In the inaugural essay for my Great Books in US Intellectual History Series I hope I made clear that I am a big fan of James Kloppenberg’s monumental book, Uncertain Victory: Social Democracy and Progressivism in European and American Thought, 1870-1920 (1986). But like all books even great ones need to be critiqued. Indeed great ones especially demand our critical reflection because they cast such long shadows over our discipline. Failure to do so results in scholarly stagnation. It is in this spirit that I critique Uncertain Victory.
In my first essay I mentioned Kloppenberg’s matter-of-fact affinity for the “profoundly historical sensibility” articulated by the via media philosophers. Kloppenberg’s description of the overarching via media epistemology might as well be self-portrayal, or even a summary of the modern historion’s mind: “If our ethical ideas, like the rest of our knowledge as these philosophers understood it, cannot conform to prescribed standards but derive instead from reason reflecting imperfectly on experience, then right and good, like truth, must be unhitched from certainty and made historical” (4). The emphasis on experience was an emphasis on historical context, situated at the intersection between objectivity and subjectivity. Channeling the via media thinkers, Kloppenberg furthermore writes:
History reflects the consequences of choices, both successful and unsuccessful, and it thus illuminates the very options available in the present… Lodged firmly between the subjectivism of later existentialism and the objectivism of idealist philosophy, the historical sensibility confirms the freedom, within limits, of human choice (111).
Most of us no doubt find much to like in such a theory of history. It is our theory of history. Henry Sidgwick’s statement that “our view of what ought to be, must be largely derived, in details, from our appreciation of what is” (134) was the definitive anti-Kantian articulation of pragmatism—an articulation that has largely guided our historiographical efforts ever since (aside from a few rebel anti-pragmatists here and there: Christian Reconstructionists, Afrocentrists, postmodernists). But the ways in which the via media thinkers, and Kloppenberg by extension, set their own pragmatic theory of history apart from Marxism—the ways in which they lumped Marxism in with Kantian and other pre- or non-pragmatic historical theories—should give us some pause.
The via media theory of history was quite consistent with Marxism. The via media thinkers—and again, I must say, Kloppenberg by extension—treated Marx and his epigones as straw men handicapped by an outmoded teleological baggage they inherited from Kant and Hegel. This is a truism at best. Marx’s materialist approach to history, which notwithstanding a few oft-repeated sentences ripped from the Communist Manifesto was often only teleological as an afterthought, was entirely consistent with the via media historical sensibility. Take his famous passage from The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte:
Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly found, given and transmuted from the past. The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.
Marx’s poetics are in the same vein as the pragmatic historical theory of experience. Perhaps Marx’s emphasis was more deterministic than via media thought, which always accentuated human agency above all else. But elsewhere Marx wrote: “History does nothing, it possesses no immense wealth, fights no battles. It is rather man, real living man who does everything, who possesses and fights.”
Marx and Marxists ever since Marx have fought against the over-determinism of their more vulgar comrades and have, as such, made epistemological if not political peace with ideas informed by the via media. For instance, the Hungarian Marxist Georg Lukacs built upon Marx’s notions about class consciousness to innovate a theory of what he called “reification,” which was the process by which socially constructed ideas like private property became so entrenched that people believed they were eternal “things.” Lukacs’s theory of reification was consistent with Dewey’s theory of experience, or what Dewey took to calling “habits” by the time he had authored his monumental 1916 book Democracy and Education. Habits were active, energetic, and dominating means that projected themselves and conditioned human beings to their contexts. Dewey fretted that Americans had been habituated to believe that individualism rather than social cooperation was the natural state of things. He likened such a habit to what a Marxist might call “false consciousness” and wrote that it was “an unnamed form of insanity which is responsible for a large part of the remediable suffering in the world.” The fact that a communist like Lukacs and a progressive like Dewey had similar genealogical theories of history and ideology should only come as a surprise if we fail to take Kloppenberg and his subjects with a grain of salt.
My critique of Kloppenberg thus far might seem like the nit-picky ramblings of a defensive Marxist. Fair enough! But I would argue there are larger historiographical and indeed political stakes involved. Kloppenberg’s uncritical acceptance of the idea that pragmatism is inherently anti-Marxist is an ahistorical inflection of Cold War liberalism. Such an inflection is residual at most, and is certainly not overt in the way that Jesse Lemisch categorized and castigated Higham, Hofstadter, and Woodward. But I would argue Cold War liberalism is somewhere to be found in the way Kloppenberg makes uncertainty a fetish. Let me explore this further.
Kloppenberg is masterful at explaining extremely complicated philosophy in ways that make it understandable and relevant. And yet his choice of words is often so authoritative that we are left wondering if there aren’t alternative interpretations of philosophical systems that were in fact often too obtuse to nail down with such authority. The following passage, for example, dictates that the only way to read Kant and Kantians is through William Dilthey:
In place of the neo-Kantians’ fascination with the transcendental self and the metaphysical subject floating in a timeless world of absolute meanings and rational principles, [Dilthey] emphasized the real, living, historical human being, who could be neither torn from his context nor placed in dualistic opposition to a world that entered his experience at every moment (60).
Dilthey’s theory of experience was consistent with Dewey’s never-ending quest to slice through all binaries—subject-object, etc—which is a form of thought that continues in our contemporary anti-metaphysical club best expressed in “death of author” forms of literary criticism. In other words, Dilthey’s—and by extension Kloppenberg’s—uncertainty is normative. And yet questions linger: Can this “real, living, historical human being” be isolated, or understood, or judged, without speculative dabbling in so-called timeless principles? In other words, and I am hardly the first to say this: the via media is a very limiting sort of philosophy, given the limitations on our ability to know “real, live, historical human” experience. It militates against utopian thinking, for one, which to me is the best way to constrain future possibilities. Uncertainty may be epistemologically sound—dare I say unimpeachable—but it is also politically unimaginative and should not be made a fetish.
Kloppenberg concludes Chapter 2—“The Radical Theory of Knowledge” (my favorite chapter in the book) as follows:
The philosophers of the via media abandoned the search for certainty as fruitless when they found it inconsistent with the fundamental facts of experience. Through their new conceptualization of thinking, they were able to discover that all knowledge, in the human sciences as well as the natural sciences, can never be true in any final or ultimate sense (94).
Kloppenberg is no doubt right that such an uncertain theory of knowledge brought about “new vistas for understanding human culture and history.” But perhaps such vistas were unintended? Doesn’t the idea that no knowledge can ever be true and final lead to speculative inquiry of the Kantian or Hegelian or Marxist kind? If we can’t know truth in any absolute sense, shouldn’t we speculate about systems of truth? Such speculation fires the political imagination in ways necessary to political progress and liberation. We take modern, progressive, anti-metaphysical ways of thinking for granted. But why? What would it do to our thinking if we didn’t?
In terms of historiography I place Uncertain Victory alongside a number of other important books that have been published since the early 1980s that I categorize as Post-Cold War Consensus Neo-Pragmatism. In addition to Uncertain Victory these are the three books that I include in this category: Jackson Lears, No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the Transformation of American Culture, 1880-1920 (1981); James Livingston, Pragmatism and the Political Economy of Cultural Revolution, 1850-1940 (1997); and Daniel Rodgers, Atlantic Crossings: Social Politics in a Progressive Age (1998). (All three of these books are also on my Great Books list and will thus be analyzed here at a later date.) Although these neo-pragmatist historical interpretations are remarkably different in terms of their political implications, which speaks to the many strange political valences of this category, each in its own way was grounded in an effort to distance the twentieth-century liberal thought of James and Dewey from the Cold War consensus. Of course, shedding such skin was easier said than done, especially since the Post-Cold War Consensus Neo-Pragmatist historians often seemed more interested in distancing themselves from the New Left than from Cold War liberalism.
Take Uncertain Victory. It was published in 1986, but as a huge and complicated book that began as a dissertation, Kloppenberg likely started researching it in the mid-1970s, at the height of the New Left critique of what went as intellectual history at that time (Higham, Hofstadter, and Woodward). This was when graduate students in history devotedly read Michael Rogin’s The Intellectuals and McCarthy: The Radical Specter (1969) as a convincing critique of Cold War or consensus liberalism. Rogin argued that the Cold War liberal tendency to conflate seemingly extremist political ideas with psychological disorder had the effect of narrowing the political spectrum. Such psychological reductionism was often leveled against the right—on display in The New American Right (1955), an anthology of liberal criticism of conservatism that included essays by many consensus luminaries such as Bell, Hofstadter, Riesman, Glazer, Parsons, and Lipset—but could also be aimed at the left and as such did not find an amiable home with the New Left.
In the wake of Vietnam, the archetype of failed American liberal projects, Rogin’s devastating critique of Cold War liberalism grew into a critique of American liberalism writ large. In other words, thanks to Vietnam and the influence of the New Left, many historians by the 1970s viewed American liberalism, including the social democratic and progressivist tendencies analyzed by Kloppenberg, with suspicion. As such perhaps Kloppenberg saw Uncertain Victory as a correction to the over-compensations of the New Left. One cryptic passage in his introduction is telling: “Much of the criticism leveled against social democratic and progressive theorists, born of a coupling between the slick condescension accompanying hindsight and the easy imputation of unstated motives, reveals a failure of historical imagination masquerading as tough-minded savvy.”
In this way I position Kloppenberg’s book, and neo-pragmatist history more broadly speaking, as an anti-New Left gesture and an attempt to reestablish the radicalism of American liberalism (which might be better called social democracy or progressivism if we take Kloppenberg’s genealogy seriously). Perhaps Kloppenberg is right that we should be more favorably disposed toward the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century social democratic and progressivist thinkers. Indeed, I think they worked in the tradition of Marxism, even if they proclaimed to distance themselves from Marxism, and I find much useful in Marxism.
But we should be wary of Kloppenberg’s claim that uncertainty is an appropriate sensibility in the aftermath of totalitarianism. Cold War liberalism’s celebration of irony, complexity, and pluralism grew from the pragmatic conceptualization of uncertainty. And yet Cold War liberalism gave us the Vietnam War, which to the Vietnamese was apiece with the twentieth century totalitarian horror show and had little to do with irony, complexity, or any other liberal platitude.
To conclude: My goal in this essay was to point to one possible way in which we might critique Kloppenberg’s Great Book. There are other such avenues that could be explored. I would be interested in reading, for example, James Livingston’s critique of Uncertain Victory. Whereas Kloppenberg views via media thought as epistemologically moderate in relation to Nietzschean antifoundationalism, Livingston has argued that James and Dewey were cut from the same cloth as Nietzsche and that such antinomianism is what made pragmatism so liberating. I would also love to read Corey Robin’s review of Uncertain Victory since elsewhere Robin has argued that the type of antifoundationalism found in Nietzsche—and also found in the era of American social thought Daniel Rodgers calls The Age of Fracture—is the consequence of political reaction and often creates space for more obviously conservative ideas. The logic that informs Robin’s original article about proto-libertarians like Hayek, appropriately titled, “Nietzsche’s Marginal Children,” could be brought to bear on Uncertain Victory in productive ways. And last but not least I would enjoy getting Christopher Shannon’s take on Kloppenberg, since Shannon’s conservative Catholic worldview is so at odds with the normative framework of the modern historical discipline that Kloppenberg and his subjects represent.
OK, that’s enough on Kloppenberg for now. I look forward to your comments. The next edition of my Great Books Series will be posted sometime in October, and the book under scrutiny will be Robert Genter, Late Modernism: Art, Culture, and Politics in Cold War America (2010), which I am coupling with a reading of Kenneth Burke, Attitudes Toward History (1937).