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Re: [xmca] Progress: Reality or Illusion?

Hi Mike,

I agree with you that the formulation "the struggle against nature" isn't quite right. The struggle to transform nature is much better. I think Novack would agree.

On the problem of ending irrational consumption, the problem of sustaining and not depleting the resources of nature: I certainly agree with you that this very seriously needs to be solved. The irreversible consumption of tropical forests are among the most critical problems. I personally find the idea suggested in the Novack article - that solving the problem of irrational consumption can be reduced to solving the problem of irrational production - to be persuasive. Further, I have serious doubts that the problems of irrational consumption can be solved short of solving the problems of the mode of production

This has led me over the years to believe that people like Marx and Engels have been on the right track when they have taken aim at private ownership of the social means of production in general, and capital in particular. That seems to me to be a necessary aspect of efforts to establish the kind of relationship with nature humanity needs to have.

You express discomfort with the suggestion that the development of productive forces and the new possibilities they generate can be used as a fundamental criteria for evaluating human progress (as well as regression, stagnation, etc.)

I am curious, Mike, if you find yourself leaning toward other criterias for judging progress that are not connected to the development of modes and relations of production. What are your thoughts these days on that?

Finally, here is a relevant passage from Engels' "The Part Played by Labor in the Transition from Ape to Man" that reinforces your point about finding a clearer way to express the relationship of humanity and labor to nature than formulations like "struggle against" or "triumph over."

From Engels:

"[The] animal merely *uses* external nature, and brings about changes in it simply by its presence; man by his changes makes nature serve his ends, *masters* it. This is the final, essential distinction between man and other animals, and once again it is labor that brings about this distinction.

[If I may interject a small amendment to Engels here: humanity masters nature and ALSO through culture passes this down to new generations - a process, of course, which does not exclude many things becoming forgotten. -sg]

"Let us not, however, flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human victories over nature. For each such victory it takes its revenge on us. Each of them, it is true, in the first place brings about the results that we expected, but in the second and third places it has quite different, unforeseen effects which only too often cancel the first ...

"What cared the Spanish planters in Cuba, who burned down forests on the slopes of the mountains and obtained from the ashes sufficient fertilizer for one generation of highly profitable coffee trees -- what cared they that the heavy tropical rainfall afterwards washed away the now-unprotected upper stratum of soil, leaving behind only bare rock! In relation to nature, as to society, the present mode of production is predominantly concerned only about the first, the most tangible result; and then surprise is even expressed that the more remote effects of actions directed to this end turn out to be of quite a different, mainly even of quite an opposite, character."


I loved Diamond's book Guns, Germs and Steel. For those that like video, Diamond did a 3-hour series with National Geographic based on the book. It's on Netflix, streaming and as a dvd; don't know where else. I like the book better but the video has some cool graphics and dramatizations, and a chance to see a fair amount of Jared Diamond talking and interacting with people.

- Steve

On Feb 25, 2012, at 4:08 PM, mike cole wrote:

Thank you Steve. very thought provoking.

I keep getting stuck when I hit phrases such as

One socioeconomic formation is more advanced and progressive than another
by virtue of the greater scope provided for the development of the
productive forces.
[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 combination of valorizing production for "struggle *against* nature" and the absence of consumption in discussion of this struggle both bother

To the extent that homo sapiens triumphs OVER nature, it achieves its own
demise. Which is, apparently, the way it goes.

Interesting to think about in light of the Jared Diamond note that
Peter posted.

On Fri, Feb 24, 2012 at 3:19 AM, Steve Gabosch <stevegabosch@me.com> wrote:

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
selected passages
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 Marxism

... 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 Progress_

[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 reformism ...

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
civilization ...

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 humanity ...

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 to religion."

[Note: The Trotsky quote is from Revolution Betrayed, originally written
1936. -sg]


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