Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Friday, November 6, 2015

Recommended: World War I and Modern Liberalism

Found in the online magazine City Journal, 22 November 2009 issue.

The editor does not necessarily endorse the views expressed in these "Recommended" articles but does believe that they are thought provoking and worthy of our readers' attention.

1919: Betrayal and the Birth of Modern Liberalism
by Fred Siegel

President Wilson at a Preparedness Day Parade

Disillusionment with Woodrow Wilson changed the American Left forever.

Today’s state-oriented liberalism, we are often told, was the inevitable extension of the pre–World War I tradition of progressivism. The progressives, led by President Woodrow Wilson, placed their faith in reason and the better nature of the American people. Expanded government would serve as an engine of popular goodwill to soften the harsh rigors of industrial capitalism. Describing the condition of his fellow intellectuals prior to World War I, Lewis Mumford exclaimed that “there was scarcely one who did not assume that mankind either was permanently good or might sooner or later reach such a state of universal beatitude.” After the unfortunate Republican interregnum of the 1920s, so the story goes, this progressivism, faced with the Great Depression, matured into the full-blown liberalism of the New Deal.

But a central strand of modern liberalism was born of a sense of betrayal, of a rejection of progressivism, of a shift in sensibility so profound that it still resonates today. More precisely, the cultural tone of modern liberalism was, in significant measure, set by a political love affair gone wrong between Wilson and a liberal Left unable to grapple with the realities of Prussian power. Initially embraced by many leftists as a thaumaturgical leader of near-messianic promise, Wilson came to be seen—in the wake of a cataclysmic war, a failed peace, repression at home, revolution abroad, and a country wracked by a “Red Scare”—as a Judas. His numinous rhetoric, it was concluded, was mere mummery.

One strand of progressives grew contemptuous not only of Wilson but also of American society. For the once-ardent progressive Frederick Howe, formerly Wilson’s commissioner of immigration, the prewar promise of a benign state built on reasoned reform had turned to ashes. “I hated,” he wrote, “the new state that had arisen” from the war. “I hated its brutalities, its ignorance, its unpatriotic patriotism, that made profit from our sacrifices and used it to suppress criticism of its acts...I wanted to protest against the destruction of my government, my democracy, my America.”

Making a decisive break with Wilson and their optimism about America, the disenchanted progressives renamed themselves “liberals.” The progressives had been inspired by a faith in democratic reforms as a salve for the wounds of both industrial civilization and power politics; the new liberals saw the American democratic ethos as a danger to freedom both at home and abroad. . .

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