The Forgotten Syllabus of American Progressivism

It's past time for a fresh look at now-forgotten books which shaped the American left. Who's got suggestions?

By Nathan Pippenger

Croly.gifI spent last weekend at an academic conference in Chicago, and when colleagues heard that I was planning to discuss a paper on Herbert Croly, a common reaction went something like: “Oh, yeah. I’ve been meaning to read him at some point.” These, mind you, are people with graduate degrees in political theory, many of whom can claim expertise on American progressivism. But nonetheless, they—like many modern progressives—are largely unfamiliar with Croly. This is an odd state of affairs. The twentieth century bears Croly’s imprint—he was an associate of Theodore Roosevelt; a founder of The New Republic; and, as author of the unjustly forgotten 1909 book The Promise of American Life, an important influence on a number of early twentieth-century American thinkers. But although traces of his influence can be detected today, his work itself is mostly ignored.

Things were not always this way. When Promise came out, it was recognized as a major work, lauded both by reviewers and by President Roosevelt. Looking back on the book in 1930, Walter Lippmann called it a “political classic” and wrote that Croly “was the first important political philosopher who appeared in America in the twentieth century.” That judgment was in recognition of Croly’s impressive intellectual achievement—a sweeping reinterpretation of American democracy designed to answer the new challenges of industrialization. Croly understood that democracy was under threat from the economic changes taking place in America, and he saw with unusual clarity that the particular Jeffersonian biases of American democratic thought—biases toward smallness and decentralization—were unfit to preserve democracy in the face of these new threats. Promise is a difficult (and not terribly well-written) book, but as an intellectual project it’s engrossing and still vital. A new edition from Princeton University Press justly calls it “part of the bedrock of American liberalism,” and it still contains lessons for a 21st-century left facing problems that bear an eerie resemblance to those of a century ago.

Today, conservatives appear to recognize that fact better than liberals do. That’s the best explanation for the otherwise-strange fact that Croly seems most popular today among his right-wing critics. Both the Heritage Foundation and the Federalist have, in recent years, devoted pieces to introducing (and debunking) his thought and proving it to be the rotten root of today’s liberalism. At some level, this illustrates the conservative movement’s distinctive fascination with books and ideas, which is strangely without analogue on the institutional left. The Center for American Progress started a “Progressive Studies” program a few years ago, but that’s no equivalent to the network of right-wing publishing houses, conferences, reading clubs, magazines, online newsletters, college-student organizations, and think tanks which exist to promote books and ideas—not policies, per se. Of course, this hasn’t protected the conservative movement from anti-intellectualism, but it has its merits. (For one thing, conservatives almost never fool themselves into thinking that they’re just empiricists, free of any ideological views).

Without calling for a full-scale imitation, I do want to suggest that the left might find it useful—or at least interesting, at least thought-provoking—to devote more time to its own intellectual history, to read and discuss some of the now-forgotten works that guided its development. Who else would appear in this syllabus of forgotten progressives? Its construction would have more than historical or archival interest. Choosing certain works as important to us would serve as a basis for articulating and arguing about what progressives think now. It would introduce forgotten perspectives into current debates. And it would be fun. Who’s got suggestions?

Photo credit: Princeton University Press

Nathan Pippenger is a contributing editor at Democracy. Follow him on Twitter at @NathanPip.

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