According to one source the origin of the term “progressive” came about in the late1800s:
The first citation of the term “progressivism” in the Oxford English Dictionary is dated to 1892, in England. At that time the St. James Gazette used it as a term of derision, equating it with “radicalism”. However, the St. James usage doesn’t suggest that a neologism was being coined for the occasion (nor does the OED say as much).
As it turned out, the identification of biological evolution with social advancement was based on confused and ultimately false ideas; but Spencer’s elaboration of an essentially inevitable and indefinite social progress proved extraordinarily popular — even among those who would today be described as conservatives. (Spencer and Sumner were both arch conservatives.) Among those most taken by Spencer’s ideas was the young Englishman Winwood Reade, who popularized them in The Martyrdom of Man. Reade’s book, originally published in 1872, was read so widely that it reached an eighth edition just twelve years later — shortly before the St. James Gazette would use the term “progressivism” in its pages.
In the U.S. the Progressive Party was formed in 1912 and supported many of the positions associated with progressives today. As a third party in the U.S. it did quite well but still withered and died as the other two major parties adopted the more popular ideas from them.
The progressives of Europe in the early 20th Century were a somewhat different origin. They were the students of Marx and Engels who believed a proper study of history would allow the prediction of the future. The end of capitalism and the rise of socialism and communism was inevitable. Those advancing communism were progressives and those opposed to communism were anti-progress. This “progress” could only come through revolution.
According to Timothy Snyder in Bloodlands—Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, Stalin used this label in his exterminations of millions of people. He was advocating the inevitable progress of society and he and his supporters were progressives. Who could be against progress? Whoever such people were they were deserving of death. The utopia of a perfect communist society was just ahead and these people, these millions of murdered people, were a small price to pay to these progressives. They were starved in great famines caused by the seizing the food in the Ukraine, which was the food basket of Europe. Think about that. Millions of people starved to death in the major food production area of the continent due to progressives.
Millions more were arrested then sent to the Gulag after show trials or simply shot in the basements of the police buildings by the progressives of the Soviet Union.
In the U.S. progressives advocated for a vast increase in government power. In the USSR and elsewhere progressives used expanded power of government to murder tens of millions of people.
I see the social inequities which progressives use as their talking points. I understand the appeal of the “progressive” approach to social inequities. But progressives appear to not understand the terrible risks that have been demonstrated by their political ancestors.
I believe a much better term to describe their political persuasion is that advocated by Ayn Rand—looters.
see also http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fabian_Society