Marx's idea, borrowed from Hegel, that every old society harbors the seeds of its successors in the same way every living organism harbors the seeds of its offspring is indeed not only the most ingenious but also the only possible conceptual guarantee for the sempiternal continuity of progress in history; and since the motion of this progress is supposed to come about through the clashes of antagonistic forces, it is possible to interpret every "regress" as a necessary but temporary setback.
To be sure, a guarantee that in the final analysis rests on little more than a metaphor is not the most solid basis to erect a doctrine upon, but this, unhappily, Marxism shares with a great many other doctrines in philosophy. Its great advantage becomes clear as soon as one compares it with other concepts of history--such as "eternal recurrences," the rise and fall of empires, the haphazard sequence of essentially unconnected events--all of which can equally be documented and justified, but none of which will guarantee a continuum of linear time and continuous progress in history. And the only competitor in the field, the ancient notion of a Golden Age at the beginning, from which everything else is derived, implies the rather unpleasant certainty of continuous decline. Of course, there are a few melancholy side effects in the reassuring idea that we need only march into the future, which we cannot help doing anyhow, in order to find a better world. There is first of all the simple fact that the general future of mankind has nothing to offer to individual life, whose only certain future is death. And if one leaves this out of account and thinks only in generalities, there is the obvious argument against progress that, in the words of Herzen, "Human development is a form of chronological unfairness, since late-comers are able to profit by the labors of their predecessors without paying the same price," or, in the words of Kant, "It will always remain bewildering...that the earlier generations seem to carry on their burdensome business only for the sake of the later...and that only the last should have the good fortune to dwell in the [completed] building."
It also does not represent my children's perspective, nor my mother's; they think I am funny, but misguided.
Wednesday, February 23, 2011
...and this is what got me today. From Hannah Arendt's On Violence: a paragraph or two on the concept of human progress. What it has to do with anything is up to you.
Posted by Katie Mulligan at 2:26 PM