Has humanity enlarged its power and freedom, improved its conditions and increased its chances of happiness? In simple terms, is social progress a fact? Marxists, historical materialists, have no qualm in answering this question affirmatively. The human species has made immense advances since it left the pure animal state and is sure to improve on them more.
Now the question is – what is humanity? To quote the Marxist philosopher, George Novak, “humanity…is above all an innovator. It has been…described as the restless creator”. (Socialism and Humanism by George Novak, Pathfinder Press 1973) The nature of humanity is inseparable from the problem of the making of the human race. For us as Marxists the real identity of humanity is found in creative practice. The practice of working for a living, of producing day in and day out our means of subsistence with tools and weapons, this made the difference between pre-human and truly human existence. Our species has, quite literally, worked its way up to the human form from the animal state and has slowly moved toward civilization. This is called the labour theory of human origins and development.
Why labour theory? The gist of the theory is that labour is the cardinal characteristic of humankind and its fundamental feature. The labour theory of human origins is the cornerstone of historical materialism and Marxist sociology. The theory teaches us that the ape was transformed into the hominid primarily through the activities of working for a living that involves the fabrication of tools. “In short, the animal merely uses its environment, and brings about changes in it simply by its presence; man by his changes makes it serve his ends, masters it. This is the final, essential distinction between man and other animals, and once again it is labour that brings about this distinction.” (The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man by Frederick Engels)
This theory has three interlinked merits:
1) It explains the mainsprings of the transition from ape to man on purely materialist grounds as an outgrowth of the struggle for survival in nature under changed conditions.
2) It accounts for the development of all the abilities peculiar to humanity that have raised it above the other animals. Among these are social organisation, speech, thought, brain expansion and complication, keener sensory perception in certain areas, co-operation and other acquisitions bound up with the development of labour in the progressive human conquest of the natural environment.
3) It provides the basis for explaining and exploring the subsequent evolution of socialized humanity through the development of increasingly efficient means and modes of labour. It should be further said the historical materialists put forward the hand-eye-brain complex involved in labour to the resultant productive forces, relations, and skills. Labour is the first manifestation of human creativity – the transmutation of primates into humans.
The archaeologist V. Gordon Childe, influenced by Marxism, wrote a book called ‘Man makes himself.’ To say now humanity made itself means it is the product of its processes of producing the means of life. But that was only the beginning of the whole business of human history. After bringing its peculiar species into being, humankind has kept on remaking itself through the changes it has made in its environment. It has continued to transform itself by improving its ways of getting a living, advancing its productive capacities, and improving efficiency in output.
The Marxist interpretation of history explains that material production is the core factor of social life and, in the course of its development, changes both external nature and the internal human being. In distinction from the animals, humans create the objective conditions that determine their evolution. The evolution of all other species is determined for them by purely natural conditions. This is not the case with our species. The geographic environment, the climate, the trees, water, land and other natural factors do not basically shape the socio-historical process. This role belongs to the productive forces that humans themselves fashion. While natural forces enter as an indispensable and integral component of the productive forces, the decisive element is active, conscious, collective labouring humanity.
The ultimate outcome of the labour process is the formation and transformation of the makers, exchangers, consumers, and appropriators of the products of labour. Particular kinds of human beings are moulded in and through the special system of labour and property in which they live and according to the position they happen to occupy within it. Thus humanity has up to now passed through the stages of savagery, barbarism, and civilization. Civilized peoples have been differentiated and subdivided into such specialized functional categories as small cultivators, shepherds, craftsman, large landowners, tradesmen, warriors and in class societies, slaveholders and slaves, feudal proprietors and serfs, capitalists and wage workers, intellectuals, students, shopkeepers, and housewives. All of us are in the last analysis what we do and what we make. That is, our human natures are fashioned by whatever the requirements of social production dictate we must perform daily in order to survive and thrive. This is what is meant by the proposition that we are the products of the given modes of productive activity.
Going back to the question of whether social progress is a fact, we have quite different responses presented by others. Many writers on social affairs doubt the reality of progress and its prospects. Some deny that it has existed or can be demonstrated. Existentialists of Jean Paul Sartre’s category do not believe in progress. Taking a quote from Sartre’s Existentialism and Humanism, “progress implies amelioration; but man is always the same, facing a situation that is always changing.” (Existentialism and Humanism by Jean Paul Sartre, London: Methuen, 1948)
This is nonsense. People make their environment and, if our environment changes, we change. If we take in view the impressive scientific achievements of the past century we can hardly think about the world and talk about the scientific matters without referring to progress. The doubts as to the reality of progress are connected with the rise and decline of bourgeois society over the past two centuries.
There have been three main stages of thought about progress, that of ancient Greeks and Romans, that of the Enlightenment, and that of Marxism. The picture of progress presented by the thinkers of ancient Greeks and Romans were crude and narrow and were not central to their outlook. While some recognised the rise of humanity from primitive conditions, they did not extend the process far into the future. Their attentions were directed backward more than forward.
The first comprehensive and systematic exposition of the ideas that history has moved upward and onward and that this process could be indefinitely extended belonged to the eighteenth century Enlightenment. This was an era of optimism about the future. The concept of progress gained currency in the Western Europe around the time of French revolution through the formulation of French thinkers. It was a logical inference from the vast changes in the western world brought through the prodigious expansion of the productive forces and wealth created by the capitalist trade and manufacture. Capitalist relations had a dynamism unmatched by any previous form of economy, and their revolutionizing consequences had a profound impact upon the outlook of the most advanced elements. The unparalleled development of natural sciences and technology removed much mystery from nature and made its processes more and more manageable. The exploration and exploitation of the globe that went along with the formation of world market widened their horizons. The contacts and collisions with native peoples in newly discovered parts of the planet disclosed the existence of disparate levels of social and cultural development.
For the first time it appeared feasible (after the upheavals in social relation and political structures arising from the bourgeois democratic revolutions) with the new knowledge and the means of production at its disposal for society to overcome age-old poverty, misery and inequality. The limits that apparently enclosed human activities and ambitions in a narrow and repetitive round fell away and began to be replaced with the supposition that the ascent of humanity from crude beginnings was a reality and there were no insuperable obstacles to further growth. The major forces of bourgeois society inscribed the watchword of progress upon their banners.
Despite periodic waves of disenchantment among some intellectuals of Western Europe that followed the Restoration in France and the defeats of the Revolutions of 1848 and 1871, ruling circles and the masses alike in the industrialized countries shared the sentiment that the forward movement on so many fronts was destined to bring peace, prosperity, enlightenment, and fraternity to all humanity. This bourgeois-based optimism of progress reached its crest during the capitalist expansion and imperialist aggrandizement from 1879 to 1914. It was the cornerstone of the credos of liberalism and reformism.
A reversal of attitude toward the idea of progress set in after the shocks of the First World War and the Russian revolution. These cataclysmic events corroded the conviction that capitalism and progress were synonymous. Then the Great Depression of 1929, fascism, the Second World War and the threat of nuclear annihilation made it increasingly difficult to retain the former easy belief in uninterrupted progress. The programme and perspective of socialism might have acted as an antidote to this disillusionment. But the crimes of Stalinism rendered that alternative less and less attractive and persuasive in the industrialised countries.
After the Second World War the most concerted attack upon the theoretical premises of the belief in progress came from scholars of theology and liberals. These scholars denied that progress was an observable or verifiable historical fact. It was nothing but an illusion, a dream, and a utopian hope. Since progress was a vain dream, they recommended abandoning the inferior substitute of modernizing human existence and reverting to the original path of salvation offered by the prophets of religion. It is understandable that the terrible events of the past sixty years have raised questions about the prospect of social progress and even its past validity. The demoralized defenders of a decaying bourgeois order seek to discredit and refute the idea of progress, by arguing that it was actually the illusions of ‘communists’ in a better world that produced the horrors of Stalinism.
In fact genuine Marxism (not its Stalinist distortion) presents the most profound and comprehensive theory of social evolution. The law of progress is one of the principles of historical materialism and its revolutionary outlook.
There is ample evidence for the objective reality of progress in human history. The idea of the historical progress of humanity was elaborated before the broader conception of cosmic and organic evolution and helped prepare its advent and acceptance. 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. These levels of development—the inorganic, the organic, and the human—are all integrally interconnected and constitute an unbreakable though distinguishable unity. This is the background for the reality of progress. From a Marxist standpoint whatever in the aimless flux of nature has led up to the emergence of the human species—from the constitution of chemical elements to the formation of the earth’s crust, atmosphere, fauna and flora—must be counted as progressive since it prepared the way for the birth of mankind. Progress is to be reckoned by the degree of control humans acquired over the environment, the extent to which its materials could be adapted to their uses, and the scope of the realization of their capacities this allowed.
The hypothesis that humanity had a progressive development raised the problem of what the steps in this process were. The anti-evolutionary sociologists of the 20th century have rejected these discoveries of the pioneer proponents of progressive development. They deny that the human race has advanced from one stage to the next in any manner determined by evolutionary laws or in a definite sequence in its ascent from animality to the highest grade of civilization.
Science has to ascertain what these stages were and what caused one to replace another. However obscure, unknown, or unverified the details of this long march may be, its reality can be disputed by those who refuse to correlate the findings of science and come to any general conclusion about them. There are many academics and anthropologist who fall into this category. They say that each people, each culture has its own distinctive characteristics that are unique and incommensurable. They cannot be arranged in any evolutionary order from lower to higher or assigned a place in a series according to objective criteria. None is to be considered superior to any other since judgements of comparative status are utterly ethnocentric and subjective.
Historical materialism on the other hand identifies the epochs of humanity’s progress according to the economic structure of society as shaped by its relations of production. One socio-economic formation is more advanced and progressive than the other by virtue of the greater scope provided for the development of the productive forces. The question that should be answered is the reason for 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 with many relapses and detour. Regress has been mingled with progress. Sometimes society had to pay a heavy penalty for progress.
In his Philosophy of History Hegel emphasized that all forward movement in history has been double-edged. The creation of the new inescapably involved the destruction and transcendence of the old, its particular virtues included. Progress has come about only through struggle and suffering. Marx integrated this profound idea about the mode of progress in history into the structure of historical materialism. Late in life he was asked by an American journalist what single word would best sum up his philosophy of life, Marx answered, ‘Struggle’.
Struggle has been the spur to forward movement at all stages of historical development. Primitive humans struggled to wrest their livelihood from nature with the rudimentary means at their command. Once the improved productivity of labour generated by agriculture, stock-raising, and craftsmanship provided a substantial social surplus product, the struggle against nature was supplemented and overlaid by the conflicts between the ruling orders and the producers over the division and disposition of that part of total product. Hence the struggle between the contending classes, the exploiters and the exploited, the rich and the poor, the powerful and the powerless, the possessors and the dispossessed, became the driving force of history.
Engels observed in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State,“Since civilization is founded on the exploitation of one class by another class, its whole development proceeds in a constant contradiction. Every step forward in production is at the same time a step backwards in the position of the oppressed class, that is, of the great majority. Whatever benefits some, necessarily injures the others; every fresh emancipation of one class is necessarily a new oppression for another class. The most striking proof of this is provided by the introduction of machinery, the effects of which are now known to the whole world.” (The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State by Frederick Engels)
The contradictions of progress in class society have reached their culmination under monopoly capitalism. As it revolutionizes science, industries, agriculture, transport and communication, imperialism conducts the most counterrevolutionary policies. It piles up wealth while increasing the gap between rich and poor. It cannot master the forces of nature without despoiling and depleting its resources wastefully. These aspects of capitalist civilization are so appalling and frightening that they induce despair about progress and produce a very ambivalent attitude toward its possibilities. On the one hand, individuals demand and expect a continuous improvement of their lot. On the other hand, capitalist insecurity and its threatened catastrophes make them fearful that this promise will be snatched from them.
I would like to add one more point before ending this article. Philosophy is divided on the nature of ultimate reality. Philosophical idealists see reality as composed of ideas. Materialists, on the other hand, see reality as matter and ideas as the ideas of living matter that has developed the capacity to think. As Ted Grant used to say, “Matter has finally become conscious of itself.”
The idealists believed that progress of society in the last analysis depended upon the progress of ideas, which in turn was determined by the accumulation of knowledge. We as historical materialists state that our knowledge of nature, society, and the human mind has increased from one stage to the next, the possession of such knowledge or lack of it has not governed the course of history. Knowledge’s prime motive force to date has not been the intelligence of the collectivity, and still less of the individual, but the struggle against nature and between classes on the basis of historically developed productive forces. Reason played a small and subordinate role in the total process, which has unfolded in an irrational manner, even though the road it took can be rationally explained. The irrationality of the past history need not be dominant in the future. The historical process can be more and more subjected to conscious collective control. That has to be the work of the socialist revolution. The standards of progress are not to be found in the first place where the rationalists looked for them, in the increase of knowledge and the spread of enlightened ideas, although these are important and among its criteria. The primordial criterion of progress has to do with humanity’s relation to nature expressed in technology. The extent of the human species’ control over the forces of nature, and there within over its own nature, has been the basis of all progress.
In The Revolution Betrayed, Leon Trotsky wrote “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”. He also wrote “Marxism is saturated with the optimism of progress, and that alone, by the way, makes it irreconcileably opposed to religion” (The Revolution Betrayed by Leon Trotsky, Pathfinder Press 1972)