Readers Respond: Nominations for the Progressive Syllabus

What are the forgotten classics of American progressive thought? A first batch of reader nominations.

By Nathan Pippenger

On Thursday, I took a look at the relative lack of attention the left gives to its own intellectual history, and I suggested there might be utility (or at least interest) in revisiting older, and now largely overlooked, works of progressive thought. My request for suggestions has generated some fascinating nominations—so here’s a look at the first batch.

One of the things reflected in these suggestions is the heterogeneous sources of what is often treated as a more or less coherent trajectory of American progressivism. John Stoehr, for instance, suggested John Dewey’s The Public and its Problems and other foundational works of twentieth-century scholarship: C. Wright Mills’s The Power Elite and John D. Hick’s sympathetic history of populism, The Populist Revolt. These represent some of the most influential pre-1960s analyses of how power functions in the American democracy. Daniel Solomon, in contrast, looked to a later group of thinkers, pointing out that a syllabus of progressivism would need to illustrate the left’s splintering into groups with different understandings of equality.

Rather than, for instance, Henry George’s writings on land taxes and unemployment, Solomon points to Notes of a Native Son, Soul on Ice, and Black Power. These texts, Solomon writes, illustrate progressivism’s occasional need “to be reminded of what kind of public good it’s creating.” I might amend this slightly to suggest that progressivism actually needs not to be reminded, but rather to argue about the public good it’s creating. (Incidentally, this is one respect in which canon-building doesn’t necessarily have to construct an illusory unity, but can instead illustrate the diversity, and even the clashing, that occurs within some broader tradition.)

Other suggestions illustrated different kinds of diversity. Luke Mayville pointed to Reinhold Niebuhr’s critique of Jeffersonianism in The Irony of American History. Although his reputation has waxed and waned over time, Niebuhr’s theological-political writings were a major influence on Cold War liberalism, and they represent the apotheosis of an approach that has waned as religious discourse has largely been ceded to the right. The fusion of religious and secular thinking in twentieth-century progressive thought is another sign of the movement’s internal diversity (and, in retrospect, a preview of schisms to come).

Lastly, I was intrigued by Jeff Schramm’s nomination, since it never occurred to me:

The first director of the U.S. Bureau of Mines evidently shared the era’s interest in conservation and efficiency, and those interests influenced the agency’s early work. My understanding is that little has been written about the formation of the Bureau and its distinctive set of concerns (worker safety, conservation, efficiency) in the broader context of 20th-century progressivism—but this sounds like a promising history dissertation.

This is only a sample of the suggestions so far. Other nominations are still coming in, and the syllabus-builders who appear in the foregoing had other intriguing suggestions as well. I’ll consider those other suggestions, and what they say about the left’s trajectory, in the next week or so.

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

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