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Are things getting better or worse?

By Paul D'Amato | June 11, 2004 | Page 9

THE MOST common view of progress is that there is no such thing. "History," says a character in James Joyce's Ulysses, "is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake."

After Hitler, Hiroshima and Stalin, it became difficult to accept the Pollyannaish idea that the world was gradually becoming a better place. The possibility of nuclear--and then environmental--armageddon tarnished progress's reputation even further.

But prior to the horrors of the 20th century, during the period of the early rise of capitalism, many European writers expressed a boundless faith in human progress--in technique, morals, art and so on. (Keep in mind, however, that some of this talk was used to justify the extirpation and conquest of so-called "backward" peoples).

The truth is that the proponents on both sides of the progress debate have a point. There is no doubt, for example, that urban life today, with its modern sanitation systems, is far healthier than the period after the Civil War, when tens of thousands of horses deposited manure on unpaved city streets, pigs roamed freely and garbage was piled high in the street and was seldom picked up before it began to stink.

Yet it is hard to argue that it is progress to have missiles that, instead of only making small craters in the earth, can now destroy an entire city. The fact that people starve today not because there isn't enough food produced, but because it doesn't get distributed to the hungriest, seems both a sign of progress and a sign of regression. It is these kind of contradictions, I think, which lead people often to put the word "progress" in quotes.

Marxists define progress very specifically, as the improvement in human productivity, i.e., our ability to master the forces of nature and harness them for our own use. The simple fact is that there is now, as a result of improvements in agricultural productivity undreamt of in previous economic systems, a very small number of farmers (several hundred thousand or so) can produce enough food to feed hundreds of millions.

Yet it is also clear that this is a peculiar sort of progress--one where advances are accompanied by horror and degradation. So, in spite of the fact that we have the material means to end hunger, 800 million people in the world today go hungry.

The explanation for this contradiction lies in the fact that all of history to this point has been of necessity accompanied by a division of society into exploiter and exploited classes. As Engels noted in his great work, Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State:

"Since the exploitation of one class by another is the basis of civilization, its whole development moves in a continuous contradiction. Every advance in production," he continued, "is at the same time a retrogression in the conditions of the oppressed class, that is, of the great majority. What is a boon for the one is necessarily a bane for the other; each new emancipation of one class means a new oppression for another class."

Take the question of improvements in machinery. Under capitalism, there is a continual improvement of labor productivity as a result of the introduction of faster machines. This leads not to shorter hours, but to some people being laid off, because fewer workers working harder means bigger profits.

Nevertheless, the wealth-producing capacity of workers (and farmers) has created the material foundations for a higher form of society, in which these gains can be used to shorten the workday, feed the starving, and provide the free-time and good health necessary for human beings to have the well-rounded, full life that remains beyond the grasp of only the wealthy minority. Yet such a society will not fall into our laps. It will take conscious struggle, without which, to quote well-known abolitionist Frederick Douglass, "there is no progress."

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