The False Religion Of Progress: Benjamin’s Theses On The Philosophy Of History XIII
Every day our cause becomes clearer and people get smarter. – Wilhelm Dietzgen, Die Religion Der Sozialdemokratie
Social Democratic theory, and even more its practice, have been formed by a conception of progress which did not adhere to reality but made dogmatic claims. Progress as pictured in the minds of Social Democrats was, first of all, the progress of mankind itself (and not just advances in men’s ability and knoelwedge). Secondly, it was something boundless, in keeping with the infinite perfectibility of mankind. Thirdly, progresss was regarded as irresistible, somethint automatically pursued a straight or spiral course. Each of these predicates is controbersial and open to criticism. However, when the chips are down, criticism must penetrate beyond these predicates and focus on something that tthey have in common. The concept of the historical progress of mankind cannot be sundered from the concept of its progression through a homogeneous, empty time. A critique of the concept of such a progression must be the basis of any criticism of the concept of progress itself. – Walter Benjamin, “Theses On The Philosophy Of History”, in Illuminations, ed. by Hannah Arendt, trans. by Harry Zohn, pp. 260-261
If there was any secular religious idea that united the ruling classes of the 18th and 19th centuries, it was the idea of Progress. Flush with victory over the feudal structures across western Europe, the aristocrats first, then the bourgeoisie took aim at power by convincing their comrades the future was theirs. This future, they insisted, was inevitable. The end of feudalism had brought with it a critique of Christian faith rooted both in the humanism of the more recent past as well as an analysis of the theological discourse of the time that many considered irrational. Combined with the very visible and all-too-well-known crimes against both rising classes with which the Church was complicit, it was easy enough to rise up and begin, finally, to displace the autocratic absolute monarchs. In France, however, this bourgeois revolution soon morphed in to the first true People’s Revolution against not only a corrupt and antiquated absolute monarchy, but the rising bourgeoisie and its pretense to rule in the name of the people without granting the people any power. While successful for a time, the Revolution soon devolved in to a different autocracy, rooted in dogmatism, and replaced Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite with the Terror, which could only be ended through force and the rise of something new and even more terrible – the Bonapartist Empire and its fantasy of world conquest.
One would have thought this example would have been enough to squelch any trust in either Progress or its dogma of infinite human perfectibility. After the Congress of Vienna in 1815, however, adherents to the church of Progress looked to Britain, its evolving Parliamentary semi-democracy, the changing British Constitution that continued through the 19th century to limit the power of the Monarch in favor of the industrial classes and landed aristocracy, and presented this as a model for the rest of Europe, who had reverted to absolute monarchy under the strict control of religiously-based autocracies. Prussia, Austria, Russia, and France were ruled by Monarch and Church, keeping a firm foothold on any attempt to alter the status quo.
After the failed revolutions of 1848, however, it became possible to believe the future could change. Even a tactical loss by the working classes could be understood as a strategic victory, if only analyzed and understood correctly. A generation later, with the unification of the old Germanic states under a new Imperial banner governed by Bismarck, it was to Germany that many looked for possibilities for the future. While Bismarck created a Parliament, he did so in such a way that the multiple parties would never have the ability to anything but rubber stamp his decisions for the creation of the infrastructure of the new Empire. Nevertheless, even the drab fakery of democracy was enough for some on the Left to set aside revolutionary hopes and praxis, and join the Church of Progress, if only toward an end they claimed differed from that of Bismarck, the Emperor, or the aristocratic Junkers, for whom Bismarck worked.
If there has ever been an idea more antithetical to true human liberation, to true human living, to a just social organization, or to clarity of moral or political thought, it is Progress. In 1991, the late Christopher Lasch published his magnum opus, The True And Only Heaven, a long and winding critique of the idea of progress, invoking everyone from Adam Smith to Reinhold Niebuhr, while recalling the revolutionary syndicalists and their vision of small, semi-autonomous, self-sustaining and self-governing, fully democratic polities. The thoroughgoing critique of Progress for which Benjamin called Lasch completed, although to what many (including myself) consider mixed ends. The fact remains, however, that for all its failures, for all its obviously false dogmas, and for all its obvious transparency as the New Clothes of the same old Emperor, Progress continues to hold adherents and evangelists. It is, perhaps, the single most successful rival to Christianity, at least in the West. Nothing more clearly represents what Scripture calls “the Principalities and Powers”, the spiritual forces of the ruler of this age, than does the notion of Progress.
Like the Christian Churches when they keep to their faith, it was the revolutionary Marxists who saw through the lies of Progress. Benjamin’s damning of the German Social Democrats for buying in to this particular social fiction is thoroughly justified precisely because it is not only a salve for guilty consciences, but a recipe for inaction in the face of inaction. Why should one actually organize and act out against injustice and oppression if History is moving inexorably, inevitably toward a fully human future as dictated by those who are in power? And it is precisely here that both the Christian Churches and the revolutionary classes can join together and call out the fundamental irrationality of the religion of Progress. As Benjamin notes, it is rooted in an ahistorical view of history, one in which we do not see strife and struggle, one in which the dead lie in unmarked mass graves, and one in which all the terms are defined for us, and cannot be altered precisely because they are dogmas far more powerful than anything dreamed up by any Christian church. The inhumanity of Progress is revealed in the falseness of its understanding of “History”. As Benjamin noted in the prior Thesis, it is the oppressed who are the true bearers of Historical knowledge; for the Christian faithful, we can agree that it is those despised, forgotten, written out of social and even human life by the Powers and Principalities that are, in fact, the beloved of God and the agents of Divine Love in and for the world. However we describe them, and whatever terms we use, we are saying much the same thing here, in protest against the official State Religion of Progress, most recently defined as TINA. The names change, but they are only masks that hide the true face of the Powers of this world.
The work instituted by Lasch, critiquing progress by looking at history through eyes understand History as involving human beings struggling for freedom, must continue. Even as we mouth Christian/Muslim/Jewish/Hindu/Communist/Nationalist platitudes and phrases, Progress has marched around much of the rest of the world, evangelizing in the name of wealth and power, stripping suffering humanity even of existence as the bodies pile up. Whether we resist in the name of the oppressed or in the name of the crucified and risen Christ, we must always resist this false religion, this demonic force that kills people in the name of humanity, and robs the past of any existence for the sake of a future built by and for the ruling classes.