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This is an edited and abridged version of an an article that appeared on Zero Anthropology.

Where does “progress” come from? What does “progressivism” mean? Which cultural tradition and ideological discourse makes “progressive” movements or parties thinkable? If the idea of “progress” cannot be sustained, what else might fall with it?

The Ideology/Mythology of Progress

The perpetuation of progress as a master discourse in the West is one that spans the 19th-, 20th-, and now the 21st-centuries. historian Ronald Wright wrote in his book, A Short History of Progress:

“Despite certain events of the twentieth century, most people in the Western cultural tradition still believe in the Victorian ideal of progress, a belief succinctly defined by the historian Sidney Pollard in 1968 as ‘the assumption that a pattern of change exists in the history of mankind…that it consists of irreversible changes in one direction only, and that this direction is towards improvement’”. (Wright, 2004, p. 3)

“Our practical faith in progress has ramified and hardened into an ideology,” and Wright argued that this has become, “a secular religion which, like the religions that progress has challenged, is blind to certain flaws in its credentials”. Progress has become “‘myth’ in the anthropological sense: ‘Myth is an arrangement of the past, whether real or imagined, in patterns that reinforce a culture’s deepest values and aspirations’” (Wright, 2004, p. 4). This myth of progress is not just a capitalist myth, but also a Marxist one: “In both its capitalist and communist versions, the great promise of modernity was progress without limit and without end” (Wright, 2004, p. 6).

Progressivism in Hegemonic Anthropology

Rockefeller and similar foundations sought to internationalize what Berman (1999, p. 194) referred to as the Social Gospel of American progressivism. As Berman explained, “the foundations’ early twentieth-century international programs clearly reflected the Christian missionary fervor of the time” (1999, p. 194). This Christian-inspired, though secularized missionary project aimed at reforming societies in order to pacify and stabilize them, in the interest of maintaining the capitalist global order, and to protect US interests. The zeal “to do Good” was capitalized by the Rockefeller Foundation, and one of the accomplishments of the Rockefellers was “their secularization of this religious enthusiasm in an effort to build more perfect societies both at home and abroad” (Berman, 1999, p. 194).

It was the Rockefeller group of philanthropies that had the greatest impact in establishing US and UK anthropology, especially in establishing the Social Science Research Council (SSRC), and the University of Chicago itself (reconstituted by John D. Rockefeller in 1892), in addition to founding several key anthropology departments around the planet. In the US, the Rockefeller philanthropies designated Chicago, Columbia, Yale, Harvard, North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Stanford, Berkeley, and Pennsylvania as “centers of excellence,” funding them so they could become “prototypical research institutions”—and to this day, these are some of the key institutions from which PhDs are sought to better assure one of success in gaining academic employment, especially as they hire from each other. Overseas, the Rockefellers, through the and the role of the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial (LSRM), funded the development of anthropology at the London School of Economics, providing Bronislaw Malinowski with the capital needed to exercise command over the discipline’s development, and the Rockefellers also funded the establishment of anthropology at the University of Sydney (Patterson, 2001, pp. 72, 73).

In anthropology, the faith in progress was reflected in Cultural Evolutionist theories, which dominated US anthropology from the late 1800s through the 1960s (with some assumptions lingering well beyond). Cultural evolutionism has had multiple incarnations as Modernization Theory and as the guiding doctrine of numerous international development agencies and international financial institutions. One can summarize this paradigm with a simple illustration, one that has virtually become the logo for the West’s orthodox faith in progress:

In North American anthropology, as elsewhere, there has not been a shortage of critics of progress, just as there has not been a shortage of upholders of progressivist cultural evolutionism. Treating cultures like organisms in the natural sciences was a central part of the ideology posing as scientific theory. And the result has been a long litany of some of the worst social and economic policies, some of the greatest development failures, and a range of predictions that never materialized.

Among the leading critics of progressivist evolutionism we could cite Stephen Jay Gould and John H. Bodley. In particular, Gould was,

“a major critic of the biases that assume a progressive nature to history and the inevitability of the present. These biases can be seen in the common view in evolutionary theory that more recently emerging species are superior to their predecessors since surviving species have won out in the struggle for existence. Given human arrogance and the prevalence of progressivist ideology, it is commonly presumed that the emergence of Homo sapiens is the inevitable apex of evolutionary processes. Counter to this view, Gould argued that, although natural selection led to some degree of ‘progress’ on short timescales in the limited sense that it dialectically adapted creatures to their environments, over longer scales of time there was no deterministic direction to the history of life”. (York & Clark, 2011)

Given Marxism’s own adherence to evolutionist thinking, it’s not surprising to see a Marxist publication pay such close attention to works challenging older theories of evolution. As York and Clark pointed out, Gould’s work does not involve remote and irrelevant points: “questions about the nature of history go to the heart of assumptions buried in Western culture”—specifically, progressivist, unidirectional, teleological assumptions. “Progress,” Gould said, “is a deep cultural bias of Western thought,” and it is the hallmark of deterministic evolutionary thinking, one that can lead us to accept “survival of the fittest” as doctrine, one that indicts those who failed to survive as somehow being “failures”.

Colonialism, especially in the 1800s, was justified on the basis that it spread progress to backward peoples. As John H. Bodley explained, many colonists assumed that indigenous peoples would voluntarily reject their own cultures after they came into contact with “superior” cultures, and that they would do so “in order to obtain a better life” (2008, p. 18). In addition, the right to exploit indigenous peoples and their resources was rationalized on the following grounds:

“Arguing for efficiency and survival of the fittest, early colonialists elevated this ‘right’ to the level of an ethical and legal principle that could be invoked to justify the elimination of any societies that were not making ‘effective’ use of their resources”. (Bodley, 2008, p. 18)

Progress was an argument for dispossession, casting others as inferior and thus deserving of displacement in the name of efficiency. This was constructed as if it were a process of natural selection (Bodley, 2008, p. 18). Cultural evolutionists equated colonialism and genocide with evolutionary progress. Bodley also noted that the basics of such thinking were resuscitated in developmentalism (which he rightly understood as ethnocentric) and in neo-evolutionary cultural theory in US anthropology in the 1960s. Specifically, he cited the “Law of Cultural Dominance”:

“That cultural system which more effectively exploits the energy resources of a given environment will tend to spread in that environment at the expense of less effective systems”. (Quoted in Bodley, 2008, p. 19)

Imperial progressivism, or what Bodley calls the “realist” school of ethnocide (joining humanitarian imperialists, scientists, missionaries, anthropologists), justified the destruction of millions of indigenous lives as an “inevitable” outcome of evolution, and then extended the argument further by insisting that all indigenous societies would therefore become extinct. Myths of extinction, which I directly challenged and reversed in the Caribbean case, while acknowledging the real damage done to indigenous peoples simply went too far in backing what was ultimately an ideological narrative. One of the more outlandish claims of the progressive realists, from the Royal Anthropological Institute, was that the mere contact of races would generally lead to extermination of one of them (Bodley, 2008, p. 255).

The Judeo-Christian Roots of Progress and Progressive Movements

Far from the product of secular thought, “moving forward” as in progressing is rooted in the Jewish biblical experience, which was then adopted by Christians and then by secular political thinkers in the Christianized, European(ized) West. The origin of the progressive idea is the flight of Jewish slaves from bondage in Egypt, otherwise known as the Exodus story, as explained in a book devoted to the subject (Walzer, 1985). As explained by Michael Walzer, “the Exodus is a journey forward—not only in time and space. It is a march toward a goal, a moral progress, a transformation” (1985, p. 12). The Exodus account introduced linearity and it transformed existing ideas of “revolution”. The classical Greek notion of “revolution” (as in revolving, returning) was about the restoration of a previous order. The post-Exodus idea of revolution became one about an abrupt departure, a journey to a new place, which was also a new condition of being. As Walzer argued, the Exodus story is,

“A political history with a strong linearity, a strong forward movement, the Exodus gives permanent shape to Jewish conceptions of time; and it serves as a model, ultimately, for non-Jewish conceptions too. We can think of it as the crucial alternative to all mythic notions of eternal recurrence—and hence to those cyclical understandings of political change from which our word ‘revolution’ derives”. (Walzer, 1985, p. 12)

The Exodus story “became part of the cultural consciousness of the West,” Walzer pointed out. The story made it possible to tell other stories and, “a range of political events…have been located and understood within the narrative frame that it provides” (Walzer, 1985, p. 7). Western political thinking has been deeply imprinted with the pattern of events laid out in Exodus: “the pattern has been etched deeply into our political culture” (Walzer, 1985, p. 134). Exodus is to be found almost everywhere in the Western language of progress and liberation (Walzer, 1985, p. 4).

The very idea of calling a collective social or political organization a movement is a product of Exodus. As Walzer explained, “the movement across space is readily reconstructed as a movement from one political regime to another” (1985, p. 14). Walzer added that, “change of position is a common metaphor for change of regime,” and that “much of the political language of the left has its origin in that metaphor” (1985, p. 14).

Exodus history is a linear one. Linearity is progressive. This linearity forms the basis of our ideas of progressive politics. Linear progress is at the root of political “movement”. Though not a theory of revolution, Walzer held that Exodus has become “a paradigm of revolutionary politics” (1985, p. 7). Walzer noted that we can find the Exodus notion about change of position in space as liberation embedded in “articles and essays about progress, progressive parties, advanced ideas, vanguard politics, revolution (in its current sense), movement itself, as in ‘the labor movement’” (1985, p. 15). “Exodus is a literal movement,” he adds, “an advance through space and time, the original form of (or formula for) progressive history” (Walzer, 1985, p. 15). As mentioned before, secular political thinking is not immune to cultural conditioning derived from the Bible: “Thus, when utopian socialists, most of them resolutely hostile to religion, argued about the problems of the ‘transitional period,’ they still cast their arguments in familiar terms: the forty years in the wilderness” (Walzer, 1985, p. 134).

At least we now have some partial answers to three of our opening questions: Where does “progressivism” come from? What does “progressivism” mean?

Progress: Eurocentric Development Ideology

E. Bradford Burns’ 1980 book, The Poverty of Progress, is a historian’s critical account of the work of 19th-century liberal elites in Latin America, who sought to mimetically transform their societies—which deeply embarrassed them—into replicas of western Europe and the United States. At the helm of government institutions, the arts, commerce, banking, and agriculture, varied elites sought to forcibly impose capitalist modernization on Latin American societies, in order to replicate European and American models (Burns, 1980, pp. 5–6). Indigenous societies and local cultural traditions were among the prime targets of the modernizing liberal elites (the progressives). Progress was equated with Europeanization, which under the tutorship of Britain, France, and the United States, also meant urbanization and industrialization. The result was increased foreign penetration of local economies, and dependency. Politics became authoritarian: “The governments of the elites had selected the North Atlantic model for their countries to follow and forced the opposition to bend to that decision” (Burns, 1980, p. 7). Embracing Enlightenment ideas, the elites adopted liberal political theories without much concern for their applicability or relevance to local social and economic conditions: they essentially copied the French and US constitutions; they ended restrictions on trade; they emphasized individualism, competition, and the pursuit of profit (Burns, 1980, p. 8).

“The elites spoke constantly of ‘progress,’” Burns tells us, “perhaps the most sacred word in the political vocabulary,” and certainly a heavily loaded one (1980, p. 8). Often “progress” was used interchangeably with “modernization,” and both implied an “admiration for the latest ideas, modes, values, inventions, and styles of Europe and the United States and a desire to adopt—rarely to adapt—them” (Burns, 1980, pp. 8–9). “To progress” for the elites meant “to recreate their nations as closely as possible to their European and North American models” (Burns, 1980, p. 9). The drive to replicate was also responsible for a greatly expanded capitalist penetration of Latin American economies (Burns, 1980, p. 10). As proof of “progress,” Latin American elites were keen to boast of the outward signs of development: “railroads, steamships, electricity, machinery, Parisian fashions, and English textiles” (Burns, 1980, p. 10). Modernization was synonymous with progress and both were represented by Europeanization, specifically the mimesis of Europe (Burns, 1980, p. 13). Meanwhile, the majority of the population experienced persistent or worsened poverty.

The politics of Latin American liberal elites in the 19th-century were also “progressive,” and that further marked not just their separation from urban workers, rural peasants, and indigenous peoples, it marked their opposition against such groups who resisted the rule of progressivism. The constitutions written by the liberal elites emphasized individual rights (still championed by North American and European human rights activists today); they also emphasized “liberty” and “democracy” (promoted as much by the left as the right in North America today); and, liberalism stood as an ideology that rationalized exploitation (as it does today). As Burns explained:

“the values the elites placed on abstract liberties and democracy conflicted with the values and experiences of the largest numbers of the population, who understood little of European theories and nothing of the European experience that gave rise to them….Not prepared for the values imposed by the elites, the masses could not hope to gain much from them. In fact, they did not. Liberty and democracy as they took form in nineteenth-century Latin America quickly became a sophistic rationale excusing or disguising an exploitation of the many by the few”. (1980, p. 11)

Progress as an elite preference drew from European sources, and stood against “provincialism” with which all things “inferior” were associated. As outlined by Burns in the Latin American case,

“The Latin American elites of the nineteenth century boasted of their European heritage….England and France, in particular, were their models….They readily understood what was happening in Europe and ably discussed the latest ideas radiating from the Old World, which they welcomed to the New. But European thought was no intellectual spring; it proved to be an ideological flood, which swept before it most American originality. Generally speaking, three major European philosophies shaped the ideology of the elites during the nineteenth century: the Enlightenment, the ideas of evolution put forth by Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer, and Positivism. The concept of ‘progress,’ perhaps the key word for the understanding of nineteenth-century Latin American history, linked the three”. (1980, p. 18)

From the Enlightenment, these early progressivists emphasized the “truth” which was defined as the superiority of “civilization” over “barbarism,” with civilization identified with Europe. The elites’ “faith in science” emphasized the value of material change. They were especially attracted to the ideas of Darwin, particularly the idea of development over time through successive states progressing toward perfection. August Comte’s Positivism generated special interest among Latin American liberal elites (Burns, 1980, pp. 18–19).

“Reason” was the exclusive claim of Eurocentric political thought, as expressed by Latin American elites. The elites who aped Europe and sought to graft European institutions onto Latin American roots, proclaimed themselves “gentes de razón” (the peoples of reason). “Democracy” therefore could not mean the masses would rule, but rather those who owned “reason” would be in control—the few would govern the many, because the many lacked the inherent capacity for “progress”. In the Latin American case, the forces of reason, of enlightenment, progress, and Europeanization, dominated in the big cities and on the coasts; the interior, vast rural plains or tropical rainforests, the countryside generally speaking, were home to the forces of “ignorance, barbarism, and primitivism” (Burns, 1980, p. 22). The rural “ignorant” were denounced by the elites for their support of populist caudillos. If the masses continued to refuse the civilization of Europe, then the only solution was to essentially breed them out of existence, through immigration. Hence a number of countries began to encourage waves of European immigrants (Burns, 1980, p. 23).

The forces of reason also laid claim to time and space: their condition was representative of modernity, and only they could lead the nation forward to the future. They were the conductors of progress. The others? They were stuck in the past (see Burns, 1980, p. 29).


First, there is no point in demanding that westerners give up the ways of thinking that they have cultivated for themselves as ways of addressing the needs and demands of their own cultural contexts and social histories; rather, the objective ought to be a more realistic one. Such an objective would include getting westerners to realize that they cannot continue to speak for the rest of the world; they cannot continue assuming/asserting their values to be universal; and, they should understand that their experience is not representative of the rest of the world’s. Again, this does not mean that Europeans should reject European experience and European philosophies. Second, the west had a history of extensive internal cultural self-criticism, and that should be rekindled so that we can begin to think beyond some of these extremely tired ideological straightjackets which we have inherited, and which we maintain as if we were in an inertial state heading towards a dead-end.


Berman, Edward H. (1999). “Rockefeller Philanthropy and the Social Sciences: International Perspectives”. In Theresa Richardson and Donald Fisher, (Eds.), The Development of the Social Sciences in the United States and Canada: The Role of Philanthropy (pp. 193-209). Stamford, CT: Ablex Publishing Corporation.

Bodley, John H. (2008). Victims of Progress, 5th ed. Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press.

Burns, E. Bradford. (1980). The Poverty of Progress: Latin America in the Nineteenth Century. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Forte, Maximilian C. (2018). “Progress, Progressivism, and Progressives”. Zero Anthropology, February 28.

————— . (2016). “Canadian Anthropology or Cultural Imperialism?Zero Anthropology: Occasional Papers.

————— . (2013). “Thoughtful, Respectful, and Progressive: Regarding the ‘Responsibility to Protect’”. Zero Anthropology, February 24.

————— . (2011). “The Exodus Story and Western Conceptions of Progress, Movement, Revolution”. Zero Anthropology, March 12.

————— . (2008). “Progress”. Zero Anthropology, October 30.

Patterson, Thomas C. (2001). A Social History of Anthropology in the United States. Oxford: Berg.

Walzer, Michael. (1985). Exodus and Revolution. New York: Basic Books.

Wright, Ronald. (2004). A Short History of Progress. Toronto: House of Anansi. [Also as audio lectures.]

York, Richard, & Clark, Brett. (2011). “Stephen Jay Gould’s Critique of Progress”. Monthly Review, February 1.


Image: Extract from “March of Intellect” by William Heath, and published by Thomas McLean in 1829. From The British Museum, and the British Library, in the public domain.



© 2011-2020, Maximilian C. Forte.