Herbert Croly’s 1909 book The Promise of American Life, the ur-text of pre–World War I progressivism, was still essential reading for 1960s college students. In 1965 alone, the book was reprinted by three major publishers, each featuring a new introduction by a prominent liberal historian (in one case, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.). Students were, at the best schools, taught in the days of the Great Society to see The Promise not only as the founding document of modern American liberalism — and a prophecy of the New Deal — but also as a charter empowering them to become the country’s future political and cultural leaders.
Croly’s book taught students that the growth of government could best be understood as the natural expression of the underlying forces of American history. The book’s most famous argument was that through progressivism America could achieve its rendezvous with destiny by applying “Hamiltonian means” — that is, the power of a strong central government — to achieve “Jeffersonian ends” — namely, the enhancement of individual freedom.
The problem with this catchy formulation is that, while Croly is indeed the first founding father of modern liberalism, he had little use for Hamilton’s ideal of a commercial republic and even less for Jefferson’s yeoman individualists; they were the bêtes noires of his writing. “To achieve a better future,” he argued, Americans had to be “emancipate[d] from their past.”
Croly had studied in Paris and had, in the words of his friend, the literary critic Edmund Wilson, “an addiction to French political philosophy”; Wilson also said that Croly “considered his culture mainly French.” Croly’s aim was to refound the republic on a Francophile footing. His argument in The Promise and its successor, Progressive Democracy (1915), two books so tightly connected that Croly said that he wished he had written them as one, is best described as a plan for achieving (Auguste) Comtean ends — that is, the worship of society — by Rousseauean means — i.e., a plebiscitary democracy led by enlightened experts. As Croly himself explained it, he was “applying ideas, long familiar to foreign political thinkers, to the subject matter of American life.”
If liberals have a hard time understanding their own history, that’s true in part because they’ve so successfully avoided dealing with who Herbert Croly was and what he hoped to achieve.
Croly’s moralistic streak led his detractors to describe him as “Crolier than thou,” but it was an unconventional kind of morality. He was born in 1869 to David Croly and Jane Cunningham Croly, both successful New York journalists. David Croly, a sexual reformer who believed that copulatory repression bred social disorder, was a founding member of the Church of Humanity, an institution dedicated to propagating the ideas of the French sociologist Auguste Comte. His wife, known professionally as “Jennie June,” was a caustic critic of marriage and a leading feminist writer. Their son was among the first in America to be baptized into the Comtean faith. Comte, a utopian socialist of sorts, attributed the troubles of the modern world to the “spiritual disorganization of society.” He wanted to deploy positivist science to restore the unity lost to the Protestant Reformation, and thus create a modern version of the “moral communism of medieval Christendom.”
The young Herbert Croly was raised to be a prodigy but developed slowly. He left Harvard before graduating and he wrote for the Architectural Record until, at the age of 40, he produced The Promise of American Life. The book sold poorly but propelled him onto the national stage, where he drew the interest of former president Theodore Roosevelt. Croly would influence TR just as TR, whom Croly saw as a sort of American Bismarck, had already influenced him.
Bismarck was much on Croly’s mind. In The Promise, Croly showed nothing but contempt for English liberalism. He saw it leading to “economic individualism . . . faith in compromise . . . and a dread of ideas.” These had, he wrote, made “the English system a hopelessly confused bundle of semi-efficiency and semi-inefficiency.” Croly much preferred the greater efficiency and, as he saw it, the greater equality of Germany, where “little by little the fertile seed of Bismarck’s Prussian patriotism grew into a German semi-democratic nationalism.” Its great virtue was organization: “In every direction,” he wrote, “German activity was organized and was placed under skilled professional leadership, while . . . each of these special lines of work was subordinated to its particular place in a comprehensive scheme of national economy. The upshot increased security, happiness and opportunity for development for the whole German people.”
Croly saw economic inequality in America as an expression of an industrial capitalism born of economic individualism that needed to be rectified by state action. This view was incorporated into the liberal canon. Similarly, liberals came to accept as a given his insistence that, in America, the German path could be achieved only by using higher education to create the “skilled professional leadership” needed to run society. Entrusting public affairs to this educated class would, Croly believed, have “a leavening effect on human nature.” “Democracy,” he said, “must stand or fall on a platform of possible human perfectibility.” These were the words of a radical, not a reformer — a man who, like Marx and Comte, saw himself as leading humanity to a higher and more refined stage of civilization.
Croly believed businessmen and their allies — the jack-of-all-trades latter-day Jeffersonians — were blocking the path to the bright future he envisioned for the specialists of the rising professional classes. America’s business culture threatened individuality, he insisted, because businessmen, despite their differences, “have a way of becoming fundamentally very much alike. Their individualities are forced into a common mold because the ultimate measure of the value of their work is the same, and is nothing but its results in cash. . . . In so far as the economic motive prevails, individuality is not developed, it is stifled.”
The flip side of Croly’s hostility to self-interested businessmen was his adoration of the new class of intellectuals and artists emerging in America. This class had the virtue, he insisted, of a “disinterested” take on public affairs, which allowed it to rise above the petty peculiarities of the marketplace in order to serve all of humanity, in the manner of Plato’s guardians. But Croly complained that “the popular interest in the Higher Education has not served to make Americans attach much importance to the advice of the highly educated man. He is less of a practical power in the United States than he is in any European country.” Like H. G. Wells in England, Mussolini in Italy, and Lenin in Russia, Croly wanted the collective power of society put “at the service of its ablest members,” who would be given the lead roles in the drama of social re-creation.
Croly’s progressive-era audience was stirred by his insistence that the “ablest” deserved a more interesting world. “The opportunities, which during the past few years the reformers have enjoyed to make their personal lives more interesting, would be nothing compared to the opportunities for all sorts of stirring and responsible work, which would be demanded of individuals under the proposed plan for political and economic reorganization.”
The Promise closes with Croly promising that “the common citizen can become something of a saint and something of a hero, not by growing to heroic portions in his own person, but by the sincere and enthusiastic imitation of heroes and saints.” This will depend, he argues in the closing sentence, on “the ability of his exceptional fellow-countrymen to offer him acceptable examples of heroism and saintliness.” Croly’s critique of industrial inequality had by its conclusion become a call for, in his own words, the “creation of a political, economic, and social aristocracy.”
Croly played an important role in the extraordinary presidential election of 1912, in which the incumbent, Republican regular William Howard Taft, was challenged not only by his predecessor, Teddy Roosevelt, but also by Democrat Woodrow Wilson and by Socialist Eugene V. Debs. Not since the days of the founding fathers had so much candlepower been deployed in the pursuit of public office. Croly successfully took it upon himself to articulate Roosevelt’s New Nationalist creed in opposition to what he saw as the neo-Jeffersonianism of Wilson’s “New Freedom,” as articulated by Louis Brandeis.
Caught up in the then-leftward drift of the country, Croly reframed his earlier argument in a new book, Progressive Democracy. In The Promise, Croly’s target had been the Jeffersonian ideal as exemplified by its latter-day exponent, the populist William Jennings Bryan; in the important but far less influential Progressive Democracy, the object of his ire was the Constitution. Constitution worship, he argued, had produced “the monarchy of the Word.” Its legalistic constraints had become the enemy of Croly’s version of democracy, which he saw embodied in the syndicalist promise of the Industrial Workers of the World.
Croly hoped to see geographic representation, with its accompanying two-party system, replaced by syndicalist-style functional representation. In Croly’s ideal, government would not be built around states (which would be dissolved into the federal authority) but organized in terms of “associations of businessmen, of farmers, and of wage earners . . . of civic societies, voters’ leagues, ballot associations, women’s suffrage unions, single tax clubs and the like.” Croly’s goal has, in fact, been partly achieved, helping to cause the current fiscal crises of the deep-blue states. In California and New York, for instance, politics has been partly syndicalized, with virtual representation by racial interest groups and the public-sector unions to a degree displacing the old moderating ideal of geographic representation, under which a variety of interests had to be considered.
In Croly’s scheme, echoes of which can still be heard in demands to abolish the Electoral College, local parties and their bosses would be bypassed through plebiscitary democracy based on the ballot-initiative, referendum, and recall processes, with power concentrated in the hands of the national executive. The executive, in turn, would govern through commissions staffed by experts — an idea that endures in Obamacare. The commissions, in anticipation of the New Deal, would serve as what Croly called the “fourth department,” or fourth branch of government. “The planning department of the progressive democratic state is created for action.” What sort of action? “It plans,” wrote Croly, with his customary vagueness, “as far ahead as conditions permit or dictate. It changes plans as often as conditions demand. It seeks above all to test its own plans, so as to discover whether they will accomplish the desired result.”
Returning to Charles Fourier’s themes of sexual liberation, which had intrigued his father, Croly launched an attack on the old ideal of self-restraint. “Modern psychology,” he insisted, “affords no sufficient excuse for a morality of repression.” Social education “should seek primarily to release and develop rather than to dam up the instinctive sources of action in human nature.” Drawing on the 19th-century utopian socialists while anticipating both the bohemian culture of the 1920s and the later hopes of the ’68ers, Croly argued that the growth of material wealth freed individuals to define themselves by their leisure activities. “The social culture itself will partake rather of the nature of play. . . . It might make every woman into something of a novelist and every man into something of a playwright.” Each would be able to pursue his own objective while maintaining the well-being of the organic whole, he argued, because “the progressive democratic faith . . . finds its consummation in a love . . . which is at bottom a spiritual expression of the mystical unity of human nature.”
Croly, a soft-voiced, preternaturally shy man, founded The New Republic in 1914 to serve as the voice of enlightened statism. By this time the Wilson administration had turned in Croly’s direction, and Croly had transferred his hero worship from Teddy Roosevelt to the once-reviled Princeton professor sitting in the White House. TNR under Croly’s leadership gathered a brilliant band of young writers, including Walter Lippmann, Walter Weyl, and Randolph Bourne. The last broke bitterly with Croly and TNR when the magazine backed Wilson’s reluctant entry into WWI. The Germanophile Bourne accused Croly of criminal naïveté in thinking that the war might be turned to progressive purposes. And when the fighting ended with a disappointing peace in Europe, combined with repression and Prohibition at home, Croly was a broken man.
In the early 1920s, a depressed Croly turned away from his deep involvement in politics and returned to his Comtean roots. He wrote of his despair in “The Breach in Civilization,” a manuscript that he withdrew from publication at the last moment. It argues that the subjectivism of the Protestant Reformation was the source of the world’s ills: The “materialism and individualism” of the modern world, he wrote, thrived “at the expense of a unified authoritative moral system.” And that, he says, produced a disaster: “the fumbling experiment . . . of an essentially secular civilization.”
In the wake of the 1924 presidential election and the defeat of his hopes for the third-party candidacy of Robert La Follette Sr., Croly turned to the spiritual succor offered by “psychosynthesis.” This was the New Age spirituality served up by the English guru A. R. Orage, who for a time became a fixture at New Republic lunches. During this phase of his life Croly argued that, more than social justice, “liberalism should work toward a religious regeneration that could not be realized through the traditional efforts of reformers.”
Intellectually adrift, in 1927 Croly found hope in Mussolini’s Italy, explaining that “whatever the dangers of fascism, it has at any rate substituted movement for stagnation, purposive behavior for drifting, and visions of great future for collective pettiness and discouragements.” Despite his distaste for the suppression of civil liberties, Croly saw in Mussolini a kindred spirit of pragmatic experimentation. He warned his anti-Mussolini liberal colleagues at TNR and elsewhere against “outlawing a political experiment which aroused in a whole nation an increased moral energy and dignified its activities by subordinating them to a deeply felt common purpose.”
Croly died in 1930 a spent force. His colleague and fellow TNR mystic Waldo Frank remembered him fondly as a man whose passion endowed “government commissions with ideals of knight-errantry.” Croly, said literary critic Edmund Wilson, “was a kind of saint. . . . In another age he might have become the founder of a religious order.” But it was The New Republic’s polemicist for planning, George Soule, who saw what Croly meant for liberalism. Soule wrote that what was important in Croly’s thinking was its elevation of “the process of liberation of the personality, not mere achievement of honest city government, regulation of monopolies, or better conditions for labor.” Liberalism, Soule explained, was a mental attitude, the faith in the pursuit of a new truth as the chief agency of human deliverance. Which is to say, Croly’s vision was intended to transcend politics and take on the character of a spiritual mission.
That quasi-religious approach survives today. Thanks in part to Croly, liberal intellectuals learned to conceal, even from themselves, their will to power, reimagining it as the selfless — Croly would have written “disinterested” — pursuit of the “new truth” they were offering to the world. But that dream of “human perfectibility” was fundamentally defective. As Ruth Wisse has noted, the bourgeois society the progressives held in contempt was “never so flawed as was the dream of a new kind of human being who could transcend it.”
Yet that dream of transcendence endures. When Wilson failed to deliver the impossible in WWI, avant-garde progressives remained unshaken in their belief in that “new truth,” but they began to call themselves “liberals.” Recently, American liberals saddled with the failures of big-government social policies have returned to the old nomenclature, calling themselves “progressives.” And, like Croly himself, they have a weakness for hero worship but are fickle in their allegiances. Their newest hero, Barack Obama, promises the impossible, and he too is headed for the shoals. American liberals, having run out of name changes, are likely to end up stranded on the same sand bank: Whether they know it or not, they remain in thrall to Croly’s ideas and excesses, endlessly repeating his errors.
– Mr. Siegel is a visiting professor at St. Francis College in Brooklyn and a contributing editor of the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal.