Here is a Sunday question: what is the status of the idea of PROGRESS in Conservative thought?
G. K. Chesterton was not an ungenerous man — indeed it would be hard to find a more mistaken description for him. Thus a stark judgment like the following one, when one encounters it in his writings, comes as something of a shock or tonic. “Never perhaps since the beginning of the world has there been an age that had less right to use the word ‘progress’ than we.” Whether this was ungenerous to the early twentieth century, when Chesterton wrote, I leave aside for the moment, in order to take up a more pressing question: whether it is ungenerous to those who inherited that century’s world: namely us.
Now in order to merit any serious effort of moral examination, our concept of Progress must most emphatically be distinguished from mere material advancement. The latter is not, in strict common sense, a subject of moral inquiry. That more people have wealth does not tell us anything about the nature of wealth. That more technical knowledge is available, will give us no hint as to how knowledge ought to be used. More importantly, material progress is strictly speaking not dependent upon the moral fiber of a society. As far as we can tell, the gain to be had in treachery, plunder, fraud, is (alas) not a feature of the world within our power to remove. The popular celebration of material progress, on the whole understandable, must be viewed with some caution, for it risks pushing us into that perilous and impious habit of mind which Lord Acton said sanctifies success. Some rather narrow Calvinists once thought material prosperity was evidence of sanctity, and Acton’s reproach was aimed at one very successful Calvinist, Oliver Cromwell. But Acton’s point holds: all who succeed are not admirable; nor is all success good. No: to speak of an age being right or wrong in its use of the word progress, is instantly to fling oneself into all the vague, boisterous, inescapable world of what is called moralism. It is to begin that quintessential of human activity of moral judgment.
How then ought we to think about progress? And how much real progress has modern man (say, the last 100 years) made?
It must be acknowledged, a careful study will disclose hard evidence against us. For almost a century, virtually every step of real progress we have made, has in fact been a grinding gritty effort of restoration or reclamation from some mad heresy, which was itself advertised and accepted as progress. We sundered the Nazi State, concatenated of the heresies of Race and Evolution (a synonym of progress) and Socialism, by laying waste to much of Europe. We more peacefully subdued Communism, thus recovering our ancient orthodoxies on Property and Sin, but before this struggle could be decided, half the world was thrown into a new slavery, while much of the remaining half was thrown into bitter strife. Our successes on these counts are not diminished by noting that they were successes against Progress, but that is what they were.
Men came roaring forth from the laboratories of their fevered minds, shouting of the new and true Progress they had discovered, and first cursing, then murdering those who ventured any skepticism. It is not just that the heresiarchs proclaimed their theories Progress; it is that millions upon millions accepted them as such. It is vital to understand this. For some time the theoretical “wave of the future” was that races no less than species move progressively through history, their success sanctified and their supremacy authorized by the fact of their survival and prosperity. For a considerably longer time another progressive fad reigned which made scientific Social Organization a path to omnipotence, Property an obstacle and oppression, and the Planner who plunders the latter to empower the former, a kind of god. I do not see how such doctrines can be refuted on the grounds of pure materialist science. They are evolution concrete and simple. Today theorists apply Darwinism to collections of thoughts, called memes, and tell us that Charles Darwin the great revolutionist overthrew God; yet they strictly command us to never think of Social Darwinism again?
Progressives from both factions, Nazi and Communist, supposed that the State, by calculated intervention in private life, can bestow upon men and societies ontological meaning. It can give life, or take it away. The State was the agent of material progress; human beings were raw material.
These collectivist movements were not trivial, they were hardly fleeting, and they were extraordinarily popular, not least with that class of people whose business is the public intellect. In truth they were wicked, and they were sanguinary in the extreme; but it is only in retrospect that we can fairly call them “reactionary.” Nazism and Communism were, in bare pulverizing fact, the Progress of the Twentieth Century. It is instructive to remember this; and also remember that what objective progress was made in that era, was made as a great, brutal, tragic counterattack against a heretical enemy who was vulnerable chiefly because of his overconfidence.
So perhaps in this little sketch the reader may discern the lineaments of the Conservative’s suspicion of Progress.