Friday, August 27, 2010

Herbert Croly: A Biography

Shaping Modern Liberalism by Stettner is an exceptionally good biographical work addressing Herbert Croly. Croly is in many ways the father of modern day Progressivism. The book covers the extent of Croly's life and develops his works quite well. An excellent addition to this work is Positivist Republic: Auguste Comte and the Reconstruction of American Liberalism, by Harp.Positivist Republic: Auguste Comte and the Reconstruction of American Liberalism, 1865-1920

The author sets the tune well on p. 3 by stating:

"Progressives such as Croly sought primarily to use government - particularly the national government and even more particularly the national executive - to control the power of business. They sought to assert the public interest against the trusts and to regulate and destroy the concentration of economic power."

It should be understood that during the late 19th century that there were massive trusts, albeit representing but a small fraction of all businesses. They may be counted in less than hundreds and even less than dozens for the most significant one. Yet for those like Croly, and Teddy Roosevelt was part of this group, they became the focus of all that was wrong in America.

Croly founded the magazine The New Republic, TNR, which has managed to survive to the present. The author on p 5 indicates the disillusionment that Croly and his associates, including Walter Lippmann, Felix Frankfurter, Learned Hand and John Dewey were to have with Wilson and Wilson's repressive response to the War.

The author states:

"The recognition that the government could oppress individuals politically, as the classical liberals had argued, while at the same time liberating them from economic and social oppression, forced Croly to reemphasize the importance of individual freedoms that had been present but deemphasized in his earlier books."

Indeed, in his earlier works Croly was anti the Founders and perforce of that against the individual qua individual. The Progressive saw society as a collection, and amalgam, and the single individual had no positive value and in fact the individual to the Progressive had negative value. The individual took from society and had costs which were against the building of a unified group. Thus for Progressives they sought and continue to seek positive rights, the giving from government and eschew the negative rights, the protections from government. But when Croly saw what Wilson had done, how Wilson had arbitrarily denied the rights of speech and assembly, that changed Croly from the 1920s onwards. However that is discussed by the author but often is lacking from the view of Croly as a Progressive.

Thus this biography sets Croly up between these extremes.

On pages 21-22 the author discusses Croly's influence by his father and in turn that of Comte on his father. Comte, the father of sociology, was a post Revolution Frenchman who discovered science, as it was in the early 19th century and tried to use this as a means to establish an alternative to religion. Croly's father adopted Comte and this in turn was an influence on Croly. However after almost two years at Harvard Croly slowly lost that influence and in fact seemed to see Comte and his views as dated.

The author states on p 22 in a succinct comment what seems to have been the main driving point for the Progressives:

"The Jeffersonian heritage of minimal government needed to be abandoned. David Croly (Herbert Croly's father) presumably urged Herbert to adopt these similar views during their conversations in the last years of his life."

One of the lingering questions is what were the factors which drove people like Croly's father, and then Croly, to support ideas which were the contradistinction of what had been at the founding of the country a mere hundred years earlier. It would have been useful for the author to explore this in some detail and the life of Herbert Croly would clearly have been an excellent vehicle. This leaves the reader to infer from the tale as it evolves.

Croly had continuing difficulties at Harvard, and on p 25 there is a description of his "nervous breakdown" and that the time thereafter for almost a decade are somewhat shrouded. One may in today's world ask what specific psychiatric disorder if any he may have suffered from and it could be conjectured that perhaps he was bipolar. He was back and forth at Harvard for several years around the turn of the century and was finally was awarded a degree by Harvard in 1910, albeit in what may be considered an honorary manner having still not completed all of his courses.

Croly was an admirer with mixed feeling of Teddy Roosevelt, TR. On p 38-39 the author states:

" was in his praise of Roosevelt and his linkage of Roosevelt to Hamilton that Croly coined the famous "new Nationalism" phrase which Roosevelt later used in turn to describe his own program...In Croly's analysis, Roosevelt was "Hamiltonian with a difference." "

The author continues on p 40:

"He pronounced that Jefferson did "possess one saving quality which Hamilton himself lacked; Jefferson was filled with a sincere, indiscriminate and unlimited faith in the American people."

Croly almost despised Jefferson, he saw in Hamilton the strong central government figure who Croly apparently wanted as a leader. In some ways Croly seems to have initially seen that in TR but that was to mellow.

On p 42-43 the author quotes Croly in a manner which is an excellent view of his principles of social justice. Croly states:

"The democratic principle requires an equal start in the race, while expecting at the same time an unequal finish. But Americans who talk in this way seem wholly blind to the fact that under a legal system which holds private property sacred there may be equal rights, but there cannot possibly be equal opportunities for exercising those rights. The chance which the individual has to compete with his fellows and take a prize in the race is vitally affected by material conditions over which he has no control...Those who have enjoyed the benefits of wealth and through education start with an advantage which can be overcome only by very exceptional men."

Yet it was those very exceptional men who had created what became the Trusts which in turn Croly and the Progressives shout out about. It is the individualism which allowed the United States to move from a backwater agricultural country to a world leader which he also bemoans. Croly and the Progressives in general seem to want to level the field, and in turn to wash out those very exceptional men.

There is an excellent discussion of positive rights and negative rights and Croly and Comte on p. 51. Croly as with all Progressives saw the evil in negative rights since they took power from the central government that they felt was necessary for it to accomplish its goal and that positive rights were part of the plan to level the playing field. Positive rights were social justice and were affected by forms of redistribution.

Croly was opposed to the classic individualism which made the United States what it had become. On p 53 the author states:

"Croly ... renounced the traditional American ideal of an isolated individual, armed with rights and facing a hostile world. Rather he described a human being who was social and shared a common national purpose...."

The author continues his discussion of individualism on p 97 where he states:

"Croly is much more concerned to discuss the related concept of individualism. We saw that in The Promise he had held to a core notion of individualism while attempting to reconcile the concept with nationality and the national democratic ideal. Progressive Democracy continues that commitment to individualism, now in the context of a progressive democratic ideal. ... Croly stresses an "interdependence" between individual and society ..."

There is a clear conflict between classic individuals and what we now see as neo-individualism. In the evolving neo individualism there is a premise that the sole function of the government should be to protect the individual through its negative rights. In contrast as evolved with the Progressives and now the neo Progressives is the evolution of society as compared to individual, positive as compared to negative rights, and social justice and redistribution as compared to property rights in a Lockean sense.

The author then takes the reader through the period of 1912 and the support of Wilson, the 1914 founding of The New Republic and its great influence on Democratic politics, the evolution of Croly's thinking, and his death in 1928. The author provides an excellent comparison of Croly's thought and the program and principles of the New Deal under FDR.

This is an exceptionally good work of a man who had tremendous influence on the politics of the United States. Croly not only had influence by his writing, his TNR publications, but via the people who he had surrounded himself with such as Walter Lippmann and others.

This should be a must read for any who are attempting to understand in some historical context where we are as a country today. It allows one to assess the central divide between individualism and progressivism. The author has achieved an exceptional step forward in this deeply necessary set of explanations.