YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

May 15, 2012

Progressive uplift vs. “New Left” nihilism

Bill Ayers, Weatherman

Several writers on the Right have been selling books with the premise that the Progressive movement in early 20th century America was protofascist, or fascist and racist. Their aim is to mobilize their constituencies to vote for organic conservatives like themselves in the hopes of halting “the nanny state.”  Similarly, they dwell on the President’s links to racist extremists in the period before he ran for office as a uniter, not a divider.

In this blog, I argue that it is an error to link in any way whatsoever the Progressive uplifters and more recent advocates of violence and anarchy. For uplift was an orderly process, an expression of the “moderate” strategies of the chief publicists of progressivism. It was also, at its core, defined against “revolutionary radicalism” as evidenced in the I.W.W. or anarchism in the labor movement. Here is a juicy example of their thought, taken from my book on Melville and from a previous blog. (See http://clarespark.com/2009/11/13/supermen-wanted-early-freudians-and-the-mob/, also http://clarespark.com/2010/03/10/jonah-goldbergs-liberal-fascism-part-one/.)

[Revolutionary Radicalism, “Epilogue”:] “In this rapid survey of a new and important educational idea we have carried Marja, the immigrant girl, from king and caste-ridden Europe to America, the land of hope and opportunity. We have seen her struggle with an unknown tongue and with ways of life unfamiliar to her. In the end we see her transformed, reborn–no longer foreign and illiterate, but educated and self-respecting. Later she will marry and her children, though they may have traditions of another land and another blood, will be Americans in education and ideals of life, government and progress. It was been worth while that one man has broken through this barrier and made the road clear for others to follow.

“All real education has the development of discipline as its basis. Poise, self-control and self-esteem are characteristic of the well-ordered mind, and the growth of these in the industrial worker makes for efficient service and better wages. Gradually there is an awakening of social consciousness–the awareness of one’s place in society and the obligations such membership entails upon the individual in respect to the group or racial mass, with a constantly developing sense of one’s personal responsibility in all human relationships.

“In conclusion, the higher significance of this work means that we must descend the shaft and share the lives of those that dwell in the lower strata–the teeming populations that never see the stars or the green grass, scent the flowers or hear the birds sing–the huddled, hopeless foreign folk of the tenements. We are living in the Age of Service, and are growing into a conviction that life is not a matter of favored races or small, exclusive social groups, but embraces all humanity and reaches back to God. To those of prophetic soul comes a vision of the day that haunted Tennyson when ‘The war-drum throbbed no longer and the battle flags were furled/ In the Parliament of Man, the Federation of the World.’ ” [From N.Y. State Legislature. Joint Committee Investigating Seditious Activities, Revolutionary radicalism: its history, purpose and tactics with an exposition and discussion of the steps being taken and required to curb it, being the report of the joint legislative committee investigating seditious activities filed April 24, 1920 in the Senate of the State of New York (Albany: J.B. Lyon, 1920), 2014, 2201, 3136-3137.]

Here we have a statement that is clearly ideological in favor of order and their version of Americanization; for a related blog see http://clarespark.com/2009/09/19/populism-progressivism-and-corporatist-liberalism-in-the-nation-1919/ .

Far different was the Prairie Fire contingent of Maoists (along with hippies and anarchists?): See /http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Weather_Underground_Organization#Prairie_Fire_1974) who took over (replaced?) Students for A Democratic Society from the “Old Guard” in the late 1960s. First a bit of socialist history. In 19th century Marxist thought, it was the educated and urbanized working class that would comprise the vanguard of change. But after the stunning success of the Soviet coup in October 1917, Leninism (a branch of socialist thought that lauded bureaucratic centralism and the vanguard of intellectuals), the old Marxist anti-statist paradigm was discarded in favor of “Marxist-Leninism” with its attendant Trotskyist notion that the communist utopia could leapfrog over the bourgeois democratic phase, and stir the victims of imperialism to overthrow their European or American masters by any means necessary. (It was Stalin, not Trotsky, who insisted upon “socialism in one country.”) In China, a model for 1960s revolutionaries everywhere, the rural population was now the revolutionary vanguard, provided that they were taught by the correctly indoctrinated intellectual layer.

Such journalists as Theodore White and Edgar Snow transmitted the Maoist message to American radicals, where they received support from a communist-sympathetic faction in the U.S. Department of State.  (For details, see http://clarespark.com/2011/06/30/links-to-review-essay-on-hemingway-spy-mission-to-china/.)

To these developments in revolutionary theory, add the general brutalization caused by the slaughter of the Great War, much emphasized by George L. Mosse and his students at the U. of Wisconsin; while in the realm of culture, primitivism ruled the 1920s as a white response to the growing power or prestige of New Negroes, New Women, and working class radicalism. Indeed, Ernest Hemingway’s rise to cultural prominence as a manly prose stylist may be seen as a purification of the too-florid and feminized Victorian culture that had put white males on the defensive. Supermen were wanted, and supermen were provided by our leading writers in the Nietzsche fad that still finds adherents among ambitious students, for instance those who follow such decadent musicians as Jim Morrison and the Doors.

And what were the order-loving nativists of the Progressive movement doing after the war? They were certainly not manning the outposts of the grand innovations of mass media, including radio and the movies. Rather, that task fell to recent immigrants, who sought audiences among the masses whose instinctive populism was fully exploited, as I described here in my blog on Charles Murray (http://clarespark.com/2012/05/04/3957/):

“Early Hollywood had no illusions about mass taste, and provided adventure, sex and violence to a readymade audience that already was alienated from snooty and exclusive nativist old families. The Mayers or Goldwyns or Laemmles and their movie or television offspring still adhere to populist feeling and a hefty dose of primitivism. Social realism and didacticism do not sell, except as a warning to other “liberals” that the natives are restless and gun toting, or that criminals may be running everything. But Murray is worried that the white working class is obese and watches too much television, as if the skinnier upper classes do not enjoy the more sophisticated adventures, romance, soft porn, escapism, and even artiness provided by the younger writers and producers, affected as they have been by counter-culture naughtiness, identification with Marlon Brando or James Dean, clever parodies, and fun.”

When I first started my Pacifica radio programs on the art world in the early 1970s, I noticed that the Los Angeles hipster male artists were fans of Eldridge Cleaver and Malcolm X. Since I was relatively uneducated in the ways of black supremacy or nihilism* in general, I was not on guard. Not long ago, I checked out a copy of a manifesto titled Prairie Fire (1974), a production of the Weather Underground (authors William Ayers, Bernadine Dohrn, Jeff Jones, and Celia Sojourn). It was so violent in its language and in its aims, that I had to put it down; it was simply unbearable in its stridency. For a fictional peek into the European nihilists who were their contemporaries, see William Herrick’s Love and Terror (1981), a brilliant and disturbing work that reveals the mindset of the Baader-Meinhof gang. The intellectual antecedents of such urban terrorists are not to be found in the utopian thought of Marx, but in the ravings of such radicals as Marx’s rivals: Proudhon and Bakunin, earlier Babeuf, later George Sorel. For all of them “property is theft” and no crime is too vicious, no product of human labor off limits to their fury and defiance.

I wrote this blog because I see the some of the same thuggery in some protest movements (the “Red-Greens”, the Occupy Wall Street troops, Chicano irredentism, or black liberationist tendencies–see photo of Michelle Obama associating with the Nation of Islam below). I worry that the Baby Boomer parents of the antiwar generation who raised their children to be spontaneous and creative, will only egg on the mindless acting out in which they, the sadder but un-wiser generation, frequently indulged as young women and men. These nouvelle enragées owe nothing to the progressives who led both American political parties to dominance in the 20thcentury. It is also true that Communists infiltrated the progressive movement, using the Popular Front as their entry. The writing of “cultural history” has been deformed accordingly.

*By nihilism, I do not refer to anthropology that argues for cultural relativism and historicism, but to the apparent promotion of “beast of prey” by Nietzsche in such works as Beyond Good and Evil or The Genealogy of Morals, both read and studied by Jim Morrison (see comment below that defends Nietzsche against such readings).

Michelle Obama and friends

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18 Comments »

  1. To those who want a revolution, what happens after? What is your formulation for a better constitution?

    Comment by Dennis — May 26, 2012 @ 9:22 pm | Reply

  2. Can I raise an objection to your characterisation of Nietzsche in the footnote? There are nasty things in Nietzsche’s work, but he was not advocating “the destruction of all civilised values”. He was, in the first instance, a critic of nihilism, taking pains to indicate how the death of God could well lead gradually to the nihilism of the Last Man and the Last Woman – a couch potato pseudo-civilisation in which nothing matters any longer as long as those men and women are fed and entertained. Nietzsche’s concern was to think through how that fate could be avoided while accepting the death of God.

    Comment by Torn Halves — May 20, 2012 @ 7:32 am | Reply

    • I take your point. Perhaps Morrison’s lyrics can be seen as laments sung by the Last Man. Wikipedia has a lengthy explanation of Nietzsche’s philosophy with respect to nihilism here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nihilism. Still Nietzsche is widely viewed as an aristocratic radical, antidemocratic to the core.

      Comment by clarespark — May 21, 2012 @ 2:07 am | Reply

      • The ‘death of God’ has led to ‘a couch potato pseudo-civilisation in which nothing matters’, no doubt about it.

        As a result, many of us are missing the progressive ‘uplift’ here.

        Comment by churchmouse — July 5, 2012 @ 11:19 pm

      • I quoted the progressive recipe for uplift solely because at least it had a sense of order to it, no matter how utopian. In my view, it is possible to have a morality without belief in a deity, but the nihilists believe in nothing, not even our obligation to telling the truth about history, wars, conflicts, and on and on.

        Comment by clarespark — July 5, 2012 @ 11:23 pm

  3. [...] Progressive uplift vs. “New Left” nihilism (clarespark.com) [...]

    Pingback by The Left’s War on Language – John Malcolm — May 19, 2012 @ 11:37 pm | Reply

    • I read your blog, and wish you had gone farther in describing corruption at every level of government, and in both political parties. I don’t see any hope without a massive effort at education reform, in which accurate history is taught, no matter whose ox is gored.

      Comment by clarespark — May 20, 2012 @ 12:39 am | Reply

  4. “I see the same thuggery in some protest movements (the “Red-Greens”, the Occupy Wall Street troops, Chicano irredentism, or black liberationist tendencies” — some babies going out with that bathwater, Clare. If the issue is violence, address that directly. I think OWS has given us a new organizational model of non-hierarchical democratic collaboration and it has done so with a commitment to non-violence, barring a few nitwits who are probably egged on by gov’t provocateurs. Do you support a commitment to non-violence or not? If not, where do you draw the lines? If violence is ever justified, then why is not always justified?

    Comment by dave — May 19, 2012 @ 4:53 am | Reply

    • To Dave, first, I hope that you can identify all the provocateurs in the OWS movement and see to it that they don’t blemish your non-violent ethos. Second, violence is always justified as self-defense. And I have seen non-hierarchical democratic collaboration in practice. It is a utopian dream that such is possible. The ones I witnessed were quickly corrupt and authoritarian, and/or turned into stupidity and ineffectuality in realizing the fine-sounding goals. Pacifica radio is one dark and horrible example of a democratic vision gone wrong.

      Comment by clarespark — May 19, 2012 @ 5:20 am | Reply

  5. Hot summer indeed…..

    Comment by David Williams — May 17, 2012 @ 12:46 am | Reply

  6. I disagree with Carmen. I think that it is vital to distinguish the constructive left from the destructive one. The recent blurring of this distinction will destroy the left and all that is good about it. There are precious few of us in the Democratic end of our political spectrum who see the dangers of this. I cannot follow this trend of my political party. Over the years, I have followed the critique of the left by the intelligent elements in the Republican and Libertarian right because none of this yet exists in the Democratic mainstream, save thinkers such as Ms. Spark. We are in danger of losing self awareness and the capacity of self critique, especially of the kind that will save the core ideals that animate the impulse to help the downtrodden. The left and our Democratic Party needs to be intellectually overhauled at the most fundamental level, and the instinctive impulse to reject and ridicule this imperative that can be seen in Carmen’s dismissal will be the downfall of all the we hold dear in our ideals.

    Comment by Dennis — May 16, 2012 @ 2:20 pm | Reply

  7. Sorry, hon, nobody wants to read this tripe.

    Comment by Carmen — May 16, 2012 @ 4:20 am | Reply

    • …and your contribution to the conversation is what exactly? Given the growth of Ms. Sparke’s readership as evidenced in her article’s comments sections, I assert Clare’s “tripe” is steak to many who hunger for commentary not offered by the usual collection of MSM talking heads.

      Comment by Poppakap — May 26, 2012 @ 2:52 am | Reply

      • I think that “Poppakap” was defending my honor in response to “Carmen’s” comment. And I am grateful for such a kind statement.

        Comment by clarespark — May 26, 2012 @ 3:12 am

      • Clare, I am new to your blog. I have re-read this post a second time and clicked your link to the juicy bits, but I am still not clear what those of us who align ourselves (with reservations) with protest movements like OWS have to learn from the discourse you quote (“descending the shaft…[to interview] the huddled foreign folk”). I may have got completely the wrong end of the stick. That seems to be a discourse of containment, which would make some sort of sense as long as you believe that we are now well on the road to achieving a good social order.

        The problem for those of us who maintain that revolution is still an option is that we see no such road. What is the good social order that our elders and betters are leading us toward? Where is the narrative (and we are not so nihilistic that we cannot believe a good narrative, even while accepting that it is not The Narrative)? The Big Problem from here at the bottom of the shaft is the nihilism of those with poise and self esteem on the board of directors of the mining company. Where are they leading us? Why don’t they explain? What are they hiding?

        As I say, I have probably only half grasped a tiny snippet of a much longer conversation, and failed to get the point.

        P.s. I it is hard not to get angry when one hears that the day before yesterday an unemployed musician in his early 60s here in Greece, had reached such a terrible state of penury and despair, with no hope of receiving help from either his neighbours or the state, that he jumped together with his elderly mother from the balcony of his sixth floor Athens apartment.

        Comment by Torn Halves — May 26, 2012 @ 8:22 am

      • I did not quote the argument for uplifting Marja because I liked it, but because that was the logic of assimilation for conservatives writing in 1920 after a year or two of massive strikes and fear of radical immigrants. I then contrasted this comparatively rational programme with the nihilism I complained about, which in my view, sees life as not worth the candle, and is irrationalist. I am not an anticapitalist, but a scholar who writes about ideology and social movements, decoding that propaganda that I understand, and bringing material from primary sources to the attention of readers, so that they use terms with greater understanding of what they meant in the modern world. In my own socialization I was taught to revere puritan/middle-class values, scholarship, the dignity of labor, and the importance of quality education for everyone, including training in economics, science, and mathematics. But I am not an activist, telling people how to live, only to live with great self- and social awareness.

        Comment by clarespark — May 26, 2012 @ 2:32 pm

      • Thanks for that clarification, and let me say that I share most of the values you espouse. Yesterday I was re-reading some pieces about art by Walter Benjamin (after first reading them in the 1980s) and had a horrible sense that the texts had died. I feel the same in relation to the comparatively rational programme that you juxtapose to the thuggery of the protesters. There is no space here to develop the response that is needed but let me pick up on the traces of the Enlightenment that I detect. The references to the light are interesting. We the educated and the disciplined are in the light, while the lower strata are in the dark. The light is one, just as Reason is singular. The educated and disciplined will agree on how to form the Parliament of Man. When everyone is able to step out into the light, their differences will cease to matter.

        I am not an existentialist, but from the beginning the Enlightenment discourse has struck me as both true and untrue, and as time goes by, it seems increasingly important to keep that untruth in view. The challenge is to find a way to think beyond the Englightenment without falling into the trap of PoMo nihilism (a bad relativism of anything goes).

        Your post reminds me of Neil Postman’s book “Building a Bridge to the 18th Century”. I nodded all the way through that book, saying to myself: “Yes, those 18th century values were so much sounder than the ones that have gained hegemony now.” But then there is the obvious question: How did we get here? And the obvious answer is: We got here from the 18th century.

        Comment by Torn Halves — May 28, 2012 @ 7:38 am

      • We got here because the Constitution was newly interpreted by Progressive judges, like Brandeis. His view of an activist Court was further developed out of fear of another working class revolution after years of mobilizing by workers and their allies.

        Comment by clarespark — May 28, 2012 @ 2:41 pm


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