Jack London, Socialism, and Progressivism

Scott Kaufman of the Lawyers, Guns, and Money blog criticizes my post on Jack London’s racism and early 20th century Progressivism on two grounds:

The first problem with Somin’s argument… is that he applies the term “Progressive” to someone who was an avowed “Socialist.” London was a capital-S Socialist who believed in lowercase-p progress, but he was not a capital-P Progressive. Teddy Roosevelt was a capital-P Progressive, but he didn’t believe in progress and was neither a socialist nor a Socialist. These are distinctions with difference to everyone who cares more about history than contemporary politics….

The second problem with Somin’s argument is that its logic lacks logic…. Proving that Jack London was a racist only proves that Jack London was a racist. It weakly suggests, and then only by extension, that those who shared his ideological commitment to socialism—which, it bears repeating, is only the same thing as Progressivism if you consider Teddy Roosevelt a socialist—might be racist.

Both points are off-base. As to the first, “Progressive” is a general term routinely applied to all those early 20th century writers and political activists who supported large-scale increases in government control of the economy. Some of them were socialists like London. Others did not go that far. In any event, it is certainly not the case that the term “Progressive” applies only to those who supported Theodore Roosevelt’s Progressive Party. For example, there were many Progressives who supported Roosevelt’s 1912 election opponent, Democrat Woodrow Wilson. To say that the term “Progressive,” as applied to early 20th century politics, includes only supporters of the Progressive Party is a little like saying that the term “libertarian” today applies only to those who support the Libertarian Party. It ignores the fact that both terms refer to a broader ideological movement as well as to a specific political party. As with many other such movements, early 20th century Progressivism had various internal divisions. In my original post, I pointed out that “[e]ven by the standards of the time, London was extreme in both his socialism and his racism.” Perhaps Kaufman was confused by my use of a capital “p” rather than a lower-case one. However, “Progressive” with a capital “p” is often used to refer to the broader earlier twentieth century movement, as well as to the party Roosevelt founded in 1912.

Kaufman’s second argument ignores the fact that I never said that London’s racism by itself proves that anyone other than him was racist. Rather, I wrote that it was part of a broader pattern of racism among many Progressives of that era, and linked to some articles that provide extensive evidence, such as this one.

Finally, Kaufman imagines that I was “surprised” by the discussion of London’s racism in a recent biography of him and claims that that was because I knew “nothing” about him before. Here again, Kaufman misattributes to me something I never said. I am no London expert. But I was previously aware of his racism, and had read several other discussions of it.

UPDATE: Kaufman responds further here, but doesn’t say much that is substantive. He first claims that my response to his original critique was a mostly a “nifty little walk-back.” However, I did not in fact withdraw or “walk back” anything I said in the original post. He also challenges my definition of early 20th century Progressivism as including all those who “suppored large-scale increases in government control of the economy:”

[A] definition so broad as to be utterly useless. The trusts “supported large-scale increases in government control of the economy” as a means of putting and keeping labor in its place; manufacturers lobbied first for higher, then lower, then higher tariffs; but I doubt Somin wants to include those interests among his “Progressives.”

Some business interests did in fact ally with Progressives in order to promote regulations that might stifle their competitors. But few “trusts” or manufacturers supported increased government intervention on anything like the large scale that Progressives did. I did not claim that advocacy of any increases in government regulation of any kind made one a Progressive. Certainly, merely wanting a higher tariff to exclude your business competitors does not qualify. As with any definition of a large-scale political movement, there are going to be some close cases at the margin. But the basic idea is clear enough, and conforms to standard usage. Restricting the term to supporters of the Progressive Party is both overly narrow (implying, for example, that there were no Progressives before the Party was formed in 1912), and at variance with ordinary usage.

Kaufman also continues to claim that London’s racism was atypical among Progressives. It was indeed extreme by the standards of the time, as I noted in my very first post on this subject. However, Kaufman says nothing to refute the extensive evidence I cited showing that numerous other Progressives endorsed less extreme racist views, and used them as a justification for many of the economic policies they favored.