6.2.5  Progressivism                                                    

(This is an archived extract from the book Patterns of Power: Edition 2)

The term 'progressivism' is used here to describe a belief in the possibility of improvement, a tolerance of change, a welcoming of different points of view and a readiness to challenge existing institutions.  Progressives believe that new rational thought should be applied to the world as it is now and they don’t accept past experience as a justification for the status quo. Condorcet, for example, wrote:

“everything that bears the imprint of time must inspire distrust more than respect”.[1]

This approach is the opposite of conservatism.  It encompasses a range of attitudes: from a mild desire for ‘progress’, to a belief that violence is justified in order to achieve a total transformation. 

Progressivism can be termed 'radical' in situations where idealism stimulates complete and rapid change of a large part of the political system.  The term 'radical' is used here in its political sense:

"Advocating thorough or far-reaching change; representing or supporting an extreme section of a party; …. characterised by departure from tradition; progressive; unorthodox.” [2]

It can be argued that a radical change programme is the only appropriate response for major changes in circumstances or to correct serious problems in governance. 

A radical change to the entire governance structure is comparatively rare; a striking example was the French revolution, where power was stripped from the king and the aristocracy and was given to the people (although several revisions were subsequently needed).  Such a revolution is risky, as was foretold at that time.[3]  Revolutions can rely on the charisma of a leader to carry them through, but they lack stability until the necessary institutions are in place.  And the impatience for change that brings about a revolution will continue until the changes are seen to be happening.

In practice, people cannot all digest change at the same speed; some will oppose it simply because it makes them feel insecure or because they cannot see sufficient justification for it.  Radical change never receives the full support of the population; it has what Anthony Dworkin described as:

“the essential unreality of utopias, which cannot fulfil their objectives without attempting to remake human nature, or eliminate groups within society that are seen as agents of corruption or reaction”.[4]

There are many examples of dystopian radical change in the 20th century, where the leaders felt that their ideas were so important that they could brook no opposition and the people suffered.  The Khmer Rouge killed an estimated 1.5 million people in Cambodia, for example.[5]

In circumstances where radical change is necessary, restricting the scope of the programme reduces the risk of unintended consequences.  The undeniable problems associated with change are not a justification for maintaining the status quo in all circumstances, but are a valid reason for exercising some caution.  Smaller-scale implementations of progressivism – which have been called "minor utopias" or “piecemeal engineering” – are more likely to be successful than a radical approach.[6]

© PatternsofPower.org, 2014                                                 

[1] Condorcet was quoted by Thomas Sowell, in A Conflict of Visions, p. 39, when describing the “unconstrained vision”.

[2] This definition is based on excerpts from The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary.

[3] Edmund Burke, in Reflections on the French Revolution (which was referred to above), took a cautious view of whether it would benefit people:

“I should therefore suspend my congratulations on the new liberty of France, until I was informed how it had been combined with government; with public force; with the discipline and obedience of armies; with the collection of an effective and well-distributed revenue; with morality and religion; with the solidity of property; with peace and order; with civil and social manners. All these (in their way) are good things too; and, without them, liberty is not a benefit whilst it lasts, and is not likely to continue long. The effect of liberty to individuals is that they may do what they please: we ought to see what it will please them to do, before we risk congratulations, which may be soon turned into complaints.” [para 13]

It was available in May 2014 at www.bartleby.com/24/3/.

[4] This reference is taken from the article The case for minor utopias by Anthony Dworkin, which was published in Prospect magazine in July 2007 and reviewed two books: John Gray, Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia and Jay Winter, Dreams of Peace and Freedom.  The article described utopias as “imaginary constructions of an ideal society” and examined their relationship with achievable reality; it was available in May 2014 at http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/2007/07/thecaseforminorutopias/.

[5] This estimate was quoted in a Time.com article Cambodian Khmer Rouge Killers Sentenced, published 14 Oct 2008.  The article was available in May 2014 at http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1849959,00.html.

[6] Anthony Dworkin used the term” minor utopias” in the article quoted above. 

Karl Popper used the term “piecemeal engineering” in his book The Open Society and Its Enemies and contrasted it with “Utopian engineering” in chapter 9; this was available in May 2014 at http://www.archive.org/details/opensocietyandit033120mbp.