In Defense of Progress

  • Samuel Farber

Material progress and democratization are still the basic tenets of any viable socialist politics.

Forth Bridge From the North. Jorge Valentine & Sons, 1890, Scotland. Janos Scholz Collection of Nineteenthth-Century European Photographs

Growing up in Marianao, a city next to Havana, in the early 1950s, I remember the excitement and joy of people in the neighborhood when our city’s side and back streets were paved and the road connecting Marianao with Havana was widened.

Even my Polish-Jewish immigrant parents, who just a few years earlier had discovered that their entire families had been wiped out in the Holocaust, partook of this hopeful sense of material progress. Neither they, nor our neighbors, or Cubans in general, took for granted that this progress was inevitable or automatic.

This experience and others like it explain how material progress became part of what sociologist Alvin Gouldner called my “domain assumptions” — the fundamental inclinations and ideas about politics and the world that shape an individual.

My belief in the importance of material progress became further reinforced when I attended the University of Chicago in the early sixties. From the elevated train I could see the dilapidated and impoverished south-side ghetto reminiscent of the poverty I remembered from home.

Yet while I was certainly aware that my view in favor of material progress was not universally shared by the broad American political left then, I was struck by the growing numbers of left-wing academics and intellectuals who began to question the notion and desirability of progress.

Prominent among these currents was the Frankfurt School, a part of the intellectual-political phenomenon of what Perry Anderson called “Western Marxism” — a diverse grouping of scholars that included people like Walter Benjamin, Lucio Colletti, Lucien Goldmann, and Karl Korsch.

Despite their varied perspectives, all of these thinkers had one thing in common: their reaction to the defeat of classical Marxism by fascism, Stalinism, and social democracy, and their tendency to shy away from politics and economics and to concern themselves  with philosophical questions, usually with an idealist bent divorced from practice.

The revolt against classical Marxism helps explain the gap that has developed between left-wing activists and organizers — who share a practical belief in progress that conditions their involvement in social struggles — and many left-wing intellectuals and academics, who foreground a critique of these terms.

The most influential of those Western Marxists is perhaps Walter Benjamin (1892–1940), not only because of his profound pessimism that has touched many contemporary left-wing thinkers disillusioned and shocked by the endless imperialist wars, neoliberal hegemony, and a resurgent right, but also because he presents the most compelling and drastic critique of progress.

Benjamin’s critique was, to a large extent, a reaction to the social-democratic conception of progress, a conception that was highly influential in Germany during his life. In his Theses on the Concept of History, Benjamin argued that progress is traditionally viewed as a gradual, irresistible, boundless, and automatic process continuously ascending in a linear (or spiral) way. But these assumptions, he argued, did not hold up to reality — based on his own experiences in 1930s Germany — and mistakenly and dogmatically equated the general progress of “mankind” with the growth of human ability and knowledge.

This dogma, argued Benjamin, recognized “only the progress in the mastery of nature, not the retrogression of society,” and had led to the “corruption” of the working class through the perpetuation of the lie that “factory work which was supposed to tend toward technological progress constituted a political achievement.”

Benjamin not only criticized the social-democratic concept of progress; he altogether negated the possibility of progress as he understood it. “The concept of the historical progress of mankind,” he wrote, “cannot be sundered from the concept of progression through a homogeneous, empty time.” Progression, for Benjamin, blew apart the whole notion of progress because according to him historical time is discontinuous, made of sudden, catastrophic moments, when the oppressed revolutionary classes “explode,” and “blast” a specific era “out of its homogeneous course” in history.

It is in those moments, Benjamin averred, that revolutionaries, like “tigers leaping into the past,” resurrect practices and ideas dating back hundreds of years from societies totally unrelated to theirs, thereby bringing the past into the present.

To be sure, Benjamin was a revolutionary. But he was influenced by Judaism as well as by Marxism; he conceived of revolution as a sudden cataclysmic messianic event, that would “put the brakes on the locomotive of history,” avoiding new disasters rather than opening up a new and brighter future.

Unlike his contemporary Antonio Gramsci — a leader of the Italian Communist Party, active in the 1920 general strike in Italy, who spent years in a fascist prison — Benjamin never belonged to a political party and had no experience in political movements. He had no conception of political action as a way to obtain power or a method and process of organization, struggle, and education.

In one of the darkest periods in history Benjamin’s views were understandable; they expressed, paraphrasing Gramsci’s quote, not only a profound pessimism of the intellect but also of the political will.

But taking Benjamin’s view on progress to its logical conclusion would undermine, if not paralyze, the will necessary for political mobilization and struggle. What is the point of political struggle, of revolution, if not to build a liberated, better, and more egalitarian society?

In negating progress, Benjamin the revolutionary leaves the purpose of a revolution unanswered (at best). For the revolutionaries themselves, he argues, it is not the future of their revolution, but the image of the memory of their “enslaved ancestors” that makes them rebel and fight. Looking back rather than forward he wrote,

Social democracy thought fit to assign to the working class the role of the redeemer of future generations . . . This training made the working class forget both its hatred and its spirit of sacrifice, for both are nourished by the image of enslaved ancestors rather than that of liberated grandchildren.

Benjamin’s sentiment drives home how the historical consciousness of oppression prevails in all kinds of movements — ethnic, nationalist, or socialist — and registers the need to vindicate injustice, aggression, and even violations of honor and dignity underlying the anger that motivates struggle and sacrifice.

There are no revolutionary social movements without passion and hatred of oppression and exploitation. Although, as C. L. R. James warned in The Black Jacobins, it is a tragedy when this turns into a desire for vengeance that “has no place in politics.”

But what is the point of revolution without the perspective of a better future? Is it only to avenge the past?

Romancing the Past

Benjamin was not the only one looking backward. There is another left-wing current that has also oriented itself to the past, not as a memory of oppression that feeds rebellion, but as a recollection of the past with which to criticize the present. Left-wing romanticism looks backward and attempts to recreate elements of an idealized community lost centuries ago.

Michael Löwy and Robert Sayre identified various strands of left-wing romanticism in their study Romanticism Against the Tide of Modernity. “New Rousseauism,” for example, looks at the dawn of human history as an idealized Golden Age. Robert Caillé, one of its exponents, argues that primitive societies were characterized by key features — limited needs and little interest in accumulation, which both resulted from less emphasis on work and production and more on leisure devoted to sleep, play, conversation, or the celebration of rites — that modern society should learn from.

German Marxist Ernst Bloch,  an altogether different kind of romantic thinker, has also caught the attention of the Left once again. Condemning the hostile relation with nature and greed for profit that overrides all other human motives in industrial capitalist society, he imagines the Middle Ages as a Golden Age. Bloch singles out artisanal production — which produced both superior quality products and intrinsic satisfaction for producers, in contrast to modern workers’ lethargy and hatred of work — as a cornerstone of the new society.

Perhaps the most influential Romantic discussed by Löwy and Sayre is Ferdinand Tönnies, considered the founder of German sociology. Tönnies penned the famous work Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft (Community and Society) in the mid 1880s. Gemeinschaft referred to the face-to-face relationships of families, neighbors in small towns ruled by custom, mutual assistance and concord, while gesellschaft consisted of the impersonal, transactional relations that characterize the social life of cities, nation-states, and of technological and industrial progress driven by the competitive profit motive.

Löwy and Sayre declared Tönnies a “resigned Romantic thinker” whose nostalgia for rural and small town gemeinschaft with its family-based economy and its delight in creating and conserving, was heightened by his realization that it couldn’t be recreated and that the social decadence inherent in gesellschaft was inevitable.

The Real Middle Ages

Yet in unearthing features of a bygone era and brandishing them as antidotes to the ills of capitalism, these left romantics played down the nature of the societies that had generated those ostensibly positive features. In extolling limited needs and desires, for example, they ignored their basis in precarious societies existing on the edge of hunger and subject to the vagaries of the weather and nature, and by severe limitations in the means of transport and communication. Their simple needs were an expression of their confinement to a local, narrow world, not an option that they chose.

Similarly, artisanal work in the Middle Ages rested on primitive technology designed primarily to serve the needs of the upper strata, and was often inadequate for feeding and clothing the population. The medieval artisan guilds whose strict regulation controlled artisan production were an expression of a profoundly hierarchical society where the honors and riches bestowed on their feudal lords and their retinues contrasted with the surrounding misery of the villages and countryside.

The Dutch historian Johan Huizinga, in his study of France and the Netherlands in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, describes these societies as ruled by a “violent tenor of life, ” pervaded by illness, calamities, indigence, totally exposed to the vagaries of nature. Depicting in stark terms what that society was like, Huizinga writes that lepers sounded their rattles and went about in processions while beggars exhibited their deformity and misery in churches while frequent executions were the source of cruel entertainment and excitement.

Moreover, Tönnies’s highly idealized rural and village gemeinschaft also ignores how the elements he highlights — personal relationships and mutual assistance regulated by custom and not the market — were part and parcel of an extremely oppressive society, intolerant of individuality and dissent.

E.P. Thompson was highly skeptical of this romantic vein and criticized communitarianism, which spurned material progress and strongly influenced the 1950s British New Left. In his 1959 essay “Commitment in Politics,”  Thompson viewed the British New Left’s communitarianism as a return to the “old, cramped, claustrophobic community which was based on the grim equality of hardship,” and its disregard for privacy.

Thompson also rejected the notion that privacy and sense of community are necessarily opposed. Community, he wrote, “if it arises in the present generation, will be far richer and more complex, with far more insistence upon variety, freedom of movement, and freedom of choice.”

This doesn’t mean there is nothing to learn from past societies. It simply suggests that changing the problems and conditions of modern urban life must be done within the context of modern urban life itself.

All That’s Solid

Jane Jacobs, who revolutionized the field of urban studies with her classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities explicitly opposed the views of thinkers hostile to cities, such as the influential Lewis Mumford, and, far from suggesting any kind of gemeinschaft, she strongly criticized planning oriented to the creation of “togetherness” — for Jacobs urban living required clear boundaries between public and private spaces.

Instead, Jacobs advocated a city that fostered mixed and diverse activity and an active street life through, for example, the construction of short blocks and wide sidewalks that would lead people who had been strangers to behave in cooperative ways. When people regularly see each other on the street and begin acknowledging each other they become public acquaintances.

Some of these acquaintances begin to develop relationships somewhere between stranger and friend, such as the shopkeeper who kept the keys to the apartments of absent neighbors. This might not involve the intimate relations ensconced in a glorified gemeinschaft, but it certainly involves social ties that can be engendered in real urban modern contexts.

Contrary to the romantic communitarians, the anonymity inherent in urban life does not necessarily imply indifference and callousness towards fellow human beings. The concept and practice of solidarity offers a contemporary alternative to the idea of the bygone community and to the extreme individualism and atomization of late capitalism.

We can conceive of solidarity as mutual aid and support among strangers with a social and political consciousness that drives them towards a new form of progressive civic mindedness. It is not necessary to know or be the neighbor of people to engage with them in a wide range of activities ranging from respecting and joining them in a labor or Black Lives Matter demonstration, supporting the local public school, and keeping quiet at night so people can sleep.

Moreover, a civic culture animated by the spirit of solidarity would in turn influence and be influenced by the strength of labor and other progressive social movements in society at large.

Reactionary Progress

However, a critical attitude toward those who bring about or support “progress” through oppressive and exploitative actions is as necessary as a critical attitude toward those who romance the past.

German Chancellor Bismarck, Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore, and Augusto Pinochet of Chile — to name a few — all relied on highly exploitative, oppressive methods, and even massacres, to pursue modernization and economic growth.

The pursuit of modernization at all costs has proponents on the Left as well. Russian socialist historian Roy Medvedev argued vehemently against Isaac Deutscher’s accolades for Stalin as one of history’s greatest reformers for his rapid industrialization and collectivization of the USSR, which, for Deutscher, realized many of the ideals of the October Revolution.

The price that the people paid — the gulag, the purges, the deliberate creation of famines that led to the deaths of millions of people — were enormous, but only proved, according to Deutscher, the difficulty of the task. This “objectivist” analysis stands above and outside history, ignoring how history was actually lived by its actors.

Medvedev’s critique highlights how efforts to modernize society or speed up production, and whether they’re desirable in a given place and time, should be assessed by how change affects those who will be impacted by it.

Thompson uses this approach in his analysis of the “machine breakers” — the Luddites of early nineteenth century England. Viewing the Luddites through a supra-historical and abstract lens of progress paints the Luddites as a reactionary movement because they opposed and resisted the inevitable development of industrial capitalism. But an analysis of that concrete historical moment that takes into account what and why the Luddites were reacting to led Thompson to a very different conclusion.

According to Thompson the Luddites arose at a critical juncture in which paternalist legislation — which had protected the working class — was being abrogated in favor of laissez-faire economic policies, against the will, and conscience, of working people.

Although the previous paternalist legislation had been restrictive and even punitive, it had elements of a benevolent corporate state with legislative and moral sanctions against unscrupulous manufacturers and unjust employers. Even if allowances are made for the cheapening of products under industrial capitalism, it is impossible to designate as “progressive” processes that brought about the degradation of the workers employed in the textile industry.

The Luddites were reacting to this loss of protection. Their movement included demands for a legal minimum wage, control of the “sweating” of women and juveniles, the involvement of the masters to find work for skilled men made redundant by machinery, the prohibition of shoddy work, and the right to open trade union combinations.

These demands, argues Thompson, may have looked backwards, but they also contained the elements of a democratic community where industrial growth is regulated according to ethical priorities, and the pursuit of profit is subordinated to human needs. So while the Luddites tried to revive old customs and paternalist legislation that could never be revived, they also tried to revive ancient rights to establish new precedents for the newly developing order.

This isn’t a call for restoring the working community that the Luddites were struggling to preserve. The triumph of industrial capitalism has established a new kind of society with its own kind of contradictions, oppression, and exploitation, and has created a working class with new organizing conditions and possibilities for the future.

There Is an Alternative

Today’s left faces a substantially different situation from the one that Benjamin  confronted in 1940, when he wrote his theses on the concept of history. At that time he was a man on the run with no political or personal options who ended up committing suicide, frustrated by his failed attempt to escape Nazi-occupied France.

So while the neoliberal epoch that began in the late seventies has dealt serious defeats to the working class and the Left, it has not destroyed left and working-class organizations or physically eliminated its militants in the way that fascism did. (Although the threat of the extreme right, evident in spreading Islamophobic and anti-immigrant sentiment, particularly in Europe, is real.)

However, the triumph of capitalism after the Cold War has placed the future that Walter Benjamin refused to consider at the center of the current left political agenda. Margaret Thatcher’s slogan of TINA (There is no Alternative) is precisely designed to indoctrinate people with the idea that laissez-faire capitalism is the only possible and desirable future.

The collapse of the Soviet bloc in the late eighties and early nineties was widely interpreted by the Right and many liberals not as the failure of a bureaucratic economy run by an undemocratic one-party state, but as proof that socialism can’t work, resurrecting the arguments that Friedrich Hayek and many other conservative thinkers had brandished against the Left decades earlier.

At the same time, the defeats suffered by the working class have stoked a sense of fatalism, and large numbers of workers are increasingly convinced that they are powerless to significantly change their situation through collective action.

Meanwhile, the expanding gap between the left intellectuals and academics who deny progress, and the activists struggling for progress, has created a political-theoretical vacuum. This leaves activists on the ground without a framework to which they can connect their activism and respond to both the left currents that oppose progress (like some strands of left ecology) and to the ruling ideology that ignores what progress means in a class society.

To develop this framework we need a simple definition of progress: the elimination of needless human suffering caused by material scarcity and inequality and the powerlessness of working people over their lives. This definition should acknowledge that Rosa Luxemburg’s fear of barbarism is justified — that barbarism is an ever-present possibility, not just in the distant future but also in the present.

The elimination of human suffering caused by material scarcity and inequality requires the development of science and technology and an anticapitalist vision of economic growth. Many progressive activists today are skeptical of material growth, for ecological reasons and a concern with consumerism. But this often confuses consumption for its own sake and as a status symbol with the legitimate popular desire to live a better material life, and wasteful and ecologically damaging economic growth with economic growth as such.

Environmental policies that would make a real difference would require large-scale investments, and thus selective economic growth. This would be the case, for example, with the reorganization of the individualized and wasteful system of surface and air transportation into a collective and rational plan; or with the systematic development of alternative sources of energy, such as wind and solar, and the retroffiting of millions of homes, commercial and industrial buildings in order to replace fossil fuels as sources of heat, which in the case of our racial ghettos and poorest neighborhoods would also entail a much broader renovation and restructuring of housing.

Economic growth and productive investment are requisites for improving the wellbeing of people in a socialist vision; redistribution of the existing wealth is certainly necessary, but it is insufficient to create the material conditions that permit a whole society to lead a healthier, more educated and cultured life.

However, economic growth is necessary, but not sufficient, for a better life. As Benjamin warned, material progress can and has coexisted with the retrogression of society. This is why politics is central; it is the means to decide what is produced, how, and for whose benefit. For the Left this means that it is necessary to step into the political arena and build the power to counteract the political economy of capitalism with democratic planning that establishes the priorities for production.

Progress is not automatic, linear, and irreversible; it is something that has to be fought for and enmeshed with the legitimate desire for a better, healthier, and more democratic and cultured life. That was the task of past generations, and that’s the task of the Left today. The alternative is stagnation and retrogression that will mean further social and political decay.