Daniel T. Rodgers. Atlantic Crossings: Social Politics in a Progressive Age. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998. 672 pp. $35.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-674-05131-7.
Reviewed by Harry M. Marks (The Johns Hopkins University)
Published on H-Sci-Med-Tech (October, 1999)
NOTE: H-STATE (Peter Dobkin Hall), H-URBAN (Clay McShane) and H-SCI-MED-TECH (Harry M. Marks) have organized a review symposium of Daniel T. Rodgers' Atlantic Crossings. Rodgers' book offers a substantial reinterpretation of Euro-American social reform in the decades 1880-1940; it discusses topics of interest to a great many kinds of historians, including urban history, public health, labor and political history among others.
The symposium leads with a summary of the book (below) by Harry M. Marks (The Johns Hopkins University), to be followed by comments (in separate messages) from Prof. Victoria de Grazia (Columbia University), David Hammack (Case Western Reserve University), Seth Koven (Villanova University), Sonya Michel (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne), and Pierre-Yves Saunier (CNRS, Lyon). The author's own comments can be found linked to each individual review.
Anyone who is interested in accessing the colloquium, in whole or in part, can do so in the Book Review Logs under the headings of H-Sci-Med-Tech, H-State, and H-Urban. All of the individual posts will be placed under each list's header.
"Why is there no welfare state in America?" For decades, sociologists and historians interested in the development of the post-World War II European welfare state have looked to the generative period from 1880 to 1940, when Germany, France, England and the Scandinavian countries adopted a series of innovative, state-centered, social programs--unemployment insurance, social security, industrial accident and health insurance--adding programs for child care and mothering work in the postwar era. While the explanations for these policies varied with scholarly fashion and the changing political fortunes of the welfare state itself, a uniform belief in the coherence (and inevitability) of the phenomena persisted, along with the conviction that there was something peculiar about the United States polity. How else to account for its noted delays in adopting some programs (social security, unemployment insurance) and failure to develop others (universal health insurance, maternity subsidies)?
Not the least of the merits of Dan Rodgers' pathbreaking book is that it calls into question this received wisdom, which saw strong connections between the postwar welfare states and the social policies of the previous sixty years. For Rodgers, the postwar welfare states are something quite different from the "social politics" of the interwar and fin-de-siecle decades: "The 'welfare state' was not the articulated goal of its framers, but [at best] a label trailing the fact (p. 28)." Even the label belongs to a later era: progressive reformers endorsed neither the statism of the 'welfare state' nor its narrow reliance on social insurance mechanisms. Rather than seeing the prewar era as the gestation period of the welfare state, it must, Rodgers argues, be read on its own terms, as an period of trans-European, trans-Atlantic, social experimentation--experimentation with programs meant to soften and delimit the effects of intensive industrialization and urbanization.
Searching for a "middle course between the rocks of cutthroat economic individualism and the shoals of an all- coercive statism (p. 29)," the "progressive architects of social politics" traveled to learn by example. British reformers went to Germany to report on Bismarck's social insurance schemes; German engineers came in the 1920s to study American factories, German architects to study American building designs; Irish, Austrian, German and Canadian agronomists trekked to Denmark to investigate the workings of rural cooperatives. Personal exchanges were augmented via textual means: reports, commissions and the proceedings of international congresses documented the operations of programs in housing, worker safety and insurance . For more than five hundred pages, Rodgers details the borrowing, imitating and modifying of social programs among the members of this trans-Atlantic community, Europeans and Americans alike.
The greatest of these sociological tourists were the Americans, who turned again and again to Europe seeking lessons in social reform. Some of these visitors are well-known. Jane Adams made multiple pilgrimages to London's Toynbee Hall in the 1880s (while Graham Wallas, Mary MacArthur and Keir Hardie, inter alia, returned the compliment by later sojourns at Lillian Wald's Henry Street Settlement). Richard T. Ely and W.E.B. DuBois studied the historicist methods and social doctrines of the German Kathedersozialisten. In the early 1930s, Lewis Mumford and Catherine Bauer surveyed modernist architecture and housing reform in Frankfurt, Berlin, and Vienna. A great many more travellers were forgotten until unearthed by Rodgers' prodigious trolling though the pages of Charities and the Commons, The Nation, The New Republic, and countless government and commission reports. Who but a few specialists remembers Albert Shaw's translation of Glasgow's experiments in municipal ownership of railways? Do even specialists know about Frank Williams, who imported German zoning maps and specifications to New York in 1913 (p. 185) or David Lubin, who modified Prussian agrarian mortgage banks (Landschaften) to help create the Farm Loan Act of 1916 (pp. 336-339)? The cumulative effect is unmistakable and irrefutable: political innovation in social policy took place in a trans-European, trans-Atlantic context. Isolationist in foreign policy the United States may have been, but in social policy they were internationalists.
The book consists of eleven chapters: an opening account of the Paris Exhibition of 1900, where the Musee Social put the wares of European and North American reformers on display; a chapter on the travels of settlement house workers, journalists and politicians to examine what Europeans had made of the urban, industrial world America was coming to resemble; a chapter on the pilgrimages U.S. students of economics made to Germany in the 1870s; a chapter on experiments in "municipalization"--the political contests, from Birmingham (England) to Cleveland, over whether private entrepreneurs should be allowed to continue owning the water lines and the trolleys; two chapters devoted largely to city planning and housing reform, one on the decades preceding the Great War and one on the 1920s and 1930s; a chapter on social insurance (workman's compensation and health insurance) and workplace regulation; a chapter on the ephemeral experiments with "war collectivism" in the Great War (housing reform, economic planning and labor relations); a chapter on agrarian cooperatives and rural reconstruction; and two closing chapters on the legacies of social politics--the New Deal and the fate of William Beveridge's plans for the postwar social reconstruction of Britain.
As the above inventory suggests, Rodgers' notion of social politics includes the conventional social insurance schemes beloved of welfare state historians--workman's compensation laws, unemployment insurance, pensions and health insurance-- but it also incorporates city planning, municipal utilities (waterworks, gas works and street railways), farmers' cooperatives, sanitary improvements (public baths and milk stations) and housing reform (from slum clearance to garden cities). Though Rodgers is not the first to offer a more expansive version of pre-WWII "welfare statism"--both Douglas Ashford and Theda Skocpol previously enlarged the canvas -- Rodgers' is surely the most comprehensive, most systematic exploration of the topography of "social politics."  I would not dare attempt to tell you all Rodgers says about each of these movements, but will simply report that I learned something on virtually every page, even about things I thought I knew rather well. But what does Rodgers wish us to understand about the nature of social politics, and its fate in the United States?
EXPLANATIONS. Rodgers' travellers are "idea" women and men who use their foreign experiences to initiate and promote new social programs. "Amateurs" rather than specialists or career government officials, "they never wielded clear political power (p. 25)." Yet they "produced the ideas, alternatives and solutions that made social politics possible." Rodgers explicitly commits himself to explaining policy agendas and programmatic ideas, not outcomes (see especially pp. 25- 28). What, then, of America's "backwardness," of the failures to transplant European programs on American political soil, of political *outcomes*? Despite his reluctance to take political results as the proper end of all politics, Rodgers has a good deal to say about the institutional fate of European ideas.
Essential to Rodgers' method is that we understood the nature of international exchange in the political realm. Even when the North Atlantic countries faced similar social problems, and even when national reformers investigated and appropriated foreign models, the process of translation was active not passive. Existing local (and political) circumstances shape the process of appropriation. In a common field of action, there are always local varietals. Take the example of social insurance in the late 19th century. Social insurance there was, but the financing and control varied from place to place. In Germany, initially only the miners had a state mandated insurance fund while in France, the state banked the funds of government registered mutual benefit societies; in Britain the same friendly societies shared their market with commercial insurers. The weight of existing markets and interests (unions/mutual benefit societies; the so-called "private sector"), and the history of state-private relations gave defined shape to the resulting programs. Similarly complex stories are told about housing and agrarian reform, among others.
What of the United States?
Americans remain, in Rodgers' telling, Innocents Abroad. Just as the local ramifications of existentialism and deconstructionist critique escaped American academics in the 1950s and 1980s, so the nuances of European social politics in the 1880s, 1910s or 1940s escaped American social progressives. How else to explain the enthusiasm of American social reformers-- self-pronounced anti-socialists--for the socialist platform of British post-WWI social reconstruction, Sidney Webb's and Ramsey MacDonald's Labour and the New Social Order? Or the studied blindness of American agronomists to the role played by government land banks in the much lauded Danish rural cooperatives? Translation is selectively tuned to some melodies but not others.
In several stories, timing plays a key role--both the sequencing of deep historical time (America's 'backwardness' vis-a-vis Europe) and the adventitious character of ordinary historical time. Thus, by the time the movement for municipal ownership reaches N. American shores (in the first decade of the 20th century), the gas utilities which were the target in Joseph Chamberlain's Birmingham were already waning . The late-blooming domestic "municipalization" movement directed its attention instead to the nascent street railway industry. The movement to import health insurance plans, by contrast, simply has historical bad luck. The campaign for health insurance heated up in 1915, just as the "made in Germany" charges sparked by WWI became available to critics.
The loyalties of American law and the American judiciary to property rights provided a more consistent check against progressive politics, especially in the cities . Rodgers makes clear the courts' role in breaking the rapid movement toward municipal ownership of railways. Yet even here it is the intellectual currents which intrigue him. For in the face of legal challenges to the municipal control of railways, progressives resurrected a venerable but moribund political innovation--the railway commission--giving the public voice in monitoring rates and service, but not in owning railways and other utilities. Ideology and political precedent, not just the balance of power, account for the political path taken.
Rodgers' affection for the architects of social politics cannot conceal the fact that their successes were geographically limited and, in many cases, short-lived. Efforts to extend local programs to the national level were often checked by a combination of powerful business opponents and tepid or ambivalent allies. If social progress in N. America remained local and piecemeal, still Rodgers has rescued a range of regional innovations from partial obscurity: from Elwood Mead's California experiments with state-subsidized cooperative farm colonies (345-353) to Carl Mackley's German-inspired working class housing in Philadelphia (403-404).
Perhaps the greatest legacy of social politics, however, can be found in the New Deal. Here, Rodgers radically extends and revises a thesis of William Leuchtenberg's, that New Deal programs and personnel had their roots in the agencies and ideals of the Great War . Do not, Rodgers argues, direct your attention to the main stage of the New Deal--the National Industrial Recovery Act or the Civilian Works Administration-- or to the main performers--few of Roosevelt's inner core came to Washington from the rank and file of social politics . Look rather to the periphery--to the cooperative farming programs of the Rural Resettlement Administration, which took up Elwood Mead's experiments with rural cooperatives--or to the interstices--the public housing program inserted into the NIRA legislation by Senator Wagner, incorporating the advice of German-inspired New York housing reformer Mary Simkhovitch. It is not, Rodgers argues, that Franklin Roosevelt and his advisors were social progressives: rather the New Deal drew on "an overstocked warehouse of reform proposals [from the past] stumbling into the political center (446)." Even within the core programs of the New Deal, Rodgers notes the weight of three decades of social politics. The provisions of Social Security, he argues, have less to do with addressing "the economic insecurity of the Depression," and more to do with European precedents in social insurance and child health nurtured by American progressives (pp. 428-446) .
The New Deal is, for Rodgers, virtually the last gasp of social politics in the United States. By the time the British issue William Beveridge's manifesto for a postwar welfare state, American reformers have turned elsewhere, to the dictates of a home-brewed Keynesianism which relied on economic growth to produce social justice. The U.S.'s extraordinary economic command over the international postwar economy gave reformers a ready reason to put their faith in the generosity of the expanding market, and to regard the European states as followers, not leaders, of other nations.
My brief is to describe and not criticize Rodgers' work. Still, some talking points occur to me, which might be taken up in the discussion.
Nativism. Rodgers makes clear how much progressive discourse invoked European example. Yet apart from a few brief mentions, progressives' acknowledged debts to Europe are not treated as a political liability . How much of the failure of Progressivism, especially during the 1920s, can be attributed to the strengths of nativism and the political mobilization of anti-communism? And what about the complex nativism of middle class reformers itself, especially in the settlement house movement? If we are considering the impact of European political example, shouldn't we--extending the suggestion of Pierre-Yves Saunier (below)--recognize the contemporary distinction between two Europes, the Nordic Europe of Germany, Britain and Scandinavia (good, progressive) and the Europe of Italy and the Pale (bad, unmodern)? 
The State. Rodgers' focus is on outsiders, those who generated ideas from think tanks, and philanthropies, national and local. He makes a point of noting that few of these outsiders made a career of holding government office. Yet I wonder if the trajectory of "social politics," especially in the 1920s and 1930s, can be explained without considering the careers of people such as the economist and statistician Edgar Sydenstricker, who went from a job as an analyst on the U.S. Commission on Industrial Relations to a full-time career in the U.S. Public Health Service. For two decades thereafter, Sydenstricker championed the cause of public health insurance, serving as a bridge between private philanthropies (the Milbank Fund), independent commissions (the Committee on the Cost of Medical Care) and the government . What about the democratic planners in the U.S. Bureau of Agricultural Economics--Milburn Lincoln Wilson and Lewis Cecil Gray--both trained in John Commons' laboratory in progressive economics at the University of Wisconsin ? Or the many officials who participated in international congresses on workplace conditions and industrial accidents ? Perhaps now that Prof. Rodgers has so lovingly charted the place of social progressives outside government, we can also examine their allies in government.
. Rodgers is hardly the first to examine the international traffic in political ideas. See E.P. Hennock's study of the British debt to German social insurance schemes, British Social Reform and German Precedents: The Case of Social Insurance, 1880- 1914 (Oxford University Press, 1987). Yet Rodgers' account is without precedent in its breadth.
. Ashford emphasizes the significance of public education; Skocpol, the Civil War veterans' pensions. Douglas E. Ashford, The Emergence of the Welfare States (Blackwell, 1987); Theda Skocpol, Protecting Soldiers and Mothers: The Political Origins of Social Policy in the United States (Harvard University Press, 1992).
. This example raises some issues. Can we talk, not simply of American 'backwardness' but of an imbalance in the United States, between technological progressiveness (gas industry--early) and political backwardness (municipalization-- late). Timing as an explanation of political outcomes seems to me problematic for the municipalization case--after all, the British water industry is virtually entirely privately controlled for the first two-thirds of the century, yet moves to public control thereafter. [See J.A. Hassan, "The Growth and Impact of the British Water Industry in the Nineteenth Century," Economic History Review 38 (1985), 531-547]. What needs explaining here is how and why the business classes, led by Joseph Chamberlain, exercised their political power differently than similar groups in the United States.
. Rodgers light-handed reading of the courts' role is more in keeping with the first volume of Morton Horwitz's history of U.S. law than with the second: Morton J. Horwitz The Transformation of American Law, 1780-1860 (Harvard University Press, 1977).
. William E. Leuchtenberg, "The New Deal and the Analogue of War, in John Braemen, Robert H. Bremner and Everett Walters, Change and Continuity in Twentieth-Century America (Harper & Row, 1966), pp. 81-143.
. Frances Perkins is one exception noted; Henry Wallace could well be another.
. Rodgers is careful to note the ways in which domestic political circumstances modified European precedent, as in the insistence, modeled on commercial insurance, that the federal government track individual contributions to Social Security accounts (pp. 445-446).
. Rodgers' most extended attention to the "made in America issue" comes in his discussion of the New Deal (pp. 481- 484).
. While the nativism point is mine, the two Europes idea was inspired by reading Pierre-Yves Saunier's contribution to the discussion below.
. On the CIR, see Mary O. Furner, "Knowing Capitalism: Public Investigation and the Labor Question in the Long Progressive Era," in Mary O. Furner and Barry Supple, eds. The State and Economic Knowledge. The British and American Experiences (Cambridge University Press, 1990), pp. 274-286.
. On the BAE, Richard S. Kirkendall, Social Scientists and Farm Politics in the Age of Roosevelt (Iowa State University Press, 1966, 1982).
. On industrial accidents and labor statistics, see Anson Rabinbach, "Social Knowledge, Social Risk, and the Politics of Industrial Accidents in Germany and France," in Dietrich Rueschemeyer and Theda Skocpol, eds. States, Social Knowledge, and the Origins of Modern Social Politics," (Princeton University Press, 1996), pp. 48-89; James Leiby, Carroll Wright and Labor Reform: The Origin of Labor Statistics_ (Harvard University Press, 1960).
Copyright (c) 1999 by H-Net, all rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational use if proper credit is given to the author and the list. For other permission, please contact H-Net@h-net.msu.edu.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-sci-med-tech.
Harry M. Marks. Review of Rodgers, Daniel T., Atlantic Crossings: Social Politics in a Progressive Age.
H-Sci-Med-Tech, H-Net Reviews.
Copyright © 1999 by H-Net, all rights reserved. H-Net permits the redistribution and reprinting of this work for nonprofit, educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the author, web location, date of publication, originating list, and H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online. For any other proposed use, contact the Reviews editorial staff at firstname.lastname@example.org.