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The Eclipse of Progressivism

Democratic Presidential candidate James Cox and his running mate Franklin Roosevelt pass through a crowd of cheering onlookers during their campaign in 1920.

Herbert Croly celebrated the virtues of intellectual detachment, or what he preferred to call disinterestedness, the ability to transcend narrowly self-interested thinking. In a way, that’s how he viewed the true liberal, as the greatest exemplar of disinterestedness. That trait was also the basis for the liberal’s mission in life: He needed to educate the rest of the country to adopt this same manner, to convince his compatriots to stop indulging their parochial impulses and to begin putting the nation’s interests first.

Not everyone who shared Croly’s politics, however, shared his ideal of disinterestedness. Labor unions, for one, exist in order to promote the interests of their members. Croly was quite hard on the unions in his magnum opus, The Promise of American Life. Over time, as the nation’s politics shifted ever further to the right, his own politics shifted to the left. And his skepticism about labor softened.

Around the office, there was an expression used to describe the editor’s writing style: “Crolier than thou.” You could say the same about this essay, a fine encapsulation of its author, with its brooding quality, sweeping historical analysis, and intense moral purpose.

—Franklin Foer, former TNR editor, Insurrections of the Mind: 100 Years of Politics and Culture in America


The chief distinguishing aspect of the Presidential campaign of 1920 is the eclipse of liberalism or progressivism as an effective force in American politics. In every previous election, at least since 1896, one candidate or one party advanced a valid claim for support of those voters who believed that the public welfare demanded more or less drastic changes in national organization and policy; and since 1904 the preponderant preference of this progressive vote has determined the result of the election. In 1920, however, the voters with progressive opinions are confused, scattered, distracted and impotent. The Democratic candidate is bidding for their support; but his bid is low and, considering the record of his party, of more than doubtful cash value. It attracts few former progressives except those who are Democrats first and progressives second. On the other hand the Republican candidate not only dares to defy progressivism by being unmistakably reactionary, but he is counting on his partiality for private business and his renunciation of any meddling with it in the public interest to win the election for him. It is this fact which most clearly betrays and proves the contemporary political impotence of progressivism.

Harding’s frank resurrection of pre-Roosevelt Republicanism is a natural result of the-practically confessed political bankruptcy of every group of progressives from those of the extreme right to those of the extreme left. Progressivism or liberalism is fundamentally the attempt to mould social life in the light of the best available knowledge and in the interest of a humane ideal. It lives by the definite formulation of convictions, by the initiation of specific programs and by the creation of opportunities to try them out. It is necessarily aggressive. In order to be successfully aggressive it must know what it wants; it must know how to get what it wants; and it must be willing to make the sacrifices which are necessary for the success of its aspirations and plans. The various progressive groups are no longer sure or clear about what they want. They do not know how to get what they want; nor are they willing to pay the price. Their political futility is born of the equivocal meaning of American liberalism, its failure to keep abreast of the best available social knowledge and its inability to interpret candidly the lessons of its own checkered career.

The Roosevelt progressive party was an extremely composite political camp-meeting. It included not only every shade of liberalism but almost every degree of conservatism. It sheltered millions of Mr. Roosevelt’s personal followers who never possessed any sincere or intelligent grasp of progressive principles. Those who may recall the spectacle of such political heathen as the present directors of the New York Sun, the Chicago Tribune and the Philadelphia North American standing at Armageddon and battling for the Lord will take off their hats to Theodore Roosevelt as the evangelist of a progressive faith. But too often he beguiled rather than convinced his converts, and they soon fell away from him or he from them. The party never possessed any body of common conviction or of economic impulse sufficient to preserve its members from backsliding during the intervals between camp meetings. Mr. Roosevelt himself by his behavior before and during the convention of 1916 took away from the remnant of the party its integrity of principle. He was willing to sacrifice essential progressive interests and convictions to the satisfaction of an intense personal animosity to the President and the Democratic party. The result was to pass on to Mr. Wilson the temporary leadership of American progressivism. The mass of progressive voters rallied to the support of the Democratic candidate as the most promising way out of a ‘bad business. But they never entirely trusted him and his party. Nor did they accept without substantial qualifications his formulation of progressive principles. He finally justified these misgivings- By his behavior since the armistice he, like Mr. Roosevelt, forced his progressive supporters to choose between their loyalty to their principles and their loyalty to him. He shattered what was left of American progressivism as a coherent body of conviction. The hodge-podge of factions and sects which remain of the progressive movement know neither their own minds nor the dangerous world in which they live.

The behavior of these groups during the primary campaign betrayed their political negligibility. Throughout the early months of 1920 an unusually large, disinterested and intelligent mass of progressive opinion, knowing that the existing problems of American domestic and foreign policy needed more liberal and statesmanlike treatment than they would receive from the dominant leadership of either party, looked around for some effective political embodiment of their point of view. They finally concentrated on Mr. Hoover— himself an almost perfect mouthpiece of both their misgivings and their liberal convictions. Yet they failed from the start to impart any vital impulse to Mr. Hoover’s candidacy. For the candidate with the undoubted approval of the majority of his supporters early announced that he was first, last and always a good party man and a liberal only in so far as liberalism did not conflict with party loyalty. This was what the politicians wanted to know. They could and did ignore and defy him and his supporters just as they always will defy such docile and well-behaved insurrections against their authority. Neither did they lose anything by their defiance. In the end the Republican machine secured the support of Mr. Hoover and most of his followers without paying for it even in an issue of irredeemable paper promises. When Mr. Hoover rallied to a candidate such as Harding, middle-of-the-road liberalism skidded far away from the middle of the road. It did not stop skidding until it almost reached the declivity on the extreme right, and it is now engaged in maintaining its balance by shutting its eyes to the dangerous actualities of its situation.

The factions and sects who were ready and anxious to break away from the older parties did not succeed in putting up a better showing for liberalism in politics than did their more amenable former associates. The Committee of 48 started out expressly to capitalize liberal and radical discontent the existing parties and to formulate a program which would focus and clarify the new progressivism. But it did not start with the support of enough voters to constitute by itself a formidable political group. Its few thousands of urban middle class members were politically negligible unless they could adjust their own program to that of some large body of wage-earners and farmers. In July at Chicago they tried and failed to accomplish this adjustment. Although they themselves represented only an insignificant fraction of the middle class they insisted on a middle-class program—one which ignored the fact that no mere redistribution of property will give the needed dignity and power to labor. The original group separated after the usual manner of progressives into several smaller sects, the largest of which joined the Farmer-Labor Party while the others, deprived even of this frail habitation, were left completely exposed to the inclemency of the political weather.

Thus those liberals who declared war on the existing parties proved as incapable of imparting an effective political expression to their convictions as did those liberals who put their Democracy or Republicanism first. American progressives seem unable either to dispense with party organizations or to control them in the interest of a liberal purpose. Fifty years of reforming agitation, during which in the great majority of cases the reformers have had to fight the national parties, have left those organizations with their prestige unimpaired. The party politicians are for the time being completely triumphant over their progressive adversaries and they are consequently fairly wallowing in the trough of equivocal verbosity which the eclipse of aggressive liberalism permits them to substitute for the honest definition of conflicting issues. Their success makes it look very much as if they and their combination of realistic machine methods with unlimited patriotic pretense must represent something more fundamental in the American democracy than the reformers and progressives have represented.


As a progressive democrat whose faith survives the contemporary eclipse of progressivism I am not willing to impute the triumph of unreformed and unrepentant party politics and economic privilege to the superior reality of their principles. It is due rather to the unreality which liberals have allowed to pervade liberalism. They have not studied the meaning of their experience and failures during the last twenty-five years. They have not as the result of this experience divined the need of adopting a more radical and realistic view of the nature and object of a liberal agitation under the conditions of the American democracy. They accepted in the beginning and continue to accept certain assumptions about the seat of effective power in. the American commonwealth and the relation between the state and social progress which condemn them to remain either the uneasy accomplices or the impotent enemies of the powers that be in American society. Progressives have assumed that the American commonwealth, as now instituted and operated, is a complete and essentially classless democracy whose citizens can cure its ailments and adjust its conflicts by virtue exclusively of political action, agitation and education. This assumption they share with their adversaries. It has falsified and will continue to falsify the American progressive movement If progressives wish to vindicate their claim to serve as indispensable agents of American national fulfillment they will need consciously to abandon it.

The American commonwealth ought to be, as its apologists insist that it is, an essentially complete democracy in which class divisions exist only to be overcome. The more aspiring American political: leaders have always hoped and aimed to create a state which was capable of curing all its conflicts and ailments by the use of political remedies. During the period before the Civil War when natural resources were still so abundant that all smaller classes were merged into the dominant class of the pioneer farmer, merchant or manufacturer, the American commonwealth came nearer to being an equalitarian democracy than any previously existing state. But it never succeeded even at its best in living up to the idea of the more democratic of its founders; and now that its rich inheritance of natural resources is so largely dissipated or appropriated, the existing American union fails as completely to be a flexible, classless and consummate democracy as do the older European states. Our existing institutions are, it is plain, actually provoking class divisions and conflicts similar to those which have existed in undemocratic societies. These divisions and conflicts have steadily increased during the past fifty years and the state has not only done nothing to cure them, but it has done nothing to prevent them from becoming more numerous and more acute.

The class cleavage is spreading and intensifying in certain respects because of our existing institutions. It is spreading because the existing national economy is too largely a one class economy and the existing state too largely a one class state. Liberalism has always believed that popular self-government can ultimately overcome such a partial appropriation of the state by one class; and I would be the last to suggest the abandonment of this article in the liberal creed. But just at present popular self-government is sick, and as long as it is sick, it lacks the recuperative power to come to the assistance of a divided society. Class cleavage born of one-class domination itself poisons the democratic government which should be able to cure its own maladies. Political democracy must call to its assistance social and industrial democracy in order to regain its health. Those progressives who refuse a radical diagnosis of the sickness of political democracy will cease to be progressives. If they wish to renew the original formative American ideal—that of a moralized democracy righteously triumphant over class divisions—they must admit the temporary need of strengthening the wage-earners to resist capitalist domination and so of helping to restore a wholesome balance of economic and social power in the American commonwealth.

The excessive preponderance of one class has impaired the credit of that circulating medium upon which the whole system of democratic values rests. It has impaired the vitality of opinion and discussion by depriving them of their indispensable nourishment. It has deprived the American public of a full and fair account of the news about industrial and social conflicts. It has to a large extent substituted a policy of intimidation for the former patient and good humored toleration of radical criticism of existing institutions and drastic proposals for their reform. These departures from the American tradition have so far impaired the ability of American public opinion to understand its ailments and provide appropriate cures that the remedy must derive in part from an independent source.

Whenever an industrial conflict involves the majority of the employees in an important industry and so threatens to raise a question between the organized employer and employees as to the future control of the industry, the newspapers both in their reporting of the news and their comments on it line up with the employers and accept a class interpretation of the controversy and of its salient facts. With few exceptions they followed this course in respect to the steel and coal strikes of last year and prejudged those controversies in a sense prejudicial to organized labor. Moreover this prejudice implied a condemnation of the strikers much more serve than that which is ordinarily visited on the unpopular party in an industrial conflict. Public opinion was induced by the newspapers to condemn both strikes as anti-social conspiracies against the public welfare. There was a successful attempt to intimidate opinion and to prevent any but one side from obtaining a fair hearing. The result in both cases was a solution disadvantageous to organized labor and favorable to the growth of the previously existing class cleavage. The settlements have only prepared the way for a renewal of the conflict as soon as the defeated strikers consider conditions favorable.

These instances convinced me of the futility of expecting the American government to heal the class cleavage through the action exclusively of the existing machinery of political self-government. American law and practice place economic and social power preponderantly in the hands of one class. The class exploits the organization and shibboleths of democracy in order to disqualify any attack on its autocratic authority in industry as anti-social agitation. Its ownership of the press enables it to fasten the stigma of disloyalty upon wage earners who are threatening in the interest of their own independence the existing control of industry, or upon publicists who insist on the need of a radical redistribution of economic power. Its ownership of the party machines enables it to prevent any radical industrial issue from becoming the subject of controversy between the major parties. In so far as the class cleavage is based on real class grievances, the stability of the American state is being compromised. The continuation of this sacrifice of moral order to the preservation intact of the existing distribution of economic and social power will end by emasculating democracy, by converting the existing state into a completely and irrevocably class organization and by rendering ultimately inevitable violent class warfare.


If the foregoing analysis is correct, the American Commonwealth is the partial victim of the preponderance and the dominion of one class, which while preserving the forms has corrupted the substance of popular self-government. Instead of beginning by recognizing the legitimacy of this perversion of democracy, progressivism must begin by repudiating it. The one effective way of repudiating it is to call in another class to redress the balance. The one group whose interests, whose numbers and whose existing social disfranchisement qualify it to redress the balance is that of the workers. It is important for them to become conscious of the need of collective class action, not for the purpose of undermining the loyalty of the wage-earners to the state, but for the purpose of creating in a redistribution of power among classes the needed foundation for an ultimate class concert. For labor and liberalism alike, class rule, disguised by protective coloration to look like traditional democracy, is the common enemy. They need to make common cause against it. The future political power of liberalism depends upon its ability to secure the voting support of those who live by labor, including under the phrase those who work with the body and with the mind and those who work on the farm and in the office as well as in the factory. The workers on their side will remain incapable of assuming either the full political or the social responsibility of American citizens unless they play their part in bringing about such a partnership. The lack of it accounts for the political impotence both of labor and of liberalism. Its consummation as an effective political force is the all-important task of progressive American democrats.

It is, however, the liberals rather than labor who should initiate such a partnership. In order to bring it about the majority of American liberals will have to alter their attitude towards the only organized and articulate group of workers. That attitude has usually been unsympathetic and unintelligent. The great majority of American progressives are educated and comparatively well-to-do business and professional men. They have never before sought social contacts with the leaders of organized labor and their understanding of the wage-earners’ point of view has suffered from ignorance of the impulses, necessities and the ideas which give form to labor unionism. They have regarded the contest between the employers and their organized employees as at bottom a fight between two social groups of equal power, both of which tended to pursue their class interests unscrupulously and both of which need regulative discipline in the public interest. Their proposed method of dealing with the contest has never gone further than some measure of compulsory arbitration or collective bargaining under the protection of the state. They have not regarded the participation of the workers in the management of the industry as an essential part of a democratic industrial policy and of democratic education for citizenship. They have always considered the intrusion of unionized wage-earners into politics as an example of disrupting class organization in what should be a classless democracy.

As long as liberals determine their behavior towards the labor movement by the foregoing ideas there is no chance of a political and social partnership. The conscious organized worker regards himself and rightly regards himself and his fellows not as a selfish group which is extorting all it can from the community, but as a group which, under the conditions of a modern industrial society, is not occupying the firing line in the battle for human liberation. The next advance in the art of human association demands the introduction into capitalist industry of the same government by the consent of the governed as that which the founders of the American republic intended to introduce into the state. If liberalism implies an interest in human liberation, the wage-earners who are fighting the battle for this advance deserve the sympathy and support of liberals. They are performing the same dangerous and disagreeable pioneer work on behalf of a humanized industry as the Wycliffites did on behalf of the Protestant Reformation or the unruly medieval communes did on behalf of political democracy.

Of course, like all engaged in a fight, they often borrow their weapons from their adversaries. But if they frequently use arrogant language or if they insist on conditions which restrict production or if they lack the ability wisely to employ the power which they are grasping, they are entitled to have their delinquency traced to its psychological and social cause. They situation of organized labor compels it to be aggressive, pugnacious and self-interested. Since the beginning of the labor movement the unions have never won a concession from their employers or from the state unless they possessed the power to extort it. Their masters have taught them the grim lesson of macht-politik—the importance of being irresistible rather than scrupulously just. Organized labor seeks power more than anything else and it does not always use the power which it conquers with wise moderation. But inasmuch as it would not survive unless it did seek power, liberals should allow this fact to deter them from lending support to the general aims and movement of labor. They should have the common sense to recognize the necessity of a civilization as callous as ours for a disfranchised class to force upon society its claim for greater social responsibility and consideration.

A socially enlightened government might have enabled the wage-earning worker to attain social equality, consideration and power by another route. It might have introduced a system of industrial and technical education which would have equipped the workers for positions of increased economic responsibility and social consideration. The unanswerable indictment against capitalism as an American institution is not that enterprising business men seized and exploited the opportunities and power which society placed at their disposal. It was natural and even necessary that they should organize production and distribution on a basis more profitable to themselves than to society. The offense against the American national welfare with which they are indictable is of a different kind. It is their blindness to the social penalties of their methods of hiring, firing and playing labor and their refusal to make the technical and social education of their employees a charge upon business or upon the business man’s state. While boasting of their citizenship in a commonwealth which abolished class distinctions, they deprived the typical wage-earner of sufficient leisure, sufficient remuneration and sufficient sense of security in his job to enable him to assume a position of social responsibility and dignity. His status as a wage-earner interfered with, if it did not prevent, the kind of education which he needed to qualify him for citizenship in an equalitarian democracy. The most notorious and nauseating example of this capitalist irresponsibility is the spectacle of the Steel Corporation working over fifty per cent of its employees twelve hours a day or seven days a week and of denying them an American standard of living and then accusing them, when they strike, of conspiring to destroy the American Republic. A system which is capable of such hypocrisy is corrupt at the core.

Exploited by their employers and deserted by the state, they wage-earners had to educate themselves in the only way they knew how—that is, by fighting to obtain as a group the power and the independence which society denied to them as individuals. Such is the final significance of the trade-union movement and until the American national conscience adjusts its valuation of the movement to some such conceptions of its significance, a dangerous class cleavage will rend American society. The whole established tradition in American politics, jurisprudence and social consciousness is impervious to this interpretation and refuses to act upon it. The conservatives, being blind to the existence of class domination and to the accompanying miseducation of both master and servant, cannot and will not recognize the temporary need to class consciousness on the part of the worker as a means of overcoming his class minority. They insist that such class consciousness, no matter how tentative it may be, constitutes a betrayal of the national ideal. Yet in truth it is they who are betraying the national idea. For their misinterpretation of the aims and necessities of organized labor and their blindness to the tendency of the wages system to deny to the industrial worker a position of individual independence and social dignity will, if it continues, prepare the way for a revolutionary class conflict.

It remains to be seen whether the American democracy can escape such a calamity by a wise prevision. It cannot escape by carrying on its recent policy of physical and moral intimidation, for that will accelerate rather than prevent the catastrophe. It cannot escape by welfare legislation, compulsory arbitration or any other expedient which ignores the need of wage-earning workers for the independence and dignity which must come from substantial economic power and social responsibility. It can only escape by crediting to the organized workers a salutary social purpose which transcends class interests but which under the circumstances they cannot attain without class organization and consciousness. If this class organization and consciousness is treated by good middle-class Americans as disreputable and maleficent, it may develop in a manner dangerous to social order. On the other hand with anything like fair and intelligent treatment it will serve as a stage in the educational adjustment of the wage-earner to society. It will not mean in the event the subordination of the American commonwealth to class domination but rather its triumph over such domination through a gradual moral reconciliation among classes.

American progressives will remain divided into impotent factions and sects until they come to understand what an essential part of progressivism must play in bringing about this adjustment. Organized labor cannot make the adjustment alone. If progressives do not interpret the movement as the march of a socially disfranchised class towards larger opportunities, it is likely to become blindly and destructively pugnacious and will tend more and more to depend exclusively on direct action. But if American labor can obtain the candid, discriminating yet loyal support of a sufficiently numerous group of liberals who belong to other classes, the consciousness of being understood and the new inter-class association will undoubtedly ameliorate its frequently harsh, suspicious and aggressive attitude.

The progressives will testify to the possibility of creating a political democracy superior to class by themselves rising above class misunderstanding and prejudice. A large fraction of the English liberals have already assumed this attitude towards the labor movement. They have joined the Labor party and so created a fighting organization, which is the conscious political instrument of the social and industrial enfranchisement of the wage-earning and salaried worker. The American progressive is under a heavier obligation to adopt this course than the English liberal. For while the British Commonwealth has frankly recognized class discriminations, the complacent acceptance of such discriminations is peculiarly abhorrent to the American national consciousness.

That is the reason why as an American who called himself a reformer from 1890 to 1908, a Republican insurgent from 1908 to 1912, and since 1912 a progressive, and who shared most of the mistakes and illusions of the reformers, insurgents and progressives, I shall vote for the Farmer-Labor candidate for the Presidency. The Farmer-Labor party is an attempt to unite the American workers, whether industrial or agricultural, whether by hand or brain, whether salaried or wage-earning as a homogeneous group which is capable of exercising and deserves to exercise its share of economic, social and political power. It seeks to adjust the American labor movement both to the interests of the other classes and to its place in a humane commonwealth. A party which itself overcomes the class conflict is necessary to reconstruct a state which is capable of providing for the moral reconciliation of the classes.

The arguments against voting for the Farmer-Labor candidate are numerous and formidable. The chief of them is that the new party is far more of an aspiration than a reality. It has failed to secure the support of any large number of farmers and laborers. It does not represent either organized labor or the organized farmer. Instead of being supported by the American Federation of Labor, the leaders of that organization are its bitterest enemies. Its platform includes some things that I should like to see omitted and omits much that I should like to see included. In voting for Christensen I shall vote for a group of principles of which I do not wholly approve and for a platform which the existing party does not possess the administrative ability to carry into effect.

These serious drawbacks are traceable chiefly to one underlying cause. Practically all of the educational groundwork in public opinion for a Farmer-Labor party still remains to be done. Marxian Socialism has the advantage both of a definite creed and a Bible which focuses the convictions and emotions of its adherents. The British Labor party is built upon the experience of the British trades-union movement throughout three generations and upon over thirty years of the educational work of Sidney Webb and the other Fabians. The older parties in this country possess all the advantages of custom. Their tradition of seeking remedies for social maladies by means exclusively of direct governmental action is deeply rooted in the American political consciousness, and is taken for granted by the enormous majority of good American citizens. Nothing has happened to impair its authority. Thus the Farmer-Labor party is starting out to capture votes and become a political force in spite of the fact that only a small part of the American people is prepared to welcome and to understand its proposal to vindicate the deepest American social tradition of an equalitarian commonwealth by means not of disregarding but of recognizing and overcoming class dissensions. Before its formative idea can become politically effective it will need not only a more thorough, a more lucid and a more persuasive presentation than it has yet received but a radical change of mental attitudes on the part of all the groups which the party seeks to unite—of organized labor, of the farmers and of the progressive members of other classes. This change of attitude can hardly take place except as the result of supplementing the political coalition of the groups by an association among them for economic cooperation as consumers.

Those who cast a vote for the Farmer-Labor candidates should not cherish illusions about the ability of the party to win easy and numerous future converts. Much as the new party needs votes, it needs even more than votes a candid understanding of the gulf which separates the formative idea upon which the party is built from the actual state of mind of the farmers, laborers and liberals whose cooperation is necessary to make it practically effective. That gulf is wide and deep—as wide and deep as the class cleavage which the party recognizes and proposes to overcome. In this sense a vote for Christensen becomes pale with an unreality similar to the unreality which afflicts every attempt in this abominable election to give effective political expression to the aspirations of a progressive to make his vote count on behalf of human liberation. But there is one merit in such a vote which to my mind is decisive in its favor. Plain as is the political unreality to which the lack of antecedent preparation condemns the Farmer-Labor party as an expression of liberal aspiration, the party is born of a sound application of the traditional American ideal of a homogeneous equalitarian democracy to the existing facts of American economic and social life. It looks like the best way in 1920 of vindicating American nationality as an expression of an essentially ethical and humane ideal. I am thankful, consequently, to those people who have unfurled the new party flag and afforded me an opportunity of saluting it. Although it floats over a castle in the air, it does not call for blood as does the red flag of socialism and it means more of the good which good Americans have meant by the Stars and Stripes than do the besmeared, tawdry and drooping flags of the Democratic and Republican parties. To vote for it is only an expression of faith, but it is an expression of faith at a moment when in my opinion the old parties afford the voter no opportunity of using his vote as an expression of humane power.