Saturday, August 28, 2010

Comte, Croly, and Progressives

Positivist Republic by Gillis Hart is an exceptionally well written and crafted book which blends together the ideas of Auguste Comte and the many Progressives in the United States at the turn of the 19th and 20th century.

Hart starts with a review of the time and circumstances surrounding Comte and the Progressive era. On p. 8 he details in his view what the driving forces were:

"Beyond the problem of industrial strife, lay a more fundamental question about the survival of liberal democracy. A comparatively "free market" had produced a huge concentrations of capital that were not responsive to the public will. This problem underlay the monopoly issue that dominated American politics between 1880 and 1917. Some intellectuals, and not only the most radical, viewed the giant trusts as subversive of a democratic and egalitarian society."

Hart seems to over emphasize several issues here. First the Trusts were a significant factor in certain sectors but the banks were often even more so. The Trusts were a new innovation in some sense which allowed certain people of groups to concentrate in specific industries market dominance. However those industries has a propensity for accumulation of power. Look at steel, telegraph, railroads, and the like. The Government actually facilitated this accumulation by allocating rights of way and as with say AT&T actually giving it a monopoly in 1913 and further giving AT&T protection from any antitrust protection, not removed until 1996! Thus the Government was in part as much a part of the problem as were the Trust Barons. In contrast many other new industries developed and thrived albeit not as trusts but in competitive markets. One need look no further that to Edison and his competitors.

There is another phenomenon occurring at the same time as the Trusts. Universities were exploding, post the land grant deployments, and intellectuals were now cropping up at a rapid pace. They were for the most part academics with low salaries but with access to channels of communications which were not there before the Civil War.

They had both the time and the means to look at the Trusts as unbalancing what they felt was a needed egalitarian society, a society where they should be as equal as any of those who are part of the Trust money flow. To some degree there was clear resentment of monetary success to those in the business world. It is interesting to contrast that to today where academics, and the resulting public intellectuals who are their spokespersons, often have means of income which is orders of magnitude beyond anything that their equivalents a century ago could ever have thought of.

Hart starts with Comte, who in some ways was a bit extreme since he established his own humanistic church as the new means of creating a replacement for the religions which he had disavowed. Hart states on pp 4-11 the following starting with three defining questions:

"The first of these defining questions was a fundamental philosophical problem that had broad implications for both religion and social theory. After the Civil War many intellectuals sought a new rigorously naturalistic foundation for their worldview, one not tied to the pious Common Sense realm of the past. ... A second related question animated the intellectuals who are the subject of this study. As the corporate economy grew dramatically many asked how economic progress could be reconciled with social order and concern for the commonweal. ... The third and final question that defined the community of discourse under discussion involved its social position and its members self-understanding. The broad social and intellectual forces just outlined were also producing a "crisis of professional authority" ... Comte's philosophy of science and social theory spoke in a singular way to the questions shared by many Gilded age intellectuals. Indeed the three defining questions or concerns just outlined ... constituted the very core of Comte's system."

The above can be stated a bit more simply. Hart is not the clearest of writers but he manages to get his points across albeit with a bit of excess flourish. The issues stated above which Hart focuses on are:

1. Science was becoming a clear process which the intellectuals of thought and politics desired to bring into their way of doing things. Thus we see Spencer and Darwin, the survival of the fittest, even though that is a bit of a stretch given what we know today. Comte wanted to base all of his ideas and procedures on just this set of scientific ideas.

2. The intellectuals may actually have looked at the trusts and the wealth created and may have been jealous. From this we get social justice, albeit one could argue that it was already present from the time of Aquinas, it managed to gets is real start with this perception of an inappropriate distribution. Unlike the socialists who wanted to take over the actual business in toto, the Progressives using the ideas of Comte saw government as the ideal means of control.

3. Intellectuals were starting to feel their muscle. They were no Kant walking as a thinker around and over the bridges in his local town up there on the Baltic. They had friends in high places, they had positions to speak from, they had audiences who would listen and they saw that they could exert power and influence. Now any third rate intellectual could find a platform and state a position. There became a power in numbers, and furthermore by all agreeing with one another there became single voices. The intellectuals had what the wanted, their fifteen minutes of fame and more.

As Hart quotes Comte on p. 12:

"The Positivist Philosophy offers the only solid basis for that Social Reorganization which must succeed the critical condition in which most civilized nations are now living."

Continuing on p. 14 Hart states:

"Comte claimed to have uncovered the law of historical development that governed the growth of human society."

This is almost an Asimovian comments, some grand idea of having a single many suddenly understanding the laws of society and being able to understand it trajectory, as was done in Asimov and the foundation series.

Hart continues:

"This grand science of history underlines Comte's break with strict empiricism. Evidently some general theory arising from reason was required to make sense of human history."

Thus Comte was to some degree a Hegelian in that he saw a path in history and a teleological one at that and again he battles over empiricism and rationalism. He was tainted by a semblance of knowledge of the explosion in science and saw that as a tool set for his ideas. Comte thus reached out to what he saw as science and from this and his desire to understand history, even better predict it, from this came sociology. As Hart states on p. 15:

"The Comtean hierarchy ranked mathematics first (as the most general and independent), followed by astronomy, physics, chemistry, biology, and the "Queen of Sciences", sociology."

It was Comte who established sociology who gave it meaning and who instigated many others in its pursuit.

Hart finishes up with some more details on Comte and the proceeds to detail the Comtean progression in the United States. This includes the development of the "The Church of Humanity", his humanistic analog in New York, the discussion of Wakeman. Ward, Small and Ross, and then finally Herbert Croly, most likely the most influential in today's world of neo Progressives.

The Croly discussion is on pp 183-209 and is exceptionally well done and clear. Croly's father had been a strong adherent of Comte and Croly took on that mantle for the early period he was at Harvard before his psychiatric problems started. Croly seems to have maintained a strong Comtean influence however for the remainder of his life as one sees reading Hart.

Hart does discuss the anti-individualism of Croly and Comte on p. 193:

"Progressives hoped to build national institutions upon a naturally harmonious national community. Many Progressives assumed that the interdependence and cultural consensus was basic to the social organism. ,,, Like good Comteans many Progressives especially the "group theorists" stressed social functions or duties over individual rights."

Thus the group mentality, and group with a national focus, was at the heart of classic Progressive thought as it is in current neo-Progressive thinking. In contrast the Progressive thought saw the individualism as an anathema. (One should read Steven Lukes book, Individualism as a reasonable set of insight to the ideas of Individualism).

Hart then discusses the Croly group when the started and worked on The New Republic, "TNR". The three most prominent ones in Hart's mind were Croly, Walter Lippmann, and Weyl. Hart states on p. 195:

" The editors of the New Republic were ... Comtean "in their vision and cultural emphasis. The three shared an important set of assumptions that were generally consistent with the positivism of Croly ... all three were strongly critical of Marxian socialism and classical liberalism."

The classical liberalism was the liberalism of the Founders. Yet Croly disliked the Founders, and like Beard and many others of his time he looked at them as subjects to run away from. As hart states on p. 197:

"To current the United States's "erroneous democratic theory" and address its concomitant problems Croly articulated an answer in The Promise that also betrayed his organicism. Croly proposed a spirit of democratic nationalism as "the road whereby alone the American people can obtain political salvation.""

Hart goes on to discuss the Croly theory of the Administrator, that super executive, who would control everything, a scientific individual who would have the tools to make rational and correct decisions. This was a natural Comtean extension (see p. 208) but after the presidency of Wilson it appears as if Croly found his theory has flaws. Wilson was a disaster and was not the Progressive that Croly had thought when he first supported him.

This book is an excellent blending of the continental philosophy of Comte, who himself is a blend of post Revolution France the nascent beginning of science. It may help to give some insight into what Progressives thought the way they did. It does not, however, explain, the Progressive dislike, disdain, and in some cases hatred of the Founders.