I don’t disagree with what Chris Reynolds says about progress (‘New forces and passions’ WL63) but I think it is one-sided, in two respects.
Firstly there are, I think, two distinct notions in Lenin about the progressive or reactionary character of “imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism”. One is the notion of “moribund” capitalism — that is, the idea that capitalism has exhausted its capacity to develop the forces of production (forced to adopt collectivist forms like monopoly, etc.). Chris rightly argues that if this were so the 20th century would be inexplicable. Capitalism continues to this day to do “progressive” work: developing production, innovation, and so on. Moreover, I would add that it would be impossible to function in the world without some notion of progress in human affairs.
I suffer from a condition, diabetes, which a hundred years ago would have killed me in a few months; it kills few people now, and the drug which keeps me alive is artificially produced. On this level, to complain that capitalism is not progressive would be tantamount to saying that it makes no difference to me whether I am alive or dead.
But there is another, related but separate, view of progressive/reactionary in Lenin’s argument. He, along with other revolutionaries, objected to those who supported the First World War with arguments which saw the world through the prism of the previous century. In nineteenth century Europe, nationalism and the drive towards the creation of nation states had been progressive on various levels: sweeping away obstacles like tariff barriers to the development of capitalism; rousing the people into a political force; carrying with it ideas of democracy and freedom; proposing secular, and to some degree popular, sovereignty against the divine rights of kings or what remained of them. Lenin and others argued that by the beginning of the 20th century, in Europe, this progressive work had been exhausted. The side to capitalism which is expansionist, predatory, aggressive, etc was dominant. It was expressed through militarism, a bureaucratic state, conquest, and war. The advanced capitalist nation state, and the nationalism it employed to bind the working class to the bourgeoisie, was reactionary.
This view of what is reactionary or progressive is not tied to or reducible to the matter of capitalism’s ability to develop the forces of production; it links to a view of capitalist development rather differently. There is a point in capitalist development where its expansionist logic becomes increasingly dominant, and the bourgeois state’s economic and political ambitions are bound up with this “imperialistic” drive.
This idea has two possible meanings. 1. That there are imperialisms other than capitalist ones (an idea I agree with). 2. That advanced capitalism is not necessarily imperialist.
In saying that advanced capitalism is necessarily imperialist, I do not mean to say that only the most advanced capitalist states are imperialist. Rather, that there is an expansionist logic to capitalist development which leads nation states to imperialist ambitions.
It seems to me that the opposition to the First World War by the revolutionary left was based primarily on an assessment of the “stage” of capitalism, not measured by productive development etc., but politically — these were bureaucratic, militaristic states. Chris is right that post-1945 bourgeois democracy is on a different “grid” to the variables around in 1914-18. But this doesn’t change matters fundamentally, as is clear if you imagine a hypothetical war between more-or-less equal European states today and what we would say about it.
This is important in understanding Marxists’ opposition to the First World War. I don’t think the revolutionary argument in 1914-18 was derived purely from a detailed assessment of the national question. Take Belgium. Lenin was quoted in Workers’ Liberty during the Balkans war to the effect that a war over Belgium’s national rights, even by big capitalist powers, would be all right — or Marxists would be sympathetic to it — were it not for other small nations.
But this interpretation seems to me to turn the real train of thought on its head. This was not: we would support these states going to war over Belgium… But there are other small nations’ rights involved so we can’t support the war. It was: we are opposed to the war; these people (the social chauvinists) say they support it — with disastrous consequences for the international workers’ movement — because (for instance) of Belgium… But they are liars and hypocrites, which is clear if you think for a moment about other small nations they couldn’t care less about. The argument about Belgium is derived from a position of opposition to the war, taking up the detailed defence of those who supported it. It was not the basic rationale for opposing the war. (Granted, because of the nature of the time it’s hard to disentangle these issues, but I hope my point is clear.) A more recent analogy: we opposed both sides in the Iran-Iraq war. Both sides oppressed Kurds and others. But our opposition was not simply because of the oppression of national minorities, but because of the nature of each regime — more precisely, because of the politics of which the war was a continuation, within which national oppression of minorities was an element, but not the only one.
Secondly, there is another side to any discussion of “progress” which I think is important. The modern use of the word emerged in a nineteenth century context in which not only human affairs were considered to consist of an inexorably progressive march forwards (with capitalism as the glorious destination) but everything else was, too. Darwin’s theory of evolution was widely interpreted — and still is — as an account of an inexorable rise of “better”, “more advanced” species in nature, with conscious humanity as its culmination. This, however, is nonsense. Human beings are not “more advanced” or “superior” to apes, or for that matter cockroaches. We have simply evolved differently; every organism is well-adapted to its own conditions, and if it isn’t it dies out. There was no inevitability to the appearance on Earth of our species. (Evolutionists argue the toss about whether intelligence, and especially consciousness as we experience it, is inevitable, but that seems to me a separate issue, although the argument against certainly wins on points.)
Does this matter? Yes. The progressivist view of nature implies some special place for human beings in the universe, which ultimately implies God. (It’s a version of what in philosophy is known as the “anthropic principle”, that the universe must have a purpose or human beings would not be here to wonder what it is). It is an anti-materialist view. We should draw a sharp divide between the notion of “progress” in human affairs and a general notion of progress in nature.