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[xmca] Progress: Reality or Illusion?
As a contribution to the discussion on progress, I have put together a
little compilation of passages from a relevant essay by George Novack
(1905-1992) entitled "Progress: Reality or Illusion?" that outlines
the classical Marxist view of progress. This essay can be found in
Novack's 1972 book _Humanism and Socialism_, still in print.
People may be interested to observe how several of the excellent
points brought up by David, Martin and others appear in one form or
another in this essay. People may also be interested to observe how
many of the ideas Novack espouses can be found explicitly and
implicitly in Vygotsky's writings, including The Socialist Alteration
of Man (1931).
George Novack, 1972
Progress: Reality or Illusion?
Has humanity augmented its powers, improved its conditions, enlarged
its freedoms, chances of happiness, and possibilities of development
over the ages? That is to ask, is social progress a fact? Historical
materialists have no hesitation in answering this question
affirmatively. The human species has made immense advances since it
left the animal state and is capable of making incomparably more ...
The essence of the idea of progress is that humanity has climbed from
a lowly state to higher stages and benefited thereby ...
There have been three stages of thought about progress, that of the
ancient Greeks and Romans, that of the Enlightenment, and that of
... the pictures of progress presented by thinkers from Xenophanes to
Lucretius were crude and narrow and not central to the outlook of the
ancient Greeks and Romans. While some recognized the rise of humanity
from primitive conditions, they did not extend the process far into
the future. Their attention was directed backward more than forward.
The first comprehensive and systematic expositions of the idea that
history has moved upward and onward and that this process could be
indefinitely extended belong to the eighteenth century, as J. B. Bury
has shown in his classic work on germination and growth: _The Idea of
[The views of these 18th century thinkers were -sg] ... a logical
inference from the vast changes in the Western world brought about
through the prodigious expansion of the productive forces and wealth
created by capitalist trade and manufacture ...
['m skipping over lot now, including discussions of Vico, Kant,
Condorcet, Hegel, Marx ... sg]
... [the] bourgeois-based optimism of progress reached its crest
during the capitalist expansion and imperialist aggrandizement from
1870 to 1914. It was the cornerstone of the credos of liberalism and
A reversal of the attitude toward progress set in after the shocks of
the First World War and the Russian Revolution ...
[skipping more pages ... sg]
... it is understandable that the terrible events of the past half
century [writing in 1972 -sg] have raised questions about the
prospects of social progress and even its past validity ...
... it has been securely established that the evolutionary process as
a whole has passed through three main stages, the cosmological, the
biological, and the social ...
... Adam Ferguson and other Englightenment figures ... divided the
historical process into three main epochs: savagery, barbarism, and
The productivity of labor is the fundamental test for measuring the
advancement of humanity because this is the basis and precondition for
all other forms of social and cultural advancement ...
[skipping pages ... sg]
Historical materialism identifies the epochs of humanity's progress
according to the economic structure of society as shaped by its
relations of production. One socioeconomic formation is more advanced
and progressive than another by virtue of the greater scope provided
for the development of the productive forces. Marxism distinguishes
six main types of labor organization that have contributed to the
progress of the economic formation of society. These are primitive
communism, the Asiatic mode of production, slavery, feudalism,
capitalism, and nascent socialism ...
[skipping over passages about technological progress ... sg]
How much progress has really been made ... in such values as equality,
liberty, goodness, happiness, and culture?
This question raises for consideration the contradictory character of
historical development. The ascent of humanity has been far from
steady, harmonious, and uninterruptedly upward; it has been extremely
uneven and intermittent. Social progress has not followed a straight
line but a complicated path with many relapses and detours. Regress
has been mingled with progress, and a certain price, sometimes a high
one, has been exacted for every advance. For example, whatever
benefits the two hundred million inhabitants of the United States now
enjoy were achieved at the expense of the destruction of the Native
Americans and their culture and by forfeiting the hospitality,
equality, and closeness to the natural wilderness characteristic of
the collectivist tribal hunters of the Stone Age.
Rouseau wrote that "iron and wheat have civilized man -- and ruined
him." His paradoxical assertion focused attention upon all the
advances history has recorded. These endowed humanity with new
powers, which could be -- and were -- used both for good and evil ...
The agonies of history can find their justification only in the
realized freedom and happiness they will ultimately make possible for
Every step forward in production is at the same time a step backwards
in the position of the oppressed class ...
Humanity climbed out of savagery by savage methods and out of
barbarism by barbaric methods -- and now has to cast off the shackles
of private ownership by class struggle methods ...
The view of progress held by the rationalists of the Enlightenment had
three serious methodological defects: (1) They mechanically construed
progress as a natural law similar to the law of gravitation; (2) the
source of progress or stagnation was to be sought in invariant
characteristics of human nature; (3) the progress of society in the
last analysis depended upon the progress of ideas, which in turn was
determined by the accumulation of knowledge ...
Progress is not a property of nature but exclusively a feature of
social life ...
There is no such thing as an unchangeable human nature ...
[The] prime motive force [of history -sg] ... [has been -sg] ... the
struggle against nature and between classes on the basis of
historically developed productive forces ...
The primordial criterion of progress has to do with humanity's
relation to nature expressed in technology.
The second criterion [of progress -sg] is the degree of collective
control that humanity has over its own development in its liberation
from the class oppression that has been the mark of civilized
formations since the disintegration of primitive communism ...
[Novack expresses his views of the class basis for the optimism of the
Marxist movement, and ends with this quote: -sg]
"Marxism sets out from the development of technique as the fundamental
spring of progress, and constructs the communist program upon the
dynamism of the productive forces," wrote Leon Trotsky. "If you
conceive that some cosmic catastrophe is going to destroy our planet
in the fairly near future, then you must, of course, reject the
communist perspective along with much else. Except for this as yet
problematic danger, however, there is not the slightest scientific
ground for setting any limit in advance to our technical productive
and cultural possibilities. Marxism is saturated with the optimism of
progress, and that alone, by the way, makes it irreconcilably opposed
[Note: The Trotsky quote is from Revolution Betrayed, originally
written 1936. -sg]
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