A Road to Nowhere

Matthew W. Slaboch examines the work of German philosophers Arthur Schopenhauer and Oswald Spengler, Russian novelists Leo Tolstoy and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and American historians Henry Adams and Christopher Lasch—rare skeptics of the idea of progress who have much to offer political theory, a field dominated by historical optimists.

A Road to Nowhere
The Idea of Progress and Its Critics

Matthew W. Slaboch

2017 | 208 pages | Cloth $45.00
Political Science
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Table of Contents

Chapter 1. "The Same, But Otherwise": Arthur Schopenhauer as a Critic of "Progress"
Chapter 2. The Autocrat and the Anarchist: Nicholas I, Leo Tolstoy, and the Problem of "Progress"
Chapter 3. "The Path to Hell": Henry (and Brooks) Adams on History and Politics
Chapter 4. Critics of the Idea of Progress in an Age of Extremes: Three Twentieth-Century Voices


Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]


In 2008, Barack Obama campaigned for the American presidency on a message of "hope" and "change." Decades earlier, Ronald Reagan conveyed the same sort of optimism, envisioning for citizens a bright and sunny future: it was "morning in America." No doubt Obama, Reagan, and the countless other politicians who have promised better days ahead believed sincerely that the future looked bright. And why shouldn't they? Americans, living in a country that was founded at the height of the Enlightenment, are conditioned to accept certain principles, not the least of which is a belief in progress. This idea was put forth eloquently in a Fourth of July oration by James Wilson, a signatory of the Declaration of Independence and one of the original justices of the U.S. Supreme Court: "A progressive state is necessary to the happiness and perfection of man. Whatever attainments are already reached, attainments still higher should be pursued. Let us, therefore, strive with noble emulation. Let us suppose we have done nothing, while any thing yet remains to be done. Let us, with fervent zeal, press forward, and make unceasing advances in every thing that can support, improve, refine or embellish society." Wilson concludes his speech by predicting "unceasing advances" not only in agriculture, commerce, and industry, but also in the arts, virtue, and liberty. As a piece of oratory, Wilson's speech is outstanding, with few to rival it. But the message of that speech is hardly unique: from the founding moment to the election and subsequent reelection of President Obama, the idea of progress has found common currency in American politics and society.

Obama's successful presidential bids are not the only testament to the fact that "progress" retains strong rhetorical and political appeal in the twenty-first century. Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, seeking to capture the Democratic Party's nomination to succeed Obama as president, largely eschewed the term "liberal," battling instead over which candidate was the true "progressive." And on both the left and the right, proponents of this or that policy routinely accuse their opposition of being on the "wrong side of history," implying that historical change is unidirectional, a move from worse to better.

At the same time, public discourse and recent polls suggest that ordinary Americans' confidence in the future of their country has been shaken. In June 2016, Obama declared at a town hall meeting in Elkhart, Indiana, that "the notion that somehow America is in decline is just not borne out by the facts." He offered an impassioned defense of his time in office and painted a rosy picture of the state of the union as his tenure wound down. In spite of the president's repeated efforts to reassure them about the prospects for their country, though, American citizens remained unmoved. Gwen Ifill, moderator of the Indiana event, noted with respect to the rhetoric of decline that "it resonates." New York Times columnist David Brooks, too, observed that "pessimism is just en vogue . . . the country is not in a mood to think it's heading in the right track. There is almost a near consensus that we are not."

Although not on the ballot, Obama made the 2016 presidential election a referendum on himself and his reforms. On election eve, he told a crowd in Michigan that "tomorrow, you will choose whether we continue this journey of progress, or whether it all goes out the window." And on election day, a plurality of Michigan voters went to the polls to do precisely what Obama had asked them not to do: help ensure that Donald Trump became the forty-fifth president of the United States of America.

In elevating Trump to the presidency, voters repudiated a "third Obama term." Whether they likewise rejected the idea of progress—or merely Obama's vision of progress—is a matter for contestation. Candidate Trump made waves during the 2016 election with his gloomy portrayals of the everyday lives of Joe and Jane Q. Citizen; Hillary Clinton, his chief opponent in the general election campaign, derided him for painting a picture of "midnight in America" rather than "morning in America." In his inaugural address, President Trump retained the somber rhetoric he had used in earlier stump speeches. He spoke of "American carnage" and observed that "the wealth, strength and confidence of our country has dissipated over the horizon." He lamented the "mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities" and the "rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation." But his address was hardly a dirge; Trump coupled his grim portrayal of the present with a lofty vision of the future. Americans may have lost their characteristic optimism, but the new president suggested he would do his part to help restore their faith: "we are looking only to the future," he said, and "stand at the birth of a new millennium." Indeed, rather than tamp down the expectations of an already forlorn citizenry, Trump exhorted his listeners to "think big and dream even bigger" and proclaimed that now was the time to "unlock the mysteries of space, to free the Earth from the miseries of disease, and to harness the energies, industries and technologies of tomorrow."

If pessimism is "en vogue" in the United States, it is no less so in Europe. To its many defenders, the European Union (EU) is a post-World War II success story, an enterprise responsible for bringing peace and prosperity to a conflict-ridden region. But in a 2015 survey of citizens from nine EU member states, nearly three-quarters of respondents felt that the Union is moving in the wrong direction. The ambition of "ever closer union" is uncertain. In place of widening, the process by which the EU's borders are expanded to include new member states, we see contraction, following the UK's June 2016 plebiscite on EU membership. In response to deepening, the process by which an increasing number of decisions are decided at the EU level rather than left to individual states, we see a resurgent nationalism.

Europeans, however, are not merely dissatisfied with the EU; they are also dismayed with the directions their respective countries are taking. A 2016 survey showed that more than 60 percent of citizens in the UK, nearly 70 percent of Germans, more than 80 percent of Spaniards, Italians, and Hungarians, and almost 90 percent of Frenchmen felt that their countries were on the wrong track.

Even if Americans and Europeans were more bullish in forecasts of the future for their homelands, events of the preceding century should force us to reconsider our faith in the continued improvement of humankind as a whole. World War I, early in the century, was soon followed by the rise of fascism in Germany and Italy and communism in Russia. World War II was followed by conflicts in Korea and Vietnam, genocide in Cambodia, and the spread of communism across Eastern Europe and parts of Asia. To cap off the century, violent nationalism tore the Balkans asunder and genocides ravaged Rwanda and Sudan. The possibility that long-term, continued progress might be merely a dream is something people in general and political theorists in particular must consider.

If we look to the canon of political theory, we see that it is filled with historical optimists; skeptics, pessimists, and theorists of decline are exceptional. Modern political thought, in particular, is dominated by thinkers who believe that history tells a tale of progress; such thinkers may not share Gottfried Leibniz's view that ours is the "best of all possible worlds," but they do think the world can become better. Among such theorists was the Marquis de Condorcet, who, having surveyed past developments, predicted for the future "the progress of knowledge and the progress of liberty, of virtue, of respect for the natural rights of man." Figures as distinct as Adam Smith, Immanuel Kant, John Stuart Mill, G. W. F. Hegel, Karl Marx, and the American founders likewise found cause to trust in future progress. The belief that humans are capable of making lasting improvements—intellectual and scientific, material, moral, and cultural—is a commonplace of our age.

To be sure, some brave souls have dared to consider the possibility that progress is more fiction than reality. I contend in this book that we can learn from such thinkers. The figures I have in mind come from the worlds of philosophy (Arthur Schopenhauer, Oswald Spengler), fiction (Leo Tolstoy, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn), and professional history (Henry Adams, Christopher Lasch). These thinkers are hardly marginal—numbered among them are indisputable masters of their respective crafts, including a Pulitzer Prize winner (Adams) and a Nobel laureate (Solzhenitsyn)—but they are generally relegated to the margins in works by political theorists. Convinced that they are of more worth to political theory than a passing mention or a footnote, I bring them to the forefront by presenting their arguments against historical optimism. To show that these naysayers were not mere defeatists, I also highlight their varied prescriptions for individual and social action.

This book addresses several questions: What do political theorists and political leaders mean when they speak of "progress"? To what end or ends are we supposed to be progressing? What evidence of progress do we have, and, more important (for this project), what are the arguments against its existence? For those who believe in it, is progress to occur organically, or are governments supposed somehow to push it along? For those who deny that progress exists or feel it is not something with which we should concern ourselves, how are we to structure our lives? What is the purpose of politics if not to help make society better and to create lasting improvements?

Approach and Organization

The idea of progress is commonly associated with Europe's eighteenth-century Age of Enlightenment. Although there are notable thinkers from the eighteenth century who questioned this idea or rejected it outright (Edmund Burke, Joseph de Maistre, and others), stronger critics emerged in the following century. I believe that we can learn from these later critics, who lived in a century that was less violent and destructive than the twentieth, but who nevertheless saw reason to reject the notion that humankind or their own particular societies were improving. What was transpiring in the nineteenth century that made progress seem illusory? And what individual or social action did critics of the idea of progress propose in response? Against whom were these critics arguing? I aim in this book to analyze the main arguments made by important figures, while simultaneously situating those thinkers in their social and historical environments. In the background will be the question why these issues should matter to us today.

Such a book is not only timely, in light of a changing political atmosphere, but in my view necessary as well. For if there is a relative paucity of thinkers critical of the idea of progress, there is likewise a dearth of secondary literature sympathetic to these critics. By contrast, works celebrating the idea of progress and its progenitors are legion. Early in the twentieth century, the Irish historian J. B. Bury penned one of the most famous works of this latter sort, The Idea of Progress, which is notable for its contention that "progress" is a modern concept, unknown to the ancients, who thought in terms of historical cycles. Bury, who dedicated his work to "Condorcet, Auguste Comte, Herbert Spencer, and other optimists," wrote before World War II, a period of unsurpassed barbarism. But even writers who lived through the horrors of that war continued to sing the praises of "progress." Robert Nisbet, who served in the U.S. army during the war and later became a noted sociologist and conservative commentator, contends in his History of the Idea of Progress that the "idea of progress has done more good over a twenty-five-hundred-year period . . . than any other single idea in Western history." A strong claim, to be sure, but Nisbet's high estimation of the idea of progress is far from unique in contemporary scholarly circles.

In what follows, I do not attempt to create a genealogy of critics on par with what Bury and Nisbet achieved for champions of the idea of progress. Instead, I aim to understand the conditions that give rise to historical pessimism and to assess the political implications of such pessimism by looking at three particular cultures. I begin in Chapter 1 with a look at German culture. The German lands produced both Leibniz and Hegel, the former a metaphysical optimist and the latter a historical one. However, German culture also gave us Schopenhauer, a deeply severe critic of any sort of optimism. Schopenhauer had as intellectual heirs Friedrich Nietzsche and the German-Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt, both of whom are considered in their own right.

After exploring German challenges to the idea of progress, I turn in Chapter 2 to the Russian context. Throughout most of its history, Russia has been influenced by, but stood apart from, the West. Nineteenth-century Russia was home to both thinkers who defined progress differently from their counterparts in other countries (for example, the Slavophiles) and those who rejected the concept of progress altogether (for example, Leo Tolstoy). I focus on both types of critic, paying special attention to the latter.

Turning from a society that remained distant from Enlightenment ideals to one founded on such principles, including faith in progress, I look next to the American context. Through much of the country's history, many politicians, writers, and members of the general public have contended that the United States has an obligation to lead the rest of the world to progress. However, such a view has not gone unchallenged. In Chapter 3, I consider as opponents of the predominant narrative two brothers, Henry and Brooks Adams, historians and scions of an important political family.

The comparative focus this project employs has some advantages. It allows us to consider how people in different social contexts defined progress, and also to consider their reasons for doubting that their cultures (or the world) were progressing. Moreover, this approach allows us to see whether the proposals for action differed at all, given different institutional and social constraints. Since its founding, the United States has been a democratic republic. Nineteenth-century Russia, by contrast, was an autocracy. The idea of the "end of history" notwithstanding, the contemporary world is still divided into democratic and nondemocratic regimes, and we may better understand the importance of the idea of progress if we consider its role in multiple social and political contexts. The cases of Germany, Russia, and the United States are particularly illustrative because these countries would become synonymous with the twentieth century's three leading ideologies: fascism, communism, and democratic capitalism, respectively. In this book, I consider the ways in which nineteenth-century proponents and critics of the idea of progress contributed to or helped forestall the emergence of various twentieth-century regime types.

To maximize the benefits of employing a comparative approach, this book engages in not only cross-cultural but also cross-temporal comparisons. In Chapter 4 I turn to prominent twentieth-century critics of the idea of progress—Spengler, Solzhenitsyn, and Lasch. In my Conclusion I explore the contemporary relevance of the ideas explored in preceding chapters; here, I wish to show that nineteenth- and twentieth-century critics of the idea of progress are not mere curiosities who dared challenge one of the dominant paradigms of their day, but thinkers who challenge us even in the present.

In Chapters 1 through 4, the questions asked with respect to critics of the idea of progress are the same: What kind of progress is being denied? Universal? Western? National? What is the argument against progress, that is, how is the argument made? Is it made using historical examples? Is it shown "scientifically"? Or is the idea of progress simply dismissed as self-evidently wrong? Do the authors in question focus on any particular facet of life to show that there has been no progress—cultural and aesthetic, moral, intellectual, and so forth? What are the solutions to the problems of stagnation or decay, that is, how do we reform those facets of society in need of rejuvenation? What should we do as individuals? What should we ask of our fellows? What should we expect from the state? This approach may be formulaic, but it allows me to assess whether and how the social and political context shapes the responses of thinkers who grapple with similar questions in different nations and times.

In my investigation, I seek both to reconstruct the arguments made by the authors in question and to comment upon their ideas. To do so, I select representative passages from main (and sometimes secondary) texts by these authors, which I discuss at length. I find that, when speaking of critics of the idea of progress, one must distinguish between, on the one hand, thinkers who posit that history has no discernable pattern or points straight to decline, and on the other hand, thinkers who believe that history unfolds in a series of predictable cycles. I argue that thinkers of the former type tend to be antipolitical thinkers; they believe that achievements brought about by politics are no more permanent against the tides of history than are sand castles against the tides of the ocean. Cyclical theorists, by contrast, tend to place a higher priority on political engagement; they find in history periods of both progress and decline, and they focus on the ways in which political activity can help prolong advancement or retard decay.

This book looks first at Schopenhauer, who deserves pride of place in a work about critics of the idea of progress for several reasons. First, the term "pessimism" is more closely associated with Schopenhauer and his writings than with any other philosopher or work. Moreover, several of the other authors discussed in this book regarded themselves as intellectual heirs of Schopenhauer. Nietzsche was not alone in seeing Schopenhauer as an "educator." In correspondences with Nietzsche, Burckhardt referred to Schopenhauer as "our philosopher." Tolstoy asked, "are we two—Schopenhauer and I—the only two men wise enough to have insight into the meaning of life?" And Henry Adams paradoxically claimed that he "drew life from Hegel and Schopenhauer rightly understood." Schopenhauer's exerting such an influence on these later writers justifies an in-depth treatment of his ideas. And so it is with Schopenhauer that this book begins.