Where’s the Progress in Progressivism
As we know from the climate change farce, progressives are never deterred by reality’s refusal to fall in line with the theories they use to justify their authoritarian advances. This obstinacy reveals the extent to which, contrary to honest reasoning, their political agenda determines their theoretical framework, rather than vice versa. Nowhere is this more evident than with regard to the most fundamental premise of progressivism itself, namely the repeatedly falsified mythology of “progress.”
The propensity for what we may call pseudo-theorizing has been at the heart of progressivism from the start. The nineteenth century spawned a mutant philosophical subset, intellectuals for tyranny, who produced ersatz scientific, moral, and even metaphysical arguments to persuade men that their desire for unlimited state power was in fact an unavoidable inference from an objective reasoning process, rather than the authoritarian impulse plain and simple. This philosophical mutation—reason as handmaiden of authoritarianism, rather than as its natural rival and limit—was made possible by the anti-rational turn in German thought during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, most dramatically signaled by Immanuel Kant’s condemnation of previous Western philosophy as a “dialectical illusion,” in his Critique of Pure Reason.
From that moment, intellectuals were in effect barred from taking previous thought seriously “on its own terms,” for fear of being accused of willfully embracing the “illusion” of pursuing theoretical understanding about the world. Thus was born the idea that previous thinkers were not to be learned from or disputed, but rather dismissed as negated—as disqualified from even being represented in subsequent philosophical discussion, except as unscientific precursors to “genuine” philosophy. Kant, Fichte, and Hegel cut the golden thread connecting the greatest minds across the ages, by positing a new theoretical framework in which all previous philosophy was by definition “immature” and lacking in “self-consciousness.”
This was the seed of modernity’s deadly invasive plant, political historicism. In effect, this nineteenth century weed, authoritarianism in the guise of theory, was the latest and greatest revival of Socrates’ old nemesis, sophistry—the art of rhetorical persuasion in the service of political efficacy, grounded in the denial of any distinction between truth and power. The basic method of this newer, more devilish sophistry was to obliterate the truth/power distinction by flat-out denying the reason/politics distinction. In other words, the intellectuals for tyranny reduced the mind itself to the play of political forces, hence conflating logic, the abstract method of development in the search for knowledge, with power struggle, the practical mechanism of political development.
But if logic has inexorable rules and inescapable inferences, and if political struggle is the embodiment of logic, then political struggle itself has inexorable rules and inescapable inferences. By such reasoning did history become History, an impersonal or collectivizing force that must inevitably play itself out to its conclusion. The difference between history in the old sense and History in the nineteenth century European sense (epitomized by the Hegelian and Marxist dialectics) is that the former is understood as the collective product of individual men’s choices, whereas the latter is, in effect, the engine of men’s actions, thus dissolving individual choice in favor of collective movement under the control of History’s unstoppable mechanism.
Several interrelated conclusions follow from this theoretical reversal of the causal relationship between mankind and history (or History).
For one thing, the individual human being becomes, if not an outright logical fallacy, then at least an insignificant term in the new morality which flows from the elevation of political history to the status of a logical argument, or dialectic. Ethical individualism is thus obliterated, in favor of a collectivism that is as much metaphysical as it is ethical. (I have often noted that progressivism literally denies the logical priority of the individual human being, and declares instead that the individual is derived from the collective. Some may find this description hard to believe; nonetheless it is not only true, but absolutely unavoidable if one radically reverses our relationship to history, as progressivism does.)
Secondly, if reason is reduced to political history, and the brute force of collective action identified with the force of logic, then death and oppression, the practical means of progressive authoritarianism, are as objective and supramoral as a syllogism. In this way, historicism becomes man’s most ingenious moral sophistry: the rationalization of mass murder, and of carelessness about life itself. What, after all, is mere individual life against the glorious march of history? Furthermore, what is individual moral responsibility in the face of collective historical necessity? This is perhaps the ultimate explanation of every progressive atrocity, real and prospective, from the Communist Manifesto to Bill Ayers’ projection of the need to kill twenty-five million Americans who resist re-education; from the millions slaughtered by Stalin, Hitler and Mao to Barack Obama knowingly ignoring the cries for help from the victims of Benghazi for over seven hours, or his support for death panels and post-birth “abortion.”
And from here we arrive at the ultimate implication, the nub and neatest trick of the nineteenth century pseudo-theoretical project of reducing the mind of man to historical conditions: the all-justifying, debate-proof mythology of Progress.
Progress, in this special sense applicable to politics for the past century and a half, does not mean growing prosperity, technological development, increased understanding, or any of the other things we might regard as progress in the limited, contingent world of history understood (properly) as the product of the choices and actions of individual men. (Modern liberty, for example, led to progress in the cause of general human prosperity. Socrates’ moral questioning led to progress in the development of human self-understanding.)
But Progress, as this word is used by progressives, means the inescapable logic of History, leading mankind “forward,” ultimately by means of the historical dialectic’s peculiar means of drawing logical conclusions, namely violent upheaval, aka “revolution.”
This progressive mythology—the myth of political history as a logical dialectic—explains the Marxist “science” of determinism, in which classical liberalism, i.e., “capitalism,” is reinterpreted as a precursory step on the road to communism. It explains the early twentieth century progressivism of Woodrow Wilson and Edward Mandell House, with their statements to the effect that limited republican government was suited to an earlier set of circumstances, but that constitutional limits on government have outlived their usefulness. It explains Obama’s declaration, “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”
Who was waiting for someone? How is Obama’s declaration anything but a fatuous non-sequitur? And yet it makes perfect sense to progressives, and to those raised and educated through immersion in progressive mythology, for whom all humanity is always, by definition, waiting for change, i.e., for collective coercive authority to lead us forward toward the final conclusion of History’s dialectic, i.e., toward equality, freedom, and everything else progressives promise, if only we will join them in destroying the final resistance to all these good things. If only, that is to say, we will join them in destroying all men who resist.
The Marxist dialectic disintegrated in the face of actual historical developments, as surely as “global cooling” fizzled as Earth entered a warming period in the late 1970s. But just as the climate alarmists adjusted their “theory” to accommodate precisely the opposite of their original “proof,” and so kept their political agenda alive at the expense of any believable pretense of science, so the post-Marxist progressives modified their rhetoric to obscure the real-world falsification of Marx’s theory of surplus value. And in reworking their theoretical underpinnings in order to keep the Marxist conclusion, progressives revealed that this conclusion—revolution and the establishment of a global authoritarian state—was their real agenda and purpose all along, and not merely the logical result of History’s economic determinism as they had previously claimed.
In sum, the original Marxist revolutionary dream, just like the original climate alarmist lie, was always susceptible to contradiction by changing historical realities, which is why its proponents urged immediate, radical action; even the best lie can only hold up to scrutiny for so long. Given progressivism’s repeated failures, both as explanation of history and as practical solution, supporting it with new variants of historicist pseudo-theory has become untenable as a means of overcoming the deficiencies of the old historicist pseudo-theory. Such efforts have been reduced to the hot-house flowers of academic obscurity—they are the angels-on-a-pinhead arguments of leftist academia.
In the wake of the disintegration of any all-encompassing grounding for revolutionary socialism, the latter day (“post-modern”) intellectuals for tyranny have become increasingly issue-focused, hitting us with their ever-expanding collection of isms, the litany of historical injustices supposedly in need of revolutionary correction. Lacking sufficient reasoning in support of their underlying principle that logic is political struggle—that Thought is History—they gamble everything on the hope that Progress in general is now so embedded in the public consciousness as a matter of faith that theoretical justification is no longer required.
Progress as a matter of faith, in defiance of all reasoning and science—God’s last laugh on the nineteenth century’s “scientific” socialists—is the catch-all justification for the moral and political absurdities that have collectively destroyed Western civilization and the modern project of individual liberty. The irrational faith in the logical necessity of History, and in the irresistible need for violent upheaval and the destruction of the past to reach the next stage in the argument/struggle, explains so much of what has been most grotesque, evil, and just plain stupid over the past century. It explains the Holocaust. It explains John Dewey’s lifelong fight against individualism, and his fawning over the promise of Soviet Russia. It explains the Ukrainian famine and China’s Cultural Revolution. It explains the apologies of Western intellectuals, from Dewey to Christopher Hitchens, for Trotsky—their way of clinging to their progressive dreams without appearing to approve of Stalinism. It explains the dismantling of the family, “You didn’t build that,” Bill Ayers as a respected professor of education, and Hillary Clinton’s “impassioned” speech declaring “women’s rights” the “unfinished business” of the twenty-first century.
“Unfinished business.” “The ones we’ve been waiting for.” These empty slogans gain portent and heft from the underlying implication that the changes indicated are not merely ill-defined policy proposals, but a call to participate in the inevitable next stage of History, to be part of the collective embodiment of Progress. The Great Finish Line is calling us. The alternative to heeding this call is to be part of the resistance to Progress, and hence to doom oneself to annihilation by History’s logic of revolutionary change. That is, as an impersonal logical process, History must and will work itself out; to stand against this is to stand against truth itself, which justifies any and all actions taken by those on the vanguard of Progress to stamp out the deniers in the name of truth, progress, and the great god History itself.
That history (i.e., human action) obeys the laws of cause and effect, and that patterns rooted in the nature of the soul will be manifested in behavior, are not controversial assertions. That history’s causal mechanism is fundamentally independent of human thought and choice, however—or that thought and choice are merely derivative effects and instruments of the great logic of History—is a different claim entirely, and one with neither theoretical nor experiential evidence. This has not prevented the latter claim from becoming perhaps the most successful sophistical argument of all time. The myth of History as an inescapable and inexorable logical system has worked wonders in the service of tearing down the structures of Western civilization in favor of establishing forms of political oppression as inhuman as any the world has ever known.
Thanks to this grand sophistry, resistance to so-called progressivism is now broadly perceived not as standing against tyrannical men (which is what it is), but as defying the force of History. This leaves all of us who reject the pseudo-theory of historicism, with its new religion and idols of Progress (whether of the Left or Right), in the position of Socrates on trial: hated, mocked, and condemned by our contemporaries as impious and a threat to established power.
Our fate may be similar to that of Socrates, but so must be our defiance in the face of irrational power.
(Originally published in April 2013)