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A Road to Nowhere
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A Road to Nowhere
The Idea of Progress and Its Critics

Matthew W. Slaboch

208 pages | 6 x 9
Cloth 2017 | ISBN 9780812249804 | $47.50s | Outside the Americas £38.00
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"Slaboch has written an elegant and important book on the political, philosophical, and cultural meaning and limits of the idea of progress, as understood by major nineteenth- and twentieth-century writers . . . He encourages us to rethink with a more discerning eye our own predisposition to embrace progress, by eruditely reminding us of its complexities—and costs."—The Review of Politics

"In his recent book, Matthew W. Slaboch provides an original and erudite study of an eclectic and generally neglected group of thinkers, Neglected in part, according to Slaboch, because of their unorthodox antipathy towards the belief in 'progress,' or 'the belief that humans are capable of making lasting improvements—intellectual and scientific, material, moral, and cultural.' The study not only sheds valuable light on these thinkers and their contributions to political thought, but also offers a promising illustration of the kind of work that might be done in the burgeoning field of comparative political theory."—Interpretation

"A Road to Nowhere is a wonderfully suggestive and gracefully written, succinct but never superficial, exploration of a remarkable group of thinkers and critics who have in common one thing and one thing alone: a rejection of the modern ideology of progress."—Daniel J. Mahoney, Assumption College

"With doubts about the steady forward progress of Western culture coming to the fore politically and socially, this is a timely book. Its strength and the source of its originality is Matthew Slaboch's comparative approach across German, Russian, and American cultural contexts and his articulate and straightforward synthesis of the material."—Richard Sigurdson, University of Calgary

Since the Enlightenment, the idea of progress has spanned right- and left-wing politics, secular and spiritual philosophy, and most every school of art or culture. The belief that humans are capable of making lasting improvements—intellectual, scientific, material, moral, and cultural—continues to be a commonplace of our age. However, events of the preceding century, including but not limited to two world wars, conflicts in Korea and Vietnam, the spread of communism across Eastern Europe and parts of Asia, violent nationalism in the Balkans, and genocides in Cambodia and Rwanda, have called into question this faith in the continued advancement of humankind.

In A Road to Nowhere, Matthew W. Slaboch argues that political theorists should entertain the possibility that long-term, continued progress may be more fiction than reality. He 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 engage political theory, a field dominated by historical optimists. Looking at the figures of Schopenhauer, Tolstoy, and Adams, Slaboch considers the ways in which they defined progress and their reasons for doubting that their cultures, or the world, were progressing. He compares Germany, Russia, and the United States to illustrate how these nineteenth-century critics of the idea of progress contributed to or helped forestall the emergence of forms of government that came to be associated with each country: fascism, communism, and democratic capitalism, respectively.

Turning to Spengler, Solzhenitsyn, and Lasch, Slaboch explores the contemporary relevance of the critique of progress and the arguments for and against political engagement in the face of uncertain improvement, one-way inevitable decline, or unending cycles of advancement and decay. A Road to Nowhere concludes that these notable naysayers were not mere defeatists and presents their varied prescriptions for individual and social action.

Matthew W. Slaboch is a postdoctoral research fellow at the James Madison Program in the Department of Politics at Princeton University.

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