Is history progressive and directional?

Justin Schwartz jschwart at
Mon Apr 3 23:47:08 MDT 1995

On Mon, 3 Apr 1995, Howie Chodos wrote: (about my argument concerning
justice and directionality in history)

> So it would appear that his argument hinges on the existence of this
> asymmetry between dominance and emancipation. Emancipation tends to be
> cumulative and stable, while domination tends to engender emancipatory
> movements which will eventually suppress one set of exploiters after
> another. Perhaps it is because of the abbreviated nature of Justin's
> exposition, but I find it unpersuasive to argue that the superiority of
> justice as defined by emancipatory movements hinges on its greater stability
> compared to justice as defined by the dominant groups.
> Assuming, for example, that one accepts that the transition between
> capitalism and feudalism is part of the general progress from societies
> exhibiting greater degrees of dominance towards socieities exhibiting
> greater degrees of emancipation, Justin's argument would imply that
> capitalism is superior to feudalism because it generates a greater degree of
> stability.

Well, if capitalist justice is more stably realizible than feudal justice,
that is evidence that it is superior. Evidence and not constitutive of
superiority! I want to be quite clear on that. (My argument is coming out
in bits and pieces. It took me some 20 pages of densely argued prose to
lay it out in the most recent version. A short early statement can be
found in _Against the Current_ 44 (Jan=Feb 1993).) I regard justice as a
matter of a genuine reconcilition of interests, and resistance is
evidence that this is lacking. Stability is prima facie evidence that it
is present, bearing in mind that satbility may be coerced, as with 1984.

 Stability in whose sense, though? Maybe this is not the sort of
> stability Justin had in mind, but in some ways at least feudalism could be
> thought to be more stable (though not without its own internal problems, of
> course) than capitalism, which constantly revolutionises the means of
> production, etc.

Yeah, Tony Smith made this objection to me, citing Brenner on the
stability of feudalism. But recall that the main object of my concern
about stability is a conception of justice; social systems are evaluated
seconarily by how they satisfy such conceptions. My question is whether
the conceptions can be evaluated nonperspectivally. Anyway capitalist
revolutionization of the productive forces is not to the point unless it
also revolutionizes capitalist conceptioons of justice, destabilizing
them. But it doesn't. What destabilizes capitalist justice is proletarian
and anti-imperialist struggle; these days, green struggle too. Is
capitalist justice more stably realizable? Yes, in fact, if you consider
that even socialist justice would have to incorporate a lot of it--the
rule of law, the formal equality of persons, etc. That Communist justice
didn't contributed a great deal to its downfall.

> I am also not sure why Justin equivocates regarding the strength of the
> historical tendency towards emancipation, as when he says that "emancipation
> therefore tends to be progressive, although this is not inevitable or
> guaranteed". Is not the core of the argument that there is a direction to
> history? If it is not inevitable then how is it directional in any relevant
> sense?

You lose me here. My view is that history, contingently, has a certain
tendency to evolve in a certain way, towards emancipation. That it does
depends on a lot of contingent facts and initial and boundary conditions,
and the whole process is probabilistic. There's no necessity to it. What
there is is directionality. The pattern Hegel noted, from Monarchy to
Aristocracy to Oligarchy to Constitutional Rule is real. He was wrong
about why, and he thought it was necessary, but necessity is logically
distinct from directionality.

 I can accept that there are reasons to preserve emancipatory gains
> and that their preservation can constitute a cumulative historical process.
> There are similar reasons for preserving technological gains that respond to
> perceived needs amongst a given population. But I am not convinced that this
> is enough to impart a "direction to history". One can identify the links in
> the historical chain and the new possibilities that arise with each new
> socio-economic system without being committed to the proposition that the
> actual sequence of historical events embodies a direction.
Look, if techonoplogical gains increasing efficiency are preserved, as
Wright, Levine, and Sober argue, even for contingent reasons, increasing
efficiency is a direction in production development. Likewise with
incresaing emancipation. That's all either of us mean by a directionality
to history.

> Justin also argued that:
> >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.
> This is where I think that Fellini was right to pick up on the rational
> choice aspect of Justin's argument. For Justin's argument to hold, the
> individuals who make up the various groups must eventually act in defense of
> their "interests" (which are shaped by their location within a social
> structure where some groups are dominant and others subordinate). The
> "rational" impulse to act in one's best interest must ultimately prevail
> over any counter-vailing tendencies (which can range from deliberate
> ideological obfuscation, to "irrational" impulses, to general processes of
> social conditioning).

But the notions of interest and group membership have no place in RCT.
Also, my claim is not that people are rationally motivated, but, in a
Lukacsian spirit, that groups act over time as if they were. (This
discussion is making me realize how much I owe to old Georg, about whom I
wrote a paper on a related matter a very long tome ago. Maybe I should
work it up and publish it.)

> I would want to take issue with Justin's claim that at the level of
> abstraction that matters one can dispense with any consideration of the
> content of these interests.

No, just the level that m,atters for getting out the structure of the

 For Justin's argument to work the relationship
> between dominance and emancipation has to be an "absolute" one. For him,
> there just is domination and there just is emancipation, and, in general, it
> is a clear cut matter to decide what is what. The example of competing
> interests between groups of workers that I offered in my last post was
> designed to suggest that this is never the case.

I don't think it is a clear cut matter in the actual world or that these
issues are knowable a priori or beforehand. In practice people try lots of
things. Some things end up frustating their interests. Over the long run
there is collective learning. We hope. Afterwards, when the owl of Minerva
flies, we can look back and the successful strategies and real interests
are clearer to us.

> Furthermore, I think that this type of argument can run into a "Rawlsian"
> objection. It is possible that under certain circumstances the preservation
> of an inegalitarian system based on the domination of some groups over
> others could be in the "interest" of a majority of the dominated themselves.
> It depends on the alternatives that are available in the real world. Are the
> least well off in a given society better off with a smaller share of a
> larger pie or a larger share of a smaller pie? It depends on the size of the
> pie and the size of the share.


 Are workers better off to pursue a strike
> that will cause a plant to shut down or to give in before attaining their
> goals? It depends on how important those goals are, and the consequences of
> the plant shutting down. When does it make sense to take a leap of faith
> towards a socialist future knowing that many people will lose their lives
> along the way? When the alternative is worse, and we have a chance of
> succeeding.

So why is this an objection?

> The thing about each of these situations is that the outcomes depend on many
> contingent factors, including our conscious, motivated, intentional
> behaviour. Part of my difficulty with any notion of "directionality" to
> history is that it always seems to imply that history is happening without
> us.

How can this apply to my story, which depends entirely on people's actual
interests and behavior?

 Even Justin's version, which does try to incorporate people's actions
> into his case for a direction to history, would seem to me ultimately to
> succumb to this difficulty. It says that for there to be a direction to
> history people have to be able to defend their interests. All I need to do
> then is to resist domination and in the end history will work out OK.
But this hardly leaves us out of it!

> In the final analysis this would also seem to imply that understanding the
> world around us is irrelevant to the outcome of historical evolution.

Why? I have to know that I face domination, and to better resist it I
ought to know what kind it is and how it works, and to find a better
alterbative I have to know what that might be....Knowledge of the world is
deepoly relevant to practical resistance in aprticular contexts.

 I find
> this especially problematic with regards to a system such as socialism
> which, in the Marxist tradition at least, has always been associated with
> the self-conscious self-emancipation of the working class. To me this
> implies that in order for socialism to come about, those who are fighting
> for it need to know both what they are fighting against and what they are
> fighting for. The ability to define and implement an alternative to
> capitalism would seem to me to involve more than simply "resisting domination".

We agree. But I would say there is nothing simple about resisting domination.

I find these comments very helpful and illuminating and I thank you all
for taking the time to analyse my arguments.

--Justin Schwartz

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