10 March 2016

"Progressive Politics": The Alchemy of a Slogan

The reasonable man adapts himself to the conditions that surround him.
The unreasonable man adapts conditions to himself. All progress depends on the unreasonable man.

George Bernard Shaw


A Conservative is a statesman enamoured of existing evils,
as distinguished from the Liberal, who wishes to replace them with others.

Ambrose Bierce, The Cynic’s Word Book (1906)


Change is one thing, progress is another.
„Change” is scientific, „progress” is ethical;
change is indubitable, whereas progress is a matter of controversy.

Bertrand Russell, Unpopular Essays (1951)



Conservative politics has nothing to offer”, a Viennese intellectual once told me. „All it wants to do is conserve. The point of politics is to change things.” This observation intrigued me, not least because this same gentleman had devoted his career in the Austrian Denkmalamt to the conservation of historical gardens in Austria. The issues he confronted in his job were in many respects analogous to those with which conservative politicians might grapple in another context (for example, how should we set about defending what is fundamental to our democracy, if and when it is endangered by contemporary pressures or fashions?). In the case of historical gardens, my friend might have to decide whether a park should be reinstated in its Baroque purity, or whether instead it should be preserved as an English landscaped or romantic garden according to the taste of a later owner. Or perhaps he had to consider whether some modern technique of intervention should properly be applied, if it conflicted with environmental considerations; or how mass access for the public could be made compatible with preservation of the character of the garden. My friend was at the top of his profession and well respected for his nuanced judgement in such matters. Yet, as soon as contemporary politics came up for discussion, the application of nuance and insight evaporated and was replaced by vapid sloganeering. He had become, in short, a protagonist of the „progressive” fallacy where an aspiration to be on the „right” (which is currently the sententiously „liberal” or „left-liberal”) side of the argument had removed the capacity to look critically at the argument itself.

Change”, moreover, is a loaded concept – it might be in the direction of desirable reform that improves people’s lives, but then again it might not. It may be pertinent to recall here that άλλαγή („change”) was the simplistic electoral slogan in 1981 of Greece’s victorious PASOK socialists, whose electoral victory heralded a period of abysmal governance, abject corruption and serious economic mismanagement. PASOK rode to victory on a wave of „progressivism”, which in fact threw Greece back towards the practices of Third World countries through policies that politicised and multiplied the bureaucracy (Law 1320 of 1983, Law 1505 of 1984 and Law 1586 of 1986), politicised higher education (Law 1268 of 1982), and misappropriated or misapplied both locally raised state funds and subsequently funds flowing from the EU. „PASOK effectively justified and modernised rent-seeking”, writes Stathis N. Kalyvas. „It justified it via a socialist-sounding discourse that stressed concepts such as redistribution and public goods.” The „people” were the anointed beneficiaries of this redistribution. However, „since the ‘people’ included almost everyone, this move rendered the idea of redistribution actually moot. Furthermore, the propagation of the idea that ‘anything is fair game’, as long as it represents the legitimate demand of the people, meant that in practice it would be the groups with the highest blackmail potential that would most profit from such redistribution at the expense of weaker ones. Such groups included public-sector workers, particularly those in energy, communications, transport and garbage disposal.”1 The Greek experience under the early PASOK governments is extreme, but it has some uncomfortable cross- references to post-Communist democracies, including Hungary. For example, as Kalyvas relates, „by 1984 it was estimated that 89% of all card-carrying party members of PASOK had some professional connection with the public sector either through a permanent job, a temporary job, or a contract to do business with it”.2 Sounds familiar?

The PASOK phenomenon reminds us that resistance to „change”, especially of the type unscrupulously masquerading as „progress”, may be necessary, principled and democratic. The implication of vulgar political discourse that any resistance to „change” is, by definition, „reactionary” is no more than the propaganda of vested interests. We saw this in the anxiousness of the Kádár regime to label the 1956 Hungarian uprising as „counter-revolutionary”. The historians of 1956 have wiped this accusation from the historical record by repeating the (questionable) mantra that nobody in the uprising, or indeed in the country, wanted a return to any form of conservatism (nobody?). The official line written up by the liberals who had got control of the 1956 narrative is that all agreed at that time that socialism, but with a human face, was the only way forward. A decade of Stalinism, we are led to believe, had turned all those voters who gave the Smallholders’ Party a 57% majority in 1947 into obedient Socialists. This seems rather unlikely. The successes of Conservative governments in Hungary since 1989, such as they are, implicitly challenge this convenient narrative and are indeed one of the reasons that opposition to these governments sometimes takes on a near-hysterical tone.

The Hungarian historian Thomas Molnar wrote a book on the definition of Counter-Revolution in 1969 and it is hard not to think the Hungarian experience influenced his view, although he was discussing the idea in its historical context originating with reaction against the French Revolution: „ ... the main intention of counter-revolutionary political doctrine”, he wrote, „was to prove that the organic nature of societies rejected the revolution as a brutal disruption of national life, that is, the harmony that links community and citizen, government and nation, past and present, history and the future. The gravitational centre... is the belief that the genuine rhythm of societies was contrary to the revolutionary fever; that the government was the guarantor of this rhythm; and that progress presupposes social peace, careful and minimal lawmaking, and protection against upheavals.” This helpfully puts the demonisation of Hungary’s alleged „counter- revolution” of 1956 in historical perspective, especially when one considers that post-Communist countries have struggled to repair the damage to society caused by the Communist revolutions of the twentieth century. „Progress” in this case has meant a return to fundamental humanitarian values that supposedly progressive utopianism had all but destroyed. Whether or not the Hungarians of 1956 wanted to continue with Socialism, they surely wanted a return to the rule of law and „social peace”.




The argument about political and societal „progress” is very ancient and much ink has been spilled disputing what is, or is not, to be regarded as „progressive”. In the field of pure technology, the dispute is redundant: either something works better than what preceded it, or it does not. This judgement does not however preclude a consideration of collateral damage assessed from the point of view of social value or morality (for example the invention of nuclear weapons may be viewed as a disaster for mankind, while many believe the application of nuclear technology to the production of energy is a boon). Still, there are grey areas lying between the fields of science and human value, for example in a fundamentally humanitarian activity like medicine, which obviously makes claims founded on scientific discovery. David Wootton, the author of a book called Bad Medicine, is in no doubt about post-Hippocratic progress in medicine: until the mid-nineteenth century, he explains, there was not any. „For 2,400 years patients have believed that doctors were doing them good; for 2,300 years they were wrong.” According to him, until the advent of germ theory and Dr Joseph Lister’s demonstration of the principles of antiseptic surgery in 1865, medicine either did virtually nothing to help patients or did more harm than good. Bleeding was the almost universal remedy applied and it either weakened or killed most of its patients (including George Washington and Lord Byron). „In recent years”, pursues Wootton somewhat sardonically, „the medical profession has discovered what it calls ‘evidence-based’ medicine – that is, medicine that can be shown to work.”3

These trenchant views, supported with colourful examples in his text, got him into a lot of trouble – not with doctors, but with fellow medical historians; they preferred to unfold a narrative of continuity and progress – or at least to excuse and explain the complete failure of earlier physicians to achieve remedies by citing the prevailing knowledge and beliefs of the age in which they worked. Of course, even the measurable progress of modern medicine does not mean that every inch of technical progress brings commensurate gain for the patient. As Dr Wootton also points out, iatrogenesis is always possible; that is, when „medical intervention itself creates conditions that need to be treated”. The alarming spread of hospital infections that have developed resistance to antibiotics is a case in point.

A discussion in historiography, which is perhaps more directly relevant to my theme, has attacked the idea of progress in a different way. In 1931 the English historian Herbert Butterfield wrote a subsequently famous (or notorious) essay entitled The Whig Interpretation of History. „Butterfield”, writes his biographer, defined ‘Whig’ history as an approach to the past that makes its meaning and its lessons subservient to the demands of the present and to the present’s reigning idea of what constitutes ‘progress’. Whig history was history written by and for the winners in historical conflict and change, and as such, it always upheld the present’s sense of itself as an unmistakable and inevitable advance on all that preceded it. Such historical writing was likely to be simplistic and one- sided, reducible to white hats and black hats, and thereby offending Butterfield’s sense of historical complexity and his insistence on broad sympathies.” There are two criticisms of „history as progress” enunciated here: firstly, that of looking at previous historical events through the lens of today’s bien-pensant orthodoxy. And secondly, writing history as a narrative of, and from the point of view of, the „winners”. The danger is that anachronism crowds out analysis and history becomes a tool of contemporary politics. Truth to tell, it is very difficult to avoid these traps entirely, because a history devoid of interpretation is barely readable. To detach oneself from the Zeitgeist is doubtless the duty and the intention of any serious historian, but even contrarians are in a sense held hostage to the shibboleths of the age against which they are reacting. It is more likely that history will simply reflect assumptions, many of them unconsciously held, that are prevalent in the period in which it is written. As E. Hallett Carr observed in a famous lecture, „the cult of progress reached its climax [in Britain] at the moment when British prosperity, power and self-confidence were at their height; and British writers and British historians were among the most ardent votaries of the cult”.4

Ignorant use of history to make present political points is ubiquitous. For example, the French Ambassadress to London recently said that Napoleon, were he alive today, would struggle passionately to save the EU, because he had dedicated his life to the idea of a united Europe. The historian Simon Schama made short work of this touching sentiment. Firstly, he pointed out that Napoleon’s idea of a united Europe meant one under French hegemony, where the subject nations paid for the privilege of being liberated by the French with a hefty annual impost paid to Paris. Secondly, the said nations also had to be content with being ruled in a police state by one of Bonaparte’s relations. And thirdly, they enjoyed the further privilege of compulsorily donating their most celebrated and precious works of art to the Louvre. So yes, Napoleon did believe in a „united Europe” (no doubt this is what is taught in French schools); but no, the aspirations of the European Union today are not those of Napoleon. That is to say, we hope they are not; but the Ambassadress’s devotion to the cause is undoubtedly in line with „progressive” advocacy of „ever closer union” in Europe. She may inadvertently have alerted us to the sort of post- democracy that a European super-state might involve – a new version of democratic centralism” no less. The attempted imposition of refugee quotas on the EU’s eastern states through the device of majority voting at Brussels, heavily influenced by a Germany whose irresponsible policy has vastly exacerbated the migrant problem in the first place, seems to take us further in that direction.

The dispute about the nature, purpose and direction of the EU is crystallised in the parallel debate about progress. One of the main arguments of EU enthusiasts is that it has „kept the peace in Europe” since the Second World War, a contention that conveniently airbrushes out the fact that without NATO there would very likely have been no peace to keep. On the other hand, the free movement of capital and labour is demonstrably an advance in human freedom for its beneficiaries. Unfortunately the Schengen accord is now under threat because Brussels, influenced by a powerful left-liberal lobby loudly denouncing „fortress Europe”, has fallen for the line that migrants must be regarded as refugees unless proved otherwise by means of a lengthy and bureaucratic process, and that the mass migration we are currently witnessing must be treated essentially as a humanitarian crisis rather than a geopolitical phenomenon with possibly drastic consequences for the host countries. The language of progressive rhetoric adopted by the media is crucial in the coverage of mass migration – for example the news editor of Al Jazeera recently appeared on British television to announce that he had banned the word „migrant” from his reportage, on the grounds that it was offensive [sic], and only the word „refugee” was to be used. Apart from the fact that this was transparently a manoeuvre to close down the debate about who might be entitled to European protection as of right, and who not, his ukase was Pharisaic in the extreme, since Al Jazeera is located in one of the Arab states which refuses to take in any „refugees” at all, though it does contribute money to maintain refugee camps.

Behind the muddled thinking on the migration crisis lie two strands of progressive thinking which are politically incompatible. The first stresses that Europe is morally obliged to open its doors to would-be immigrants, not least because of its past misdeeds in the countries concerned, added to which is a powerful urge to be seen to atone for the horror of Nazism in Germany and Austria. However, another strand of progressive thinking firmly believes that the European Union represents the gold standard of democracy, freedom and tolerance, as defined by the laws made in Brussels. If some countries, for example the Visegrád countries presently in dispute with the EU, choose to interpret those notions differently, they must be crushed. When the polls show that some 83% of Hungarians support Viktor Orbán’s stance on migration this is simply deemed to be evidence of Orbán’s malevolent and unscrupulous populism. Such an attitude is yet another worrying example of Eurocratic readiness to sacrifice democracy to progressive EU shibboleths, as was the case previously with the re-run of referenda on EU powers in recalcitrant member countries until the „right” result was achieved. („What is the point in holding a referendum”, wrote the journalist Philip Coggan, „if only one result is allowed?”) In the one case progressives in the EU can be excessively tolerant of the behaviour of those immigrants who do not share their values at all; in the other, they are excessively intolerant of popular feeling amongst those whose values, in theory, they are pledged to protect. In other words, and at the risk of labouring the point, hard won freedoms (especially freedom of speech) are in danger of being sacrificed to progressive ideology, human rights are in danger of being selectively applied, and cultural preferences are in danger of being outlawed, should they conflict with multicultural orthodoxy. Recently there was a report in a British newspaper that an RAF sergeant who attended hospital A&E in uniform was asked by staff to move out of sight of other patients waiting in casualty on the grounds that these were from „all kinds of different cultures” and his uniform „might upset them”.5

All this reflects an ongoing schizophrenia about „values” generally. If the EU does represent the gold standard of values, then it seems not unreasonable to expect immigrants to integrate themselves fully with the host societies of Europe.

However the protagonists of „multiculturalism” seem to believe the opposite. A universalist conception of values, as Isaiah Berlin has stressed, was fundamental to the mindset of the Enlightenment. He remarks that … „progressive French thinkers” of the Enlightenment believed that „human nature was fundamentally the same in all times and places”.6 This being so, it was entirely achievable that „a logically connected structure of laws… could be constructed [to] replace the chaotic amalgam of ignorance, mental laziness, guesswork, superstition, prejudice, dogma, fantasy, and, above all, the ‘interested error’ maintained by rulers of mankind and largely responsible for the blunders, vices and misfortunes of humanity”. Opposed to this fundamentally optimistic and confident outlook were not only the expected forces of reaction such as the church, but more damagingly what Berlin calls „the relativist and sceptical tradition that went back to the ancient world”. In mature democracies, the forces of reaction have been weakened to the point of inefficacy (even the Pope is worried about „inequality” and „climate change”), so the political debate is now largely between the optimists and the sceptics. To put it another way, the optimists believe that legislation can probably change human nature, while the sceptics believe that it probably cannot – and is moreover always vulnerable to perverse outcomes.

It would be wrong however to place the sceptics automatically in the politically conservative camp. For example, the fashionable philosopher John Gray has moved from right to left in his political stance over the years, but insists that „advances in science and technology do not run in parallel with improvement in civilisation”. In his The Silence of Animals: On Progress and Other Modern Myths (2013) he is sharply at odds with the teleology of liberal progressivism in his Darwinian insistence that humans are just animals among other animals, „not the exalted species apart that Christianity or its liberal humanist descendants would have us to be”. This implies an uncompromising pessimism about mankind which is summed up in the book’s citation of Curzio Malaparte: „There are not two kinds of human being, savage and civilised. There is only the human animal, forever at war with itself.” While Gray accepts the desirability of practical assistance for the underprivileged and oppressed to make the world a better place, he seems convinced that the expansion of human power in the world is always ethically ambiguous.7 Yet there is an empirical weakness in Gray’s relentlessly histrionic and one-dimensional dismissal of the elevated power of reason, which the Enlightenment felt set man above the animals: as the Marxist Terry Eagleton put it in his blistering Guardian review of Gray’s Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals (2002): A creature like Gray can fulminate against genocide but we have yet to meet the giraffe that can do so.8

A century ahead of Darwinism, the Enlightenment thinkers would not for a moment have entertained the notion that nothing essentially distinguished man from the animals, endowed as the former was with the cognitive faculty. On the other hand, for them there were clearly gradations in the ascent of man from a base condition to that of civilisation. The spirit of tolerance, perhaps the greatest achievement of the Enlightenment, did not imply that everything which was tolerated was of equal value. This reservation can be found in one of the most influential books on governance ever written, namely Montesquieu’s De l’esprit des lois (1748). Montesquieu embodies an enduring paradox, in that he was pragmatic and relativist in regard to different cultural traditions, yet believed in an unbending application of law that was uncorrupted by adaptation to societal change, „interpretation” by judges and so forth. His views foreshadowed, as Isaiah Berlin has pointed out, the „struggle between democrats and liberals within the camp of Enlightenment”. The critic Clive James sees this as a foretaste of today’s dilemma of multiculturalism. „Montesquieu”, he writes, „had practically invented the concept that all cultures evolved in different ways from separate imperatives; and in The Spirit of Laws he continued that theme, but by then had seen the danger. In allowing the suggestion that all cultures might be equally valuable, room had been left for supposing that they might be equally virtuous. To guard against this, he advanced the further proposition … that beneath cultural variety there were, or should be, values that did not change. In modern terms, he was concerned that a legitimate delight in the multiplicity of cultures should not develop into an ideology, multiculturalism: an ideology that would entail the abandonment of any fixed concept of justice. Seemingly in the face of his own cultural relativism, Montesquieu declared that justice was eternal… Proposing, at least by implication, a liberalism dependent on a hard core of principles, and not just on tolerance, Montesquieu thus made a decisive pre-emptive intervention into the debate that we are having now.”9 In other words, female genital mutilation is barbaric and wrong in any circumstances, and not, as one prominent cultural relativist horrifyingly put it, just „something in their culture”.




J. B. Bury in his great work on The Idea of Progress points out that the notion of the inevitability of progress is really only as old as the Enlightenment, in the writings of which it gets mixed up with optimistic assumptions about the perfectibility of mankind. This was the view of Condorcet, who observed that the „perfectibility of the human race must be seen as susceptible to indefinite progress”.10 The medieval mind, for instance, was chiefly concerned with what might happen on judgement day, apprehension of coming before his maker with only a poor life record to show being the chief incentive for the good behaviour of sinful man. „The idea of a life beyond the grave was in control”, writes Bury, „and the great things of this life were conducted with reference to the next.”11 One may contrast this with the Enlightenment’s quasi-teleological confidence that mankind was on a trajectory of improvement in this life, a life that counted just as much as, or even more than, the unknowable fate of individuals in the hereafter. Even Gibbon, the ironic chronicler of Rome’s decline, had few doubts about the apparently inexorable advance of comfort, reason and civilised governance. He had come, he wrote, to „the pleasing conclusion that every age of the world has increased, and still increases, the real wealth, the happiness, the knowledge, and perhaps the virtue, of the human race”.12 Pace Gibbon, it is unfortunately also possible that civilisational regress may occur, often retaining and exploiting the great technological progress that has accrued. Many people would cite today’s Islamic State or the Third Reich in the twentieth century as cases in point; on the other hand, progressive persons are usually desperate to rescue the notion of „progress” from the mass-murdering regimes of Stalin and Mao Tse Tung. Writing shortly after the Bolshevik revolution, Bury had thought about this problem too: „This idea [of Progress] means that civilisation has moved, is moving, and will move in a desirable direction. But in order to judge that we are moving in a desirable direction we should have to know precisely what the destination is.” Furthermore: „the Progress of humanity belongs to the same order of ideas as Providence or personal immortality. It is true or it is false, and like them it cannot be proved either true or false. Belief in it is an act of faith.”13

This sort of scepticism about progress as a concept is characteristically, if not peculiarly, English. It is out of tune with much continental (especially French) assumption about its ineluctable force and also with American eudaemonism. As far as politics are concerned, such scepticism has tended to be allied to a political conservatism stemming from Locke’s theory of government. As Bury puts it, „English thinkers were generally inclined to hold, with Locke, that the proper function of government is principally negative, to preserve order and defend life and property, not to aim directly at the improvement of society, but to secure the conditions in which men may pursue their own legitimate aims”.14 Although such an attitude is a good bulwark against tyranny for the articulate and the well-educated, it is obviously not one that is conducive to what we may call progressive legislation aiming to emancipate the oppressed. For that we have had to look, in Britain at least, to non-conformists or evangelicals like William Wilberforce (the abolition of slavery), liberals like Lloyd George (the introduction of pensions) and William Beveridge (the blueprint for a welfare state) – or, more recently, moderate Socialists like Roy Jenkins (the abolition of the death penalty and the repeal of cruel laws against homosexuality). Although Conservative governments have been in power in Britain for more years than their opponents since the introduction of universal suffrage, the idea of „progress” has nevertheless carried all before it among most of the intelligentsia and in the liberal media. It has also been tacitly accepted as inevitable, if not always positive, in society at large (as they say, „You can’t hold up progress…”). However, if we hold to the idea of „universal values”, it is perfectly possible to distinguish between „progress” that is positive and that which is not. Conservatives are concerned to do just that, and in order to do so, they recognise the need to be proactive, if necessary, against evils that have crept in under the banner of „progress”. Their attitude could be summed up in the aphorism of Prince Tancredi Falconieri in Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s The Leopard: „If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.”

So what has gone wrong with the notion of progress today and why have mainstream conservatives, and those further to the right of them, staged such a remarkable comeback in the UK and other European countries? One reason is that the word progress itself has become associated with trimmers and opportunists, rather than persons of clear principles fighting clearly defined causes. As Janan Ganesh explains in an article in the Financial Times, British Conservatives have often retained clarity of purpose and an instinct for the concerns of ordinary people where clever left-leaning intellectuals have not. Moreover, as has also been mischievously pointed out, it is now more than forty years since the Conservatives selected a woman leader and only in 2015 did the Labour Party contemplate doing so (but did not). Then again it took the supposed progressive parties (Liberals then Labour) 142 years to catch up with the Tories by selecting a Jewish leader. „John Stuart Mill, the great liberal”, writes Ganesh, described the Tories as stupid. The Liberals closed down in 1988. The Tories are still running the country … In the post mortem of electoral defeat, ‘progressives’ grope for a ‘critique’ of their electoral loss. They ‘work towards’ an ‘analysis’ of modern Britain and an ‘agenda’ for ‘renewal’, which must be ‘radical’ or at least ‘empowering’. The candidates [for the Labour Party leadership], themselves reared in this junk language of abstract nouns and undergraduate sociology, go along with the joyless charade, always primed with an allusion to the ‘changing workforce’ and something about the internet. This is not sophistication, it is sophistry.”15 That this became apparent to Labour Party members was a contributory factor in the victory in the party’s leadership contest of radical Socialist diehard Jeremy Corbin (although letting anyone join the party and gain a vote in the leadership contest on payment of £3 was probably the proximate cause of his success).

One could pick a number of examples of how putting sloganeering and „virtue- signalling” (i.e. self-righteousness) ahead of analysis and thought has landed progressives in their current cul-de-sac, but I will take just one that has been well described by the philosopher Slavoj Žižek. He points out that, by choosing identity politics over economic analysis, progressives have become entangled in contradictions of their own making. This includes „an uncritical acceptance of anti-American and anti-Western Muslim groups as representing ‘progressive’ forms of struggle… groups like Hamas and Hezbollah all of a sudden appear as revolutionary agents, even though their ideology is explicitly anti-modern, rejecting the entire egalitarian legacy of the French Revolution. (Things have gone so far that some on the contemporary Left consider even an emphasis on atheism as a Western colonialist plot.)” Against this temptation, writes Žižek, „we should insist on the unconditional right to conduct a public, critical analysis of all religions, Islam included – and the saddest thing is that one should even have to mention this. While many a Leftist would concede this point, he or she would be quick to add that any such critique should be carried out in a respectful way to avoid a patronising cultural imperialism – which de facto means that every real critique is to be abandoned, since a genuine critique of religion will by definition be disrespectful’ of the latter’s sacred character and truth claims.” The double standards in regard to „respect” for religion he underlines by citing the row over the Swiss referendum that disallowed the building of minarets in Switzerland, a ban which Turkey, among others, loudly condemned. But Turkey, a candidate for EU membership, forbids all religious buildings other than mosques (and how about applying to construct a Catholic church or a synagogue in Riyadh?).16

If it is not to be the road to hell well paved with good intentions, progressive politics needs to take account of the world beyond the comfort zone of metropolitan liberals. Its protagonists need to decide which are the values they really believe in and feel are worth defending, rather than taking the easy propagandist option of an uncritical stance towards „identity politics”. People do not opt for conservative parties, as they frequently do, simply because (as a progressive tends to assume) they are indulging their worst instincts. By the same token, the label „progressive” does not sprinkle holy water on policies that can be damaging, anti-democratic or actually regressive. Slogans like „social justice” and „equality” mean little without the policies they engender being specifically spelled out – they merely recall the grocer in Communist Prague who placed a placard with the words „Workers of the world unite!” in his shop window beside the tomatoes and the cucumbers. Indeed „progressive politics” often seems to have got little more specific than its formulation by Condorcet in 1795: „Our hopes regarding the future state of humanity can be reduced to these three important points: the destruction of inequality between nations; the progress of equality within one and the same nation; and finally, the real perfecting of mankind.” This could almost be the rhetoric of today’s progressives, but unfortunately Condorcet had not heard of political correctness, and added the question: „Shall all nations some day approach the state of civilisation attained by the most enlightened, the freest, the most emancipated from prejudices of present-day peoples, such as the French, for example, and the Anglo-Americans?”17 The notion of „progress” therefore needs to be handled with caution and to be what Dr Wootton would call „evidence-based”, in modern politics as in historiography. „Butterfield’s Whig Interpretation remains essential reading”, says his biographer, „particularly if we are to recover what progress meant before it became ‘Progress’, that is, before it became a false religion with a secular and immanent eschatology.”


1 Stathis N. Kalyvas: Modern Greece: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford University Press, 2015), pp. 122 and 133–143.

2 Kalyvas: op cit., p. 137. It is worth noting that, while the liberal media of Western Europe and America never tire of lambasting Viktor Orbán and the Fidesz government for allegedly trampling on democratic principles, the sustained assault on the same by PASOK under Andreas Papandreou was generally viewed with indulgence by the same media. Proclaiming the magic words „progressive” and „socialist” was sufficient to give liberal commentators an ample enough fig leaf under which to conceal their double standards…

3 David Wootton: Bad Medicine: Doctors Doing Harm Since Hippocrates (Oxford University Press, 2007), pp. 2–3.

4 Edward Hallett Carr: What Is History? The George Macaulay Trevelyan Lectures delivered in the University of Cambridge, January–March 1961 (Macmillan & Co Ltd., London, 1962), p. 105.

5 The hospital concerned tried to spin its way out of this, but gave the game away when its spokesman said: „[…] members of the Armed Forces, whether in uniform or not, should not be treated any differently [i.e. from other people in casualty]. We are now making this clear to all members of staff” [italics added]. But why should something that should be an automatic presumption possibly need clarification? The report of this incident was in The Sunday Telegraph on 27 September 2015.

6 Isaiah Berlin: „The Counter-Enlightenment”, republished in Isaiah Berlin: Against the Current: Essays in the History of Ideas, edited by Henry Hardy (The Hogarth Press, London, 1979), pp. 1–24.

7 See an interview with John Gray in Oxford Today, Michaelmas Term 2015 – Volume 28, No. 1, pp. 35–37, from which these quotes are taken.

8 The Guardian, 7 September 2002.

9 Clive James: Cultural Amnesia: Notes in the Margin of My Time (Picador, 2007), p. 502.

10 Quoted in Sudhir Hazareesingh: How the French Think (Allen Lane, 2015), p. 87, from Nicolas de Condorcet: Esquisse d’un tableau historique des progrès de l’esprit humain (Paris, 1970), p. 236.

11 J. B. Bury: The Idea of Progress: An Inquiry into its Origin and Growth (1920), Preface.

12 Edward Gibbon: The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Ch. xxxviii.

13 Bury: op cit., Introduction.

14 Bury: op cit., Ch. xii.

15 Janan Ganesh: Analysis paralysis blights a party of clever fools”, Financial Times, 19 May 2015.

16 Slavoj Žižek: Living in the End Times (Verso, 2011), pp. 137–138.

17 Condorcet: op cit., quoted in Harry Elmer Barnes: An Intellectual and Cultural History of the Western World, Vol. 2. (Dover Publications, reprint 1965 of a work published in 1937 and revised in 1941), p. 834.

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