‘Fortschritt Bei Marx’ reviewed by Ishay Landa

Fortschritt Bei Marx

Akademie Verlag, Berlin, 2010. 367pp., €49.80
ISBN 9783050049168

Reviewed by Ishay Landa

About the reviewer

Ishay Landa is Senior Lecturer in History at the Israeli Open University. He has published on …


According to Denis Mäder’s rich and interesting study – if a rephrasing of the argument is allowed – the idea of `progress’ today is doing fine, thank you very much, at the same time as it is terminally ill. Against the assumption that progress has been thoroughly discredited in modern and postmodern theory, Mäder argues that only one kind of progress has truly suffered such a fate, namely the idea, formerly dear to liberals and then taken over most forcefully by Marxists, that progress implies a major refashioning of society, up to and including a revolution. This belief has today fallen completely out of fashion. Once a pillar of Enlightenment thought, progress understood as an emancipatory social evolution / revolution, has come under severe attack during the twentieth century, from both liberal and postmodernist quarters (to say nothing about its old, conservative opponents). Progress, the critics tirelessly emphasize, is a deceptive sun, and humanity, like poor old Icarus, is advised not to stray too near its orbit; it tends mysteriously to turn into barbarism and destruction; it forms an inextricable unity of light and darkness, good and evil, so that every benefit and advance it puts on offer comes attached with a, usually exorbitant, price tag (the author refers to this claim as the ‘ambivalence theory of progress’). Similarly, the eschatological expectations this notion harbors and the attempt to remorselessly implement its logic, have purportedly resulted in many of the major political, ethical and environmental catastrophes of the twentieth century (a critique which Mäder refers to under the headings the ‘teleological problematic’ and ‘the doctrine-of-salvation reproach’). As a result, ‘progress’ is put permanently in quotation marks, to remind us of the heavy toll that this grand écrit had already exacted from humanity throughout its protracted discursive reign.

This severe downgrading of ‘progress’ thus creates the impression that the idea as such has been discredited. Yet this, for Mäder, is to ignore the perfectly good health that progress still enjoys in another, albeit often implied, sense: individual betterment. For individuals, it is now widely assumed, can certainly improve themselves, develop and ascend within the framework offered by liberal-capitalist society. The point is that this framework itself should not be tampered with. For individual progress, in fact, can only be predicated upon a collective … stalemate. Once associated with radical political aspirations, progress has now been safely domesticated and conservatively reframed, so that it has little meaning beyond the smooth management of individual affairs within the existing social, political and economical structures. In Mäder’s suggestive formulation, progress has been ‘privatized’ (60). Mäder’s intervention is designed to show – with recourse to a distinctive theory of progress which is assumed to be implicit in Marx’s writings – how the notion of progress can still be both positively and radically construed. The study is comprehensive and leaves few ramifications of its subject-matter unexplored. Yet, to my mind, two main purposes are at its core: first, there is the ambition of defending progress, in particular Marx’s variant of progress, from its numerous critics. Once such a defensive maneuver is accomplished, Mäder goes on, in a more affirmative mood, to employ Marx’s theory in order to scrutinize the now hegemonic sense of progress and point to its limitations.

The study displays a fine appreciation of the evolution of Marx’s thought during the crucial 1840s, from the early Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts (1844), through The German Ideology (1845), and up to the groundbreaking text, The Poverty of Philosophy (1847). Mäder regards as somewhat unfortunate the enormous subsequent influence of The 1844 Manuscripts in Marxist discourse. At least with regards to its attitude to progress, the author affirms, this is ‘a contradictory document, which has remained, not without reason, unpublished during Marx’s lifetime’ (156). In the twentieth century this text well served the cause of those liberals, notably Karl Löwith, who were interested in labeling Marx an incorrigibly teleological thinker and a (false)-prophet of universal, human salvation. Referring to Marx’s historical theses in the 1844 Manuscripts, encapsulated by the famous assertion that communism is `the solution of the riddle of history’, they seemed to have a strong case in support of their allegations. Yet, Mäder argues, this undeniably teleological vein running through the text in fact does not reflect a distinct Marxist contribution to thinking about either progress or communism, but rather registers his still profound debt to the legacy of the young Hegelians in general, and – with regards to communism – to Moses Hess in particular. In addition to such influences, the 1844 Manuscripts display an understanding of progress which can hardly be called that at all, since at that time Marx envisions communism rather in terms of recuperating the purported human integrity of the past (157-8). So the vital aspect of any progressive thinking is absent: namely, the sense of the present or the future as bringing with them something new. It is only through his subsequent critical engagements with the young Hegelians and with Proudhon, which objectively seen was also a form of self-critique, that Marx develops his own unique vision of progress.

To appreciate the abiding relevance of Marx’s theory of progress, Mäder insists on the need to distinguish between two broad frameworks, both of which conceptualize progress as resulting from and reflecting conflict. The first is the conventional, nineteenth century theory of progress which he suggests calling ‘progress as contradiction’ (Fortschritt-als-Gegensatz); Marx’s distinctive framework is dubbed ‘progress in contradiction’ (Fortschritt-im-Gegensatz): this might seem a mere nuance, but the author argues cogently that it in truth represents a major difference. For what Marx’s concept allows us to do, vitally, is to think about progress outside the matrix of ambivalence: the now almost commonsensical notion that progress is both light and shadow, good and evil, which leads to the ultimate decision about the alleged price of progress and the question of whether it is all worth it, usually answered in the negative. By contrast, Marx regards progress as a clear cut, unambivalent good, the very ‘movement of the good’, which, in turn, permits us to think about negative phenomena and developments not as the shadow cast by progress, but rather as non-progressive aspects, as indications of regression. Correctly understood, the reverse side of progress is not progress itself, the immanent ‘other-side-of-the-medal’, as so widely assumed today, but rather regression. Here Marx differs from both the former defenders of progress and its contemporary critics who, for all their differences, are ‘completely agreed on one point: they see history as the history of progress, as a principle embedded in the process and which pushes towards realization. And while the critique of progress focuses on this point, regression is increasingly forgotten’ (107). Hedwig Schmidt’s lucid commentary is also quoted to that effect: ‘If progress and regression are not distinguished theoretically, then it remains tempting to blame every regression on progress.… Regression seems to have disappeared, and progress stands accused’ (108).  

This is one of the book’s fundamental points, although its critical-polemical implications remain, in my view, somewhat underdeveloped. For what we have here is an important insight into the basically conservative and compliant nature of the sweeping critiques of progress and enlightenment, whether they come from liberal circles (Löwith and Popper are mentioned in the book, alongside many others), from the postmodernist camp (Lyotard as prototype), or even from the ranks of Critical Theory. Whether intended or not, such denunciations of progress entail the side-effect of apologizing for the present. Put blatantly, if ‘progress’ and ‘enlightenment’ are at the root of modern ills, rather than ‘capitalism,’ ‘militarism,’ ‘imperialism,’ and so on, then what is needed is less progress, and less enlightenment, rather than less capitalism, to say nothing about the latter’s supersession (an undertaking which will by necessity be emphatically ‘progressive’ after all). Such apologia is on the cards, once the problem is diagnosed in the cure – progress, reform, revolution – rather than the disease – capitalism and its inherent contradictions and limitations. Hence the imperative of reintroducing the concept of ‘regression’ into the debate about progress.

Marx’s ‘progress-in-contradiction’ model is also a useful way of avoiding the linearity, determinism and universality vitiating competing models. For following The Poverty of Philosophy, Marx abandons the Hegelian view of progress as a pre-determined outcome of History writ large, and works rather with an understanding of progress which is concrete, specific and also spherical. History is not embedded in progress as earlier thinkers have argued (Hegel, Comte, Proudhon) nor is it lost in progress as the later pessimistic approach would have it. It is rather something that happens, occasionally, in history. Marx can thus write about ‘progress here’, ‘regression there’, without assuming that the one determines, or excludes, the other. And he offers concrete ways in which progress can be identified and assessed. Mäder distinguishes three main such Marxist ‘criteria’ for progress, understood materialistically as greater satisfaction of human needs and, perhaps most importantly, as developments which enhance human self-activity (Selbstbetätigung), as opposed to a condition which restricts and burdens such activity: 1) the development of the productive forces: whereby Marx means more than simply economic, to say nothing of technical growth, but also the way in which the developed forces of production eventually come to challenge the existing social relations, hence impelling society forward. 2) Politics as progress: this is one of the most intriguing ideas of the book, arguing that politics, for Marx, is not simply a pre-condition for social progress. Politics rather indicates progress by its very appearance. In contradistinction to the idea that everything is political, Marx considers politics a relatively rare occurrence and process, surfacing at a certain boiling point, or point of class maturity (for example, when a disparate mass of workers coalesces into a united class). This means that conscious political struggle is already, in and of itself and regardless of whether it bears tangible fruits or not, a concrete improvement. 3) Knowledge: the expansion of knowledge and science, and the ability better to comprehend the world and society, as well the possibility to engage in critical research. These criteria can serve to identify the concrete achievements of the liberal-bourgeois order, as well as a way of appreciating their precise limits, the points where they become a fetter on the satisfaction of needs and a hindrance to autonomous, freely determined and pursued, activity.

Mäder achieves all this (and much else besides, which a review cannot cover) with intellectual rigor, argumentative cogency, and impressive erudition. But a warning is due: this is a difficult, at times unwieldy text, more difficult than it could and should have been. The book is a slightly revised doctoral dissertation, which means a profusion of methodological definitions, as well as of all sorts of digressions big and small. And while this might be indispensable in a dissertation, a book would have much profited from a tighter, faster moving presentation. The reader-unfriendliness is compounded by the argument’s somewhat odd structuring. For example, exploration of Marx’s ideas proper begins only at p. 102, and the vital discussion of the concrete criteria of progress according to Marx is delayed until p. 324, that is, dangerously close to the book’s end! But despite these weaknesses, of a largely stylistic and rhetorical nature, the study is a weighty contribution to Marxist scholarship, shedding a concentrated light on a much understudied dimension of Marx’s thought. It robustly enhances our understanding of the specificity of Marx’s model of progress, and does an excellent job at highlighting its pertinence in our times of pronounced pessimism.

5 April 2011

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