I probably did not make it clear enough that the Idea of Progress I was
critiquing was the assumption that Progress was built into history. In
Structure of Evolutionary Theory Gould goes into some detail on how
Darwin's theory did _not_ link his conception of evolution to ideas of
inevitable improvement, but that, being a Victorian, he often let in
language with that implication. No one, so far as I know, denies the
existence of changes which improve human life (though most of such
changes are in technology: immunization and anti-biotics for example),
but what is in question is whether a "ratchet" effect operates in either
biological evoluton or human history.
The word Progressive enters U.S. history at an interesting time. Around
1904 a Republican Senator (I forget his name just now) got up on the
Senate floor and issued a long and bitter denunciation of TR's
Philippine policy, the policy from which the Japanese learned their
"Kill all, burn all, loot all" policy in China. But the same war evoked
Kipling's "White Man's Burden," a poem which presupposes a Progressive
conception of history as moving ever forward. A century later missiles
are raining down on Pakistan villages. (The V2 rockets caused more PTSD
in London than the bombing of 1940 had. There is something terribly
demoralizing in sudden and unexpected death from the sky: No decent
nation would use such a weapon.) And of course to balance Kipling we
have Twain's twin essays, "The United States of Lyncherdom" and "To the
Person Sitting in Darkness." And in the 1930s and 194-s the history
books I read presented the outrage of the European/US intervention in
China at the time of the Boxer rebellion as in the service of
Civilzation and Progress. In the 1920s there was a Men's Club in
Shanghai with a sign on the door: Dogs and Chinamen Keep Out. The rather
mysterious disappearance of Bronze Age civilizations at the end of the
second millenium can stand as a historical image to match the asteroid
that destroyed the dinosaurs as an evolutionary image: the role of
contingency in history and evolution.
Rosa Luxeemburg's Second Junious pamphlet theorizes that role, and that
was the grounds for her "socialism or barbarism," by which she meant
that either was equally likely. Marx, like Darwin a Victorian, let
"progressive" language seep into his writing, but the sentence I quoted
from 18th-Brumaire almost certainly has the same implicit point as
Luxemburg's aphorism. And at a time when humanity should be preparing
itself to endure global warming, politicians and pundits are still
spinning pipedreams that "little steps" forward will pregent it and we
can get "sustainable development." Abaout 60 years ago the U.S.
overthrew the only democratically elected president in the history of
Iran. A decade later LBJ sent the Marines to the Domincan Republic to
abort the election of the only demoratically elected president in _that_
nation's history. Roughly a decade later Carter encouraged the massacres
in East Timor, and a year or two later put his Imprimatur on the murder
of Archbishop Romero in El Slavador. And prclasimed to the American
people that the world was unfair (and therefore they sholdn't complain).
Turkish workers in Germany, a major part of the work force theeir for
decades, may not become citizens and are denied the social benefits
citizens are entitled to. (And those benefits are being whittled away).
A woman in Bulgaria who during the U.S. assault on Siberia posted on an
e-list I was on, had been a dissident under the Communist Regime and had
suffered for it; now she was a dissident under the current regime, and
warned Serbians how much they would suffer under a USA imposed
democracy. And so they are.
And if they haven't arrived yet, soon there will be Marines in Haiti to
"help" -- that is to shoot looters and maintain order. Meanwhile the
U.S. is planning sanctions especially designed to encourage civil war in
And the implicit doctrine of the inevitability of Progress is the banner
under which all this takes place.
We have had one really honorable Secretary of State. William Jennings
Bryan resigned in 1916 in protest at Wilson's obvious plans to lead the
U.S. into the massacre proceeding in Europe. He should be remembered for
that, not for his buffoonery in the Scopes trial.