Liberal Fascism

Richard Ely

Arnold Kling, who had a mixed review of my book at TCS, takes this jab at Richard Ely here. Ely’s name is largely forgotten to even well-educated and well-informed readers, but in his day he was hugely influential. The founder of the American Economic Association, adviser to T.R., Wilson and La Follette, guiding spirit of the “Wisconsin idea,” Richard Ely was quite simply the man in Progressive intellectual life. There were times when I wanted to write a whole chapter just on him alone. It’s interesting that Richard Rorty wanted to revive Ely’s memory and influence for today’s progressives. And we can definitely talk more about Rorty around here. I thought I’d offer up some more ammo since the first commenter to Kling’s post claims my book is pathetic and my claim that Ely had fascistic tendencies absurd.

I could go on about Ely for quite a while, but I think the most interesting — and harsh — treatment of Ely I am aware of is not in my book. It’s at the hands of the libertarian poobah Murray Rothbard. You can download a PDF of his essay on Ely here. Here are some interesting bits from it:

Ely was also one of the most prominent postmillennialist intellectuals of the era. He fervently believed that the State is God’s chosen instrument for reforming and Christianizing the social order so that eventually Jesus would arrive and put an end to history. The State, declared Ely, “is religious in its essence,” and, furthermore, “God works through the State in carrying out His purposes more universally than through any other institution” (qtd. in Fine 1956, 180–81). The task of the church is to guide the State and utilize it in these needed reforms….

When war came, Richard Ely was for some reason (perhaps because he was in his sixties) left out of the excitement of war work and economic planning in Washington. He bitterly regretted that “I have not had a more active part than I have had in this greatest war in the world’s history” (qtd. in Gruber 1975, 114). But Ely made up for his lack as best he could; virtually from the start of the European war, he whooped it up for militarism, war, the “discipline” of conscription, and the suppression of dissent and “disloyalty” at home. A lifelong militarist, Ely had tried to volunteer for war service in the Spanish-American War, had called for the suppression of the Philippine insurrection, and was particularly eager for conscription and for forced labor for “loafers” during World War I. By 1915 Ely was agitating for immediate compulsory military service, and the following year he joined the ardently prowar and heavily big business–influenced National Security League, where he called for the liberation of the German people from “autocracy” (Rader 1966, 181–91). In advocating conscription, Ely was neatly able to combine moral, economic, and prohibitionist arguments for the draft: “The moral effect of taking boys off street corners and out of saloons and drilling them is excellent, and the economic effects are likewise beneficial.” Indeed, conscription for Ely served almost as a panacea for all ills. So enthusiastic was he about the World War I experience that Ely again prescribed his favorite cure-all to alleviate the 1929 depression. He proposed a permanent peacetime “industrial army” engaged in public works and manned by conscripting youth for strenuous physical labor. This conscription would instill into America’s youth the essential “military ideals of hardihood and discipline,” a discipline once provided by life on the farm but unavailable to the bulk of the populace now growing up in the effete cities. This small, standing conscript army could then speedily absorb the unemployed during depressions. Under the command of “an economic general staff,” the industrial army would “go to work to relieve distress with all the vigor and resources of brain and brawn that we employed in the World War” (qtd. in Dorfman 1949, 671).

Deprived of a position in Washington, Ely made the stamping out of “disloyalty” at home his major contribution to the war effort. He called for the total suspension of academic freedom for the duration. Any professor, he declared, who stated “opinions which hinder us in this awful struggle” should be “fired” if not indeed “shot.” The particular focus of Ely’s formidable energy was a zealous campaign to try to get his old ally in Wisconsin politics, Robert M. La Follette, expelled from the U.S. Senate for continuing to oppose America’s participation in the war. Ely declared that his “blood boils” at La Follette’s “treason” and attacks on war profiteering. Throwing himself into the battle, Ely founded and became president of the Madison chapter of the Wisconsin Loyalty Legion and mounted a campaign to expel La Follette (Rader 1966, 183 ff.). The campaign was meant to mobilize the Wisconsin faculty and to support the ultrapatriotic and ultrahawkish activities of Theodore Roosevelt. Ely wrote to TR that “we must crush La Follettism.” In his unremitting campaign against the Wisconsin Senator, Ely thundered that La Follette “has been of more help to the Kaiser than a quarter of a million troops” (qtd. in Gruber 1975, 207). Empiricism rampant.

The faculty of the University of Wisconsin was stung by charges throughout the state and the country that its failure to denounce La Follette was proof that the university— long affiliated with La Follette in state politics—supported his disloyal antiwar policies. Prodded by Ely, Commons, and others, the university’s War Committee drew up and circulated a petition, signed by the university president, all the deans, and over 90 percent of the faculty, that provided one of the more striking examples in United States history of academic truckling to the State apparatus. None too subtly using the constitutional verbiage for treason, the petition protested “against those utterances and actions of Senator La Follette which have given aid and comfort to Germany and her allies in the present war; we deplore his failure loyally to support the government in the prosecution of the war” (ibid.)

Behind the scenes, Ely tried his best to mobilize America’s historians against La Follette, to demonstrate that he had given aid and comfort to the enemy. Ely was able to enlist the services of the National Board of Historical Service, the propaganda agency established by professional historians for the duration of the war, and of the government’s own propaganda arm, the Committee on Public Information. Warning that the effort must remain secret, Ely mobilized historians under the aegis of these organizations to research German and Austrian newspapers and journals to try to build a record of La Follette’s alleged influence, “indicating the encouragement he has given Germany.” The historian E. Merton Coulter revealed the objective spirit animating these researches: “I understand it is to be an unbiased and candid account of the Senator’s La Follette’s course and its effect—but we all know it can lead but to one conclusion—something little short of treason” (qtd. in Gruber 1975, 208).

Professor Carol Gruber well notes that this campaign to get La Follette was “a remarkable example of the uses of scholarship for espionage. It was a far cry from the disinterested search for truth for a group of professors to mobilize a secret research campaign to find ammunition to destroy the political career of a United States senator who did not share their view of the war” (1975, 209–10). In any event, no evidence was turned up, the movement failed, and the Wisconsin professoriat began to move away in distrust from the Loyalty Legion.


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