Visions of Progress: The Left-Liberal Tradition in America, by Doug Rossinow, contains in its title the term “traditional.” The book is colored throughout by a yearning for years and causes past, when “radicals” and leftists wore suit jackets and had haircuts instead of sporting Che Guevara T-shirts and tattered fashion designer jeans, and the distaff elements looked more like clean-cut pom-pom girls instead of slovenly, foul-mouthed sluts, and when the “liberals’ and “radicals” cooperated to advance their collectivist causes in this country.
It’s almost as though Rossinow were hankering for the days of good grooming and presentable attire in the march to a Progressive utopia.
In fact, the cover of Vision features two young figures from a 1962 May Day poster. One can project the man and woman in their old age today as arch-conservatives worried about their IRA’s, 401k’s, and retirement portfolios. That is, worried about what’s left after the socialists/progressives/social justice warriors have dipped their beaks into them.
The University of Pennsylvania Press, in its press release, best sums up the character and content of Rossinow’s study:
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.
Rossinow, says the press release, “revisits the period between the 1880s and the 1940s, when reformers and radicals worked together along a middle path between the revolutionary left and the establishment liberalism.” He then chronicles the dissolution of that alliance with the gradual emergence of the New Left and its “We Want It Now” tactics and mantra. Occupy Wall Street is a direct descendent of the Gilded Age’s preliminary skirmishes for “social and economic justice.”
Rossinow pays lip service to the original meaning of the term “liberal” as it was employed in the U.S. and Britain in the 19th century.
The first expressly political use of the term “liberal” in the United States occurred in the 1870s when a group of writers and activists criticized the major parties of the Gilded Age for their corruption and preached a bracing doctrine of individual independence that they called liberalism. The name was borrowed from “Manchester liberalism,” so-called for the English city whose name the activists Richard Cobden and John Bright made synonymous with free trade and lasissez-faire advocacy in the nineteenth century. (pp. 21-22)
Rossinow otherwise discusses the subject of the itinerant, on-again/off-again liberal-left alliance in liberal-left terms. From my perspective – from that of an upholder of individual rights of life, liberty, and property, which together can contribute to my pursuit of happiness – a “liberal” is a politician or advocate of policies that would impinge, regulate, or eliminate those rights incrementally, in “go-slow” fashion, in a kind of sneaking up on that brand of statism so the politician and advocate can have their cake and eat it, too – for a while, until it’s gone. As Margaret Thatcher said in 1976: "The trouble with Socialism is that eventually you run out of other people's money.”
And socialism – or liberalism, or Marxism, Nazism, Communism, or any collectivist “ism” you care to name – always manages to run out of other people’s confiscated, looted, appropriated money.
A leftist is anyone, in or out of office, regardless of the period, who advocates the immediate imposition of such policies without regard to consequences or costs, in the name of “social justice,” and either carps on having legislation passed to achieve those ends, or resorts to violence and physical force, or demands that the government resort to physical force. There isn’t a single individual or organization in the liberal-left camp, past or present, mentioned in Rossinow’s books, with which I could develop an iota of empathy.
Rossinow covers the linkages, alliances, separations, and divorces of some seventy collectivist organizations in Visions, a kaleidoscope of organizations in political hues ranging from pallid pink to blood red, all of them clamoring for the government to take action against the capitalists and the wealthy. But they weren’t alone in the endeavor.
Farmers wanted protection from imports and demanded government price supports when the protective tariffs didn’t do their job. Workers wanted shorter hours and higher wages. Social workers wanted landlords to provide “decent” housing for the poor. The poor wanted more and more generous handouts and doles. Blacks imbibing Marxist ideology demanded reparations and a special status for blacks.
The ideology of laissez-faire bulked large in the imagination of nineteenth-century Americans. Considering the wide belief in the self-made man as both a moral standard and a social reality during that century, the United States saw a rather high level of government intervention the economy, including publicly funded roads and canals and, later, huge gifts of public land to railroad corporations.
Political rhetoric proclaimed America the land of self-sufficiency, yet businessmen and civic leaders advocated publicly funded “improvements” as ways to develop national prosperity….In the United States, even though the Democrats were more strident than Republicans in proclaiming government irrelevant to prosperity, lasissez-faire was the sustaining myth of a whole society, not that of one party. (pp. 15-16)
Much of this is true – American businessmen did seek protection from domestic and foreign competition and advocated :”public works” projects. It’s a phenomenon that dates back to after the Constitution was ratified. Alexander Hamilton advocated such a policy. This was the result of there not being an uncompromising champion of laissez-faire and individual rights during the Gilded Age, and of no prohibition against private lobbies seeking influence in Congress for it to pass laws that would insulate their livelihoods and businesses from reality.
On the other hand, calls for “soaking the rich” and reducing them to the same subsistence levels which socialism and communism would reduce everyone else to were ubiquitous in the era Rossinow discusses:
The economist George H. Soule painted a stark picture in 1934 [in his book, The Coming American Revolution] in 1934: “Just as feudalism was compelled in the end to give way to the rise of middle classes and capitalism, so capitalism must in the end give way to the rise of the working classes and socialism.” (p. 110)
There’s that Hegelian/Marxist dialectical materialistic process again. We, the great unwashed worker class and anonymous ciphers of the social anthill are imbued with a mystical power that will allow us to collectively overcome all those individualistic rich men who aren’t somehow imbued with any mysticism at all. The rich are selfish, grasping snots and must be made to eat the same roots and bulbs as everyone else. We are going to turn their limousines into communal jitneys, fill their high hats with soup and gruel, occupy their mansions, and play our proletarian version of pig-sticking with their wives, sons and daughters. And then the world will be at peace.
Islamic supremacists have the same designs on America. Is it any wonder they and the left are copasetic?
Rossinow quotes another eminent person of the period, Edmund Wilson, and his very personal perspective on capitalists:
A few thinkers among the new progressives were willing to take the leap [to advocating the nationalization or collectivization of everything]. They broke with liberalism in all its forms, rejecting individual freedom as the basis for the new society they heralded. So few even among their political comrades could go where they went that readers have passed over these farewells to individual freedom with little comment, find it hard to understand them and recoiling from them if they did understand.
Edmund Wilson hinted in this direction in his angry expression of hope, early in the Depression, for the liquidation of the dominant capitalist class: “I should be glad…to see a society where this class was abolished. It seems to me plain from my reading of history that the tendency of society is progressively leveling. And with this tendency I am in complete sympathy. I take no stock in the alleged precious “values” cultivated by aristocratic societies and destroyed in democratic ones. Poverty and degradation below and unearned wealth and idleness on top have been implied in all these values.” (pp. 113-114)
Regardless of what book I have read currently or in the past about the plans of the Fabians, socialists, Marxists, liberals, et al. to “level” society, I get the cloying sense that “thinkers” like Soule and Wilson vent their “you are doomed” bile from an unmistakable envy of the rich in their alleged idleness, wallowing in their “unearned wealth.”
Many the usual collectivist suspects, and some of your favorites, are discussed at length by Rossinow:
Saul Alinsky, the “community organizer” extraordinary and mentor to Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama;
Eugene Debs, Socialist Party candidate for the presidency and one of the original Wobblies;
Lincoln Steffens, journalist, muckraker, and an early supporter of the Soviet Union and the Mexican Revolution. In the Soviet Union, he saw the future, and like Walter Duranty, the lying journalist for the New York Times, he would not acknowledge it didn’t work;
William Jennings Bryan, the populist Democratic orator who was the original populist bloviater and three-time candidate for the presidency (1896, 1900, 1908).;
W.E.B. Dubois, the black writer and civil rights activist who became enamored with the Soviet Union;
Henry Wallace, a raving mystic (reminiscent of Ayn Rand’s spiritual bankrupt and searcher of a faith that will forgive him in The Fountainhead) and FDR’s Secretary of Agriculture who believed that by paying farmers not to produce, and by destroying their livestock and arable acreage, prosperity would return to rural America. Wallace admired the energy with which the Soviet tyrants organized “the people”;
Harry Ward, a British immigrant who became the first head of the leftist American Civil Liberties Union, and a Communist fellow traveler;
Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt, Teddy the founder of the “bully pulpit,” conservationist, and outright statist; and Franklin, his cousin, the president who tried to remove all the chocks from the juggernaut of a full-scale, nationalist, regulated, confiscatory welfare state, and with whom Barack Obama identifies;
and Robert M. Follette and his family, progenitors of the welfare state and aggressive collectivism.
Just about everything the leftists and “liberals” had ever hoped to have implemented in the U.S. has been accomplished, including special protected groups, such as immigrants and now Muslims (re Barack Obama’s two-pronged, intentional invasion of the U.S. for the purpose of changing its political, cultural, and racial characters). The “progress” in Progressivism for over a century has been largely unopposed, and has culminated in a “mixed economy” in which the productive private sphere grows ever smaller but is responsible for sustaining an ever growing non-productive and parasitical sphere.
In an October 14h, 2014 article in the Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune , “Perhaps the verdict on Obama is not yet in,” Rossinow reflects on Obama’s two terms, the balance of his last full year in office, and how the future may view him. Obama is, after all, an apotheosis and the quintessential exemplar of everything every one of his predecessors yearned and fought for: the heir and perpetuator of a ruinous welfare and regulatory state lorded over by a kind of ebony Mussolini who appeals to the lowest, most malicious, envious emotions in the electorate. Comparing Obama’s record of failures and disasters with those of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Ronald Reagan, Rossinow wrote:
With the exception of Clinton — whose congressional pursuers repulsed much of the public — these and other two-termers saw the opposition realize major gains in the elections six years into their presidencies.
In short, these other guys were in some serious trouble. Bush, Clinton and Reagan, each in a different way, were gravely compromised by either scandal or policy disaster. Obama has committed no comparable misdeed (which is not the same as saying he has made no serious errors). The only reason the Republican-controlled House has not started impeachment proceedings is probably that there is nothing on which the GOP can touch him.
Au contraire, Mr. Rossinow: There is plenty on Obama that the GOP can touch to bring him to justice. But the GOP simply lacks the courage and concern. The GOP is simply geared to retaking Congress and later the White House to implement its own brand of statism, to perpetuate its own version of the “status quo.”
The history of the visionary liberal-left, as presented by Doug Rossinow, is an engrossing tour-de-force in terms of bringing to life the oft-contentious and divisive glittering disco ball of American collectivism.
Rossinow is a professor of history at Metropolitan State University in Minnesota, another pioneer state for welfare statism. Metro State was founded in 1971. The school admitted 50 students in 1972. David E. Sweet was the university's first president. The university initially followed a non-traditional course: students could design their own degree plans, instructors wrote "narrative evaluations" instead of using traditional letter grades, and much of the teaching was done by "community faculty" who had advanced degrees as well as extensive practical work experience in their respective fields.
Visions of Progress: The Left-Liberal Tradition in America, by Doug Rossinow. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008. 322 pp.