Social progress

Social progress

Social progress is defined as the changing of society toward the ideal. The concept of social progress was introduced in the early, 19th century social theories, especially those of social evolutionists like August Comte and Herbert Spencer. It was present in the Enlightenment's philosophies of history.


The big breakthrough to a new idea in Europe Enlightenment, when social commentators and philosophers began to realize that people "themselves" could change society and change their way of life. Instead of being made completely by gods, there was increasing room for the idea that people themselves "made their own society" - and not only that, as Giambattista Vico argued, "because" people practically made their own society, they could also fully comprehend it. This gave rise to new sciences, or proto-sciences, which claimed to provide new scientific knowledge about what society was like, and how one may change it for the better.

In turn, this gave rise to progressive opinion, in contrast with conservational opinion. The social conservationists were skeptical, critical, and cynical about panaceas for social progress. According to ultra-conservatives, it was impossible to change human circumstances. They reasoned that the more things appeared to change, the more they stayed the same. The only progress there could be would be if people could only understand the eternal conditions of human life and stop fighting against that reality.

By contrast, the progressives focused on real changes actually occurring, and introduced the concept of choice. Life did not have to happen in a pre-ordained way; people surprisingly could actually make choices, and based on those choices, amazingly there would be different outcomes. Ethically, this implied a human responsibility for what happened to people, rather than seeing it just as the ' will of God'.

The notion of freedom

This new idea implied a new concept of human freedom, i.e. people independently making their own lives using their own judgment. Initially, this concept appeared rather paradoxical; thus, Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote, "People are born free, but are everywhere in chains". A big breakthrough was the French Revolution of 1789, which inspired a lot of new philosophical thought. In the philosophy of the German thinker Hegel, history radically recasts itself as the continual development of humanity towards ever-greater freedom, continually extending the limits of freedom. This philosophy is still religious and mystical however, insofar as Hegel sees history as culminating in the unity of God with the world, but at the same time, Hegel also affirmed and imputed a Logos or teleology to human history, and fully recognized that both evolutionary and revolutionary transformations took place in history. This was a hopeful philosophy, which in a rational way sees real progress occurring in history.

It was possible to detect human advances, as well as human regressions to an earlier state. In Hegel’s view, if something existed, it was rational. If it passed out of existence, that was because it had become irrational. This contained a very important idea, however poorly expressed, namely that history was not a fluke of fate (a kismet) but that it could be "rationally understood ,’’ at least in principle.

Marxism and Humanism

This trend of thinking is powerfully developed in the thought of Karl Marx (a student of Hegel's thought) and his secular historical materialism. With splendid rhetoric, Marx describes the mid-19th century condition in the Communist Manifesto as follows:

"The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty, and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all which is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real condition of life and his relations with his kind."

The capitalist era in history is understood here very radically as a process of continual change, in which the growth of markets dissolve all fixities in human life. This is an almost absolute rejection of the conservative ethos, according to which nothing really changes in human life. Marxism further states that capitalism, in its quest for higher profits and new markets, will inevitably sow the seeds of its own destruction. Marxists believe that, in the future, capitalism will be replaced by socialism and eventually communism.


Many advocates of capitalism agreed with Marx's analysis of capitalism as a process of continual change, but, unlike Marx, believed and hoped that capitalism would essentially go on forever.

Thus, by the beginning of the 20th century, two opposing schools of thought - Marxism and liberalism - believed in the possibility and the desirability of continual change and improvement. Marxists strongly opposed capitalism and the liberals strongly supported it, but the one concept they could both agree on was modernism.

Modernism is a trend of thought which affirms the power of human beings to make, improve and reshape their society, with the aid of scientific knowledge, technology and practical experimentation. It reaches its extreme limits with the Russian Revolution and the third Chinese revolution, inspired by Marxist ideology.Here, people claimed such confidence in the ability to change their world for the better, which they thought that, in a relatively short time, largely illiterate peasants could begin to build a just, egalitarian and socialist order in a conscious way, armed with science and technology.

Postmodernism and social progress

In the postmodernist thought steadily gaining ground from the 1980s, the grandiose claims of the modernizers are steadily eroded, and the very concept of social progress is again questioned and scrutinized. In the new vision, radical modernizers like Stalin and Mao appear as totalitarian despots, whose vision of social progress is held to be totally deformed.

Postmodernists question the validity of 19th century and 20th century notions of progress - both on the capitalist and the Marxist side of the spectrum. They argue that both capitalism and Marxism over-emphasize technological achievements and material prosperity while ignoring the value of inner happiness and peace of mind.Postmodernism posits that both dystopia and utopia are one and the same, over arching grand narratives with impossible conclusions. The romanticism of our past due to present discontent has set western society into a state of nostalgia where modernism is feared. Here the past is re-presented as solution to our current problems.

Four recent trends of thought about social progress

In the present time, this trend of thought about social progress leads to four main kinds of responses:

*Neo-conservatism, which returns to the old idea that nothing ever truly changes in the human condition, and the eternal values of religion. The ability of people to change anything other than themselves is vastly overrated. Here, the emphasis is on honoring a traditional way of life which allegedly proved itself as superior in the past, and to which we should adhere.

*Neo-liberalism, which affirms the power and potential of change, but only on a personal, individual level. The idea that the state could be an instrument of social betterment in society as a whole is totally rejected; only free choices made in markets can hold any promise of social progress.

*Socialism, which argues that state direction of social progress booked very important positive results; at the simplest level, it was able to overcome problems of hunger and disease, and raise the material and cultural standard of living for the great masses where markets could not. This leads to the defense of public services and assets, and the case for regulation of market activity.

*Various strands of new radicalism, which begin to question again the objective criteria by which we could measure human social progress. For example, labor productivity might be a criterion of social progress, but how about infant mortality? This kind of thinking rejects the political traditions of the past, and argues that a variety of criteria must be applied to assess social progress. In some cases, this leads to new charters for the moral criteria to which a society should aspire; in other cases, authentic lived experience in society with all its complexities is emphasized.


“All progress depends on the unreasonable man. The reasonable man adapts himself to the world. The unreasonable man persists in trying to adapt the world to himself.”- George Bernard Shaw

"As it will be in the future, it was at the birth of ManThere are only four things certain since Social Progress began. That the Dog returns to his Vomit and the Sow returns to her Mire"- Rudyard Kipling

See also

* progress (philosophy)
* social
* social development
* social change
* social order
* social regress
* sociocultural evolution
* technological progress

External links

* [ 1969 United Nations Declaration on Social Progress and Development]
* [ United Nations Economic and Social Development]

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