Historical progress and its measure

With rapid developments in modem society, people have felt the general and tremendous impact of social transformation. “Social progress” has become a hot topic in scholarly discussions. But what is social progress? How to properly measure it? How to correctly assess the (choice of) costs in the pursuit of social progress? These are debatable questions awaiting answers. To effectively answer these questions, we need to define "historical progress” and investigate the evolution of relevant theories of Marx and Engels. Such investigation will deepen our appreciation of Marx and Engels’ theory on social progress in Eastern and ancient societies.

The conception of historical progress

A review of history indicates that historical progress is a concept recent in history. Despite its origin in ancient society, the concept of social progress was never dominant in ancient ideology, either in the East or in the West. However, history is often remembered as the “good old days” that frequently eclipse the contemporary experience. The concept of historical progress is a product of modern thoughts. Francis Bacon (British) and René Descartes (French) made a preliminary demonstration of historical progress from the perspective of improving human’s cognition and faculty to control their practice. After that, it was the French Enlightenment that contributed most to the conception of historical progress. Representative scholars such as Anne Robert Jacques Turgot, Marquis de Condorcet, Denis Diderot, Voltaire, Montesquieu, Quesnay, Holbach, and Jean le Rond d’Alembert all held the belief that human beings can gradually learn how to control nature and subject it to their service. This could be done with enhanced rationality and knowledge, which enhance material life, legislature and political reforms, and aesthetics and morality. In short, the French Enlightemnent advocates rationality, believes in education and enlightenment, and regards them as a guarantee for continued progress of humanity. This is the Enlightenment’s fundamental view on historical progress. Marx and Engels critically inherited French Enlightenment ideas concerning historical progress, and conceived their own view of “historical progress based on historical materialism.” Marx said: “The concept of progress [is] not to be conceived in the usual abstractness.”1 Guided by

Marx and Engels’ thoughts on historical progress and through the lens of human history, we can conceptualize historical progress as follows.

Historical progress is an upward and forward movement

History is not a repetitive or stagnant process, but an upward and forward tendency of sustained advancement. The decisive power behind historical progress is humans’ practical activities. To meet their basic survival needs, humans have engaged in material production throughout time. On the one hand, they have created a strong material foundation (e.g., productive forces and social systems) for human progress. On the other hand, for the same purpose humans have nurtured their talents and potentiality in cognition, aesthetics, and moral practice. In other-words, confronting a powerful nature, humans have built a humanized world, one of their own, tremendously enriched with material wealth and spiritual creations. Humans' ceaseless experiences and intentions propel their pursuit of happiness and perfection.

Historical progress can be measured quantitatively by the size of the economy and material wealth, and qualitatively by human civilization, capability, and individuality. Generally, compared with the mindless state of scavenging for crude food in ancient times, human history has undoubtedly and significantly ascended to the better.

Historical progress is tortuous and iterative

One understanding of historical progress is extreme optimism. In this view, history moves forward as if along a straight error-free line, at a sustained pace, fulfilling all of its preset goals. Such an idealistic pattern unfortunately is nonexistent. According to Marx, “In spite of the pretensions of ‘Progress’, continual retrogressions and circular movements occur.”2 Human civilization largely started with the recognition and fulfillment of individual desires. The clan chiefs or tribal chiefs exploited their given power to expropriate public properties of the primitive communes and tribes, giving rise to private ownership and classes and countries. Every major step however long in the evolution of human civilization is more or less a process of gestation, iteration, turmoil, and pain. No historical progress is free of repetitive twists and turns. Such twists and turns may include earthquakes, hurricanes, desertification, and tornadoes, often leading to hiatuses in and the demise of certain human civilizations. Modern human history has been full of chaos: The “sheep-eating-people” Enclosure Movement in early capitalistic England; the two brutal world wars in which countries fought for monopolization over colonies and global markets; the subversive activities by some superpower carried out in small and vulnerable nations and countries, in the name of fighting terrorism; and damages humans have wrecked on the environment in order to extract resources. All of these have led to resource shortages, energy crises, environmental pollution, greenhouse effects, reduction of biodiversity, and destruction of the planet's ecology. Humans might have destroyed what took nature a billion years to produce.

Historical progress has cost humankind a high price. Therefore, historical progress should not be understood simplistically, mechanically, or linearly. History does not follow such a formula whereby humanity, once boarding the train of communism, is well on its way to fulfilling its dreams. History inevitably is an arduous process of frustrations, failures, and relapses into the old system before appearance of the new.

Historical progress has always been achieved with sacrifices and struggles, which, however, have taught humanity indelible lessons to compel further progress.

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