In Masters of Words I wrote that words are malleable in the hands of propagandists who stretch and shape them according to the need of the moment. John Dewey under- stood the power of words and worked to eliminate the use of terms such as socialism and progressivism with their negative connotations, while gutting the meaning of words such as freedom and faith with positive connotations that cloaked and confused the fact that he had slipped in his own definitions.
In John Dewey and the Philosophical Refounding of America, Tiffany Jones Miller writes about Dewey and the word socialism:
…Dewey arguably did more than any other reformer to repackage progressive social theory in a way that obscured just how radically its principles departed from those of the American founding. Like Ely and many of his fellow progressive academics, Dewey initially embraced the term “socialism” to describe his social theory. Only after realizing how damaging the name was to the socialist cause did he, like other progressives, begin to avoid it. In the early 1930s, accordingly, Dewey begged the Socialist party, of which he was a longtime member, to change its name. “The greatest handicap from which special measures favored by the Socialists suffer,” Dewey declared, “is that they are advanced by the Socialist party as Socialism. The prejudice against the name may be a regrettable prejudice but its influence is so powerful that it is much more reasonable to imagine all but the most dogmatic Socialists joining a new party than to imagine any considerable part of the American people going over to them.”
Dewey was also a prime mover in getting the label progressivism dropped in favor of liberalism. In Liberal Fascism, Jonah Goldberg writes:
It was also around this time [1920’s] that through a dexterous sleight of hand, Progressivism came to be renamed “liberalism.” In the past, liberalism had referred to political and economic liberty as understood by Enlightenment thinkers like John Locke and Adam Smith. For them, the ultimate desideratum was maximum individual freedom under the benign protection of a minimalist state. The progressives, let by Dewey, subtly changed the meaning of this term, importing the Prussian vision of liberalism as the alleviation of material and educational poverty, and liberation from old dogmas and old faiths. For progressives liberty no longer meant freedom from tyranny, but freedom from want, freedom to be a “constructive” citizen, the Rousseauian and Hegelian “freedom” of living in accord with the state and the general will. Classical liberals were now routinely called conservatives, while devotees of social control were dubbed liberals. Thus in 1935 John Dewey would write in Liberalism and Social Action that activist government in the name of the economically disadvantaged and social reconstructionism had “virtually come to define the meaning of liberal faith.”1
At The Heritage Foundation Edward Walton introduces excerpts (here and here) from Dewey’s writings with these comments in John Dewey and the Progressive Redefinition of Freedom:
What the Founders called liberty Dewey dismisses as a mere formal freedom, an essentially empty idea. If we are to truly speak of freedom, formal freedom must give way to real, effective freedom.
Effective freedom requires two preconditions: (1) the necessary material means to fulfill one’s desires, and (2) developed mental capabilities allowing one to use foresight and make proper decisions without being subjected to baser desires.
…Men and women are no longer free by nature—they must be made free….
…Dewey argues that we must reconstruct society to allow for attainment of effective freedom in “The Future of Liberalism.”…
…Dewey’s truly free individual is thoroughly socialized and democratized— incapable of living freely in the Founders’ sense. The new American understands himself not as someone reflecting self-evident truths about human nature, liberty, and happiness but as someone who has come to be of, by, and for liberal experi- mental social policy. To achieve its aims, the new liberalism will be guided by an elite composed of social scientists….
The Declaration of Independence asserts that our Creator has endowed us with unalienable rights, inseparable from each person. Dewey’s effectual freedom is not only an incitement to class warfare, but its rights are alienable—granted by government, which means they can be denied by government.
…it is the possession by the more favored individuals in society of an effectual freedom to do and to enjoy things with respect to which the masses have only a formal and legal freedom, that arouses a sense of inequity, and that stirs the social judgment and will to such reforms of law, of administration and economic conditions as will transform the empty freedom of the less favored individuals into constructive realities.
In the next post I’ll discuss Dewey’s redefinition of faith.
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1Jonah Goldberg, Liberal Fascism (Broadway Books, New York NY: 2007, 2009) 221–222.