Published September 28, 2004 in FrontPageMagazine

The Meaning of "Progressive" Politics

by Barry Loberfeld

To the American mind, the most formal connotation of the term progressive is the Progressive Movement, a period of reform that ranged from the late 1800s to the end of World War I. Unlike its predecessor, the Populist Party, Progressivism was not a movement of farmers or manual laborers. Its guiding lights were college-educated men who were consequently steeped in the post-Enlightenment collectivism that had taken hold of the universities both here and in Europe. Among its apostles were “economists who adopted the ‘organic’ collectivism of the German historical school, sociologists and historians who interpreted Darwin according to the social ideas of Hegel (the ‘reform’ Darwinists), clergymen who interpreted Jesus according to the moral ideas of Kant (the Social Gospelers), single-taxers who followed Henry George, Utopians who followed Edward Bellamy ... ‘humanitarians’ who followed Comte ... pragmatists who followed William James and the early John Dewey.” (Peikoff)

The man who is now virtually synonymous with Progressivism, Herbert Croly (The Promise of American Life), was himself both the son of a noted proponent of Comtian positivism and the student of Harvard's Josiah Royce, a disciple of Hegel. All of these thinkers contributed to what would become the ethical foundation of the Progressive Movement: a contempt and loathing of "individualism" -- and its political expression in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution:

* Croly: "The Promise of American Life is to be fulfilled ... by a large measure of individual subordination and self-denial."

* Sociologist Lester Ward: "The individual has reigned long enough."

* Antitrust leader Henry Demarest Lloyd: Individualism is "one of the historic mistakes of humanity."

* The Outlook editor Lyman Abbott: "[I]ndividualism is the characteristic of simple barbarism, not of republican civilization."

* Baptist minister Walter Rauschenbusch: "[I]ndividualism means tyranny."

So great was this fear of the individual that John Dewey believed that the "mere absorbing of facts and truths is so exclusively individual an affair that it tends very naturally to pass into selfishness." "Progressive education" was developed to meet the individualist threat on the juvenile level, while Progressive collectivization of the economy would meet it on the adult, with the first targets being those unregulated monoliths of "economic power" -- the corporations.

Here is where Progressive myth collides with historical reality. The myth is that these "trusts" were becoming monopolies that were then able to use their power to "strangle" the rest of the country -- and all because the government clung to an out-dated doctrine of laissez faire that prevented even modest regulation. And the reality? “Despite the large number of mergers, and the growth in the absolute size of many corporations, the dominant trend in the American economy ... was toward growing competition. Competition was unacceptable to many key business and financial interests ... As new competitors sprang up, and as economic power was diffused throughout an expanding nation, it became apparent to many important businessmen that only the national government could [cartelize] the economy ... [I] t was not the existence of monopoly that caused the federal government to intervene in the economy, but the lack of it.” (Kolko)

If Big Business was the devil of Progressive rhetoric, it was nonetheless the beneficiary of Progressive policy. How did Progressivism's means lead to such a corrupt end? How did a movement that advocated greater democracy, that insisted that the "National Government must step in and discriminate ... on behalf of equality and the average man" (Croly), bring about the rise of bureaucracies that were removed from democratic review and "invariably controlled by leaders of the regulated industry" (Kolko)? Along with the chasm between the myth and the market, an illuminating answer can be found in Dewey's own definition of democracy: "that form of social organization, extending to all areas and ways of living, in which the powers of individuals shall ... [be] directed" -- by the State, which can justly be described as the god of Progressive belief.

In addition to Prohibition and segregation, the Progressives' anti-individualist idealism found yet another manifestation -- militarism. Under the Roosevelt Administration, the "spirit of imperialism was an exaltation of duty above rights, of collective welfare above individual self-interest ... [of] the heroic values as opposed to materialism, action instead of logic, the natural impulse rather than the pallid intellect" (Osgood) -- in short, an exaltation of every tenet of Progressive ideology above Enlightenment liberalism. This manifestation tumefied with the outbreak of war in Europe, with the Progressives' clamoring for U.S. entry:

* Journalist Frederick L. Allen: "War necessitates organization, system, routine, and discipline. We shall have to give up much of our economic freedom ... We shall have to lay by our good-natured individualism and march in step."

* Dewey: The "social possibilities" of war will supersede the "individualistic tradition" and demonstrate the "supremacy of public need over private possessions."

* Journalist Ray S. Baker: "We need trouble and stress! I thought once [the abolition of individualism] could be done by some voluntary revolt from comfort and property ... But it was not enough. The whirlwind had to come."

* Croly: The "tonic of a serious moral adventure" -- i.e., the war -- will prevent the "real danger of national disintegration" by forcing the American citizen to elevate "national service" above "having his own way."
War opponent Randolph Bourne denounced Dewey and the other Progressives for allying themselves with the "least democratic forces in American life." He openly mused that there "seems to have been a peculiar congeniality between the war and these men. It is as if the war and they had been waiting for each other." It is possible to suggest that there was nothing at all "peculiar" about the congeniality between the war and the ideas these men held.

With the end of World War I came the end of the Progressive Era. What didn't end was the movement's premise: the substitution of collectivism for individualism, statism for laissez faire. As a policy, Progressivism continued to progress.

The term progressive returned to the national scene with the 1948 presidential campaign of former vice president Henry Wallace and his Progressive Party, whose name pointedly harkened back to Theodore Roosevelt's own third-party challenge in 1912. But the raison d'être of this party was a very un-Progressive opposition to any action by, growth of, or support for the American military. The difference was that "the enemy" was now Soviet Russia and this Progressive Party was in fact a creation of the Communist Party and its ranks were filled with Communists and fellow travelers -- the Old Left -- none of whom had had any problems with the military when it was fighting Stalin's enemy in Europe. The Communist domination of the party was recognized by many even then, and Wallace left it when he supported Truman’s policy in Korea. But not to be lost was the connection between progressive and a position that reflexively opposed anything to do with the American military but ideologically supported collectivization of the American economy beyond what the "liberals" of the day advocated.

However, the term did go into hibernation when the Old Left, faltering under the burden of the Khrushchev revelations, was succeeded by the New Left, which maneuvered to distance itself from the Old Left's commitments (the USSR), ideology (Stalinism), and terminology -- including “progressive.” The New Left imagined itself independent, anti-Stalinist, and "revolutionary."

But by the end of the 60s, the New Left had realized itself as a movement that proclaimed “solidarity” with totalitarian regimes from Southeast Asia to Cuba, embraced Maoism as a visionary creed (especially for the remnants of Students for a Democratic Society), and had utterly failed to achieve anything "revolutionary." What next -- a Newer Left? Many activists brought their leftism with them as they entered mainstream institutions such as the universities and the Democratic Party. If anything, they were now "liberals" -- left-liberals, meaning that they were to the left of all other liberals. (Of course, liberalism itself had shifted markedly leftward, e.g., McGovern.)

And progressive? The term has today re-emerged to once again denote any person, organization, or idea left of moderate. It was the centrist liberalism of the Clinton Administration -- e.g., the (proposed) neo-Progressive cartelization of medicine, the intervention in the Balkans, the North American Free Trade Agreement -- that brought forth self-designated "progressives" who opposed anything less than full socialization of all medicine, the deployment of U.S. troops anywhere, and the rise of the global economy. The only real change in the term is how commodious it has become. It encompasses everyone from an ever-leftward social democrat to a Communist-without-a-Party to such relatively recent arrivals as the colorless "radical feminist" (i.e., white bourgeois female) fighting the Patriarchal Occupational Government, the Queer activist fighting "heteronormality," the multiculturalist fighting Western civilization, and the Deep Ecologist fighting all civilization. It even includes ideologically exhausted leftists-without-an-ism such as philosopher Richard Rorty, who allows that the "best we can hope for is more of the same experimental, hit-or-miss, two-steps-forward-and-one-step-back reforms that have been taking place in the industrial democracies since the French Revolution.” What's left is a "progressive" Left that can progress in any number of directions -- or with none at all.

Which raises the question of just what progressive really tells us. Something that means everything, means nothing. Even as a synonym for all things leftist, can it logically include, for example, the Marxist crucifixion of Malthus and the Green resurrection of him? Or both pacifism and militarism (the “armed struggles” of socialist forces)? How can we speak of as “progressive” striving for a Communist future that is already past – or yearning to drive humanity “back to the Pleistocene” (an Earth First! slogan)? And exactly how long can a concept sit on the shelf until you can’t continue to market it as “progressive”? Presumably, labeling one’s position “progressive” endows it with the virtue of being forward-looking, "relevant," while conversely rendering any opposing position backward, "reactionary" – all in all, a superficially more sophisticated alternative to “good” and “evil.” In a public square increasingly devoid of common referents, forward-and-back, much like left-and-right, reveals neither where someone is coming from nor what he’s going after. For the mere honesty of the debate, what we need is a political vocabulary whose terms actually describe the ideas on the table – a proposal evidently more daunting than its modest tenor would suggest.


E.J. Dionne, Jr., They Only Look Dead: Why Progressives Will Dominate the Next Political Era, 1996.

Arthur A. Ekirch, Jr., Progressivism in America, 1974

Gabriel Kolko, The Triumph of Conservatism: A Reinterpretation of American History, 1900-1916, 1963.

Michael McGerr, A Fierce Discontent: The Rise and Fall of the Progressive Movement in America, 1870-1920, 2003.

R.E. Osgood, Ideals and Self-Interest in America’s Foreign Relations, 1953.

Leonard Peikoff, The Ominous Parallels: The End of Freedom in America, 1982.