An Historian

historical stuff by Gareth Millward




See also: modern (modernity)

In history, progress is the belief that a sequence of events leads to a particular thing becoming better.

For example, we have the narrative that in the United States black people were slaves in the 1800s; then they were emancipated in the 1860s; then segregation ended in the 1960s; then a black person was elected President in the 2000s. This represents a chain of events in which a certain concept – racial equality – grew incrementally from a state of “bad” or “absent” to “good” or “existent”. Perhaps more accurately, a progression from “worse” to “better”.


Progress and development are key concepts in modernity. Mediaeval societies believed that they were in an inescapable cycle of decay. Humanity reached its pinnacle in the Garden of Eden and ever since the Fall had become gradually weaker. The Greeks also believed that humans were much stronger and more heroic in the past because they were closer to the Gods.

The renaissance and enlightenment were based on the idea that, through rational inquiry, man could understand more about the universe and about himself. Philosphers such as Marx talked about historical stages of development through which humanity must pass to reach socialism. The concept of utopia existed. Man could, through his own work achieve a hypothetical better society in the future; rather than resigning himself to his lot because in life he could never get close to God.

In practice, this lead to the creation and expansion of rational, capitalist nation states. These were seen as the best way of helping humanity achieve economic, political and spiritual enlightenment. Thus, most arguments about “progress” tend to emphasise how we came to be where we are today. Today the economy is larger, we have access to more scientific knowledge, and we are better fed and better educated than we were 100 years ago.

Therefore, we are better than we were. Progress and development narratives of history seek to explain this sequence of events, judging the past as inferior to the present.


The left

There are two main “left-wing” challenges to this concept.

The first is that while progress may occur, it rarely if ever happens evenly. There will be retrograde steps, or paths will be chosen which subsequently appear to be “wrong”. This requires societies to go “backwards” to an earlier stage of development before they can choose a better path and move forwards towards the desired goal. Thus progress and development narratives either cannot see or ignore these backward steps, leading to distorted visions and explanations of history.

The second is post-modernity or post-structuralism which denies that there is any such thing as progress at all. It derides this view of history as “Whiggish”; like the liberal politicians of the 1800s who believed that their civilisation was the pinnacle of human achievement and sought to explain where they had come from and where they were going. Concepts such as “civil rights” did not exist in 1860 – and even if the term existed, it meant something very different to the people at that time. Thus, Emancipation Proclamation is not on the same continuum as the 2008 Presidential Election – this is a construction of people today reading their present situation into the past and creating concepts that, at that time, simply did not exist.

Emmeline Pankhurst could never have been a feminist because feminism was invented in the mid-twentieth century. Similarly, Galileo was not a scientist because that term was only applied to “natural philosophers” many years later. They were what they were – and we can only understand them in their own terms, not on ours.

Left-wing attacks on progress therefore attack the idea that we are at our peak, or that we are on the correct road to utopia.

Even those on the left who do believe that we can achieve “socialism” would reject historical narratives which glorify the progress of the nation state and of capitalist institutions. Henry Ford’s production line is not considered “progress” if it leads to the alienation of the working class, unemployment and poverty.

Others on the left would reject the concept of progress entirely, seeing history as a sequence of events which are neither “better” or “worse” than those which follow or precede them. Although this can lead to the charge of nihilism.

The right

Throughout modern history there have been movements against “progress”. The most widely known is probably the Luddites who smashed up industrial technology in the early 1800s. Their complaint was that this new technology was destroying their traditional livelihoods.

The National Socialist party in Germany in the 1930s and 1940s also rejected progress, harking back to mythologised mediaeval values of the “Volk” and the “Reich”, and asserting their power through a rejection of free-market capitalism and democracy. It invoked irrational, emotional responses in contrast to the cold-hearted rationalism and science which had, supposedly, crushed the German soul.

The Tea Party in America seeks to achieve a similar end, not by the rejection of democracy and capitalism per se, but through a return to a mythologised version of the late 1700s. It too misremembers the past and presents a version of America which never really existed in anything but the irrational, emotional minds of its supporters. This “irrational” stance does, however, speak to a number of American who believe their people are in decline and that “progress” (such as the rise in atheism, homosexuality, divorce, an immoral financial sector and individualism) is to blame.

As a disclaimer – I am not saying that the Tea Party are Nazis. Nor am I saying that “irrationality” or “emotion” are somehow “wrong” or “illegitimate” forms of political expression. However, they are not modern, and they reject progress in a reactionary way rather than a post-structuralist way.

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