Progressives have always moved society forward, for better or worse. It has always been the label of political pioneers: Abraham Lincoln, Lyndon Johnson, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt to be politically progressive – though they were from different political parties – one for his abolition of slavery, another for granting African Americans the right to vote, and the third for establishing the welfare systems still used today. The rather interesting development has been the conflation of “progressivism” and “socialism”. Progressivism, in small ways, has not been an “avant garde” position in America since the creation of Social Security. It replaced the moniker “socialist” (when the word had too much baggage attached to it) during America’s red scare and the height of the cold war. With 2016’s show of Senator Bernie Sanders’ “Revolution” and the increased prominence of populist socialism in American politics, it’s important to understand the roots of the progressive movement and the origins of socialism itself.
Socialism gained prominence with the French, German, and Italian revolutions of 1848, spurred by the excess poverty and inequality that accompanied the industrial revolution. Alongside these revolutions came economic theorists like Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, who posited in their works The Communist Manifesto and Das Kapital that society could only survive through the acceptance of an egalitarian society that rejected capitalism. Modern socialism has for the most part rejected the idea of rebuilding society into a wholly Marxist image, instead opting for inequality, safety, and health measures. Programs such as social security, medicare, and medicaid are born from said compromise. Socialism has, however, existed as an idea for longer than that; Thomas Paine’s 1791 paper Agrarian Justice, proposed taxing wealthy land owners in order to fund a pension system. While not acted upon by representatives in the American government, the paper proved influential in later years, serving as one of the many inspirations for the Social Security Act.
Paine writes, “the first principle of civilization ought to have been, and ought still to be, that the condition of every person born into the world, after a state of civilization commences, ought not to be worse than if he had been born before that period. But the fact is that the condition of millions, in every country in Europe, is far worse than if they had been born before civilization began…”
Contrary to the opinions of Paine’s contemporaries, such as Adam Smith and John Locke who emphasized the importance of private property, Paine supposes that the concept of individual land ownership is not an innate or natural law in human civilization’s history; stating that “neither Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, nor Job, so far as the history of the Bible may credited in probable things, were owners of land.” The private ownership and cultivation of land for agricultural purposes created a crucial divide in society was between those who owned the land, and those who did not. Paine believed that this divide went against the natural order, and that the inequality spawned by such a system had done catastrophic damage to the very core of civilization. He believed the only way to alleviate this damage was to, in essence, tax land owners to fund a pension system as a means of reparations for what Paine considered a robbery of humanity’s basic right to access and use land.
There are other examples of experimental socialism through history. Aspects of the political philosophy emerge in some forms in ancient societies such as Greece, China, and Israel. Ancient scholars such as Plato were undoubtedly influences on later socialist theorists like Paine and Marx. However, there is a fundamental contradiction between said societies and that of progressive socialism: the existence of slavery. In Alexander Gray’s The Socialist Tradition: Moses to Lenin, Gray posits that while slavery is the anathema to the proletarian spirit so instinctual to Socialism, it is impossible to ignore the ideas presented in history before the traditional socialist movement’s beginning. “Even if the “socialism” of antiquity has, in its own right, no claim to be considered as an integral element in a history of socialism, its representatives demand attention as inspiration for socialism in others in much later centuries.”
His primary example is the quasi-historical legacy of Lycurgus of Sparta. While historical data on who exactly was Lycurgus is not known, he is referenced by Plutarch, a 1st century Grecian scholar and historian in his work Lives of Noble Greeks and Romans as the man who gave Sparta its reputation of militaristic austerity. He is however also known for his drive to create equality among Sparta’s citizenry.
According to Plutarch, “…he trained his fellow-citizens to have neither the wish nor the ability to live for themselves; but like bees they were to make themselves always integral parts of the whole community, clustering together about their leader, almost beside themselves with enthusiasm and noble ambition, and to belong wholly to their country.”
Plutarch’s words echo of Marxist thought: a nation of those who do not struggle for individual want, but work to better the whole of society. Gray comments that Lycurgus “ persuaded the Spartans to agree to a new distribution of lands on a basis of equality, and by other measures he weaned them from the love of silver and gold, and led them to adopt that harsh simplicity of life which the very name of Sparta has come to connote.”
This is not to say that there was nothing to criticize in Spartan society, their iconic austerity, military tradition, and tendency towards authoritarianism is not to be dismissed. However, with this important history in mind it is clear as day that the ideals of progressives and socialists have remained a part of human civilization for almost all of written history. Progressives have always moved forward, and we will keep moving forward, in order to better ourselves and our society. And we will not be easily stopped.