Heroic Individualism in the Writings of Herbert Croly
Kevin C. Murphy, Columbia University
(Copyright 2003-2013, All Rights Reserved)
Perhaps a good entry point for delving into Croly's often-complicated and seemingly contradictory examination of the individual in The Promise of American Life is his delineation between "individualism" and "individuality."9 To the former, Croly attributes almost everything he finds pernicious and destructive in twentieth century America. "The political corruption, the unwise economic organization, and the legal support afforded to certain economic privileges are all...due to the malevolent social influence of individual and corporate American wealth," he argues. Moreover, "these abuses, and the excessive 'money power' with which they are associated, have originated in the peculiar freedom which the American tradition and organization have granted to the individual."10
In Croly's casting, this critical individualist defect in the American tradition is primarily the fault of Thomas Jefferson, particularly his contention that "democracy was tantamount to extreme individualism." According to Croly, Jefferson envisioned "a democratic society to be composed of a collection of individuals, fundamentally alike in their abilities and deserts," a society whose "prime object was to provide for the greatest satisfaction of its individual members." In Jefferson's democracy, the best thing a government could do is nothing, as society's "individual members needed merely to be protected against privileges and to be let alone, whereafter the native goodness of human nature would accomplish the perfect consummation."11 According to Croly, from this Jeffersonian fallacy -- the notion that the public good could be obtained by granting the widest possible latitude to individuals -- has sprouted all of America's contemporary problems, from political bosses to economic trusts. For "the plain fact is that the individual in freely and energetically pursuing his own private purposes has not been the inevitable public benefactor assumed by the traditional American interpretation of democracy."12
Worse still for Croly than these myriad social and economic abuses spawned by excessive individualism is the corrosive psychological effect this Jeffersonian fallacy has upon American citizens. For while Jefferson and his heirs "have been loud in their praise of legally constituted rights...they have shown an instinctive and an implacable distrust of intellectual and moral independence, and have always sought to suppress it in favor of intellectual and moral conformity. They have, that is, stood for the sacrifice of liberty -- in so far as liberty meant positive intellectual and moral achievement -- to a certain kind of equality."13 Thus, echoing the democratic critiques of Alexis de Tocqueville seventy-five years earlier, Croly argues that excessive individualism breeds a conformity that corrupts and impoverishes true individuality.14 In Croly's casting, when leaders gripped by the Jeffersonian fallacy "begin to glorify the superlative individuals developed by the freedom of American life, what they mean by individuality is an unusual amount of individual energy successfully spent in popular and remunerative occupations. Of the individuality which may reside in the gallant and exclusive devotion to some disinterested, and perhaps unpopular moral, intellectual, or technical purpose, they have not the remotest conception; and yet it is this kind of individuality which is indispensable to the fullness and intensity of American life."15 In short, "it is the economic individualism of our existing national system, which inflicts the most serious damage on American individuality."16
As such, the most important issue facing the America of 1909 is not how to enlarge the individualist sphere at the root of so many social, economic, and psychological problems for the citizenry, but rather how best to "contribute to the increase of American individuality." In other words, the task before Croly and his generation of political progressives was not to preserve individual freedoms and restore the old nineteenth-century equilibrium to twentieth-century life, but "to substitute for the Jeffersonian democracy of individual rights a democracy of individual and social improvement."17 Croly does not want an American democracy that relies upon human nature -- he wants an American democracy that improves on it.
It is at this point in Croly's argument that warning bells often go off for many of his critics, and particularly for those who know how the story unfolds. In their reading, Croly's argument in favor of a more powerful centralized government that values social improvement over individual rights augurs not only the World War I crackdown on civil liberties that would taint later readings of progressivism, but more ominously the fascist and totalitarian experiments of the mid-twentieth century.18 It is beyond argument that Croly's optimistic reading of nationalist endeavor may err on the side of naivete -- he himself said as much in his final, dismal decade. Nevertheless, it seems a bit unfair to pin the future horrors of Nuremberg on Croly's Promise. For, despite the prevailing emphasis on nationalism throughout his work, the engine of individual improvement that Croly advocates is not one that is controlled or imposed by the machinery of the state. Indeed, the conformity engendered by such a system of state coercion runs completely counter to Croly's consistent emphasis on creative individuality.
To be sure, the nation does play a significant role in encouraging individual improvement -- Croly is too much of a nationalist to think otherwise. But this role is one of encouraging aspiration rather than enforcing allegiance. As Croly puts it, "a national structure which encourages individuality as opposed to mere particularity is one which creates innumerable special niches, adapted to all degrees and kinds of individual development." Under this system, "the individual becomes a nation in miniature, but devoted to the loyal realization of a purpose peculiar to himself. The nation becomes an enlarged individual who special purpose is that of human amelioration, and in whose life every individual should find some particular but essential function."19 In other words, Croly is arguing not for a nation founded on coercion and conformity, but rather one based on aspiration and diversity.
Return to Part I: "Introduction."
10. Croly, 23.
11. Croly, 43.
12. Croly, 106.
13. Croly, 45.
14. Hence, the problem with Ms. Postrel's argument cited above. This Tocquevillian analysis of the relationship between individualism and conformity is also the central theme of Wilfred McClay's The Masterless: Self and Society in Modern America, an examination of "the tension between individualism and social cohesionÃ¢â‚¬Â¦in modern American social thought." In this work, McClay argues that Croly's distinction between individualism and individuality represents his attempt to resolve the simultaneous desires of selfhood (being independent) and society (being part of a group.) In McClay's reading, the key component of Croly's (and progressive) individuality is "disinterestedness." This disinterestedness in turn allows individuals to work for the good of the whole society, thus squaring the circle of independence and membership. Wilfred McClay. The Masterless: Self and Society in Modern America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994), 3, 159-165
15. Croly, 65.
16. Croly, 409.
17. Croly, 173.
18. After calling Croly's Promise the "bible of Progressive intellectuals" in his recent Story of American Freedom, Eric Foner later notes that "Most [Progressives] acquiesced in the broad suppression of civil liberties [during WWI.]Ã¢â‚¬Â¦Civil liberties, by and large, had never been a major concern of Progressivism, which had always viewed the national state as the embodiment of democratic purposeÃ¢â‚¬Â¦Many Progressives viewed broad claims for individual rights as symptoms of the excessive individualism they blamed for many of society's illsÃ¢â‚¬Â¦Progressives were ill-prepared to develop a coherent defense of minority rights against majority or governmental tyranny." (In fact, Croly was very active in the American Civil Liberties Union during the war, and spoke out quite often against the incarceration of dissidents.) Eric Foner. The Story of American Freedom (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1998), 140, 178. Similarly, John P. Diggins singles out Croly as the major American apologist for the Mussolini regime. While it's true that Croly did pen an "apology for fascism" in The New Republic, some question remains as to what relation Croly the depressed mystic of 1927 has to Croly the idealistic progressive of 1909. John P. Diggins. "Flirtation with Facism: American Pragmatic Liberals and Mussolini's Italy," The American Historical Review, Vol. 71, No. 2. (Jan., 1966), pp. 487-506
19. Croly, 414.