Visions of Progress: The Left-Liberal Tradition in America (Politics and Culture in Modern America)

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Liberals and leftists in the United States have not always been estranged from one another as they are today. Historian Doug Rossinow examines how the cooperation and the creative tension between left-wing radicals and liberal reformers advanced many of the most important political values of the twentieth century, including free speech, freedom of conscience, and racial equality.

Visions of Progress chronicles the broad alliances of radical and liberal figures who were driven by a particular concept of social progress—a transformative vision in which the country would become not simply wealthier or a bit fairer but fundamentally more democratic, just, and united. Believers in this vision—from the settlement-house pioneer Jane Addams and the civil rights leader W. E. B. Du Bois in the 1890s and after, to the founders of the ACLU in the 1920s, to Minnesota Governor Floyd Olson and assorted labor-union radicals in the 1930s, to New Dealer Henry Wallace in the 1940s—belonged to a left-liberal tradition in America. They helped push political leaders, including Presidents Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and Harry Truman, toward reforms that made the goals of opportunity and security real for ever more Americans. Yet, during the Cold War era of the 1950s and '60s, leftists and liberals came to view one another as enemies, and their influential alliance all but vanished.

Visions of Progress revisits the period between the 1880s and the 1940s, when reformers and radicals worked together along a middle path between the revolutionary left and establishment liberalism. Rossinow takes the story up to the present, showing how the progressive connection was lost and explaining the consequences that followed. This book introduces today's progressives to their historical predecessors, while offering an ambitious reinterpretation of issues in American political history.

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About the Author:

Doug Rossinow, Associate Professor of History at Metropolitan State University, is the author of The Politics of Authenticity: Liberalism, Christianity, and the New Left in America.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Introduction

Ours is an era of ideological illiteracy. Many Americans literally have no idea what terms such as "left" and "right" mean. Conceptual confusion definitely plagues the left half of the political spectrum. Conservative commentators describe centrists, such as former President Bill Clinton, as "liberal" and liberals as "far left." When Ralph Nader ran for president in 2000 and 2004 he was treated by many liberals and conservatives alike as a wild-eyed radical, even though his views were little changed since the 1960s, when he was known as a liberal consumer-protection activist. Those, such as Nader, who stand to the left of the Democratic party, denounce Democrats and many liberals as sell-outs to big business. Liberal Democrats themselves have felt like political outsiders for decades. Clintonite centrists, anti-imperialist peace agitators and labor-union activists alike call themselves progressives, and no one can say definitely that any of them is wrong.

Any Americans of the early twenty-first century who wish to revive something they call liberalism or progressivism, or who think substantial change, regardless of its name, is needed in our society—and such ambitions have been stated in some quarters for many years now—better had know something about the fate of similar hopes in the past. Yet Americans' knowledge of political history often goes back no further than the 1950s and the 1960s—the childhood years of the "baby-boom" generation. The conflicts of these cold war decades formed images of liberalism and left-wing radicalism that remain powerful today. In contrast, the earlier era of the 1930s, featuring the triumph of New Deal liberalism and the vitality of a Communist movement, has become a dim and rapidly fading tableau, while the politics of the 1940s, the days of world war and postwar regrouping, have been blotted out by sentimental newsreel visions of sacrifice and social cohesion.

The images of liberalism and the left bequeathed to us by the cold war era are those of mutual antagonism. In the 1950s, the days of the "red scare" and Senator Joseph McCarthy—the most famous leader of the hunt for subversives in and out of government—many liberals joined in the anticommunist, anti-radical chorus. In the 1960s, a new generation of leftists (known as the "new left") believed that the crusading anticommunism of the 1950s had helped make America a repressive place, closed to new and critical perspectives on society; in their view, liberals shared responsibility for that setback. Sixties radicals routinely denounced a "liberal establishment," led by men such as Presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, as in fact far too conservative, too close to the "power elite" and insensitive to the plight of the socially excluded. Liberals, who flocked to Kennedy's slogan of a "New Frontier" and Johnson's program of a "Great Society," returned the radicals' scorn, calling them irresponsible and unreasonable. In the late 1960s, the militancy of African Americans, on the heels of the civil rights movement's triumphs and frustrations, and the Vietnam War, escalated and prolonged by Kennedy and Johnson, drove liberals and the left ever farther apart.

Against this backdrop of '60s antagonism, almost no one has written specifically on the subject of left-liberal relations in America. This makes sense, since people who came of age in the 1960s thought the American left and American liberalism had separate histories, linked mainly by animosity. Historians at times gave the impression that rebellions in U.S. history—whether agrarian populist or urban and working-class, whether black or white—were authentic and inspiring only to the extent that they were free from any taint of liberal ideology. Some asserted the existence of an American "radical tradition" whose members fought for racial justice, economic fairness and women's equality, and who reflected an impressive integrity and independence.

At the same time, scholars influenced by the radicalism of the 1960s surveyed American history and found liberals whose reform efforts aimed to quell discord and smooth the path of capitalist advances, not to achieve justice. They saw liberals who formed partnerships with business concerns and sought to control or repress radicals and the restive lower orders—in other words, liberals who committed the same sins that new left radicals charged to Great Society leaders. A leading concept of such scholarship was "cooptation," according to which liberals did the work of powerful interests, pacifying disruptive elements with empty promises of egalitarian change.

Deep in American history, however, there lies a neglected middle ground of ambitious reform politics, forgotten amid the stark divisions of the cold war. This left-liberal tradition includes liberals who were deeply critical of American capitalism as well as leftists who saw great value in social reform, as opposed to revolutionary upheaval. During a roughly sixty-year period, between the 1880s and the 1940s, this vital political alliance constructed bridges of cooperation—not cooptation—between the worlds of liberal reform and radical rebellion. Reformers who adopted a deeply critical stance toward their society engaged in a series of extended, productive collaborations with radicals who saw in social reform a way toward a more acceptable society. In the 1940s this distinctive tradition of left-liberal politics fell apart. Leftists and liberals largely went their separate ways after that time, although they sometimes had more in common than was apparent.

Much of what was most creative and constructive in American politics in the twentieth century issued from this left-liberal tradition—from the work of radicals drawn to liberal principles and liberals who made deep criticisms of American society. Residents of the political zone where liberalism and radicalism overlapped championed, for example, the validation of free speech and free conscience and the imperative of racial equality in a diverse society whose origins lay in race slavery—causes that, by any reckoning, advanced dramatically in the course of the twentieth century. In the 1940s, this distinctive tradition of left-liberal politics fell apart. Leftists and liberals largely went their separate ways after that time, although they sometimes had more in common than was apparent.

This is not to say that the "real" history of left-liberal relations in America was simply an harmonious affair, the opposite of what it appeared to be when the baby-boomers were young adults. There has been plenty of both conflict and cooperation between radicals and reformers, leftists and liberals, in the American past, and no single "natural" relationship exists between them. Neither periods of strategic collaboration nor those of mutual contempt have represented deviations from a norm. Almost two decades past the end of the cold war, a post-cold war history of left-liberal politics, one freed of the analytical blinders that we all have inherited from the 1950s and 1960s, is due.

* * *

Starting in the 1880s, middle-class reformers—most of them white, Protestant inhabitants of northern cities—rebelled against the doctrines of unregulated capitalism and sought to transcend class conflict by forming a political movement that would help forge a new society, a society newly harmonious and fair. Americans of the late-nineteenth-century Gilded Age were aware that momentous economic and social change, characterized by heavy industrialization, rapid urbanization, the production of enormous wealth and new extremes of wealth and poverty, was taking place all around them, and many believed that Americans could use political means to steer the ship of social change toward a desirable destination. Individuals such as the writer Henry Demarest Lloyd and the famous social reformer Jane Addams favored an activist government that would pursue humane and egalitarian policies, backed by a democratic mobilization—a mobilization based in Christian ethics and empowering both the industrial working class and middle-class reformers such as themselves. Such middle-class reformers wanted American workers to have a seat in the councils of power, but they definitely did not want to live under working-class rule.

These reformers pioneered the twentieth century's "new liberalism," which was associated with economic regulation and the rise of a welfare state, which represented a dramatic break from the doctrines of laissez-faire individualism that had been associated with political and intellectual liberalism in the nineteenth century. Political champions of new liberal proposals appeared not only among urban politicians—such as Cleveland mayor Tom Johnson and Detroit's Hazen Pingree—but also in the southern countryside and the Great Plains, where white agrarian leaders such as Nebraska's William Jennings Bryan and Tom Watson of Georgia sought a farm-labor alliance to protect "the plain people" from capitalist abuses. African Americans were largely excluded from these alliances either through vicious demagoguery and violence or simply by means of reformers declining to discuss the issue of white supremacy. Women, predominantly but not exclusively white, organized in groups ranging from the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) to the National Consumers' League (NCL), were pervasive in the political mobilizations of the new liberalism, even though they were excluded from office-holding and, for the most part, from voting before 1920. New liberals also included in their reform coterie relatively assimilated representatives of the enormous wave of immigrants, most of them Roman Catholic or Jewish, who furnished many of the workers for the mushrooming industrial centers. Yet even as such rising elements in the nation's populace shaped the agenda of twentieth-century liberalism, they joined a political framework of reform that had been shaped decisively by white Protestants in the late Gilded Age.

Many among these reformers embraced a transformative concept of social progress, a concept that opened a door between liberal reformers and left-wing radicals. From the 1880s to the 1940s, the efforts of many reformers and radicals were linked by a widespread conviction that American society was advancing from one stage of historical development to the next. Most Americans, including most conservatives, believed that the country was becoming continually wealthier and more powerful. Various ideas of progress were commonplace in the United States. For their part, grassroots farm-belt agitators who advocated an enhanced State role in the economy to protect small landowners and workers saw society's transformation in a rather negative light and sometimes framed their proposals as a "counterrevolution," designed to stop or reverse that change. In contrast, many urban new liberals believed that the country was in the midst of a fundamental transformation into a new society that held the potential to become more democratic, egalitarian and united than the world of Gilded Age capitalism. They embraced an especially robust concept of ongoing historical progress, one that asserted a tumultuous and—again, at least potentially—forward change that would be qualitative, not merely quantitative. In this perception, they agreed with many who called themselves socialists, whether or not they joined the Socialist party, formed in 1901.

This developmental, transformative vision of progress lent coherence during the period between the 1880s and the 1940s to a reform politics located where the new liberalism overlapped with the left. Those seized with this vision of change anticipated the eclipse of capitalism as they knew it in favor of a more united, fair and democratic form of society. In 1888 the activist Florence Kelley derided efforts "to piece and cobble at the worn and rotten fabric of a perishing society," and called on her fellow Americans instead "to make an end of such a system." She called for a political movement that could shape an ongoing social transformation; the existing society was "perishing," its fabric "rotten." It could not be maintained. In 1902, the philosopher John Dewey stated that he was "scientifically convinced of the transitional character of the existing capitalistic control of industrial affairs and its reflected influences upon political life." In the 1930s, the Communist Joseph Freeman wrote of his "belief that mankind is passing through a major transformation. The dissolution of capitalism compares in scope and significance with the origins of private property, the beginnings of Christianity, the ascendancy of the bourgeoisie." Views similar in some respects to Freeman's were not confined to the far left and they had been current for a long time when he wrote these words. Whether the anticipated new society, waiting on the far side of social and political transformation, would represent a new stage of capitalism or a society beyond capitalism was a question to which liberals and radicals gave a wide range of answers.

From the 1880s to the 1940s, many liberals joined forces with leftists or debated the future with them amicably. The politics of transformation facilitated the construction of a broad political front whose politics often rendered moot distinctions commonly drawn between liberals and leftists, and even between evolution and revolution. Some liberals, including political leaders from President Woodrow Wilson to President Franklin Roosevelt and less famous strategists such as the journalist Walter Lippmann or the economist Adolf Berle, saw it as the liberal mission to stabilize the social structure of American capitalism and the political structure of the democratic republic. Others, mainly activists ranging from Florence Kelley to the clergyman Harry Ward to the scholar W. E. B. DuBois and the writer Betty Friedan, at least during some phases of their careers, viewed American society as deeply flawed and saw it as their duty to express the perspective of the socially excluded. The latter type of liberals figures large in this book. Such liberals seemed to flirt with the idea of socialism, but generally they resisted it. Some might classify them as leftists rather than liberals. In many individual cases that distinction is of little use. Before the 1940s, liberal politics as such was not defined by a defense of America's political-economic system against those who made fundamental criticisms of "the American way." That came afterward.

After making considerable headway on their political and policy agenda during the Progressive Era, which stretched from 1900 to 1917, the broad front of left-liberal reformers experienced a traumatic disruption during World War I and the subsequent anti-radical red scare. As president, Wilson backed regulatory and welfare-state measures associated with the broad and diverse ranks of "progressive" reformers. The early-twentieth-century progressives, as that term was understood by contemporaries and later historians, included not only the social workers, labor activists and religious reformers who are the focus of this study in its early chapters, but also businessmen and others who desired a more efficient and highly organized society. The former congeries of activists—whom I call the new liberals—were relatively pro-labor and embraced s...

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