Showing posts with label progressivism. Show all posts
Showing posts with label progressivism. Show all posts

Tuesday, October 14, 2008


I thought I'd muse over a question that used to bug me: the American 18th and 20th centuries were so different; what changed us? How could only a hundred years have made such a big difference? Even if you're not interested in this, I think you'll find the unusual view of American history expressed here to be fascinating. It has to do with utopianism.

As every schoolkid knows, a lot of immigrants came to America to escape religious intolerance in the old country. The unification of Germany where the Catholic South was awkwardly combined with the Protestant North; the puritans versus the Church of England: It was a mess. A lot of people who had the means bailed and came to America.

The English puritans were the original utopian immigrants. Except for their opinions about witches and sex, they were an admirable people, but I'm not sure I'd have wanted to live around them. They were a feisty lot. The English monarchy was glad to see them leave, and for good reason. Eventually they made war on the government, chopped the King's head off, and ended the monarchy. That's Cromwell, one of the puritan leaders, above; a no-nonsense kind of guy.

A lot of Christian farm socialists like the Amish came here in the 18th century. I hate to admit it but I don't know enough about European history to know what drove them to emmigrate, or why they chose to live in farm communes when they got here. The Amish were Swiss weren't they? What was going on in Switzerland that was so horrible? Why the emphasis on farm socialism? I'll make a guess that Calvin's Geneva which was a bit socialistic captured the imagination of people at the time, but I'm usually wrong when I make guesses like this.

The Amish communes in the New World prospered, maybe because the Amish were professional farmers and knew what they were doing. When urban American intellectuals like The Transcendentalists tried farm socialism (that's Brook farm above) the result was a disaster. The country is littered with small towns whose utopian origins and subsequent schisms and break-ups are reflected in their names: "Harmony," "New Harmony," "Truest Harmony."

The farm commune concept pretty much ended with the Civil War. It was on the decline anyway since so few of the farms worked, and during the war people had no attention for issues that weren't war-related.

After the war an odd thing happened. The mean-spiritness that had overtaken European utopians since 1848 now began to influence Americans. No more farms. No more lion lying down with the lamb. No more swords being beat into plowshares. No more winning converts by example. Increasingly there was a feeling that big issues were best settled by direct confrontation with one's enemies on a giant scale. The newest immigrants brought the latest utopian theories with them, including Marxism, radical unionism, and anarchism.

It's hard to imagine now but anarchists were a big intellectual force in 19th century Europe. The most drastic of them believed in killing people who worked for the government. The theory was that if every office holder felt threatened with death, then nobody would ever want to hold office, and the people could be truly free. Conrad wrote a novel about these guys. They were really creepy. A lot of people holding this belief escaped to America, one step ahead of the law.

Another European phenomenon that got shipped over was syndicalism and revolutionary unionism. By revolutionary unionism I mean unions whose true goal was to not to promote better wages and shorter hours, but rather a general strike that would topple the government.

Then there were the Marxists, but everybody knows about them already. Anyway, all these people came to America along with everyone else.

America became a kind of safety valve for Europe. We got their discontents.

Anyway, by the time Woodrow Wilson took office we were a changed country. We definitely weren't Marxist, or anarchist or syndicalist -- those guys lost, in the sense that they didn't get what they wanted -- but they were not without influence. The new Progressive Era adopted the utopian belief that small government was ineffectual.

When modern politicians call themselves progressives, people erroneously take the term to mean "those who desire progress." Actually, the meaning is more specific than that. Wilsonian progressives conceived the U.S. as a democracy more than a republic, and once elected they believed the president should have sweeping powers. The system of checks and balances was seen as somewhat outmoded. How, they reasoned, can a government solve problems if it's designed by checks and balances to be constantly at war with itself? Isn't it the job of government to identify problems and solve them? How can it do that if it doesn't have lots and lots of power? Just for the record, I think this is a terrible idea.

Anyway, it's not the system that Jefferson, Madison, Franklin and Washington had in mind. It's a change brought about by 19th century utopians. Interesting, huh?

Saturday, April 12, 2008


This afternoon I spent a couple of hours on the floor of my local Borders perusing a couple of new books on the subject of fascism.  Holy Mackeral! There's a lot that I didn't know before! Apparently Mussolini was heavily influenced by the American pragmatist writers like William James (pragmatism = whatever works is good). Mussolini was a socialist, in fact he edited Italy's biggest socialist newspaper, but reading the Americans led him to think that there was a third way, which was neither capitalist nor socialist. It consisted of doing whatever seemed to work, whether the solution was a private or a public sector one.  The important thing for the pragmatists was to get things done!

This philosophy eventually created the Progressive movement in America, exemplified by Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt. Wilson believed in drastically beefing up the power of the central government so that, when that power was needed, it would be there to solve problems quickly and definitively, without the ball and chain of endless arguments by local politicians.  Putting the power in the hands of higher ups meant a lot less power for individuals and Wilson and Roosevelt were fine with that.  They felt that parts of the American founding documents were fine for their time but were antiquated in the modern world, which demanded fast, decisive action.  

Of course the problem faced by the pragmatists was how to break it to people that the new ideas involved less freedom, and the solution was education to produce a new citizen who was so hyped up and so civic-minded that he wouldn't mind giving up some of his traditional freedoms. Wow! Shades of the French Revolution! 

In America and Britain the pragmatist philosophy was diluted by long held traditions favoring individual rights, but in continental Europe the concept of American and British-style rights were still controversial.  For them the idea of centralizing power led to power being vested in Marxist-style authoritarian parties,  and leaders who were like kings.  Since pragmatism involved using any solution that seemed like it would work, and since the party leader(s) decided what worked, European pragmatism degenerated into the whims of tyrants.

Is this a fair analysis? I haven't the slightest idea since I know very little about the period.  If the books are wrong then I'm wrong.  I just find it interesting that an American philosophy like pragmatism may have had a bigger impact than I'd previously thought.

Is anybody still awake out there?