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An Appeal to Progressives

This is the first of a series of articles discussing the position of the contemporary progressive. They are the outcome of conversations among the editors of The New Republic which have been occurring for several months, and the gist of which may be of interest to our readers as raw material for though and discussion. The second article, by George Soule, will appear in next week’s issue. —THE EDITORS

It seems to me that the time has come for liberals seriously to reconsider their positions. The liberalism which The New Republic has represented in the past was derived primarily from Herbert Croly’s book, “The Promise of American Life,” written more than twenty years ago. Croly offered in this book an original interpretation of American history which in its field set a new standard of realism. In the earliest days of the Republic, the strong centralization policy of Hamilton had been established for the protection of the propertied classes, and the reaction led by Jefferson was intended as a democratic antidote. But Croly showed that when the Jeffersonians got into power, they took over the Hamiltonian structure practically intact, though at the same time they refused to abandon their democratic pretensions, thus, as he says, beginning “that career of intellectual lethargy, superficiality and insincerity which ever since has been characteristic of official American political thought.” The American democratic ideal was thus more or less disingenuous from the beginning: the actual purpose of the government was one thing and the rhetoric of politics was another. The stock procedure got to be to claim freedom to do whatever one had an interest in doing as a democratic “right.” For example, the Constitution guaranteed slavery, which violated in the most shocking manner the spirit of the Declaration of Independence: the Southerners claimed their legal “rights” and the Abolitions claimed natural “rights.” The contradictions involved in our government and the ideals associated with it gave rise to a double rebellion—the rebellion of the South against the government and the rebellion of the South against the government and the rebellion of the North against the Constitution. The Civil War ensued, and as a result both the Constitution and the social structure of the South were radically altered. The machine and the ideal were repaired and started on their way again.

Croly goes on, however, to show that the industrial development of the country had then given rise to a second critical situation comparable that to that before the Civil War. Our society transformed itself completely: the masters of industry and commerce came to constitute a special and supremely powerful class; the lawyers, who had formerly run the government, were turned into another special class that prospered by keeping the bankers and business men out of trouble; politics was left to a third specialized class, the bosses and professional office holders—and the labor unions had produced a fourth, engaged (at the time) in fighting the other three. The old machine and ideal, even in their amended form, failed to meet the needs of the new American world by as much as the Bethlehem steel works, the Grand Central and the Singer Building were unlike Mount Vernon, Monticello or the log cabin where Lincoln was born. A reorganization as drastic was required as that which had cost us the Civil War. “The time may come,” Croly wrote, “when the fulfillment of a justifiable democratic purpose may demand the limitation of certain rights, to which the Constitution affords such absolute guarantees; and in that case the American democracy might be forced to seek by revolutionary means the accomplishment of a result which should be attainable under the law.” Croly did, however, still believe that this result might be attained under the law—that the wholesale corruption of politics, the shameless exploitation of labor, the ruthless wrecking by competitive business of thousands honorable careers and the general degradation of the national standards in everything except technical skill might be dealt with at a not too distant date by our machinery of representative government. He figured this new democratic goal as a return to Hamiltonian centralization, but in the interests not merely of the propertied class but of the people as a whole—a new machinery and ideal which he says he is not afraid to have called “socialism.” Everybody had again been claiming as some sort of “right: the freedom to do whatever he pleased—business men, lawyers, politicians and labor organizers—what was needed was a frank confession that genuine democracy meant not unlimited freedom, but a sensible and systematic curtailment of the rights of everybody in the interests of all.

Yet Croly believed that this result might be accomplished by an orderly series of reforms. In spite of his criticism of our political ideals and even of our political reformers, he still had faith in American politics—or rather, perhaps, in an American democratic spirit able to control life through politics, a spirit embodied for him by Lincoln, the man who had changed the state and preserved it, too. Croly differed from the genuine socialist of his time in encouraging the idea of nationalism—not the imperialistic nationalism of Great Britain and the late German Empire, but a nationalism which yet made it possible for him to support America’s entrance into the European War and afterwards to oppose the cancellation of our debts to England and France. He expressly repudiated the ideal of an international working-class movement to fight international capitalism. It was still possible for him to feel that America constituted an ideal in itself—something isolated, unique and almost mystic. And to the extent that he believed in America, he thus believed not only in nationalism but in capitalism. He thought that the American spirit would be strong enough to compel American capitalism to restrain and reform itself.

That Croly came to lose hope as time went on—though without ever abandoning his original position—is proved by his acute distress over the failure of Wilson at Paris and by his increasing skepticism and indifference about politics. And it seems to me impossible at the present time for people of Croly’s general aims and convictions to continue to believe in the salvation of our society by the gradual and natural approximation to socialism which he himself called progressivism, but which has generally come to be known as liberalism. That benevolent and intelligent capitalism on which liberals have always counted has not merely not materialized to the extent of metamorphosing itself into socialism—it has not even been able to prevent a national disaster of proportions which neither capitalists nor liberals foresaw and which they both profess themselves unable to explain. Today there are in the United States, according to the census director, something like nine million men out of work; our cities are scenes of privation and misery on a scale which sickens the imagination; our agricultural life is bankrupt; our industry, in shifting to the South, has returned almost to the horrible conditions of the English factories of a hundred years ago and the fight of the unions there for recognition is all to being again; so many banks are failing that the newspapers do not dare to print the truth about them. And when we look to Europe west of Russia or to South America, we see only the same economic chaos, the same lack of will or capacity to deal with it and the same resultant poverty and suffering. May we not well fear that what this year has broken down is not simply the machinery of representative government, but the capitalist system itself?—and that, even with the best will in the world, it may be impossible for capitalism to guarantee not merely social justice but even security and order? May we not fear lest our American society, in spite of its apparently greater homogeneity, may not eventually collapse through sheer inefficiency and corruption as ignominiously as the feudal regime in Russia or France?

The capitalist Americans of the twentieth century are certainly more kindly and democratic people than the landlords of the feudal age; but on the other hand the capitalist system makes it easier for them not to know what they are doing, the danger, hardship and humiliation for others which their way of living implies. The feudal lord might flog or kill his serfs, but he was dealing directly with the human realities as the capitalist stockholder, for example, is not. The feudal master might be arrogant and cruel, but he was more likely to be aware of what he was doing and to accept arrogance and cruelty as among the necessities or privileges of his position. But the gallant Southerner whose interest mounts up in the bank which lends money to the textile mill has no more idea that his hand has pulled the trigger which murdered Ella May Wiggins than the cultivated Bostonian knows that the money which reaches his pocket from the shares in the South Braintree shoe factory recommended by his broker has on its way pulled the electric switch to burn Sacco and Vanzetti alive. Lawrence Dennis has recently written in The New Republic of the queer and unenviable lot of the bond salesmen, who, taking over their bonds on trust from the bankers and selling them to customers who take them on trust, have no real professional responsibility to anyone and never touch at any point the realities of the things with which they are dealing. Not only are people in a capitalist society likely to be ignorant of where their incomes come from; it is often impossible or very difficult to find out. And as long as a fair proportion of the bankers, the manufacturers, and the workers whom their capital and machines keep busy are making a little more money than before, no matter how unscrupulously or short-sightedly, we can believe complacently in our prosperity and even in our happiness.

That is what happened in the period which has just come to a close. The liberal Stuart Chase told all about it in his little book on “Prosperity,” written before the first stock-market crash: between 1922 and 1928 the average income in the United States was increased 20 percent, but this left the average annual wage in 1929 “well below $1,500”; and during the whole period the coal, textile, shoe, leather, shipbuilding and railroad-equipment industries were all doing more or less badly and the people employed in them were on the bare edge subsistence, the farmers were doing worse and worse, mergers and new machinery were throwing more and more people out of work—and the radio and motor industries, on which the illusion of prosperity chiefly depended, were prospering only at the expense of selling these articles to many people who didn’t need them, oughtn’t to have had them or couldn’t afford to buy them. The salesmen and advertisers began to study not only deliberately but openly how to break down the “sales resistance: of their public: it was no longer a question merely of convincing people of the attractiveness of one’s wares but of combating a positive antagonism to them. Both scientific and inspirational methods were used, but when the public began to come to, the moto-car industry was suddenly sunk and the rest of American business went with it. And is it not a serious question whether, under capitalism, any revival of American prosperity is likely to amount to anything more than a spurt relying on the senseless and mischievous overinflation of some other inessential industry, or would en in anything but another disaster?

And to tell the truth, it seems to me that at the present time the optimism of the Americans is flagging, that the morale of our society is weak. The faith and energy for a fresh start seem not forthcoming: a dreadful apathy, unsureness and discouragement seem to have fallen upon our life. It is as if people were afraid to go on with what they have been doing or as if they no longer had any real heart for it. I want to suggest that the present depression may be nothing less than one of the turning points in our history, our first real crisis since the Civil War. The Americans at the present time seem to be experiencing not merely an economic breakdown but a distinct psychological change. From the time of the Civil War on, all our enthusiasm creative energy went into the development of our tremendous resources. This development had two aspects: one was the exploration of the continent and the engineering feats involved in reclaiming it, and the other the amassing of gigantic fortunes. Today the discoveries have all been made: we no longer look toward the West, as the Europeans looked to America in the Renaissance, as toward a world of untold treasures and wonders—and the excitement of mastering new rivers, forests, praries, mountains and coasts seems now completely spent. This was already true at the time of the European War (when incidentally we were running into a business depression) but the War gave us a new objective—new discoveries, the discovery of Europe; new heroic stunts of engineering to accomplish, the transportation of our army to France. Since the War, however, we have had nothing to excite us and carry us along except the momentum of money-making. We have been trying still to find it in the exhilaration of the richness, wildness of size of the continent—the breaking it into the harness of the railroads, the sudden finds of gold and silver mines. But during these last years our buoyancy, our hope, our faith has all been put behind the speed of mass production, behind stupendous campaigns of advertising, behind cyclones of salesmanship. It has been a buoyancy which has been becoming hysterical. And the reaction from a hysterical exhilaration is a slump into despondency and inertia. What we have lost is, it may be, not merely our way in the economic labyrinth but our conviction of the value of what we are doing. Money-making and the kind of advantages which a money-making society provides for money to buy are not enough to satisfy humanity—neither is a social system like our own where everyone is out for himself and devil take the hindmost, with no common purpose and little common culture to give life stability and sense. Our idolization of aviators—our extravagant excitement over Lindbergh and our romantic admiration (now beginning to cool off) for Byrd—has been like a last desperate burst of American idealism, a last impulse to dissociate our national soul from a furious progress which was leading from automobiles to and radios straight through electric refrigerators to Tom Thumb golf courses.

The old American ideal and legend of the poor boy who gets to be a millionaire, which gradually came to take the place of the poor boy who got to be President, has today lost all its romance. Not only do people not hope to be Hoover—they do not even hope so often as they did to be Henry Ford. The romance of the legend of the poor boy was the romance of democracy, of the career open to the talents—but the realities of a millionaire society have turned out to be the monstrosities of capitalism: the children of the successful poor boy get lazy and sick on their father’s money and the poor boys who afterwards arrive on the scene discover, with the crippling of the grain market, the elimination of the factory worker by the improvement of the machine and the decimation of the white-collar class, even when apparently well on their way to millionariedom, by enormous business mergers, that the career is no longer open to the talents to the extent which had originally been hoped. What began as the libertarian adventure of eighteenth-century middle-class democracy seems to have ended in the cul de sac of capitalism. And they seem to feel they are in a cul de sac—they do not really seem to dare to go on. In spite of the fundamental stupidity and absurdity of so much of what we have been doing, we are better educated and more intelligent than we were, and since the War we have been closer to Europe. The Buicks and Cadillacs, the bad gin and Scotch, the radio concerts interspersed with advertising talks, the golf and bridge of the suburban household which the bond salesman can get for his money can hardly compensate him for daily work of a kind in which it is utterly impossible to imagine a normal human being taking satisfaction or pride—and the bond salesman is the type of the whole office class in our society. The brokers and bankers who are shooting themselves and jumping out of windows are disheartened by the precariousness of their profession—but would they kill themselves if they loved it? Who in the United States today really loves our meaningless life, where the manufacturer raises the workers’ wages only in order to create a demand for the gadgets which for better or worse he happens to have an interest in selling them, while agriculture goes hang and science and art left to be exploited by the advertisers, the commercial laboratories and the New York publishers’ racket, or to be demoralizingly and haphazardly fed by a few drippings from the fortunes of rich men who have been embarrassed at the end of their careers to find themselves with enough money on their hands to buy out an old-fashioned empire.

We liberals have professed not to love it, yet we have tried to believe in it, none the less. Living in a country where money changes hands so often and social position fluctuates so easily, where the minds of the working class have seemed largely to have been absorbed into the middle-class psychology, we have been unable to believe in the Marxian doctrine that capitalism must eventually give rise to class warfare, and we have perhaps never taken sufficiently seriously Marx’s prediction that for many years to come the stupid automatic acquisitive instinct of humanity would still be so far ahead of its capacity for intelligent and disinterested behavior that capitalism would never even be able to drive itself with enough foresight to avoid a wreck. It used to be pointed out that in America our bourgeois solidarity was indestructible, because the stock market made it possible for anybody who had been able to save a little money to be a capitalist himself, with interests presumably identical with those of J. P. Morgan and Charlie Schwab. But can we expect that still to hold true after the late catastrophe—and if people do continue to want to be stockmarket capitalists, should they be encouraged or even left to their luck? Should they not rather be shown that their interests are incompatible with capitalism itself?

Yet the truth is that we liberals and progressives have been betting on capitalism—and that most of our heroes and allies: heterodox professors like Dewey and Beard, survivors of the old republican tradition like Woodrow Wilson and Justice Holmes, able and well educated labor organizers like the officers of the Amalgamated, intelligent journalists like Lippmann and Chase, though all sincere and outspoken democrats, have been betting on capitalism, too. And now in the abyss of bankruptcy and starvation is not which the country has fallen and with no sign of any political leadership which will be able to pull us out, liberalism seems to have little to offer beyond a recommendation of the public ownership of water-power and certain other public utilities, a cordial feeling that labor ought to organize in a non-social-revolutionary way and a protest, invariably ineffective, against a few of the more obviously atrocious jailings, beatings-up and murders of the working class by the owners.

Doesn’t this program begin at last to seem inadequate? We have always talked about the desirability of a planned society—the phrase “social control” has been our blessèd Mesopotamian word. But if this means anything, does it not mean socialism? And should we not do well to make this perfectly plain? It may be objected that at the present time to propose socialism in America is utopian. But with such administrations as we have been getting, do not all our progressive proposals, however reasonable or modest, seem utopian? Is it not obvious that our present kind of government—Mr. King made it plain in our pages a few weeks ago—is incapable of acting in good faith in even the simplest matter of preserving the water power which is supposed to be operated for the general benefit from being exploited by private profiteers? Our society has finally produced in its specialized professional politicians one of the most useless and obnoxious classes which has perhaps ever disgraced human history—a class which seems to be unique among governing classes in having succeeded in being corrupt, uncultivated and incompetent all at once. We know that we are not even able to depend on them to protect us against the frankly disreputable race of blackmailers, thieves and assassins who dominate our municipal life. We know that we cannot even complain that the racketeers are breaking the laws which are supposed to be guaranteed by the government, because the government is hardly different from the racketeers. How can we expect them then to check the comparatively respectable scoundrels who merely steal the public utilities by more or less legalistic means?

Yet, as I say, it may be true that with the present breakdown we have come to the end of something, and that we are ready to start on a different tack. If we look back through the depressions of the last fifty years, we see that through every one of them there was always something for which the Americans could still legitimately feel ambition or enthusiasm, something to appeal to the national imagination: after 1885, there was still the West and the consolidation of the railroads; after the prolonged depression of the nineties, the final consolidation of great industries such as United States steel and this Rooseveltian crusade against the corporations in the interests of the increasing class of those who were being injured by the process of consolidation, and Rooseveltian imperialism; after the depression during the first years of the War, our entrance into the War; and after the depression which followed the War, the motor-car and aviator period I have described. Today the further consolidation of business ruins more people even than in Roosevelt’s time and there is no sign of a Roosevelt or a Wilson to revive our political imagination and to persuade the people out of luck that something is about to be done for them. It may be that the psychology has definitely played itself out, and that the Americans would be willing now for the first time to put their idealism and their genius for organization behind a radical social experiment. The future is as black in America today as the situation is desperate: the President seems so torn between difference cowardices that it is practically impossible for him to act, and when he tries to he is deadlocked by Congress; nor have the manufacturers or the financiers come forward with any constructive proposal. Yet the very blindness of the present outlook may mean that things are going to break in a new quarter. I have a feeling that just at present the people who don’t deal in ideas professionally are doing more thinking than the ideologues: the man in the electric-refrigerator business who predicts a world upheaval within eighteen months “because revolutions usually happen in the spring”; the lawyer and real-estate dealer who says that the stock market ought to be “wiped out”; the provincial bank president who never believed in Coolidge prosperity, had been expecting the crash two years before it came and says that we shall never collect our debts from Europe; the New Yorker in the luxury trade who wants to get away from his job and go to Russia; the mother of the Middle Western family who says indignantly that the motor-car business has been trying to “lift itself by its bootstraps” and that industry ought to be controlled—are all people one can meet any day, through in the America of twenty years ago one could hardly have met them at all.

The minds of such people, furthermore, have been affected by the example of Russia far more than the professional intellectuals, who are accustomed to assuming that they are the only people who understand the Soviets and that everyone else is stupidly prejudiced against them, are readily able to grasp. During the N.E.P. period in Russia the capitalist world was able to feel the comforting assurance that the Russians had recognized the impossibilities of Communism and were inevitably relapsing into capitalism again. But with the inauguration of the Five Year Plan to eliminate capitalist business in Russia, the aspect of things changed. The apparent success of the Five Year Plan has affected the morale of all the rest of the world—and of the Americans surely not least. In the course of this winter of our capitalist quandary, the Soviets have emerged from the back pages of the newspapers and are now to be seen all over the place—even to interviews with Stalin’s mother. And behind the reports of even the reactionary papers one feels as much admiration as resentment. After all, the Communist project has almost all the qualities that Americans glorify—the extreme of efficiency and economy combined with the ideal fo a herculean feat to be accomplished by common action in an atmosphere of enthusiastic boosting—like a Liberty Loan drive—the idea of putting over something big in five years. Furthermore, the Russians are studying our methods—they have imported a thousand American engineers and put them at the head of enormous industrial and engineering enterprises with practically a free hand, and one would not be at all surprised to hear that Eddie Bernays had been in Moscow at the time of the recent trial. We have already, in spite of the Treasury regulation, been doing a great deal of important trading with Russia, and an important New York bank was at one time on the point of advancing to the Soviets that loan which The New Republic has been advocating but which the government in this case forestalled.

The Communists in the United States do not believe that American business or government can possibly imitate or ally themselves with the Soviets. They believe that a war against Russia is inevitable. They believe, furthermore, that they themselves constitute a small, trained, compact minority who, when American capitalism inevitably breaks down and is left helpless in its ignorance and anarchic selfishness, will be able to step in and man the works. This idea has always sounded to us absurd, but who will say that it is entirely fantastic today when the machine is obviously badly in need of repairs and there seems no political group in a position of power with either a sensible plan or good intentions? I believe that if the American radicals and progressives who repudiate the Marxian dogma and the strategy of the Communist party hope to accomplish anything valuable, they must take Communism away from the Communists, and take it without ambiguities or reservations, asserting emphatically that their ultimate goal is the ownership of the means of production by the government and an industrial rather than a regional representation. What we need in this country is a genuine opposition, and it is a long time since the liberals have been one. A genuine opposition must, it seems to me, openly confess that the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are due to be supplanted by some new manifesto and some new bill of rights. It must dissociate its economics completely from what is by this time a purely rhetorical ideal of American democracy, though it has since the first days of the Republic been inextricably bound up in our minds with the capitalist system. If we want to prove that the Marxian Communists are wrong and that there is still some virtue in American democracy, if we want to confute the Marxian cynicism, the catastrophic outcome of whose “economic laws” is predicted, after all, only on an assumption of the incurable swinishness and inertia of human nature, an American opposition must not be afraid to dynamite the old shibboleths and conceptions and to substitute new ones as shocking as possible. Who knows that they may not seem less shocking to other people than to us shibboleth experts ourselves? When John Dos Passos proposed last summer in these pages that what is really needed in the United States is an Ivy Lee to sell the idea of Communism to the public, the suggestion sounded comic. Yet he immediately received a letter from an eminent publicity man in San Francisco saying that the same idea had occurred to him and that he would like nothing better than a chance to carry it out. There are signs that the liberals are beginning to have ideas as well as the publicity men: Stuart Chase has recently admitted that the past year may represent “the end of an epoch” and has offered a set of suggestions fro rescuing the economic structure, and John Dewey has just proposed to Senator Norris that he lead a new political party. The extreme illiberalism of the post-Wilsonian period has had the effect of discouraging liberals: we have gone on making our complaints and proposals, but with a vigor which has tended to diminish in proportion as we became increasingly conscious that no one was paying attention to us. Who knows, however, that if we spoke out now with confidence and boldness, we might not find our public at last?

This article originally appeared in the January 14, 1931 issue of the magazine.