Progressive Movements in History

The masses have never thirsted after truth. They turn aside from evidence that is not to their taste, preferring to deify error, if error seduce them. Whoever can supply them with illusions is easily their master; whoever attempts to destroy their illusions is always their victim.
Crowds always, and individuals as a rule, stand in need of ready-made opinions on all subjects. The popularity of these opinions is independent of the measure of truth or error they contain, and is solely regulated by their prestige.
…nothing is more fatal to a people than the mania for great reforms, however excellent these reforms may appear theoretically. 
     —quotes from Gustave Le Bon, The Crowd: study of the popular mind

     It has been said that history repeats itself; and one of the themes that has been repeated many times throughout history is the spectacle of people stubbornly and fatally refusing to learn from history. Of course if we learned from history, then it wouldn’t repeat itself so much, especially with regard to the unpleasant and the downright catastrophic.

     So if we look at history, we may see that the current “Progressive” movement of the new political left is a fugue-like recurrence of a common theme (“fugue” in the musical sense, not the psychological). Progressive movements large and small have strutted and fretted their hour upon the stage, with “our” version of it being neither the largest nor the smallest, neither the most nor least successful. At least it’s not the largest or most successful yet. And of course, like all other progressive movements, it’s not all good and not all bad.

     I’ve considered Western History, with its rise and fall of empires and civilizations, and it seems to me that there have been at least two social movements analogous to the new feminized PC left which are fairly obvious and important, along with many lesser ones. They tend to have some characteristics in common:

     ~They tend to arise in relatively prosperous civilizations that are mature, past their first flush of vitality and growth, and inclining towards decay;
     ~They tend to be some form of revolt of the weak and economically unsuccessful many, led by some idealistic members of the cultural elite, against the strong and prosperous few;
     ~They tend to be attempts at mass social engineering, i.e., the transformation of society in accordance with a theory, most likely an untried one;
     ~They may be based originally on intellectual principles, but tend to be driven by emotion;
     ~They tend toward some degree of puritanism, fanaticism, and mass hysteria, with proponents of the new ideology often demonizing and loathing the advocates of the old; 
     ~They tend to deny, in one way or another, basic human nature; and
     ~They tend to require a scapegoat—some group in particular to see as the oppressor, “the enemy of the people,” to give them something to unify against and to focus their energies.

     To give a better idea of my idea of progressive movements, I will list some notable examples, starting with relatively minor ones, and a few that are questionable cases.

     The earliest proto-example that I have been able to come up with is the religious, artistic, and social movement in Egypt under the pharaoh Akhenaten in the 14th century BCE. One could certainly call Akhenaten an early “progressive”; he attempted to institute monotheism of a sort, realism in art, and to some degree a more pacifistic, more “just” society. His movement doesn’t fit the description of progressive movements above very well, though, largely because it was set in motion mainly by one person, an autocratic pharaoh, upon a largely reluctant populace. At any rate it did not long survive its founder and was quickly replaced by the former status quo. It may be significant, however, that during the reign of Akhenaten the Egyptian Empire began to decline and disintegrate.

     The 3rd century BCE Indian Emperor Ashoka might also be considered a proto-progressive similar to Akhenaten. He instituted many reforms of government and society, apparently aiming for a kind of enlightened anarchy, defended not by armies but by the spontaneous sincere righteousness of the people; but his movement also was largely a one-man show, didn’t survive him, and helped to promote the decline and disintegration of the Mauryan Empire.

     There may have been some genuine progressive movements in ancient Greece for all I know; and there were certainly philosophers here and there, like Plato, who endorsed them in theory (although Plato’s Republic was a kind of enlightened fascist state). The occasional overthrow of tyrants and establishment of more republican forms of government might qualify. But my earliest examples of real progressive movements, more or less in accordance with the list of characteristic tendencies, would be some of the flareups of the chronic friction between the plebeian masses and Patrician aristocracy in republican Rome. Perhaps the best early Roman instance would be the people’s revolt against the Senate led by the tribune Gaius Sempronius Gracchus in the late 2nd century BCE. The plebs almost succeeded in overthrowing the aristocracy and managed to effect some redistribution of wealth and greater democracy…before the Senate finally managed to have Gracchus killed and the mob violently dispersed. This perpetual strife between the Senate and the people eventually paved the way for the end of the Republic and the advent of Caesarism and the Empire.

Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus

     The Mahayana Buddhist movement in India during the early centuries of the Common Era might qualify as a “progressive movement.” It was popular in the social sense, politically correct in its day, and rather anti-aristocratic at any rate.

     Another potential progressive movement in premodern history may be a strange academic, feminist, and workers’ movement in the latter days of the Abbasid Arab Empire, around the late 9th century CE. Universities proliferated, women were finally allowed into formerly male-only professions, and workers obtained more humane, or at least easier, working conditions during a time of political, economic, and social decline. The Empire was invaded by Turks and collapsed shortly thereafter (although the Abbasid Caliphate continued in a mainly religious and ceremonial capacity until the 13th century). 

     The Protestant Reformation, and the Puritan movement of the 17th century in England could plausibly be called progressive movements; in the former case the designated “enemy of the people” was essentially the Pope and his minions, and in the latter, depraved quasi-papist monarchists. The movement in England culminated in a bloody civil war, the overthrow and beheading of the king, and the institution of a vigorous but rigidly puritanical government under Oliver Cromwell. In this case the strictly enforced Puritan morality led to the reactionary backlash of the Restoration, with the license and licentiousness of the reign of Charles II, the “Merry Monarch.”

     I suppose the American Revolution also could be called a progressive movement, or rather the culmination of one. It was the first radical leap into classical liberalism, and was obviously more successful than most. It is a questionable case, however, if only because it doesn’t fit the list of characteristics very well: for instance, it arose in a brand new world, not a mature society tending toward decline.

     The French Revolution, the wave of revolutions and upheavals throughout Europe in 1848 (beginning in France), and the Paris Commune of 1871 presumably would all apply as progressive movements; and if they are all added together, along with all the socialist ferment of the 19th century with theorists like Proudhon and Fourier, and before them Rousseau of course, it all could qualify as a one of the major ones in history. If so, it was a very rocky one. The French Revolution, for example, with its Equality, Liberty, and Fraternity, quickly degenerated into the bloodbath of the Reign of Terror, with nobody able to establish a viable system, then into a militaristic Empire and the Napoleonic Wars, and then to a humble return to a (weakened) monarchy. At any rate, Rousseau and the Revolution instilled in the French a seemingly unquenchable thirst for “social justice” that persists to this day, and which no doubt has helped to inspire the feminized “Soviet Union Lite” welfare superstate of the present EU.

     In several areas in the western world, including America, anti-slavery, temperance, and feminist movements also came into prominence in the 19th century, which sometimes formed into combinations as a general progressive crusade.

     There were movements in early 20th-century America which were officially named “Progressive,” led by people like Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson; although postmodern “progressives” are apparently unimpressed by them now, and many would prefer to dissociate themselves from the likes of Roosevelt and Wilson, both public enemies by the postmodern reckoning, that is, patriarchal white males. Anyhow, I know little about these paleo-progressive movements, so I will say no more about them.

     Finally comes a largish movement which many people alive today witnessed and participated in: namely the hippie movement of the 1960’s and early 70’s, and to a lesser degree the Beat movement which preceded it. The hippies began as political idealists of a sort, revering such leftist icons as Herbert Marcuse (member of Frankfurt School) and Chairman Mao (political stepchild of Joseph Stalin), and joining forces, especially on university campuses, with the contemporary Civil Rights Movement. Although the political idealism remained, especially on campus, the movement overall pretty quickly degenerated into sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll, and into young people rebelling against the traditions of their parents for the sake of rebellion itself and conformity with their peer group. By the mid-70’s it had degenerated beyond ideological recognition into disco culture (the “me” generation) and punk. Residual echoes of the movement continue to reverberate throughout Western culture, however; in fact the upheavals and rebellions of the 1960’s have left an indelible stamp on society, with regard to equal rights and sensual indulgence, for example; and the new feminized PC left today is partly the result of intellectual ex-hippies infiltrating academia and promoting, sometimes in camouflaged form, Marcusian and Maoist (etc.) ideals.

a stereotypical hippie
(although the ecstasy may be an anachronism)

     No doubt there have been many others that I haven’t heard of or know too little about, like maybe some of the political goings-on in the city-states of medieval and Renaissance Italy (like the adventures of Rienzo in Rome and Savonarola in Florence); but the ones mentioned should be sufficient to give a general idea of what I’m talking about.

     The fact that these are listed as notable minor examples indicates that they were not the most successful or lasting. Some amounted to little more than ephemeral upheavals that quickly lost momentum (like the plebeian revolts in Rome), and some were promptly undone by reactionary countermovements (like Puritanism giving way to the Restoration). All events in history leave their mark and have their lingering effects, but the ones named above fell far short of what they were trying to accomplish, with a few exceptions, like the anti-slavery movements.

     It seems to me that the two really major progressive movements, the two that have made the greatest impact on the world, regardless of whether they achieved their aims and realized their ideals, and setting aside the questionable case of the birth of the USA, are 1) Christianity in the late Roman Empire; and 2) Marxism in the late 19th century, and especially its culmination in bolshevism a hundred years ago, which resonated throughout the 20th century.

     Both of these major movements share all of the characteristics on the list above. For example, both denied human nature: The Christians accepted its existence but considered it evil and to be resisted; whereas the Marxists believed the human mind to be a blank tablet at birth, with no innate human nature at all, just waiting to be culturally conditioned—which was typical of 19th-century “Enlightenment” intellectualism, and still is typical, unfortunately, of 21st-century social science.

     Also, both movements have their favorite enemy of the people: For the earliest Christians it was Pagan Rome itself, plus maybe the Jews; but gradually, more and more, the enemy became heretics, that is, Christians who endorsed a different theory. Thus in the late Empire blood flowed in the streets during hysterical riots over whether, say, Jesus Christ had two personalities, earthly and divine, or only one, or whether the Holy Spirit emanated directly from the Father, or from the Father through the Son. And of course, the designated bogeymen of the Marxists throughout the 19th and 20th centuries were the capitalist bourgeoisie.

     Another similarity is that both of these movements began harboring high ideals of compassion and equality…and eventually sank to the level of ruthless persecution of all who disagreed, or were skeptical, or who might be skeptical. The love and compassion were there, but only for the in-group. The public enemy must remain an enemy, for the sake of having something to unite against.

     Well, you may have perceived where all this is headed. The new PC leftist movement also partakes of all the qualities on the list, and thus also has its denial of human nature (“blank slatism”), its public enemy (white males*), and its intolerance of heretics (conservatives and many others, including devout progressives who consider discrimination against white people to be racist, and feminists who publicly endorse men’s rights). I may discuss late Roman Christianity in another post someday, will very probably discuss classical Marxism and Leninism, and will certainly discuss the new feminized PC “progressive” left. Gawd willing, if I don’t die first.

a 3rd wave feminist blackshirt
(she really is saying that too, by the way)

* Some actually say, and even believe, that the new PC left is not against white males. A progressive-leaning friend of mine sent me an email once that declared a belief in PC man-bashing to be “total bullshit”…and by the end of the very same email he himself was blaming reactionary “white dudes” unwilling to relinquish their privilege for the difficulties faced by the progressive movement. The fact is that a white man may atone for his white maleness by a more or less ritual act of social self-castration, humbly apologizing for his past toxic masculinity, and for all the evil perpetrated by white men over the millennia (never mentioning the good); and keeping his masculine opinions to himself thereafter, since of course if he shares them he would be mansplaining.



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