Cecil John Rhodes
A student beats the statue of Cecil Rhodes with a belt as it is removed from the University of Cape TownREUTERS/Mike Hutchings

The falsification of history is usually the preserve of despotic governments. Whether it is the erasure of formerly prominent individuals from official photographs, or the ripping of 'counter-revolutionary' pages from school text books, totalitarians understand well that "he who controls the past controls the future", as Ingsoc, the official ideology of the state in George Orwell's novel 1984, has it.

Societies which exert a vice-like grip on official history quickly become places in which few people wish to live. Yet a sanitisation of improper thought seems to be precisely what a new generation of 'progressive' student activists are aiming at in their desire for what might be called historical correctness.

The latest target of this historical house cleaning are monuments to Cecil Rhodes, the 19th-century British colonialist. Earlier this year, a student at the University of Cape Town emptied a bucket of faeces on a statue of Rhodes. It was then removed following student protests.

Following their example, students at Oxford University now want a statue of Rhodes removed from campus. Calling themselves 'Rhodes Must Fall', the protesters have prompted Oxford authorities to announce that they intend to remove the plaque and are considering pulling down the statue.

Rhodes died in 1902, but he left a generous legacy to his old Oriel college at Oxford and in his will established the Rhodes Scholarships, which have allowed students from former British colonies to study at Oxford.

However, as well as being a prominent Victorian era philanthropist, Rhodes was a blimpish imperialist who believed in the sorts of racial theories that might be considered a precursor to European fascism. When in 1890 Rhodes became Prime Minister of Cape Colony, a British colony in present-day South Africa and Namibia, he introduced a law which drove black farmers off their own land to make way for British industrialists.

For Rhodes, such policies were justified on the basis that the Anglo-Saxon race was "the finest race in the world" and that the "more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race". This was in contrast to those corners of the world, "at present inhabited by the most despicable specimens of human beings".

Rhodes, then, was a racist and a British supremacist. However, he should not be expunged from history to suit progressive ends.

Those calling for the removal of Rhodes' statue in Oxford have deployed the sinister yet increasingly familiar argument that the mere presence of his statue "inflicts violence on them". This forms part of a broader push in progressive activist circles to erroneously conflate emotional distress with physical harm. The results of such thinking are predictably risible, with controversial speakers increasingly barred from speaking on university campuses on the basis that students are delicate flowers who are unable to distinguish between hurtful words and violent actions.

There is more than a whiff of 'thought crime' about this – a depressing hangover from the worst excesses of the 20th century left. Yet the other impetus to wipe Cecil Rhodes from history flies in the face of what is usually considered a 'progressive' method of viewing the world.

It ought to be uncontroversial to point out that Cecil Rhodes was a product of his era. Rhodes' views are rightly considered repulsive today, but they were fairly ubiquitous during the period in which he lived. Rhodes was a spluttering racist, but by modern standards so was almost everyone else who lived in Britain during the 19th century. As well as unadulterated racism, by our higher modern standards the Victorians treated women and homosexuals abominably, too.

Society is infinitely better off for leaving such nonsense in the past (though we're not fully there yet), but outsourcing the prejudices of Victorian England to a few bad eggs – and consequently trying to purge them from history – will not work; or at least it won't if you consider yourself in any way left-wing (a hallmark of which is to recognise the influence our environment has on the formation of our ideas).

It may be comforting to pin Britain's imperialist sins on a few long-dead jingoes, but it is dishonest and historically illiterate. The subjugation of millions of people in the colonies was accepted by the vast majority of our ancestors, much to their shame – but it is nonetheless something we should face up to rather than try to blame on a handful of uniquely malevolent individuals.

When it comes to the removal of Rhodes' statue, for once the 'slippery slope' arguments also hold water: if the statue of Rhodes comes down we should probably also consider removing Oliver Cromwell from the plinth in front of the Houses of Parliament, lest it upset the Irish. Similarly, the statues of Edward II and Winston Churchill might also be removed on the basis of their respective Royal absolutism and support for colonialism. And what about the portraits of Henry VIII? Surely his appalling treatment of his numerous wives merits their removal from our national galleries?

The majority of us accept the orthodoxies of our time. Thus we are better served by locating Rhodes' bigotry within the prevailing attitudes of Victorian England, rather than in trying to expunge him entirely from the historical record. The search for ideologically purity in the past, even if it isn't done in the service of a totalitarian ideology, is always illusory.