Historical progress embodies both facts and values
It is not difficult to recognize the objective necessity of historical progress. The question is: How do we decipher this objective necessity? According to one view, history has its intrinsic logic, force, trajectory, and mechanism, all independent of human subjectivity. This view separates historical objectivity from human subjectivity, necessity from fortuity. Historical progress in its actuality is neither the result of an external purpose (as argued by Vico, Kant, and Hegel) nor is it intrinsically automatic, but is compelled by the human subject’s practice and activities. Historical progress is ultimately human progress, the constant externalization of the internal human force. The human need for survival propels material production. In this process, humans have to constantly adjust their relation with nature and with each other in order to enhance their productivity to meet their increasing needs. In the evolution of human relationship, those in servitude aspire to be free and to expand their freedom. In the process of interacting with each other and with nature, humans constantly enlarge their self-understanding, their emotion and rationality, their cognition and practice. It is the dialectical process between limitation and potentiality that fuels historical progress.
As an objective process, historical progress has never been separate from humans’ subjective creation. The labor and creation of human beings—the subject of history—play a fundamental and decisive role in history. In addition, it is particularly important to emphasize the value assessment of historical progress. That is to say, the assessment of historical progress is a human act, an act by the subject of history. Without human goals and value assessment, historical progress is a hollow concept. History does not interpret itself, but is interpreted by the human subject according to the latter’s standards and values. Therefore, historical progress embodies both facts and values.
Historical progress is the dialectical unity of accumulation and transformation
Any historical progress requires certain material prerequisites and a certain level of productive forces. The establishment of all production relations and social systems requires a quantifiable material base, without which no corresponding historical progress can be achieved. However, historical progress is not purely of material wealth, but comprehends economics, politics, and culture. In its highest form, it is the full and free development of the individual.
The process of social evolution and historical progress represents dialectical unity between quantity and quality. At a particular level of quantitative accumulation (e.g., per capita GDP of US$3,000 in China), social development may enter a critical juncture. As a result, significant social contradictions or challenges as well as development opportunities will emerge. If China can successfully resolve its historical challenges, it may achieve its goal of becoming a moderately prosperous society. According to the Inverted-U Hypothesis of American economist and statistician Simon Smith Kuznets, a country, in order to realize its own economic development, must carry out the development strategy of uneven distribution in a certain period, inevitably leading to increasing inequality between the rich and the poor. Fortunately, with the further development of productive forces and further increase of social wealth, income distribution will re-balance, so that the sharp social conflicts will be resolved eventually. The eventual resolution of social inequality may represent another form of social progress. In short, historical progress is a continual and interruptive process uniting quantitative accumulation and qualitative transformation.
Historical progress is a long process
As mentioned above, historical progress embodies both facts and values, both quantitative accumulation and qualitative transformation. Historical progress is a long process based on the creative activities of human production and labor practice, the development of productive forces, the transformation of production relations, the development of social culture, and the improvement of human qualities and capabilities. As such, the idealism of dramatic advance should be abandoned. Historical progress is inevitably a dialectical and not so rosy process. It involves conflict, frustration, repetition, and even retrogression. Therefore, historical progress must be understood as a protracted winding course. Many thinkers have attempted to render unambiguous explanations of the historical process once and for all, including the development of science and technology, the infinite perfection of human nature, or the full realization of freedom and equality. Many politicians and strategists have adopted complete equality and harmony between people, an infinite and sublime human spiritual world, as the ideal guiding principle of governance. Such idealism has failed due to major defects in practice. It regards historical progress as a perpetual continuation rather than interruptive accumulation. The ideal of historical progress can never be realized free of the limitations of human values and social conditions. The dialectic between ideal and reality dictates that the ideal must be materialized in the medium of reality, that the ideal, once materialized, no longer represents the ideal and thus awaits further development in a different medium of social reality.
Therefore, historical progress is an upward objective process based on humans’ subjective activities, a process of conflicts and costs, of qualitative accumulation and qualitative transformation, and of the dialectical progression between the real and the ideal. In short, historical progress unites the subjective and the objective, the quantitative and the qualitative, human value and physical reality. Dialectically, it propels humanity toward greater liberty and maturity.