Expressions of progressivism
Revolution means regime change. Rulers, ruling institutions, the country’s goals and way of life: revolutionaries want to eliminate all of these and replace them with themselves. If they expect to be able to do this non-violently (1980s Central Europe and South Africa, 1950s France, 19th century England), they will do it that way. If not, not (America 1776-81, France 1789-93 and then regularly Russia, Italy, Germany, China in the last century). The United States experienced a peaceful and successful revolution initiated by progressives in the early 20th century, implemented in the New Deal, and since then extended. However, their peacefulness was no guarantee of their sobriety, any more than the violence of the Revolution of the Founding Fathers in tyranny.
With the exception of the Revolutionary War, violent revolutionaries in America, with the exception of the Ku Klux Klan, have consistently failed after the Civil War. Fortunately, the weathermen are among those mistakes. Revolutionary violence is their “legacy” in the sense that they have passed it on to a subsequent generation – and unexpectedly also to their enemies.
Jay Nordlinger has put together all kinds of explanations for the two recent waves of revolutionary violence. These explanations are reminiscent of the Weather Underground and range from circular vapors to the zeitgeist (the late 1960s were “an extreme time”) to rationalization without reason (they were just “young dreamers”, Martin Luther Kings of the pipe bomb) to Pop sociology (you gathered in groups and one wild thing led to another). Analyzes of our own “extreme time” invoke the well-worn mantra of racial, class and gender grievances on the “left” and pretty much the same on the “right,” with victims and exploiters reversed and Trump erected as lightning rods in the Eye of the storm.
As Nordlinger kindly understands, unlike their progressive predecessors, revolutionaries of the last half century have proven to be “impatient with democratic processes”. Most obviously this has happened because by definition (tautology indeed) all revolutionary violence is aimed at regime change, but that violence is aimed at regime change, the regime of democratic and commercial republicanism. But why the impatience?
When contemporary revolutionaries declare themselves, they claim that the American regime is neither democratic – controlled by capitalist paymasters, says the “left”, nor an internationalist “deep state” says the “right” – nor really commercial – “free corporations” that produced nothing but servitude in one narrative or jobs that were lost to foreign sweatshirts after another.
From all of these explanations, it is easy to find out parts of the truth. But they all overlook the obvious. Revolutionary violence in America today results from the nonviolent triumph of progressivism itself. Whether the revolutionaries appropriate the name or loathe it as a synonym for “Legion”, they are inadvertent expressions of the regime made by progressivism.
American progressivism had a doctrinal and a structural element. Progressivism is doctrinally derived from the moral crisis in 18th century Europe. Where does morality come from? For centuries, of course, the answer was “God”. From Machiavelli to the French encyclopedists, “modernity” had questioned the doctrine of Christianity; Whether “enlightened despots” like Frederick the Great or “enlightened democrats” like Tom Paine, many of the most prominent politicians and polemicists had excluded God as a source of moral principles, whether tacitly or explicitly. Many of these men replaced divine law with what they called “natural law” – often little more than usefulness.
But nature as the source of morality was soon attacked. If, as the Enlightenment suggested, nature is little more than matter in motion, how do you correctly derive it? David Hume, who answered this question by saying that you can’t, tended to explain morality as a set of customs. others (Rousseau, Adam Smith) chose natural feelings; still others, utilitarianism. The theory that proved most convincing to the university professors who formed subsequent generations of preachers, politicians, and writers themselves came from a university professor. As known among university professors, GWF Hegel argued that moral and political law stem from the course of history, which he explained as the rational unfolding of the “Absolute Spirit”, the invigorating principle of all that exists. According to this teaching, everything that happened (in general, if not in detail) happened according to the impersonal and irresistible “laws of history”. There is nothing beyond ‘history’ – very much with an uppercase ‘H.’
Marxist socialism and Spencerian capitalism took Hegel and made him empirical. They keep the ‘history’ and their alleged iron laws. As has been extensively documented by scholars of the history of ideas, the American progressives, who took over the American university faculties after the Civil War, adopted these teachings and “democratized” them. No dictatorship of the proletariat for them; Also no social Darwinist struggle for survival. They preferred a gradual but determined path to egalitarianism, a path taken with the consent of the governed, rather than a forced march. Opinion leaders – Woodrow Wilson, FDR, JFK – and no battalion leaders would show us how to “get on the right side of history”.
When the revolutionaries overthrew and took over their rulers, the “impatience with democracy” soon infected the Democrats. The guillotine turned out to be much faster. Like the Jacobins during the reign of terror, today’s looters, bombers, and burners cannot even rule themselves.
To support this and consolidate “progress”, they set up a ruling structure, the equally well-known administrative state, a centralized bureaucracy that would regulate and regulate the new regime. Bureaucratized and state-subsidized universities, staffed by progressive teachers and administrators, trained both the leaders and officials of the new regime, and often partnered with business enterprises – even now large and often international bureaucracies. Undemocratic? Of course – even aristocratic or oligarchic (“meritocratic” for his friends). But, as Tocqueville saw a century ago, the bureaucracy enforces a “gentle despotism” that easily emerges from a democratic-egalitarian civil society.
The revolutionary violence of the past fifty years has led freedom-minded economists to cite the unintended (if by no means unpredictable) consequences of both progressive doctrine and progressive institutions. Such violence is aimed at the destruction of private property and people – especially “members of the ruling class,” as one radical group put it.
Violence is easy to justify with “history” on the page. If, according to the doctrine of historical fatalism, people have no innate rights, then they are expendable. The weathermen and their allies made this clear in both actions and words. Wherever the radicals “Left” and “Right” have seized state power, the butchers multiply. On the “moderate” side of the continuum, extremists can eliminate their enemies through harassment and censorship – “cancellation”. More subtly, but no less revealingly, Noam Chomsky warns that violence is wrong, not because it is immoral, a violation of human rights, but because it is tactically incapable, “a great gift to rights”; a mistake, but only a tactical one. Bad publicity. If your enemies are destined for the trash can of history, their only rights are as long as you are unable to show them they don’t. And don’t forget to decipher bullying in the meantime.
As for the practical excesses of extremists, one can understandably marvel at the folly of Capitol Hill “storms” taking selfies (real revolutionaries don’t do that) or antifa-ites raging in Portland, one the most socialist-likable cities in America. Such questions will stop when you remember Tocqueville’s analysis of the Jacobins. The old regime of France was one of the earliest examples of the centralized modern state, in which the monarch no longer claimed the status of first among his aristocratic equals, but forced the recognition of his absolute sovereignty, and gathered the aristocrats from the country to the palace of Versailles and replaced them with administrators who were committed to themselves. As a result, nobody in France had any practical experience in politics or government. There have been no real citizens in France for more than a century, even among the aristocrats. When the revolutionaries overthrew and took over their rulers, the “impatience with democracy” soon infected the Democrats. The guillotine turned out to be much faster. Like the Jacobins during the reign of terror, today’s looters, bombers, and burners cannot even rule themselves. Through its top-down, centralized governance, the managing state weakens the practices of self-government, eventually erasing knowledge about them and corrupting the moral skills required to do so in a civil and sensible way. Like the Marxist “consciousness” it mimics, “wakefulness” transforms citizens less into sleepwalkers than into sleep angry, somnambulists of self-righteousness.
The original American progressives proceeded peacefully. They took control of the education system as recommended by men like Woodrow Wilson and John Dewey. The doctrines and political structures that they cultivated in this system have gradually weakened the system itself. The revolutionaries devour both their own children in the abortion mills and their own parents, first in science, then in every other dimension of American life. In this sense, today’s extremists carry on the legacy of the violent part of the left of the 1960s.