The Relationship Between Racism and the Ideology of Progress

Through the years, as a result of the two world wars and the Great Depression, the term progress and the meaning attached to it greatly suffered. The use of the word progress meant actually acknowledging that something was wrong to begin with which was especially difficult for nations affected by war. However, over time, the concept of development grew and this caused ‘progress’ to be the word associated with only with what the First world had already achieved and the great potential they could bring to the rest of the world or also known as the Third World through their science, technology, and economy.

According to Sbert, after the concept of development grew which gave progress a new reputation, the First World believed that the Third World had to first develop before thinking about progress. This development that would lead to progress which the Third World had to undergo was thought to come from the First world which was considered to be already developed and progressing. Progress acted as a hope for the people that which promised a future of freedom and justice but excluded beliefs in powers superior to man. Progress undermined established religion in eighteenth-century Europe and was, in fact, considered an obstacle to further advancement or progress. As religion was considered to be a limiting factor of progress, it continued to lose its importance in society and likewise, anything that could be a potential obstacle to the expansion of that which was considered to have been progressed such as the market, industry and the modern state continued to lose its significance in society.

Moreover, the idea of progress and the subsequent belief that the technologically advanced West would pave the way for development due to their superior means that came as a result of constant war that fast-tracked technological growth and made Europe invincible in every field provided a justification for Western self-assertion abroad and inequality at home in the Third world. This put the non-western nations in a vulnerable position as its, concept of progress, allowed Europeans to what they considered ‘discover’ the whole world and gain hegemony over the global horizon. The Europeans thought they had discovered the whole world because they believed that with their superior means and lifestyles they had provided the rest of the world with a better, improved way of living and due to the growth of strong faith in progress this rhetoric was accepted by those outside the west hungry for progress. Therefore, this was the relationship between racism and the ideology of progress, one characterized by looking at the West as a role model.

Sbert mentioned how what was not understood by the rest of the world was the intentional or unintentional, loss of identity that would result from progress. Faith in progress would be stripping the common man from all his traditional means, cultural footholds, and personal confidence as he faces the market, industry, and the nation-state. When the Europeans with the rhetoric of ‘discovering’ the whole world and paving the way for development which would lead to progress entered the Third World, the consequence of this was that the locals in the areas were stripped off their cultural identity along with their sense of pride, in fact, it was completely undermined as they sought validation for their own superiority at the expense of others. Hence, this was the relationship between racism and the ideology of progress, one where the rhetoric of progress took away one’s own cultural identity.

Furthermore, the relationship between racism and the ideology of progress is that which is considered as if Europe with its moral superiority had the lit the way for humanity. For the Europeans they superiority was inherently obvious while the rest of the world was at a subordinate position to them. They used biological reasons and scientific discovery to support and justify their beliefs regarding their supremacy which can be seen in the book Exterminate all the brutes: One Man’s Odyssey into the Heart of Darkness & the Origins of European Genocide by Sven Lindqvist where the easy adaptation of European animals and plants in the climate and soil of America and Australia but the difficult survival of American and Australian plants in Europe was used as a justification. The relationship is looked as white supremacy having given the rest of the world an improved way of living; a way of life that matched their supposedly superior one. It was considered as if the superior white race had almost civilized the scattered other races of the earth.

Moreover, the Europeans considered that sanitation, nutrition, and medicine with their guidance along with the human life span would increase. They thought of themselves as having brought about human improvement in the Third World. They considered themselves a superior nation that brought about light into the lives of other nations and despite having inflicted oppression and exploitation in the form of slavery they believed themselves to be the instrument of benefit for the people of Africa, indigenous slaves, and the rest of the world. In fact, the progress they made in the form of technological advancements was made through the wealth generated by the extensive labor of the African and indigenous slaves which gave the Europeans the validation they sought regarding the superiority of European civilization. Thus, the advancements and progress they made at the expense of other races made them believe in their own superiority and this shows that the relationship between racism and the ideology of progress was based on exploitation.

Much of the progress and the idea of it was based on Western Standards. What the Western nations had achieved would become the next goal and they took it upon themselves to help the rest of the world achieve a similar goal which also led to the creation of the discourse ‘West and the Rest.’ The effect of which Hugh Honour said was, “to tame and civilize the people White had observed so freshly”. From what the Europeans observed, they interpreted it as an absence of government and civil society which led them to believe in their own supremacy. What was unbearable to them was different civilizations doing things differently. For example, the high civilization of the Maya with its dazzling white cities was based on developed agriculture; it was stable, literate, and composed of a federation of nations, with a complex hierarchy of government. Similarly, there were the civilizations of the Aztecs and the Inca who were fully functioning and self-sufficient yet what was unacceptable to the Europeans was that these societies were not ‘European.’ Therefore, they would lump these societies together, describing them all as ‘Indians’ and putting them together in one inaccurate stereotype.

This highlights the relationship between racism and the ideology of progress. The Europeans would hinder the development and progress for the rest of the world if they were to do things differently. They assumed that because the native Indians did not have an economic system characterized by monetary exchange, trade, and commerce, matching the European's own economic system, they did not have a system at all and therefore took it upon themselves to provide the natives with an economic system. The Europeans looked at the natives as a constant reminder of their superiority and misinterpreted their social practices and traditions as a recognition of their superiority by them. For example, when Columbus visited America and interacted with the natives they came bearing gifts as a gesture of welcome but instead, he viewed it as a gesture that recognized the European's natural superiority and they set up a continuous supply of such gifts as an economic system. The Europeans would constantly undermine the natives and hinder their progress if they were not progressing the European way, setting themselves as the standard.

People described the natives of the New World, recently ‘discovered’ by Columbus, as, “lacking both the power of reason and the knowledge of God,” like they were beasts in human form. With this rhetoric common in the minds of Europeans and the West in general, they believed they had the done a favor to the natives by giving them the power of reason and knowledge of God, turning them into humans from ‘savages.’ The idea of progress in the west was one bound from the outset to conquest, and to fantasies of racial dominance in the rest of the world which was very evidently seen through history. For example, Lindqvist highlighted that genocide had been justified as a byproduct of progress and even the anthropological societies set up in Europe to deal with inhumane behavior started to justify cruelty as the hands of the Europeans under the banner of progress. Merivale suggested that the whites could do anything without any criticism or control. For the west, progress was a doctrine of supremacy where European dominance and hegemony could be celebrated as the center of human achievement.

Ehrenreich further highlighted the exploitative as well as one that sought validation relationship between racism and the ideology of progress. Condorcet said, “and we shall become to them instruments of benefit, and the generous champions of their redemption from bondage,” which shows that the White even after inflicting slavery and other cruelties on the people of Africa and Asia would also be our source of help to recover from the damage done by them. This showed the validation they sought to gain about their supremacy. Moreover, on the exploitation by the whites which was an important aspect of the relationship between racism and the ideology of progress which Ehrenreich stated was a trick that was not identifiable by anyone; use biological agents to help you conquer half the world, slaughter and enslave whoever was biologically termed inferior. According to Ehrenreich, the Europeans destroyed civilizations as primitive and savage, leaving the victims who survived in a degraded manner which served to use as evidence and validation for your own superiority, the right to rule over and exploit them under the false banner of having the motive of ‘civilizing’ the world. He stated that this paved the way and provided justification for non-western exploitation and slaughter at the hands of the Western people and their dominance as it put Europe at the pinnacle of human history and achievement whereas the rest of the was shunned as ‘lowland wastes.’

In conclusion, this is the relationship between racism and the ideology of progress, characterized by exploitation at the hands of the Europeans and Europeans seeking validation for their own supremacy and the rhetoric regarding the relationship of racism and the ideology of progress maintained is that the superior race, West, led to the progress of the other, even though that might not be the case, but instead undermined the rest of the world.


  1. Lindqvist, S. (1992). Exterminate All the Brutes: One Man’s Odyssey into The Heart of Darkness & the Origins of European Genocide. New York, NY: The New York Press.
  2. Hall, S. & Gieben, B. (1992). ‘The West and the Rest: Discourse and Power,’ Formations of Modernity. Oxford and Cambridge, Great Britain: Redwood Books.
  3. Sbert, J, M. (2009). ‘Progress,’ Development Dictionary: A Guide to Knowledge as Power. London: Zed Books.
  4. Ehrenreich, B. (2019). ‘Progress and the demented quest for historical purity,’ The Baffler. No. 43. Extracted from:
07 July 2022
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