A growing trend in American reactionary thought is painting progressivism as “the cancer of America,” often even misusing the term as a synonym for socialism and radicalism. Progressivism can be loosely defined as reformist “welfare state” capitalism. These days the term “progressive” is usually used to mean the same thing as “liberal,” meaning endorsing the policies of the American Democratic Party, but it also encompasses different ideologies on the left-wing. In a sense, it is a blanket term for the non-revolutionary left.
However, is liberalism truly a radical ideology? The answer is no. The progressive era was hardly “progressive” and certainly not radical, as many of the actions taken were done in order to preserve the wealthy elite and business owners. It was simply a matter of these groups to gain support from different classes. The regulations and interventions of the progressive era were not necessary for emancipation and progress but for saving capitalism from its own collapse. In these regards, the majority of prominent “progressive” Presidents were merely reactionaries painted in a dull tint of reformism; elitist, bourgeois reformers acting with ulterior motives made up large sections of the “movement,” rather than the working class people themselves.
Large state-aided corporations also were able to rise to power throughout the era as well, and in these regards, the progressive era was hardly an era of “radical leftism.” Leftists nonetheless support progressivism over the savage neo-liberalism of today, but it is key that we should realize the distinct differences between progressivism and socialism, and therefore must re-examine their history and theory. In this article, we will examine the major features of the “progressive era,” and offer criticism from a Marxist perspective to further show that Marxism does not in any sense equate to progressivism.
Despite the criticism among numerous hard rightists, FDR was not entirely progressive or radical for that matter, although anything seen as moving the “invisible hand” further away from the market was inherently “radical leftism” to the laissez-faire reactionaries of FDR’s era. At any rate, FDR was aware that reform itself is not strictly progressive, and that it is moreover a conservative approach. Unlike the laissez-faire supporters, FDR realized that capitalism had to be willing to allow some level of reforms, less the whole system collapse. Of course in these regards “progressives” such as FDR were more pragmatic than those who spent their time blaming issues solely on “statism,” as though the state is the cause of all problems in capitalist society.
In relation to his “progressive-conservative” views, FDR said the following in his speech at the Democratic Party in Syracuse, New York on September 29th, 1936: “Wise and prudent men – intelligent conservatives – have long known that in a changing world worthy institutions can be conserved only by adjusting them to the changing time. In the words of the great essayist, ‘The voice of great events is proclaiming to us: reform if you would preserve.’ I am that kind of conservative because I am that kind of liberal.” In other words, FDR is stating that through reforming, he is in actuality preserving the capitalist system. The entire statement was based on a paraphrased quote he had taken from conservative leaning politician, Thomas Babington, during his speech before the House of Commons on March 1, 1831.
Examining FDR in historical context, he had never even been that left on the political scale. If anything, he was a centrist who would occasionally travel from the left to the right where it suited him, only in moderation, much like Obama and other alleged leftists. It was only after a series of working class rebellions between 1934 and 1937 that FDR took more “progressive” stances. Whatever the label, FDR performed numerous actions that were more rightist in their nature than leftist. For example, during World War Two he handed over large amounts of power to the corporations, all of which were able to gain major profits from the newly-established foreign markets and spheres of influence. FDR is also notable for his inherent racism, or at least his paranoia of the Japanese. Thousands of Japanese-Americans were sent to internment camps starting in 1942 with the passing of executive order 9066. During the years where this act was legalized, over 120,000 Japanese-Americans were imprisoned within the camps. Not only were Japanese-Americans sentenced to these camps, but so were over 3000 Italians and 11,000 Germans, including Jewish emigrants. Some of these prisoners remained imprisoned even after the war had ended.
But what of the New Deal? Surely socialists absolutely adore FDR for his New Deal policies, correct? Wrong. Given the millions dead from the Depression and the millions without food or homes, of course it was necessary for the New Deal to exist, but the problem was how it was executed. For example, the public works projects promoted through the New Deal did become helpful to a myriad of Americans in dire conditions, but working conditions on these projects were not exactly acceptable. More than 3 million laborers could be involved in a single project, out of a total of around 8.5 million workers, excluding prisoners. Not only this, but the lack of regulated labor and the poor pay added further insult to injury. A public worker could earn $30, and end up with a mere $5 at the end of the month through the high taxation. One could just as well argue that the New Deal was an attempt to quiet the masses who were in a state of discontent and chaos. FDR’s policies were often inspired by fascism rather than socialism or progressivism as well, as the goal was to silence class struggle. Woodrow Wilson
The notion that Wilson was a progressive is a rather ironic claim. If anything, Wilson was merely an idealistic fool and an advocate of capitalism in “progressive form,” again contrary to the laissez-faire form. It was Wilson’s pitiful occupation policies that desecrated Haiti in an act of imperialism. Imperialism does not equate to socialism. Between 1915 and 1934, the United States needed a location where they could acquire food exports. The government figured that Haiti had decent farmers and so during this time period, it brutally occupied Haiti, dissolving the Haitian parliaments in order to establish a new market. Military forces served as administrators in the provinces, corrupt representatives from the United States wielded the power over government decisions and the Haitian farmers were put under strict working conditions. Over 90% favored occupation of Haiti, but this majority was coming from US imperialists already occupying the land. This majority vote also made up only 5% of the population, with many Haitian citizens unable to vote.
As a result of the occupation, not only were Haitians worked under brutal conditions, but their economy was shattered. Today, Haiti is one of the poorest countries in the world, and even the “philanthropy” of our government is not enough to make up for the numerous problems that have occurred in the area. Wilson also militarily intervened in other numerous Latin American countries, including Cuba and Mexico. In Nicaragua, Wilson’s administration decided the president of the country for themselves, much like in Haiti. In 1916 Wilson worked with the wealthy landowners of the Dominican Republic in order to further suppress rebellion. Wilson’s occupation lasted until 1924; eight years of imperial brutality. If a rightist is claiming that Wilson represented “leftist interests,” one needs only to look at his policies in Russia, where Bolshevism was on the rise, causing chaos and fear among the rightist populace of America. Wilson had his forces sent to Russia to aid the Czarist forces, and a civil war resulted in the end. Even when Wilson claimed he would withdraw his forces in 1920, many remained until as late as 1922.
Of course such brutal foreign policy would result in much criticism, so how did Wilson keep criticism to a minimal level? He silenced all criticism. The Sedition Act of 1918 made it illegal to display any signs of potential dissidence: “Disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language” in relation to anything pro-American was absolutely intolerable. Sentences for such behavior were often as high as ten years. Some sentences could go as high as twenty years, as well as having a large fine reaching as high as $10,000. The Espionage Act of 1917 was also passed in an effort to reduce dissidence, making it illegal to interfere or protest against American military intervention or to pledge any level of support for America’s enemies. Given the similarities between these acts and the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, it merely illustrates the cyclical nature of capitalism’s desperation to save itself and silence all criticism.
With Wilson, it is hard to see anything progressive about the man, contrary to the rightist claims. Wilson took little action against corporations and big business, little action against racism, only aided war where profitable and certainly took no action against harming the working class on an international level. When Wilson ran for president his slogan was “New Freedom,” which is mere irony to both ends of the political spectrum. However, it was this slogan that also wished to introduce “real” competition into the American marketplace—another trait of capitalism, not socialism. The attempts of bringing good ole’ healthy competition to America fell flat on their faces when the inherent monopolization of his presidency became apparent. Wilson’s idealism had a lot in common with contemporary neo-conservatism, not progressivism.
Teddy Roosevelt was essentially one of the first progressive politicians to gain major influence in America. He did envision a society in which smaller business operated without such harmful interference from big corporations, but this view did not equate to socialism and enabled capitalism to thrive in America. It was merely the emphasis on petty-bourgeoisie rather than the proletarian working class. His jingoist nature proved to outweigh his “progressive” views. It was arguably Teddy who helped introduce America to true, more modernized imperialism. While the genocidal acts of the settlers and the Mexican-American war had already proven America’s status as imperialistic at the time, Teddy proved that America was capable of expanding even further overseas to acquire market power.
The Great White Fleet, for example, was essentially nothing but a show of power which promoted further American chauvinism. Theodore Roosevelt was merely a statist capitalist with imperialistic interests and nothing more despite progressive overtones. As for Teddy’s “Square Deal,” much of the same can be said about it as FDR’s “New Deal.” It was intended on silencing the masses rather than emancipation. In fact, part of the Square Deal act included the ability for the federal government to take control of public land. In other words, more privatization—a trait far from socialist policy.
When Roosevelt first came to the presidency, he showed more “promise” when compared to Wilson, for example. He was noted for collaborating with Uninoists such as the UMW, who had protested for higher wages and shorter hours. Teddy granted them their rights in the first years of his presidency. At congress, he made sure to attack those who supported large corporations in order to curb their influence. In 1906, Teddy passed the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act. He also banned segregation of Japanese-American citizens in 1907, which was objectively another progressive act (although he did still call for tight control on immigration). However, by 1905 Roosevelt had already begun to display his imperialistic nature. Roosevelt ended the Monroe Doctrine, which enabled the US government to seize military intervention rights in foreign countries. In fact, in order to further suit his own interests, Teddy called for the Japanese to take Korea for themselves (ironically this would have adverse effects on FDR’s presidency). When it came down to it, Teddy ultimately wished to Americanize the entire world and everyone’s way of life.
“We must Americanize in every way, in speech, in political ideas and principles, and in their way of looking at relations between church and state. We welcome the German and the Irishman who becomes an American. We have no use for the German or Irishman who remains such… He must revere only our flag, not only must it come first, but no other flag should even come second.” Such chauvinistic attitudes are highly anti-Marxist, and therefore cannot be truly perceived as “progressive,” at least in the sense of bringing progress to the world. Given this American exceptionalist attitude taken by Teddy, it is no surprise he was also a racist; how can racism be progressive, even in its historical context? “I have not been able to think out any solution of the terrible problem offered by the presence of the Negro on this continent, but of one thing I am sure, and that is that inasmuch as he is here and can neither be killed nor driven away.” Teddy was even a supporter of eugenics, claiming: “Criminals should be sterilized and feeble-minded persons forbidden to leave offspring behind them.” This begs for the definition of “feeble-minded,” and leaves one assuming that Teddy could have only meant those who were “un-American” or foreigners.
In conclusion, we see that the progressive era was in itself a historical fallacy, a myth perpetrated by rightists to claim that socialistic policy has infiltrated America and spread its cancer. Real progressivism would promote safe, improved working conditions, labor standards, an emphasis on public programs, taxation and minimum wage for example. In comparison to socialism though, it is a petty-bourgeois reformist ideology, no matter how “radical” it may become. It is therefore ultimately a method of preserving the capitalist system by being more inherently “liberal” rather than conservative in its approach in doing so. If anything, socialists and Marxists would not consider any of the above figures as truly progressive. The most noteworthy American politician that can be viewed as progressive according to many Marxists is Abraham Lincoln, whom Marx wrote a letter to commending him for his push for the emancipation proclamation. However, even Lincoln wasn’t truly progressive enough. When it comes down to it, the real “progressivism” lies in the heart of the working class, and the real progress lies in socialism.