Thursday, July 07, 2016

The Fascist Early Progressives

This post title may be a bit extreme, to call progressivism “fascist,” but not by much.

After all, Ludwig von Mises referred to fascism as “socialism of the German pattern” to distinguish it from the Russian version. Instead of expropriation of private property to achieve socialist states, Nazi Germany and Fascist Spain and Italy imposed extensive government regulations to control private life, both business and personal.

The Progressive Era in the United States, from about 1890 to 1930, established the same pattern, but it was based on the leaders’ learning of democratic socialism in Prussian universities.

The early progressives’ specific policies, as comprehensively documented in Thomas C. Leonard’s book Illiberal Reformers: Race, Eugenics, and American Economics in the Progressive Era, would not be considered politically correct today, but their fundamental principles of using think-tank-guided “experts” and government guns to achieve socialist goals have been internalized by modern liberals and conservatives alike, and vastly extended to control nearly all aspects of private life.

Most of the early progressives were reared in old New England families, which made them evangelical white Anglo-Saxon Protestant males, and their program was largely independent of political affiliation: it was strongly supported, for example, by both the Republican Theodore Roosevelt and Democrat Woodrow Wilson.

Here’s a first taste of the progressives’ thinking, as stated in a review of Leonard’s book: “In the early twentieth century, progressives displayed an open contempt for individual rights. In a 1915 unsigned editorial at this magazine [The New Republic], the editors ridiculed the Bill of Rights as a joke.”

The reviewer continues, “If Leonard didn’t have the quotes from prominent progressives to back up his claims, this would read like right-wing paranoia . . . .” And the quotes are numerous.

This book is an important corrective to the history profession’s biased glamorizing of early progressivism.

The liberal individualism of the Scottish Enlightenment was viewed by these early progressives as selfish and therefore un-Christian and immoral. Their evangelical focus shifted from saving souls to saving society, from the individual to the collective. The “public” or “common good” became the standard for policy.

Indeed, one of the motivations for founding the American Economic Association in 1885 was to counter and exclude the ideas of classical liberals Herbert Spencer and William Graham Sumner.* The promoters of progressivism were mostly economists and sociologists: Richard T. Ely, John R. Commons, Edward A. Ross, and Irving Fisher, plus many more.

Elitism and social engineering, not democracy, were their motivating aspirations.

Their form of elitism sought to exclude certain groups, believed to be inferior, from participating in much of society. For example, they eagerly sought to preserve race purity and maintain a living wage for workers of northern European extraction.

Among the groups targeted for exclusion were African Americans, women, and immigrants—especially the Chinese and those from southern and eastern Europe, which especially meant Jews. The disabled, feeble minded, and insane were also inferiors who were excluded to asylums and special farms away from the cities; in some cases they were sterilized.

The former three groups (the early progressives were not Marxists and did not use the term “classes”) were less skilled than their white Anglo-Saxon Protestant male counterparts, so by their willingness to accept a lower wage, they threatened to reduce earnings of the “more deserving” male workers.

Minimum wage and immigration laws were the progressives’ solution.

Maintaining racial purity was more of a challenge, but the “state-of-the-art science” of eugenics came to the rescue. “Well-born” is the meaning of the term, coined by Darwin’s half-cousin, Francis Galton. The aim of eugenics was hereditary control of the race through compulsory sterilization and euthanasia.

Up to 60,000 sterilizations were performed in the United States, as late as 1972. Justification for the practice was given in a Supreme Court decision in 1927, authored by the progressive justices William Howard Taft, Louis Brandeis, and Oliver Wendell Holmes. The legal argument said compulsory sterilization was no different from compulsory vaccination.

Cancelling compulsion in either case was not an option—to those who knew best.

American psychiatrists promoted and supported the Nazi sterilization program that ran from 1934-39. A few supported compulsory euthanasia. The euphemistically labeled “mercy killings” began in Nazi Germany in 1938—in gas chambers disguised as showers.

Eugenics is not much talked about today, or taught in the schools—for the obvious reason that modern progressives do not want to be associated with Nazi Germany. The eugenic connection to progressivism is also seldom mentioned or taught, but it fit the progressives’ program like a glove.

Fascist progressivism? Theodore Roosevelt saw race suicide as the greatest problem of civilization and, according to H. L. Mencken, whom Leonard quotes, “believed simply in government,” not democracy.

The “quality” of the vote, not quantity, was what counted for progressives. Wealth and literacy tests were recommended to determine who should be allowed. Voter turnout in national elections fell thirty percent between 1896 and 1924, even more in the Jim Crow South.

Woodrow Wilson praised those “sturdy stocks . . . [from] the North of Europe” and denigrated immigrants from southern and eastern Europe. He also derided inalienable rights as “nonsense.” The Wilson administration re-segregated the federal government.

Fascist progressivism? Much, much more can be found in Leonard’s book.


* “Social Darwinism,” Leonard points out in a journal article, was a less-than-accurate construct of Richard Hoftstadter in 1944. It then became a favorite pejorative of modern historians, used to disparage the Progressive Era’s capitalism and capitalism’s advocates. The phrase was hardly used during the period, least of all by Spencer or Sumner.


2 comments :

Jared Jacobs said...

Hi Jerry -

My first response to the above is that it's interesting and, I assume, you seek to condemn/inform modern progressives by describing the actions of past progressives. I'm not sure that that is your intent but I'll make that assumption. If that assumption is correct then:

1) aren't you assuming that people don't learn from the past?

2) aren't you blaming the child (living progressives) for the sins of the father?

3) I'm going to presume that you aren't arguing that every person selected for sterilization was selected by a progressive. That would be both remarkably difficult to prove and highly unlikely. So, would you condemn the 'ism' that each of the selectors fall into? I don't think you would. One doesn't follow from the other. But you are condemning progressives.

4) Finally, though the court that upheld sterilization may meet your definition of progressive, I can tell you that it's not a "platform plank" that I've ever come across. This rings of (1) and (2), above.

Jerry Kirkpatrick said...

Thank you, Jared, for your comments . . . but I do mean that present and past progressives adhere to the essential distinguishing characteristic of fascism, namely the nominal private ownership of property and the means of production, but regulation and control by the state.

Fascism is a form of socialism that originated when Mussolini broke with the Marxists in the 1920s, but the idea of state control over private property and life predate Mussolini and Hitler. It derives from Bismarck’s Prussia—the same Prussia that provided teachers of the early progressives.

See Mises’ discussion of the history and origin of the term in Planned Chaos and these two excerpts from Ayn Rand’s Ford Hall Forum lectures: 1, 2. The first Rand lecture is about John F. Kennedy and the second about Lyndon Johnson. Also, search Mises.org for many short essays about the nature of fascism and its theory and history.

As I said in my post, progressivism is bipartisan. Our current political candidates disagree only in specifics about how they want to control private life. One wants to build a Berlin Wall on our southern border and the other wants to rewrite the First Amendment and eliminate the Second.