November marks the anniversary of the publication of Herbert Croly’s seminal book, “The Promise of American Life,” in 1909. The book has been republished and reprinted countless times over the decades, and although it is largely unknown outside of the academic community, its themes are foundational to American progressivism today.
Observers outside the progressive consciousness routinely mischaracterize the book as a tome on freedom and liberty. They misunderstand Croly as sort of a reincarnated Founding Father. In reality, the book’s assumptions are authoritarian, and its author a collectivist.
Our Founding Principles of Collectivism?
Born in New York City to parents who were both progressive writers, Croly attended the City College of New York and then Harvard University. He was the first editor of The New Republic when it came out in 1914. The theme of “The Promise of American Life” is that America has strayed from its founding principles, which to Croly were cooperativist in nature, and that returning the country to them requires activism. Although the book didn’t sell to popular audiences, educators gobbled it up, and generations of scholars, journalists and authors have been, and are—whether or not they realize it—educated in its themes and images.
The promise of American life, Croly said, was to be true to the American ideal, which to him meant living in a more communal-oriented country. That’s one where people are treated like equals and, and more importantly, where individual interest and national interest coincide. Croly contended the cooperativist ideal had not become reality, and that in fact Americans were getting farther and farther away from it.
He wrote that some people despaired over this situation and sought to return the country to its supposed communitarian roots. A reform movement toward communalism had come into its own through “the habit of criticism and reform.” Because reformers had made the “evils” of free-market, hierarchical- and individualist-centered democracy more visible to the ordinary people, Croly wrote, an awareness of the unfairness of the American condition had become manifest to more and more people, and “average, well-intentioned Americans (were) likely to be reformers of one kind or another.”
Croly said that Americans, who had once viewed American life as a stream that purified itself automatically and critics and reformers as shoals who prevented the stream from running free, now saw the forces of the political and economic status quo as barriers, and the reformers as the better-qualified navigators, the ones aware of the ship’s position all the time.
How We Get from Individualism to Collectivism
Croly’s motivation was idealism in the service of unity and community. In moving toward community, a society moves away from the individual and away from freedom, and Croly accepted this. He called for “the constructive democracy movement (to) obtain more effective support from scientific discipline” and an educational system that utilizes “coercive measures.” In other words, he called for conformism. He also called for “national spirit” and “experimentation and discipline,” rather than deliberative analysis, intellectual independence, and personal initiative.
His vision requires centralized organization, controlling the instruments of social pressure, and even intimidation. “The ultimate power of command,” he wrote, “must rest with that authority which, if necessary, can force people to obey; any plan of association which seeks to ignore the part which physical force plays in life is necessarily incomplete.”
Governmentally, as one might expect, Croly favored centralized power. Such power, he said, “has prizes to offer as well as coercion to exercise.” He said centralized power amounts to “normal action (that) continually, if very slowly, (is) to diminish the distance between the ideal of human brotherhood, and the political, economic and social conditions, under which any one time men manage to live together.” This, he went on, “is the truth to which patriotic Americans should firmly cleave.”
Croly’s presidency has powers vastly enhanced over those enumerated in the Constitution. “The Promise of American Life” wasn’t overly concerned about the potential for power abuse, because Croly thought a president’s actions “could not really damage the foundations of the state,” and that executive branch initiative would give the people a beneficial “political education.”
It’s Okay to Break a Few Eggs
Nor was he bothered by the fact that reformers’ agitation toward the community ideal might injure the poor and ordinary people. Agitation geared toward ending the free market system, he wrote, could harm the less prosperous, but the communal ideal “is so essential that its attainment is worth the inexorable attendant risks.” He went on: “Even a very gradual displacement of the existing method of distributing economic fruits will bring with it regrettable wounds and losses. But provided they are incurred for the benefit of the American people as an economic whole, they are worth the penalty.” In making the omelet, in other words, you’ve got to break some eggs.
One can see Croly’s thinking in the works of progressive advocates today. These advocates aim for a societal-level values change away from individualism and toward the cooperative ideal, and using the properties of the unconscious mind, the “hidden mind,” to do it. America is about democracy, they say with Croly, but the ideal of democracy resides in the mind only, as an abstraction that represents some undefined bright future, and people only talk about it superficially, and even naively.
Democracy actually needs to be brought into being. It is something that must be made real by being built into a narrative that is acted upon as though it is real. “The only fruitful promise of which the life of any individual or nation can be possessed,” Croly wrote, in words that could also be those of any college professor holding to the communal consciousness today, “is a promise determined by an ideal. Such a promise is to be fulfilled, not by sanguine anticipations, not by a conservative imitation of past achievements, but by laborious, single-minded, clear-sighted, and fearless work.”
Progressivism is an idealistic philosophy, and any type of idealism holds that what is real lies not in the world, but in the human mind. What is real to human beings and what constitutes knowledge to them is what comes from within, from inner mental and psychological processes, and from the things exterior to the person that influence and even determine these processes. The phenomena of the world exist, but they receive their meaning via the mind, and meaning equates to reality, or is the functional equivalent of reality.
One reviewer writing from outside of the progressive mindset in the Bulletin of the American Library Association called Croly “a Hamiltonian Federalist with Rooseveltian amplifications.” Someone with a progressive consciousness knows there is nothing either Hamiltonian or Rooseveltian about either Croly or his book. The thesis that an ideal can be made real through activism, strong centralized government and psychological persuasive techniques is disrespectful not just of individual freedom, but reality. Also, disrespecting freedom and reality does nothing to advance enlightenment or the human condition.
But this disrespect will go on anyway in the socially aware media and intelligentsia class, because it advances the thing that Croly in “The Promise of American Life” really wanted: the power of one elite to decide on the issues of the day.