Is history progressive and directional?

Howie Chodos howie at
Sun Apr 2 10:42:31 MDT 1995

Justin's post raises some important questions. He wrote, in part, that:

>Once this is understood, if it is agreeable, then we see that even if
>there is a directionality to history, towards socialism or whatever, that
>does not settle the question whether history is progressive. Here, though,
>is an argument that history _is_ progressive and directional. If
>domination means that some groups have more power than others to promote
>their own interests at the expense of others, and people tend to act on
>their own group interests in the long run, then over time domination will
>be opposed by groups whose interests are trampled. There is no guarantee
>that any given group will have the power to oppose its own domination
>successfully, but if domination is ever effectively resisted, the
>advantages won by successful resistance will come be regarded as rights
>and will be given up only with great difficulty. In the very long run,
>success will build on success and domination will be progressively
>restricted and limited in kind and degree. Reversions are possible, but
>resistance to domination based on group interest provides a mechanism for
>long run historical progressive change.

I am afraid that I do not find this entirely persuasive. First, it would
seem to assume that there is only one possible type of "resistance to
domination based on group interest". But if the Nazis could portray their
cause as a restoration of Germany to its rightful place after the
humiliation inflicted upon it by the Treaty of Versailles, doesn't this
suggest that there are many possible types of group resistance to perceived
domination that are not progressive, that do not lead in the direction of
long run change? It is of course true that one possible outcome of group
resistance is progressive change. It is also true that where groups are
subject to some form of domination they are likely to resist. But I have a
hard time sharing Justin's optimism that in the long run these two processes
necesarily mesh.

There is a further argument as well. I think we need to take into account
the fact that it is not always easy to define what is in one's interest at
any given time, be it group or individual. Part of the problem is, I think,
that it is often difficult to know what the relationship between group and
individual is, especially where there may be a number of overlapping
"groups" with whose interests any given individual may identify. Take the
example of a company threatening to move a plant from a rustbelt location to
a non-unionised location where there is high unemployment. Is it in the
interests of the workers in the old plant to accept wage cuts to preserve
their jobs? Is it in the intersts of the workers in the second location to
work for low wages in a non-union plant and cause the layoff of the workers
in the old plant to boot? Is the "group" that commands one's loyalty "the
international working class", one's trade union colleagues, one's family,
one's local community? Is the time frame used to judge group interest the
next year, five years, decades or centuries?

One final set of questions. It is unclear to me what turns on whether or not
there is some necessary momentum towards progressive change, no matter in
what social processes it may be based. Are we looking for strategic
guidance, or merely understanding? Do we fight injustice and domination
because we are swimming with the tide of history, or because they are wrong?
The conviction that "where there is oppression, there will be resistance" is
an important one which I share. If this is all that Justin is getting at
when he says that "resistance to domination based on group interest provides
a mechanism for long run historical progressive change", then we agree.
Somehow, though, I have the impression he is trying to say more than this.

Howie Chodos

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