It is not uncommon even today, to come across organisations of a “leftist complexion” describing themselves as “progressive”, as they always did in the past. We must realise that in today’s world this epithet means nothing more than that the people concerned believe in what they stand for, so that in their opinion, for them to prevail would constitute progress. They are, of course, entitled both to hold and to express this opinion, but so is anybody else. Anybody who has a goal which he or she believes in, is, in his or her own opinion, progressive. To Hitler, the holocaust represented great progress towards his goal of a world without Jews.

Until a few years ago, however, the word “progressive” contained a far larger claim. It was rooted in a doctrine which was central to Marxism but which was in fact older than Marx, and was accepted by many people who were not Marxists. The doctrine asserted that the world was set in a predetermined and absolutely inevitable course of change, and that this change was always and automatically for the better. Each stage of history was higher than its predecessor, that is, fundamental and profoundly better so that nobody who had experienced a “higher stage” could ever contemplate returning to a lower one.

Capitalism was one of these stages, higher than everything that had gone before it, and the next stage, higher still, was socialism. Capitalism would be replaced by socialism with the inevitability that a river flows downhill, and could no more go the other way than a river could. According to some people, nothing that anybody could do would make any difference; according to others (including Marx) individual effort could both speed and smooth the process, but could not fundamentally alter it.

It was supposed that we were dealing here with absolute laws of nature, as scientific laws were understood in the nineteenth century, before the uncertainty principle, before relativity, before chaos theory. It was a law like Newton’s law of gravity or Boyles law, that capitalism would be replaced by socialism and the reverse could never happen. Socialism could, of course, be suppressed by force or by interventions from outside, although the result would not last, but that it should be abolished by a massive popular upheaval from within, or should evolve into capitalism in the hands of a powerful and independent government, was as impossible as that water should flow uphill, or that gas should be heated without expanding so that steam engines would no longer work.

Socialism Overthrown

The theory was supposed to have been derived from a study of history and since it was formulated, history has written another chapter. In no fewer than eight socialist countries (if we count the Soviet Union as one) a socialist government has been swept away by an overwhelming popular rising without any external intervention whatever. These were, in fact, the most unanimous popular risings in recorded history. They were bloodless because nobody, but nobody, was prepared to fight for the old regime, which is more than can be said for the French and Russian revolutions.

In its struggle against apartheid, the ANC was never able to call out a demonstration which remotely approached those which took place in Leipzig and Dresden against the communist regime of East Germany. To say this is not to disparage the achievements of the ANC but it is to draw attention to the fact that even apartheid did not arouse in its victims the degree of hatred and anger which was inspired by actually existing socialism in those who experienced it at first hand, the great majority of whom were, of course, members of the working class.

In the meanwhile, in China, without any ostensible change of government, socialism has evolved into the most unbridled laissez-faire capitalism in the world, and indeed, perhaps, that the world has ever seen. Eight socialist governments have been swept away by unanimous popular risings and replaced by fully democratic elected governments which have embraced capitalism, while an unelected socialist government, deriving its purported legitimacy from a socialist revolution, has embraced capitalism in an extreme form.

So apparently, the rivers are flowing uphill all over the world. If something happens, clearly and on a large scale, contrary to what we believe to be the laws of nature, we have to revise our ideas of what those laws are, and so we have to do here. The Marxists’ theory of history has been disapproved by events. It has become untenable and has to be abandoned.

“It Wasn’t Real Socialism!”

Some people have sought to rescue the theory by claiming that that which failed was not “really” socialism. But this line of argument raises the problem that, in that case, socialism is such an obscure and esoteric phenomenon that for seventy years in the world no one knew it when they saw it, or rather, knew what they saw was not it. For seventy years, nobody except Trotsky (after he had been driven into exile but not before) said that what existed in the Soviet Union was not socialism, while a huge consensus of intellectuals around the world hailed it, praised it, lied for it, spied for it and sometimes died for it. If all these people were wrong for all that time, why should we believe them when they say something different now?

Even followers of Trotsky have a problem. Either what existed in Russia under Lenin and Trotsky was socialism or it was not. If it was, then, under Stalin, socialism developed by an internal dynamic into non-socialism. If it was not, why did Trotsky say that it was?

The Ends Do Not Justify the Means

One of the consequences of the collapse of this theory of history that we must particularly note, is that it is no longer possible to claim, in the way that used to be done, that ends justify means. Ends can justify means when the end can be foreseen with confidence. We destroy buildings to prevent the spread of fire, we cut off limbs to save lives, but what if the end cannot be foreseen? It was the Marxist theory of history that purported to give the certainty about the ends of Marxism, and so was claimed to justify any means whatever. That is why it was possible (or, at least, it was claimed that it was possible) to draw a fundamental distinction between the massacres perpetrated by Stalin and the strictly comparable but smaller scale massacres perpetrated by Hitler. Stalin was “progressive”, so that what he did was going to produce heaven-on-Earth eventually, and for this end any means were justified.

Now we know that Stalin’s ends are not going to be attained, ever, or if they are, it will be by quite other means, and Stalin’s crimes will not have made any contribution. If ends cannot be foreseen, they cannot justify means. Nobody would say that you can justify the killing of seventy million people (which is what Lenin and Stalin did) in order that Yeltsin rather than Kerensky should rule Russia, which is what they achieved. In a world where long-term ends cannot be foreseen, we have to be much more careful about means.

‘Progress’ Means ‘Desirability’

Given the spectacular failure of the theory of history that has been intellectually fashionable for over a hundred years, it would be very rash to come up with another one and I am certainly not going to put forward an inverted Marxist claim that the world is “inevitably” marching to liberal capitalism. The fact is that we do not know. We have to recognise as a fact that Marxist socialism was a costly, indeed a catastrophic, failure, and give it up, but that does not mean that we live in the best of all possible worlds or that the future will take care of itself. There is plenty of room for people to work to find new ways of making the world better, provided that they are new, and are not rehashed versions of things that have failed before; and provided that they are put forward with a proper degree of humility.

In this situation, to say that something is “progressive” is simply to say that it is desirable, that there is good reason to believe that it would make life better in the opinion of the people directly affected.

As we no longer believe that progress is automatic and all change is necessarily for the better, we can recognise that in a particular situation it can be progressive to keep things as they are because the only changes that are on the cards are for the worse. It would have been progressive to prevent thalidomide (although it was the latest thing) from coming on the market. It would have been progressive to keep Hitler and Lenin out of power.

In the same way, it can be progressive to bring back the past, if the past was better than the present. In Germany, after the war, it was progressive to revive the federal structure that had been abolished by Hitler. In Russia, at a symbolic level, it was progressive to abolish the red flag and to bring back the old Russian tricolour, which dated back to the Tsar Peter the Great and, on a more practical level, it was very progressive indeed to bring back private property.

The World is Better than it Ever Was

Although we have to avoid grandiose theories and especially to avoid either the belief that progress is automatic or that we can foresee the future with certainty, I believe that, looking back over history, we can see, in broad principle, what progress has consisted in.

Progress is real. The world is a better place than it was a hundred years ago and a much better place than it was a thousand years ago. And when we ask what has made it better, we find two strands that turn out to be closely related. First of all, the world has grown richer which means that it has become possible to produce more wealth with less labour (and also with less of other resources). People, even people in the poorest parts of the third world have command of far more material means than their ancestors had and in consequence they live longer and they live better lives. Of course, the poorest are still very poor, but they are not as poor as the poorest were in the past.

The other strand is freedom. Individual people have become freer, which means that they have a greater ability than their ancestors had to choose for themselves among the options before them. They also have more options. That progress is “the march of freedom” is not a new idea. It has been around, in Europe, since the sixteenth century, and in the nineteenth it was popular not only in Europe and America, but in the rest of the world as well. It was, after all, the seed from which the demand for liberation in the colonial empires grew.

What rendered the idea unfashionable for a time was the Marxists’ (and fascists’) contention that there was a trade-off between individual freedom and economic efficiency, and that people should sacrifice freedom for material well-being (which in order to confuse the issue, Marxists called “real freedom”). Now we know that there is no such trade-off. When the communist regime was overthrown in East Germany in 1988, the people there were as far behind West Germany in material well being as they were in individual freedom.

Freedom is a Prerequisite for Prosperity

The 1999 South African edition of the Economic Freedom of the World sets out the evidence, which is conclusive, that economic freedom is a necessary condition for material prosperity. Looking at history over longer periods, we find that intellectual freedom is every bit as important as economic freedom. Ideas come first, and creative new ideas only arise where there is a reasonable degree of freedom. Throughout history, wherever freedom has been successfully extended (that is extended without causing an intolerable degree of disorder), progress has followed, both economic and cultural. Wherever freedom has been curtailed, this has been followed by decline. Countries that have suppressed freedom for the sake of military strength have lost out, even militarily, because military strength depends on economic strength, which depends on freedom. The Soviet Union is the only most recent of many cases in point. This proviso for extending freedom without creating disorder, is crucial. Creating freedom is more than abolishing restrictions. A free society needs appropriate institutions and attitudes. Freedom has to be built in ways that work.

So, who are the progressives? If we take the view that there is no tenable theory of history then the word “progressive” is virtually meaningless. Applied to a measure, it simply means that the measure is desirable. Applied to a person, it means that we agree with him. If, however, we accept the idea for which there is certainly a good deal to be said that progress is the extension of freedom, then the people who are progressive in principle, the only people, are liberals.

Disclaimer: This essay was extracted from O’Dowd’s 1999 occasional paper, “Liberal Reflections”, for the Free Market Foundation. The essay’s name was changed from the original “Who are the Progressives Now?” and the headings were inserted by Rational Standard editors.

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Michael Conway O'Dowd (1930-2006) was Chairman of the Free Market Foundation from 1978 to 2005, and of the Anglo-American and De Beers Group Chairman's Fund from 1974 to 1997. In the latter capacity, O'Dowd was a pioneer of corporate social investment in South Africa, contributing immensely to the establishment of rural schools and universities of technology for black South Africans in the previous era. A classical liberal philosopher, O'Dowd is known for his 1966 prediction that economic growth and industrialisation would lead to the demise of Apartheid.
  • James Groenewald

    One erudite advocate of Marxism is Vivek Cibber and it seems as if he has some influence with the SACP/ANC. He is calling for a soft revolution, which seems aligned with the NDR. He even manages to bring racism into the equation.
    I believe that black South Africans need to have their “Magna Carta” moment, where they cast off the “traditional” yoke of kings and chiefs and liberate themselves by subdividing the traditional areas into plots for individual ownership. Then capitalism has an even chance of gaining ground against the “progressives.”