U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Kloppenberg’s Certain Victory

uncertain victoryThis is the first post in Andrew’s Great Books in US Intellectual History Series. The book under discussion today is James Kloppenberg, Uncertain Victory: Social Democracy and Progressivism in European and American Thought, 1870-1920 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986).

I’m excited to kick off my Great Books in US Intellectual History Series with part one of my take on James Kloppenberg’s Uncertain Victory, which is certainly a fitting book to introduce the series. Uncertain Victory is a truly great book. When I first read it in graduate school while studying for comprehensive exams, I recognized its significance but I was unable to fully appreciate its excellence. I now have a better vantage point from which to evaluate the book and its historiographical contributions.

It must be said that it would be unlikely for such a book to be published now. Uncertain Victory runs to 546 pages including an index and long discursive footnotes. Very few presses are now likely to publish a huge book based on a dissertation from a first-time author. James Kloppenberg circa 2014 could get such a book published. Indeed, from what I gather his current project on the long history of democratic thought in Europe and the United States runs over 1,000 pages and is likely to be divided into two volumes. He’ll have little trouble convincing a press like Oxford University Press to publish such a tome or set of tomes. But newly minted PhD James Kloppenberg would likely have a difficult time getting Uncertain Victory published in the current market. Which is a shame because we have benefitted tremendously from its publication and would benefit from similar such ambitious projects from junior historians who aren’t (yet) full professors at Harvard.

Uncertain Victory is remarkable in many ways and it’s no surprise it won the OAH Merle Curti Award. At a basic but important level it is rather unique relative to most American intellectual historiography in that Kloppenberg deals with sources in three languages (English, French, German) and demonstrates mastery of four national historiographies (American, English, French, and German). Very few of us will ever achieve such reach.

Uncertain Victory is groundbreaking in that it is one of the first sustained attempts by an intellectual historian to demonstrate that pragmatism—or the transatlantic philosophical discourse formed by those whom Kloppenberg calls the via media thinkers—was a serious philosophical system. Kloppenberg is also one of the first historians to connect such a systematic philosophy to the political thought of social democracy and progressivism. In this way Uncertain Victory is a reclamation project: Kloppenberg seeks to rescue a group of late nineteenth and early twentieth century thinkers who fell out of fashion during the cataclysmic twentieth century. He writes:

The twentieth century’s understandable preoccupation with the origins of its disasters has diverted attention from the philosophers of the via media, the theorists of social democracy, and the theorists of progressivism, who neither discovered the unconscious nor celebrated the violence and irrationality they found beneath the gloss of Victorian gentility. These two generations accomplished a less dramatic revolution with no less dramatic results: they transformed the ideas of revolutionary socialism and laissez-faire liberalism, and thereby helped to give birth to the political world in which we now live (410-411).

The first section of Uncertain Victory, which to me is the most interesting, is a “hermeneutical and contextualist” reading of the six philosophers of the via media: Wilhelm Dilthey, Thomas Hill Green, Henry Sidgwick, Alfred Fouillée, William James, and John Dewey. Via media is a Latin phrase for the middle road. Dewey applied the phrase to his view that a theory of knowledge was best found in the space between science and religion. Despite such moderation, for Kloppenberg the philosophers of the via media were revolutionary because they “provided the epistemological and ethical pivot on which political theory turned from socialism and liberalism to social democracy and progressivism” (28).

They did this in two ways. First they accentuated the notion that humans have freedom of voluntary action. Put in contemporary jargon, humans have agency. Such a position stood in stark contrast to more deterministic theories, whether positivistic or metaphysical. Kloppenberg writes that such a theory “revealed that freedom is an irreducible part of immediate experience that neither science nor metaphysics can challenge or explain away” (412). In this way the via media thinkers extended one of the primary aspects of the classic liberal project into a new era of capitalism in a way that challenged a number of alternative political theories, including and especially Marxism, liberalism’s antithesis. But they did so in a way that doubled as a harsh critique of classic liberalism, which by the late nineteenth century had become an encrusted ideological defense of privilege. Which relates to the second way in which the philosophers of the via media laid the ground for social democratic and progressive thought.

They emphasized that even though voluntary action can change history, humans are constrained by history—constrained by the historical forces that left them enmeshed in interconnected webs of cultural and social context. This “idea that social relations are a fundamental part of individual life altered the meaning of individuality by excluding the possibility of presocial or nonsocial experience on which so much earlier political theory relied” (412). In short, in bringing these two elements together the philosophers of the via media­—the philosophers of the middle ground—sought to show the futility of thinking about the individual or society as separate entities. This had important implications for those who sought a political middle ground between the conservative defenders of the hyper-individualistic capitalist status quo and the revolutionary Marxists who seemingly submerged the individual in their attempts to imagine a new social morality. In this way Kloppenberg is convincing in showing the congruence between the via media thinkers and social democratic thinkers Eduard Bernstein, Richard Ely, Beatrice and Sidney Webb, Jean Jaurés, and Walter Rauschenbusch and progressive thinkers Léon Bourgeois, Leonard Hobhouse, Max Weber, Herbert Croly, Walter Lippmann, and John Dewey (whose long career allowed Kloppenberg to treat him as part two different intellectual discourses).

One of the more striking things for me is how Kloppenberg demonstrates the philosophy of the via media is first and foremost an enduringly modernist theory of history. Concepts like “morality” or “human nature” take on different meanings in different contexts, an historical sensibility that does not deny truth as a possibility but rather shows that what is true is dependent upon matching up theory with experience. Indeed the author of Uncertain Victory shares the methodological assumptions of his subjects, which might not be that unusual. What is rare is Kloppenberg’s matter-of-factness about this affinity–about his appreciation for the via media theory as a theory of history: “Their conception of critical inquiry as the endless process of testing hypotheses in practice informs this study of their ideas.”

Such affinities are evident throughout Uncertain Victory and will be the starting point of part two of this essay, which will think about the ways we might critique a book that is indeed great but not without flaws. Stay tuned.

14 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Thanks for this, Andrew. I love the summary and look forward to next week’s critical thoughts. I feel absolutely foolish in admitting that I’ve not read this Great Book.

    It’s interesting to think about other via media-like thinkers who were not pragmatists (i.e. others who attempted middle ways betwixt liberal individualism and “excessively” socialistic ideologies). I think Adler and Hutchins and other mid-century liberals tried out alternative via media(s). Adler’s eclectic philosophy of common sense seems to fit. It’s a shame I didn’t contextualize Adler in Kloppenberg’s terms. – TL

    • Tim: Perhaps I gave the wrong impression about what exactly Kloppengerg defines as “via media” thought since I would never consider Adler or Hutchins via media thinkers. They were too committed to metaphysics I would say. That said I highly recommend that you read Kloppenberg if you ever find time. It’s worth it.

  2. Thanks for the wonderful opening piece in your Great Books in Intellectual History series! I read Kloppenburg for comps this past summer too, and I incorporated some of his arguments to my reflections on the transatlantic nature of reform in that era.

    I think you made a great point that such a book like this could not be written today. I wonder how such a project would be attempted, though: divided up into smaller books? Perhaps a different format, esp. in regards to the footnotes? And I can’t help but think of this book in light of the 1990s “Washington Consensus”, another era in which thinking across the Atlantic seemed to crystallize around certain ideas. Not a direct comparison between the two eras, by any means, but it is a reminder that intellectuals and policy makers in the US and Western Europe are never truly separated by the Atlantic.

    • Robert: Kloppenberg’s book is definitely transatlantic history in that he writes about how similar ideas took shape in both the US and Europe. And he makes the case that these ideas were formed in a transatlantic community of discourse. But he makes the methodological case for congruence not causation. There’s not too much about how these various thinkers read each and responded to each other. I don’t want to overstate this point. There’s some such analysis. But mostly these various thinkers responded to their own national contexts in congruent ways. It’s not coincidence but it’s not correlative either.

      • Indeed. I think you’re spot on with this analysis. It’s a fascinating era precisely because of the ways thought are formed on both sides of the Atlantic!

  3. Thanks for this very informative summary. I haven’t read the book, but I have a couple of brief thoughts. Well, one thought, and one’s that more of a question.

    First, while the ‘via media’ thinkers broke with versions of ‘revolutionary Marxism’ that “submerged the individual,” their view that “even though voluntary action can change history, humans are constrained by history” seems not very different from what Marx himself wrote in the often-quoted lines from the beginning of The 18th Brumaire: “Men make their own history, but… they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.”

    Second, w/r/t this:
    “In this way Kloppenberg is convincing in showing the congruence between the via media thinkers and social democratic thinkers Eduard Bernstein, Richard Ely, Beatrice and Sidney Webb, Jean Jaurés, and Walter Rauschenbusch and progressive thinkers Léon Bourgeois, Leonard Hobhouse, Max Weber, Herbert Croly, Walter Lippmann, and John Dewey (whose long career allowed Kloppenberg to treat him as part of two different intellectual discourses).”

    I’m curious about how much space Kloppenberg gives to the figures in these two lists, and also how much difference K. sees between the American progressives (Dewey, Croly, the young Lippmann) and the European ones. (I don’t usually think of Weber as a progressive, at least not for much of his career, but that’s a side point.)

    • Thanks for the excellent questions, Louis. I will address the first one more at length in my next post, where I will outline some of my criticisms of “Uncertain Victory.” The via media thinkers, and even more explicitly social democratic theorists like Bernstein, believed they were demarcating epistemological and political lines distinct from Marxism. They were adamant about this. In fact if Kloppenberg is right then Marxism is their straw man. The problem that arises is the degree to which Kloppenberg identifies with his subjects. He obviously prefers pragmatists and social democrats to Marxists, which is fine as far as it goes. But he often allows his subjects to get the last word on Marxists. So Marxists (and various others whom the pragmatists and social democrats challenge, such as Nietzsche) are wooden in comparison to the nuanced and richly analytical pragmatists and social democrats. It’s a problem that I hope to further address in part 2 of this essay.

      Now to your second question: Kloppenberg spends hundreds of pages analyzing the intellectual history of social democracy and progressivism. So yes he gives plenty of space to figures like Croly and Weber. And in fact one of his explicit revisions is putting Weber in the progressive camp. Kloppenberg makes clear that Weber is not conventionally considered a progressive on the order of the others that he considers in that section (Bourgeois, Hobhouse, Croly, Lippmann, and Dewey). Weber was far less optimistic, and far less able to shape the political and intellectual culture in his own country. Yet his philosophical and political assumptions were remarkably similar, Kloppenberg argues. Where Weber diverged from the others is instructive of Germany’s divergence from the US, UK, and France—which Kloppenberg notes is one of the most important stories of the twentieth century.

  4. Andrew, thanks for this great post. I, too, think Kloppenberg’s book is a remarkable achievement. I want to quibble with you a little bit about how you define his claims. The way I read the book (and I don’t have it here in front of me, so maybe my memory is wrong on this), it moves from epistemology/metaphysics to ethical and social theory, and finally to political thought. The discussion of the via media is initially a discussion of a middle way, not between religion and science or liberalism and socialism, but between philosophical idealism and materialism, and epistemological rationalism and empiricism. That is, the challenge of these philosophers was to reject the forms of assurances that came from a unified philosophical foundationalism, with its necessary truths, its ordered universe and its fixed principles, and to supplant the dualisms of mind and body, idea and matter, logic and experience with a new fluid way of thinking that found new conditions of possibility in epistemic uncertainty and what William James liked to refer to as an “open” universe. The victory of “uncertainty” made it possible to move ethical and social theory away from doctrines of natural right and formalistic conceptions of freedom inherited from the Enlightenment, and toward a vision of social democracy, progressivism and a new kind of historical and cultural consciousness. It also meant abandoning the teleological vision of history found in Comte, Hegel, and Marx. The epistemic revolution of the philosophers of the via media was the intellectual precondition for moving away from debates in the ethical sphere between utilitarians and Kantian universalists, and in the political sphere away from laissez-faire liberalism, on the one hand, and Marxist metaphysics on the other. This is all very schematic, of course, since the book is dense and filled with much more complicated readings of these various figures, and distinctions between the national intellectual traditions of which they were a part. And I’m going on memory, so I’m happy to be corrected if I’m wrong.

    An ambiguity that the book has left me with is a question about causation. Kloppenberg’s narrative suggests that changes in the sphere of epistemological and metaphysical ideas were in some sense the “cause” of changes in political and social philosophy. It’s just not clear to me in _what_ sense he sees a causal change. It’s pretty clear that, in his analysis, social democracy and progressivism were not simply responses to changing social and political conditions, but that they couldn’t and wouldn’t have come into being unless a body of thought free from mid-19th century abstractions, formalisms, and fixed principles had prepared the way by creating a new image of human beings as historically contingent, socially fluid creatures. But is Kloppenberg arguing that changes in epistemology in some sense compelled new political and social conceptions?

    • Dan: OK no surprise but you summarized Kloppenberg’s argument better than I did! So thank you! I don’t think your summary differs from mine it’s just richer and more fully explains my throwaway line about the “via media” being a middle way between science and religion–which was indeed the definition Dewey originally gave to the via media but Kloppenberg’s via media thinkers did so much more. For Kloppenberg the via media gave life to epistemology and ethics in ways that most thinkers in the 19th century burned-over district of post-Kantian philosophy could not.

      Now to your excellent question about causation. In a 1989 review of “Uncertain Victory” for “American Literary Realism” George Cotkin writes that the book “charts a constellation of ideas that will link, although not necessarily show precise influences, a diverse group of thinkers.” I think this is right, and yet “Uncertain Victory” is not a history of a sensibility. Kloppenberg does indeed argue at various points that social democratic and progressive thought was to some degree made possible by the epistemological and ethical windows opened by the via media thinkers. In some cases he is explicit about showing how the via media thinkers influenced later political thinkers, such as the fact that Jaurés was steeped in Fouillée. But largely such causative links are implicit. So there is room here for criticism I think. Kloppenberg is a little cagey on this.

  5. Thanks a lot for this n’ that…

    I too had some questions about the relation between the philosophical and political ideas in Kloppenberg. I think Dan is right that neither kind of ideas is the product of circumstances — modernization, industrialism, the organizational revolution, etc; but they are somehow closely linked with one another.

    But how connected? Kloppenberg is explicit that philosophy did not “cause” the changes in political thinking, and he disavows easy assertions of “influence,” instead using terms such as congruence, convergence, connection and similarity — especially the first — to suggest less definite but nonetheless crucial connections. As he describes the large architecture of the book –

    Between 1870 and 1920, two generations of American and European thinkers created a transatlantic community of discourse in philosophy and political theory. Discarding accepted distinctions between idealism and empiricism in epistemology, between intuitionism and utilitarianism in ethics, and between revolutionary socialism and laissez-faire liberalism in politics, they converged toward a via media in philosophy and toward the political theories of social democracy and progressivism. This is a history of their ideas. [3]

    His purpose is perhaps to enhance the contemporary standing of the political ideas by showing they were — and are — not mere “ideological expressions,” or “unstable accommodations” to new circumstances; to convince that they were not only ideationally motivated, but coherent intellectual formations, congruent with if not logically constrained by a still vital philosophical tradition. [412]

    He allows this doesn’t mean a particular philosophical view is a “necessary or sufficient condition for adopting a certain political stance,” and some political thinkers didn’t address philosophical issues at all; but perhaps a philosophical outlook constrains political possibilities, or even eliminates some [eg, “the radical theory of knowledge precluded both laissez-faire liberalism and revolutionary socialism.” 148].

    There might be a parallel convergence here with the circumstances when Kloppenberg worked on the book — a time of resurgent pragmatism but of a liberal progressive tradition “consigned by familiarity to contempt,” and his aim was to “build bridges back to their ideas” by showing convergences with their newly vital philosophical foundations. [11] While an exceptional historical treatment, the project seems in the end driven by undisguised presentist intentions: as puts it, “what is left undone today can be accomplished tomorrow.” [415]

    In any case, one question that persists is that in the absence of something like influence, how do we account for such alignments without falling back on some discredited reflectionism.

    • Bill: Good question you pose at the end of your comment here. I don’t pretend to have the answer and yet I am historiographically old-fashioned enough to argue political context is often the best way to understand influence or causation, not in all cases but in many.

      I too see presentist intentions in this book and want to explore this more in my second post. Kloppenberg’s reclamation project is part of the neo-pragmatist attempt to infuse liberalism with vitality at a time when it had long been too closely linked with Cold War aggression (see the recent Jesse Lemisch post and the ensuing 100+ comments for an example of this antagonism).

  6. Andrew, I almost hate to ask, but I’m not sure what the referent is for “this antagonism,” mentioned above. Are you saying Kloppenberg’s “presentist intentions” are antagonistic, or that they provoke antagonism, or that they’re reacting to antagonism? In other words, what exactly about that godawful, still-traumatic comment thread is analogous to or a reminder of what’s going on in/with Uncertain Victory?

    Also, on the suggestion that Kloppenberg’s work is part of a larger “neo-pragmatist attempt to infuse liberalism with vitality” — are you talking about past liberalism? present liberalism (present at the time of Kloppenberg’s writing)? And “infuse…with vitality” — it sounds like you’re implying that Kloppenberg’s project was about putting (new?) life into a dead (or never-was-alive?) thing, rather than identifying/examining/explaining a “life” already there. I understand there’s a sense in which historians necessarily infuse the past with life every time we carve out and take up an object for inquiry — but I don’t think that’s the sense you’re gesturing toward here. Is it?

    • LD: Good questions. I hope to address them more at length in my follow-up post to this one, but briefly: UNCERTAIN VICTORY 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 (Hofstadter, Higham, etc). This was when all graduate students read Michael Rogin’s THE INTELLECTUALS AND MCCARTHY as a convincing critique of consensus school liberalism. With Vietnam and other failed American liberal projects in mind Rogin’s critique was conflated by many as a critique of American liberalism writ large. By American liberalism I mean the liberalism of John Dewey and Arthur Schlesinger Jr, not Bentham’s liberalism. I suspect Kloppenberg saw his book as a correction to this earlier over-compesation. He cryptically refers to contemporary critics of his subject in parts of the text. What went for American liberalism originated in part as a systematic critique of classic liberalism. So I see Kloppenberg’s book, and neo-pragmatism 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). Does this make sense?

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