Contemporary Progressivism: Uncivil War on the Left

Progressives are under attack from the left. When a self-described progressive professor objected to an activity on his campus on the grounds that it violated norms of equality, he defended himself by saying “I am talking about terms that serve the truth.” A student responded, “We don’t care what terms you want to speak on. We are not speaking on terms of white privilege.” Commenting on the confrontation between the professor and the student, another professor remarked, “it was ‘unintentionally racist, but racist nonetheless’ for a white person to question the wisdom of [students] who ‘know the experiences of exclusion and oppression.’”[1]

These remarks show the increasingly uncivil war dividing the left. The dominant force in American politics in the 20th century, and in another form since the founding, progressivism is under attack now not only from the right, but from the left. The progressive professor appealed characteristically to equality, freedom, reason, argument and truth. The students and their faculty supporters argued that such standards represented only a racial point of view. To such students and faculty (let us call them leftists), all speech is an expression only of privilege and power, in the service of some interest of gender, class, or race. There is literally no reason, therefore, to listen to opposing views (“we don’t care what terms you speak on”). Opposing views are necessarily oppressive, because they represent only the interests of those speaking, and thus are a threat to any listener who does not share those (racial, gender, class) interests.

The leftist position undermines the American tradition of free speech. The progressive tradition from the founding forward held that speech was different from physical acts and should therefore be allowed greater freedom than those acts. As Jefferson bluntly put it, “it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”[2] The assumption behind this claim is that speech and only speech may reveal the truth, the truth that the people need to direct their lives and govern themselves, the truth that will allow them to detect and defeat what Jefferson called the designs of ambitious men. Moreover, for Jefferson and the other revolutionaries, and the whole progressive tradition, free speech is the key to progress: free speech “protects criticism, and criticism leads to progress.”[3] Therefore, even if hurtful, speech should be treated differently from physical acts, and allowed maximum freedom. According to the leftists, all speech is, like any other action, only a seeking for the advantage of some interest. It does not reveal the truth, only the class, race, or gender interest or privilege of the speaker. Speech is not free, therefore, but an interest-driven act seeking advantage. Because speech is not free, there is no reason to allow “free speech.” It should be regulated or restricted like other actions.

The civil war among progressives and leftists is not just about the scope of free speech, it cuts more deeply, into the heart of the human capacity for self-government. This is so because the progressive tradition’s commitment to free speech and the other liberties essential to self-government rests on a more fundamental commitment, a disposition to be tolerant. In a government of the people, if the people are not tolerant, it will be hard for legal freedoms of speech, assembly, and religion to long endure. If the people are not tolerant, in ways beyond the reach of the law, these freedoms will be endangered. Public opinion – tolerant or intolerant – is the ultimate authority, not the law or the constitution. Various episodes in American history attest to this truth. By undermining tolerance of differences, the leftists undermine self-government.

The civil war among progressives and leftists and the threat to self-government has arisen because of a fundamental change in progressive thinking that began in the late decades of the nineteenth century. From the beginning, Americans were committed to technological, moral and political improvement – to progress – but until the late nineteenth century, some conception of nature or divinity or, most commonly, of a divinely created nature guided and tempered this American longing for improvement. Whatever expectations Henry Ward Beecher had for political, moral, and social progress were shaped by his understanding of the unchanging difference between the divine, the human, and the bestial. His understanding was not essentially different from Thomas Jefferson’s or Abraham Lincoln’s. Those things deemed to violate this natural order, like slavery, were wrong and should not be tolerated.

In the late nineteenth century, this appeal to nature’s God began to lose its authority because it became harder and harder to take for granted the conception of the natural order on which it depended, one in which the difference between the bestial and the human was clear and unchanging. In the absence of some sense of natural order, progressivism became marked more and more by a commitment to history as a process that revealed the truth rather than as a process unfolding according to the truth, whether reasoned or revealed. Lincoln could speak of the gradual realization of equality because men were equal by nature. That unchanging natural standard should guide political and moral reform; it determined what was progressive and what was not (slavery and polygamy were not, as the Republican platform noted in 1856). Yet later progressives talked about the superiority of one race to another – of Europeans to all others – because that is what history revealed, or so it seemed in the late nineteenth century, with European power triumphant around the world.

Leslie Stephen’s 1872 essay “Darwin and Divinity” is significant, then, not because it announces the triumph of Darwinian thinking in biology but because it explained that Darwin was himself only part of a larger movement by which history was replacing nature and even divinity as the authority in science, morality, and politics. As history became more and more a standard of judgment, tolerance of new ideas and behavior became the supreme virtue in progressivism. The more one is dissatisfied with the present, the more one looks to the future for solutions to all the problems that vex us and doubts any non-historical, natural standard of judgment, the more one will want everyone to be tolerant, open-minded, and accepting of the new. Always important to progressivism, tolerance became the defining virtue of modern progressivism, as history or change became its only reality. (Consider Harry Emerson Fosdick’s criticism of the fundamentalists.)

Stephen announced the revolution in thought that would create modern progressivism by writing “we must seek for the explanation of facts or ideas by tracing their history instead of accounting for them by some short a priori method; and thus of the adoption of the historical method in all manner of investigations into social, and political, and religious problems which were formerly solved by a much more summary, if not more satisfactory method.” Stephen contrasted the old way of explaining things (“a priori method”) and the new (“tracing their history”). Generally, we take this sort of contrast to show a preference for modern science over the fruitless debates of medieval scholasticism. The contrast meant this, but more than this. Explanation of things means revealing their causes, their reasons for being as they are. Causes are the ground of the existence of things. By saying that explanation was historical, Stephen was saying, in effect, that history was the ground of all existence or all that we can know of it. For example, animal existence is a long chain of changes, of causes producing effects, giving rise to the animals we currently see around us, which are in turn causes of the animals that will appear in the future. No atemporal species, essence, or nature is present in the changes we see, governing and ordering them. The change itself is all that is. The historical method that Stephen touted was a generalized version (applied to everything – “social, and political, and religious problems,” not just material problems) of what modern science taught and continues to teach: only efficient causes are real. Thus, only change through time, A producing B, is real. Change and not the unchanging is the ground of all there is and all we know. (On these points, compare Tom Silver’s account of pragmatism and progressive thinking in The Liberal Century.)

The revolution that Stephen observed, chronicled, and promoted took time to work its effects. It is doubtful that Stephen or all modern progressives realized the full consequences of the position they adopted. In the United States, the primary concern and motive of most progressives was dealing with the moral and political problems generated by industrialization. A good portion of them, like Fosdick, also sought to make Christianity compatible with the new science. The future-oriented approach of the historical method seemed to open the most promising way to reform. In embracing the new approach as the basis for reform, modern progressives often proceeded as if reason and speech were exempt from the new approach. (Consider again Harry Emerson Fosdick arguing that revelation is progressive.) Many continue to hold this view, denying the reality of natural differences like gender, for example, claiming it is only a matter of personal identity, in the name of tolerance and a complete openness to the future and the new, yet still believing implicitly in nature and reason and free speech – that is, that their preferences, including their preference for free speech, have some ground. (Nancy Pelosi for instance defends free speech but believes that gender is not natural but an identity.[4]) Yet science and the historical method offer no exemptions. According to the new method, reason, speech, and argument must themselves be understood as the result of efficient causation. This means that all speech is reducible to preceding and non-rational causes. This brings us to the leftists. They assert in perfect accord with the historical method, however unaware of this they may be, that there is no nature, that speech is not free but merely the necessary expression of pre-existing interests of gender, race, or class. It is these interests that cause speech, not some hope, some purpose, of getting at the truth of things. The leftist denial of freedom of speech is the direct result of the progressive abandonment of nature. Leftists are consistent modern progressives.

Of course, if speech or the mind that articulates it is not free, then speech cannot be true. The progressive professor was right to link freedom, reason, and truth. This means that the assertions of the leftists cannot be true by their own argument. Their position is consistent with the historical method, but for that reason self-annihilating because self-contradicting. By their own argument, their speech acts are reduced to arbitrary assertions of preference, indistinguishable from the barking of dogs. In this connection, one should recall that Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, an early convert to the historical method, equated arguments about justice to dogs fighting over a bone.[5] The leftist understanding reduces politics to a dog fight. This explains the character of the current confrontation between the two advocates of identity politics, the leftists and the rightists (the so-called alt-right), who disagree only over which gender and race should dominate.

Leftists are characters in a philosophical cartoon who have run off the causal cliff, their legs churning in the metaphysical air. Even if they realized the groundlessness of their position, most would be unlikely to abandon the trail of thought that took them over the edge. Leftists are insurgent and gain political advantages from their attacks on progressives, advantages that mere logical problems are unlikely to persuade them to abandon. More important, groundlessness, even irrationality, is now considered a virtue, since it is thought to be identical with freedom. Shulamith Firestone, for example, embraced groundlessness or freedom as an escape from nature or natural necessity or the givenness of things. She was able to imagine an entirely different way for women to live because she abandoned nature, seeing it only as the source of inequality (by nature only women give birth) and thus as a denial of freedom. This was the beginning of contemporary identity politics. In the abandonment or absence of nature, all that was possible it seemed was the willful assertion of an identity.[6]

What of progressives? If enough of them are mugged by leftists, perhaps a neo-progressive movement will emerge. This would be a progressivism more like Lincoln’s than Wilson’s or FDR’s. Some progressives might move in this direction simply out of revulsion at what their leftist children have wrought, but more might be encouraged to do so if they could balance the political loss suffered by leaving the leftists with a gain among conservatives willing to recognize both the progressive character of the founding and of Lincoln’s politics and, more practically, the changes wrought in America by industrialization. Perhaps progressives and conservatives could come together and reinvent themselves in dealing with the more recent changes wrought in America by information technology, changes that neither progressives nor conservatives have yet faced. A start might be made toward some common ground by recognizing that what we mean by “nature” and “gender” at any given moment is a mix of the historical (accidental, cultural) and the natural and that dialectical analysis – lots of argument and discussion – of this mixture is the alternative to embracing the contradiction engendered by taking as the only truth the historical scientific method.

Certainly, no political transformation will result alone from the discussion of American politics in the abstract terms used here. It is also a practical work that would take someone of Lincolnian ability to bring about. Compared to our current situation, Lincoln worked in favorable circumstances, in which something like the understanding of the moral foundations of free government articulated by Beecher was widely understood and shared, at least by a dominant element of public opinion. As noted, that understanding was ruined by the spreading tide of modern historical, i.e. scientific, thought. A transformation of thought is necessary, then, as well or at the same time as a transformation of politics. That transformation of thought, something that could supplant the authority of modern science, and for which politics would be something more than a dog fight, hoped for by some, is now available to none.[7] While the arrival of the next Lincoln is a matter beyond merely human design, as was the arrival of the first, a new transformation of thought is as much under human control as was the one under which we now labor. That transformation of thinking, as preparation for the next Lincoln, is worth undertaking. It may be encouraged and come to have more general appeal as the result of a moral and political crisis, perhaps the one slowly unfolding as modern science and technology transforms and gives humans power over their own biology.

[1] Steve Kolowich, “A Radical College’s Public Meltdown,” October 27, 2017,

[2] Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, ed. William Peden (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1954), 159.

[3] “There is no more fundamental axiom of American freedom than the familiar statement: In a free country, we punish men for the crimes they commit, but never for the opinions they have. And the reason this is so fundamental to freedom is not, as many suppose, that it protects the few unorthodox from suppression by the majority. To permit freedom of expression is primarily for the benefit of the majority, because it protects criticism, and criticism leads to progress.” Harry S. Truman, “Veto of the Internal Security Bill,” September 22, 1950,

[4] “Pelosi Statement Condemning Antifa Violence in Berkeley,” August 29, 2017; “Pelosi Remarks at Introduction of the Equality Act of 2017,” May 2, 2017.

[5] Oliver Wendell Homes, “Natural Law,” Harvard Law Review 32, 1 (November 1918), 40–44.

[6] “Identity politics” as a term and movement is often said to have been announced in the Combahee River Collective Statement (1977). The Combahee River Collective was a group of black feminist lesbians.

[7] Thomas Nagel, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).

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