Justin Schwartz jschwart at
Fri Mar 31 20:47:39 MST 1995

I'm a little confused by the discussion of progress and historical
directionality. The remarks by Paul and Ron appended below address whether
progress is a good thing. This seems an odd question. Isn't progress by
definition change for the better? There's a notion that progress is change
in the direction of industrial (or today, post-industrial) society and
liberal democracy; the Soviets used to say it was change towards a
Soviet-style world. Perhaps some Marxists think of it as change towards
socialism. Still, whether (post)-industrial society, liberal democracy,
state or other socialism count as progress depends, it seems to me, on
whether these are improvements in some sense--morally, say. Thus
industrialism might count as progress because it creates more potential
wealth; liberal democracy because it offers prospects for self-rule;
socialism because it promotes freedom (though not on the Soviet model!)
and equality or justice. But whether these things have these effects is at
least in part an empirical question and so change in their direction
cannot be identified with progress, understood as improvement. If they
don't have effects, or if the costs are too high, as with Soviet state
socialism, the changes are not progress.

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.

This is part of the argument of a couple of long papers I have written
arguing for objectivity about justice on a naturalistic basis. The
argument is consistent with chaos theory as I understand it, allowing for
butterfly effects and such, and does not posit any unilinear or inevitable
tendency towards progress. But it gives a reason for thinking that there
is a progressive (in my sense) tendency to history.

Comments welcome.

--Justin Schwartz

On Fri, 31 Mar 1995, Paul Cockshott wrote:

> Ron makes the point that
> ------------------------
> The point I wanted to make was that the notion of "PROGRESS" (
> which is so often linked with the passage of time) is
> questionable. For example are we better then the apes? Is it a
> reasonable question? Yes we are more complex and powerful but we
> are also more cruel and irrational. We have great potential but
> time and time again fail to realise it. We will probably be the
> only species that knowingly destroys the very environment that
> allows us to exist.
> ----------------------
> I think Ron is right to point out that progress is in certain
> senses not a 'good thing', certainly not for those subjected to
> it. Capitalist industrialisation, can be both progressive and
> a life of misery for those caught up in it. Similarly in the
> USSR the elimination of the Kulaks may have been progressive but
> it must have been pretty grim if you were a Kulak. But for those
> on the wining side of history, progress is its own criterion
> of morality. Progress does not have to be judged, it is the
> the judgement.
> Ones attitude to progress depends upon whether you think that
> you are on the winning side. If you think that the working-class
> is now on the losing side, that capitalism can not be beat, then
> progress may begin to look a bad idea.
> I prefer to think that we are just in a short term period of
> retreat, and that in the end progress is with the side of
> the poor and oppressed. This may contain a streak of wishfull
> thinking, but it seems a necessary optimism if one is to built
> any sort of movement.
>      --- from list marxism at ---

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