YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

October 10, 2009

Ralph Bunche and the Jewish Problem


Clare L. Spark, Ph.D.,

Prepared for the conference “Ralph Bunche: Scholar, Activist, Bureaucrat” UCLA, 2-21-04 at the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies. I was invited because of my article “Race, Caste, or Class? The Bunche-Myrdal Dispute Over An American Dilemma,” International Journal of Politics, Culture and Society, Vol.14, No.2 (March 2001): 465-511.

Gunnar Myrdal, the Swedish economist and politician who had been imported to solve “the Negro problem” by the Carnegie Corporation, shamelessly used and abused his chief collaborator, Ralph Bunche. Numerous scholars who have written about the making of AN AMERICAN DILEMMA: THE NEGRO PROBLEM AND AMERICAN DEMOCRACY (1944) report Bunche’s fear of lynching or imprisonment during his research trip to the South with the flamboyant Myrdal in 1939, but no recent scholar, to my knowledge, has seen how the figure of Bunche, as red specter or black crypto-Jew functioned in the text. Briefly, Myrdal hinted to Southern conservatives that if they did not “adjust” race relations by allowing political rights to their Negro populations, the young revolutionaries associated with Bunche, a.k.a. “the Howard boys,” would be tumultuously overturning the entire institutional “set-up” [AD, 519-20]; just as earlier, Southern Bourbons had warned of black domination if the abolitionists prevailed.

As if this deployment of the Bunche Threat were not enough, Myrdal and other Carnegie personnel urged Bunche, who certainly knew his way around the 1930s Left, to identify those Negro betterment organizations that were Communist fronts or otherwise disruptively militant. Oddly, Red Bunche was asked to function as Red Hunter for his patrons. (For details, see https://clarespark.com/2011/08/04/carnegie-corp-and-the-negro-problem/.) This paper will attempt to flesh out Myrdal’s chief gripe with Bunche: his imputed overemphasis on economic factors in the perpetuation of racism, exhibited in the accusation that the Bunche cadre (like all the Negro and most of the white writers on the Carnegie project) were economic determinists, for this term has only rarely been understood to be a cover for antisemitism/antimodernism/counter-Enlightenment.  My previous research had put me on guard to spot Myrdal’s strategies.

I did not set out to become a Bunche scholar; rather my encounter with him was the outcome of research on the pseudo-democratic propaganda churned out by social democratic elites in the 1930s and 1940s; I wanted to see how changing attitudes toward the big state during the later New Deal affected the scholarly and popular reception of Herman Melville’s character Captain Ahab, a character often taken to be the mouthpiece of the romantically wandering author himself. Since Melville had been considered to be an anti-racist, way ahead of his time, it was important to study the state of race relations during the period of his promotion in the twentieth century; i.e., how Melville’s rootless cosmopolitanism might have either fit in with or diverged from those of other progressives. For some social psychologists were advising, in the interests of civilian morale, that a few members of minorities should be taken into the Big Barn of the planning state, and valued for their entertainingly acrid and sulphuric contributions. [see chapter two of HUNTING CAPTAIN AHAB: PSYCHOLOGICAL WARFARE AND THE MELVILLE REVIVAL, partly excerpted in prior blogs; see https://clarespark.com/2011/03/27/progressive-mind-managers-ca-1941-42/.]

So I ploughed through AMERICAN DILEMMA, and was amazed to see Ralph Bunche stigmatized as an “economic determinist.” I was shocked, for while I was growing up in the 1950s, Bunche was a prominent and revered public figure. Since that derogatory term “economic determinism” had been associated with Hebraic puritanism, and was frequently derided by 1930s humanities scholars seeking to reform the overly “Marxist” and “Freudian” American literature curriculum, my curiosity was aroused, and I began my reading of Bunche’s voluminous memoranda for the Carnegie project, also his correspondence with other scholars before and during the years of his labors for Myrdal.

A few years later, during a UCLA conference on the history of the social sciences, I mentioned that Myrdal had treated Bunche rather badly to one of the participants, who then urged me to pursue this problem, for he had read some of the Carnegie materials at Columbia University, and thought there was a scandal that needed to be aired. Shortly after that, I was invited to contribute a journal article to a special issue on Gunnar Myrdal, little dreaming that this new research would so clearly dovetail with my work on the Melville Revival and the construction of the postwar humanities curriculum, influenced as it was by Southern Agrarians, some of whom were pro-fascist. [See Clare Spark, “Race, Caste, or Class? The Bunche-Myrdal Dispute Over An American Dilemma,” International Journal of Politics, Culture and Society, Vol. 14, No.3 (March 2001): 465:511]

Most significantly, I saw that there were sharp methodological differences between the two collaborators: Myrdal advocated his theory of cumulative causation to solve the Negro problem, while Bunche insisted upon class politics, rejecting those strategies of existing interracial organizations then advocating attitude change through better communication and understanding: these latter were moral reformers who would purge the bigoted heart of hate and fill it with Christian love.

This divergence of method and strategy between  Myrdal and Bunche reflected a long-standing antagonism in Western culture regarding the political and economic institutions that would best carry forward the democratizing promises of the radical Reformation, increasing mass literacy, the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment. Personalities associated with the radical enlightenment, namely the so-called mechanical materialists of the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century progressive bourgeoisie, were challenged by romantic conservatives (the corporatists) who, as conservative enlighteners, co-opted “science” and “liberalism” to protect the property and prerogatives of threatened aristocrats, finally developing the welfare state and its concomitant theory of ethnopluralism, today called multiculturalism.

The corporatists aimed to mitigate group conflict and integrate malcontents into the body politic. In his important essay “Sombart and (German) National Socialism,” Bunche’s mentor and Howard U. colleague Abram L. Harris referred to such reactive persons as liberal interventionists deriving their social theory from German Romanticism and Bismarck. I call them corporatist liberals; they call themselves the moderate men, charting their socially responsible and spiritually inflected middle course between the “extremes” of laissez-faire capitalism on the Right and totalitarian statism on the Left.  Moreover, since the rigorously empirical Herman Melville had been read as Prometheus, or the Romantic Wandering Jew, by numerous corporatist critics, I came to understand that the scandal of “economic determinism” was at bottom, a comment upon the supposed havoc wreaked by “the Jewish spirit” that had, in its typically defiant and deicidal Jewish way, toppled the unquestionable authority of Christian religion, hence had infected the masses with an excessive desire for material improvement, political power, and self-direction: in other words, emancipation from illegitimate, arbitrary authority.

For elites threatened by dispossession, it was a brave new modern world, dominated as it seemed by usurpers fortified by science, secularism, and mobbish majorities. Empiricism or positivism, as wielded, say, by Ralph Bunche, that relentlessly thorough investigator of institutional power and all manner of economic, political, and social conflicts–this field research or “objectivist” disinterested fact-finding was the deadly enemy to social cohesion as previously managed by Kings and Churches.

Under that benign and selfless corporatist management, peace and harmony had ruled, thanks to the unselfish, disciplined, and self-sacrificing monarchs and clergy who were now, owing to the intrusion of free markets, hunted, incinerated, and decapitated by the dastardly dark mustachioed and beetle-browed homo economicus, Adam Smith’s “narcissistic” monopoly-busting economic man who could care less, it was alleged, for the public interest. Whereas the good king integrated his subjects into the organic society, the bomb-makers of modernity decimated the natural bonds between master and servant, introducing, for the first time in history, class warfare. And for some Christian conservatives homo economicus was, what else, a typically money-grubbing and domineering Jew, the archetypal confidence-man promising false utopias to credulous masses; moreover, the new industrial working class and its allies were clamoring for rights when they should have been mindful of their duties. Alas, the modern world was jewified, and hence, afflicted with the disease of decadence. But social engineering, radical subjectivism, and the related concept of the rooted cosmopolitan would repair all that.

Though Myrdal is often represented as basing his optimism on the spellbinding American Creed, the enlightened ideology of democracy, rationalism, and equality he sees undermined (but not fully vanquished) by the persistence of “caste conflict” and the general backwardness of the South, his progressivism, in contrast to that of Harris and Bunche, was located in a powerfully paternalistic state.  America’s weak state fomented only corruption and chaos; a neutral bureaucratic layer would enforce the laws and suggest new ones where indicated.  Although answerable to the people (in America, the passive masses who should learn the skills of participatory democracy), the process of bureaucratic accountability was not spelled out; perhaps Myrdal longed for a modern version of the even-handed contractual monarch of the High Middle Ages who ostensibly protected the commonweal from factions of selfish interest groups.  In a complex industrial “set-up,” the [king’s] regulatory functions would necessarily be distributed among specialist bureaucrats, the social engineers led by social scientists.

While aligning himself with the social goals of radical liberals (materialists), Myrdal’s organic conservative discourse and objectives locate him in the opposing idealist camp. Myrdal’s organic society would reduce the distance between classes, not eliminate them [the communist ideal], nor would it focus on wealth creation [the free-market capitalist ideal]. [This needs revision and additions to allow for Bunche’s emphasis on the reduction of toil and a rising standard of living, plus Harris’s probably changing views on labor unions as monopolistic and ultimately bad for workers. C.S. 2/27]

“A vitalized democracy,” Myrdal wrote, “would result, not only in a decrease in the immense class differences in America, but more fundamentally, it would effect a higher degree of integration in society of the many millions of anonymous and atomized individuals: a strengthening of the ties of loyalty running through the entire social fabric; a more efficient and uncorrupted performance of all public functions; and a more intense and secure feeling on the part of the common citizen of his belongingness to, responsibility for, and participation in the commonwealth as a great cooperative human endeavor–a realization of a fuller life” (AD, 716).

Like the prominent sociologist Robert S. Lynd, attacking do-nothing and defeatist social scientists in the present “revolutionary situation,” Myrdal states, “We are entering an era where fact-finding and scientific theories of causal relations will be seen as instrumental in planning controlled social change. The peace will bring nothing but problems, one mounting upon another, and consequently, new urgent tasks for social engineering. The American social scientist, because of the New Deal and the War, is already acquiring familiarity with planning and practical action. He will never again be given the opportunity to build up so ‘disinterested’ a social science”(1022-23).

Turn now to the problem of race as imagined by Bunche versus Myrdal. For the rationalist Bunche, writing in the 1930s, race was a debilitating myth that masked the primacy of class power and economic competition; “race” was false consciousness that defeated a potentially unified labor/tenant farmer movement, whether in the cities or in the rural South; the concept of “race” difference, reinforced by the twisted conditions of ghetto life, was the chief obstacle to group betterment and individual emancipation, not only for “[his] own people,” but for all of suffering humanity.

Bunche was obviously not a vulgar Marxist, ignoring the autonomous power of ideology, but it does not follow that attitude change of the sort advocated by the Carnegie Corporation, interracial organizations, and Myrdal, “by the actual spread of an ideology of class solidarity,” can force positive structural institutional change without independent organization by participants in the labor market, educated through the experience of unified class action how best to defend their individual and group interests. And, for Bunche, integration signified equal rights; i.e., equal opportunity to pursue the American dream, a goal that was unlikely to be realized without the elimination of ghettoes.

By contrast, for the irrationalist Myrdal and other social democrats, “race” was an obstacle to fellow-feeling, not only in the mob that must be pacified and made to feel compassion for each other and for their overburdened superiors, but in the hidebound conservatives whose stubborn and callous adherence to white supremacy would lead to catastrophe: Mutual empathy and a willingness to compromise and share the wealth would restore the lost paradise of community, peace and harmony envisaged by advocates of the social democratic planning state, and after the war, by the upper-class peace movement that put its hopes for earthly “salvation” in a Christianized United Nations populated by rooted cosmopolitans in “the international community,” again, redistributing the goods of this world.

For Bunche, writing before the war, antisemitism was a problem that had to be confronted by black activists, for it not only divested blacks of dedicated allies to the labor movement (he referred to pro-union Jews already present in some Negro betterment organizations), but antisemitism unfairly attributed to Jewish shopkeepers– exploitative characteristics that were actually a problem of all small businesses; whereas the populist/progressive Myrdal, in defiance of Bunche’s memoranda, suggested in his endnotes to AD that Jews were the most sinister exploiters of blacks and controlled the black press through their power as advertisers, hence masking rational anti-Jewish protest from ripped-off ghetto consumers. What is at stake are contrasting views on what constitutes fascism and nazism, and how these ideologies are taught today throughout our educational system and the mass media, as I shall attempt to restate now in my final remarks.

The ideological commitments of the moderate men were longstanding, and did not originate in wartime state planning or propaganda to counter accusations of American hypocrisy from Germany and the Soviet Union; rather the failure of weak statist reforms in response to the Depression, fears of renewed economic collapse likely to follow postwar demobilization, and the ongoing resolve by prescient moderates to co-opt minorities and labor were the proximate causes that shaped the writing of Myrdal’s book. An American Dilemma incorporated some of Bunche’s ideas, while attacking or ignoring others. It is well-known that Myrdal refuted Bunche’s central thesis, namely that however noble the civil libertarian goals of the established interracial and Negro betterment organizations might be, only pressure from the politically conscious rank and file-controlled labor movement, unified across racial lines and organized in industrial unions, could solve “the Negro problem.”

Scholars have entirely ignored (to my knowledge), however, Myrdal’s response to Bunche’s fervent plea that Negro intellectuals combat the antisemitism rife in the Negro press and cultural nationalist movements. For Bunche, antisemitism was a distorted perception fostered by fascists and protofascists that stunted the development of class consciousness among the working class, Southern sharecroppers and tenants, and the unemployed; Negro organizations should be demanding job creation, not the displacement of white workers or the elimination of rival Jewish small businessmen. The Urban League emphasis on jobs for Negroes, Bunche wrote, had “lent encouragement to the development of a racial caste within the American working class and it certainly lacks the independence and the courage to give honest and intelligent direction to the Negro working population.”[NBO, book 2, p. 272]

Bunche’s emphasis on the development of an effective and independent internationalist labor movement as the best defense against either white supremacy or fascism in America clashed with Myrdal’s definition of fascism as an extreme form of racial persecution and oppression imposed by a “centrally controlled, ruthless, and scientifically contrived apparatus of propaganda and violence.” [AD, 6]. Such an emphasis implied that counter-propaganda (attitude change) would be efficacious in combating racism. Myrdal did not specify the destruction of independent working class organizations in Italy and Germany by business interests in many countries; such an evasive diagnosis of fascism by Myrdal (in AD) tended to obscure the similarities between bureaucratic collectivist strategies in “the West,” similarly coping with economic crisis and fearful of the spread of “[Jewish]Bolshevism.” [Peter Alexis Gourevitch, Politics in Hard Times: Comparative Responses to International Economic Crises (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1986)].

As I have shown elsewhere, by the end of the war, the socially responsible moderates had triumphed. The classical liberals of the eighteenth century were now misdescribed as forerunners of the welfare state, while the disintegrating and dissembling “Jewish spirit” had been pinned on Hitler, the wily outsider who had misguided the German masses and whose support of free markets was echoed in America among “fascist Republicans.” Sadly, the alliance between Harris and Bunche was ended, as Harris, convinced that socialism could never protect individual autonomy, fled to the Chicago school of free market economics, while Bunche, in his ascension to middle-management, adopted the “genuinely liberal” formulations of deceptive organic conservatives: Bunche had switched to Myrdal, the author of “a great book.” [see illustration: Bunche holding Myrdal’s AMERICAN DILEMMA] For a related more recent blog on the transformation of the civil rights movement, see https://clarespark.com/2009/10/31/the-offing-of-martin-luther-king-jr-and-ralph-bunche/.


  1. […] Who would deny that there is a measure of “sacrifice” entailed in having children? Both genders are trapped in the supposedly feminized sentimental culture that displaced economic considerations (the study of political economy,) since the antebellum period of the 19th century that I wrote about here: https://clarespark.com/2015/11/07/the-change-of-heart-explanation-for-dr-ben-carsons-redemption/,  https://clarespark.com/2009/08/24/the-people-is-an-ass-or-a-herd/, and https://clarespark.com/2009/10/10/ralph-bunche-and-the-jewish-problem/. […]

    Pingback by Trump’s taxes and Clinton’s “sacrifice” | YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — October 4, 2016 @ 6:11 pm | Reply

  2. […] [First, read this substantial essay, a conference paper of mine: https://clarespark.com/2009/10/10/ralph-bunche-and-the-jewish-problem/?relatedposts_exclude=2297%5D […]

    Pingback by Remembering Ralph Bunche, American | YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — February 27, 2014 @ 6:36 pm | Reply

  3. […] was at that time on the Left, and 1930s leftist factions opposed racism and antisemitism. See https://clarespark.com/2009/10/10/ralph-bunche-and-the-jewish-problem/. […]

    Pingback by The Myth of Jewish Solidarity | YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — February 25, 2014 @ 8:21 pm | Reply

  4. […] ”Kris i befolkningsfrågan” försöker Alva Myrdal och hennes man Gunnar lösa den (förmodade) annalkande välfärdskrisen i Sverige, där deras lösning bl.a. handlar om […]

    Pingback by Facit till Julkalendern 2 december 2013 — Lotten — December 2, 2013 @ 11:01 pm | Reply

  5. […] As a further weapon against class politics during the Great Depression, the big liberal foundations adopted the notion earlier popularized by William James as cultural pluralism: that social conflict could be managed with better intercultural communication: there would be no problem with “compromise” if we understood each other better. Later progressives would see that abusive language hampered the rational state of mind that would allow warring parties to submit to mediation. Ralph Bunche saw through the intercultural strategy in his lengthy memoranda to Gunnar Myrdal (ca. 1938-1940), and was stigmatized as an “economic determinist” for his pains in Myrdal’s An American Dilemma (1944). (See https://clarespark.com/2009/10/10/ralph-bunche-and-the-jewish-problem/.) […]

    Pingback by The origins of “political correctness” (2) | YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — June 30, 2013 @ 7:40 pm | Reply

  6. […] So much for my ignorance of the historiography of the past three decades. As for my objection to comparing the German movement to “working through” the Nazi past to the call for the injection of morality into the study of American slavery (as if it still existed in this country, or perhaps as if insufficient reparations had been made to the descendants of slaves), I stand by my original message. Black nationalism was alive and well at UCLA where I received my training. It remains a powerful influence today. Ralph Bunche’s memoranda to Gunnar Myrdal warned him about the rampant antisemitism in black nationalist organizations. As I wrote about it in my published article on the Bunche-Myrdal dispute over _An American Dilemma_, Myrdal’s response was to frequently trash Bunche and “the Howard boys” as economic determinists and to hint in his endnotes that Jews were the worst exploiters of blacks. For a summary of my published paper, see https://clarespark.com/2009/10/10/ralph-bunche-and-the-jewish-problem/. […]

    Pingback by American Slavery vs. Nazi genocide « YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — December 29, 2012 @ 5:02 pm | Reply

  7. […] such “economic determinists” as Ralph Bunche in his late 1930s memoranda to Gunnar Myrdal (see https://clarespark.com/2009/10/10/ralph-bunche-and-the-jewish-problem/).  Lipset and Raab’s most important revision of class analysis was to redefine class altogether. […]

    Pingback by Connecting vs. connecting the dots « YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — June 3, 2012 @ 7:50 pm | Reply

  8. […] threatened in the 1930s, when materialist analyses were prominent and popular. (See my blog https://clarespark.com/2009/10/10/ralph-bunche-and-the-jewish-problem/. Ralph Bunche and other anti-racist blacks—especially Abram L. Harris–writing in the […]

    Pingback by Nell Painter’s History of White People « YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — March 31, 2012 @ 9:36 pm | Reply

  9. […] of labor competition, in Ralph Bunche’s view, the lingering cause of white racism (see https://clarespark.com/2009/10/10/ralph-bunche-and-the-jewish-problem/) […]

    Pingback by The Race Card « YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — January 3, 2012 @ 9:42 pm | Reply

  10. […] Organic conservatives may be found throughout the political spectrum. They are not to be confused with libertarians, who tend to be materialists, and expect competing (free) markets to produce social well-being and a rising standard of living for all. The dread homo economicus is described here: https://clarespark.com/2009/10/10/ralph-bunche-and-the-jewish-problem/. […]

    Pingback by Glossary to some terms in dispute « YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — June 2, 2011 @ 8:43 pm | Reply

  11. […] hate, as the primary solution to black poverty and political powerlessness, remains apposite. (See https://clarespark.com/2009/10/10/ralph-bunche-and-the-jewish-problem/.) So much for “the black community” as posited by today’s pundits, dutifully echoing the […]

    Pingback by The Offing of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Ralph Bunche « YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — March 11, 2010 @ 10:38 pm | Reply

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: