History and Historiography

The Progressive Theory of History

Murray Rothbard on one of the more problematic features of left-wing thought.

By Murray Rothbard

Mises Institute

[Excerpted from an edited transcript of “Ideology and Theories of History,” the first in a series of six lectures on the history of economic thought, given in 1986.]

The Whig theory of history began in the early to mid-19th century, and it has taken over: it’s still with us. It’s still dominant despite criticisms in the 1930s and ’40s.

Basically, what the Whig theory of history says is that history is an inevitable march upward into the light. In other words, step by step, the world always progresses, and this progress is inevitable.

Now, the Whigs themselves were kind of lovable. They were moderate classical liberals. And when they coined the theory in the 1830s, ’40s, and ’50s, there was a certain amount of justification for it: indeed, if they looked back on the past, things seemed to be getting better and better. There was an increase in freedom, an increase in civilization and standard of living and science and knowledge, and so forth and so on.

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  1. https://mises.org/library/progressive-theory-history

    “This implies heavily that everything that was at any stage of the game was right — it was the best that was possible at the time. And therefore everything that is now is right, or at least is the best possible for this epoch.”

    This reminds me of Voltaire https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voltaire , and the relatively recent musical “Candide”. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Candide
    “Best of all possible worlds”.

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