This year marks the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the European conquest of the indigenous civilizations of the American mainland. It deserves the same attention as the commemoration of the 500 years since Columbus’ first contact with the Caribbean. On 12 March 1519, in modern-day Tabasco, Hernán Cortés launched the invasion and conquest of the Aztec empire, Mayan domains and the remaining independent kingdoms of Mexico. The colonization of the New World by the European powers and by the independent states that succeeded Europe’s New World colonies proceeded through to the end of the nineteenth century—the period coinciding with the most active years of the Atlantic slave trade, which resulted in the capture, sale and forced labor for approximately 15.3 million men and women, and chattel slavery imposed on their descendants, until this Medieval institution was outlawed (the last New World country to do so was Brazil in 1888).
During these years, the foundations of the modern democratic era also were set down—within the very same nations that directly participated in conquest, colonization and enslavement. In fact, they were its protagonists. In academia, this contradiction has generated wide-ranging debate: in large part, this is a positive development, as it shines light on this complicated question; but the debate is now marked by widespread confusion. One way to resolve the contradiction is to refocus our lens and look more broadly at history and its social forces.
Evidence-Based Understanding of Progress
Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature and Enlightenment Now provide the clearest framework for analyzing the historical developments of this period. We have witnessed a time of great calamity, but also of momentous breakthroughs in social advancement, science and technology. The unprecedented progress in material well-being and productivity of the last 200 years—rapid and broad-based by any measure—has been linked to advances in the peaceful settlement of conflict, human rights, knowledge and understanding, which can all be directly traced to the Age of Reason. The Enlightenment was a humanist, secular movement, founded upon the vast expansion of scientific discovery in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and the Industrial Revolution. This surge in scientific and economic productivity was the precursor to the Age of Reason philosophers. The most lucid among them took research-based investigation as their model.
One irrefutable, representative index of these advances is the massive increase in life expectancy across all regions of the world, despite persistent inequalities. The latter in no way cancels out the significance of the former. The continual decrease, worldwide, in rates of infant and maternal mortality and extreme poverty is correlated with the uninterrupted growth of labor productivity and overall efficiency, tied to technological advances in every sector of the now global economy.
None of the various dismissals of Enlightenment Now, typically based on postmodern relativism, have been able to coherently address the fundamentals of its argument. In fact, we have yet to fully take stock of the factors that explain the most recent period of significant advancement in human history.
As Pinker points out, the ideas of the Enlightenment, which spurred progress in humanistic values and favored the sustained technological advances of the modern era, corresponded closely to new thinking that challenged the backward systems of pre-capitalist autocracy. The concept of historical progress applies to both economic advances and progressive political developments. Over time, the spread of the ideals of the Enlightenment paralleled the advances in social policy and democratic rule. Opponents of the concept of historical progress cite the contradictions mentioned above in an attempt to refute the claim that the first democratic revolutions—the American of 1776 and the French of 1789—ushered in the most progressive epoch of history. Despite the objections presented by many critics, however, this social and political model remains current to this day. At the beginning of the second half of the twentieth century, following a worldwide economic depression and two world wars, the heritage of the Age of Reason was difficult to see clearly. But, looking back at the broader historical record, the evidence for sustained progress in the realm of democratic governance is now decisive.
The Long View
Remarkably, the political advances of the last 200 years have closely matched the advances of science and humanism. To understand this historical parallel, we must take a long view of history and adopt a materialist approach. We also need to put the early limitations and defects of the systems that emerged from the first democratic revolutions into perspective. This has been difficult for many observers in academia, in part because the contradiction has served to foster non-rational and ahistorical approaches. On the one hand, early failings and defects were often, especially by today’s standards, of extraordinary proportion. But the other part of this difficulty can be traced to recent trends in the humanities and related fields that reject the concept of historical progress itself, tied to the ideology of radical skepticism and relativism, which also rejects the scientific method.
In the fifteenth century, the world was becoming more global in many ways. Explorers, armies and missionaries crossed oceans because they had the material means to do so for the first time. There was no conceivable alternative to the colonization of the Americas by European settlers from ascendant world powers. It was as inevitable as the fierce conflict that ensued with the indigenous cultures; and the eventual defeat of the latter and their incorporation into the new independent nations could not have been forestalled. The final terms that ended these conflicts were unjust and unbecoming of the emerging democracies, with the wars of conquest unleashing unnecessary levels of violence. The unjust outcome imposed upon the autochthonous peoples, evidenced today in widespread discrimination and oppressive segregation across the entire continent, requires urgent remedy. On this score, the successor states of New Spain, New France and the British colonies of North America bear responsibility for the inadequate solutions to this problem.
But another series of fast-moving events had begun to play out in the New World—perhaps due to the exceptional coming together of favorable social conditions and material resources. The Democratic Revolution, which would later sweep the globe, had its most dynamic early outbreak in North America at the end of the eighteenth century, completing its revolutionary tasks during the Civil War of 1861–65. Noting the social and political features of the burgeoning republic, driven by the forces of free market industrialization, Marx and Engels called attention to the progressive impact of the geographical and political expansion of the United States, which had prevailed over Mexico fifteen years earlier. Gratuitous ethnocentric bias aside, Marx and Engels were correct in their overall assessment of this historical development, which was consistent with their active support of the republican government of the North as it completed the political program begun by the 1776 Revolution. Why the Democratic Revolution advanced more rapidly and more completely in North America than elsewhere has been aptly explained by Eduardo Galeano.
The expansion across the American continent of the most revolutionary republic of its day was inevitable; its uncompromising victory over slavocracy was evidence of its fundamentally progressive character. The manner in which the defeated indigenous nations were segregated and marginalized was a grave injustice, and a stain on the young republic. Redressing this calamity will require a concerted effort by all parties. But this shortcoming does not change our general assessment of the Democratic Revolution as it came to be implemented in North America. The US democratic heritage emerged from the colonization of the American continent, the struggle for independence and the full consolidation of the nation state. To characterize the early democracy as inherently oppressive, singularly and destructively violent at its foundational moment—with violence as its essence and purpose—irremediably so in the modern era and unworthy of recognition as a progressive historical force appeals to one-sided sentimental judgement rather than objective study.
The Advance of Democracy Today
Two hundred years later, the progressive inheritance of the Enlightenment is still valid. The post-World War II era of political progress, marked by the establishment of full parliamentary democracies in East Asia (Japan, Taiwan, South Korea) has no precedent in history. In Eastern Europe, the stage was set for the collapse of Communism with the defeat of Fascism forty-five years earlier and the fall of military dictatorships in Greece in 1974, Portugal in 1975 and Spain in 1977. The newest independent nations to emerge from colonial rule have turned or are now gradually turning towards rule by democratic election.
The triumph of the colonial peoples in the post-World War II independence wave reveals another paradox: nations that overthrew monarchy and colonialism in their time were late in recognizing historical necessity in the case of their own colonies. Leading democratic nations that were not among the established colonial powers also failed to see the anticolonial movements in proper perspective, and generally took the wrong side. This betrayal of their own founding ideals led them to cede the field to undemocratic forces, already in decline, that cynically exploited the anti-imperialist movements for their own purposes. But with time the political and economic models adopted by the newly independent nations have come to approximate greater democracy and free market economies. This tendency is confirmed in a surprising way in the case of the two most prominent remaining single party dictatorships, which have both begun to transition towards more open economic systems. Beginning with the spectacular economic growth and living standard improvement in the former command economies of China and Vietnam, it is simply incorrect to assert that their political systems have not shown any tendency whatsoever toward limited degrees of openness since the early periods of unrelenting totalitarianism. The rejection of simple historical fact in these cases appears to be motivated in part by the denial of any correlation between indices of open society and free-market economy. The exceptions do not revert the overall positive correlation. The comparison between the Russian and Chinese transitions away from state-controlled economy by C.Y. Kim is instructive on this point.
By all impartial estimates, these tendencies corroborate the sustainability of the progressive inheritance of the Democratic Revolution. Recent still tentative advances among the world’s poorest countries lend further evidence supporting this development model: toward regulated free-market economies supported by multiparty systems founded on constitutional rights guarantees.
Learning from Failed Experiments
Among many public intellectuals, rejection of the progressive foundations of the world’s modern democracies has led them to embrace dictatorship and totalitarian, extremist and religious fundamentalist movements as these anti-democratic forces present the image of anti-capitalist or anti-Western/anti-American resistance. Revealing have been the apologies of the Khmer Rouge, Serbian nationalism, various authoritarian caudillos who masquerade as champions of the poor, and even Sharia law regimes. In recent times we have witnessed academics and humanitarian-minded thinkers praise the regimes of Mao Tse-Tung and Stalin, as was the case in a previous generation, of the dictatorship of Lenin.
The overthrow of the Soviet system—forty-five years after the break-up of the Nazi axis—was followed by the immediate rebuilding, upon modern progressive foundations, of the countries that had formed it. The eventual fall of right-wing and Communist dictatorships in Europe followed inevitably from the defeat of fascism in 1945. On this point, the natural experiments of societies divided in the aftermath of World War II deserve closer study. In each case, a closed, state-controlled economy and consequent economic stagnation (absolute misery in the case of China and North Korea) was correlated with the brutal repression of individual freedoms. The cases of South Korea and Taiwan are especially telling where initially authoritarian governments ruled. In the first place, the undemocratic and repressive rule of the Park Chung-hee and Chang Kai-shek dictatorships paled in comparison to the Stalinist infernos of Kim and Mao. In both South Korea and Taiwan, the transition to democracy, led by anti-dictatorship forces, resulted in the founding of full parliamentary democracies, which are among the most socially progressive in the world today (Taiwan is the first Asian country whose Constitutional Court has ruled to legalize same-sex marriage). During the transition to democracy, both countries managed to avoid civil war: the former elites themselves recognized the unsustainability of military government. Germany provides the textbook example of the contrast between closed and open societies, state-controlled and free market systems. The Berlin Wall was the emblem of this contrast and its fall was another reminder that autocracy of the Communist type has run its course. The two most important remaining Communist regimes have both undergone limited movement away from the worst excesses of totalitarian rule, despite recent serious setbacks and human rights violations in China under Xi Jinping.
Early reforms of the world’s democracies began breaking down of the fetters of discrimination based on sex, religion and ethnic group imposed on the economy and on social relations. Competition and innovation depend on freedom of expression and on the unfettered exchange of ideas in general and of scientific research in particular. Advances in science and technology still need societies that are open.
The Crisis on the Left: Towards a New Consensus
It is important to avoid moralistic approaches to evaluating whether and to what degree systems are historically progressive. It is not enough to indicate isolated examples, however many. What is needed is an analysis of long-term trends and a systematic comparison of social and economic regimes across time, within and across cultures, and productive capacity at the disposal of societies in each case. Extreme cultural relativism leads to the equivalence fallacy—the idea that modern democratic systems are illegitimate or no better than dictatorial systems because they don’t always or haven’t always been able to occupy the ethical high ground. The denial of progress doctrine, casting about in pessimism, despair and panic, falls easy prey to a fanaticism that calls for overthrow of the irreformable system in permanent crisis for the promise of future utopia. According to this view, no imaginable alternative (e.g., the transitional dictatorship of the revolutionaries ruling on the behalf of the oppressed) could be any worse than the present, not any worse than the impending end of the world. The progressive reform perspective, by contrast, acknowledges the serious challenges, such as climate change, facing humanity, but advocates debate on rational public policy, focusing on reform, and scientific investigation on technological and engineering solutions. Apocalyptic scenarios that deny historical and material progress offer the alternative of sectarian polarization and upheaval.
Returning to where we began, post-independence Latin America suffered an extended period of authoritarian regimes and the delayed development of democratic institutions, further impeded by the Cold War. But, in the medium-term, steady political reform has been successful—largely without civil war. Of the fourteen regional dictatorships of 1966, only two remain. Consistent progress on social reform has also been achieved in key sectors, such as access to education at all levels by girls and young women, even in isolated rural communities, an impressive social gain impossible now to deny that our project in Mexico and Ecuador, in particular, has studied on the ground.
Given the deep confusion on these concepts, there is a need to start again politically; reconstruct a New Progressive Movement capable of recovering the commitment to democratic principles and republican-constitutional governance. Such a coalition needs to be built again to wrest the progressive movement away from the influence of extremist ideology, anti-science postmodernism and identity politics. The last two go to the core of what reactionary means. This new progressivism will assume responsibility for systematically studying, and taking action to solve, the serious social problems of poverty and the legacies of discrimination and persistent unequal opportunity that we still face. No part of the above positive assessment of representative democracy—it is no longer “Western”—should be taken as minimizing these remaining challenges. The best way to meet them is to draw on the lessons provided by the ways in which democratic systems, modern-day heirs to the Age of Enlightenment, have implemented its principles. To continue the forward momentum of progressive social change, we need to understand both its historical and its most recent advances.