While it can be tempting for American conservatives—such as myself—who often venerate the Founding generation to view American progressivism as a stark aberration from the common beliefs of our ancestors, the truth is a bit more complicated. Just as confusions often arise when one attempts to synthesize the American variant of conservatism with a trans-national “conservative” worldview, the roots of the American Left have a distinctly American flavor and American origins.
This temptation for conservatives to look at the Left as a mostly recent pandemic of un-American ideas that spread from continental Europe is not helped by the fact much of what we think of as the American Left began to take recognizable shape in the late nineteenth century. The dawn of the populist and progressive eras—two distinct, yet related movements—took America by storm in the early 1890s and became the dominant political force for a generation. “Populism is not only a radical tradition,” writes historian Thomas Frank, “it is our radical tradition, a homegrown Left that spoke our American vernacular and worshipped at the shrines of [Thomas] Jefferson and [Thomas] Paine rather than [Karl] Marx.”
Struggles of the Marxist American
While some American Leftists may sing the praises of Marx, Marxism has long struggled to gain a foothold in American society at large and, indeed, even among many on the American Left. No doubt this is at least partially due to the historical differences in American and European societies. As Sir Roger Scruton noted, “America lacks the multiple barriers to social advancement that have existed in Europe; it has abundant space, abundant resources, abundant will and opportunity; in particular it has a political structure inimical to the creation of long-standing hereditary elites. The result is that ‘classes’, such as they are, remain fluid, temporary, without apparent moral attributes.” The history of class struggle Marx preached finds better converts in nations where the people believe themselves to be forever chained to the class they are born into and not in a dynamic society where class is something that may—theoretically—be overcome.
I do not want to imply that Marx and the idea of class struggle is of no importance to the American Left—far from it!—only that we have historically lacked the stagnant class structure that made Marxism far more appealing to much of the rest of the world. This historical difference manifests itself, at times, in different goals of the American Left. “What has distressed the American critics of the free economy is not private property—which is the cornerstone of their own independence—but the private property of others,” Scruton offers as an example. “In recent times it is the spectacle of property in the hands of ordinary, gross, uneducated people that has troubled the domestic critics of American capitalism.” The Left champions the working class in America while bemoaning the red state, white, Evangelical, MAGA-loving world they inhabit.
At the heart of much of the Left is a paradox we will explore at some length in the posts to follow; namely, a collectivist individualism that requires both the enlightened elite to lead the way and an unyielding faith in the virtue of the common folk to follow. “The role it affords to the government and its links to European social thought might at first suggest that this attitude leans toward communitarianism,” writes Yuval Levin. “But its American form is actually a radical form of individualism, moved by much the same passion for justice that [Thomas] Paine had and by much the same desire to free people of the fetters of tradition, religion, and the moral or social expectations of those around them.”
Leftist Birth Paines
Both the conservative political analysis Yuval Levin and the progressive historian Thomas Frank trace much of the roots of the American Left to Thomas Paine. Who was Thomas Paine? While he’s best known to us Americans as a patriotic rabble-rouser whose Common Sense pamphlets were largely responsible for stirring national sentiment to declare independence from Great Britain, his later writings and efforts to aid the French in their subsequent revolution is where we find the origin of the American Left.
Paine believed that the American and French revolutions signaled a new dawn for humanity. He boldly proclaimed his “present age will hereafter merit to be called the Age of Reason, and the present generation will appear to the future as the Adam of a new world.” Like any good pamphleteer, Paine may have been overselling it. But his beliefs were nonetheless sincere. The tyrannical structures of the past—steeped in injustice and inequality—would soon fall to legions of righteous revolutionaries replacing archaic and immoral monarchies with liberating democratic societies.
Paine’s political views were strictly rational, and he firmly believed reason alone could show us the way to a better political order. Not only was such knowledge accessible through reason, but it could be commonly understood among the people and did not have to reside in the ivory towers of esoteric knowledge where only the elites dwell. “It is time that nations should be rational, and not be governed like animals, for the pleasure of their riders,” Paine proclaimed. The “riders” were those rulers in the monarchy and church who usurped authority over their subjects for their own selfish benefits. Even warfare was largely the fault of irrational conflicts between nations that could be resolved once nations were rebuilt on a more rational footing to serve the people and not their masters.
These governments of hereditary tyranny were all erected on faulty principles of self-preservation and expediency. What was needed were purer principles derived through reason whereby governments could secure the rights due every individual by virtue of their mere existence. “Paine’s is a politics of applied principle,” writes Levin, “and he believes the only way to rescue polities constructed on the wrong principles is to tear them down and rebuild from scratch.” The governments of the past were a mistake. The revolutionary spirit of the age would set things right. Progress.
We also find in Paine the beginnings of the modern welfare state. Not only did individuals have a right to live free from societal coercions, but governments had a duty to provide for those individuals whose freedoms were limited by being born into a life of poverty. “A son of the poor himself, [Thomas] Paine had a sincere and passionate hatred of the poverty he saw all about him in Europe,” explains political science professor Francis Canavan. “This hatred led him to propose a strong and positive governmental program for the abolition of poverty.”
Leaving Paine Behind
Yet not everything Paine espoused fully defines the modern American Left. “The fundamental utopian goal at the core of Paine’s thinking—the goal of liberating the individual from the constraints of the obligations imposed upon him by his time, his place, and his relations to others—remains essential to the left in America,” continues Levin. “But the failure of Enlightenment-liberal principles and the institutions built upon them to deliver on that bold ambition and therefore on Paine’s hopes of eradicating prejudice, poverty, and war seemed to force the left into a choice between the natural-rights theories that Paine thought would offer means of attaining his goal and the goal itself.”
While both the Left and Right celebrate certain ideas and actions of the American founding era, the attitudes and rhetoric of the Left are bereft of the wild-eyed confidence Paine had in his generation to abolish war, poverty, and tyranny through classical liberal means of ensuring the government does not encroach on our rights. Rather, the Left has turned to a broader understanding of how systems of injustice have oppressed, marginalized, and spread inequalities and how the government might be used to set these things right.
It would be more than a century later—during the height of the Industrial Revolution—when the twin forces of populism and progressivism would forge the next iteration of the American Left. And that is where we’ll pick things up in Part 3.