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As a “republican,” Sarah Palin must have supported the salting of Carthage in the wake of the Third Punic War.

[ 24 ] August 24, 2010 |

Ilya Somin’s response to my London post is a nifty little walk-back, but he does have a point:

“Progressive” is a general term routinely applied to all those early 20th century writers and political activists who supported large-scale increases in government control of the economy.

That’s not it. That is a definition so broad as to be utterly useless. The trusts “supported large-scale increases in government control of the economy” as a means of putting and keeping labor in its place; manufacturers lobbied first for higher, then lower, then higher tariffs; but I doubt Somin wants to include those interests among his “Progressives.” The point he does make is this:

Perhaps Kaufman was confused by my use of a capital “p” rather than a lower-case one.

I was, but only because I applied a standard that’s been around for about a hundred years instead of Somin’s idiosyncratic non-distinction. Those who ignore this distinction typically did so for practical political reasons, like the fellow who wrote this introduction, who wanted to include lowercase-p progressives under his uppercase-P umbrella in order to make his newly founded party look a little more substantial.

I’m not saying this is a distinction universally upheld, only that it’s more common than not in contemporary scholarship for the simple reason that most scholars abide by the rules of capitalization: proper nouns refer to unique entities and are therefore capitalized. The niceties of orthography are a side show, however, because the main problem with Somin’s post is that he still claims that London was both spectacularly racist and, as he wrote in the first post, “no anomaly among early 20th century Progressives.” London’s racism still only differs in degree, not kind, because as he wrote in the second post, “it was part of a broader pattern of racism among many Progressives of that era.”

Except that it wasn’t. London’s atypical in all respects, and as I demonstrated in my earlier post, neither part of the “Progressive movement” proper and only obliquely involved in the humble-mumble of internecine conflict that defined leftist and liberal politics at the turn of the last century. But I’ve repeated myself. Very dull. How about we venture into the comments over there?

It appears that Scott Kaufman is maintaining the faux history that progressives aren’t either fascists or socialists, when the plain fact of the matter is that they are both.

Or maybe not. If elements of that crowd can’t tell from my post that London couldn’t have been a progressive because he believed they were insufficiently radical, the cause is already lost. But I’m a soldier, so once more into the breach:

As far as I can tell, Google says that Kaufman is the only connection between “nature fakir” and Jack London. And, FWIW, that part about “Darwinian determinism” is nonsense.

Seriously? The first return from Google is too far for someone to tell? What could be closer? Wait, wait, these could be swells of stupidity in an otherwise tempered sea. Let me try one last time:

If you’d like a detailed look at it I’d suggest Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism. Like the excesses of Communism, most of this has simply been written out of history.

Uncle.

Comments (24)

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  1. Tom M says:

    I enjoyed the Ghosts of Cannae with his theory that the treatment of the survivors of that grisly defeat ultimately led to Caesars. Had the troops not been exiled to Sicily and to grow dependent on their generals instead of the republic, the later destruction of said republic could have been avoided.
    Troglodytes who have swallowed as much as they will never yield. Nor will they understand anything that doesn’t conform to what they’ve been led to believe. Nary a dissident voice that can’t be trashed. Anonymously, of course.

  2. jon says:

    Jack London wasn’t much of an exemplar for anything, and he didn’t exactly encourage people to to take him as a role model. He was certainly inspirational to many.

    Looking at radicals and progressives of that time, you can find a near infinite array of opinions, positions and beliefs in a panoply of combinations. It might have been exciting, but it was also confusing, as people labored to find their own expression and the basis for righting wrongs and improving government, work and society. Racism, sexism, nationalism and xenophobias were all on display in varying fashions and degrees.

    Narrow your gaze sufficiently, and you can find example to bolster nearly any point of view. Our friend should realize, pace Goldberg, that an understanding of history is more that choosing two random facts and jamming them together to make a point.

  3. davenoon says:

    Not to prolong the annoying argument about capitalization, but though one part of Somin’s argument is true — that “Progressive” is often used to describe the period or era in which progressive ideas were ascendant — it doesn’t necessarily mean that individual progressives are therefore properly described as “Progressives.”

    • SEK says:

      Moreover, it’s usually paired with “Gilded Age,” which undermines Somin’s notion that the only people who wanted the government to manipulate the economy on their behalf were on the left.

  4. IM says:

    Wasn’t London a socialist? In the iron heel he is quite contemptous of reformers calling them machine breakers who want to stop progress halfway in its tracks.

    And London was quite social darwinistic.

    Racism: The question is of course, were the “Progressives” more or less racist than the erst of America?

    Bonus question: What real life newspaper magnate has a cameo in the Iron Heel as the last independent voice of the middle class crushed by the plutocracy?

    • SEK says:

      Wasn’t London a socialist?

      Very much so, except when he wasn’t. As I noted over there, London was “an inconsistent extremist … as his commitments were weakly held, frequently contradictory, and always rhetorically charged to appeal to purists.”

      And London was quite social darwinistic.

      No. No no no. There was no such beast, as is demonstrated in this masterful dissertation I have lying around here somewhere … more seriously, London learned evolutionary theory from Benjamin Kidd (Malthus) and Herbert Spencer (social applications of the theory), which means that he was a “social Spencerian,” which itself means he was a “social Lamarckian,” as Spencer was a Lamarckian in deep denial. Moreover, London frequently attributed to Darwin passages he’d either copped secondhand from Huxley or Spencer or were actually written by one of the pair.

      • IM says:

        But that doesn’t really matters. As far as I know most social darwinists had only a vague knowledge of Darwin and really followed Lamarck or Spencer or Haeckel or a mixture. That was a philosophy or a political movement, not about biology.

        The term may be wrong*, but is old – 19th century vintage already?

        *and unfair to darwin

        • SEK says:

          Very, very early 20th Century, at least in English. Lester Ward spoke against it in the journal of the unfortunate acronym that was, briefly, the American Sociological Society in 1904 or 1905, but even at that point it was difficult to identify anyone who advocated the idea as it was articulated by Hofstadter in Social Darwinism in American Thought forty years later. (Even there, Hofstadter exaggerates the power and influence of the so-called movement in order to justify the interventionist policies of the New Dealers.)

  5. herr doktor bimler says:

    I am genuinely interested now. Did Jack London support “large-scale increases in government control of the economy”? I always imagined him as a bottom-up socialist, calling for unions to seize control of the economy (rather than relying on the government).

    • SEK says:

      Did Jack London support “large-scale increases in government control of the economy”?

      Depends on when you asked him. The man’s thought was as undisciplined as his education, and especially between 1895 and 1909, he could was frequently persuaded by charismatic speakers or well-written treatises. However, he was persuaded in the manner of a college freshmen, whose devotion to Nietzsche lasted until he read Hegel, who was then replaced by Husserl, then Derrida, then Foucault, etc. In short, he was a charter member of the Philosophy of the Week club.

      That said, his only semi-consistent beliefs were in 1) the existence of Great Men, and their necessity to 2) the Coming Socialist Revolution. It’s an odd belief, contradictory at its heart, but one he attempted to reconcile via the evolutionary theory of James Baldwin. I linked to my talk at the ALA’s Symposium on Naturalism earlier, but let me highlight the relevant bits:

      Lamarck’s complexifying force is vital to one of London’s great influences, Herbert Spencer—it’s the engine behind his dictum that things necessarily develop from the homogeneous to the heterogeneous—but never appears in accounts of social Darwinism. An account of the period emphasizing the influence of the Darwinian “struggle for existence” to the exclusion of the Lamarckian complexifying force fundamentally distorts the process Spencer and his contemporaries thought guided the development of civilization. Despite the contradictions which arise from the wedding of these two evolutionary processes, the resultant theory allows for a more accurate account of the forces believed responsible not only for social development, but also, and importantly for London, its pace.

      Pace was also a key concern of sociologist James Mark Baldwin. Although Lamarck is never mentioned by name in Baldwin’s “A New Factor in Evolution,” his decision to drop “acquired characteristics” in favor of his contemporary Henry Fairfield Osborn’s “ontogenetic variations” is telling, as the process he describes concerns the preservation of traits modified by actions performed in the course of a single lifetime. The difference between his position and Lamarck’s is that Baldwini does not believe this process is strictly biological. In fact, he concludes “A New Factor” with the claim that “evolution is…not more biological than psychological.” Instead of arguing that social development is analogous to biological, Baldwin claims that the pressures motivating biological evolution also motivate social. The Baldwin effect, so called, thus outlines how individuals, by dint of their own cleverness, can alter the conditions of competition both for their offspring and the general population. Baldwin assumes that certain individuals possess what are now called “mental modules” more adaptable than those of their contemporaries. Because of the greater plasticity of their mental modules, they’re better able to recognize a good idea when they see one, and more importantly, reshape their modules in accordance with it. This plasticity was heritable and distributed evenly throughout the human race—among rich and poor, black and white, women and men. If a great leader with a genuinely great idea challenges the prevailing ideology, the people who follow that leader will have more plastic mental modules than those who do not. And since that genuinely great idea would increase the evolutionary fitness of those who followed it, the next generation of the human race would, on the whole, have more people with more plastic modules. Within the course of two generations, then, a people psychologically distinct from their forebears could be created.

      In “Telic Action and Collective Stupidity,” Jack London describes how “the individual is capable of, and does perform, telic actions—that is, adjusts his acts to remote ends; a thing which society never does.” He laments the stupidity of the crowd, here functioning metonymically for society at large, which despite being composed of individuals capable of telic action, en masse behave as if such feats of foresight are impossible. Although he posits no solution to this problem—concluding, somberly, that humans “are as individually wise as [they] are collectively foolish”—he strikes one optimistic note: it is possible for “two or three individuals, or a score, [to] organize a company or corporation and collectively perform telic actions.” Telic actions cannot be performed by acephalous organizations; democracy is hamstrung by “by the arrant idiocy of political organization.” Such actions can only be undertaken by undemocratic organizations whose leaders are chosen not because they represent society at large, but because they don’t. Such leaders will accelerate the process London believes already at work: namely, that “from the facts of [human] history…the trend of [social] development is toward greater and greater collective wisdom.”

      • IM says:

        That all happened prior to the rediscovery of Mendel, right?

        • SEK says:

          Not the Spencer, definitely the London, but Baldwin’s “New Factor” (1895) is almost an immediate contemporary of the folks who rediscovered Mendel (De Vries et al.). What’s been downplayed in the years since the Modern Synthesis, however, is that there were twenty neo-Lamarckians for every neo-Darwinian in the late 1890s and early 1900s. The Lamarckian strain of evolutionary theory was ascendant well into the 20th Century, in part because it was inherently more optimistic than its Darwinian counterpart, i.e. people could be educated, and if they are, they’ll have smarter children, etc. (That’s John Dewey, though my shorthand obviously does his work no justice.)

      • herr doktor bimler says:

        I am gaining the impression that Ilya Somin’s definition of ‘Progressive’, despite being “so broad as to be utterly useless”, still manages to miss the one person it was designed to encompass.

  6. Warren Terra says:

    “Progressive” is a general term routinely applied to all those early 20th century writers and political activists who supported large-scale increases in government control of the economy.

    There is in Conservative thought this weird shibboleth about “Big-Government Liberals”, as if those actually existed. There have been genuine proponents of Big Government, but those are those who believe that the government should nationalize all sorts of things and then administer them for the good of the people, i.e. Socialists, Communists, and doubtless other ideologies of which I’m unaware. But no significant Liberal in the US has proposed any such in decades, if not longer – even on health care single-payer is the proposal that has attracted some minimal representation on the fringe of the Democratic Congressional Caucus, not a single-provider system such as exists in that communist dystopia Britain.

    Liberals feel that society should ensure that every member of society has a certain degree of security and opportunity, and are willing to use Government to achieve those aims if it seems likely to work. Conservatives these days don’t want Government to do those things (or much of anything else other than war, seemingly), and don’t seem to much care whether those things happen at all – all while telling anyone who will listen that the Liberals seek Big Government for its own sake.

    • not a single-provider system such as exists in that communist dystopia Britain.

      The NHS is not single provider; most day to day healthcare comes via GPs, who run private practices and contract to provide services to the populace on behalf of the NHS – single payer, in other words. Hospitals are usually distinct local trusts, which are partly autonomous and spend block grants from central government but which are free to engage in some commercial activity; they’re about as close to single provider as it gets.

  7. So wait. If Jonah Goldberg had title his dopus magnum liberal fascism, would it have been a completely different book?

    • Randy Paul says:

      The one question I wish someone would have asked Goldberg is, if Hitler and Mussolini were lefties, why did they support Franco in the Spanish Civil War and his fascist side and why did Franco send the Division Azul to fight alongside the Nazis?

      If Goldberg wanted to make the case that Franco was a leftie, then I hope he has someone help him on with his shoes.

      • NonyNony says:

        Oh you’re still under the impression that Goldberg is attempting to make an argument, and not just throw chaff up into the air to confuse people.

        Goldberg would probably be able to rattle off an incoherent argument about how Franco was really a leftist. I suspect that if there was money in it, Goldberg could rattle off an incoherent argument about how the sun is green while also being purple.

  8. kth says:

    Whatever Jack London or Woodrow Wilson or Margaret Sanger or whoever envisioned in his/her heart of hearts is quite irrelevant, as [Pp]rogressives had free rein circa 1933 to realize those visions. Conservatives have either to explain why fascism did not then ensue, or to argue that the New Deal was fascistic. Either way, their sophomoric, trifling line of argument can’t hold up.

  9. Aaron Baker says:

    Apropos of nothing: a very smart Australian Classical historian named Ronald T. Ridley proved that the earliest mention of the Romans sowing the ruins of Carthage with salt is in the first edition of the Cambridge Ancient History. The author of the relevant passage appears to have unconsciously transferred imagery from the Bible into his account.

  10. mds says:

    Carthago delendiate est.

  11. Murc says:

    This is just disappointing, is what it is. I’ve seen Ilya make good arguments, or at least tactically sound ones. This is just him continuing to dig himself deep in deeper.

    If you really want to argue that racism was an accepted part of the Progressive movement? That shouldn’t be a huge problem! Racism was an -accepted part of American culture as a whole- during that time period. There were people opposed to it, certainly, but there was no widespread political movement that had said opposition as an integral plank and being a virulent racist in no way removed you from polite society.

    That’s, like, tenth-grade social studies level of knowledge, right there.

    How hard would it be for Ilya to go ‘you know, Jack London was a bad example; dude was batshit, his politics are both more complex and incoherent than I originally thought, and I didn’t realize that until I picked a fight with a dude who’d written a dissertation on the man. My bad, everyone.’

    And then, after you’ve established your credentials as the bigger man, you retrench by digging up shit from ACTUAL crazy racists who were part of the Progressive movement. shouldn’t be that hard. Or heck, you back off even further (‘I capitalized when I shouldn’t have’) and use the small-p progressive, which lets you go straight to the jugular by citing Woodrow Wilson. But continuing to go after London is just silly.

    I will say, in his defense, such as it is, that the nutpicking seems like its unfair. Ilya isn’t responsible for the rats that come out of the walls (its part of having a blog that allows comments) although you can maybe make the case that he ought to be pushing back against them. But policing comments is a full-time job, especially on a blog the size of the VC.

  12. mds says:

    Ilya isn’t responsible for the rats that come out of the walls (its part of having a blog that allows comments)

    Uh-huh. On the other hand, if you find that your comment threads are swarming with rats, and it’s the rats who are among your most ardent defenders, perhaps it’s time for even the merest wisp of self-reflection on your philosophy.

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