William F. Warde (George Novack)

The Rise and Fall of Progressivism

Written: December 1956
First Published: International Socialist Review, Vol. 18, No. 3, Summer 1957, pp. 83-88.
Transcription/Editing: 2005 by Daniel Gaido
HTML Markup: 2005 by David Walters
Public Domain: George Novack Internet Archive 2005; This work is completely free. In any reproduction, we ask that you cite this Internet address and the publishing information above.

What can we learn from American history about building an anti-monopoly coalition? Some 75 years of experience suggest a number of valuable lessons for consideration

The present political course of the Communist party of the United States is characterized not only by the crassest opportunism, but by willful disregard for the lessons of our national past.

The main political task of progressive Americans, declare the CP leaders, is the building of an anti-monopoly coalition to curb the corporate interests and dislodge them from power. This is a praiseworthy objective, though it is hardly a new discovery. This same problem has faced the American people—and the socialist movement—ever since industrial capitalism acquired national supremacy and the trusts took over the economy following the Civil War.

From the 1870’s on there have been no lack of attempts to assemble an alliance of forces enduring and strong enough to defeat the monopolists. The highway of protest from the Greenback party through the Populists up to Wallace’s Progressive party is littered with the wreckage of the political vehicles patched together to do that job. None of them succeeded.

The Communist party now proposes to succeed where all these failed by entering the Democratic Party and working in its left wing with other progressive elements. According to its spokesmen, the desired “people’s anti-monopoly coalition” may come about either by driving the reactionaries out of the Democratic Party or through the formation of a new third party movement opposed to the old parties.

Neither of these programs are as new as penicillin or color television, although they may seem so to inexperienced people unacquainted with the American politics of the past 75 years. The history of the traditional “Left” since the 1870’s has been marked by oscillations between the alternatives of reforming the Democratic Party (and even, on occasion, the Republican) or challenging the “Gold-Dust Twins” with a “Progressive” third party coalition on an anti-monopolist but not anti-capitalist program. Both confined themselves to the aim of reforming capitalism, not replacing it with a workers’ government and a publicly owned economy.

The Communist party itself has gyrated from one of these positions to the other in the past two decades. From 1936 through 1944 it backed the Democratic candidates as the lesser evil and the more progressive hope in the national elections. Then in 1948 and 1952 it shifted a few degrees leftward by supporting the Progressive party. Repentant, the CP has now swung back to more unabashed allegiance to the Democratic Party.

The CP leaders promise that the conditions are ripe this time for the realizations of big gains for the working people and the Negroes through pressure-politicking within the Democratic machine. Before leaping back into the party of the plutocrats and the Dixiecrats, it might be helpful to appraise the results of previous efforts along this line by reviewing the state of the nation today.

The reformers opposed the growth of monopoly in our economic system and defended small business. Today Big Business and High Finance are stronger than ever. In an editorial on May 13, 1957, Life magazine reports: “Big companies are getting bigger, (the 50 biggest got 27% of all sales) and the smaller ones are having a tougher time, reflected at the moment in a rising rate of business failures.”

Were the “Progressives” more effective in politics than in economics? Their principal aim was to oust the plutocrats from Washington and place the power of deciding national policies in the hands of the people. Today the monopolists and militarists dominate the government completely, ruling through a coalition of the two capitalist parties, which differ on incidental domestic issues but have basic unity on foreign policy.

The liberals dedicated their movements to the defense and extension of democracy at home. Yet it was the most “liberal” Democratic Presidents: Wilson through the Palmer Raids, Roosevelt through the Smith Act, and Truman through the loyalty purge, who delivered the greatest blows to civil liberties.

Finally, the “Progressives” aimed to maintain peace within the framework of reforming capitalist imperialism. The United States has had three wars in this century. All of them were headed by Democratic Presidents, favorites of the liberals.

Such are the facts. How are they to be explained?

The CP leaders talk glibly nowadays of the need to “apply Marxism-Leninism creatively” to the problems of American politics. They ought to start by using the methods of Marxism to analyze why all previous efforts to capture the Democratic Party for progressive purposes and to reform monopoly capitalism ended in bankruptcy. But they have reasons for refraining from such an investigation. For a Marxist examination of the rise and fall of the progressive movements would not only illuminate the causes of the failure of reformism but likewise expose the fallacies of the current CP line which follows in their well-worn track.

Since they cannot be expected to perform this essential inquiry, we shall try to do it, not for the enlightenment of incorrigible opportunists, but for the education of the younger generation.

* * *

The last three decades of the nineteenth century were basically a period of tightening political reaction following the colossal revolutionary leap of the Civil War years and Reconstruction. This “Gilded Age” saw the impetuous, almost uninterrupted rise of capitalist forces in the United States and on a world scale. Despite minor and puffed-up reforms, the triumphant plutocracy was energetically consolidating its grip over the major spheres of our national life.

The ever harsher domination of the capitalist oligarchy encountered resistance all along the way from the masses. These were divided into three important sections: the agrarian producers, the urban middle classes and the industrial workers. The currents of protest welling forth from the depths of the people were mostly movements of reform which aimed to curd, control or reverse the process of capitalist concentration in economic, political and cultural life. Outright revolutionary voices were rare and working-class tendencies bent upon the abolition of capitalism were in their infancy.

The principal large-scale political struggles were waged between the agents of the plutocracy and the representatives of the liberal petty bourgeoisie who headed the plebeian masses. Apart from industry, the proletariat was as yet a subordinate factor in most spheres of national affairs. The main stream of political opposition came from the Populist-Progressive movement which had its direct social bases in the middle-class elements of the country and city. The proletarian movements either ran parallel to this main stream, fed from it, or even emptied themselves at times into it.

The life cycle of the Progressive movement, its rises, its periodical fluctuations from effervescence to stagnation and back again, decline and disintegration, can be charted in close connection with the economic development of American capitalism. The Progressive movement was a political product of the post-Civil War era. It was born during the hard times following the panic of 1873 and gained new impetus from each succeeding economic crisis.

The 1892 platform of the Populist Party, as summarized by Charles Beard in The Rise of American Civilization (p. 210) made the following indictment of “The Gilded Age” of capitalism:

“. . . that America was rule by a plutocracy, that impoverished labor was laid low under the tyranny of a hireling army, that houses were covered with mortgages, that the press was the tool of wealth, that corruption dominated the ballot box, that the fruits of the toil of millions are boldly stolen to build up colossal fortunes for a few unprecedented in the history of mankind: and the possessors of these in turn despise the republic and endanger liberty.”

The movement reached the peak of its social energy and political influence in 1896 when its aims had ostensibly been adopted by the Democratic Party and Bryan led the Progressive hosts in an attempt to dislodge the finance capitalists from power in Washington. After its defeat in 1896, the Spanish-American war and the ensuing prosperity, the Progressive movement died down except in the rural districts. It was revived by the crisis of 1907 and took on several new shapes culminating in Roosevelt’s Bull Moose crusade and Wilson’s New Freedom.

The entry of the United States into the First World War dealt a mortal blow to the Progressive cause but did not completely dispose of it. After a regional revival in the agrarian Northwest, the movement had a spasmodic national resurgence in the La Follette campaign of 1924 which was a belated response to the consequences of the postwar crisis of 1921. Even then the force of the movement, which had so many decades of struggle behind it and hopes deposited with it, was not spent. In his speeches against “the economic royalists,” Roosevelt skillfully exploited Progressive sentiments and traditions to win support for his New Deal. His ex-Vice-President, Henry Wallace, aided by the Stalinists, sought in vain to resurrect the corpse of Progressivism as late as 1948.

In all these incarnations, the Progressive movement has been middle class in body and spirit. In the earlier stages of its career, in the Greenback, Grange, and Populist trends of the seventies and eighties [of the nineteenth century], it was based upon the small farmers of the Middle West and South, pulling behind it the radicalized workers and urban middle classes and effecting an alliance with them. The programs of the Greenback, Grange and Populist movements largely expressed the interests and formulated the demands of these aroused and oppressed small farmers and were led by rural leaders.

Later the Progressive movement came to lean more and more upon the city masses and the rising industrial workers. This shift in the base of the Progressive movement resulted from the diminishing importance of the rural population and the increasing power of labor in American society. This change in the social composition of the Progressive ranks was reflected in the character of its principal leaders. “Sockless” Jerry Simpson, General Weaver, Ignatius Donnelly, Mary Ellen Lease (“Let’s raise less corn and more hell”) and Tom Watson were representative figures of its Populist period. Robert La Follette Sr. may be regarded as a leader who bridged the country and the city, a link between organized labor and the rural sections of the movement.

In their heyday the Populist-Progressives constituted the left wing of the capitalist regime. As a loyal opposition, they did not desire to abolish but to moderate the despotism of the plutocracy, to curtail its powers, and reduce the privileges of the magnates of industry and finance. The principal planks in their economic platforms expressed the interests and put forward the demands of various sections of the middle classes from the farmers to the small businessmen.

This was true of such Populist money-panaceas as Greenbackism and bimetallism and of such reforms as the graduated income tax and the regulation of the monopolies. The Progressives did not dream of going beyond restricting the power of King Capital, his moneyed aristocracy, and his favorites. To dethrone this despot by expropriation and thereby end the rule of his nobles forever—that was regarded as Socialism, Anarchism, te end of Civilization!

Even at their most radical, the political ideas of Progressivism did not transgress the boundaries of that bourgeois democracy which had been built upon competitive capitalism. The Progressives restricted their proposed reforms within the constitutional framework of the regime which had been laid down by the architects of the Republic following the First American Revolution as defended and amended by the Second American Revolution.

The Progressives sincerely believed—and still do—that the capitalist republic of the United States is the highest and final form of political organization. They could not conceive that progressive mankind might desire or create any other or better kind of government. As a gauge of their provincial backwardness in this respect, when Robert La Follette went to the Soviet Union in 1922, he invited the Soviet leaders to come and repay his visit in the State of Wisconsin where, he assured them, they could see “a really progressive state!”

The Progressives wanted the machinery of the United States Government cleansed of its more glaring aristocratic vestiges and its democracy perfected by the introduction of such reforms as the direct election of Senators and judges, etc. They sometimes stopped halfway even in the direction of democratizing the state apparatus. They campaigned, for example, to abolish the Supreme Court’s veto power over Congressional enactments but upheld the President’s veto power which is a relic of monarchical rule; they asked for direct election of Senators on a state basis, but not the president on a national scale; they did not call for a single instead of a double system of national legislative bodies. Their demands for civil service reform and for cheap, honest, efficient administration even pleased a part of the ruling class which could get along without direct corruption or coercion of their political servitors.

Armed with these reform programs, the Progressives vainly stormed the fortresses of plutocratic power at periodic intervals from 1872 to 1924. They did manage by tremendous exertions to exact a number of concessions and reforms from successive administrations which felt their pressure. Occasionally, they even controlled some of the state governments.

Nevertheless, these reforms did not result in any basic changes in American life or reverse the processes of capitalist centralization and control. In some cases they even produced consequences contrary to those expected or promised. The laws curbing or breaking up the trusts did not halt but facilitated the growth of the monopolies; the income tax which was to make the rich pay more for the costs of running the government became converted into an engine of extortion from the pay of the workers. The various electoral revisions failed to make the system more responsive to the voters’ will: instead of breaking up the party machines, the primaries gave the bosses an additional instrument for hand-picking their candidates.

Why did the Progressive movement display such little stability and stamina and end up in futility and despair? First, because of its class basis and social composition. The small property owners and those imbued with their psychology could not conduct a fight to the end against the big bosses. That would have involved abolishing the economic and social ground upon which they themselves stood.

Their interests, their hopes and their outlooks were bound up with the maintenance of the capitalist system, whose prosperity they wanted to share. They showed this by dropping the struggle as a mass, time and again, whenever the system temporarily showed its smiling side to them. Just as every economic depression reanimated the fighting spirit of the Progressive forces, so every period of capitalist revival laid them low.

Moreover, whenever the fate of the capitalist regime was at stake, the Progressives did not intervene as a decisive and independent power, following their own line, but rallied to the side of the plutocratic rulers. This happened at every great historical turning point from the first imperialist venture of the Spanish-American War to the preparation for the Third World War. John Dewey’s support of the Democratic administrations in all the war emergencies of the twentieth century was typical of the entire movement.

Progressivism, as a social movement and a political product, belonged to the epoch of ascending competitive capitalism and was laid low by the subsequent epoch of monopolist capitalism in the United States. Its fortunes were bound up with the status of the middle classes which were now being uplifted by capitalist expansion (this gave them hope) and then being oppressed and ruined by the plutocracy (this gave them wrath and militancy).

As monopoly capitalism grew, the plutocracy heightened its power while the numbers and influence of the industrial proletariat expanded as well. But the economic, social and political power of the middle classes which were the backbone of the Progressive forces declined, dragging their movement down with them.

After every losing battle with the entrenched plutocracy or ignoble surrender to its war program, the Progressives lost more of their strength, self-confidence, and mass support. Without broad historical perspectives or bold revolutionary aims, unable to grasp the dynamics of the principal forces at work in the world and in American society, the Progressive movement progressively lost whatever progressive aspects it once possessed.

On the one hand, its traditions shriveled into empty phrases which served to cover the pro-capitalist policies of such Democratic demagogues as Roosevelt and Wallace. On the other hand, whatever was vital in them was absorbed by the Socialist, Communist and labor movements.

The fundamental reason for the failure of Progressivism lay in the fact that it was progressive only in its incidental features. At bottom it was a retrograde movement which aspired to turn back the wheel of history and reverse the development of modern society. The Progressives longed for a return to the childhood of American capitalism a capitalism while it was maturing into imperialism. This impotent yearning for an irrecoverable past gave the movement its basically reactionary direction and enveloped it in a Utopian atmosphere.

The Progressives demanded greater equality, wider opportunities, peace, the extension of democracy, the sharing and spreading of wealth—all within the boundaries of capitalism. They received in increasing measure more inequality, fewer opportunities for fewer people, wars, the growing concentration of wealth and political autocracy along with it. These were the natural fruits of monopolist rule launched upon its imperialist phase.

The Populist-Progressive movement had a colossal significance for the American people in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This many-sided, myriad-minded mass movement of protest against the reactionary rule of Big Business and High Finance made a deep impression upon cultural and intellectual activity, providing the impulse for many creative forces and ideas and giving support to advanced tendencies and causes in American thought. The rebellion of the oppressed against the ideas, attitudes and practices of the tyrannical money-masters was conducted on many fronts. This class struggle penetrated and modified, not only economics and politics, but the higher realms of education, morals, religion, literature, art and philosophy.

This tremendous and sustained mass movement enlisted and engrossed the services of several generations of the best minds in many fields: politicians, economists, journalists, historians, writers, poets, philosophers. Indeed, in the balance sheet of the Progressive movement as a whole, its most fruitful and enduring work was accomplished in the field of general culture.

The Progressives didn’t and couldn’t create any lasting political party of their own. Nor did they make any substantial changes in American economy. They lacked the power and the will to revolutionize the political system and the economic structure of capitalism, or even to break with the basic ideas of bourgeois life. But they could and did strive to push the ideas and cultural institutions belonging to petty-bourgeois democracy to the limits of their development under the given conditions.

The expansion of free public education from the kindergarten to the state universities; the development of progressive education; the building of free public libraries; settlement houses; extending the franchise; prison reform; the renewal of realistic literature; the revision of American history; the creation of pragmatism—these were typical accomplishments of the leading figures of Progressivism.

The instrumentalist philosopher John Dewey, for example, belongs wholly to this Progressive movement. He was a foremost participant in many of its most important enterprises. In time he became the supreme and unchallenged theoretical head of the movement. Dewey was not a leader of its plebian masses, like Weaver or La Follette. He was rather the ideologist of the advanced intellectuals who worked out the theoretical premises and formulated the views corresponding to the mass movement in their respective spheres of progressional activity. Dewey performed for the philosophy of Progressivism the same great work as Henry George and Veblen for its economics, Beard for its history, Parrington for its literary criticism, Holmes and Brandeis for its jurisprudence, Sandburg for its poetry.

This summary of the Progressive movement contains nothing essentially new; it reproduces ideas and observations made by scores of socialist spokesmen in earlier decades which became commonplace of thought. But all this is being obliterated by the new advocates of opportunism.

They argue that the Democratic party provides the best arena for political activity because the mass of workers and Negroes support it. But this was no less true in earlier decades. Only a small minority of workers in this country have ever yet supported socialism.

The CP policy not only flies in the face of the urgent needs of organized labor and its socialist vanguard; it nullifies the advances achieved by previous socialist movements; it even denies the significance of its own origins. For it was precisely the recognition of the inadequacies of the middle-class reform crusades in theory and in practice which provided the impetus and the pioneer forces for the formation of separate labor parties and socialist parties from the 1880’s on.

If it was realistic to transform the Democratic party into an agency for working-class politics or to organize a “people’s anti-monopolist coalition” in some other way, then what was the point of building a Socialist or Communist party on a working-class program? Why did Eugene Debs have to reject Populism and Bryanism and help launch the Socialist party at the beginning of this century? Why did the Left-Wing forces have to form a Communist party on an independent Marxist basis 20 years later? (We are not speaking of educational and propaganda groups spreading socialist ideas but of Marxist parties set up to challenge capitalist and reformist parties in elections, etc.)

We raise these questions to indicate that the uneasiness of so many Communist party members over its present political course is well founded. The policy of penetrating and transforming the Democratic party is unrealistic even on a pragmatic basis; it has been tried often enough before by other and more influential forces than the CP and found wanting.