Thursday, August 26, 2010

Croly: Progressive Democracy

Herbert Croly was one of the most significant figures in the beginning of the Progressive movement. His presence is still felt today in many ways including the ongoing work of the magazine he founded, The New Republic. His first book, The Promise of American Life, was somewhat of a lecture or sermon delineating his ideas.

In contrast the book he prepared in 1914, Progressive Democracy, was a clearer and more forthright expression of his Progressive views. In a manner this book, Progressive Democracy, is also the handbook for current day neo-progressives as well. To understand the current day politics it help significantly to read Croly and especially Progressive Democracy.

What makes the current version of Progressive Democracy so useful is the Introduction by Sidney Pearson, emeritus Professor at Radford University in Virginia. Pearson has done a superb job in not only articulating the key points of Croly but also in connecting these points to the text.

Croly was the son of an intelligent and aggressive English born woman who was a reporter and writer and quite progressive in her own right and an Irish born father who was also a reporter and writer, Croly's father was a strong follower of Comte and as such had eschewed any religious ancestry he may have brought with him to America. Comte had established a "church" with structure but with no nexus to the then existing religious institutions. This influence of a "logical" religion seems to have had a strong influence on Croly.

Croly entered Harvard and over a period of many years was in and out and he never managed to complete his course work. It was in 1911 after the success of his first book that he was awarded his undergraduate degree by Harvard. Croly had several psychiatric issues while a student and one may conjecture that they were of a bi-polar nature given his later behavior in life.

In 1914 Croly obtain substantial financing to start The New Republic, TNR, the bastion for Progressive thought. It was at TNR that Croly brought in people of the likes of Walter Lippmann and others. TNR has remained a strong progressive beacon in the world of the written word.

Croly and the Progressives, then and now, differed greatly from the Founders in their view of how the country should be governed. They were anti-individualists and believers of the group or the community. Much of this can be related to Comte as well. It is essential to read Croly in context.

Now Pearson starts his introduction by stating on several occasions the eschewing and even total rejection of the Founders and their beliefs. Specifically Pearson state:

p. xii "The socio political science of the Progressive Movement and Croly's place in it are best understood as a critique of the political science of the Founders...It was the conscious aim of Croly and the Progressive Movement to establish American government on fundamentally different principles than those of the original founders..."

Pearson continues:

p. xiii "They were a new species of democratic philosopher in America: "progressive liberals" in their own self interpretation and consciously in opposition to many of the fundamental principles of republican government as the Founders had used the term. Croly in particular saw his social-political science as architectonic..."

Pearson also sets up one of the key elements of the Progressives, the movement from equality politically to equality socially. He states:

p. xiv "Citizens could and should be politically equal, at least within their communities defined by their citizenship, but private property and property rights prevented social equality..."

Thus in many ways Croly and the Progressives, then and now, eschew Locke and the concept of property and the individual. Their view of equality is equality in a social context and redistribution is the key to that equality. Croly objects to all the Founders and especially Jefferson.

Pearson makes an interesting point on p xxv where he states:

"Dating the origins of the Progressive critique of the American Founders and their political science is imprecise at best, but a convenient reference point is Woodrow Wilson's "Introductory" to his Congressional Government (1885)."

It is Wilson, who approach the government and body politic from a Hegelian manner, rejecting the English school of Locke and the French school of Montesquieu, seeks a Hegelian central government with a social structure focused on the group and not the individual. Further, in a strange manner Wilson then rejects the Montesquieu approach of multiple conflicting branches of Government and in his work describes a strong Legislative branch as is in the case of the UK. Of course Wilson would reject that in favor of the Executive branch in control when he became President.

Pearson then follows through with an detailed analysis of Progressive Democracy. He makes a detailed analysis of the entire core and then relates it back to Croly page by page. As such this Introduction is more useful than the text itself. Croly is somewhat rambling in his style.

Croly states (pp 148-149):

"The ideal of individual justice is being supplemented by the ideal of social justice...The inevitable result of this transformation or enlargement of the ideal of justice has been the increasing circumspection in the use by the courts of their discretionary authority."

Here Croly has articulated the key Progressive action step of using the courts to realign the law and in turn realign society. Croly saw that the legislature would be resistant and that the executive could be cumbersome but that the courts could cut through the old fashioned structure of the Founders like a hot knife through butter.

Croly like the Progressives overall desired a fully democratic government, not a representative one. On p 262 he states:

"It is just beginning to be understood that a representative government of any type becomes in actual practice a species of class government."

On p 211 Croly returns to his drive for the establishment of social justice, namely equality of everything. He states:

"The ideal of social justice is so exacting and so comprehensive that it cannot be progressively attained by any agency save by the loyal and intelligent devotion of popular will."

The view of Croly then to the individual and property, the cornerstones of the Founders view of a good government were at odds. As Pearson states on p xli:

"... Croly aimed at ... a system whereby property would be regulated by the government for the common good of society as a whole. (p 120 Croly) "A genuinely national system must possess unity as well as inclusiveness; and the unity can be obtained only by the active cooperation of its different parts for the realization of the common purpose."

Croly was a Progressive not a socialist, he did not want the government to own everything just control it, and the people who effected any form of commerce.

Finally the point of most criticality is the Croly view of the Executive, the construct of the entity called the "Administrator". On pp xlii-xliii Pearson lays this out and he then refers to the section in Croly for detail. Croly as a believer in Comte, sees science, whatever that means, since he clearly had no scientific training, nor was science even at a point where it could achieve what they sought, but it was a factotum to justify their actions. Pearson quotes Lippmann in this regard:

"we have a right to call science the discipline of democracy"

Political science, this was to be a true science, a science of administering a government, a chose few representing all people in a government where social justice and equality of property was the goal.

Pearson states (p xlvii):

"...Croly's vision shared much in common with the positivism of Auguste Comte that had figured so prominently in the life of his parents and his early education. In Croly's version of secular humanism, the City of Man would replace the City of God as the end point of progress."

Progressive Democracy has insight into the Progressive agenda of this day. The staff of TNR still refer back to Croly, they look to him as both mentor and visionary. Thus Progressive Democracy more than many other works has compelling timeliness for today.