The Goal of the Progressive Revolution: To Transform Political and Social Structures

Following the French revolution, many writers in the 19th century noted that revolution was self-perpetuating. There is no way to stop it because liberty and equality can be endlessly claimed by group after group that feels deprived and degraded. And the idea that these principles are universally applicable removes any breaking power that national circumstances might afford. In the 19th century the greatest pressure came from the liberals – enlisting many across society in this cause. They wanted written constitutions, extension of the suffrage, civil rights, free market economy, and from time to time wars of national liberation or aggrandizement in the name of cultural and linguistic unity. In parallel, the first disturbances resulting from industrial mechanization – sabotage, strikes, and conspiracies (for trade unions were generally held illegal) reinforced the revolutionary momentum, not only in fact, but also in theory. As early as 1810 the business cycle, the doctrine of exploitation of the worker and the degradation of life in industrial societies, had been noted and discussed.

By 1825 the writings of Count de Saint-Simon, which proposed a reorganized society to cure these evils, had many adherents. The Saint-Simonian doctrine proposed a benevolent dictatorship of industrialists and scientists to remove the inequities of the free-for-all liberal system. Other reformers, such as the practical Robert Owen, who organized successful communities in Scotland and the United States, depended on a strong leader using ad hoc methods. Still others, such as Leroux and Cabet, were communists of divergent kinds seeking to carry out elaborate blueprints of the perfect state. Proudhon denounced the state, as such, and all private property. As a philosophical anarchist, he wished to substitute free association and contract for all legal compulsions. In England, the school of Bentham and Mill – utilitarian or philosophical radicals – attacked existing institutions in the name of the greatest good of the greatest number, and succeeded in reforming the top-heavy legal system.

What kept mid-19th century civilization whole was a subdued faith in the reality of all the things Realism and materialistic science denied: religious belief, civic and social habits, the dogma of moral responsibility, and the hope that consciousness and free will did exist. The sum of these invisible forces is conveniently known as the Victorian morality, a formula whose meaning antedates not only the mid-century revolutions but also the accession of Queen Victoria in 1837. Like Romanticism, this powerful moralism had its roots in the late 18th century – in Wesleyan Methodism and the Evangelical movement, in Rousseau, Schiller, and Kant. Its earnestness was of popular origin; it was anti-aristocratic in manners, and it sought the good and the true in a simple, direct, unhesitating way. Perceiving with warm feeling that all men are brothers under God, the moral man saw that slavery was wrong; and having so concluded, he proceeded to have it abolished by act of Parliament (Britain, 1833).

The sense of rightness generated a sense of power, which the Victorians applied to the monumental task of keeping order in a post-revolutionary society. Partly by taking thought and partly by instinct, they perceived that the drive to revolution and the sexual urge were somehow linked. Therefore, they repressed sexuality; that is, repressed it in themselves and their literature, while containing it within specified limits in society. Further, they knew that the successful working of the vast industrial machine required a strict, inhuman discipline. The idolatry of respectability was the answer to natural waywardness. To pay one’s bills, wear dark clothes, stifle individual fancy, go to church regularly, and turn aggression upon oneself in the form of worry about salvation became the approved common modes of pursuing the pilgrimage of life. Victorian age dissenters and critics scorned the conformity, called such religion a sham, and viewed respectability as mere hypocrisy – yet the front held.

Developments in technology and organization reshaped social structure. A recognizable peasantry continued to exist in western Europe, but it increasingly had to adapt to new methods. In many areas (most notably, the Netherlands and Denmark) a cooperative movement spread to allow peasants to market dairy goods and other specialties to the growing urban areas without abandoning individual landownership. Many peasants began to achieve new levels of education and to adopt innovations such as new crops, better seeds, and fertilizers; they also began to innovate politically, learning to press governments to protect their agricultural interests. At the top of European society, a new upper class formed as big business took shape, representing a partial amalgam of aristocratic landowners and corporate magnates. This upper class wielded immense political influence, for example, in supporting government armaments buildups that provided markets for heavy industrial goods and jobs for aristocratic military officers.

In the cities the working classes continued to expand, and distinctions between artisans and factory workers, though real, began to fade. A new urban class emerged as sales outlets proliferated and growing managerial bureaucracies (both private and public) created the need for secretaries, bank tellers, and other clerical workers. A lower middle class, composed of salaried personnel who could boast a certain level of education – indeed, whose jobs depended on literacy – and who worked in conditions different from manufacturing laborers, added an important ingredient to European society and politics. Though their material conditions differed little from those of some factory workers, though they too were subject to bosses and to challenging new technologies such as typewriters and cash registers, most white-collar workers shunned association with blue-collar ranks. Big business employers encouraged this separation by setting up separate payment systems and benefit programs, for they were eager to avoid a union of interests that might augment labor unrest.

Nevertheless, the general trend in standards of living for most groups was upward, allowing ordinary people to improve their diets and housing and maintain a small margin for additional purchases. The success of mass newspapers, for example, which reached several million subscribers by the 1890s, depended on the ability to pay as well as on literacy. Mass leisure coexisted interestingly with the final major social development of the later 19th century, the escalating forms of class conflict. Pressed by the rapid pace and often dulling routine of work, antagonized by a faceless corporate management structure seemingly bent on efficiency at all costs, workers in various categories developed more active protest modes in the later 19th century. They were aided by their growing familiarity with basic industrial conditions, which facilitated the formation of relevant demands and made organization more feasible. Legal changes, spreading widely in western Europe after 1870, reduced political barriers to unionization and strikes, though clashes with government forces remained a common part of labor unrest.1

Initially most of the work associated with the unions consisted of testifying before Congress and State Legislatures on labor laws, rallying the troops at labor rallies, and negotiating strike settlements. The growth of trade unions and programs surrounding social insurance grew during the 1930s, specifically in response to Keynes’s call for more government intervention. H. G. Wells (1866-1946) noted, “The Trade Unionist tried to make the best for himself of the existing capitalism and the existing conditions of employment; the socialist proposed to change the system.” Wells observes the trade unions went on to become a real Fourth Estate in the country. The American Legislative Exchange Council supported by Koch money develops model bills supporting the rubric ‘right to work’ touted as giving workers freedom not to join unions. While it is based on individual rights of non-union members to enjoy benefits of union representation, its primary purpose is to weaken unions.

Identity politics is a political ideology with a religious-moral overlay that convinces people to band together in society and agree to a common project. It seeks to unite groups of traditionally-powerless people who share common characteristics – such as race and gender – into aggrieved collectives. The source of grievance is oppression by powerful groups in society, often associated with the white race and male gender. Identity politics highlights the social inequities that reflect this oppression. The right, on the other hand, redefined its core mission as the patriotic protection of traditional national identity, which is often explicitly connected to race, ethnicity, or religion. In past two decades of intense identity politics, the epic struggle between capitalist and proletariat was replaced by a new struggle between oppressed and oppressor. The elites’ readiness to ignore widening class divisions, and to replace it with class-blind identity politics, was the greatest gift to toxic populism.  

John Kenneth Galbraith noted, “People of privilege will always risk their complete destruction rather than surrender any material part of their advantage.” Today progressives need to focus less on promoting the interests of a wide variety of marginalized groups, such as ethnic minorities, immigrants and refugees, women, and LGBT people, and more on creating broad economic equality. Bernie Sanders leads a millennial revolt against neoliberal fundamentalism by identifying inequities of the economic order. Many of his followers are young people – particularly poor minorities – who tend to more readily support progressive changes to transform political and social structures than older Americans. In addition, they are more likely to support increases in the minimum wage and free tuition at colleges, and they are more likely to agree with the idea that wealth in America should be more evenly distributed.2 For the revolution to go on the Democratic Party must choose a progressive candidate for the 2020 election.

1 Postrevolutionary Thinking, adapted from Advances in Democracy: From the French Revolution to the Present-day …edited by Heather M. Campbell Senior Editor, Geography and History

2 Jake Johnson, (18 July 2016) The Millennial Revolt Against Neoliberalism

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