Saturday, May 23, 2015

Birth of a word

Memorial service for Walther Rathenau (Wikicommons - German Federal Archives). His assassination introduced a new word into French and, shortly after, into English.

A reader has written me about my last post:

It is extremely unlikely that "racism" is an attempt at translating something like Völkismus. Between Hitler's preference for Rasse (race) over Völk and the fact that the Nazis drew on authors like Chamberlain (whose antisemitism would also tend towards privileging Rasse over Völk) and Gobineau (who wrote in French), there is no support to be found for a derivation that would make "racism" appear to be related to the less virulent of the two strains of German nationalism (the romantic-idealistic one which relished being able to point at linguistic differentiation - like Völk vs. populus/people/peuple - and speculating about vague semantic correlates thereof). 

The simple fact of the matter is that "racism" is not any kind of translation but just a combination of a widely used term with a lexologically highly productive suffix. Critical use of "racism" basically starts in the 1920s with Théophile Simar. And Hirschfeld, whose book Racism secured wider currency for the term, clearly wanted to espouse an anthropological concept just as much as Boas et. al. did, although he didn't offer any detailed discussion beyond his roundabout rejection of traditional ideas. BTW, Hirschfeld lectured in the U.S. in 1931. While he wrote his German manuscript in 1933/1934, he may well have employed the term "racism" years earlier.

The best authority on this subject is probably Pierre-André Taguieff, who seems to have read everything about racism, racialism, or colorism. He found that continuous use of the word “racism” began in the 1920s, initially in French and shortly after in English. There is little doubt about the historical context:

In a book published late in 1922, Relations between Germany and France, the Germanist historian Henri Lichtenberger introduced the adjective racist in order to characterize the "extremist," "activist," and "fanatical" elements in the circles of the German national and nationalist right as they had just recently been manifested by the assassination in Berlin, on June 24, 1922, of Walther Rathenau:

The right indignantly condemned Rathenau's murder and denied any connection with the murderers. A campaign was even planned to expel from the Nationalist party the agitators of the extreme right known as "Germanists" or "racists," a group (deutschvölkische) whose foremost leaders are Wulle, Henning and von Graefe, and whose secret inspirer is supposed to be Ludendorff.

[...] The context of the term's appearance is significant: the description of the behavior of the "German nationals" and more precisely the "activist," "extreme right" fraction. The adjective racist is clearly presented as a French equivalent of the German word völkische, and always placed in quotation marks. [...] The term, having only just appeared, is already charged with criminalizing connotations.

In 1925, in his reference book L'Allemagne contemporaine, Edmond Vermeil expressly reintroduced the adjective racist to translate the "untranslatable" German term völkische and suggested the identification, which became trivial in the 1930s of (German) racism with nationalist anti-Semitism or with the anti-Jewish tendencies of the nationalist movement in Germany in the 1920s:

It is in this way that the National German Party has little by little split into two camps. The "racist" (völkische) extreme right has separated from the party. Racism claims to reinforce nationalism, to struggle on the inside against all that is not German and on the outside for all those who bear the name German. [...] (Taguieff, 2001, pp. 88-89)

The term “racist” thus began as an awkward translation of the German völkische to describe ultranationalist parties. Initially, the noun "racism" did not exist, just as there was no corresponding noun in German. It first appeared in 1925, and in 1927 the French historian Marie de Roux used it to contrast his country’s nationalism, based on universal human rights, with radical German nationalism, which recognized no existence for human rights beyond that of the Volk that created them. "Racism [...] is the most acute form of this subjective nationalism," he wrote. The racist rejects universal principles. He does not seek to give the best of his culture to "the treasure of world culture." Instead, the racist says: "The particular way of thinking in my country, the way of feeling that belongs to it, is the absolute truth, the universal truth, and I will not rest or pause before I have ordered the world by law, that of my birth place" (Taguieff, 2001, p. 91-94).

This was the original meaning of "racism," and it may seem far removed from the current meaning. Or maybe not. No matter how we use the word, the Nazi connotation is always there, sometimes lingering in the background, sometimes in plain view.


The noun "racism" was derived in French from an awkward translation of the German adjective völkische. Unlike the original source word, however, it has always had negative and even criminal connotations. It encapsulated everything that was going wrong with German nationalism in a single word and, as such, aggravated a worsening political climate that ultimately led to the Second World War.

When that war ended, the word "racism" wasn't decommissioned. It found a new use in a postwar context of decolonization, civil rights, and Cold War rivalry. Gradually, it took on a life of its own, convincing many people—even today—that the struggle against the Nazis never ended. They're still out there! 

It would be funny if the consequences weren't so tragic. Our obsession with long-dead Nazis is blinding us to current realities. In Europe, there have been many cases of Jews being assaulted and murdered because they are Jews. These crimes are greeted with indignation about how Europe is returning to its bad ways, and yet in almost every case the assailant turns out to be of immigrant origin, usually North African or sub-Saharan African. At that point, nothing more is said. One can almost hear the mental confusion.


Frost, P. (2013). More thoughts. The evolution of a word, Evo and Proud, May 18 

Taguieff, P-A. (2001). The Force of Prejudice: On Racism and its Doubles, University of Minnesota Press.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Age of reason

Rally in Sydney (Wikicommons). Antiracists see themselves as open-minded individuals at war with hardline ideologues.


The interwar years gave antiracism a new lease on life, thus reversing a long decline that had begun in the late 19th century. This reversal was driven largely by two events: the acrimonious debate over U.S. immigration in the mid-1920s and Hitler's rise to power in the early 1930s. Many people, especially academics, were convinced of the need for an uncompromising war on "racism"—a word just entering use as a synonym for Nazism.

The war on racism began in the social sciences, especially through the efforts of John B. Watson in psychology and the Boasian triad in anthropology (Franz Boas, Ruth Benedict, Margaret Mead). After initially holding a more balanced view, these social scientists began to argue that genes contribute little to differences in behavior and mental makeup, especially between human populations.

In addition to the political context, there was also the broader cultural setting. The 1920s brought a flowering of African and African-American influences on popular culture, as seen in the Harlem Renaissance, the emergence of jazz, and the infatuation with art nègre. African Americans were viewed no longer as an embarrassment but as a source of excitement and novelty. In this role, black singers, musicians, and artists would lead the way in mobilizing mainstream support for the war on racism, such as Marian Anderson in her concert at the Lincoln Memorial and Paul Robeson through his political activism.

Would things have turned out differently if the immigration debate of the 1920s had been less acrimonious or if Hitler had not come to power? The most widespread answer seems to be "no"—sooner or later, men and women of reason would have broken free of the ideological straightjacket imposed by racism, social Darwinism, and hereditarianism. Franz Boas said as much in an interview he gave in 1936: "I will try to clean up some of the nonsense that is being spread about race those days. I think the question is particularly important for this country, too; as here also people are going crazy" (JTA, 1942).

How true is this view? Was the war on racism a healthy reaction to a mad ideology?

First, the word "racism" scarcely existed in its current sense back then. Continuous use dates from the 1920s and initially referred to the integral "blood and soil" nationalism that was becoming popular, especially in Germany, the word "racist" itself being perhaps a translation of the German Völkisch. Its use in a broader sense is largely postwar and has rarely been positive or even neutral. It's an insult. The racist must be re-educated and, if necessary, eliminated.

If the racist is no longer an ignorant person but rather a villain, and if he is defined by his impulses or negative passions (hate, aggressive intolerance, etc.), then the evil is in him, and his case seems hopeless. The antiracist's task is no longer to lead the "racist" towards goodness, but rather to isolate him as a carrier of evil. The "racist" must be singled out and stigmatized. (Taguieff, 2013)

The term "social Darwinism" likewise came into use well after the period when it was supposedly dominant:

Bannister (1988) and Bellomy (1984) established that "social Darwinism" was all but unknown to English-speaking readers before the Progressive Era. Hodgson's (2004) bibliometric analysis identified a mere eleven instances of "social Darwinism" in the Anglophone literature (as represented by the JSTOR database) before 1916. Before 1916 "social Darwinism" had almost no currency whatsoever [...].

"Social Darwinism" did not acquire much greater currency between 1916 and 1943; a mere 49 articles and reviews employ the term. (Leonard, 2009)

The term did not become commonplace until 1944 with the publication of Social Darwinism in American Thought by Richard Hofstadter. Since then it has appeared 4,258 times in the academic literature. Like "racism" it has seldom been used positively or neutrally:

"Social Darwinism" had always been an epithet. From its very beginnings, reminds Bellomy (1984, p. 2), "social Darwinism" has been "heavily polemical, reserved for ideas with which a writer disagreed." (Leonard, 2009).

The term "hereditarianism" likewise entered common use long after its supposed golden age. According to Google Scholar, "hereditarian" and "hereditarianism" appear 0 times in the literature between 1890 and 1900, 6 times between 1900 and 1910, 8 times between 1910 and 1920, 18 times between 1920 and 1930, and 52 times between 1930 and 1940. In most cases, these terms seem to have been used pejoratively.

Thus, all three words entered common use when the beliefs they described were no longer dominant. More to the point, these words were more often used by opponents than by proponents, sometimes exclusively so.

Of course, an ideology doesn't need a name to exist. Many people engaged in racial thinking without bothering to label it. As Barkan (1992, p. xi) observes: “Prior to that time [the interwar years] social differentiation based upon real or assumed racial distinctions was thought to be part of the natural order.” It is difficult, however, to describe such thinking as an ideology, in the sense of a belief-system that seeks obedience to certain views and to a vision of what-must-be-done. William McDougall (1871-1938) was a prominent figure in psychology and is now described as a "scientific racist," yet his views showed little of the stridency we normally associate with ideology:

Racial qualities both physical and mental are extremely stable and persistent, and if the experience of each generation is in any manner or degree transmitted as modifications of the racial qualities, it is only in very slight degree, so as to produce any moulding effect only very slowly and in the course of generations.

I would submit the principle that, although differences of racial mental qualities are relatively small, so small as to be indistinguishable with certainty in individuals, they are yet of great importance for the life of nations, because they exert throughout many generations a constant bias upon the development of their culture and their institutions. (Mathews, 1925, p. 151)

Similarly, the anthropologist William Graham Sumner (1840-1910) is described today as a "social Darwinist," even though the term was never applied to him during his lifetime or long after. He did believe in the struggle for existence: "Before the tribunal of nature a man has no more right to life than a rattlesnake; he has no more right to liberty than any wild beast; his right to pursuit of happiness is nothing but a license to maintain the struggle for existence..." (Sumner, 1913, p. 234). He saw such struggle, however, as an unfortunate constraint and not as a normative value. Efforts to abolish it would simply transfer it to other people:

The real misery of mankind is the struggle for existence; why not "declare" that there ought not to be any struggle for existence, and that there shall not be any more? Let it be decreed that existence is a natural right, and let it be secured in that way. If we attempt to execute this plan, it is plain that we shall not abolish the struggle for existence; we shall only bring it about that some men must fight that struggle for others. (Sumner, 1913, p. 222).

Yet his belief in the struggle for existence was not associated with imperialism and “might makes right.” Indeed, he considered imperialism a betrayal of America's traditions and opposed the Spanish-American War and America’s subsequent annexation of the Philippines. A class of plutocrats would, he felt, come into being and foment imperialist wars in the hope of securing government subsidies and contracts (Wikipedia, 2015).

Herbert John Fleure (1877-1969), a geographer and anthropologist, is similarly described today as a "scientific racist" who saw racial differentiation taking place even at the micro level of small communities:

[...] Fleure accepted the reality of racial differentiation even in Europe, where all the populations exhibit types of diverse origins living and maintaining those type characters side by side in spite of intermarriage and of absence of any consciousness of diversity. These various types, each with mental aptitudes and limitations that are in some degree correlated with their physique, make diverse contributions to the life of each people. (Barkan, 1992, p. 60)

Nonetheless, he condemned the "folly" of confusing such differentiation with language and nation states (Barkan, 1992, pp. 60-64). He also became a strong opponent of Nazism and attacked anti-Semitism in his lectures and articles (Kushner, 2008).

I could give other examples, but why bother? There was a spectrum of racial thinking that encompassed a wide range of scholars, many of whom were sympathetic to the plight of minorities. This variability is hardly surprising, given that racial thinking of one sort or another was typical of most educated people who came of age before the 1930s. Indeed, we are regularly treated to the discovery that some respected person, like Winston Churchill or Albert Schweitzer, was, in fact, a racist. This historical reality is embarrassing not just because the people in question are still role models, but also because it undermines the notion that antiracism freed us from an ideological straitjacket.


Words like "racism," "social Darwinism," and "hereditarianism" create the impression that a single monolithic ideology prevailed before the triumph of antiracism. Actually, the truth was almost the reverse. There was initially a wide spectrum of beliefs, as is normally the case before one belief pushes out its rivals and imposes its vision of reality. Antiracism triumphed because it was more ideological than its rivals; it possessed a unity of purpose that enabled it to neutralize one potential opponent after another. Often, the latter were unaware of this adversarial relationship and assumed they were dealing with a friendly ally.

History could have played out differently. Initially a tool in the struggle against Nazi Germany, antiracism became critically dependent on a postwar context of decolonization and Cold War rivalry. Without this favorable context, it would have had much more trouble seizing the moral high ground and locking down normal discourse. Its revival would have likely stalled at some point.

A world without antiracism could have still brought in laws against discrimination, particularly for the basics of life like housing and employment. But such efforts would have been driven not by ideology but by a pragmatic wish to create a livable society, like modern-day Singapore. In this alternate world, rational people would act rationally. They would not, for instance, be blindly sticking to antiracist principles—and insisting that everyone else do likewise—in the face of the demographic tsunami now sweeping out of Africa.

Social scientists in particular would be acting more rationally. They would not have to assume human sameness and arrange the facts accordingly. They would not face the same pressure to ignore embarrassing data, to choose the less likely explanation, and to keep quiet until ... until when? They would be free to work within the earlier, and more fruitful, paradigm that viewed human differences as a product of genes, culture, and gene-culture interaction. 

Such a paradigm could have absorbed findings on learning and conditioned reflexes, perhaps even better than the one we have now. Indeed, the current paradigm has trouble explaining why the effects of conditioning disappear at different rates, depending on what one has been conditioned to do. For instance, people lose a conditioned fear of snakes and spiders much more slowly than a conditioned fear of electrical outlets, even though the latter are more dangerous in current environments (Cook et al., 1986; Ohman et al., 1986). Conditioning, like learning in general, seems to interact not with a blank slate, but rather with pre-existing mental algorithms that have modifiable and non-modifiable sections.
Of course, this is not how history played out. We are living under an ideology that claims to be an anti-ideology while demanding the sort of conformity normally found in totalitarian societies. In the past, this contradiction largely went unnoticed, perhaps because the full extent of the antiracist project remained poorly known. Or perhaps people chose not to know. Increasingly, however, even the pretence of not knowing is becoming difficult. As French philosopher Alain Finkielkraut wrote, "the lofty idea of the 'war on racism' is gradually turning into a hideously false ideology. And this anti-racism will be for the 21st century what communism was for the 20th century" (Caldwell, 2009).


Barkan, E. (1992). The Retreat of Scientific Racism: Changing Concepts of Race in Britain and the United States Between the World Wars, Cambridge University Press.

Caldwell, C. (2009). Reflections on the Revolution in Europe, Penguin.

JTA (1942). Dr. Franz Boas, Debunker of Nazi Racial Theories, Dies in New York, December 23 

Kushner, T. (2008). H. J. Fleure: a paradigm for inter-war race thinking in Britain, Patterns of Prejudice, 42 

Leonard, T.C. (2009). Origins of the myth of social Darwinism: The ambiguous legacy of Richard Hofstadter's Social Darwinism in American Thought, Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, 71, 37-51

Mathews, B. (1925). The Clash of Colour. A Study in the Problem of Race. London: Edinburgh House Press.

Ohman et al. (1986). Face the Beast and Fear the Face: Animal and Social Fears as Prototypes for Evolutionary Analyses of Emotion, Psychophysiology, 23, 123-145.

Sumner, W.G. (1913). Earth-hunger and other essays, ed. Albert Galloway Keller, New Haven: Yale University Press. 

Taguieff, P-A. (2013). Dictionnaire historique et critique du racisme, Paris: PUF.

Wikipedia (2015). William Graham Sumner

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Behaviorism and the revival of antiracism

John B. Watson conditioning a child to fear Santa Claus. With a properly controlled environment, he felt that children can be conditioned to think and behave in any way desired


After peaking in the mid-19th century, antiracism fell into decline in the U.S., remaining dominant only in the Northeast. By the 1930s, however, it was clearly reviving, largely through the efforts of the anthropologist Franz Boas and his students.

But a timid revival had already begun during the previous two decades. In the political arena, the NAACP had been founded in 1910 under the aegis of WASP and, later, Jewish benefactors. In academia, the 1920s saw a growing belief in the plasticity of human nature, largely through the behaviorist school of psychology.

The founder of behaviorism was an unlikely antiracist. A white southerner who had been twice arrested in high school for fighting with African American boys, John B. Watson (1878-1958) initially held a balanced view on the relative importance of nature vs. nature. His book Psychology from the Standpoint of a Behaviorist (1919) contained two chapters on "unlearned behavior". The first chapter is summarized as follows:

In this chapter, we examine man as a reacting organism, and specifically some of the reactions which belong to his hereditary equipment. Human action as a whole can be divided into hereditary modes of response (emotional and instinctive), and acquired modes of response (habit). Each of these two broad divisions is capable of many subdivisions. It is obvious both from the standpoint of common-sense and of laboratory experimentation that the hereditary and acquired forms of activity begin to overlap early in life. Emotional reactions become wholly separated from the stimuli that originally called them out (transfer), and the instinctive positive reaction tendencies displayed by the child soon become overlaid with the organized habits of the adult.

By the mid-1920s, however, he had largely abandoned this balanced view and embraced a much more radical environmentalism, as seen in Behaviorism (1924):

Our conclusion, then, is that we have no real evidence of the inheritance of traits. I would feel perfectly confident in the ultimately favorable outcome of a healthy, well-formed baby born of a long line of crooks, murderers and thieves, and prostitutes (Watson, 1924, p. 82)

[...] Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I'll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select—doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief, and yes, even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors. I am going beyond my facts and I admit it, but so have the advocates of the contrary and they have been doing it for many thousands of years. (Watson, 1924, p. 82)

Everything we have been in the habit of calling "instinct" today is a result largely of training—belongs to man's learned behavior. As a corollary from this I wish to draw the conclusion that there is no such thing as an inheritance of capacity, talent, temperament, mental constitution, and characteristics. These things again depend on training that goes on mainly in the cradle. (Watson,1924, p. 74).

Why the shift to extreme environmentalism? It was not a product of ongoing academic research. In fact, Watson was no longer in academia, having lost his position in 1920 at Johns Hopkins University after an affair with a graduate student. At the age of 42, he had to start a new career as an executive at a New York advertising agency. Some writers attribute this ideological shift to his move from academia to advertising:

Todd (1994) noted that after Watson lost his academic post at Johns Hopkins, he abandoned scientific restraint in favor of significantly increased stridency and extremism, such that there were "two Watsons—a pre-1920, academic Watson and a post-1920, postacademic Watson" (p. 167). Logue (1994) argued that Watson's shift from an even-handed consideration of heredity and environment to a position of bombast and extreme environmentalism was motivated by the need to make money and the desire to stay in the limelight after he left academia. (Rakos, 2013)

There was another reason: the acrimonious debate in the mid-1920s over immigration, particularly over whether the United States was receiving immigrants of dubious quality. Rakos (2013) points to Watson's increasingly harsh words on eugenics and the political background: "It is probably no coincidence that only in the 1924 edition of the book—published in the same year that Congress passed the restrictive Johnson-Lodge Immigration Act—did Watson express his belief that behaviorism can promote social harmony in a world being transformed by industrialization and the movement of peoples across the globe."  

Eugenics is mentioned, negatively, in his 1924 book:

But you say: "Is there nothing in heredity-is there nothing in eugenics-[...] has there been no progress in human evolution?" Let us examine a few of the questions you are now bursting to utter.

Certainly black parents will bear black children [...]. Certainly the yellow-skinned Chinese parents will bear a yellow skinned offspring. Certainly Caucasian parents will bear white children. But these differences are relatively slight. They are due among other things to differences in the amount and kind of pigments in the skin. I defy anyone to take these infants at birth, study their behavior, and mark off differences in behavior that will characterize white from black and white or black from yellow. There will be differences in behavior but the burden of proof is upon the individual be he biologist or eugenicist who claims that these racial differences are greater than the individual differences. (Watson, 1924, p. 76)

You will probably say that I am flying in the face of the known facts of eugenics and experimental evolution—that the geneticists have proven that many of the behavior characteristics of the parents are handed down to the offspring—they will cite mathematical ability, musical ability, and many, many other types. My reply is that the geneticists are working under the banner of the old "faculty" psychology. One need not give very much weight to any of their present conclusions. (Watson, 1924, p. 79) 


Antiracism did not revive during the interwar years because of new data. Watson's shift to radical environmentalism took place a half-decade after his departure from academia. It was as an advertising executive, and as a crusader against the 1924 Immigration Act, that he entered the "environmentalist" phase of his life. This phase, though poor in actual research, was rich in countless newspaper and magazine articles that would spread his behaviorist gospel to a mass audience.

The same could be said for Franz Boas. He, too, made his shift to radical antiracism when he was already semi-retired and well into his 70s. Although this phase of his life produced very little research, it saw the publication of many books and articles for the general public. As with Watson, the influence of external political events was decisive, specifically the rise of Nazism in the early 1930s.

In both cases, biographers have tried to explain this ideological shift by projecting it backward in time to earlier research. Boas' antiracism is often ascribed to an early study that purported to show differences in cranial form between European immigrants and their children (Boas, 1912). Yet Boas himself was reluctant to draw any conclusions at the time, merely saying we should "await further evidence before committing ourselves to theories that cannot be proven." Later reanalysis found no change in skull shape once age had been taken into account (Fergus, 2003). More to the point, Boas continued over the next two decades to cite differences in skull size as evidence for black-white differences in mental makeup (Frost, 2015).

Watson's radical environmentalism has likewise been explained by his Little Albert Experiment in 1920, an attempt to condition a fear response in an 11-month-old child. Aside from the small sample size (one child) and the lack of any replication, it is difficult to see how this finding could justify his later sweeping pronouncements on environmentalism. There were admittedly other experiments, but they came to an abrupt end with his dismissal from Johns Hopkins, and little is known about their long-term effects:

Watson tested his theories on how to condition children to express fear, love, or rage—emotions Watson conjectured were the basic elements of human nature. Among other techniques, he dropped (and caught) infants to generate fear and suggested that stimulation of the genital area would create feelings of love. In another chilling project, Watson boasted to Goodnow in summer 1920 that the National Research Council had approved a children's hospital he proposed that would include rooms for his infant psychology experiments. He planned to spend weekends working at the "Washington infant laboratory." (Simpson,2000) 

Watson did apply behaviorism to the upbringing of his own children. The results were disappointing. His first marriage produced a daughter who made multiple suicide attempts and a son who sponged off his father. His second marriage produced two sons, one of whom committed suicide (Anon, 2005). His granddaughter similarly suffered from her behaviorist upbringing and denounced it in her memoir Breaking the Silence. Towards the end of his life Watson regretted much of his child-rearing advice (Simpson, 2000).


Anon (2005). The long dark night of behaviorism, Psych 101 Revisited, September 6

Boas, F. (1912). Changes in the Bodily Form of Descendants of Immigrants, American Anthropologist, 14, 530-562. 

Fergus, C. (2003). Boas, Bones, and Race, May 4, Penn State News 

Frost, P. (2015). More on the younger Franz Boas, Evo and Proud, April 18 

Rakos, R.F. (2013). John B. Watson's 1913 "Behaviorist Manifesto: Setting the stage for behaviorism's social action legacy, Revista Mexicana de analisis de la conducta, 39(2)  
Simpson, J.C. (2000). It's All in the Upbringing, John Hopkins Magazine, April 

Watson, J.B. (1919). Psychology from the Standpoint of a Behaviorist,  

Watson, J. B. (1924). Behaviorism. New York: People's Institute.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Impressions of Russia

The Battle for Sevastopol, now showing in Russian theatres
The young man shook his head. “No, I can’t say I’m pro-Putin. There’s too much corruption in Russia, with too much money going to the wrong people. We should become more Western. Instead, we’re moving in the other direction.”

Finally, I thought, a liberal critic of Putin. The young man continued. “Here it’s not too bad, but in Moscow you can see the change. They’re all over. Please, don’t get me wrong, I don’t hate anyone, but I feel uncomfortable when there are so many of them. Sometimes, I wonder whether I’m still in Russia.”


Much had changed since my last visit ten years ago. Driving into the city of Voronezh from the airport, I could see entirely new neighborhoods, supermarkets, office buildings, and the like. In 2003, there was only one shopping mall in the whole city, and it was nothing special. Now, there were malls as huge as any in Toronto. Things had likewise improved for some of our old friends and acquaintances. A few had moved up into the growing middle class, including one couple who showed us their new palatial home on the outskirts.

Yet the bulk of the population seemed no better off, and in some ways worse off. Ten years ago, jobs were there for the taking. The pay may have been lousy, but it was money. Now, the competition is intense even for those jobs. An unemployed man told me: “It’s hard to find work now. Employers will hire immigrants because they work for much less and won’t complain. And there are a lot of them now, mainly from Central Asia, but also from places all over.”

Sour grapes? Perhaps. But it’s consistent with what a Quebec building contractor had told me earlier. “I no longer bother with Russian construction projects because there’s always a Russian company that will put in an absurdly low bid. The only way he can stay within budget is by hiring illegal immigrants. Everyone knows it, but nothing is ever done to stop it.”


I wasn’t surprised to see Ukrainian refugees in a big city like Voronezh, but it was surprising to see so many in remote farming villages. And each refugee family had a horror story to tell. It’s one thing to hear these stories from professional journalists; it’s another to hear them from ordinary people who aren’t being paid to say what they say. This is an underappreciated factor in the growing anger among Russians against the Ukrainian government.

After all that’s happened, I don’t see how eastern Ukraine will ever accept being ruled by Kiev. It’s like a marriage that has crossed the line between verbal abuse and physical violence.


We were standing outside a fast food kiosk. “I just don’t get it,” said my wife. “Prices are almost as high here as in Canada, yet the wages are a lot lower. How do people manage to survive?”

A young man overheard her. “The people who don’t survive are the ones you don’t get to see.”


Postwar housing projects cover most of the city. They are now aging badly, and North Americans wouldn’t hesitate to call them “slums.” We like to think that slums cause crime, broken homes, and stunted mental development. Yet, here, you can walk up about in safety, families are usually intact, and the children are studying hard to become engineers, scientists, ballet dancers, or what have you.


We were sitting in a restaurant with two young Russians, a lawyer and a university teacher. “Will there be war?” said one, looking worried. I tried to be reassuring, saying no one wanted war. But I wasn’t sure myself.

There was another question. “But do the Americans know what they’re getting into?” I shook my head. Few people in the West know much about Russia, and what little they do is worse than useless.


Hitler said it would be like kicking in the door of a rotten building. That’s how it seemed at first. And then the war dragged on and on, grinding down one German division after another. If—God forbid—war happens another time, we’ll probably see the same pattern. Without a higher purpose, the average Russian man often retreats into indolence, alcoholism, and self-destructive behavior. Give him that purpose, and he will fight for it with almost superhuman power.

One of my professors ascribed it to the yearly cycle of traditional farm life. For most of the year, the muzhik slept a lot and whiled away his days in aimlessness. But when it came time to plough the fields or bring in the harvest, he had to pull out all stops and work continuously from dawn to dusk.


It’s the 70th anniversary of victory in the Great Patriotic War, and reminders can be seen everywhere. There has been a spate of new war movies, including one about the Battle for Sevastopol. It’s hard not to see references to the current conflict.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

More on the younger Franz Boas

As a professor at Columbia, Franz Boas encountered the elite liberal culture of the American Northeast, one example being Mary White Ovington, a founder of the NAACP (Wikicommons)

Antiracism has roots that go back to early Christianity and the assimilationist Roman and Hellenistic empires. In its modern form, however, it is a much more recent development, particularly in its special focus on relations between whites and blacks and its emphasis on discrimination as the cause of any mental or behavioral differences.

Modern antiracism began in the early 1800s as a radical outgrowth of abolitionism, reaching high levels of popular support in the mid-1800s, particularly in the American Northeast, and then falling into decline due to growing interest in Social Darwinism and increasing disillusionment with the aftermath of the Civil War. By the 1920s, it really held sway only in the Northeast, and even there it was losing ground.

This situation changed dramatically in the 1930s. Antiracism revived and entered a period of growth that would eventually go global. The anthropologist Franz Boas played a key role through his own work and indirectly through the work of his two protégés: Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict.

Yet this was the old Boas, a man already in his seventies. The younger Boas had thought differently, as seen in an 1894 speech he gave on "Human Faculty as Determined by Race":

We find that the face of the negro as compared to the skull is larger than that of the American [Indian], whose face is in turn larger than that of the white. The lower portion of the face assumes larger dimensions. The alveolar arch is pushed forward and thus gains an appearance which reminds us of the higher apes. There is no denying that this feature is a most constant character of the black races and that it represents a type slightly nearer the animal than the European type. [...] We find here at least a few indications which tend to show that the white race differs more from the higher apes than the negro. But does this anatomical difference prove that their mental capacity is lower than that of the white? The probability that this may be the case is suggested by the anatomical facts, but they by themselves are no proof that such is the case. (Boas, 1974, p. 230)

It does not seem probable that the minds of races which show variations in their anatomical structure should act in exactly the same manner. Differences of structure must be accompanied by differences of function, physiological as well as psychological; and, as we found clear evidence of difference in structure between the races, so we must anticipate that differences in mental characteristics will be found. (Boas, 1974, p. 239)

We have shown that the anatomical evidence is such, that we may expect to find the races not equally gifted. While we have no right to consider one more ape-like than the other, the differences are such that some have probably greater mental vigor than others. The variations are, however, such that we may expect many individuals of all races to be equally gifted, while the number of men and women of higher ability will differ. (Boas, 1974, p. 242)

Boas returned to this topic in a 1908 speech on "Race Problems in America":

I do not believe that the negro is, in his physical and mental make-up, the same as the European. The anatomical differences are so great that corresponding mental differences are plausible. There may exist differences in character and in the direction of specific aptitudes. There is, however, no proof whatever that these differences signify any appreciable degree of inferiority of the negro, notwithstanding the slightly inferior size, and perhaps lesser complexity of structure, of his brain; for these racial differences are much less than the range of variation found in either race considered by itself. (Boas, 1974, pp. 328-329)

How did his views on race evolve over the next twenty years? This evolution is described by Williams (1996), who sees his views beginning to change at the turn of the century. After getting tenure at Columbia University in 1899, he became immersed in the elite liberal culture of the American northeast and began to express his views on race accordingly. The onset of this change is visible in 1905, when he penned an article for the first issue of The Crisis, the organ of the NAACP: “The Negro and the Demands of Modern Life.” While pointing out that the average negro brain was "smaller than that of other races" and that it was "plausible that certain differences of form of brain exist," he cautioned:

We must remember that individually the correlation [...] is often overshadowed by other causes, and that we find a considerable number of great men with slight brain weight. [...] We may, therefore, expect less average ability and also, on account of probable anatomical differences, somewhat different mental tendencies. (Williams, 1996, p. 17)

The same year, he wrote to a colleague, stressing "the desirability of collecting more definite information in relation to certain traits of the Negro race that seem of fundamental importance in determining the policy to be pursued towards that race" (Williams, 1996, p. 18). In 1906, he sought funding for such a project with two specific goals:

(1) Is there an earlier arrest of mental and physical development in the Negro child, as compared with the white child? And, if so, is this arrest due to social causes or to anatomical and physiological conditions?

(2) What is the position of the mulatto child and of the adult mulatto in relation to the two races? Is he an intermediate type, or is there a tendency of reversion towards either race? So that particularly gifted mulattoes have to be considered as reversals of the white race. The question of the physical vigor of the mulatto could be taken up at the same time. (Williams, 1996, p. 19)

His tone was less even-handed in a private letter, written the same year:

You may be aware that in my opinion the assumption seems justifiable that on the average the mental capacity of the negro may be a little less than that of the white, but that the capacities of the bulk of both races are on the same level. (Williams, 1996, p. 19)

In 1911, Boas published the first edition of The Mind of Primitive Man. It recycled most of his previous writings on race, while emphasizing that race differences in mental makeup were statistical and showed considerable overlap. In 1915, he continued in this direction when he wrote a preface to Half A Man by Mary White Ovington, one of the founders of the NAACP:

Many students of anthropology recognize that no proof can be given of any material inferiority of the Negro race; that without doubt the bulk of the individuals composing the race are equal in mental aptitude to the bulk of our own people; that, although their hereditary aptitude may lie in slightly different directions, it is very improbable that the majority of individuals composing the white race should possess greater ability than the Negro race. (Williams, 1996, pp. 22-23)

Nonetheless, one finds little change from his earlier writings in his 1928 work Anthropology and Modern Life:

[...] the distribution of individuals and of family lines in the various races differs. When we select among the Europeans a group with large brains, their frequency will be relatively high, while among the Negroes the frequency of occurrence of the corresponding group will be low. If, for instance, there are 50 percent of a European population who have a brain weight of more than, let us say 1,500 grams, there may be only 20 percent of Negroes of the same class. Therefore, 30 percent of the large-brained Europeans cannot be matched by any corresponding group of Negroes. (Williams, 1996, p. 35)


From 1900 to 1930, Boas seemed to become increasingly liberal in his views on race, but this trend was hesitant at best and reflected, at least in part, a change in the audience he was addressing. As a professor at Columbia, he was dealing with a regional WASP culture that still preserved the radical abolitionism of the previous century. A good example was Mary White Ovington, whose Unitarian parents had been involved in the anti-slavery movement and who in 1910 helped found the NAACP. Boas was also dealing with the city's growing African American community and, through Ovington's contacts, wrote articles for the NAACP. Finally, he was also dealing with the growing Jewish community, who identified with antiracism partly out of self-interest and partly out of a desire to assimilate into northeastern WASP culture.

Boas didn't really change his mind on race until the 1930s. The cause is not hard to pinpoint. When he died in 1942, an obituary mentioned his alarm over the threat of Nazism:

Dr. Boas, who had studied and written widely in all fields of anthropology devoted most of his researches during the past few years to the study of the "race question," especially so after the rise of the Nazis in Germany. Discussing his efforts to disprove what he called "this Nordic nonsense," Prof. Boas said upon his retirement from teaching in 1936 that "with the present condition of the world, I consider the race question a most important one. I will try to clean up some of the nonsense that is being spread about race those days. I think the question is particularly important for this country, too; as here also people are going crazy." (JTA, 1942)

Hitler's rise to power created a sense of urgency among many academics, both Jewish and non-Jewish, thereby convincing fence-sitters like Franz Boas to put aside their doubts and take a more aggressive stand on race. Thus began the war on racism, which foreshadowed the coming world conflict.


Boas, F. (1974). A Franz Boas Reader. The Shaping of American Anthropology, 1883-1911, G.W. Stocking Jr. (ed.), Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Frost, P. (2014). The Franz Boas you never knew, Evo and Proud, July 13

JTA (1942). Dr. Franz Boas, Debunker of Nazi Racial Theories, Dies in New York, December 23

Williams Jr., V.J. (1996). Rethinking Race: Franz Boas and His Contemporaries, University Press of Kentucky.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

The hidden past of Claude Lévi-Strauss

Claude Lévi-Strauss, 1973 (Wikicommons)

The anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss died six years ago, leaving behind a treasure trove of correspondence and unpublished writings. We can now trace where his ideas came from and how they evolved.

I admired Lévi-Strauss during my time as an anthropology student because he asked questions that Marxist anthropologists would never ask. That's why I preferred to call myself a Marxisant, and not a full-blown Marxist. I especially admired him for addressing the issue of nature versus nurture, which had once been a leading issue in anthropology but was now studiously ignored. Only he, it seemed, could defy this omertà and not suffer any ill effects, perhaps because of his age and status.

In his best known tome, The Elementary Structures of Kinship, this issue dominated the first chapter:

Man is both a biological being and a social individual. Among his responses to external or internal stimuli, some are wholly dependent upon his nature, others upon his social environment.

Lévi-Strauss admitted that the two were not always easy to separate:

Culture is not merely juxtaposed to [biological] life nor superimposed upon it, but in one way serves as a substitute for life, and in the other, uses and transforms it, to bring about the synthesis of a new order.
He reviewed the different ways of disentangling one from the other:

The simplest method would be to isolate a new-born child and to observe its reactions to various stimuli during the first hours or days after birth. Responses made under such conditions could then be supposed to be of a psycho-biological origin, and to be independent of ulterior cultural syntheses.

[Nonetheless,] the question always remains open whether a certain reaction is absent because its origin is cultural, or because, with the earliness of the observation, the physiological mechanisms governing its appearances are not yet developed. Because a very young child does not walk, it cannot be concluded that training is necessary, since it is known that a child spontaneously begins to walk as soon as it is organically capable of doing so.

His interest in the interactions between culture and biology went further. The gene pool of a population will influence its culture, which in turn will alter the gene pool:

The selection pressure of culture—the fact that it favors certain types of individuals rather than others through its forms of organization, its ideas of morality, and its aesthetic values—can do infinitely more to alter a gene pool than the gene pool can do to shape a culture, all the more so because a culture's rate of change can certainly be much faster than the phenomena of genetic drift. (Lévi-Strauss, 1979, p. 24-25)

This is of course gene-culture co-evolution. He may have given the idea to L.L. Cavalli-Sforza, who first began to propound it while teaching a cultural evolution class in 1978-1979. Two of his students, Robert Boyd and Peter Richerson, went on to popularize the idea in their book Culture and the Evolutionary Process (1985) (Stone and Lurquin 2005, p. 108). Lévi-Strauss had in fact mentioned the same idea long before in a UNESCO lecture:

When cultures specialize, they consolidate and favor other traits, like resistance to cold or heat for societies that have willingly or unwillingly had to adapt to extreme climates, like dispositions to aggressiveness or contemplation, like technical ingenuity, and so on. In the form these traits appear to us on the cultural level, none can be clearly linked to a genetic basis, but we cannot exclude that they are sometimes linked partially and distantly via intermediate linkages. In this case, it would be true to say that each culture selects for genetic aptitudes that, via a feedback loop, influence the culture that had initially helped to strengthen them. (Lévi-Strauss, 1971)

In the same lecture, he made another point:

[Humanity] will have to relearn that all true creation implies some deafness to the call of other values, which may go so far as to reject or even negate them. One cannot at the same time melt away in the enjoyment of the Other, identify oneself with the Other, and keep oneself different. If fully successful, complete communication with the Other will doom its creative originality and my own in more or less short time. The great creative ages were those when communication had increased to the point that distant partners stimulated each other but not so often and rapidly that the indispensable obstacles between individuals, and likewise between groups, dwindled to the point that excessively easy exchanges would equalize and blend away their diversity. (Lévi-Strauss, 1971)

His audience was taken aback, according to fellow anthropologist Wiktor Stoczkowski:

These words shocked the listeners. One can easily imagine how disconcerted UNESCO employees were, who, meeting Lévi-Strauss in the corridor after the lecture, expressed their disappointment at hearing the institutional articles of faith to which they thought they had the merit of adhering called into question. René Maheu, the Director General of UNESCO, who had invited Lévi-Strauss to give this lecture, seemed upset. (Stoczkowski, 2008; Frost, 2014)

Where his ideas came from

Since his death in 2009, we have gained a clearer picture of his intellectual evolution. His published writings had already provided an answer:

When I was about sixteen, I was introduced to Marxism by a young Belgian socialist, whom I had got to know on holiday, and who is now one of his country's ambassadors abroad. I was all the more delighted by Marx in that the reading of the works of the great thinker brought me into contact for the first time with the line of philosophical development running from Kant to Hegel; a whole new world was opened up to me. Since then, my admiration for Marx has remained constant [...] (Lévi-Strauss, 2012 [1973])

Looking through Lévi-Strauss' published and unpublished writings, Wiktor Stoczkowski tried to learn more about this episode but found nothing:

It suffices however to look closely at the milieus that Lévi-Strauss frequented in the 1920s and 1930s, or to reread the articles he published during that period to realize that his references to Marx were at that time astonishingly rare, in flagrant contradiction with his declarations […] In contrast, another name often came up during that time in the writings of the young Lévi-Strauss: that of Henri De Man. And that name, curiously, Lévi-Strauss would never mention after the war. (Stoczkowski, 2013)

As a young leftist disenchanted with Marxism, Lévi-Strauss was especially fascinated by De Man's book Au-delà du marxisme (Beyond Marxism), published in 1927. One of his friends invited De Man to Paris to present his ideas to French socialists. Lévi-Strauss was given the job of organizing the lecture and wrote to De Man about the difficulties encountered:

We have run into many difficulties, which we scarcely suspected and which have sadly shed light on the conservative and sectarian spirit of a good part of French socialism [...]. We thought that the best means to give this [lecture] all of the desirable magnitude would be to make it public [...] [but] to obtain the key support of the Socialist Students, we have agreed to make your lecture non-public, and to reserve admission to members of socialist organizations. Thus, we have learned that Marxism is a sacrosanct doctrine in our party, and that to study theories that stray from it, we have to shut ourselves in very strongly, so that no one on the outside will know (Stoczkowski, 2013)

The lecture was held the next year. Stoczkowski describes the letter that Lévi-Strauss wrote to the invitee afterwards:

"Thanks to you," he wrote, "socialist doctrines have finally emerged from their long sleep; the Party is undergoing, thanks to you, a revival of intellectual activity ...." But there is more. Speaking on his behalf and on behalf of his young comrades, Lévi-Strauss informed De Man that his book Au-delà du marxisme had been for them "a genuine revelation..." Speaking personally, Lévi-Strauss added that he was "profoundly grateful" to De Man's teachings for having "helped me get out of an impasse I believed to have no way out." (Stoczkowski, 2013)

Nothing indicates that Lévi-Strauss had ever been a Marxist in his youth. Both he and his friends saw it as a pseudo-religion that stunted the development of socialism.

But who was Henri De Man?

He was a Belgian Marxist who had lived in Leipzig, Germany, where he became the editor of a radical socialist journal, Leipziger Volkszeitung, that ran contributions by Rosa Luxembourg, Pannekoek, Radek, Trotsky, Karl Liebknecht, and others. In 1907, he helped found the Socialist Youth International. He later returned to Belgium and enrolled when war broke out, seeing the Allied side as a progressive alternative to German authoritarianism.

His views changed during the 1920s, while teaching at the University of Frankfurt. He came to feel that Marxists erred in seeing themselves as an antithesis to the current system; such a perspective made them oppose all traditional values, particularly Christianity and national identity. He now argued that laws, morality, and religion are not bourgeois prejudices, but rather things that are necessary to make any society work. Marxists also erred, he felt, in their narrow focus on economic determinism and their disregard for psychology and the will to act. Although De Man acknowledged the self-destructive tendencies of capitalism, these tendencies do not inevitably lead to revolution. Rather, revolution will happen only when enough people realize that current conditions are neither tolerable nor inevitable. Above all, revolution cannot happen unless it respects existing cultural, religious, and national traditions:

If one sees in socialism something other than and more than an antithesis to modern capitalism, and if one relates it to its moral and intellectual roots, one will find that these roots are the same as those of our entire Western civilization. Christianity, democracy, and socialism are now, even historically, merely three forms of one idea.

De Man returned to Belgium during the 1930s, becoming vice-president and then president of the Belgian Labour Party. In 1935, with the formation of a government of national unity to fight the Great Depression, he was made minister of public works and job creation. In this role, he pushed for State planning and looked to Germany and Italy as examples to be followed. He became increasingly disillusioned with parliamentary democracy and began to call for an “authoritarian democracy” where decisions would be made primarily through the legislature and referendums, rather than through the executive and party politics (Tremblay, 2006).

When Germany overran Belgium in 1940, De Man issued a manifesto to Labour Party members and advised them to collaborate: "For the working classes and for socialism, this collapse of a decrepit world, far from being a disaster, is a deliverance" (Wikipedia, 2015). Over the next year, he served as de facto prime minister before falling into disfavor with the German authorities. He spent the rest of the war in Paris and then fled to Switzerland where he lived his final years. Meanwhile, a Belgian court convicted him in absentia of treason.


Like many people after the war, Claude Lévi-Strauss had to invent a new past. It didn't matter that he had admired Henri de Man at a time when the Belgian socialist was not yet a fascist or a collaborator. As Stoczkowski notes, guilt by association would have been enough to ruin his academic career. Ironically, if he had really been a loyal Marxist during the late 1920s and early 1930s, he would also have denied back then the crimes being committed in the name of Marxism: the Ukrainian famine, Stalin's purges ... Yet, for that, he never faced any criticism.


De Man. (1927). Au-delà du marxisme, Brussels, L'Églantine.

Frost, P. (2014). Negotiating the gap. Four academics and the dilemma of human biodiversity, Open Behavioral Genetics, June 20. 

Lévis-Strauss, C. (1969 [1949]). The Elementary Structures of Kinship, Beacon Press.

Lévi-Strauss, C. (1971). Race et culture, conférence de Lévi-Strauss à L'UNESCO le 22 mars 1971

Lévi-Strauss, C. (2012[1973]). Tristes Tropiques, New York: Penguin

Lévi-Strauss, C. (1985). Claude Lévi-Strauss à l'université Laval, Québec (septembre 1979), prepared by Yvan Simonis, Documents de recherche no. 4, Laboratoire de recherches anthropologiques, Département d'anthropologie, Faculté des Sciences sociales, Université Laval.

Stoczkowski, W. (2008). Claude Lévi-Strauss and UNESCO, The UNESCO Courrier, no. 5, pp. 5-8.

Stoczkowski, W. (2013). Un étrange socialisme de Claude-Lévi-Strauss / A weird socialism of Claude Lévi-Strauss, Europe91, n° 1005-1006, 37-53.

Stone, L. and P.F. Lurquin. (2005). A Genetic and Cultural Odyssey. The Life and Work of L. Luca Cavalli-Sforza. New York: Columbia University Press.

Tremblay, J-M. (2006). Henri de Man, 1885-1953, Les classiques des sciences sociales, UQAC

Wikipedia. (2015). Henri de Man