Posts Tagged ‘Eric Goldman’

Looking back on the Progressive Era

February 10, 2012

I first read RENDEZVOUS WITH DESTINY: A History of Modern American Reform by Eric Goldman when I was in college in the 1950s.  It is a history of American progressivism and liberalism from Grant to Truman.  Its pivot is the Progressive Era, 1890-1920.  I reread it a couple of weeks ago to see if it held any lessons for today.

The issues of the Progressive Era – corporate monopoly, Wall Street’s power, corruption, global trade, immigration, racial and religious prejudice, the gap between the haves and the have-nots – are still with us today, and our thinking on these issues has not gotten far beyond the ideas of the Progressive Era.

Goldman focused on the ideas of middle-class reformers and college-educated intellectuals, rather than insurgent farmers and industrial workers, which I think is justified, because few social reforms have ever been accomplished in the United States without the support of the middle class.

He did not attempt to define progressivism and liberalism, words which represented different things in different eras.  If there are any common threads at all in progressivism, they are sympathy for the underdog, opposition to the power of big business and a desire to improve rather than replace American capitalism and democracy.  Communism, anarchist and other radical ideologies are outside the scope of Goldman’s book.

At the dawn of the Progressive Era, the big banks, railroads and industrial corporations largely controlled government in their own interest.  Corruption was rampant; bribery was common.  What was even more powerful than money was what Goldman called “the steel chain of ideas.”  It was commonly accepted that regulation of economic activity was (1) unconstitutional, (2) contrary to the laws of economics, (3) contrary to Darwin’s principle of survival of the fittest and (4) contrary to God’s law—all arguments that are still made today.

Goldman devoted several chapters to reform interpretations of law, economics, Darwinism and the social gospel.  The common thread was the pragmatic philosophy that there is more than one way of looking at any thing, and you should choose the one that works best for the benefit of all.  John Dewey was the great exponent of this way of thinking.  The problem with this way of thinking, as Goldman pointed out, is that a pragmatist has to make a separate decision in each situation because on the circumstances of the particular case.   Pragmatism is not founded on a rock.  It is hard for pragmatists to stand up to absolutists.

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