The Clare Spark Blog

April 12, 2010

Multiculturalism/ethnopluralism in the mid-20th century

[This is a brief excerpt from Hunting Captain Ahab, chapter two, expanding on the mixed-message of progressive ideology and locating the increased deployment of  ethnopluralism to defeat all forms of materialist analysis in the 1940s: ] 

The concept of ethnopluralism could redirect and absorb the class resentments of the potentially explosive redundantly educated–the “disillusioned” worker or petit bourgeois, overtrained (in technology) and underemployed in the Depression, who had been spotted by other conservative intellectuals as shock troops for fascism between the wars. The famous historian Friedrich Meinecke’s postwar explanation for “the German catastrophe” resonates with the ruminations of earlier organic conservatives:[i]

“It often happens nowdays…that young technicians, engineers, and so forth, who have enjoyed an excellent university training as specialists, will completely devote themselves to their calling for ten or fifteen years and without looking either to the right or to the left will try only to be first-rate specialists. But then, in their middle or late thirties, something they have never felt before awakens in them, something that was never really brought to their attention in their education–something that we would call a suppressed metaphysical desire. Then they rashly seize upon any sort of ideas and activities, anything that is fashionable at the moment and seems to them important for the welfare of individuals–whether it be anti-alcoholism, agricultural reform, eugenics, or the occult sciences. The former first-rate specialist changes into a kind of prophet, into an enthusiast, perhaps even into a fanatic and monomaniac. Thus arises the type of man who wants to reform the world.

Here one sees how a one-sided training of the intellect in technical work may lead to a violent reaction of the neglected irrational impulses of the spirit, but not to a real harmony of critical self-discipline and inner creativeness–rather to a new one-sidedness that clutches about wildly and intemperately…A technical calling, however, does not necessarily precede the world reformer’s intemperance. Men with hot heads, ambition, and an autodidactic urge for advancement, when forced into the technically normalized working conditions of the present day, may easily lose their inner equilibrium in the conflict of the spirit with the world about them and flare up in a blaze. The petty painter and quarellist Hitler, who once had to earn his scanty bread in construction work and in the course of it whipped up his hatred of the Jews into a general philosophy of world-shaking consequences, is a case of this kind (36-37).”

In the transition from Homo Sapiens to Homo Faber, Meinecke explained, we had lost the integrative powers of religion: “This was no specific spiritual force, but a spiritual need springing from and existing for the totality of the soul, and called upon to preserve the inner community of the life of men and to knit the ties between the simple workingman and the cultured man of developed individuality (38).”

    Martin Dies and James Conant, along with other American progressives, had been similarly alarmed by the rupture in human history, a rupture that had prompted the desire for a complexly developed individuality in previously “simple” workingmen; hotheads and ambitious autodidacts were to be cooled out through incorporation into an organic community; special attention would be paid to suppressed metaphysical desires, unpredictably erupting in misguided attempts to reform the world. With class, the materialist analytic category par excellence, translated into the soulful völkisch discourse, the irrationalism of pseudo-Enlightenment watered the growing field of social psychology, a developing discipline ever alert to the monomaniacal propensities of the one-sidedly educated and upwardly mobile protofascist middle class.

    The Official House Committee for the Investigation of Un-American Activities (chaired by the Texas populist Martin Dies) continued the spiritualizing progressive line in 1939, exalting the toleration of specified differences over equality:  “It is as un-American to hate one’s neighbor because he has more of this world’s material goods as it is to hate him because he was born into another race or worships God according to a different faith…The simplest and at the same time the most correct definition of communism, fascism, and nazi-ism is that they all represent forms of dictatorship which deny the divine origin of the fundamental rights of man…[T]hey assume and exercise the power to abridge or take away any or all of these rights as they see fit. In Germany, Italy, and Russia, the state is everything; the individual nothing. The people are puppets in the hands of the ruling dictators…[Rights] are subject to the whims and caprice of the ruling dictators…While the foundation of Americanism is class, racial, and religious tolerance, and the foundation of nazi-ism and fascism is racial and religious hatred, and the foundation of communism is class hatred. Americanism is a philosophy of government based upon the belief in God as the Supreme Ruler of the Universe; nazi-ism, fascism, and communism are pagan philosophies of government which either deny, as in the case of the communist, or ignore as in the case of the fascist and nazi, the existence and divine authority of God. Since nazi-ism, fascism, and communism are materialistic and pagan, hatred is encouraged. Since Americanism is religious, tolerance is the very essence of its being.[ii]

    Dies was claiming that only Our Founder, Paine’s and Jefferson’s deist God of science, materialism, natural rights, and robust intellectual and religious controversy, should oversee the adaptation of Americanism to the novel conditions of industrial society. Yet it was materialist analysis that was inciting class hatred. What was to be done? Dies’ remarks require further decoding. “The Supreme Ruler of the Universe” wanted the poor to tolerate those with “more of this world’s material goods,” but, as a Jeffersonian, probably not the socially irresponsible nouveaux riches hardening class lines. In his article of 1940, “Education for a Classless Society,” James Bryant Conant, President of Harvard University, looked back with apprehension upon the old Jeffersonian constituency of small farmers and artisans:

“We see throughout the country the development of a hereditary aristocracy of wealth. The coming of modern industrialism and the passing of the frontier with cheap lands mark the change. Ruthless and greedy exploitation of both natural and human resources by a small privileged class founded on recently acquired ownership of property has hardened the social strata and threatens to provide explosive material underneath (46).”

    The Jeffersonian ideal of a universal quality education would require a poetic metamorphosis: the Icarian hubris of the young republic with its “belligerent belief in individual freedom” must be corrected. Conant had reinterpreted the Jeffersonian heritage for the liberal readership of Atlantic Monthly with a palette of earth colors: “As a recent biographer has said, Jefferson believed that any boy or girl was capable of benefiting from the rudiments of education and would be made a better citizen by acquiring them. He believed in keeping open the door of further opportunity to the extent that a poor boy of ability should not be debarred from continuing his education. “To have gone farther and made a higher education compulsory on all,” suggests this biographer,” would have seemed as absurd to him as to have decreed that every crop on his farm, whether tobacco, potatoes, rye, corn, or what not, must be treated and cultivated precisely as every other…. In terms of the citizen, he believed in the maximum equality of opportunity. In terms of the state, he believed in the minimum of compulsion and interference compatible with the training of all its citizens to the maximum capacity of each (45).” [iii]

     Notwithstanding New Deal reformism, the minimalist Jeffersonian State was still here and would not absurdly impose higher education upon the poor boy with different and unequal mental capacities.

    The grand mixed-message of progressive ideology stands revealed again: on the one hand, class mobility should remain fluid; the lower orders must not be repressed and made desperate by exploitative, inflexible capitalists. On the other hand, Conant was aware that higher education in the twentieth century entailed instruction in science and technology, and materialist tools tended to vitiate the authority of conservative religion that progressives believed had hitherto kept the lid on upsurges from below, i.e., “extreme” demands for structural adjustments in institutions self-evidently pitting class against class. As Conant reasoned (turning Jefferson on his head), the State would hamper the development of the less able future citizen by asking that he acquire more than “the rudiments of education”; for Conant the contrast between the “poor boy of ability” and the less generously endowed of his class would be as rooted in biology as the truly self-evident difference between crops of “tobacco, potatoes, rye, corn or what not.” The stage was set for the postwar triumph of ethnopluralism and this ideology’s valorization of group identity and precapitalist traditional culture over common sense and the search for truth. Lest liberal nationalists worry about fragmentation, hostile “ethnic” competition, and the demise of popular sovereignty, the progressive could argue: as a rooted cosmopolitan each hyphenated American would be tolerant of the Others’ (biologically determined) differences.[iv] Dewily refreshed and spiritualized by sleeping minds, races and ethnicities would peacefully co-exist in a setting of inequality and continued upper-class management: the poor would tolerate the rich, while the progressive educator would honor the individuality of groups, having overcome belligerently individualistic mechanical materialists–troublesome gobbet-girls and other leftovers from the eighteenth century teaching the masses how to read the institutions that controlled their lives. American society would remain classless because race or ethnicity or IQ, not class power in the service of individuality, mastery, and the pursuit of happiness, would fertilize the poor boy’s sense of self and his possibilities for creative development.


              [i] 83. Friedrich Meinecke, The German Catastrophe, trans. Sidney Fay ( Boston: Beacon Press, 1950), 36-38. Though he is writing after World War II, Meinecke’s analysis is typical of other organic conservatives. Similar identifications of the class base of fascism were made by Harold Lasswell before the war, and CIA-affiliated social scientists during the 1940s and 50s. George Mosse built an entire academic career on the claim. Cf. the mid-nineteenth century views of Radical Republican Charles Sumner, who vigorously advocated an excellent popular education for all Americans.

                [ii]  84. Martin Dies, “Un-American Activities and Propaganda,” House Reports, misc. 1939, 10-11. By 1939, Stalinists had given Dies lots of ammunition to support the accusation of fomenting class hatred. However, even if Rosa Luxemburg had been at the helm, Dies would not have placed a dispassionate materialist analysis in the American tradition. Cf. Glenn Beck’s and Jonah Goldberg’s criticism of progressivism with the argument of Martin Dies.

                [iii]  85. James Bryant Conant, “Education for a Classless Society: The Jeffersonian Tradition,” in Gail Kennedy editor, Education for Democracy: The Debate Over the Report of the President’s Commission on Higher Education (Boston: D.C. Heath, 1952), 46, 45. Originally published in Atlantic Monthly, May 1940 and included in one of the Heath series Problems in American Civilization, Allan Nevins, General Editor. Cf. The Presidential Address of Dr. George S. Counts, American Federation of Teachers convention, August 19-22, 1940. Rejecting messianic ideas that would end exploitation, democratic education was “designed to discipline the young, through knowledge and understanding, in the ways of democracy, in the temperate and responsible use of political processes, in the subordination of individual to social welfare, in the sacrifice of the present to the long-time interests of individual and society. It is an education designed to prepare the young to live by, to labor for, and, if need be, to die for the democratic faith.” Jefferson and Lincoln were cited as exemplars.

       In 1945, Ann Westerfield, a student in the Harvard Graduate School of Education working under the direction of Howard E. Wilson, explained the need to revise the social studies curriculum: “I am desirous of finding out how the courses which include the study of the Negro contribute to the improvement of intergroup relations. A program of instruction which includes the study of intergroups relations should fulfill these criteria. 1. It should aim to develop mutual understanding among the children and youth of the various culture groups as a basis for their cooperation. 2. It should foster an appreciation of the part each has played and can continue to play in making America. 3. It should seek to awaken a sense of comman [sic] adventure among Americans of many antecedents to promote American unity through loyalty to American ideals…Prejudice, I feel, is distinctly a problem for education. In most cases it depends on historical misconceptions or social misunderstandings. People should be brought to analyze their prejudice under the light of historical fact and investigate scientifically the background of these irrationalities. In the future, the foundation of the social community must be cooperation. It is evident to men in this country and all over the world that any attempt at prolonged peace will depend on the renunciation of racial and social prejudice by all the people in the world. Since our country has led the way toward the realization of democratic ideals it is imperative that our conduct be a good example for all…” In Ralph Bunche Papers, UCLA Special Collections, Box 1, Folder 23. Bunche was appalled by such formulations, for he viewed “prejudice” as built into the economic system that pitted black and white workers against each other; bigotry could not be erased without structural transformation.

[iv] 86. By biological determinism, I do not mean that the followers of Herder had a materialist understanding of the natural sciences. As John Crowe Ransom or Eric Voegelin understood the völkisch idea of a national culture, there would be a spiritual uniformity in a people who had interacted for a lengthy period with their specific material environment, evolving into a balanced relationship with nature and each other.


  1. […] That is the overarching message of Carroll W. Pursell Jr.’s Readings in Technology and American Life (Oxford UP paperback, 1969).  The running theme in this solely “progressive” roundup of source readings was echoed by historian Friedrich Meinecke’s explanation for the rise of Hitler: technology, unharnessed by the moderating power of religion, would raise a race of monster technicians from the lower orders, unimpressed by elite leadership. (The German historian’s analysis is found here: […]

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  3. […] explains how James Bryant Conant, President of Harvard University, viewed these two aspects of American socie…. Here we find a mixed […]

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