Is history progressive and directional?

Justin Schwartz jschwart at
Sun Apr 2 18:53:33 MDT 1995

A quick answer to Chodos. For those who missed it I leave in my
restatement of my argument about progress. I said:
> >Here 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".

Not at all. Just that if the sort mentioned _is_ possible, it is a basis for
long run cumulative change for the better.

 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?

A nice objection.

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.

Generally a reasonable sort of point. My reply is that it is at least
possible given world enough in time that regressive resistance that tends
to establish new forms of domination, like the Nazis, will in turn
generate progressive forms that abolish or limit domination.

A key claim that I left out of my brief restatement is that there is an
asymmetry between domination and its opposite or negation, emancipation,
the limitation or abolition of domination. If resistance succeeds in an
emancipatory direction, the formerly dominant group ceases to exist as
such--there are no more slaveowners--and therefore no longer can generate
regressive resistance that tends to establish new forms of domination.
Emancipation therefore tends to be progressive, although this is not
inevitable or guaranteed.


> 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.

Right, but at the level of abstraction at which I'm dealing this doesn't
matter. The only question is  whatever group there are, let them
be what you will, can correctly be classified as dominant or subordinate.
The argument is that subordinate groups, whatever they are, will resist
the oppression of dominant groups, whatever _they_ are, and the latter
will defend their dominance, whatever its basis.


 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?
The answer is practical. People try various solutions and see what works.
To wax Lukacsian for a minute, Lukacs called "class consciousness" an
imputed construct rather an empirical reality because he thought the
subordinate group he was interested in, the proletariat, didn't start with
a clear understanding of its own interests (which he though,
overoptimistically or perhaps naively, was vested in the Communist
Party), but had to learn what its interests were by struggle, trial and error, etc.


> 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?

Are these exclusive alternatives?

 Do we fight injustice and domination
> because we are swimming with the tide of history, or because they are wrong?

Well, this connects up with my larger project. What is our basis for
thinking domination to be wrong, specifically unjust? After all, the
dominant groups say that it is just. We disagree, but is that just because
we belong to subordinate groups, or identify with them? Why do either of
the latter constitute to condemn domination? My argument about progress is
part of a case that there is more than that to the condemnation.
Domination is unjust because of the asymmetry I mentioned: the justice of
the dominant groups will be destabilized while that of the subordinate
groups will not. If, as I argue, stability of a certain sort is necessary
for justice, then  emancipatory justice wins.


> 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.

Quite right. I am. Thanks for the feedback.


     --- from list marxism at ---


More information about the Marxism mailing list