Mind your language

That irritating use of ‘progressive’ is more than a century old

But not to worry: someone else will have borrowed it soon

16 May 2015

9:00 AM

16 May 2015

9:00 AM

I was interested by the widespread annoyance at the use of progressive by the lefty parties before the election. Irritation is not the essence of a love of language (philology), but it is a symptom. The suspicion here was that socialism is so pejorative that a euphemism was being sought.

It is true that when Milton wrote of ‘Their wandring course… Progressive, retrograde, or standing still,’ he wasn’t referring to the left, the right and the Lib Dems. He was taking about the apparent motion of the planets relative to the sun and other stars, a science more familiar to learned people of his day and before than today. A synonym for progressive was prograde.

But even in the familiarly foggy terrestrial world of politics, progressive has been a hooray word in some mouths for a long time. Though Samuel Johnson could write of ‘the progressive descents of the species’, by the time of Disraeli in 1844, it was already in a past era that ‘odious distinctions were not drawn between Finality men and progressive Reformers’. I think my husband is a Finality Man.

Two can play at awarding the progressive label. It is not a secure property of the left. Progressive education was the invention (in a book of 1828, translated from French into English in 1838) of Albertine Necker de Saussure, a Swiss Calvinist, and only later was it thrust into the socialist swag bag. By the 1950s, Mary McCarthy in The Groves of Academe was able to picture satirically ‘a progressive community where the casserole and the cocktail and the disposable diaper reigned’.

The impression of progressive being a label for hire is reinforced in my experience by its deployment (with a connotation the dictionaries are unable to capture) in the two decades after the Second Vatican Council (which ended in 1965) by an ecclesiastical party. They claimed for their opponents the characteristics that John Henry Newman, with more humour, identified in the Ottomans: ‘Whatever be the natural excellences of the Turks, progressive they are not.’

I doubt the socialist vogue for progressive will last. You don’t have to be a doctor like my husband to be aware that a progressive disorder eventually proves fatal.

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  • Verbatim

    Progressive = 1 step forward, 2 steps backward.

    • awooble

      I always preferred the tango, which is one step back, two steps forward, and always with a poker face.

  • Stephen Milroy

    How in hellfire is the destruction of marriage, abortion on demand drink and drug abuse and all round societal decay ‘progress’? Unless they mean ‘progression’ as in ‘motion towards’ as in ‘progressing straight over a cliff’.

    • Verbatim

      Good question, but the answer to your question is that the things you mention don’t matter to progressives – only their own agendas matter. Yours have been conveniently airbrushed so as not to interfere with their own, newly minted and ever-transient social ‘values’. Simple really.

    • UKSteve

      “…destruction of marriage….”


  • fred finger

    Lefties only know how to make the UK progressively bankrupt.

  • Ed O’Meara

    Yes, but the unfortunate creep to the right makes it inevitable. Suddenly a few more percentage of the top grade of tax is hysterically labelled as MARXIST! ‘Socialism’ becomes a swear word. Where are the centre-left supposed to go?

    • PeterK10

      You ask, “Where are the centre-left supposed to go?”

      How about Hell?

      • Ed O’Meara

        Good iea. Hull’s Labour.

    • Jen The Blue

      Ed, the Laffer curve. Money raised by tax is a continuous function
      M(r) where r is the tax rate and M is the money raised.
      M(0)=0 and M(100)=0 because people will not work for nothing.
      Ergo, basic maths tells you there is (at least one….though in this case probably only one) maximum value of M that corresponds to a particular value of r, the tax rate.
      The Tories, with good evidence say this is less than 50% for highest rate taxpayers. Labour ignore this fact, and want to have punitive taxes at a higher rate, even though it will raise less revenue.

    • Jen The Blue

      Oh, and it wasn’t the Tories that presided over the Mid Staffs NHS death camp. Talking of short term memories……

  • MikeF

    The great irony about the word ‘progressive’ is that it is generally used to denote a form of politics in which ideal ‘positions’ are extrapolated from what are claimed to be basic principle. But being ‘ideal’ they cannot be questioned or subject to further change. Hence ‘prgressive’ politics inevitably lead to stasis.

  • Teacher

    For the left ‘progressive’ is a synoym for ‘destructive’ whereby something tried, tested and admired is torn down in the name of ideology and power grabbing. Architecture provides a like example if one thinks of the beautiful town and city centres which were smashed and destroyed in the 1960’s to be replaced by ‘progressive’ concrete monstrosities which degraded the quality of life of those they were meant to serve.

  • Novus

    Anyone who has read any Hayek will know the emptiness of the term “progressive” as it is (ab)used by the left. As he concludes The Road to Serfdom, “The guiding principle, that a policy of freedom for the individual is the only truly progressive policy, remains as true today as it was in the 19th century.”

  • JSC

    It’s not just ‘socialism’ that they’re afraid to use (outside of planet Scotland that is) but also ‘communist’. Example: the Communist parties wanted to abolish money, the Green party want free money for everyone – same difference, but “communism” has a earned stigma attached to it. In fact, it would probably be more environmentally friendly not to bother printing huge amounts of worthless currency…

    • Ed O’Meara

      The Green Party don’t want free money for everyone. They want a citizen’s income to replace benefit and pensions.

      • AgZarp

        Yes, you’re right. They don’t want free money for everyone, they want to give everyone money for nothing.

      • Jen The Blue

        That’s a real incentive to work isn’t it? How is not “free money”?

    • Ian Walker

      I actually prefer the honesty of communism to the lies of socailism.

      From an engineer and scientists viewpoint, communism has suffered from poor implementations and adverse conditions, whereas socialism can be confidently shown to have failed whenever and wherever it has been tested.

      It’s a fundamental principle of science that even the most compelling of theories should be discarded if it fails the empirical experiment.

      • Tim

        And yet we retain capitalism?

  • Sten vs Bren

    “The suspicion here was that socialism is so pejorative that a euphemism was being sought”

    Mainly it was because it was being used in the context of the SNP who are not socialists but nationalists.

    • Jen The Blue

      The SNP are National Socialists……I don’t think they will like that, but that is what the are………[No I am not calling them Nazis]

  • John Carins

    The wee Krankie (aka Sturgeon) uses it (“progressive”) all of the time. Why doesn’t any one challenge her?

    • ReefKnot

      Because they can’t get a word in edgeways.

  • Fred Yang

    Yep Britain has “progressed” towards an even more hopelessly fractured and divided society,

    Come to Birmingham and I’ll show you the outcome of Blair’s open door –
    A city literally divided in 2 – with one, shrinking, half, wanting nothing to do with t’other. And vice versa

  • petri

    Cultural marxism relies on redefining language. I laugh when I see someone using the work “progressive” – usually in a very earnest manner.

  • James McIntosh

    I feel that progressive in the political sense should mean a society willing to examine itself and reform, rather than one stuck in a traditionalist mindset, convinced of it’s own ideology and system despite evidence to it’s faults. I don’t see why it need to be attached to solely one wing of politics or another.

  • mrsjosephinehydehartley

    Harking back to Tony Blair who once told us he didn’t think things were radical enough, one couldn’t help but notice none of the election candidates this time round mentioned the word..unless the media chopped it out..

    I think the effects of ” progressive” would have no substance without a common and easy understanding of where to begin. that’s why socialism has to get radical.

  • Clive

    I believe the word to use is ‘statist’

    The people who currently call themselves ‘progressive’ invariably want more involvement by the state in society.

    That is statist.

  • Ian Walker

    Whenever any of my lefty friends trots it out on social media, I make a point of adding a comment “Please make sure your younger readers understand that by progressive, you don’t mean in a general sense of making progress, you mean a specific socialist policy of using high income taxes to subsidise welfare payments.”

  • Wanting never ending “progression” towards a larger public sector and more state control of everything (progressing socialism to communism) is the remit of “good” people, questioning the cost is the remit of “nasty” people; but the electorate is no longer buying into that argument. “Qualified Teacher” means qualified to spout progressive politics in schools.