets for imperialism. For this reason, such alliances are unstable. They are alliances among thieves without principle.
The camp of socialism, anti-imperialism, and peace, on the other hand, has a built-in source of unity and strength. Each component part of both contributes and draws strength from the alliance. These elements gravitate toward this camp because they are all on the progressive side—the right side—of history. For this reason, this camp has become the fountainhead of encouragement, of confidence, for all progressive mankind.
Let me close with these thoughts. The new epoch places a heavy responsibility on our people, our working class, and on all forward-looking Americans, but especially on our party.
We accept this task and responsibility in the firm conviction that we are on the right side of history. The world marches irresistibly toward peace, freedom, and socialism.
It is also evident in the remarks of Nikita Khrushchev to John Kennedy, as reported by Secretary of State Dean Rusk in "Record of Meeting of the Policy Planning Council" (June 23, 1961) in Foreign Relations of the United States, 1961–1963, Volume 5: Soviet Union (1963):
The Secretary opened the meeting by saying that he wanted to give S/P his impressions of the Vienna talks [on June 3–4, 1961]. He said that Khrushchev tried to impress Kennedy with the idea that "communism was here to stay" and that the USSR was "on the right side of history." The Secretary added that in this respect Khrushchev echoed views expressed in his January 6 speech. He mentioned that Khrushchev had emphasized the vitality of the Soviet system and that the USSR was engaged in a sacred war to "rid backward nations of capitalistic oppression"; the US had on the other hand accepted the mantle of the status quo and our collapse was historically inevitable.
Somewhat contrastingly, from Robert Textor, Failure in Japan: With Keystones for a Positive Policy (1951) [combined snippets]:
Communist influence in the left-of-center movement has become strong enough so that truculent police measures on behalf of the Old Guard are in many cases likely almost automatically to drive more of the left-of-center movement closer to, and into, the Communist camp.
Our task then is not blindly to back a political group that is on the wrong side of history. Rather we must develop an advance guard of forces that will favor nonviolent change to the end that more people will be able to participate meaningfully in social decision-making. The Old Guard cannot, of course, simply be thrown out. We can get rid of it only as quickly as new agents are found and trained to displace it from its social functions. We must find new leadership, and workable alternatives to the traditional unilateral methods.
Here the sense of "on the wrong side of history" seems much closer to "on the losing side at the end of the current conflict," although there may be a progressive element as well, since the "Old Guard" identified as being on the wrong side of history consists of residual element of the power enforcement structure of defeated imperial Japan, and Textor was (according to a later scholar's assessment) "committed to democratization."
Another instance of the phrase appears in an interview with General Abdul Karim el-Kassem, the new ruler of Iraq following a coup that overthrew (and killed) King Faisal II, in "Two Sides... ...Embattled King and 'Rebel' Premier Talk" in Newsweek magazine (1958) [combined snippets]:
Now that you have eradicated the Iraqi section of the Hashemite kingdom, do you think the Jordanians should force King Hussein to abdicate?
Will you help them?
No. It must come from the people.
Yes, it is in the course of history.
Do you think America is on the wrong side of history in the Mideast?
The historical destiny of the Arab peoples is freedom. When America meddles she is on the wrong side.
The usage here clearly invokes historical predestination. Unfortunately, for el-Kassem, he did not foresee the Ramadan Coup of February 1963 in which he was killed by elements of the Ba'ath Party of Iraq, which in turn was overthrown in a 1968 coup by military conspirators within the ruling Ba'ath party, including Saddam Hussein.
Bari Watkins, "Hobby Defends Johnson War Action Neu and Ambler Re-evaluate U.S." in the [Houston, Texas] Rice Thresher (May 11, 1967) includes an explanation of the sense of the phrase:
Jerry Hafter, moderator of the panel, asked the opinion of the panelists on the thesis that America is "on the wrong side of history;" that is, that we are imposing our conservative standards of stability instead of seeking beneficial change.
Two later instances that deny the moral component of the expression
Use of the phrase to convey a sense of being doomed to lose occurs in Gregg Patton, "Big Guy vs. Little Guy," in the San Bernardino [California] Sun (September 20, 1985):
Spinks, reminded again that he was on the wrong side of history, said wearily this week, "All I can say is that I feel the same way as all the other guys did before they failed before they found out they didn't do it. Not that they couldn't do it. just that they didn't do it."
Here, being "on the wrong side of history" means being doomed to lose—the rationale being that Michael Spinks was a light heavyweight fighting the heavyweight champion Larry Holmes, and that in the ten previous matches between a light heavyweight contender and a heavyweight champ, the contender had lost. (As it happens, Spinks defeated Holmes in the 1985 fight.)
From the "Senator Paul Trible Reports from Washington," in the [Kilmarnock, Virginia] Rappahannock Record (November 6, 1986):
In one form or another, Congress has sanctioned aid to those resisting Marxist tyranny in Afghanistan, Angola and in Nicaragua.
We have rejected the simplistic doctrine that democracy is on the wrong side of history and we have lent our support to those opposing oppression.
Trible was a one-term Republican U.S. senator from Virginia, serving during the last six years of the Reagan presidency. Although he doesn't attribute "the simplistic doctrine that democracy is on the wrong side of history" to anyone in particular, he evidently intends to take a stand in favor of the political viability of U.S.-backed democracies in Afghanistan, Angola, and Nicaragua, against the notion that the conditions needed in order for democracies to succeed in those countries. The odd thing here is that the usual implication that being "on the wrong side" means supporting the regressive or entrenched status quo is flipped on its head; according to Trible, his unnamed ideological opponents are arguing that democracy is on the wrong side of history and that (at least for the moment) tyranny is on the right side.
A science-based, ethically neutral conception of wrong side of history appears in testimony of John Diebold of The Diebold Group, Inc., in testimony before the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Employment, Manpower and Poverty (December 5, 1963), reprinted in Nation's Manpower Revolution (1963):
Mr. DIEBOLD. ... I take the strongest exceptions to some of Mr. [George] Meany's statements yesterday [opposing automation in union workplaces]. I think in this respect Mr. Meany is on the wrong side of history.
These are machines; it is a technology; it is not intrinsically good or bad.
Here, opposing scientific progress—an irresistible but concededly amoral engine of change—puts Meany on the wrong side of history, according to a business owner who stands to profit immensely from being on the right side of it.
People writing in English have been using the phrases "on the wrong side of history" and "on the right side of history" for more than a century—but they have used them to convey a range of different and sometimes conflicting meanings. At one level, "being on the wrong side of history" can mean being on the losing side of a political, military, or ideological conflict, regardless of that side's merit or intrinsic virtue.
But this view of history seems to have gone into eclipse by 1946. In more recent years, the expression frequently reflects a much longer-term perspective premised on the idea that, whether one's side is successful in the short term or not, one may be "on the wrong side of history" because, in the long arc of history, one's side will ultimately be defeated or rendered obsolete. Evidently, the speculative optimism inherent in a theory that views the ultimate victory of progressive forces over regressive ones as being foreordained exerts a powerful pull even on non-Marxist historians.
The trouble is that any assessment of the long arc of history occurs within history, not outside it. At any moment, we may think that the right and wrong sides of history are fairly obvious. But history has a way of revisiting seemingly settled arguments and discredited errors, whether as progress, tragedy, or farce; and ideologies that seemed dead and buried decades ago can come scrabbling to the surface to walk among us again. The course of predestination never did run smooth.