This 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.