From the Publisher: Progressives Come Home

Two odd facts in Eastern Europe arrest my attention. First, the label that Communists latch onto when the name “communist” becomes a liability is “social democracy.” The Communist Party in Poland, e.g., is now called The Social Democracy Party. One wonders if this makes Americans who call themselves Social Democrats nervous. It should. The program is still statist.

The second fact is that Eastern European Communist hardliners are now commonly referred to in the Western press as “conservatives,” rather than as what they are: thoroughly principled “progressives.” By contrast, those Communists who are “retreating” to free markets, economic liberty, and enterprise are now called “progressives,” rather than (as they would be called here) “conservatives.”

In fact, the ideal models for “progressives” around the world today are—surprisingly—leaders like Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, who were the first among world leaders to put “the magic of the marketplace,” economic liberty, and enterprise on the agenda of the world. In Eastern Europe, this is especially true; their symbolic heroes are Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. It is the hardline Communists who prefer to take Sweden as a model—or, at least, as a cover—the best that in the circumstances they can get.

These two facts reveal that many of those we in America have been calling “conservatives” are misnamed. It is true that there are some paleo-conservatives or ardent traditionalists whose characteristic regard is for the past. But most American conservatives today are working to set the agenda of the future. They are not the ones clinging to an outmoded past. The chief outmoded past in our midst is America’s liberal culture, the ebbing tide of a permissive morality with its excessive claims about individual rights, its moral solipsism, and its contempt for “the laws of nature and of nature’s God.”

In this new whipsaw of terminology, Catholic progressives are likely to be increasingly perplexed. As Catholics, they are heirs of a communal vision rooted in a tradition of natural and divine law, as well as in “Christ yesterday, Christ today, the same forever.” As progressives, they have unwittingly taken on all sorts of baggage that increasingly embarrasses them.

A tradition lives not so much through carrying forward the vital past (although it does that) but through projecting a better and stronger view of the horizons of the future. It is its future-oriented vision that inspires large and bold actions. If you happen to know some of today’s Catholics who are called “conservative,” you have no doubt noted how eager they are for the future. They think they own the future. They have enormous confidence in the vital power of our tradition to determine the future. If the name had not been corrupted by the likes of Daniel Ortega, their true name—the true name of all who have confidence in the vitality of their own tradition—would be “progressive.”

Who, for example, would have guessed during those years of “malaise” at the end of the Carter administration that the key political words of the 1990s would be democracy and capitalism? Or that the key themes of the great Catholic revival in Eastern Europe and elsewhere would be orthodoxy and fidelity? The “neoconservatives” (oops, neoprogressives), that’s who.

One reason why the ranks of neoconservatives keep growing day by day—and why the ranks of the left-leaning keep dropping off like dead branches in March winds—is that the vital tradition to which they appeal has deep roots that have known many seasons.

The classic American understanding of revolution (so different from that of the French in 1789) is revolvere, a turning back to first principles. In terms of political economy, this means a recovery of the system of natural liberty (or, as some prefer, the natural system of liberty). Human liberty has its own laws, rooted in man’s having been created in the image of God. These laws continually exert themselves afresh. Their violation brings swift retribution through failure. History is a great instructor. Providence will not be mocked.

This is why we at Crisis take much comfort from the return to common sense—to what Chesterton called “The Outline of Sanity”—in our time. Ours is a hopeful period. There will be many more battles to be fought but now, it seems, the ranks of our allies are swelling and the outcome is in God’s hands.

So we take a moment once again to thank good Pope John Paul II for his steadfast leadership. His vision of a “common European home” has now been taken up even by General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev. The spiritual renewal he has consistently spoken of—disciplined, serious, committed—is sweeping the world. Every day, more and more believers come home to it. It is where, even when they did not at first recognize it, many have already been. There is much to be thankful for.


  • Michael Novak

    Michael Novak (1933-2017) founded Crisis Magazine with Ralph McInerny in 1982. He held the George Frederick Jewett Chair in Religion and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute and was a trustee and visiting professor at Ave Maria University. In 1994, he received the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. He was also an emissary to the United Nations Human Rights Commission and to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe.

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