The illusion of progress

Most western historians use progress to measure success and failure. Yet what does ‘progress’ mean? David Bebbington’s ‘Patterns in History’ suggests that there can be no objective notion of progress in history, as differences in the definition of progress lead to contrasting conclusions. Progress is certainly not good for everyone. The term incorporates an assumption that if humans are advancing, it is acceptable that some people should suffer for future societies. This ideology has justified bloodshed in the pursuit of utopia, as seen for example in the French and Russian Revolutions. Progress is often associated with modernity, rationalisation and the enlightenment. However, progress is just a new term to justify an old problem: mass suffering. Christianity advocates repression of desires and obedience to authority in order to reach heaven. Communism advocates ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ to reach an equal society. Capitalism justifies the suffering of the working classes to build a modern economy. Today, politicians celebrate progress to diminish complaints of social hardship. We are told to ignore that homelessness has doubled in Britain since 2010, because the government is borrowing less money. Progress must be critically assessed, just like religion, communism and capitalism.

Similar ideas often crop up throughout history dressed in different guises. Chris Read has highlighted parallels between Stalin’s methods and present day Russia. Read discussed how 1930’s socialist realism was not just a form of political advertisement, but part of the Cultural Revolution to engineer ‘The New Soviet Person’. Yet despite absence of the revolutionary front that justified Stalin’s aims, President Putin still imposes strict control on culture and historical work. This is demonstrated in a documentary by John Sweeney about the recent policy of ‘positive history’ and Ben Hoyle’s article ‘Putin rewrites history’. These sources highlighted how a new textbook in Russian schools ‘distorts historical facts’ by omitting the 1930’s Purges and promoting an ‘airbrushed’ Stalin, so as to ‘further the interests of Putin’. By acknowledging parallels between Russia’s past and present, one must doubt the extent of progress.

Assuming that assessing history through progress is not a useful exercise, is it possible that progress rarely occurs objectively? Is the concept a construct of historians and politicians to debate and promote the illusion of improvement? Britain has supposedly ‘progressed’ because we have a universal franchise and functioning democracy. But social divisions remain prominent. Our last prime minister was from a large, slave owning family. Have democratic rights brought tangible improvements, or is this what elites want us to believe? The main thing a history degree teaches is critical analysis. It is crucial to assess the past, but the present should not escape critical judgement.


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