The View From 1776

Maybe We Can’t Stop “Progress,” But We Should

The idea of Progress, as understood since the 19th century, is one of the most insidious and poisonous doctrines in world history.

Beginning with the French Revolutionary philosophers in the mid-18th century, the ideology of secular materialism began to supplant the spiritual foundation of Western civilization.  This ideology crystallized early in the 19th century as socialism.  One of its principle tenets was the idea of Progress.

The doctrine of Progress has many manifestations.  Its core is the belief that all of life is merely evolution based on random events, which nonetheless cumulatively carry life forms and social institutions to ever higher forms, approaching earthly perfection.

This view most prominently is displayed in the pseudo-scientific hypothesis of Darwinian evolution, which posits that there is no design or purpose inherent in life on earth.  There is merely whatever exists at the moment, whatever happens to be.

Paradoxically, this biological thesis exists side by side, in the minds of intellectuals, with the contradictory idea that intellectuals can foresee the the inherent course of history and, by exercising dictatorial political and social control, can direct and channel the random forces of undesigned nature into patterns of social and political perfection.

In Karl Marx’s version of socialism, the predicted “inevitable” course of history was economic evolution into capitalistic monopolies that would increasingly oppress the workers of the world, causing them to rise up in bloody revolution.  The orgy of revolution would constitute a purifying and cleansing experience that would transform human nature.  It would create the socialist man, who would take only what he needed from collectivized society, while working to the fullest extent of his abilities and energies, selflessly for the benefit of the collective whole.  Thus savagery of Revolution would be a form of Progress.

What is to be noted about the doctrine of Progress is that it is both a destructive process and a totalitarian one.  For Progress to occur, existing social organization, spiritual beliefs, and constitutional government must be destroyed or transformed into something different.  And in order for that to transpire, political power must be collectivized in the hand of a small intellectual cohort who understand what constitutes Progress and are willing to exert whatever degree of coercion may be needed, as they say, “for the good of humanity.” 

Thus the French Revolutionaries, proclaiming the Reign of Terror, declared that democratic freedom necessitated the suspension of democracy and the eventual execution of more than 70,000 French citizens.  Lenin declared that socialist social justice emanated from the business-end of a gun barrel, hence the dictatorship of the proletariat and the 20 million or so Russians liquidated in the name of Progress.  In the United States, Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal socialism created a Federal regulatory apparatus that has grown exponentially and now invades every aspect of every individual’s daily life.  Even personal thoughts are controlled by Hate Crime laws.

The insidious side of Progress has manifested itself particularly in education.  In England , two works of great negative consequence appeared in 1859: John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty,” and Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species.” 

Mill was a Utilitarian and strong sympathizer with socialism, as manifested in Auguste Comte’s Religion of Humanity.  In “On Liberty,” he declared that society is diminished whenever any idea or life style is suppressed by public opinion or existing custom or religion.  As a Utilitarian, Mill believed that the material factors of government regulation could be structured by intellectuals so as to create the greatest good for the greatest number of people.  Religion and morality were not part of the process.  The problem was that “good” was conceived primarily in terms of material factors of well-being.  “On Liberty” in effect promoted the idea that there should be no community standards of religious morality, that anything goes and every idea has equal validity.  Mill’s famous essay is universal fare in American school anthologies today, as well as gospel for socialist editorial boards at the New York Times, the Washington Post, and other “mainstream” media.  Freedom of speech, since Roosevelt’s New Deal, trumps all other parts of the Bill of Rights.

Darwin’s hypothesis is pseudo-science, because there is not a single proof of its validity.  All arguments to support it involve evolutionary changes within a single species, or merely inferential, “might have been” apparent resemblances of some organs from one species to another.  The important point in connection with the doctrine of Progress is that Darwin admitted that he started, not with data from which he drew conclusions, but from a fervent desire to discredit what he called the “damnable doctrine” of Christianity.  After many years of dead-end speculative theories, he finally worked out his evolutionary hypothesis to “debunk” the Bible’s Book of Genesis.

Thomas Huxley, Darwin’s “bulldog,” became the public debater pushing evolution.  Huxley declared that religion, morality, and sin were ignorant fictions, that human life was nothing more than the struggle for survival, in which the only test was might makes right.  This notoriety occurred just eleven years after publication of Karl Marx’s “Communist Manifesto” and eight years before “Das Kapital.”  Marxian socialists delightedly joined the chorus praising evolution, declaring it to be proof of socialistic doctrines of historical progress.

By the first decade of the 20th century, John Dewey in this country had incorporated Darwin’s evolution and the idea of Progress into his philosophy of Pragmatism and his concept of Progressive education.  Pragmatism taught that there is no right or wrong, merely actions that work, or fail to work, for the individual; the desired ends justify the necessary means.  This, said Dewey, was proved by Darwin’s evolution, which postulated that everything is continually in flux, with the result there there can be no timeless principles of moral conduct.  This, of course, is the present-day liberal-socialist justification for judicial activism: the so-called evolving Constitution.  What the Constitution means today is what public opinion will accept; the views and reasons of 1776 are irrelevant.

All of these aspects of Progress have by now permeated American public education.