Taking Communism away from the Communists:
The Origins of Modern American Liberalism
by Fred Siegel
Modern liberalism has been defined conceptually as the experimental method applied to politics and as the mentality which insists that culture, not nature, puts the future of humanity in its own hands. In terms of American history, modern liberalism is presented as an adaptation of nineteenth-century laissez-faire
liberal individualism to the growth of big business, and as an updated expression of Jacksonian animus to vested interests. There is something substantial in all of these approaches. But, even taken together, they leave out a great deal.
Modern liberalism has been compared favorably and unfavorably and even conflated with its competitors, communism, socialism, Fabianism, social democracy, anarchism, and fascism. What it has in common with its rivals is that it was a fully fledged ideology that effloresced at the turn of the twentieth century in opposition to the newly emergent worlds of mass production, mass politics, and mass culture. Of all these frameworks, social democracy was the only one that never descended into an "ism." Social democracy satisfied a satiable hunger on the part of working people for a greater share of capitalism's bounty. The others were in search of an unattainable quest for a secular soteriology, a political path to salvation.
Like communism, Fabianism, and fascism, modern liberalism was born of a new class of politically self-conscious intellectuals who despised both the individual businessman's pursuit of profit and the conventional individual's pursuit of pleasure, both of which were made possible by the lineaments of the limited nineteenth-century state. Like anarchism and social democracy, liberalism embraced heroes without enthroning supreme leaders. Like all but social democracy, liberalism was strongly influenced by the Nietzschean ideal of a true aristocracy that might serve as a counterpoint to what were seen as the debasements of modern commercial society shorn of traditional hierarchies.
Liberalism was far more intellectually permeable, and far more politically adaptable, than most of its competitors and more willing than all but the trade-union-tied social democrats to work through the existing government structures. These qualities brought it to the forefront of American life. But it nonetheless represents a distinct ethos often at odds with America's democratic and capitalist traditions. The best short credo of liberalism came from the pen of the literary historian Vernon Parrington in the late 1920s. "Rid society of the dictatorship of the middle class," Parrington insisted, referring to both democracy and capitalism, "and the artist and the scientist will erect in America a civilization that may become, what civilization was in earlier days, a thing to be respected." Alienated from middle-class American life, liberalism drew on an idealized image of both organic pre-modern folkways and the harmony to come when it would re-establish the proper hierarchy of virtue in a post-bourgeois, post-democratic world.
Historically, the main streams of modern liberal ideology flowed from two very different headwaters, both of which emerged from the hot springs of World War I. The first, which took a culturally libertarian course, was a response to the excesses of Woodrow Wilson's World War I propaganda campaign and to the 1919 "Red Scare," an anti-Bolshevik fright fest that followed the war with mass arrests and deportations. Its bedrock assumption was that middle-class American society was an agent of repression that stifled the creativity of its intellectuals and artists. The second statist stream flowed from the government's enhanced control of the economy during World War I. The War Industries Board created to supply the American Expeditionary Force in Europe inspired the liberal love affair with a planned economy of the sort that came to be represented by the Soviet Union. Its underlying assumption, even before the onset of the Great Depression, was that the American government, if it were turned over to the proper professionals, could be an agent of both economic and moral salvation. In its varied incarnations, liberalism embraced both the ideal of the spontaneous, culturally creative individual and government economic planning that depended on making people predictable. Over time the two streams converged as the chemically unstable admixture of cultural libertarianism and economic statism we recognize as contemporary liberalism. Different though they were and still are, the two streams flowed into the same river bed carved out by a common hostility to the middle-class mores associated with despoliations of democracy and by hopes for a Europeanized America led by a new aristocracy of talent.