Woodrow Wilson and the Progressive-Fascist Distinction

Jonah was right to call me out for implying that there’s one big “progressive” family. What I meant to do was draw a distinction between Progressivism and fascism.


By Scott Galupo, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

Jonah Goldberg graciously, if forcefully, responds to my musings on the legacy of Woodrow Wilson. Rather than repeat the points I made in an earlier follow-up—short version: I don’t deny that Wilson was a Progressive nor that Progressivism was generally a bad thing—I’ll focus on this contention of Jonah’s:

If you want to claim everything stemming from the Western Enlightenment tradition as “progressive” you’re free to do so. But analytically, where does that get you? By this logic we’re all progressives—and by all, I mean conservatives, libertarians, Bolsheviks, liberals, anarchists, and Maoists—because we’re not Medievalists. But if progressive is to mean something more concrete and specific—say, the ideas associated with the New Republic, Herbert Croly, Teddy Roosevelt’s Progressive Party, and the administration of Woodrow Wilson—then Scott’s use of “progressive” is almost meaningless.

Let me refine that a bit.

What I was driving at was this: For my money, the distinguishing characteristic of European fascism, which Jonah sees as coterminous with Progressivism, is that it was, for lack of a better term, anti-liberal. Or perhaps we should say anti-Progress. After German Romanticism and Rousseau, it saw Enlightenment rationalism as a desiccating philosophy that, as one of my old poli-sci professors put it, effectively cut humankind off from the neck down. The appeal of fascism was that it would recover the simpler, elemental animating passions that the liberal order, with its mundane bourgeois virtues, suppressed.

Now, what do we mean when we fling around the word “liberal” and prefix it with terms like “classical” and “Manchester” and “Lockean”? Were Europe’s—the world’s—first liberals a bunch of breech-clad Grover Norquists grousing about taxation? No: That kind of thing would have to wait about a century, as liberalism traveled on its Anglo-Saxon trajectory. And even during America’s Founding era, liberal values were bound up in the cause of republicanism, which is how we find the author of the Declaration of Independence sympathizing with what we now see as the illiberal excesses of revolutionary France.

The immediate context of Lockean liberalism, though, was the religious strife of early-modern Europe. Locke, and shortly before him Thomas Hobbes, wanted to find a way to turn down the interdenominational heat of Christendom. In his book, The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and the Modern West, Columbia University’s Mark Lilla has a succinct explanation of the great insight of Locke’s conception of limited government: “If the only task of government was to establish hedges around different kinds of human interaction, if it was no longer in the business of saving souls or promoting one sect’s doctrines, it would cease to be a prize for the spiritually ambitious.”

Imagine that, said Locke: a government too circumscribed in scope to be worth the bother of incipient tyrants, and individuals too content being “citizens” to plot each other’s elimination.

Alas, if only it proved to have been that easy.

In one sense, the residue of statism was baked into secular liberalism. Hobbes’ idea of a “Sovereign” was an “earthly God” who could compel such profound fear that his subjects would choose to live in peace rather than defy him.

On the European Continent, at least, it turned out to be a relatively short walk from Locke to humanism to anticlericalism to the French motto “liberte, egalite, fraternite” and on down to “scientific socialism.” (Even Marx conceded that capitalism was an improvement over feudalism; he and his intellectual comrade Friedrich Engels just didn’t want to stop there.)

Where did American Progressivism fit into this schema? Like Wilson, it was highly idiosyncratic. But I’m fairly certain that its adherents saw themselves as perfecting, rather than overturning or rolling back, the liberal order, as fascism did. Fascism was initially a species of what the scholar Michael Mann called leftist nonmaterialism. He wrote: “To be German, Italian, or French, fascists asserted, meant much more than just living in a geographical space; it meant something outsiders could not experience, involving a basic identity and emotion, beyond reason.”

Beyond Reason: If I were learned enough to write a book about fascism, I think that’s what I’d call it. That’s the anti-Enlightenment rub of fascism, and why the nation-states that found themselves in its thrall turned out to be such a devastating rebuttal to the internationalist Wilson’s vision of a concert of democracies. It was catnip for post-Christian tyrants with “spiritual ambition” (Lilla’s phrase).

If anything, Progressivism represented the height of Western/rationalist arrogance about the ability to superintend a large national economy and society. It believed too much in reason and, therefore, viewed constitutional limits on power as foolishly outdated.

Making a long story short, Jonah was right to call me out for implying that there’s one big “progressive” family. What I meant to do was draw a distinction between Progressivism and fascism.