Peter Berkowitz has an interesting essay in the Weekly Standard on Obama’s pragmatism. In it, he argues that Obama’s much-touted Pragmatism is deeply ideological. This is straight up my alley. So I figured, starting this morning, I’d start a series of posts on Pragmatism and liberalism and the F-word. There were a few subjects that I really went to school on when working on the book that didn’t get their due in the final product. One was the treatment of Jews in Fascist Italy. Another was the interplay of Progressivism, Pragmatism and Fascism. Close readers of NRO might have noticed that while I was working on the book, I was obsessed for a while with Pragmatism (please note the capital “P”). See here, here, here and here for instance.
Let’s start with some intellectual history. One of the central arguments of the book is that American Progressivism was essentially a European import, with American characteristics — though American Progressives also had a serious influence on Europe as well. In the book, I call it an international “fascist moment” but if you want to call it a “statist moment” instead, that’s fine with me.
This is not a particularly controversial statement. There are scads of good liberal books on the interplay and co-development of European and American brands of statism. The cream of American Progressive intellectuals, for example, either studied in Bismarck’s Germany or studied under people who did. Here’s a passage from the book:
From the 1890s to World War I, it was simply understood that progressives in America were fighting the same fight as the various socialist and “new liberal” movements of Europe.21 William Allen
White, the famed Kansas progressive, declared in 1911, “We were parts, one of another, in the United States and Europe. Something was welding us into one social and economic whole with local political variations. It was Stubbs in Kansas, Jaurès in Paris, the Social Democrats [that is, the Socialists] in Germany, the Socialists in Belgium, and I should say the whole people in Holland, fighting a common cause.” When Jane Addams seconded Teddy Roosevelt’s nomination at the Progressive Party Convention in 1912, she declared, “The new party has become the American exponent of a world-wide movement toward juster social conditions, a movement which the United States, lagging behind other great nations, has been unaccountably slow to embody in political action.”
In 1915, as war loomed, a writer in The New Republic observed:
It is somewhat difficult to recall that eighteen months ago Germany was to the American state socialist what free America had been to the European liberal in the early nineteenth century—a country where the heart’s desire had been enacted into law, a country where labor won comfort and security, where privileges and obligations were held in true correlation. Each returned voyager brought back tales of order and culture and efficiency more marvelous than the last.
A major glue of this international moment was Pragmatism. In Germany, Pragmatism was a more Nietzschean affair. But as Richard Rorty argued vigorously, the similarities and ties between American Pragmatism and German deconstructionism and post-structuralism were profound. According to Rorty, James and Nietzsche and Dewey and Heidegger, were parallel thinkers who agreed in their prescriptive understanding that the age of Socratic man was over, but disagreed about what that meant for the future. In short, the American and German post-Socratics agreed on philosophical means but diverged sharply on philosophical ends. There’s much that I liked about Rorty’s analysis, and some that I disagreed with. But it was supremely convenient for the arguments I wanted to make that one of America’s foremost liberal philosophers basically agreed with me (I wish I had known when I was writing the book that Rorty was Rauschenbusch’s grandson) and was simultaneously desperate to revive the American Progressive tradition of Herbert Croly and Richard Ely.
Anyway, in Italy, Pragmatism became an obsession among the early nationalist intellectuals who helped lay the ground work for fascism. Mussolini said more than once that William James was one of the three most important philosophical influences in his life (though he was probably embellishing for American audiences). He sold many of his policies as applications of William James’ idea of the “moral equivalent of war” — just as FDR had done with his New Deal.
Moreover, Georges Sorel, the philosophic father of both Italian Fascism and Leninism, was a devout follower of James. It’s been said many times that Sorel’s great accomplishment was to marry James’ “Will to Believe” and Nietzsche’s “Will to Power.” Moreover, the influence worked both ways. James was hugely influenced by the Italian Pragmatists. He deeply admired Giuseppe Prezzolini — later a New Republic contributor and muckety-muck at Columbia University’s pro-fascist Casa Italiana. In a letter to the philosopher FCS Schiller James wrote of Giovanni Papini: “Papini is a Jewel! To think of that little Dago putting himself ahead of every one of us … at a single stride.”
The relationship between Pragmatism and Statism is hard for some to see at first blush. But it boils down to the fact that the Progressives used Pragmatic philosophy (correctly or not) to destroy the Old Order of liberal democracy. It was a tool, sometimes sledgehammer, sometimes scalpel, aimed at dismantling the “old ideas” that held back the free exercise of will by social planners and others who wanted to start the world over at year zero, or at least to reshuffle the existing deck for a “new deal.”
More later, if any one is still reading.