Herbert Croly

Herbert Croly

Herbert Croly, the son of two journalists, David Croly and Jane Cunningham, was born in New York, on 23rd January, 1869. After being educated at Harvard University he became the editor of the Architectural Record.

In 1909 Croly published, The Promise of American Life. In the book, Croly argued for a planned economy, increased spending on education and the creation of a society based on the "brotherhood of mankind". It has been claimed that this book influenced the political views of both Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson.

In 1914 Croly was asked by Willard Straight to become the first editor of the New Republic. The magazine was run by a small editorial board that included Croly's friend, Walter Lippmann. All outside contributions were submitted to the editorial board and had to be accepted by all members before it could appear in the magazine. Early contributors included Randolph Bourne, Amy Lowell, Henry Brailsford and H. G. Wells.

When it was first published on 7th November 1914, the New Republic had 32 pages, including self-cover, and contained no illustrations. Its first edition sold 875 copies but after a year the circulation reached 15,000. The New Republic became a strong supporter of Theodore Roosevelt and the Progressive movement.

On the outbreak of the First World War, Croly argued for American neutrality. The New Republic published articles by British critics of the war such as Norman Angell and Harold Laski. However, after the sinking of the Lusitania, Croly urged American entry into war. After Woodrow Wilson declared war on Germany, the New Republic gave him its full support.

After the war Croly became much more critical of Woodrow Wilson and described the Versailles Treaty as "a peace of annihilation". He also disliked the League of Nations, an organisation that "would perpetuate rather than correct the evils of the treaty." Sales of the New Republic reached 43,000 during the First World War but declined during the 1920s.

Willard Straight died during the influenza epidemic in 1918 but Dorothy Straight continued to fund what had now become a loss-making venture. Croly continued to persuade some of the most prominent literary figures in the United States and Britain to write for the journal. This included Edmund Wilson, Waldo Frank, Jane Addams, Bertrand Russell, H. G. Wells, Virginia Woolf and John Maynard Keynes.

Herbert Croly remained editor of the New Republic until his death on 17th May, 1930.

Primary Sources

(1) Herbert Croly, The Promise of American Life (1909)

The most serious danger to the American democratic future which may issue from aggressive and unscrupulous unionism consists in the state of mind of which mob-violence is only one expression. The militant unionists are beginning to talk and believe as if they were at war with the existing social and political order - as if the American political system was as inimical to their interests as would be that of any European monarchy or aristocracy.

Whether this aggressive unionism will ever become popular enough to endanger the foundations of the American political and social order, I shall not pretend to predict. The practical dangers resulting from it at any one time are largely neutralized by the mere size of the country and its extremely complicated social and industrial economy. The menace it contains to the nation as a whole can hardly become very critical as long as so large a proportion of the American voters are land-owning farmers. But while the general national well-being seems sufficiently protected for the present against the aggressive assertion of the class interests of the unionists, the local public interest of particular states and cities cannot be considered as anywhere near so secure; and in any event the existence of aggressive discontent on the part of the unionists must constitute a serious problem for the American legislator and statesman.

The unionist leaders frequently offer verbal homage to the great American principle of equal rights, but what they really demand is the abandonment of that principle. What they want is an economic and political order which will discriminate in favor of union labor and against non-union labor; and they want it on the ground that the unions have proved to be the most effective agency on behalf of the economic and social amelioration of the wage-earner. The unions, that is, are helping most effectively to accomplish the task, traditionally attributed to the American democratic political system - the task of raising the general standard of living; and the unionists claim that they deserve on this ground recognition by the state and active encouragement. Obviously, however, such encouragement could not go very far without violating both the Federal and many state constitutions - the result being that there is a profound antagonism between our existing political system and what the unionists consider to be a perfectly fair demand. Like all good Americans, while verbally asking for nothing but equal rights, they interpret the phrase so that equal rights become equivalent to special rights.

(2) Herbert Croly, The Techniques of Democracy (1915)

Progressive democracy is bound to keep its immediate and specific social program disengaged from its ideal of social righteousness. The immediate program is only the temporary instrument, which must be continually reformed and readjusted as a result of the experience gained by its experimental application. It is the torch with which the nation gropes its way in the direction of the star. Dogmatic individualism and dogmatic socialism both conceive their specific programs, their immediate itineraries, as an adequate and a safe guide-book for the entire journey. Progressive democracy must abandon the illusion of any such assurance. No matter how firmly the progressive democrat may believe that his torch is radiating within the limits of its power the light of truth, no matter how confidently he may anticipate an acceleration of speed as a consequence of the increased power of the torch, he must still carefully distinguish between his itinerary and his goal. The goal is sacred. The program is fluid. The pilgrims can trust to the torch only in case they constantly alter and improve it, in order to meet the restless and exacting exigencies of the journey.