A continuation from this post.
A summary of ‘what happened?’ so far: atheism, Darwinism, and utilitarianism.
These three items are not discrete events, but are definite themes that began gelling together into the basic fabric of ‘liberalism’ in the 1800s and early 1900s. However, events can’t be discounted. A stream of thought will have its direction altered if a giant boulder is suddenly thrown into the middle of it. How the current reacts to this new circumstance isn’t always predictable. The events provide an opportunity to see the worldview in action. Did the worldview rise to the occasion? Or was it found lacking?
The various revolutions of c. 1850, the American Civil War and the emancipation of the slaves, the Bolshevik Revolution, and World Wars I and II, all forced the ‘liberal’ stream of thought to reconsider its course direction.
For the purpose of this post, we will continue to address the ‘current’ more than the ‘boulders,’ but we must not forget the historical backdrop.
This brings us to…
In true testament to the fact that ideas have consequences, but often taken decades and even centuries to manifest, we turn to Marx and the impact of Communist thought. The ideological landscape of 1840-1860 was extremely turbulent. While Mill’s was giving a fresh defense of utilitarianism and Darwin was providing a naturalistic basis for life, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were offering a radical rethinking of ‘government’ itself. Calling for the abolition of private property, the annihilation of the institution of the family, etc, the Communist Manifesto openly admitted that when they meant to institute a ‘complete overhaul’ of human relations, they really meant it!
If you have not read the Manifesto lately, you might wish to refresh your memory. I’m not going to dwell on it, here, but I would like to mention that in Chapter 2’s 10 point plan for life under a communist regime, 6 of 10 constitute core principles of modern ‘liberalism.’ Indeed, of the 10, only one of them seems wholly unwelcome within today’s Democrat party, #8, which insists that everyone is going to have to work.
You may well wonder how it is that contemporary ‘liberals’ have come to accept such expansive societal intrusions by the government when, at the time, ‘liberals’ were fiercely opposed to such intrusions. Well, that’s what this two part blog series is meant to explain. Still, I wanted the reader to see the stark irony in it.
There are several reasons for this, historically speaking.
First of all, the Marxists saw their philosophy as scientific. To them, it is as empirically grounded as gravity, at least, theoretically. It was intrinsically materialistic. Moreover, the Marxists saw Darwinism as a important vindication of their entire enterprise. Marx himself said,
Darwin’s book is very important and serves me as a basis in natural science for the class struggle in history. One has to put up with the crude English method of development, of course. Despite all deficiencies, not only is the death-blow dealt here for the first time to “teleology” in the natural sciences but their rational meaning is empirically explained.
While the Communists were heartened by Darwinism, and even heavily influenced by Darwinism, their focus was on one of the other logical implications of Darwinism (eg, as opposed to the implications drawn by the eugenicists.) This is well encapsulated by an early Communist thinker, Antonie Pannekoek, who wrote an entire book on the relation between Marxism and Darwinism (1909).
I would like the reader to note that Pannekoek’s very first sentence bears testimony to how Communists saw their ideology as SCIENCE! He writes, “Two scientists can hardly be named who have, in the second half of the 19th century, dominated the human mind to a greater degree than Darwin and Marx.” [Emphasis mine].
You see? Marx was a scientist.
Pannekoek sums up the distinction between Marxism and Darwinism:
Darwinism and Marxism are two distinct theories, one of which applies to the animal world, while the other applies to society. They supplement each other in the sense that, according to the Darwinian theory of evolution, the animal world develops up to the stage of man, and from then on, that is, after the animal has risen to man, the Marxian theory of evolution applies.
Pannekoek argues that the problem with the eugenicists is that they’ve derived the wrong lesson from Darwinism. The correct one is:
These critical arguments, while they are not bad when used as refutations against bourgeois Darwinists, are still faulty. Both sets of arguments, those used by the bourgeois Darwinists in favor of capitalism, and those of the Socialists, who base their Socialism on Darwin, are falsely rooted. Both arguments, although reaching opposite conclusions, are equally false because they proceed from the wrong premises that there is a natural and a permanent system of society.
Marxism has taught us that there is no such thing as a natural and a permanent social system, and that there can be none, or, to put it another way, every social system is natural, for every social system is necessary and natural under given conditions. There is not a single definite social system that can be accepted as natural; the various social systems take the place of one another as a result of developments in the means of production. Each system is therefore the natural one for its particular time. Capitalism is not the only natural order, as the bourgeoisie believes, and no Socialist system is the only natural system, as some Socialists try to prove. Capitalism was natural under the conditions of the nineteenth century, just as feudalism was in the Middle Ages, and as Socialism will be in the coming age. The attempt to put forward a certain system as the only natural and permanent one is as futile as if we were to take an animal and say that this animal is the most perfect of all animals. Darwinism teaches us that every animal is equally adapted and equally perfect in form to suit its special environments, and Marxism teaches us that every social system is particularly adapted to its conditions, and that in this sense it may be called good and perfect. [Emphasis added]
So, basically, the Marxists believed that the big ‘take away’ of Darwinism, for their purposes, was that there is no such thing as a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ or ‘natural’ political structure for the human animal. But, an animal he is:
Can we stop at the conclusion that Marxism applies only to society and that Darwinism applies only to the organic world, and that neither of these theories is applicable in the other domain? In practice it is very convenient to have one principle for the human world and another one for the animal world. In having this, however, we forget that man is also an animal. Man has developed from an animal, and the laws that apply to the animal world cannot suddenly lose their applicability to man. It is true that man is a very peculiar animal, but if that is the case it is necessary to find from these very peculiarities why those principles applicable to all animals do not apply to men, and why they assume a different form. [emphasis added]
I am referring to the writings of Pannekoek for another reason other than that he was a Marxist who specifically addressed Darwinism and Marxism. Namely, this is a book that was written in 1909, before the Bolshevik Revolution; before the Nazis; before Lenin and Stalin; before the great horrors unleashed upon the world in the 20th century thanks to applied Marxism.
The writings of advocates of applied Darwinism after WWII have an entirely different flavor to them than the writings before that. Prior to 1930, these advocates spoke boldly and enthusiastically about the promise that SCIENCE! held for re-organizing human society. After 1945… not so much. The same kind of thing applies to Marxism, although, sadly, not as starkly–the main point I’m building to.
In 1909, liberals were practically giddy with anticipation. With the SCIENCE of Darwinism ready to be applied, girded with the ‘moral’ system of utilitarianism, the overwhelming sentiment within liberalism was that Mankind had all the tools needed to effectively re-make society, and with God officially dead, Man was not only properly equipped, Man had the duty to use those tools. None of those ‘boulders’ which would temper that enthusiasm had yet to occur, so they spoke forthrightly and without apology.
What all these factors morphed into c. 1910 in the West became known as Progressivism.
Probably, not 1 in 50 modern Progressives know any of this stuff, which is the problem. Since they don’t know where they came from or how they got here, or what it was specifically that knocked them a bit off course, all the evidence is that they are all just going to do it again. At least with the eugenicists, the vivid testimony to the failure of their application is unforgettable and undeniable–the Nazis. But your average Progressive does not understand that his Marxist tendencies have already been tried… so he means to try it again!
What could go wrong?
Now, to go through and document how the Progressives adopted and integrated Materialism, Marxism, Darwinism, and Utilitarianism into their politics would take some time, but could be easily done. Books can be written (books have!) but the real obstacle is that modern liberals simply cannot believe that their fellow travelers, a hundred years ago, could have done the things they did, notwithstanding the fact that they share many, if not most, of the same beliefs and principles. Until they get over that hurdle, nothing can be said to them.
However, to whet the appetite (and provide some corroboration for my claim), here are some pretty straight forward and unassailable illustrations of what I am saying.
…society has no business to permit degenerates to reproduce their kind. It is really extraordinary that our people refuse to apply to human beings such elementary knowledge as every successful farmer is obliged to apply to his own stock breeding. Any group of farmers who permitted their best stock not to breed, and let all the increase come from the worst stock, would be treated as fit inmates for an asylum. Yet we fail to understand that such conduct is rational compared to the conduct of a nation which permits unlimited breeding from the worst stock, physically and morally, while it encourages or connives at the cold selfishness or the twisted sentimentality as a result of which the men and women who ought to marry, and if married have large families, remain celebates or have no children or only one or two. Some day we will realize that the prime duty, the inescapable duty of the good citizen of the right type is to leave his or her blood behind him in the world! and that we have no business to permit the perpetuation of citizens of the wrong type. [Emphasis added]
… government is not a machine, but a living thing. It falls, not under the theory of the universe, but under the theory of organic life. It is accountable to Darwin, not to Newton. It is modified by its environment, necessitated by its tasks, shaped to its functions by the sheer pressure of life. No living thing can have its organs offset against each other, as checks, and live. On the contrary, its life is dependent upon their quick co-operation, their ready response to the commands of instinct or intelligence, their amicable community of purpose. Government is not a body of blind forces; it is a body of men, with highly differentiated functions, no doubt, in our modern day, of specialization, with a common task and purpose. Their co-operation is indispensable, their warfare fatal. There can be no successful government without the intimate, instinctive co-ordination of the organs of life and action. This is not theory, but fact, and displays its force as fact, whatever theories may be thrown across its track. Living political constitutions must be Darwinian in structure and in practice. Society is a living organism and must obey the laws of life, not of mechanics; it must develop.
All that progressives ask or desire is permission—in an era when “development,” “evolution,” is the scientific word—to interpret the Constitution according to the Darwinian principle; all they ask is recognition of the fact that a nation is a living thing and not a machine. [emphasis added]
Here you have two US presidents, serving back to back terms explicitly as Progressives, also explicitly incorporating Darwinism into their outlook. Hopefully that will spare me the tired charge that these are mere ‘outlier’ positions (I know, a man can dream.)
But what about the Marxist outlook?
To see that sort of thing, one needs to actually understand what the Marxists actually believed, so that you can recognize it when it is being put forth, even if the name “Marx” is not employed. In these examples, we see it most plainly in the Wilson quote. Compare what Wilson said here…
Government is not a body of blind forces; it is a body of men, with highly differentiated functions, no doubt, in our modern day, of specialization, with a common task and purpose. [ … ] Society is a living organism and must obey the laws of life, not of mechanics; it must develop.
with Pannekoek, who said:
A second advantage of sociability arises from the fact that where animals live socially, there is a possibility of the division of labor. [ … ] Such an animal society becomes, in some respects a unit, a single organism. Naturally, the relation remains much looser than the cells of a single animal body; nevertheless, the group becomes a coherent body, and there must be some power that holds together the individual members.
I bet if I had given you those two quotes and asked the reader to tell me which was written by the progressive liberal Wilson and which was written by the Marxist Pannekoek, the reader couldn’t have done it. Don’t feel so bad–I couldn’t have done it, either. That’s the point!
I had rattled off the platform of universal compulsory free education, a progressive taxing scheme, a radical increase of the inheritance tax, if not the elimination of inheritance completely, mass public transportation, you could not tell me if I’m reciting items from the Communist Manifesto or the progressive platform of 1915… or 2015. That’s the point!
It is all imbued with the same core ideological strands. Do they even know which parts are ‘Marxist’ or ‘Darwinian’ or … ? I think today they usually do not. But take Wilson, again. Wilson established the Federal Reserve, overturning a solid hundred years of American animus against central banks. The Communist Manifesto lists (#5) “Centralisation of credit in the hands of the state, by means of a national bank with State capital and an exclusive monopoly.” The establishment of the Federal Reserve was a massive fulfillment of one of the planks of Marxism. Did Wilson see it in Marxist terms?
The point is that even if he didn’t recognize its source, it was, nonetheless, a distinctly Marxist goal. It is almost worse if he didn’t understand that, then if he had openly connected it.
For example, consider this modern example of a ‘Marxist’/’Darwinian’ ‘progressive’ argument:
Heh. Just your every day, unbiased reporter working for a non-partisan media outlook… LEAN FORWARD.
I don’t know about you, but watching that video made my skin crawl.
If you don’t understand how this is a Marxist statement–coming out of the mouth of an avowed Liberal Progressive (I’m not sure what she is doing now, but up to recently she was an editor with Liberal Progressive The Nation) you need to go back up and read this post again. Perhaps hit up the Communist Manifesto itself, if you didn’t already. Basically: all people belong to the ‘social organism’, and that obviously includes kids–who, on this basis, as we see Harris connecting the same logical dots–warrant universal free public education. Oh yea, and just so we are clear, the kids belong to the State, not the parents.
I also highly recommend you read this post on the Liberal Progressive website The New Republic titled: “Two Traditions: Unearthing The New Republic’s intellectual roots.’
I read liberal progressive websites a lot, and its rare to see an awareness of the ‘intellectual roots’ of their worldview, but this article nailed it. Pertinent to this series on “what happened to liberalism”, I would like to call attention to its account of how early liberals (ie, people like ME, but living in the early 1800s) morphed into 20th century liberals.
Green introduced the concept of “positive liberty”—the idea that true freedom did not simply involve, as the early liberal theorists had it, the absence of deliberate physical restraint on individual action. Freedom also requires possessing the means to lead a decent and fulfilling life. L.T. Hobhouse and J.A. Hobson, the two leading exponents of the new liberalism (a.k.a. “social liberalism”), added a communitarian dimension to liberal theory, observing that people were not just separate, self-driven individual entities, but also participants in a social order involving interdependence and mutual obligation. [emphasis added]
Communitarian? Is that another way of saying… communist?
At any rate, he totally nails it here. What did the ‘early liberals’ want? “the absence of deliberate physical restraint on individual action.”
What changed? ‘New liberalism’ added a communitarian dimension [wherein] participants [are] in a social order involving interdependence and mutual obligation.
What lead folks like Hobhouse, Hobson, and Green to ‘introduce the concept of “positive liberty”‘? It was their atheism, utilitarianism, and Darwinism, melding together into an entirely new ‘liberal’ outlook on man and State. The interplay between these men and pure Marxism was not direct; Hobson quoted Marx approvingly in his works, but Marxists would be as informed by Hobson as Hobson was informed by Marx, Hobhouse didn’t particularly like Marxism, and the lives of Green and Marx overlapped in such a way that it seems better to talk about who informed the both of them (Hegel, apparently), rather than which man influenced each other.
What they had in common with Marxism, however, was the conclusion that the ‘conservatives’ had drawn the wrong conclusion about applied materialism-utilitarianism-Darwinism. They had in common the view that ‘society’ could tinker with political organization willy-nilly, the State itself being a Darwinian manifestation (eg., the ‘social body’ or ‘social order’ or ‘living organism’ or ‘social organism’ … scroll up), and therefore perfectly malleable. Good Scientific Management would bring about Utopia.
Until it didn’t. Scientific Management of States would result in cataclysmic horror, beginning with WWI.
But, none of that had happened yet. 1915-1945 would take place, like a big giant boulder thrown into this great optimistic current of ‘liberalism.’
Ironically, in the 1950s and early 1960s, the animus among liberals towards Marxism and communism, at least in America, was as intense as any other red-blooded American’s. JFK was fiercely anti-communist. Who can forget McCarthy and McCarthyism? Ah, well, everyone forgets he was a Democrat! lol And even Saul Alinsky, who I love to hate, detested the Marxists.
But we are long past those days. Today’s progressives are returning, like a dog returns to its vomit, to c. 1850 to 1910 attitudes.
Only, I bet that a dog at least recognizes that uncanny resemblance to what it is eating now to what it ate yesterday. I wish I could say the same about contemporary leftists.