THE PARADOX OF PROGRESSIVISM: THE PROMISE IT CANNOT FULFILL
by Gennady Shkliarevsky
“There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow men.
True nobility lies in being superior to your former self.”
~ ERNEST HEMINGWAY
There are few ideas that have captivated human imagination more than the idea of progress. Our civilization has relentlessly advanced in the course of its history, but in the last several centuries chasing progress has become a conscious pursuit. This pursuit has brought many wonderful achievements, but it has also caused much pain and suffering. Yet despite the negative aspect of progress, it continues to attract people, particularly young people who see in progress the fulfillment of their ideals and aspirations. One can say that progress is, arguably, the most important reason that attracts our young generation today to progressive liberalism and the Democratic Party, its main proponent.
The idea of progress has a long history. Ancient Greeks did not see reality as linearly advancing to some identifiable goal. They viewed social reality, for example, in terms of infinite cycles of birth, maturation, decline, and death.
Christianity was the first to offer a consistently progressive view of reality. Christians see reality, including social reality, as a linear progression from the point of alienation of humans from God to their final re-unification. In this view, history ultimately does not repeat itself. It inexorably evolves toward its final goal.
The Enlightenment that replaced Christianity as the dominant intellectual trend in Europe appropriated the idea of progress and provided its own interpretation. According to this interpretation, progress has nothing to do with God and religion. It is about advancing our society along the path defined by humans. It is about using human reason to control reality.
The Enlightenment summarily rejected the entire body of Christian thought. For Enlightenment thinkers, religion was little more than a superstition that should be completely eradicated from human civilization. The exclusion of Christianity became a distinct feature of the new secular culture that has given rise to progressivism.
One of the consequences of this exclusionary nature of progressivism is its elitism—or the emphasis on the role of enlightened elites in effecting human progress. The two major intellectual trends that have emerged from the tradition of the Enlightenment—liberalism and Marxism/communism—both embody the elitist approach. According to liberalism and communism, only the select few can see the desired direction and goals of human progress. They are the heroes, the elite whose destiny is to guide humanity toward a better future. Both liberalism and communism have created their respective pantheons of heroic figures–politicians, military leaders, thinkers, scientists, writers, and others—whose heroic efforts have bestowed many benefits on the human race. They are primarily responsible for leading humanity on the path to progress. Their work is to be venerated; they are the models that should inspire respect and devotion in common people. They are the ones that should make decisions for the rest of humanity.
The basis of this approach is the belief that truth is ultimately inaccessible to common people. Only a few, the enlightened ones, can perceive truth. This view is dramatically different from the one preached by Christianity. One of the fundamental tenets of the Christian religion is that all humans are equal in the eyes of God and all partake in the divine Truth of the Creator. Thus, the idea of progress advanced by the tradition of the Enlightenment denies common men and women any definitive and significant role in the evolution. They are merely tools in the hands of the select few, the elites. Their role is merely to follow their leaders and realize their vision and goals.
It is not uncommon for us to base our systems of knowledge on some foundational proposition. We call this approach the axiomatic method. Axioms, foundational propositions, or what philosopher Kant called synthetic a priori judgments, represent what we often call self-evident truth.
There are many such self-evident truths that we have used in the past to produce knowledge. Here are some common examples familiar to many of us: flat Earth, the geocentric view of the Cosmos, the heliocentric view of the Cosmos, and many others. These self-evident truths have served us well and we continue to use them. Euclidean geometry—a system of mathematical knowledge—is one good example. Although this geometry was created thousands of years ago, we still use it, albeit in a limited domain of application. It is a perfect tool for building a house, but it is inadequate fir constructing long bridges or charting the flight of a spaceship that requires a different geometry—a non-linear one.
Many systems of knowledge that have preceded the ones we use today were at one point considered indisputable. People viewed them as the ultimate and indisputable truth that was to be venerated. Any attempt to dispute this truth could lead to severe punishment. Galileo who challenged such truth faced persecution. With time, however, we have realized that what we considered to be an indisputable truth has turned out to be incomplete knowledge with limited application. We replaced these truths with others that have also turned out to be limited and incomplete.
We have realized that the problem lies in the fundamental assumptions—those self-evident truths—that we adopt to create our knowledge systems. We have realized that these truths are not really so self-evident as they originally seemed to be; that they are subjective and arbitrary. They represent the way we view reality today but not the way we may view it tomorrow. We have recognized that such assumptions are in many ways provisional and cannot be treated as finite. We have also realized that accepting something as self-evident does not relieve us of the responsibility to subject such assumptions to rational justification and empirical verification. Neither rational justification nor empirical verification is a guarantee that our self-evident truth will not turn out to be limited and incomplete, but both give us at least some degree of control over the knowledge we create and opens it to critical examination by others.
The purpose of this rather long digression is to ask one important question: Do progressives offer rational justification and empirical verification for what they regard as self-evident truth—the belief that truth is not accessible to all but only to a select few? The answer to this question is a resounding no. Yet despite this fact, the progressives continue to subscribe to this exclusive view and use it as the foundation for their political and social practice that are, as a result, also exclusive—they exclude those who disagree with the progressives.
Human knowledge is not a reflection of reality. Knowledge is a product of our creative efforts. We create our mental constructs that allow us to perceive and interpret reality. Together they constitute our mental organization. Our mental organization constantly evolves. It evolves because it cannot sustain itself without creating new and increasingly more powerful levels of organization that give rise to new and more powerful constructs. Thus, we constantly create our mind. This creative process sustains our mind and is the source of its evolution. Without the evolution of our mind, both individual and collective, human civilization and its evolution would be impossible.
The capacity to create mental constructs is uniquely human. All humans with no exception have this capacity. All humans are creators. All of them create something that in its power transcends anything any human can ever create. They create their mind and become conscious beings. We all create our own conscious intellect; and we accomplish this feat in the first twelve months of our life. Scientists have yet to explain how we do it, but we do it and, therefore, we know how to do it.
Without the mental constructs we create we would not be able to perceive and interpret reality. Reality would simply not exist for us. The fact that reality exists and that we relate to it provides a powerful rational justification that supports the proposition that all humans have the capacity to create and that they are all equal in this capacity.
Our universe and everything in it evolves. The existence of our universe would be impossible without evolution; and evolution is impossible without the process of creation. The products of the process of creation are all around us: from minute particles and atoms to stars, planetary systems, and galaxies, to life, humans, and human civilization. These creations are powerful empirical evidence that confirms the existence of the process of creation and our partaking in this process.
The rational justification and empirical evidence provided above support the proposition about fundamental human equality: all humans are equal in their capacity to create. The realization of this capacity is essential for sustaining our life, both individual and collective, as human beings. No human can be or should be excluded from this process.
The assumption about human equality and capacity to create leads to conclusions that are very different from those made by the progressives. Knowledge and truth are not accessible only to some select few; they are accessible to all of us. Consequently, we all should be involved in whatever capacity we choose into the common process of creation and participate in making decisions that advance our civilization. This argument debunks the progressive mythology. It undermines their ideology and practice. It makes them obsolete.
By relying on the elitist practice, the progressives deny common people an opportunity to participate in the process of creation and make decisions that will determine the course of our civilization. When people are excluded from the process of creation, they cannot sustain their life; they cannot gratify their capacity to create and, therefore, cannot be happy. The elitist approach of the progressive theory and practice is profoundly immoral because the basis of morality is the recognition of the autonomy and agency of every human being. Elitism degrades and dehumanizes human beings.
But there are more problems with the progressive elitist approach. Those who deny people an opportunity to participate in the creative social practice diminish the overall creative potential of our civilization. As a result, our civilization cannot realize the creative potential of all humans; its capacity to create new and increasingly more powerful levels of organization is impeded and, as a result, the evolution of civilization slows down or even comes to a complete stop. The civilization that does not evolve starts disintegrating. What we witness in America today is a warning signal that tells us that our capacity to create is extremely underutilized as a result of elitist practice. The process of creating new and increasingly more powerful levels of organization lacks dynamism and, as a result, the number of unsolved problems we face today is piling up.
The situation we face today in this country and in the world is very serious. There is only one way we can get out of this predicament: we must end the elitist practice. Without putting an end to this practice, we cannot progress. Paradoxically, progressivism cannot ensure progress and, therefore, must be abandoned. In order to advance forward, we must give up the outdated and profoundly flawed progressive practice. In its stead, we must adopt a new practice that would be universally inclusive and empowering—a truly democratic practice that will offer everyone an opportunity to participate in the process of creation as an independent human being. This practice will help us, both as individuals and society, to progress toward a better future in which all will be able to realize the promise of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Professor Gennady Shkliarevsky is a Professor Emeritus of history at Bard College.