Sunday, 20 December 2009

Does art progress? part 1

When society moved from hunting and gathering to the more advanced economy and society of the early civilisations, did art also ‘progress’, advancing from primitive origins to a state of higher achievement?

We have argued elsewhere that humans only began creating unequivocal works of art with the evolution of Homo sapiens, which already implies a progression from very early aesthetic urges which are poorly understood. But did the process continue even after Homo sapiens had appeared and begun creating art? With the advent of civilisation, humans mastered ever more sophisticated techniques and materials, built intellectual traditions and theories of art [1], etc. To take the example of writing, from a tiny elite pressing reed-tips into clay tablets we have progressed to mass literacy and word-processing: a huge objective advance. Do such advances mean that the art of civilisation was ‘better’ than Stone Age art, or that contemporary art is ‘better’ than, say, the art of the Middle Ages? If not, why not?

To answer these questions we need to make a distinction between ‘progress’ in society and ‘progress’ in art. I will dedicate one part of the article to each, and explore how they inter-relate.

Social progress

In the Marxist view, everything in existence is unavoidably in a constant process of change, caused by the contradictions that exist between the particular elements from which every thing is made. However, ‘progress’ is not mere change: it is a process by which change attains successively more advanced states than before.

Until the nineteenth century, it was generally supposed by Europeans that the human story did not go back much more than 6000 years, to a time when God created Adam and Eve fully-formed in the garden of Eden. It was only when confronted by physical evidence in the form of fossils, and by advances in geology, archaeology and other scientific fields, that the religious establishment was forced to concede that the human species was much older than previously thought and had evolved from more archaic, pre-human forms [2].

Although evolution offers examples of the dialectical process of leaps to higher forms, it is unlikely that the concept of progress, i.e. of a broad advance over time from lower life forms to higher, more complex ones, can be applied. Through evolution species find a ‘best fit’ to ever-changing environments: the appearance of more complex forms is only a statistical likelihood given the extreme simplicity of life’s starting point. This has been persuasively argued by the evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould, who describes “the vaunted progress of life” as “random motion away from simple beginnings, not directed impetus towards inherently advantageous complexity.”[3] Arguably the most successful organisms of all in terms of longevity, for example, are unicellular bacteria, which have persisted for billions of years. Or to take our own family of mammals, they are not progressively superior to dinosaurs — they only expanded from being tiny and marginal life forms when an external catastrophe wiped out the dominant competition. It is tempting for us to see ourselves as the pinnacle of evolution, but our consciousness might fairly be described as a ‘cosmic accident’ which would probably never have arisen had the dinosaurs not been removed first. Rather than forging ever onwards and upwards, 99.9 percent of all the species that have ever lived are now extinct.

Gould’s version of evolution is not undisputed. For our present discussion it suffices to point out that even if Gould is correct, it does not mean there is no place for progress. Human history is a different process, because humans are not passive subjects of evolution but play a uniquely active part in their own self-creation.

This has been noticed by human beings themselves, and attempts have been made to explain it. The archaeologist Chris Scarre wrote:

The concept of human progress has a very long history, and features in both Chinese and Roman writings of over 2000 years ago. It was during the nineteenth century, however, that the concept of universal stages of human progress was developed and applied to archaeological material. Among the most famous proponents were Lewis Henry Morgan (1818–1881) in North America and Sir Edward Tylor (1832–1917) in Britain, both of whom argued that humans had passed through stages of savagery (as hunters and gatherers) and barbarism (as herders and cultivators) before progressing to civilisation, which they equated with the invention of writing. Two separate ideas were embedded in this view of the human past: first, that each stage was an improvement on the one that had preceded it; and second, that the pattern of progress was driven by a kind of social Darwinism, in which less efficient kinds of social organisation were supplanted by more advanced social forms.[4]

Scarre goes on to discuss the influential scheme devised by Elman Service, who divided human societies into four major categories: bands, tribes, chiefdoms and state societies/civilisations [5]. Although Service’s terminology was a useful update of the old language of ‘savagery’, ‘barbarism’ and ‘civilisation’, it sets out the same basic pattern — a progression from hunter-gatherer society into early forms of class society and then to the early civilisations. Of course, history does not work so neatly, but the scheme is still broadly accepted, and with good reason.

Scarre writes that archaeologists today are ‘very wary’ of the idea of progress, and even that the concept has been laid aside. Many writers now think that ‘progress’ is an old-fashioned idea from the Victorian era, and that it is arrogant for us to assume that modern civilisation is superior to hunter-gatherer or other less advanced societies. Jared Diamond for example commented:

Don’t words such as ‘civilisation’, and phrases such as ‘rise of civilisation,’ convey the false impression that civilisation is good, hunter-gatherers are miserable, and history for the past 13,000 years has involved progress toward greater human happiness? In fact, I do not assume that ‘civilised’ states are better than hunter-gatherer tribes, or that the abandonment of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle for iron-based statehood represents ‘progress’, or that it has led to an increase in human happiness. My own impression, from having divided my life between United States cities and New Guinea villages, is that the so-called blessings of civilisation are mixed.[6]

In part this attitude results from disillusion with how bourgeois society has failed to solve ongoing problems, and with the failure of the Soviet model as distorted under Stalinism to provide a viable long-term alternative. For some, it is difficult in the light of gross inequality, two World Wars, famine and mass starvation, political dictatorships, nuclear and biological weapons, climate change and all the other horrors and cynical alienations of modern life to keep one’s belief that any meaningful sort of ‘progress’ is being made or is even possible.

The attitude also follows in part from a laudable concern about racism. Societies less advanced than the West were for centuries routinely described as ‘inferior’, their peoples as ‘savages’. From the late fifteenth century, European explorers hunting for booty [7] encountered peoples significantly less technologically developed than themselves, and found that these great civilisations could be defeated by a few hundred well-equipped soldiers. The Europeans, who had the tremendous advantages of horses, literacy, steel weapons and armour and some infectious diseases deadly to the local population, decided that they were superior to the indigenous peoples. This wrong conclusion was partly due to the inadequacy of their scientific and historical understanding, but more decisively it was a useful ideology that excused the Europeans’ atrocities on the grounds that they were bringing the ‘blessings of civilisation’ to poor, backward peoples. The West continues to this day to show contempt towards less advanced societies. Concern about falling into such assumptions helps lead some writers to unscientifically reject the idea of ‘progress’ altogether.

The Marxist view of progress

Marxists however have never given up on the concept, because progress is observable in the real world.

The Victorian conception of the so-called ‘march of progress’ was bound up with the leadership of British capitalism and its extension into less developed parts of the world by brute force. What Marxists understand by social ‘progress’ is very different. It is the improvement in the conditions of humankind: in our material living standards; our political rights; the equality of male and female, black and white, gay and straight; the clarity of our understanding of the natural world; the quality of our environment; our access to knowledge and education; the protection of the planet; the ability of every individual to fulfil their potential; and so on. The Marxist goal is a classless society where everybody is treated equally [8] and freely takes their fair share of the resources of society as a whole — this is true communism. Every step that takes us closer to that is progressive. Every step that pushes us back from it — e.g. the restriction of women’s rights, imperialist wars, racism and chauvinism — is regressive and must be fought against.

Through a painfully slow process, humans learned to make tools, to slowly take command of what was provided by nature, and develop our productive forces, thereby dragging ourselves up from an impoverished subsistence economy to modern industrial society. This was not fore-ordained according to a plan, as in the religious worldview. Marxism argues that society advances through a series of qualitative leaps, as Marx wrote for example in Chapter 32 of Capital:

At a certain stage of development, [capitalism] brings forth the material agencies for its own dissolution. From that moment new forces and new passions spring up in the bosom of society; but the old social organisation fetters them and keeps them down... As soon as this process of transformation has sufficiently decomposed the old society from top to bottom, as soon as the labourers are turned into proletarians, their means of labour into capital, as soon as the capitalist mode of production stands on its own feet, then the further socialisation of labour and further transformation of the land and other means of production into socially exploited and, therefore, common means of production, as well as the further expropriation of private proprietors, takes a new form... The monopoly of capital becomes a fetter upon the mode of production, which has sprung up and flourished along with, and under it. Centralisation of the means of production and socialisation of labour at last reach a point where they become incompatible with their capitalist integument. This integument is burst asunder. The knell of capitalist private property sounds. The expropriators are expropriated…

Capitalist production begets, with the inexorability of a process of nature, its own negation. It is the negation of the negation.[9]

This passage explores the transformation of capitalist society into socialist, but the process holds throughout history. The Human Revolution, the Neolithic Revolution, the Urban Revolution, and famous political revolutions such as those of America and France in the eighteenth century and in Russia, China and Cuba in the twentieth, all arose from a similar dynamic. Over time, the contradictions that exist within every form of society accumulate until the old social forms are no longer adequate to contain the new ones. Within class society, the ruling classes seek to defend their privileges by holding back change, but eventually the new forces become too strong and break through to a new and more advanced stage of society. Through this long process, human beings are gradually taking control of nature and unfolding their potential — and eventually will achieve freedom.

Where Marxists differ from the pessimistic or post-modernist sections of the bourgeoisie is that they are not afraid to apply a hierarchy of value to different social forms. It is true that the West has a vile tradition of denigrating other cultures. All people and cultures should be treated with respect, but that is different to suggesting that backward societies are of equal value to, or even better than, more advanced forms. Is humanity better off now than it was in, say, ancient society? The Marxist answer is a firm yes.

As we touched upon earlier, this was theorised by Engels when he adopted Morgan’s conception of a progression from hunter-gatherer ‘savagery’, through agricultural ‘barbarism’, to the urban ‘civilisation’ of Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece and Rome [10]. This scheme was later elaborated upon by Gordon Childe, who commented:

Progress is real if discontinuous. The upward curve resolves itself into a series of troughs and crests. But in those domains that archaeology as well as written history can survey, no trough ever declines to the low level of the preceding one, each crest out-tops its last precursor.[11]

It is only by gradually increasing the forces of production that Homo sapiens created the material basis for civilisation. The development of science, literacy, philosophy etc were only possible once we were producing enough to support specialists who were free to explore various fields of knowledge. The development of productive forces therefore goes hand in hand with that of human needs and potential. For us, ‘production’ often implies unpleasant work done involuntarily, but it need not be so. Humans take satisfaction from shaping the world and seeing their powers given objective form — it is under the alienated and exploitative conditions of capitalist wage-labour that production has become so onerous.

Each of the stages of human society — whether we use Engels’ terms, or Elman Service’s, or others — represents a particular stage of development. Each, in its time, was the most advanced yet seen and played an essential part in history. But as the productive forces slowly grew, each became outdated and was replaced by a new, higher level of development.

The general movement of human society has been progressive. Take a straightforward comparison with five thousand years ago. From a world largely run by despotic monarchies, millions of people now enjoy universal suffrage. From a world in which everyone except a tiny elite was relatively ignorant and illiterate, four fifths of the world’s population can read or write and, especially if they have internet access, can tap into a vast public reservoir of knowledge. From a world where the vast majority were superstitious peasant farmers, half of the world’s population now lives in cities. China alone, through its exceptional growth over the last thirty years, has lifted 600 million people out of poverty. The renowned statistician Angus Maddison calculated that world GDP has risen from $102.5 billion in the year 0 CE to $33,726 billion in 1998 [12]: that is an immense advance in the total material wealth of humankind. And this is not a mere question of meeting humans’ material needs but also their spiritual needs. Greater material wealth provides the basis for education, for greater independence and fulfilment of the individual, and, through wider access to art, training, spare time, materials and so on, the exploration of our creativity.

Progressive advance to higher states is therefore not merely a theory, it appears to be supported by our empirical observation of history. No theory has much value if it does not serve to explain what happens in the real world.

Such advances can only be explained if we have a theoretical understanding of the social and productive processes that drove them. History is more than, as the aphorism goes, ‘just one damn thing after another’, popping up by chance for no obvious reason. It is driven in broad movements by particular forces, amongst which the most decisive are the forces of production.

Of course the benefits of progress are not shared equally within and between societies — that is being held back by capitalist property relations. Men control more wealth than women, the global north more than the south, and so on.

Progress and inevitability

Childe’s comment quoted above overlooks the fact that many societies have not only failed to ‘out-top their last crest’ but have actually broken down completely, whether due to internal or external pressures or both, as studied in detail by Jared Diamond in Collapse (2005). Diamond gives examples of societies which, instead of progressing to higher forms, have been devastated by human recklessness, such as on Rapa Nui (Easter Island), or have lost the struggle to survive and disappeared altogether, such as the Norse colonies in Greenland. Less dramatically, other societies such as the Pila Nguru or the Kalahari Bushmen have remained at the level of hunting and gathering for thousands of years, even into the present day, suggesting that progress is not built into our genes.

Childe did at least recognise that the process was ‘discontinuous’, and his concepts of Neolithic and Urban Revolutions recognise that history advances in leaps, not smooth graduations. In Soviet archaeology under Stalin and after, progress was seen as an inevitable and unilinear passage from one historical stage to the next. It is of course wrong to read the process in such a schematic way. In the real world, contradictions both internal and external to a society can not only slow or stop progress but even throw it into reverse. The Roman empire, which had a low productivity of labour based upon slavery, was unable to expand indefinitely and therefore to maintain its supply of new slave labour; as it slowly declined and was gradually over-run, civilisation in its former territories was thrown back, and it took centuries for the new and more progressive system of feudalism to establish itself. The capitalist order today, having hit its own limits, is facing a comparable crisis.

Even where great advances have been won, they can be subsequently defeated. They may, like the Nicaraguan and Panamanian revolutions, be militarily overthrown by imperialism. Or they may degenerate and fail to play the world progressive role they promised and sometimes even impede it. The October Revolution was the greatest single step forward for humanity in the twentieth century, yet the Stalinist bureaucracy that took control of the USSR from the mid-1920s must bear responsibility for the defeat of the Spanish Revolution in the 1930s, the victory of fascism in Germany, and ultimately the defeat of the October Revolution itself when capitalism was restored in 1991. The dissolution of the Soviet Union, flowing from the mistakes of the bureaucracy, has set back the struggle of the working class across the whole world.

A correct Marxist understanding of ‘progress’ therefore insists upon the complexity of real life. “In spite of the pretensions of ‘Progress’,” wrote Marx in The Holy Family, “continual retrogressions and circular movements occur.”[13] Contrary to the claims of his enemies, and indeed the rhetoric of his own Communist Manifesto [14], Marx did not believe that social change was literally ‘inevitable’. Although society can advance to the point where productive forces make huge social advance possible and ultimately extremely likely, success or failure depends upon the class struggle — that is, it is human action that is decisive.

Or as we have pointed out before, it is always possible that an asteroid could hit the Earth and put an end to the ‘inevitable’ road to human liberation by obliterating the species next week.

It is also true that progress has often come at an immense cost of human suffering. All class societies that have hitherto existed have been guilty of assorted horrors. The introduction by the Roman empire of roads, law, security and many other civilised improvements to barbarian states was built upon militarism and slavery. The same applies to the European empires. Despite the glorious cultural achievements of the societies they colonised, the Europeans represented a more advanced stage of development; they were also arrogant, vicious and even genocidal in their treatment of the invaded peoples. In Marx’s words, “capital came onto the stage of history dripping blood from every pore.” [15] It would be far better for all of humanity to advance by peaceful and co-operative means, free of exploitation, and it was right to struggle against colonialism just as it is right to struggle against imperialism today, so that peoples may determine progress for themselves. (Western interference in the rest of the world has long ceased to be progressive.) But even though many social advances were accompanied by great brutality, it does not mean that the loss of those advances once imposed — as actually occurred for centuries in post-Roman Europe — would not be a step backwards.


A good Marxist must place all developments within the totality of human experience. The lesson from history, and therefore the Marxist view of progress, is that it is a broad forward movement within which an immense variety and contradiction can be observed — the eventual achievement of complete human liberation is very likely but never guaranteed.

Marxists do not view setbacks on this long journey as reasons for disillusion and despair. As Lenin put it, “Despair is typical of those who do not understand the causes of evil, see no way out, and are incapable of struggle.” [16] It is currently fashionable to dismiss the idea of progress: this is sometimes well-intentioned, sometimes merely cynical, and entirely logical in a context where capitalism, once a tremendous motor for social development, is straining at its limits and no longer capable of taking the world forwards. The suggestion that outdated social formations are not necessarily more backward than the most advanced ones creates a platform for reaction. Right-wing governments across the West are busy trying to roll back the forward steps made since the war such as improved labour rights and the welfare state, and their miserable values of selfishness, militarism and exploitation are contrary to what progress represents. The stultification of one particular phase of progress does not mean that progress has never happened or will not happen again. Current attempts to deny progress simply indicate that the next leap of progress will come in a form unacceptable to the bourgeoisie.

To forego the inventions of the past 10,000 years and return to a hunter-gatherer society, or ‘primitive communism’, would be impossible even it were desireable. No utopian ‘golden age’ has never existed. Once technological advances have been made, they cannot usually be undone, and the question becomes one of who will benefit from them. Modern industrial society is able to degrade the environment and kill people on a massively greater scale than any previous society, but this does not mean we must abolish industry — it means we need genuinely democratic control of what is done with it. Industrial society is also able to feed, clothe, house and educate every human alive and organised on a global basis, something never previously possible. If people wish to live in a society in which everyone has an equal share of the world’s resources, where decision-making is truly democratic, where women and ethnic minorities have equal rights and respect, then the solution lies not in the past but in the future.

We appear to have diverged from our subject of art, but it is important that we set the broader Marxist framework. If society does progress, and given that artists like all humans are social beings, surely that must mean that art also ‘progresses’? We shall consider how, and whether, art fits into this process in part 2.

[1] As Bruce Trigger has observed (Understanding Early Civilisations, 2003, p597) no evidence has survived that the ancient civilisations composed systematic theories of art, philosophy etc before the ancient Greeks and Zhou China. This does not of course mean they had no ideas on the subject: no treatises survive on how to build pyramids, yet the Egyptians were expert at it.
[2] The most backward sections of this establishment, such as the egregious Creationists, continue to resist scientific evidence.
[3] Stephen Jay Gould, ‘The Power of the Modal Bacter, or Why the Tail Can’t Wag the Dog’, from Life’s Grandeur (1996). The point that follows about the appearance of consciousness is discussed in ‘Challenges to Neo-Darwinism and Their Meaning for a Revised View of Human Consciousness’, reproduced in The Richness of Life — The Essential Stephen Jay Gould (2006).
[4] Chris Scarre, Introduction to The Human Past (2005).
[5] Outlined in Primitive Social Organization (1962).
[6] Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel (1998).
[7] The huge expansion of Europeans overseas, and their subsequent creation of empires, was driven by the rise of the capitalist class and what Marx termed the ‘primitive accumulation’ of capital — i.e. their hunger for resources with which to build their new mode of production (see Chapter 31 of Capital, vol 1).
[8] This doesn’t mean that everyone is treated ‘the same’ — every human being is unique. Hence Marx’s slogan: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” (Part 1 of Critique of the Gotha Programme, 1875).
[9] Marx, Chapter 32 of Vol.1 of Capital (1867).
[10] See The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884).
[11] Gordon Childe, What Happened in History (1942).
[12] Angus Maddison, The World Economy: A Millennial Perspective (2001). Figures in 1990 international dollars.
[13] Marx and Engels, Chapter 6 of The Holy Family, or Critique of Critical Criticism (1844).
[14] Marx writes for example: “What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable” Chapter I, ‘Bourgeois and Proletarians’, Communist Manifesto (1848).
[15] Marx, Chapter 31 of Capital, vol 1 (1867).
[16] Lenin, ‘L. N. Tolstoy and the Modern Labour Movement’ (1910).

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