Philosophy Political Philosophy Politics

What is Progressivism? A Philosophical Overview

The political left-of-center generally has a monopoly over the term “progressive.” Like liberalism and conservatism, progressivism is often employed without knowledge of its history, context, and meaning. Progressivism has varied in time, as is the nature of “progress” itself. In the simplest sense, progressivism is the very specific ideologization of the liberal worldview of scientific materialism in political terms.

In What is Liberalism? we explored liberalism as principally being the philosophical vision, worldview, of modernity—defined as scientific materialism. The goal of liberalism, as it emerged in the modern era, was to create a new world predicated on materialist assumptions of human nature and existence. As such, a world that would produce high degrees of bodily comfort and material prosperity while minimizing bodily harm and material poverty, was the abstract ideology of liberalism. This is how liberalism became associated with new and reform in politics. Liberalism aimed at creating a new world of bodily comfort, security, and material (economic) prosperity.

Progressivism became the first attempt to codify into political ideology a discernible set of goals based on the liberal assumption of man and the world. Turn of the century progressivism, rooted in materialism and positivism, was, initially, nationalistic. Progressivism and imperialism in late nineteenth and early twentieth century America, Britain, France, and the rest of Europe saw nationalism as the wave of the future and embraced it. While this view is now passe, it must be understood and never forgotten that in its original form progressivism saw nationalism rather than internationalism as the future of human existence. Only after the horrors of the global wars of the twentieth century did this change. Progressivism became more internationalist in orientation after 1945 and altered their discernible goals as a result of the catastrophic wars fought between 1914-1945.

At its heart, progressivism inherits the liberal impulse to build a world anew and that this world will be one of high degrees of material comfort, security, and prosperity. Progressivism, owing to its techno-scientistic understanding of man and the world, came to believe that government legislated policy, in unity with big business and big labor (big government, big business, and big labor working together), would be the best way to achieve a world free from harm. Franklin Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms,” especially the latter two: freedom from want (poverty) and freedom from fear (insecurity) is the grand embodiment of the progressive ideology.

Progressivism sees the world as a problem to be solved. This is rooted in the materialist-mathematical vision of world and society. Through the careful government of experts, progressive policy can “solve” all the problems of the world and we can build through the government of experts the ideal world free from want and free from fear. If we can define progressivism in a single sentence, it would be: government by (scientific) experts.

Furthermore, progressivism is the child of industrialism and urbanization. Its close counterpart, populism, is rural and “suburban” in nature. Progressivism flourished in cities where the heart of the new industrial and scientific hubs of the world were located, where experts resided, and where a myriad of problems “needing to be solved” existed. This is why, today, progressivism is a largely urban phenomenon and movement.

Government by experts solving problems and creating a world with higher levels of peace and prosperity is what is meant by “progress.” Progressivism still carries that inherited spirit when used. To be progressive is to advocate government solutions by government experts to the problems of society. This necessarily leads to the creation of a bureaucratic and managerial apparatus in society. The end-stage of progressive government is the creation of new bureaucracies and managerial workers who deal with problems.

The nature of progress changes, however. As stated, the first-generation progressives were nationalistic. Now they are almost always internationalist. Many of the first-generation progressives were weary of monopolies. They wanted to subordinate large corporations to working with the federal government. This spirit still exists today despite public personas to the contrary (like Elizabeth Warren) but now many progressives openly advocate monopolistic governance in the form of tech-control. This is because of the manifestation of the spirit of technocratic scientism that is inherent to the progressive worldview.

In some sense, progressives are the direct children of liberalism as they do not necessarily have a historicized understanding of the world vis-à-vis Marxists and other historicists. They simply see the world in materialist terms and advocate governance in those materialist terms without an eschatological or historical understanding of “dialectic.” The utopia that progressivism foresees is a world dominated by science and technology run by experts to improve human life by minimizing bodily and material harm and poverty. Progressivism, in essence, is the default position of most Western democratic societies: an alliance of government, business, science, medicine, and technology companies working together through experts to progress the world toward more unity and more prosperity and less bodily harm (material progress). As it is often used today, progressivism also entails social liberalism: support for gay marriage, transgenderism, and secularist attitudes as the “trend of the future.”


Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor-in-chief of VoegelinView. He is writer, classicist, and historian. He has written on the arts, culture, classics, literature, philosophy, religion, and history for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and the forthcoming book Making Sense of Diseases and Disasters. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and religious studies (biblical studies & theology) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.


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