Alan Dawley, Struggles for Justice: Social Responsibility and the Liberal State.
List: 20th Century.
Subjects: Progressivism, Gilded Age, Politics, Socialism, Reform.

Excerpted from "The Search for Progress: Major Works in the Historiography of Progressivism", a final paper written for "The Literature of American History," Professor Eric Foner, Spring 2002.

By 1991, when historian Alan Dawley published his progressive synthesis, Struggles for Justice, Gabriel Kolko's contention in The Triumph of Conservatism that progressives had purposely stymied true reform at the behest of industrial capitalism had evolved into a much more nuanced appraisal of the progressive reform record. According to Dawley, progressivism, an ideology which "focused on government regulation of predatory private interests for the sake of the public interest," was never just a smokescreen for capitalist machinations. (98) Indeed, in direct refutation of Kolko, Dawley states that the Progressive Era (specifically, the election of 1912, the climax of Kolko's pessimistic vision) did not represent "a triumph of conservatism…[since] forces arising from the working classes had gained the political initiative, challenging elites to remake the liberal state in accord with emergent forms of social life." (137-138)

Nevertheless, Dawley does argue that the existence of progressivism in the United States did work to prevent more radical reform agendas from emerging, namely that of socialism. Converting the perennial historical question "why no socialism?" to the more readily answerable "[w]hy did American progressives win such a large role in translating working class needs into social policy?", Dawley finds the answer partly in the fact that "the social-justice planks in the Progressive platform incorporated watered-down socialist demands on wages, hours, and working conditions." In sum, progressivism, a reform ideology ultimately much more palatable to conservative and Southern elites wary of radical change, worked to co-opt socialism in America. "By diverting socialist ideas into safe channels, and then posing as the only alternative to cataclysm," argues Dawley, "progressives succeeded in outflanking socialists." (134, 136)

Moreover, in Dawley's rendering, a more grievous flaw in the fabric of progressivism ultimately lay in its central tenet, the idea of utilizing the federal government to protect the "public interest" from the machinations of private interests. In the choice between liberty and equality, Dawley argues, "progressive reformers were ready to restrain individual liberty for the good of society." (411) But, as the waves of repression that followed World War I ultimately reminded progressives, "state intervention only sometimes protected the weak from the strong. In the main, it was the other way around." And although that may have been "the opposite of what most progressives had intended," argues Dawley, "the fact that history did not turn out as they intended does not absolve them of the blame or burden of making history." "Taken as a whole," concludes Dawley, "the dynamic of war doomed the dynamic of [progressive] reform to defeat." (216, 217)

To my mind, Dawley's more balanced take on progressivism works on several levels. As in Robert Wiebe's earlier interpretation of imaginary bureaucratic fulfillment stifling the impetus of reform, Dawley offers a compelling portrait of a progressivism ultimately undone by its very strength, in this case its reliance on federal power to achieve its ends. More importantly, I believe Dawley does an exemplary job of offering the same progressive critiques that Kolko attempted - that progressivism hindered more radical reform movements from succeeding and (inadvertently, in Dawley's view) set the stage for increased capitalist control over the economy - without resorting to the blanket statements and conspiratorial cast permeating The Triumph of Conservatism.

On a purely historiographic note, there is much else to admire in Dawley's volume, from his defense and embrace of synthesis ("Dissatisfied with the drift toward [historical] fragmentation, I very much wanted a clearer image of the big picture") to his rhetorical emphasis on historical contingency ("What would grow up to become…an inevitable outcome was born into the world as the mere babe of contingent possibility.") (vii, 138) (In the minus column, however, Dawley does have an unfortunate tendency to make distracting Freudian asides throughout the book, as when he notes Theodore's Roosevelt's "obsessive preoccupation with spears, guns, and masculinity, [which] went hand in hand with his phallic "Big Stick diplomacy," or when he remarks that efficiency "became a kind of anal-compulsive battle cry in the latter-day Puritan war on nature." (107, 160.))

Perhaps most significantly, Dawley does a much better job than any of his predecessors in incorporating the experiences of women and minorities into the progressive story, and in so doing deftly illustrates what may be the most grievous flaw of progressivism in contemporary eyes, its flagrant indifference on matters of racial injustice. As Dawley notes, the progressive "failure to confront the issue [of race] during their prewar heyday came back to haunt them in the polarized racial climate of the postwar years…As a consequence of racial polarization, African-Americans remained isolated from the struggles of industrial workers." (240-241) As Dawley argues persuasively, there can be hardly any more damning an indictment of the era's so-called progressivism than the significant rise in lynchings and the virtually unchallenged persistence of Jim Crow in the years from 1900-1917.

And, if these many estimable qualities of Struggles for Justice weren't enough, Dawley also ventures into the recently fertile realm of transnational history. Auguring the calls currently resounding through the academy for a more Atlantic-based approach to the study of the United States, Dawley attempts a side-by-side comparison of American and Germany throughout his narrative. But, in seeking to destroy the myths of American and German exceptionalism by pitting them against one another ("it is better to recognize that 1 American exception + 1 German exception = 2 misconceptions,") Dawley's comparisons do not obscure the traits of progressivism rooted in the vagaries of American national character. Indeed, Dawley notes the central importance of "the myth of America as a republican melting pot" to progressive reform, rightly points out "the popularity of the word national in the names of [progressive] organizations," and declares that "the fact that self-described progressives can be found in all classes mark progressivism as a characteristically American phenomenon." (114-115, 257-258, 129.)

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