The notion of progress is one that could very well characterize how modernity thinks of itself. Theoretically, this concept goes back to the development in the sciences of the notion of evolution, particularily with Darwin’s conception of evolution through survival of the fittest. The law of nature became with Darwin one steady movement towards better forms of life which nothing could stop. It was, as Hannah Arendt explains (see The Origins of Totalitarianism), a law of movement.
In the 19th century, as the ravages of the Industrial revolution were felt across both continents, with the rise of workers’ misery, long working hours and hard labor and, for the first time, the appearance of unemployment, Marx reacted with the theory of the class struggle. To caricature Marx’s view, having moved from a tribal to a feudal to a capitalist society, the next, final stage would be a socialist society in which the working class would overthrow the capitalist class, abolish private property and usher in an age of equality and freedom. If we believe Engels, Marx was clearly indebted to Darwin for his conception of the progressive movement towards higher forms of social organisations. Engels indeed said of Marx: “As Darwin discovered the law of the development of organic life, so did Marx discover the law of the development of human history.” As Darwin’s, Marx’s law of History is a law of movement. History is seen as moving as if by itself, in a steady direction, which could only be a direction of progress towards the better.
Marx’s law of history would become the dominant conception of History of the western world. In fact, his hypothesis was rooted in the growing sense by Westerners, Americans as well as Europeans, of their modern superiority. If we could assign a starting point for this growing sense of confidence, we would have to take the 18th century. Goethe already compared Europe to an adult surrounded by a pool of children (the “primitive” peoples whom Europeans were encountering in Asia, Africa and the Americas). This comparison of social and political development with the stages of human growth is telling. As children are to grow into adults, so are “primitive” societies to develop into politically-and technologically advanced societies, as the West has (even if that meant that they had to be coerced into it). Marx “only” added the last stage to this conception of history, the socialist stage, and became the philosopher who best conceptualized modernity. But he went further than this and applied this teleological concept to political action: now, the goal of politics was to bring about this last stage of society. We know where this led: the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 and the others that followed after WWII in Asia (China and North Korea) and Africa. It is also such laws of movement which Stalin and Hitler followed in their respective totalitarian regimes (see H.Arendt in op.cit.).
If, as we said at the beginning, the notion of progress as a law of movement is the primary characteristic of modernity, it has not then disappeared at all, and in fact informs, consciously or not, most of our interpretations and views of the events surrounding us (which ultimately make up History) and, therefore, determines and shapes our political decisions. This is the case when we believe that human rights, democracy or the market economy are the goals towards which all societies tend and will (must) arrive at.