Friday, June 14, 2013

American Progressivism: Part 4 of 5

by R.J. Pestritto, Shipley Professor of the American Constitution at Hillsdale College

IV. Progressivism and Socialism

Since the Progressives had such a limitless view of state power, and since they wanted to downplay the founders’ emphasis on individual rights, it is only natural to ask if they subscribed to socialism. There are several things to consider in answering this question.

First, when considering the relationship of progressivism
 to socialism, we must be clear that we are talking about the similarity in the philosophy of government; we are not suggesting that America’s progressives were the kind of moral monsters that we see in the history of some socialist or fascist regimes (although it is the case that their racial views – particularly those of Woodrow Wilson – were indeed morally reprehensible).

Second, we must also bear in mind that there was an actual socialist movement during the Progressive Era, and prominent progressives such as Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt were critics of it. In fact, Wilson and Roosevelt both ran against a socialist candidate in the 1912 election (Eugene Debs). The progressives were ambivalent about the socialist movement of their day not so much because they disagreed with it in principle, but because the American socialist movement was a movement of the lower classes. The progressives were elitists; they looked down their noses at the socialists, considering them a kind of rabble.

Keeping these points in mind, it is, nonetheless, the case that the progressive conception of government closely coincided with the socialist conception. Both progressivism and socialism champion the prerogatives of the state over the prerogatives of the individual. Wilson himself made this connection very plain in a revealing essay he wrote in 1887 called “Socialism and Democracy.” Wilson’s begins this essay by defining socialism, explaining that it stands for unfettered state power, which trumps any notion of individual rights. It “proposes that all idea of a limitation of public authority by individual rights be put out of view,” Wilson wrote, and “that no line can be drawn between private and public affairs which the State may not cross at will.” After laying out this definition of socialism, Wilson explains that he finds nothing wrong with it in principle, since it was merely the logical extension of genuine democratic theory. It gives all power to the people, in their collective capacity, to carry out their will through the exercise of governmental power, unlimited by any undemocratic idea like individual rights. He elaborated:

“In fundamental theory socialism and democracy are almost if not quite one and the same. They both rest at bottom upon the absolute right of the community to determine its own destiny and that of its members. Limits of wisdom and convenience to the public control there may be: limits of principle there are, upon strict analysis, none.”

Roosevelt, too, argued for a new conception of government, where individual natural rights would no longer serve as a principled boundary that the state was prohibited from crossing. He called in his New Nationalism program for the state to take an active role in effecting economic equality by way of superintending the use of private property. Private property rights, which had been serving as a brake on the more aggressive progressive policy proposals, were to be respected, Roosevelt argued, only insofar as the government approved of the property’s social usefulness. He wrote:



“We grudge no man a fortune in civil life if it is honorably obtained and well used. It is not even enough that it should have been gained without doing damage to the community. We should permit it to be gained only so long as the gaining represents benefit 
to the community. This, I know, implies a policy of a far more active governmental interference with social and economic conditions in this country than we have yet had, but I think we have got to face the fact that such an increase in governmental control is now necessary.”





In the next and final piece, we will consider the some of the most important connections between the original progressives and the resurgence of progressivism today. 



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