By Kevin C. Murphy, Copyright 2013. All Rights Reserved.
Conclusion: Tired Radicals
III. Confessions of
In 1921, Hiram Johnson confessed his own depression to Harold Ickes, and how the "constant defeats with dwindling support in each, are utterly destroying what standing I have. I cannot help it though…I have got to go ahead in just the same fashion in which I am acting." Four years later, Ickes argued "progressives…don't exist anymore except in a few states like Wisconsin. I don't see any immediate prospect of a resurrection of the progressive party. We are still suffering from the moral reaction that hit us after the war and there doesn't seem to be any leader in sight to rally us or any issues on which such a leader, if he existed, could rally us." As it was, Ickes thought, "the reactionaries are in full control…[U]ntil the people generally think there is something more worthwhile in life than making money politically we will go along the path we are now following. It seems to me the only thing to do is to wait for the pendulum to reach the limit of its swing in the reactionary direction and wait for it to begin to come down again. That it will do is inevitable, but when it will do so no one can foretell."2
Later that year, Ickes felt even worse. "I am doing nothing politically because I don't know what to do or where to turn," he told Johnson, to whom he confided because "[o]f all the old progressive crowd you are the only one to whom I can express myself with the utmost frankness…I am not cheerful over the present situation or future prospects as I can envision them." Johnson understood completely. "Gifford likes you and me now," he replied. "He sees us (pardon me for saying this of you; I mean it rather of myself) as dead himself politically and he has no way to turn in his political sepulcher except to those who are moldering with him." Two years later, Johnson reiterated to Ickes that "the political world has passed us by and…our political philosophy has become…quaint and bizarre."3
"God, how I would like to get out and raise hell for righteousness!" William Allen White swore in 1926, "instead of which I sit in my office and write unimportant editorials and go to my house and write unimportant books, with the gorge kicking like a mule all the time." The following year, he told Gifford Pinchot that "[w]e have got to sink lower before we rise higher. Prosperity must break. We must get out of our timidity complex. Lord! Heaven! How scared we are of change for the better. Stability is our God and until we change our Gods we won't change our attitude toward living. I'm pretty hopeless." George Norris -- who thought heavily about just up and resigning from the Senate -- informed The Nation in 1927 that "I am on the downhill side -- sometimes, I think, traveling rapidly. The end cannot be very many years in advance. I think I have, to a great extent, run my race." "It is pretty poor pickings for a man who doesn't believe in having the big fellows control everything," Gifford Pinchot shrugged in 1928. "[T]imes change and the wheel will eventually revolve. In the meantime we have got to grin and bear it."4
The two bestsellers of 1929, Walter Lippmann's A Preface to Morals and Joseph Wood Krutch's A Modern Temper, also attest to this crisis of the progressive spirit. Some who could not stand to look into that existential abyss turned instead to the comfort of religion. "The sum of the whole matter is this," wrote Woodrow Wilson in 1923's The Road Away from Revolution, his last published work. "[O]ur civilization cannot survive materially unless it be redeemed spiritually. It can be saved only by becoming permeated with the spirit of Christ and being made free and happy by the practices which spring out of that spirit." New Republic editor and founder Herbert Croly, searching for the wellspring of virtue in a materialistic age, also retreated into mysticism and spiritualism during the decade. Assessing these late-period writings after Croly's death in 1930, Edmund Wilson thought Croly was, not very successfully, attempting "to explain to his own rational intelligence this mysterious spring of spiritual power." He was trying to "make it possible for us to maintain that faith in human life which, in the America of our day, the comfortable, the brutalized, the timed, the hopeless and pleasure-drugged, the fatigued and machinery-driven, seem pressing on every hand, and within ourselves, to destroy."5
Faith in humanity is exactly the quality that the experience of the decade took away from the progressives. Before the War, the foundations of progressivism as a civic philosophy were that Man can -- and should -- be improved, that politicians should act to uphold the public interest, and that the great mass of people, if public opinion were duly educated and accurate information provided, would come to embrace progressive principles by sheer force of reason. By the end of the decade, all those beliefs had attenuated to a vast degree. In short, the very foundations of the progressive worldview had crumbled.
One of the definitive statements of this disillusionment with what had been the basic tenets of progressivism is Frederic Howe's 1925 book Confessions of a Reformer. "Facts were of little value," Howe wrote, citing Wilson's experience at Versailles in 1919. "Paris had all the facts in the world. Van-loads of facts. Tons of expert reports -- an army of experts. Men did not believe in the truth. They lied quite frankly…[T]hinking things through I began to see similarities, parallels, universal conditions. The scholar had failed at home as he had failed abroad. Facts were of little value; morality did not guide men." This was eye-opening for Howe. "The one thing I had clung to all these years was a belief in my class convinced by facts":
It was mind that would save the world, the mind of my class aroused from indifference, from money-making, from party loyalty and coming out into the clear light of reason. I now began to see that men were not concerned over the truth. It did not interest them when economic interests were at stake. The mind was as closed to facts as a safety-deposit vault. There was a sign outside: 'Do not enter here.'6"The world had not been saved by morality," Howe concluded. "Apparently it had little to hope for from the human mind." Having pronounced the death of reason and educated public opinion, Howe also determined, with regret, that the public interest was a ridiculous abstraction. "Bankers thought as bankers, railway-owners as railway-owners, railway employees thought as railway employees…Men did not think disinterestedly in politics; they followed their economic interests. They were moved by elemental motives. Like the amoeba going out for food, man went out for the things he wanted; sought to satisfy his wants by a minimum of effort. That was universal in nature. Moral professions were weaker than instinctive desires."7
Instead of fighting for a public interest, Howe argued, progressives should in the future align themselves with the working man and woman. "Labor could not serve privilege…as privilege could only be enjoyed by the few. By necessity labor would serve freedom, democracy, equal opportunity for all…The place for the liberal was in labor's ranks." The death of the public interest was not an easy moment for Howe. "The new truth that a free world would only come through labor was forced on me. I did not seek it; did not welcome it. But it crowded into mind and demanded tenancy as the old occupants gave notice to leave."8
Howe was far from the only progressives to come to these conclusions. When it came to the demise of public opinion, even the charitable Jane Addams noted in 1930 that "it seems strange in the light of later experiences that we so whole-heartedly believed in those days, that if we could only get our position properly before the public, we would find an overwhelming response." The decade just had not borne this belief out. "It is a striking commentary of our times, wrote Samuel McCune Lindsey on the 25th anniversary of the National Child Labor Committee in 1929, "that at first the committee was not incorporated, for the reformers of the new century believed its task would soon be accomplished once the American public was informed of the facts. The public has been informed -- and child labor persists."9
In a February 1926 symposium held by The Survey on Frederic Howe's Confessions -- entitled "Where are the Pre-War Radicals?" -- many other reformers were less politic and more emphatic about the lessons that had been forced on them. "A large part of pre-war radicalism," argued labor reformer George Alder, "dealt with political machinery intended to make the mass power of the uninformed common man apply to problems which he was incompetent to decide. This program is no longer appealing." "One must always remember that human beings do not reason," admonished Clarence Darrow. "They live from their emotions and so far as they do reason, this is controlled by their emotions. They are patriotic when they are getting plenty to eat and begin to grumble when times are hard." As Will White put what he had come to believe more bluntly elsewhere, the "majority of Americans are morons."10
Even getting plenty to eat was no assurance of a progressive mindset. "I thought all that was necessary to bring about a mild millennium was to raise wages," sighed municipal reformer Fremont Older. "Improved living conditions would give the poor a chance to express these fine qualities that I felt they possessed, and there would be no further difficulty in quickly making the world a finer place to live. The high wages came…and what happened? The workers became more conservative. They bought automobiles, lived in better houses, dressed better, and acquired the habits of the well-to-do." It was "a bad time for those who believe the people have any rights in their Government," Hiram Johnson lamented in 1925. "The psychology of 'economy' has twisted and distorted idealism and altruism." Thanks to "the fat materialism of a corrupt age," John Haynes Holmes argued similarly in 1927, "[o]ur people are fat, corrupt, contented."11
The ACLU's Roger Baldwin had also once believed "the old American faith that privileged classes could be controlled by the 'Public.'" But "[m]ost of us have since been as disillusioned as Howe. There is no 'Public'; 'the 'People' as a political party are unorganizable." It was time, he argued, to stop believing in "a phantom public" and realize that "the only power that works is class power." This, of course, is what the Socialist contributors to The Survey's symposium had been arguing all along. Howe "discovered in Paris what was perfectly patent in New York," scoffed Morris Hillquit, 'that the world was ruled by an exploiting class'..,and that there was but one class of people who could change that order." Where Hillquit was caustic, an aging Eugene Debs, in the last year of his life, remained defiant. "We refuse to become discouraged over a temporary set-back in our own country," Debs wrote in his contribution. "We are where we always were -- just as radical, just as confident, just as determined…In three years we will present the American people with an American Socialist Party greater, stronger, more militant and more aggressive than we have had before."12
Even some of the non-Socialists thought all the progressive pearl-clutching was overwrought. "Has the movement become a class struggle?" replied Burton Wheeler. "It has always been a class struggle. Every economic struggle is a class struggle. It does not matter whether it has for its base the divinity of kings or the divinity of dollars." Arthur Garfield Hays, reflecting on the depression afflicting his fellow reformers later in life, argued that "[m]any liberals, succumbing to an easy cynicism, moved over into the sneering section" during the Twenties. The problem, thought Hays, was that progressives were so invested in their theory of change they missed the positive transformations occurring in American life underneath their nose -- People were happier, freer. As for himself, "I have no belief in any system as a system, whether it is called Capitalism, Socialism, Communism, or anything else. The liberal takes the world as he finds it; he will take any means to ameliorate bad conditions and improve society."13
In 1919, years before The Survey's symposium and soon before his untimely death, Walter Weyl had written an essay entitled "Tired Radicals" which anticipated at least some of the disillusion of his generation in the decade to come. "[E]ven in good times, age deals harshly with radicals," Weyl reminded his readers -- "long before a man's arteries begin to harden, he sees things more as his father and grandfather saw them." Eventually, these Tired Radicals "become sensible, glacially sensible. They become expert in the science of Impossibles; they know better than anyone else why every thing is Impossible because have they not failed in every thing?" This was not a new problem. This was all part of the natural order of things. "There is no use crying over those who are graduated out of Radicalism," said Weyl. "for the young trees grow where the old trees die."14
The progressives who seemed most content in the Survey's symposium were the ones who held in mind Weyl's wisdom. "There is no use crying because our particular medicine is not needed forever," said Norman Hapgood. "Other jobs approach, and they will be seen by other men." "The flowers of last spring have withered and passed away, and the radicals of ten years ago have for the most part gone to seed," wrote Basil Manly in similar fashion. "But fear not. Since the dawn of creation each spring has brought new crops of wild flowers -- and weeds. So likewise the years will in due course bring forth anew, as from the dawn of History, new men and women in ever increasing numbers who will lift up their eyes to the light and devote at least the spring time of their lives to making this a happier and more beautiful world." The founder of the muckraking journal McClure's, John S. Phillips even had a vague notion of what form the new liberalism might take. "Out of the present materialism, penetrating and impregnating all classes in these days of widespread luxuries and indulgences, will arise other liberals," he wrote. "I have an idea that this will be born of spiritual hunger rather than material deprivation. Man cannot live by automobiles and bathrooms alone."15
Of course there would be more generations of reformers -- indeed, only six years after the Survey's litany of despair, many of the same progressives would take central roles in the "encore for reform" that was the New Deal. But the decade of War, Harding Normalcy, and Coolidge Prosperity had exacted a heavy toll on progressivism as both a movement and a public philosophy. The abiding Emersonian faith in the cleansing powers of democracy, the belief that public opinion on its own could and would effect positive change -- these yielded to an embrace of government-by-experts and a more robust appreciation for civil liberties. The perhaps naïve idea of a public interest, which could be articulated and then heeded by the people's representatives, was -- after the obvious ascendance of the business class during the Coolidge years -- subsumed by the notion of a broker state that instead mitigated among competing interests. The critical progressive emphases on citizenship and developing and retaining each individual's capacity of self-government faded, while the importance of providing welfare and justice to all, and entitling each citizen to his or her pursuit of happiness, all moved to the fore.
For better or worse, when progressivism lost these abiding central faiths, it also lost much of its ambitions. "It wasn't that today was any finer in 1919 than in 1932," said John Dos Passos. "It was that in 1919 the tomorrows seemed vaster." That same year, Franklin Roosevelt re-read the writings of Wilson and was surprised at the breadth of their scope. "It is interesting, now, to read his speeches," he noted. "What is called 'radical' today, and I have reason to know whereof I speak, is mild compared to the campaign of Mr. Wilson." Through the power of Ideals, progressives of that generation had tried to change the world, and, inevitably, a materialistic, fallen world changed them instead. "I do not now expect my plans for the world will ever be realized," said Howe in 1926. "That is too much to ask. Every other man and woman wants a different world from that which I want. And they may have an equal right to have it."16
Instead of working to end war forever, or to mold better citizens, providing that equal right to pursue one's own path, wherever it may lead, would become the democratic project in the decades to come. As progressivism became New Deal liberalism, reformers that worried less about the potential of Humankind and more about the needs of actual men and women was in many ways a welcome change. But the diminished scope of the tempered progressive project carried over into other realms as well. Progressives, who once thought they could "subdue the power and arrogance of organized capitalism and remold it to the democratic patterns of the rights of man," wrote John Haynes Holmes in 1927, now "have no confidence anymore -- no confidence that we were ever justified in having confidence!" As historian Alan Brinkley shows in The End of Reform, the New Dealers would make one more go at this project. But, after attempting many different strategies to rein in capitalism between 1933 and 1937, or at least to bend it to the service of a sounder political economy -- they would lose confidence as well, settling instead on an acknowledgment of the established order, in the hopes that, under responsible stewardship, it would continue to provide ever-expanding prosperity.17
To be sure, every generation faces their own bout with disillusionment, from the Radical Republicans who saw Reconstruction fail and Jim Crow rise to the liberals and radicals of the Sixties who watched the Great Society tear itself apart in Chicago, Memphis, Watts, and Vietnam. In 1953, almost thirty years after his father wondered if democracy would ever work and seven years after he lost the Wisconsin Republican primary to Joe McCarthy, Bob La Follette Jr. ended his life with a pistol his father had given him, bringing a sad conclusion to the tale of the Fighting La Follettes. In any decade of American life, fighting for progressive change is always an uphill endeavor, and the shadows of despair are never far away.18
At the same time, the disenchantment of these progressives represents a truly unique moment in the American story. A generation of reformers who had grown up in the Victorian era were forced to confront not just the collapse of their beliefs and idealism after the War, but the sudden emergence of a twentieth century world of cars, communication, consumerism, popular culture, and advertising that arguably looks more like our own world today, almost a century later, than the world of their youth. The world that created them would never return.
In fact, while history invariably tends to rhyme and analogies can be drawn from any period, the 1920s -- with the notable exception of the national drive for disarmament -- arguably speak more to life in the contemporary United States than any other decade in the first half of the last century. Then as now, we live in an America driven by popular, youth, and consumer culture, being transformed by new technologies, and emphasizing the pursuit of happiness. Once again, we are grappling with issues such as fears of terrorism and unrestricted immigration, the corporate corruption of government, and the appropriate role of civil liberties in American life. Once again, the popular and advertising-reinforced sense of general prosperity masks the economic troubles being faced by millions of Americans.
Having forsaken the welfare state affirming path of Eisenhower, Nixon, and even Reagan, today's Republican Party proudly embraces as the pathway to prosperity the Harding-Coolidge-Mellon philosophy of low taxes, balanced budgets, limited government, and minimal interference with the prerogatives of business. Meanwhile, the Democratic Party, strangely reluctant to embrace its success in the New Deal and the Great Society, now veers back and forth between its diminishing Smith wing, which advocates a limited but important federal role in securing the general welfare, and its ascendant Hoover wing, which calls for business-friendly public-private partnerships and a slightly more progressive version of the low-tax, no-deficit Republican philosophy. Not unlike 1928, one of the presidential candidates in 2012 was viewed by half the nation as a welcome avatar of a new, multicultural America coming into being, and by a significant minority as a dangerous, possibly even un-American harbinger of foreign values. Once again, from the near-collapse of Wall Street in 2008 to the undeniable signs of a warming planet in 2013, there are sizable hints that the current state of affairs is dancing on a precipice, and another Great Crash beckons. And once again progressives, having recently hoped they had arrived at a moment of profound change in American life, now find themselves embattled and embittered, trying to conserve former gains and searching for a way forward.
So turns the wheel of history. One can imagine the Sage of Baltimore having a grand laugh about it all. Mencken, naturally, was not invited to The Survey's symposium on Confessions of a Reformer, but he had his own answer for disillusioned progressives of his generation nonetheless. "Life may not be exactly pleasant," he wrote in April 1928, "but it is at least not dull. Heave yourself into Hell today, and you may miss, tomorrow or next day, another Scopes trial, or another War to End War, or perchance a rich and buxom widow with all of her first husband's clothes. There are always more Hardings hatching. I advocate hanging on as long as possible." If Mencken's caustic enjoyment of the world's ironies isn't enough to sustain in dark times, there is always the consciousness that previous generations -- in the 1920s, before, and after -- carried the torch of progressivism and persevered, and that, for their legacy and our world, there is much work left to be done.19
"[O]ur kind of reformers will not reappear because the conditions that made up what we were have gone," Frederic Howe replied to his fellow progressives at the end of the 1926 symposium. "The reformer of tomorrow will fight with a different background." He or she "will, I think, fight for substantially the same thing, for the things we fought for relate to the right to live. And the people must fight for the right to live or the people must die. There is no other alternative."20
The Fortunes of Progressivism, 1919-1929
Continue to Bibliography.
Return to the Table of Contents.
2. Johnson to Ickes, July 2, 1921. HLI Box 33: Hiram Johnson. Ickes to Benjamin F. Proctor, February 15, 1925. HLI, Box 36: P Miscellany.
3. Ickes to Johnson, July 17, 1925. HLI Box 33: Hiram Johnson. Johnson to Ickes, July 20, 1925. HLI Box 33: Hiram Johnson. Johnson to Ickes, June 2, 1927. HLI Box 33: Hiram Johnson.
4. White to Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., July 15, 1926. White, Selected Letters, 261. White to Gifford Pinchot, June 3, 1927. White, Selected Letters, 273. Frederic Babcock, "Norris of Nebraska," The Nation, December 21, 1927 (Vol. 125, No. 3259), 705. Gifford Pinchot to Ickes, July 15, 1928. HLI, Box 38: Gifford Pinchot.
5. Woodrow Wilson, "The Road Away from Revolution," (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1923). Christopher Lasch, "Herbert Croly's America" New York Review of Books, July 1965. Edmund Wilson, "H.C.," The New Republic, July 16th, 1930 (Vol. 68, No. 815), 268.
6. Howe, 318-322.
7. Howe, 323, 334.
8. Howe, 324-325. In the Survey symposium, Howe made the same point again in different language. "It was the distinction, I think, of our particular brand of reformers, those who contributed to this symposium, that we believed in the human mind. We preached, we wrote, we were scientific-minded. And we produced facts in abundance....We have enough facts, fully established facts, to end poverty, to make our farm land flourish like a garden, to put us all in decent homes, if we only needed facts…Yet I have never known a business man to be converted by facts against his interest to the public ownership of street railways. I would find it difficult to enumerate a half-dozen men who were converted to my ideas against their own economic interest as a result of a score of books, hundreds of speeches, and a mass of printed articles. No, the human mind does not work when men's economic interests are involved. It stalls. The fact-finding, laboratory method has scarcely more value than the evangelical in the advance of social justice." Frederick Howe, "Where are the Pre-War Radicals: A Response," The Survey, April 1st, 1926. 33-34, 50-52.
9. Addams, Second Twenty Years, 134. Chambers, 46.
10. George Alger, "Where are the Pre-War Radicals," The Survey, February 1st, 1926, 561-562. Clarence Darrow, "Where are the Pre-War Radicals," The Survey, February 1st, 1926, 566. Murphy, Meaning of Freedom of Speech, 176.
11. Fremont Older, "Where are the Pre-War Radicals?" The Survey, February 1st, 1926, 560-561. Johnson to Ickes, July 20, 1925. HLI Box 33: Hiram Johnson. Chambers, x.
12. Roger Baldwin, "Where are the Pre-War Radicals?" The Survey, February 1st, 1926, 560. Morris Hillquit, "Where are the Pre-War Radicals?" The Survey, February 1st, 1926, 562. Eugene Debs, "Where are the Pre-War Radicals?" The Survey, February 1st, 1926, 559.
13. Burton Wheeler, "Where are the Pre-War Radicals?" The Survey, February 1st, 1926, 561. Hays, City Lawyer, 246, 250.
14. Walter Weyl, Tired Radicals and Other Papers (New York: B.W. Huebsch, 1921), 9-14.
15. Norman Hapgood, "Where are the Pre-War Radicals," The Survey, February 1st, 1926, 560. Basil Manly, "Where are the Pre-War Radicals," The Survey, February 1st, 1926, 564. John S. Phillips, "Where are the Pre-War Radicals," The Survey, February 1st, 1926, 566.
16. Carter, 5. McGerr, 318. Howe, "Where are the Pre-War Radicals: A Response," Chambers, x. "Possibly," Howe mused, "if the entire American people were to follow its own individual desires, we would be a happier America, possibly a more richly endowed America, a more quickly reformed America…Possibly too if we biologically followed our own wants and instincts we would correct quite naturally even the economic and political wrongs of the world." Ibid.
17. Chambers, x. Brinkley, The End of Reform.
18. Maney, "Joe McCarthy's First Victim."
19. Marion Elizabeth Rodgers, "Introduction," in Mencken, Notes on Democracy, 19. Frederick Howe, "Where are the Pre-War Radicals: A Response," The Survey, April 1st, 1926. 33-34, 50-52.
20. Howe, "Where are the Pre-War Radicals: A Response," The Survey, April 1st, 1926. 33-34, 50-52.
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