“Liberalism and Social Action” by John Dewey

In 1935 philosopher John Dewey published Liberalism and Social Action. John Dewey was one of a number of intellectuals in the 1930s who openly articulated antagonism toward the free market economy that dominated most of the United States’ policies; John Dewey’s enmity was largely targeted toward the unequal distribution of wealth that these policies had created in the United States (Jacobs 1121). John Dewey’s theories harkened back to an earlier period of liberalism populated by such philosophical heavyweights as John Stuart Mill, a time in history when liberalism was not considered a dirty word.

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As John Dewey explains, “it was not a long time ago that liberalism was a term of praise; to be liberal was to be progressive, forward-looking, free from prejudice, characterized by all admirable qualities. I do not think, however, that this particular shift can be dismissed as a mere fluctuation of intellectual fashion” (Dewey 14).

The new liberalism of Dewey and his contemporaries hoped to apply the strategies and procedures of science to create and maintain “an industrializing and urbanizing America in order to secure effective freedom for all instead of protecting empty, formal rights that enabled [business] interests to oppress the people” (Jacobs 1121). Other intellectuals in Dewey’s camp included W. E. B. Du Bois, Louis Brandeis, and Jane Addams – liberal reformers who perceived a natural relationship between democracy, social justice, “the philosophy of pragmatism and the energetic engagement of public authority to address social and economic problems” (Jacobs 1121).

The distinction between the liberalism of the 1930s and the renascent liberalism of the past, in John Dewey’s analysis, relates to the theories espoused by European philosophers John Locke, Wilhelm von Humboldt, and John Stuart Mill. As John Dewey explains:

The use of the words liberal and liberalism to denote a particular social philosophy does not appear to occur earlier than the first decade of the nineteenth century. But the thing to which the words are applied is older. It might be traced back to Greek thought; some of its ideas, especially as to the importance of the free play of intelligence, maybe found notably expressed in the funeral oration attributed to Pericles. But for the present purpose, it is not necessary to go back of John Locke, the philosopher of the glorious revolution of 1688″ (15)

Where these liberal philosophers concurred with the liberal and humanist politics that took center stage during the New Deal was in the area of human rights and the duty and obligation a government owes to its people. In John Dewey’s mind, these central liberal tenets were structural underpinnings of American democracy. “The outstanding points of Locke’s version of liberalism are that governments are instituted to protect the rights that belong to individuals prior to the political organization of social relations. These rights are those summed up a century later in the American Declaration of Independence: the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” (Dewey 15).

After the conclusion of the First World War, the free market economy loving business interests wanted as little government regulation as possible, until the stock market crash at the end of the 1920s dashed many businesses to the ground. The Great Depression ushered in a new form of liberal, big government that set out to ease the suffering wrought by the crash. As Jacobs notes, “although large enterprises continued to depend on the state’s cooperation, the business community developed an ideology of implacable opposition to liberal government intrusions into the private sector (1123).

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The New Deal essentially furthered a “new social vision…and by the end of World War II [Roosevelt] and his advisers had transformed the meaning of liberalism. When he declared in 1944 that the Allies were fighting to secure a Second Bill of Rights including the rights to higher education, a job, a living wage, decent housing, and health care for all citizens, he established an agenda” that infuses American liberal politics to this day (Jacobs 1123).

John Dewey looked to the old form of liberalism popularized by Locke, Humboldt, and Mill to inform the “ideal of individual development as grounded in freedom” (Jacobs 1123). John Dewey and other liberal philosophers who were contemporaries of the progressive New Dealers echoed Locke’s view of liberalism as the natural product of liberty; these philosophers and reformers saw an opportunity for people to “fully realize their potentialities” (Dewey 51).

Government involvement was necessary to direct the pursuits of “industry and finance” and ensure that the business interests were in support of the needs of the people (Dewey 51). John Dewey’s philosophical tenets also provided a “social-psychological justification for social reform through education as a way to imbue individuals with intelligent habits and, in the process, to reconstruct society” (Jacobs 1123). Thus, the lofty goals of the New Deal were in keeping with John Dewey and his compatriots, who believed that government could directly provide for the dreams and aspirations of its citizens. As John Dewey explains,

Among the “natural” rights especially emphasized by Locke is that of property, originating, according to him, in the fact that an individual has “mixed” himself, through his labor, with some natural hitherto unappropriated object. This view was directed against levies on the property made by rules without authorization from the representatives of the people. The theory culminated in justifying the right of revolution. Since governments are instituted to protect the natural rights of individuals, they lose claim to obedience when they invade and destroy these rights instead of safeguarding them (15).

John Dewey was one of the first liberal pragmatists to posit a “nonessentialist human nature that was shaped by consciousness and enculturation. Dewey was among the first to hold that the self is not an essence unfolding from within, but a social product incorporated from without-from others, organizations, institutions, and culture” (Musolf 277). John Dewey, like others of the New Deal era, believed wholeheartedly in the power of liberal democracies to transform human culture for the betterment of all of its members.

With the outbreak of the Second World War, liberal policies essentially faded, and the United States began to follow a more conservative track, John Dewey lamented, “it is well known that everything for which liberalism stands is put in peril in times of war. In a world crisis, its ideals and methods are equally challenged; the belief spread that liberalism flourishes only in times of fair social weather” (Dewey 14).

Works Cited

Dewey, John. Liberalism and Social Action. New York: G.P. Putnam and Sons, 1935. Print.

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Jacobs, Struan. “Liberalism.” Encyclopedia of Science, Technology, and Ethics. Ed. Carl Mitcham. Vol. 3. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2005. 1121-1124. Gale U.S. History In Context. Web.

Musolf, Gil Richard. “John Dewey’s Social Psychology and Neopragmatism: Theoretical Foundations of Human Agency and Social Reconstruction.” The Social Science Journal 38.2 (2001): 277-295. Web.

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1. StudyCorgi. ""Liberalism and Social Action" by John Dewey." January 23, 2021. https://studycorgi.com/liberalism-and-social-action-by-john-dewey/.


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StudyCorgi. (2021) '"Liberalism and Social Action" by John Dewey'. 23 January.

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