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Herbert Croly Lives!


Somewhere in my book (as Mark Steyn likes to say) I write, “When reading about Herbert Croly, one often finds phrases such as ‘Croly was no fascist, but . . .’ Yet few make the effort to explain why he was not a fascist.”

Here’s another such treatment to add to the file. In a recent issue of Newsweek, Louisa Thomas writes up Herbert Croly as a hero whose time has come again (these pieces come out every few years, by the way):

Croly was an unlikely hero, of progressivism or anything else. Awkward and shy, he spoke in a near whisper. He edited architectural magazines without much distinction until publishing [The Promise of American Life] at the age of 40. It made him a sensation; Hand jokingly called him “the Sun-God.” He went on to found The New Republic, which became the organ for the Wilson administration. Despite its warm reception, Promise is often turgid and contradictory. It gets a lot wrong (not least Hamilton, who was more on the side of concentrated wealth than Croly allows), and, in the era before fascism and totalitarianism, overlooks the uglier sides of nationalism and the bureaucratic state. What it says, though, is less important than the attitude in which it was written and read. Croly recognized that there had to be a synthesis of the competing American ideals of liberty and equality. The health of the individual and the nation are intertwined and dependent—and a sick nation requires intervention. Croly refused to accept the idea that “the money-making imperative” had to prevail. The American experiment was about something else. A hundred years ago, the great mass of people embraced this idea, and for a brief period it drove them to fight for legislation that appealed to basic decency: child labor laws, workers’ compensation, the expansion of suffrage, anti-corruption measures, health care, etc. Isn’t it time for that spirit again?

Now, where to begin? For starters, you might think that it’s reasonable that Croly gets a pass because, well, he was writing “in the era before fascism and totalitarianism.” Except, when the era of fascism and totalitarianism began, Croly applauded both! He was pro-Mussolini throughout the 1920s and into the early 1930s (when he died) and the magazine he edited was hardly a bulwark against Soviet tyranny, either. So the notion that what Croly wrote was inconsistent with the bad stuff that came later doesn’t really hold up. Indeed, the idea that Croly “overlooked” the uglier side of nationalism gives him far more credit than he deserves. Croly celebrated the uglier side of nationalism, particularly during WWI.

Thomas, like countless other Crolyphiles, leaves out that Croly was a jingoist, chauvinist, eugenicist, war-mongering imperialist. But, hey, that can be forgiven because progressives fought for child-labor laws and workers’ compensation.

Also, this notion that Croly was somehow championing a grander American vision has never been terribly persuasive to me. Progressives assert it as a means of claiming that you can nakedly pursue Bismarckian “socialism from above” or European social democracy while claiming to be a great lover of America. But it’s always struck me as a weak case. “I love America! That’s why we should be more like Belgium!” never really made much sense to me. Sure there’s an honorable American tradition of reform, but if reformers had to own their intellectual history the way conservatives do, they would be forced to renounce Croly, not call for his rediscovery every 20 minutes.


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