The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

March 20, 2019

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Michael P. Federici - 08/25/11

Progressivism is an ideology based on the idea that historical and social progress are inevitable. The idea of progress assumes movement toward some ideal or end that usually includes the perfectibility of human nature and human society. Progressives conceive of this end in various ways: history may culminate in an era of absolute freedom, social and economic equality, or some form of utopia. Given the predilection to progress, the past is viewed as an inferior state of existence with various afflictions that wither away over time. While some progressives consider progress inevitable, others believe that political, economic, and social reforms are necessary to achieve it. Scientism is a progressive ideology premised on the idea that use of the scientific method will lead to progress not only in technology and scientific understanding, but also in moral and social life.

Important American progressives include Herbert Croly and Woodrow Wilson. Croly pronounced in The Promise of American Life (1909) that

Democracy must stand or fall on a platform of possible human perfectibility. If human nature cannot be improved by institutions, democracy is at best a more than usually safe form of political organization. . . . But if it is to work better as well as merely longer, it must have some leavening effect on human nature; and the sincere democrat is obliged to assume the power of the leaven.

There is a democratic and egalitarian strain to progressivism. Early-twentieth-century American progressives, like populists, advocated participatory and direct democracy. They favored direct primaries, recall elections, ballot initiatives, and referendums. The direct election of senators was a progressive reform.

American progressives in the early twentieth century argued that corporations and monied interests concentrated power to the detriment of workers, consumers, and the poor. They presumed that authentic progress must be brought about in part by economic and social leveling. Thus, they saw as obstacles to progress tradition, traditional ways of life, and big business, including a class system that privileged a monied aristocracy. Ironically, the instrument for progressive reform was the administrative state, or what is sometimes called the welfare state. To decentralize power in the private sector, thought progressives, power had to be centralized in the government sector. To achieve this required the destruction of federalism and the evisceration of intermediate groups and associations.

The philosophical fathers of progressivism include Francis Bacon, Hegel, Marx, Comte, Rousseau, Condorcet, Bentham, Mill, and Edward Bellamy. These thinkers ushered in the modern historical era, an era in which progressivism was a main current. One of the characteristics of these thinkers’ progressivism was its pseudospirituality, or religion of humanity. In this substitute religion, faith in a transcendent moral order is replaced by faith in nature, science, technology, and reason. This faith also involves a sort of humanitarian sentimentalism that attempts to satisfy an inner desire to serve mankind and the world by engaging in reforms meant to uplift the less fortunate. Yet these reforms are not intended to effect inner spiritual reform but rather to change institutions and thus improve society through outer reform. Conservatives argue that progressive humanitarianism is both a diversion and escape from individual moral responsibility.

Progressivism also includes the idea that human perfectibility is possible in history. This doctrine holds that it is unnecessary to wait for the afterlife for human perfection; the fulfillment of human nature can take place in earthly life. Scientific progressives, like Bacon, believe that progress is a predicate of scientific knowledge and technological developments. Social progressives, like Croly, believe that human nature can be transformed through political reform.

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