Printouts of Progressivism

Revolution means regime change. Rulers, ruling institutions, the purposes of the country and its way of life: Revolutionaries aim at removing and replacing all of these with, well, themselves. If they reckon that they can do so nonviolently (1980s Central Europe and South Africa, 1950s France, 19th century England) they’ll do it that way. If not, not (America 1776-81, France 1789-93 and periodically thereafter, Russia, Italy, Germany, China in the last century). The United States has seen one peaceful and successful revolution, inaugurated by Progressives early in the 20th century, consummated in the New Deal and extended ever since. Its peacefulness was no guarantee of its sobriety, however, any more than the violence of the Founding Fathers’ revolution issued in tyranny.

Except for the War for Independence, violent revolutionaries have failed in America, consistently, with the partial exception of the post-Civil War Ku Klux Klan. The Weathermen, thankfully, count among those failures. Revolutionary violence is their “legacy” in the sense that they have passed it down to a subsequent generation—and unexpectedly, to their enemies, as well.

Jay Nordlinger has assembled all manner of explanations folks offer for the two most recent surges of revolutionary violence. Recalling the Weather Underground, these explanations range from circular vaporing about the Zeitgeist (the late 1960s was “an extreme time”) to rationalization sans reason (they were only “young dreamers,” Martin Luther Kings of the pipe bomb), to pop sociology (they got together in groups, you see, and one wild thing led to another). Analyses of our own “extreme time” invoke the well-worn mantra of race, class, and gender grievances with respect to the ‘Left,’ and pretty much the same thing on the ‘Right,’ with victims and exploiters reversed and Trump erected as lightning rod in the eye of the storm.

As Nordlinger kindly understates it, revolutionaries of the past half-century have proved “impatient of democratic processes,” unlike their Progressive predecessors. Most obviously, this has happened because while by definition (indeed tautology) all revolutionary violence aims at regime change, this violence aims at changing our regime, the regime of democratic and commercial republicanism. But why the impatience?

When explaining themselves, contemporary revolutionaries claim that the American regime is neither democratic—controlled by capitalist paymasters, saith the ‘Left,’ or an internationalist ‘deep state,’ saith the ‘Right’—nor genuinely commercial—‘free enterprise’ having produced nothing but servitude in the one narrative, or jobs lost to overseas sweatshops, according to the other.

It’s easy to pick out pieces of truth from all these explanations. But they all overlook the obvious. Revolutionary violence in contemporary America results from the nonviolent triumph of Progressivism itself. Whether the revolutionaries appropriate the name for themselves or abominate it as a synonym for “Legion,” they are unintended printouts of the regime Progressivism made.

American Progressivism has had a doctrinal element and a structural one. Doctrinally, Progressivism derives from the moral crisis seen in 18th century Europe. Where does morality come from? For centuries, of course, the answer was “God.” From Machiavelli to the French Encyclopedists, ‘the moderns’ had challenged the teaching of Christianity; whether ‘Enlightened despots’ like Frederick the Great or ‘Enlightened democrats’ like Tom Paine, many of the most prominent politicians and polemicists had ruled out God as the source of moral principles, whether tacitly or explicitly. Many of these men substituted what they called ‘natural right’—often amounting to little more than utility—for divine right.

But nature as the source of morality soon came under attack. If, as the Enlighteners claimed, nature is little more than matter in motion, how do you derive right from it? David Hume, who answered that question by saying that you can’t, inclined to explain morality as a set of customs; others (Rousseau, Adam Smith) chose natural sentiments; still others, utilitarianism. The theory that proved most persuasive to the university professors who educated subsequent generations of preachers, politicians, and writers itself, sure enough, came from a university professor. As is well known among university professors, G.W.F. Hegel argued that moral and political right come from the course of history, which he explained as the rational unfolding of the ‘Absolute Spirit’ the animating principle of all that exists. According to this doctrine, all that has happened (generally, if not down to the details) happened according to the impersonal and irresistible ‘laws of history.’ There is nothing above and beyond ‘History’—very much with a capital ‘H.’

Marxian socialism and Spencerian capitalism took Hegel and made him empirical. They retain ‘History’ and its supposed iron laws. As has been exhaustively documented by scholars of the history of ideas, the American Progressives who took over U. S. university faculties in the aftermath of the Civil War adopted these doctrines and ‘democratized’ them. No dictatorship of the proletariat for them; no Social-Darwinist struggle for survival, either. They preferred a gradual but determined walk towards egalitarianism, a walk undertaken with the consent of the governed, not a forced march. Leaders of opinion—Woodrow Wilson, FDR, JFK—not leaders of battalions would show us how to ‘get on the right side of History.’

When the revolutionaries overthrew their rulers and took over, “impatience with democracy” soon infected the democrats. The guillotine proved so much quicker. Like the Jacobins during the Reign of Terror, today’s looters, bombers, and burners can’t even govern themselves.

To aid in this, and to consolidate ‘progress,’ they instituted a ruling structure, the equally well-known administrative state, a centralized bureaucracy that would regularize and regulate the new regime. Bureaucratized and state-subsidized universities, staffed by Progressive teachers and administrators, would train both the leaders and the functionaries of the new regime, often interlocking with business corporations—themselves now extensive and often international bureaucracies. Undemocratic? Of course—even aristocratic or oligarch (‘meritocratic’ to its friends). But, as Tocqueville had seen a century earlier, bureaucracy imposes a “soft despotism” that readily arises out of a democratic-egalitarian civil society.

The revolutionary violence of the past fifty years or so has resulted in what liberty-minded economists like to call the unintended (though far from unforeseeable) consequences of both Progressive doctrine and Progressive institutions. Such violence aims at the destruction of private property and persons—specifically, “members of the ruling class,” as one radical group put it.

With ‘History’ on one’s side, violence is easy to justify. If, according to the doctrine of historical fatalism, human beings have no innate rights, then they are expendable. The Weathermen and their allies made this obvious in both deeds and words. Wherever radicals ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ have seized state power, the butcheries multiply. On the ‘moderate’ side of the continuum, extremists can eliminate their enemies by means of harassment and censorship—‘cancellation.’  More subtly, but no less tellingly, Noam Chomsky warns that violence is wrong not because it’s immoral, a violation of human rights, but because it’s tactically inept, “a major gift to the Right”; a mistake, but only a tactical one. Bad publicity. If your enemies are destined for History’s dustbin, they only have rights so long as you are not yet in a position to show them that they don’t. And don’t forget to decry ‘bullying’ in the meantime.

As for the excesses of extremists in practice, one may, understandably, wonder at the folly of the Capitol Hill ‘stormers’ taking selfies (real revolutionaries don’t do things like that) or Antifa-ites rampaging in Portland, one of the most socialist-sympathetic cities in America. Such wondering will cease if you recall Tocqueville’s analysis of the Jacobins. Old Regime France was one of the earliest examples of the centralized modern state, the one in which the monarch no longer claimed the status of first among his aristocratic equals but enforced recognition of his absolute sovereignty, gathered the aristocrats out of the countryside into the palace of Versailles, and replaced them with administrators beholden to himself. As a result, no one in France had any practical experience in politics and government. There hadn’t been any real citizens in France for more than a century, even among the aristocrats.  When the revolutionaries overthrew their rulers and took over, “impatience with democracy” soon infected the democrats. The guillotine proved so much quicker. Like the Jacobins during the Reign of Terror, today’s looters, bombers, and burners can’t even govern themselves. By its top-down, centralized way of ruling, the administrative state weakens the practices of self-government, eventually wiping out the knowledge of how to do it and corrupting the moral capacities needed to do it in a civil and sensible way. Like the Marxist ‘consciousness’ it imitates, ‘wokeness’ turns citizens not so much into sleepwalkers as sleep-rampagers, 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 they fostered in that system have gradually weakened the system itself. The revolutionaries devour both their own children, in the abortion mills, and their own parents, first in academia, then in every other dimension of American life. In that sense, today’s extremists do carry on the legacy of the violent portion of the Sixties Left.