Marxist Dictionary

Progress is everything that contributes on a historical level to the development of the productive forces, consolidating the material possibility of the overcoming of class society by a society of abundance, without classes and therefore without a state, transforming the “economy” into a conscious and collective metabolism between Nature and the human species.

Historical-material nature of progress

For historical materialism, progress is not a moral concept, but a material one. Affirming the progressive character of ascendant capitalism never made it invisible that

Capital comes into the world dripping blood and mud from every pore, from its feet to its head.

Karl Marx, Capital, Chapter XXIV, “The So-called Primitive Accumulation”, 1857

And in fact, nobody can deny that the most progressive realization of rising capitalism, the formation of the world market, took from its beginnings -the American conquest- not to mention the arrival of capitalism in Asia, the form of a brutal and oppressive conquest. But this did not stop it from meaning progress for Humanity.

It is true that by carrying out a social revolution in Indostan, England was acting under the impulse of the meanest interests, showing real stupidity in the way it imposed those interests. But that’s not the point. The point is whether humanity can accomplish its mission without a thoroughgoing revolution in the social state of Asia. If it cannot, then, despite all its crimes, England was the unconscious instrument of history in carrying out such a revolution. In such a case, however painful to our personal feelings the spectacle of an old world collapsing, from the point of view of history we have every right to exclaim with Goethe:

Who regrets the ravages
If its fruits are pleasures?
Didn’t he crush thousands of beings
Tamerlane during his reign?

Karl Marx. British domination of India, 1853

In the same way, phenomena such as national liberation, which generally had a progressive meaning in rising capitalism, have a reactionary meaning in the decadence of capitalism, just as the emergence and defense of communal lands, which had a progressive meaning in long periods of feudal rule, became a brake on the development of the productive forces in the early days of capitalism.

Is the concept of progress “teleological”?

A common criticism of the idea of progress from the anarchizing petty bourgeoisie has been that the materialists “told history backwards”, in a “religious way”, presenting it as a permanent and necessary ascent. It is true that if we look at the history of humanity, as a whole there has been a prodigious development of the productive forces and capacities of the species. But the general phenomenon cannot deny that historical necessity has not always been materialized. Revolutionary classes have failed more than once, and the phases of decadence of the societies in which they developed have ended in those cases in the collapse of the social whole and the “collapse of the competing classes”.

Free men and slaves, patricians and plebeians, lords and serfs, teachers and officials, in short: oppressors and oppressed always clashed, maintained a constant struggle, sometimes veiled, sometimes open and frank; a struggle that always ended with the revolutionary transformation of the whole society or the collapse of the classes in struggle.

Karl Marx and Frederick Engels. Communist Party Manifesto, 1848

Today it is impossible in fact to speak of “real” progress in the midst of a decadent capitalism in which economic growth has become dissociated from human development. All its cultural and ideological forms ooze reaction from all its pores. The perennial crisis, the degradation of human relations, culture and even food, the continuing tension towards war and practically all facets of daily life under this system make it clear that only that which is effectively and unambiguously oriented towards overcoming capitalism can be considered progressive.

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