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
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
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
freedoms, chances of happiness, and possibilities of development
ages? That is to ask, is social progress a fact? Historical
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
primitive conditions, they did not extend the process far into the
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.
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
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,
Hegel, Marx ... sg]
... [the] bourgeois-based optimism of progress reached its crest during
the capitalist expansion and imperialist aggrandizement from 1870 to
It was the cornerstone of the credos of liberalism and reformism ...
A reversal of the attitude toward progress set in after the shocks
First World War and the Russian Revolution ...
[skipping more pages ... sg]
... it is understandable that the terrible events of the past half
[writing in 1972 -sg] have raised questions about the prospects of
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
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
of production. One socioeconomic formation is more advanced and
progressive than another by virtue of the greater scope provided for
development of the productive forces. Marxism distinguishes six
of labor organization that have contributed to the progress of the
formation of society. These are primitive communism, the Asiatic
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
harmonious, and uninterruptedly upward; it has been extremely uneven
intermittent. Social progress has not followed a straight line but a
complicated path with many relapses and detours. Regress has been
with progress, and a certain price, sometimes a high one, has been
for every advance. For example, whatever benefits the two hundred
inhabitants of the United States now enjoy were achieved at the
the destruction of the Native Americans and their culture and by
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
His paradoxical assertion focused attention upon all the advances
has recorded. These endowed humanity with new powers, which could
and were -- used both for good and evil ...
The agonies of history can find their justification only in the
freedom and happiness they will ultimately make possible for
Every step forward in production is at the same time a step
the position of the oppressed class ...
Humanity climbed out of savagery by savage methods and out of
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
of progress or stagnation was to be sought in invariant
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
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
developed productive forces ...
The primordial criterion of progress has to do with humanity's
nature expressed in technology.
The second criterion [of progress -sg] is the degree of collective
that humanity has over its own development in its liberation from
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
of the productive forces," wrote Leon Trotsky. "If you conceive that
cosmic catastrophe is going to destroy our planet in the fairly near
future, then you must, of course, reject the communist perspective
with much else. Except for this as yet problematic danger, however,
is not the slightest scientific ground for setting any limit in
our technical productive and cultural possibilities. Marxism is
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
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