Archive for May, 2008

Stem Cell Embryo Research: British MPs to Vote

May 18, 2008

Tomorrow and Tuesday British MPs are to vote on research on human embryonic stem cells. It’s an intensely controversial area. On the one hand, the scientists involved in the research argue that the use of such cells from human embryos will lead to significant advances in understanding numerous diseases, such as Alzheimers. According to the British edition of The Week, which covers the reports of the press for the previous week a month or so ago, the government’s bill to permit such experimentation had the support of 200 charities. The bill has the staunch backing of premier Gordon Brown himself, who in an article in one of the broadsheet newspapers today declared that it had his total backing and repeated the arguments that it would lead to disease.

Others, particularly members of the opposition with strong religious convictions, are not so sure. One of the issues being debated is the creation of human-animal hybrid embryos, in which DNA from the nucleus of human cells will be implanted into those of animals to create chimeras that will be 99.9 per cent human. The debate will also include the creation of ‘saviour siblings’, children deliberately created to be genetic or medical donors for older brothers or sisters suffering from disease, and the morality of creating children without fathers through artificial insemination. The veteran Conservative MP, Anne Widdecombe, who has very strong religious views, stated in an interview on the BBC Six O’clock news tonight that unlike adult and umbilical stem cell research, embryonic stem cell research had produced absolutely no results so far. However, as embryonic stem cell research is morally problematic, the scientists involved should show that it will produce the scientific advances they claim before such experimentation may be permitted. She is not alone. I’ve come across statements on some American Conservative newswebsites from businessmen running biotech companies, whose interests include stem cell research, that they are not involved with human embryonic stem cells not just because it conflicts with their Christian morals, but also for the entirely practical reason that such research so far has produced no results.

 Opponents of embryonic stem cell research, such as the Bishop of Durham, Tom Wright, have argued that such research is immoral because it implicitly declares that some human beings have no intrinsic value and so may be treated or abused however society wishes. His comments were greeted with sneers from some particularly anti-religious members of the press, such as the Guardian’s and Observer’s journalist, Polly Toynbee. Toynbee dismissed Wright’s concerns as ‘religious’ and stated that it was irrational, because it gave DNA, a mere molecule, more rights than a human suffering from one of the diseases such research is supposed to cure. This is, however, to misunderstand Wright’s point. DNA is indeed a molecule, but through it scientists plan to create a human deliberately for the purposes of experimentation. The moral question is not about DNA – though they are one part of it – but about the status and creation of human, or partly human creatures for experimentation. And such grave concerns about the use and morality of genetic engineering is by no means confined to people of faith. In 1969 the biologists James Shapiro and Jonathan Beckwith isolated the first gene, belonging to bacteria allowing them to ingest milk sugars. The discovery made the first page of the New York Times, where it was hailed as the beginning of a new genetic age. Shapiro, however, was so horrified by the implications of his discovery that he announced his retirement from science and fled to Cuba to teach genetics. He quickly decided that he’d made the wrong career choice, however, and returned to America two years later, and has told journalists since that he would not repeat that episode. 1 Other scientists shared his concerns. In 1976 Irwin Chargaff, a biochemist at Columbia University, questioned the morality of genetic experimentation, writing ‘have we the right to counteract, irreversibly, the evolutionary wisdom of millions of years, in order to satisfy the ambition and curiosity of a few scientists?’ 2 This was followed by a letter to Science by Philip Siekevitz, a biologist at Rockefeller university, expressing serious concerns about genetic research and its potential dangers, and urging scientists to restrain their curiosity:

‘Are we really that much farther along on the path to comprehensive knowledge that we can forget the overwhelming pride with which Dr. Frankenstein made his monster and the Rabbi of Prague made his Golem? Those who would answer ‘Yes’ I would accuse of harboring that sin which the Greeks held to be one of the greatest, that of overweening pride. Like the physicists before us, we have entered the realm of the Faustian bargain, and it behooves all of us biologists to think very carefully about the conditions of these agreements before we plunge ahead into the darkness.’ 3

His fears are not unfounded. The technique of cloning an organism by replacing the nucleus of a different, host cell, with that of animal to be cloned and then implanting the resulting cell in the womb was first suggested in 1938 by Hans Spermann in Germany. Amongst those interested in his theory were members of the Nazi regime, who saw it as another method of creating the master race at the heart of Hitler’s eugenics and racial theories. Fortunately his ideas were impracticable because the technology of the time simply wasn’t advanced enough. 4 Following the creation of Dolly the Sheep by cloning, President Bill Clinton under advice from a specially convened Federal bioethics commission in May 1997 attempted to ban human nuclear transfer cloning. This was rejected by Congress, which did, however, pass his bill to remove federal funding from – but not ban – human cloning for research purposes. The British government legalised human cloning for scientific research in January 2001, stipulating that such embryos should be used solely for research and not implanted in a womb. However, there is a loophole in the legislation in that implantation is relatively simple procedure that could be done in an hour, and such a process could be done quite legally in any country that had not adopted the same legislation as Britain. 5 One of the serious issues that constantly recurs during debates on cloning is the deliberate creation of clones as spare parts for existing humans, as in the recent SF film, The Island, or the SF book, Mortal Gods. In these fictional works, however, the clones used as unwilling donors for existing humans are functioning adults, rather than embryos. Nevertheless, the moral problem in using embryos as a source of spare parts for transplant remains.

Amongst those who have written on the moral problems presented by current genetic research are doctors and scientists of Christian faith. Dr. Patrick Dixon, a Christian pastor and medical doctor, has stated his reasons for unease about the use of human foetal tissue in transplant surgery. While he has no objections to the use of material from a stillborn or miscarried child, as the unfortunate baby is already dead and so the process is similar to the use of transplanted organs from an adult, he makes it clear that he is ‘very unhappy’ about the use of foetal tissue because it is produced through deliberately induced abortions. At the moment, existing legislation means that there must be no relationship between the clinic performing the abortion and those conducting the research. He has stated, however, that he is slightly less uneasy about experiments on fertilised eggs and small balls of cells up to the first week of life, partly because of the need to be consistent. Some forms of birth control now used are not contraceptives but effectively work by aborting the very early fertilised embryo, and so would have to be declared illegal if conception is considered as the beginning of human life. For example, the coil works to prevent pregnancy not through preventing conception, but by preventing the fertilised cell from adhering to the walls of the womb, thus in a strict sense producing a possible abortion. 6 He states, however, that he does not consider it right to deliberately fertilise human eggs for the purpose of experimentation, as this appears to him to trivialise the nature of life itself. 7 His views are shared by many other doctors and medical professionals of Christian faith. In 1990 the Christian Medical Fellowship, which has a membership of about 4,500 British doctors, submitted an article outlining its concerns and suggested ethical guidelines for research to the British Medical Association’s working party on genetic engineering. This made a number of valuable recommendations, including the following:

On the subject of possible exploitation of people for research purpose, it stated that ‘Christians are concerned that the individual, particularly if weak or disadvantaged in any way, is protected. Those who might be benefited by advances in genetic research are vulnerable to being persuaded to be ‘guinea pigs’ and exploited either commenercially or by prestige-seeking research workers.

The child needs protection and the status of the embryo and foetus must also be considered. Counselling should be provided by well-informed sympathetic clinicians, particularly clinical geneticists rather than by those whose commitment is primarily to research.’ 8 

On the status of the pre-implantation embryo, the Fellowship stated that

‘members of the CMF vary in their views as to the status of the fertilised ovum and pre-implantation embryo. Many believe that from teh time of fertilisation the ‘image of God’ is present, thus making the embryo a unique person who should be recognised and treated in all respects as a neighbour. They would therefore find all the following techniques unacceptable.

Others believe that although at the early stages the pre-implantation embryo is indisputably human, it has not yet the attributes of the ‘image of God’ and so may be implanted or discarded.

Nevertheless, there must be atime at which such attributes and status are attained. All members agree that once they are attained, that individual is of infinite value. All agree too that the relationships between husband and wife, parent adn child are of central importance both for the well-being of the individual and for the whole of society. We believe that children are entrusted to their parents to be nurturned and brought to maturity as individuals in their own right.’ 9

Despite their differences of opinion on the status of pre-implantation embryos, the Fellowship condemned cloning and the creation of chimeras through the fusion of human and animal sex cells that proceed to bastocyst and beyond. The Fellowship declared that these techniques were ‘unacceptable since we believe that humans, made in the image of God, are distinct from the animals and should remain so. Each individual is unique and that distinctiveness is important both to that person and to society. It is true that identical twins occur naturally and that each is a person in his or her own right, but some twins do have difficulties establishing their own identity.’ 10 In the submission’s conclusion, the Fellowship stated that they believed that ‘doctors should acts as stewards, helping mankind to make the most of its potential and prepared to correct abnormalities, but not as dictators, manipulating all for selfish ends.

Inevitably there is a difference of opinion as to where these roles begin and end. Some feel that work on early embryos is unacceptably interfering adn that the risk of disaster outweighs the potential benefits. Others believe that cautious exploration is the right way forward. All Christian Medical Fellowship members agree that we are responsible now to our patients and their families, but ultimately responsible to our Creator for the decisions we make today.’ 11

The debate over the morality of human embryo research and relating fields such as cloning and genetic engineering is not simply one of religious faith in conflict with science, as those concerned with the ethical implications of such research include practising scientists and medical doctors, both religious and secular. Moreover, the ethical concerns expressed by religious non-scientists are entirely genuine problems, which need to be addressed. The great American bioethicist and Biblical commentator, Dr. Leon R. Kass, discussing cloning, declared that it provided ‘the occasion as well as the urgent necessity of deciding whether we shall be slaves of unregulated progres and ultimately its artifacts or whether we shall remain free human beings to guide our technique towards the enhancement of human dignity. 12 Kass himself has strong views against cloning following his reading of a column about it by Joshua Lederberg in the Washington Post in September 1967, which he viewed as showing a lack of understanding on its implications. As a result, he was invited by the Princeton University theologian Paul Ramsey to discuss it and related ethical issues, and so becoming more involved with theologians and philosophers. 13 As a biochemist, like the members of the Christian Medical Fellowship in Britain, Kass is certainly very well aware of the science supporting such research. Nevertheless, in his view the only serious answer to the immense moral problems posed by cloning and related issues may be the complete abandonment of such research, despite the opportunities it offers for scientific advance. Kass has quoted his colleague, Paul Ramsey, on this issue, stating

‘Raise the ethical questions with a serious and not a frivolous conscience. A man of frivolous conscience announces that there are ethical quandaries ahead that we must urgently consider before the future catches up with us. By this he often means that we need to devise a new ethics that will provide the rationalization for doing in the future what men are bound to do because of the new actions and interventions science will have made possible. In contrast, a man of serious conscience means to say in raising urgent ethical questions that there may be some things that men should never do. The good things that men do can be made complete only by the things that they refused to do.’ 14

My own view is that Anne Widdecombe is exactly right about human embryonic research, and particularly about the dubious morality of the creation of the human-animal hybrids to be used. As it appears that such stem cell research has produced few results, and because of the immense moral problems it presents, it should therefore be discontinued. Everyone wants cures to be found for disease, including, and perhaps particularly, such devasting illnesses as Alzheimers that gradually destroys the minds of its victims. However, some of these cures come at too high a cost morally, particularly when other areas of research, like adult and umbilical stem cells, offer much better prospects of results.  


1. G. Kolata, Clone: The Road to Dolly the Sheep and the Path Ahead (London, Penguin 1997), p. 91.

2. Kolata,  Clone, p. 95.

3. Kolate, Clone, p. 95.

4. H. Brennan, Death: The Great Mystery of Life (Bridgnorth, Eye Books 2005), pp. 120-1.

5. Brennan, Death, p. 128.

6. Dr. P. Dixon, The Genetic Revolution (Eastbourne, Kingsway Publications 1993), pp. 179-180.

7. Dixon, Genetic Revolution, p. 180.

8. ‘Christian Medical Fellowship Submission to British Medical Association on Genetic Engineering’, from Journal of the Christian Medical Fellowship, January 1990, pp. 18-22, in Dixon, Genetic Revolution, pp. 193-4.

9. ‘Christian Medical Fellowship Submission to British Medical Association on Genetic Engineering’, from Journal of the Christian Medical Fellowship, January 1990, pp. 18-22, in Dixon, Genetic Revolution, p. 195.

10. ‘Christian Medical Fellowship Submission to British Medical Association on Genetic Engineering’, from Journal of the Christian Medical Fellowship, January 1990, pp. 18-22, in Dixon, Genetic Revolution, p. 198.

11.’Christian Medical Fellowship Submission to British Medical Association on Genetic Engineering’, from Journal of the Christian Medical Fellowship, January 1990, pp. 18-22, in Dixon, Genetic Revolution, p. 199.

12. Kolata, Clone, p. 15.

13. Kolata, Clone, pp. 76-77.

14. Kolata, Clone, p. 15.

The Philosophes: Pillars of the Enlightenment but not Democracy

May 18, 2008

The 18th century French philosophes are rightly respected for the key role they played in the development of the Enlightenment. They were ardent in their desire to spread knowledge, education, toleration and humane values. Diderot, the editor of the great Encyclopedia that was such a major influence in spreading not just the practical knowledge of contemporary arts and sciences, but also the ideals of the Enlightenment itself, wrote to Voltaire in 1762 declaring that their motto was ‘no quarter for the superstitious, for the fanatical, for the ignorant, for the foolish, for the wicked and for the tyrants’.1 Attacking the ignorance, corruption, injustice and fanaticism of contemporary society, the Philosophes were ‘informed, warm-hearted, tolerant, and humane; they fought obscurantism, bigotry, prejudice, and injustice. They believed that the world could be made a better place to live in, and that the sum of human happiness could be increased. They favoured equality before the law, humane punishments, the career open to the talents, proportional taxation, universal education.’ 2

 French Philosophes Not Political Radicals

The Philosophes weren’t democrats, however. Despite their implacable hostility to injustice and oppression, they did not advocate revolution or any major alterations to the structure of French government and society itself. While Voltaire and Montesquieu were ardent admirers of Britain, they did not advocate that British institutions should be imported into France. Indeed, the Philosophes were staunch supporters of the monarchy. The article on Political Economy in Diderot’s Encyclopedia declared that it was only the monarchy that had ‘discovered the real means of enabling us to enjoy all the possible happiness and liberty and all the advantages which man in society can enjoy on the earth.’ 3 There was considerable disagreement amongst the Philosophes on the best form of government and society. Voltaire denounced all privileged groups, like the parlements, clergy and aristocracy, for obstructing attempts at reform by a benevolent monarchy. Montesquieu, on the other hand, favoured reinforcing their power against the tyrannical power of the monarchy. Some of their ideas were also self-contradictory. Historians and philosophers examining Rousseau’s rhetoric have found arguments supporting both socialism and private property, democracy and authoritarianism, Puritanism and hedonism. ‘The Enlightenment was many-sided. It did not advocate any one doctrine – and certainly not the doctrines of democracy or rebellion.’ 4

 French Roman Catholicism as the Source of Political Discontent and Democratic Ideals

Instead, historians have pointed to the clergy and the parlements for promoting radical discontent with the French monarchy. Early in the 18th century, Archbishop Fenelon was particularly critical in his denunciation of the suffering inflicted on the French people by Louis XIV’s government. In his Lettre au Roi, written in Cambrai after Fenelon had retired from court politics, he bitterly attacked Louis’ massive accumulation of power at the expense of his subjects. Addressed to the king himself, Fenelon wrote

 ‘For about thirty years your principal ministers have shaken and overthrown all the former maxims of the State in order to heap up to its height your authority, which had become their because it was in their hands. They have talked no longer about the State or about laws, they have talked only of the King and his good pleasure … you have destroyed half the real power inside your State in order to make and defend vain conquests outside. Instead of drawing money from these poor people, you should give them alms and nourish them. The whole of France is nothing more than a great poorhouse, desolated and provisionless.’ 5

 The French Lower Clergy and Ideals of Spiritual Equality

Furthermore, despite Voltaire’s denunciation of religion, and particularly Christianity for promoting intolerance and oppression, one of the main sources for the growth of democratic ideals in France was the lower French clergy. The 60,000 or so vicaires and cures, who comprised the main body of the 18th century French Roman Catholic clergy were largely members of the middle classes, in contrast to the upper clergy who were exclusively composed of members of the aristocracy. The lower clergy resented the idleness and wealth of their ecclesiastical superiors, who consumed most of the tithes while they subsisted on a tiny stipend. 6 These clergy tended to support richerisme in their view of the location of spiritual authority in the Church, considering that God had not given this authority exclusively to the Pope or the bishops, but equally to all members of the clergy. 7 They were also largely Gallican in their attitude to the power of the papacy. While Ultramontane Roman Catholics, such as the Jesuits, viewed the papacy as possessing sole authority in the Church, The Gallicans, on the other hand, viewed the church as a kind of constitutional monarchy in which councils were superior to the papacy. 8 The local church played a major role in village life. It was the place where the villagers stored their timber and grain, and made their business deals. It also played a strong political role. The priest informed his congregation of government regulations through reading them out as part of his sermon, and the church was also the location for the election of the local tax-collectors. 9 Given the close connection between the French lower clergy and their congregation, it isn’t surprising that the lower clergy’s ideas of equality within the ecclesiastical hierarchy encouraged the development of democratic ideas in wider, secular society. ‘And if the clergy believed in democracy in the Church, it is not surprising that their flocks favoured equality in the state.’ 10

 Influence of American Revolution and John Locke’s Christian Ideas of Society on French Revolution

Lastly, one of the most powerful direct influences on the outbreak of the French Revolution was that American Revolution. By sending French troops to assist the Americans against the British crown, Louis XVI had demonstrated that armed resistance to the monarchy could be patriotic, rather than an act of treason. The American Revolution also provided a direct model for the French, by demonstrating that it was possible for a nation’s people to create a completely new form of government through a constituent assembly composed of elected delegates. It was a model for those who wished to completely recreate French government and society, rejecting both divine-right monarchy and the traditional opposing institutions of the French state. 11 The democratic ideas of the American Revolution were also strongly informed by Christian religious views of the nature of human society. John Locke was a major influence on the development of the American constitution, and the resounding statement of the Declaration of Independence that people are endowed by the Creator with the inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and have the right to alter or abolish any government that destroys these rights, encapsulates the ideas of Locke’s Second Treatise of Government. 12 Although Locke was a Socinian, rather than an orthodox, Trinitarian Christian, nevertheless his ideas of the law of nature have been criticised by contemporary poltical theorists as being derived from orthodox Christian doctrine. 13

Influence of the American Great Awakening in the Development of American Democracy

Historians have also pointed to the profound influence played by the 18th century evangelical revival – the Great Awakening – in the development of American democratic ideals. The Great Awakening saw lower and middle class Americans turn away from what they viewed as the corrupt, aristocratic established churches to create new churches and religious forms of their own, based not on the idea that spiritual authority was invested and conveyed through hierarchies, but was available to each believer through the experience of God’s saving grace. Leading evangelical preachers, such as George Whitefield, troubled the established leaders of New England society because

‘they spread the message that God did not operate through the elite corps of learned clergy and their aristocratic allies. Rather, God worked through the inner light given to every man and woman regardless of their station in life, with lack of education or even slave status posing now barrier to achieving grace through the conversion experience. Whitefield challenged traditional source of authority, called upon people to become the instruments of their own salvation, and implicitly attacked the prevailing upper-class notion that the uneducated masses had no minds of their own.’ 14 The result of this more democratically orientated religious revival was that ordinary, working-class Americans created religious institutions of their own to satisfy their religious needs that were not being met by the established churches. One such working-class religious leader was Samuel Morris, a self-educated bricklayer who stopped attending Anglican worship and instead held religious meetings in a small ‘reading house’ that he built himself on his own property. This soon expanded into a network of similar reading houses established across the western counties of Virginia. Elsewhere in western Virginia, ordinary people held their unlicensed meetings in barns and riverbanks, with the result that authority was collectively relocated in the mass of the common people. 15 The Great Awakening thus provided a powerful model for the later American revolutionaries, as it created a mass movement that challenged upper class assumptions about social order and the duty of the lower classes to obey their social superiors. Its members broke away from the established church they regarded as corrupt to build new churches of their own, often without license. They demanded and achieved religious toleration, destroyed attempts to unite church and state, and by fracturing the existing churches threatened the social order. When the ministers of the traditional churches urged their congregations to ‘obey them that have rule over you’, following the commands of St. Paul, those inspired by the Great Awakening claimed the freedom, in the view of historians such as Patrician Bonomi, ‘to question and judge all and refuse subjection to every proper judicature’, thus creating a ‘pertinent and usable model’ for the later Revolutionaries. 16

Conclusion: Democratic Ideals of American and French Revolutions Created by American and English Evangelical Protestants and Roman Catholic French Lower Clergy, not French Philosophes

Thus, despite their strong opposition to the forces of intellectual and social oppression in France, the philosophes of the Enlightenment such as Voltaire were certainly not democrats. The democratic ideals that created the American and French Revolutions instead were based strongly on religious notions of equality amongst the French Roman Catholic lower clergy and English and American Protestant revivalism. In France this more democratic attitude amongst the clergy did not lead to the intellectual and religious toleration prised and championed by the Philosophes. The 17th century saw the vicious persecution of French Protestants and their eventual expulsion from France after the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes. Nevertheless, it was the ideals of spiritual equality developed by the French lower clergy and American working- and middle-class evangelical revivalists that created the democratic ideals that eventually produced the American and French Revolutions, and so created the models for later democracies around the world.


 1. E.N. Williams, The Ancien Regime in Europe: Government and Society in the Major States 1648-1789 (London, Penguin Books 1970), p. 227.

2. Williams, Ancien Regime, p. 227. 

3. Williams, Ancien Regime, p. 231.

4. Williams, Ancien Regime, p. 231.

5. Williams, Ancien Regime, p. 195.

6. Williams, Ancien Regime, p. 224.

7. Williams, Ancien Regime, p. 194.

8. Williams, Ancien Regime, p. 184.

9. Williams, Ancien Regime, p. 170.

10. Williams, Ancien Regime, p. 224.

11. Williams, Ancien Regime, p. 240.

12. N. Warburton, Philosophy: The Classics, Second Edition (London, Routledge 2001), p. 91.

13. Warburton, Philosophy: The Classics, p. 97.

14. G.B. Nash, The Unknown American Revolution: The Unruly Birth of Democracy and the Struggle to Create America (London, Jonathan Cape 2006), pp. 8-9.

15. Nash, Unknown American Revolution, p. 10.

16. P. Bonomi, cited in Nash, Unknown American Revolution, p. 12.   

Atheism, Marxism and the Soviet Persecution of the Churches Part 3

May 2, 2008

Robert has offered a further criticism of my posts describing the official persecution of the churches in the Soviet Union as part of the Communist campaign to eradicate religion and promote religion. I’ll post each part of his critique in italics, and my comments will follow afterwards.

Robert: (1) Conflation of atheism with anti-religiosity. Recall that atheism is merely the disbelief in the existence of god(s). Such disbelief does not necessary entail active opposition or hostility to religion, any more than theism necessarily entails active opposition or hostility to secularism. This is readily observable in many instances across history and in contemporary times. This error is repeatedly made throughout your posts, wherein you cite a litany of anti-religious Marxist credos or statements, and then glibly brand them “atheist critiques”. While atheism can form a basis for anti-religious views, it is by no means the sole basis. Moreover, the road goes the other way; anti-religious critiques can form a basis for the atheist belief, as appears to have been the case for Feuerbach. Finally, one can be critical of religion and still retain some form of god-belief, as the deists showed. Thus, we can see that your central claim “communism is an atheist philosophy in the sense that it rejects and attacks religious belief” makes as much sense as the statement “communism is a deist philosophy in the sense that it rejects and attacks religious belief”, or “Christianity is a theist philosophy in the sense it rejects and attacks secularism.” All are equally vapid and do not follow.

This is predicated on an anachronistic distinction between atheism and anti-theism. This distinction only dates from the 1970s. It also seems to be stating that Marxist critiques of religion cannot be proper atheist critiques, because they come from a Marxist perspective. Yet the Marxist attacks on religion are nevertheless atheist attacks on religion and the belief in God. The only difference is that they are articulated from a Marxist perspective. Furthermore the simple description of Communism as an atheist philosophy is nevertheless true. It is indeed an atheist philosophy in that it explicitly denies the existence of God. The rejection of the existence of God is integral to Marxism. It is not like other political philosophies, such as Conservatism, Liberalism or Socialism, that in themselves say nothing about the existence of God, leaving that to their adherents’ own consciences. Marxism explicitly rejects the belief in God. No matter how vapid it is, nevertheless the description of Marxism as an atheist philosophy is accurate.

2) No link established between atheism and the major tenets of communism. Previously I asked what in atheism accounts for belief in the historical dialectic, class struggle, the evil of private property, etc. Your response to this is again to refer to the influence of Feuerbach on Marx, citing the former’s critique of religion. The influence may be there, even as its strength remains murky, but the link between Feuerbach’s views and Marx’s critique of capitalism is very tenuous, to say the least. You cite Marx’s adoption of Feuerbach’s concept of the gattungswesen, but fail to mention a critical distinction. For Feuerbach, it was the idea of God that alienated, while for Marx, it was capitalism that alienated. For Marx, religion is the result of man’s conditions, not their source, something which he criticized Feuerbach for failing to realize. “Feuerbach, consequently, does not see that the ‘religious sentiment’ is itself a social product, and that the abstract individual whom he analyses belongs to a particular form of society.” (Theses on Feuerbach, VII). The basis of Marx’s critique of capitalism does not come from Feuerbach, but a variety of other sources, including Adam Smith, David Ricardo, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Louis Blanc, and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. It was through them that he developed the theory of “surplus value,” the notion of private property as the basis for much social ill, egalitarian distribution, etc. The latter, Proudhon, who famously declared that “property is theft,” is of particular interest due to his background in theology. “My real masters,” he once wrote, “those who have caused fertile ideas to spring up in my mind, are three in number: first, the Bible; next, Adam Smith; and last, Hegel.”

Your conclusion that “atheism clearly is a major, though not the sole element, in Marx’s critique of capitalism” is unfounded. The failure to even identify these other influences (some even with Christian roots)—much less discuss them—is, I think, emblematic of your theory’s tendentiousness.

No, I stated quite clearly in my original post that Marx had gone beyond Feuerbach’s critique of religion. Now Marx had become an atheist through reading Epicurus, Democritus and adopting Feuerbach’s Neo-Hegelian approach to the critique of religion. Thus, atheism was influential in shaping Marx’s personal view of religion and social relationships. The fact that Marx later revised his view of the origin and role of religion within social relationships does not change the fact that Marx still denied the existence of God, and still considered religion to be contrary to the workers’ interest and its extinction as something to be looked forward to.

 3) No firm link established between atheism and Soviet persecution of the religious. Your argument so far has been that communist ideology’s antagonism and persecution of religion is founded in its atheism. I have pointed out that communist oppression was not limited to just the religious, but included everyone up to fellow communists, and therefore argue that the source of communist oppression of religion was part of a broader struggle for revolutionary social change, which would be effected from the top down (the “Leninism” aspect of Marxism-Leninism, which really formed the ideological basis for much of 20th century communism). It has remained for your theory to explain this societal-wide oppression, which it does not satisfactorily do. You claim that “it’s probable that if a non-atheist, socialist party had seized power in the Soviet Union, then indeed religious believers would not have been persecuted simply for being religious believers” and cite the examples of Italy and some South American governments in the 19th century. First, it should be noted that these governments were not socialist, nor did they have plans to radically redesign society, by force, if necessary, which greatly weakens the analogy. Second, these examples don’t really address my point. For your theory to work, you need to provide instances in which states governed by radical, transformative (but agnostic) socialist ideologies left only the religious free from persecution. If such a state attacked, say, only the bourgeoisie, we cannot say definitively why others, including the religious, were not attacked. The religious must specifically be excluded from a social-wide oppression under such an agnostic government.
Firstly, you seem to believe here that the Communist persecution of people of faith could not be due to their atheism, because so many other groups were attacked by the Marxists. But I don’t have to show that the other groups were persecuted because of the Communists’ atheism to show that people of faith were. All that needs to be shown is that the atheist component of Marxism resulted in the persecution of people of faith, and clearly this is what occurred. The jailing of people of faith for ‘slander of the Soviet system’ indicates the extent to which atheism was considered a central tenet of Soviet ideology. Secondly, your comments that my examples of militantly anti-clerical regimes in Latin America that did not persecute the church are wrong because they never attempted a complete transformation of society misses the point: atheism was a part of the Marxist programme to transform society. The distinction between atheism and Marxism misses the point. The Communists were not indiscriminate. They most certainly did not lack judgement, and their attacks on the church were not due to an arbitrary hostility to anything seen as conflicting with their programme, but based on a view of religion and belief in God that had been established as part of Marxist ideology by Marxi himself. Atheism was thus the basis for the Marxist attacks on religion. As Socialist ideologies that did not attack religion, I presented the examples of the Utopian Socialism of Saint-Simon and Thomas Spence.
(4) The thesis suffers in practice. If atheism and anti-religion were so central to communist ideology, one would expect a continuous, indiscriminate and unrelenting oppression of all religious peoples. Despite attempts to portray this as so, reality offers a different picture. While persecution was experienced by all believers, its nature and consistency varied widely. On the receiving end of particularly harsh attack were Jews and Catholics. Russian Orthodox believers were initially heavily suppressed, but later officially tolerated as the regime sought to enlist their support for the war. Islam followed a similar trajectory to Russian Orthodoxy, with the government abandoning active suppression in favor of a more co-optive stance under the auspices of regional branches of the Spiritual Administration of the Muslims. Soviet policies of détente with respect to these religions were largely reversed under Krushchev and Brezhnev. Nonetheless, as your discussion of religion under Gorbachev showed, the state was never able to eradicate religious belief and finally accommodated itself to the fact with an unprecedented degree of toleration. In sum, Soviet policy toward religion can best be described as schizophrenic, a very curious stance under the view that atheism formed the basis for communist ideology.
Actually, one would not necessarily expect the persecution of people of faith to be uniform and continuous if atheism was such as an important part of the Soviet regime. Writers like George Orwell noted that the Soviet regime had an extremely utilitarian attitude towards policy generally, and described it as actually counter-revolutionary in the way it acted with bourgeois Republican parties to suppress non-Marxist revolutionary groups behind a facade of a ‘popular front’. Now the non-Orthodox faiths, like Judaism and Roman Catholicism were under particular suspicion because the adherents of these faiths were considered to have divided loyalties. In the case of the Jews, to Israel, and in the case of Roman Catholics, to the Vatican. That’s certainly a political motivation for their particular persecution. But the Orthodox Church was also persecuted, and the toleration eventually extended to the Church was very limited. The programme was to gradually strangle them, rather than totally suppress them. Even so, people of faith were still harassed, imprisoned, tortured and murdered. The lifting of restrictions on religious belief by Gorbachev probably had more to do with his own desire to increase democracy and free speech, in contrast to the views of his predecessors, than anything established as orthodox Marxism by previous administrations.
Conclusion Atheism is not an ideology, no more than a-unicornism or a-Zeusim is an ideology. Beastrabban sees atheism in far broader terms than it actually is, and this mistake forms much of the basis for his erroneous attribution of communism to atheism. Not only can no such link be established on theoretical grounds when tracing communism’s origins, but also on historical grounds. A better understanding of Soviet persecution of the religious is found when it is placed within the context of Marxism-Leninism’s radical formula to remake all of society, whose roots can be traced to a hodge-podge of social, philosophical and economic theories in fashion during the 19th century. Such an understanding makes sense of the suppression experienced by virtually every level of Soviet society, the religious and non-religious alike.
I’m sorry Robert, but here’s you’ve definitely misunderstood me. I never said that atheism was a distinct ideology. In fact, I’ve argued elsewhere in this blog that atheism is a set of views, attitudes and ideologies, rather than a single philosophical or metaphysical system. Nor do I deny that Marx took his views from a number of sources. In fact, I agreed with you that Marx was also influenced by the Utopian Socialists, amongst others. Now Feuerbachian Humanism here was a necessary, but not sufficient condition for the development of Marxism. Atheism formed part of Marx’s critique of society and religion, but it was not the sole influence that was responsible for the whole of Marxist ideology. Thus, atheism was part of the Marxist attempt to transform society, established as part of Communist doctrine by Marx himself, and not the product of political expediency in Soviet political praxis, although this certainly determined the severity of the persecution. Thus, the Communist regime was still motivated to persecute people of faith through an officially promulgated atheism.

Expelled, the Holocaust and Herder

May 2, 2008

One of the aspects of Ben Stein’s documentary, Expelled, which has been particularly controversial is the film’s examination of the connection between Darwinism and the Holocaust.  Of course the film as a whole has attracted bitter criticism for its critical stance towards the scientific establishment’s absolute rejection of any criticism of the theory of Natural Selection, and its persecution of those scientists who claim that the theory is wrong. However, Stein and the movie’s producers have been particularly attacked for stating the link between Darwinism and the Holocaust. The film’s many critics have declared that Nazism was not based on Darwin’s theories, and that evolutionary scientists today absolutely condemn biological racism and the genocide perpetrated by the Third Reich.

Evolutionary Theory and the Development of Fascist Racial Ideology

Now historians of fascism have pointed to the strong influence Natural Selection had on the development of Fascist ideology. The historian Roger Eatwell has noted that

‘Arguably the most important nineteenth-century scientific development in its impact on political ideology was Darwinism. Charles Darwin published The Origins of Species in 1859. Others quickly realized that some of the key ideas, especially “survival of the fittest” and “natural selection,” could be adapted for political ends-though there were diagrements over what the implications were. In one version, Darwinism seemed to point to the need for minimal state intervention in order to allow free competition. In another, Darwinism was taken as highlighting the need for the state to take on the role fo selection to ensure survival-especially in the battle with the less developed but virile and martial races. The strong appeal of the latter position needs understanding against a more general background of scientific-racial-thought. In particular, further impetus toward statist-racism came in the form of eugenics, which was pioneered by leading scientists such as the German Ernst Haeckel. The eugenicists were worried about the way that moral laws prevented the working of natural selection, for example in taboos on euthansia. A critical theme of theirs was the need to regenerate national or European racial stock.’ 1

Social Darwinist views similarly developed in Britain, where ‘the development of the understanding of the principle of heredity and the laws of genetics led to frighteningly utopian ideas of scientific breeding and pure racial types achieved through eugenic experiments.’ 2 The principle of survival of the fittest, when applied to humanity, was interpreted to mean that the most technologically advanced groups and races were the fittest, and thus superior to other ethnic groups. 3 In fact it’s moot how much of the scientific racism and eugenic policies of the Nazis goes back to Darwin himself. The British Fascist leader, Oswald Mosley, attempted to support his racist views using quotations from Darwin, Huxley and contemporary evolutionary scientists. 4 However, Darwinism was not the only theory of evolution to influence British scientific racist theorising. Neo-Lamarckian biologists, such as Benjamin Kidd, had proposed a theory of ‘social heredity’ in which human groups or races could inherit characteristics acquired through learning. This was later used by Fascists to suggest that changes in the leadership of the state would produce rapid changes in society over a short period. In fact, Lamarckianism was disproved by Galton’s Stirp theory and Weissmann’s experiments, which seemed to show that there was no link between reproductive cells and those of the rest of the body. Racial characteristics were not acquired, but were the products of genetic inheritance. 19th and early 20th century scientific racists also viewed racial mixing as an unsuitable ‘outcrossing’, which would weaken the parent gene pool. Most Fascists, however, ignored the fact that evolutionary theory and Mendelian genetics did not imply this conclusion.

The difference between the Darwinian and Lamarckian views of evolution held by the various British Fascist groups did not result in the mutual contradiction of their respective racist ideas, but merely a difference in emphasis, though expressed in vehement ideological debates over whether culture created race, or whether race determined culture. 5 Lamarckianism, however, had anti-racist implications through its suggestion that races could acquire new values and psychological perspectives through learning and culture. In fact, however, 19th century racial theorists declared that such Lamarckian evolution only operated within the more advanced races, as those who were considered inferior were declared to have come to the end of their evolution and were no longer able to respond to environmental challenges. 6

As for Mosley, before the Second World War his racial theories were Neo-Lamarckian in origin, deriving his views on race from the heroic vitalism of Thomas Carlyle, Nietzsche, Spengler and Wagner, and particularly George Bernard Shaw’s critique of Darwinism in Back to the Methuselah, which stated that humanity had the mind and will power to evolve to a higher type, rather than being simply the product of Natural Selection. However, Shaw considered that the creation of this superior humanity would partly be the product of eugenic breeding. 7

In Germany Social Darwinism was promoted in the 19th and early 20th centuries through Ernst Haeckel’s pantheistic Monistenbund or Monist League. Haeckel’s view of evolution differed so radically from Darwin’s that it effectively replaced Darwinism. 8 In particular, it was Haeckel’s follower, Wilhelm Ostwald, who became president of the Monistic League in 1911, who founded a ‘Monistic Cloister’ devoted to advocating Social Darwinist policies in economics, eugenics and euthanasia. 9 Hitler himself seems to have taken his views of a racial struggle between aryans and their racial inferiors from racist, Neo-pagan magazines such as Lanz Von liebenfels’ Ostara, which he had read as a destitute drifter in Vienna. As early as 1930 August M. Knoll of the university of Vienna ridiculed the Nazis in front of his students by pointing out the similarity of the Fuhrer’s ideas and those of the notorious Neo-pagan magazine. 10 Hitler does not cite Darwin in either Mein Kampf or his Table Talk. Undoubtedly he picked up his ideas on evolution second or third-hand. Nevertheless, the conception of evolution as the struggle between the fittest, conceived as the most brutal or predatory, was a strong component of Hitler’s entire world-view. ‘The earth continues to go round, whether it’s the man who kills the tiger or the tiger who eats the man. The stronger asserts his will, it’s the law of nature. The world doesn’t change; its laws are eternal.’ 11 Unfortunately, just because Hitler took his view of race and the ‘survival of the fittest’ from low, fringe magazines does not mean that the ideas themselves were at all disreputable. They weren’t. Although race was debated at the popular level in cafes throughout Europe, and racial ideas publicised in cheap pamphlets in London, Paris, Berlin and Vienna, the belief that race was ‘the key to the achievement recorded in a nation’s history’ was general. 12 Such racist theorising extended throughout society, from the lower to the ruling classes. The British prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli, stated that ‘no man will treat with indifference the principle of race. It is the key to history.’ 13 There was little that was new in the Nazis’ racial and eugenics policies. In 1895 Ernst Hasse, supporting the 1891demands of the Pan-German League, had advocated the deportation of Jews and Slavs and the annexation of Poland, Ruthenia, Serbia, Belgium, Romania and the Baltic States with the statement ‘We want territory even if it belongs to aliens, so that we may fashion the future according to our own needs’. 14 It was the Nazi demands for lebensraum in all but name. As for the Nazi eugenics programme, every aspect of it ‘had been anticipated by the spokesmen of various schools of social Darwinism; and even though they had not demanded the extermination of whole nationalities, their ideas were in line with the inhuman projects which showed such a basic contempt for human life.’ 15 Tragically and horrifically, radical racialism and eugenics was not simply the province of a few marginal, fringe ideologues, but was was acceptable and influenced a considerable part of the European and American political and scientific establishment. Now Darwin certainly was not responsible for scientific racism. That was the product of racial theorists such as Count Joseph Arthur de Gobineau in France and Houston Stewart Chamberlain, who became Wagner’s son-in-law, in Germany. 16 However, Darwin certainly considered that there were racial differences, and his theory of evolution offered further scientific justification for already existing theories that viewed human progress as the product of struggle.

Fascism as Partial Product of 18th Century Enlightenment Political Theory

Obviously much of the criticism of Stein’s suggestion in Expelled that there was a direct link between Darwin’s ideas and the Holocaust comes from supporters of Darwinism who believe that this misrepresents and maligns both Darwin’s theory and Darwin himself, if not the whole of contemporary biology, following Theodosius Dobzhansky’s comment that ‘nothing in biology makes sense, except in the light of evolution’. Yet the suggested link between Darwinism and the Holocaust goes beyond questioning the morality of a specific scientific theory, but by implication renders the assumed relationship between rational knowledge and morality itself extremely questionable. Since Plato it’s been assumed that rational knowledge and the usse of reason in understanding the world leads to moral progress. During the Enlightenment, rational knowledge and the search for truth through reason became associated with the sciences, and it was through science that ignorance, superstition and barbarism could be combatted.

Thus, in the view of the Enlightenment philosophes, ‘a logically connected structure of rules, laws, generalisations, susceptible of demonstration or, at least in practice, of a high degree of confirmation (and, where required, of application appropriate to differing circumstances) could, at least in principle, be constructed, and could replace the chaotic amalgam of ignorance, laziness, guesswork, superstition, prejudice, dogma, fantasy, and above all, what Helvetius called ‘interested error”, which enabled the cunning and the strong to dominate and exploit the stupid, ignorant and weak, and had throughout human history been largely responsible for the vices, follies, and miseries of mankind. Only knowledge, that is, the growth of the sciences, could rescue mankind from these largely self-induced evils.’ 17 However, this assumption that science leads to freedom, wisdom and moral progress, in short, enlightenment in the fullest sense of the word, becomes extremely problematic with the connection between the genocidal tyranny of the Nazi regime and the basis of their policies in evolutionary biology. After all, in their brutality, intolerance, militarism and absolute rejection of democracy in favour of a fanatical personal cult of the leader, the Nazis represent the complete opposite of Enlightenment values and civilisation. Indeed, some historians have suggested that Fascism ‘was a negation of the Enlightenment, part of a counterrevolution that rejected the basic assumptions of “modernity”.’ 18 For historians such as Ernst Nolte, Fascism was not part of the great political projects of Liberalism and Marxism, and so could only be explained as the product of the reactionary traditions following, and attempting to counteract, the French Revolution. 19 Yet in many respects Fascism was also a product of Enlightenment political theories. The idea of politics as an activist campaign against evil, in which the individual should surrender to the general will, is found in Rousseau. 20 Similarly, the French Revolution in its attempts to establish who possessed legitimate power, created the distinction within democracy, considered as popular sovereignty, between those who were held to be the true, proper possessors of political power and their opponents, who should be excluded from it, even exterminated. Thus, one French revolutionary declared that only those of his species were truly human. The aristocracy weren’t members of his species, and so he shot them. 21 Thus the French Fascist, Robert Brasillach, enthusiastically remarked on how little the French Revolution had to do with individual liberty and international peace, declaring that with the Revolution ‘a lost bell rang out beginning a long night of turmoil sleeplessness. Everywhere peoples could be heard singing, each in in their own way, “Nation, Awake! Arise!”.’22 Similarly, the concern of Enlightenment political theorists, such as Rousseau, with an inner freedom corresponding to modern notions of self-realization, and the identification of the citizen’s real self with the general will, produced a collectivist ideal of freedom that did not necessarily correspond to any constitutional state. Indeed, Rousseau considered that true freedom might involve absolute submission to a sole legislator, who was the only person able to express the general will of the people, a concept almost identical to the Fascist notion that true freedom consisted in the absolute submission of the people to their leader. The scholar J. Hallowell, remarking on the similarity between Rousseau’s and the Fascist idea of the leader expressing the people’s general will, stated that in that sense Fascism had not murdered Liberalism, but that Liberalism had committed suicide. 23 Fascism characteristically viewed life as struggle. Mussolini, in his The Doctrine of Fascism, declared that Fascist ethics viewed life as ‘duty, ascent, conquest’, an attitude not very different from Kant’s statement in The Dispute of the Faculties that ‘the being endowed with freedom is not content to enjoy a pleasant life.’ 24 Thus, although Hitler and the other leading Nazis propounded an ideology of struggle using the terminology of Social Darwinism, it was not based in the details of Darwinism but in Haeckel’s use of Darwinian theory to express Kant’s ethics of activism. 25 Even the view of warfare as inherently beneficial to be actively pursued for itself by the state was not entirely unique to Fascism. Turgot, in his 1750 On the Successive Advances of the Human Mind stated that ‘it is only through turmoil and destruction that nations expand and civilisations and governments are in the long run perfected.’ 26 Long before Fascism, and its concept of violence as a central part of political life arose, the Enlightenment political theorists had created a new, activist style of politics that established a strong connection between freedom, virtue and terror. In the view of some scholars, this activist tradition in modern politics generally, beyond the Fascist fringe, makes the atrocities committed by the Nazi regime entirely explicable.  ‘Once this is appreciated, it is not very difficult to understand such aspects of twentieth-century activism as the organized destruction of the Jews by Nazism. Destruction and fanaticism, after all, had become morally respectable parts of the western tradition as soon as the new activist style had won general acceptance.’ 27 Fascism is therefore a paradox that it is both a product of the Enlightenment and a reaction to it. 28 Thus, however immoral the Nazi regime was, and how much it appears to conflict with the liberal ideals of the Enlightenment, nevertheless it was also a product of particular Enlightenment political attitudes and claimed the same basis in science, no matter how spurious this appeared in practice.

Opposition to Scientific Racism through Cultural Relativism of Franz Boas

The scientific racism and eugenics policies promoted by the Nazis in Germany, and by other organisations and scientists across Europe and America was challenged by a number of other, leading scientists and scholars. One of the foremost opponents of scientific racism was Franz Boas, who became Professor of Anthropology at Columbia University and a curator at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. A German Jew, he condemned such the racist interpretation of history and eugenics as ‘irremediably dangerous’, vehemently opposed anti-semitism and the Nazi regime in Germany, aiding refugees from their tyranny in New York. His work, The Mind of Primitive Man, aided the civil rights campaign in America by stating that Black Americans would be just as capable of performing their duties as citizens as Whites if they were given the opportunities to do so. It’s been stated that Boas did more than anyone else in the 20th century to combat racism. 29

Boas based his rejection of ideas of racial superiority on cultural diversity and relativism. He declared that ‘culture is … the result of innumberalbe interacting factors and there is no evidence that the differences between human races, particularly not between the members of the white race have any directive influence upon the course of development of culture.’ 30 Boas considered that each culture should be viewed as an entity in its own right, as the product of its own history. All cultures were produced and formed by history, and each culture, or indeed custom, could only be understood only through attempting to construct their cultural history. 31

Similarity between Anthropological Views of Boas and 18th Century Views of History, Nationality and Culture by Vico

Boas’ view that each culture is unique and can only be understood on its own terms, through its own history is very similar to those of the 18th century philosophers Giambattista Vico and Gottfried Herder. Reacting against Cartesian rationalism and the rejection of Humanism in favour of mathematics and science, Vico instead argued in his La Scienza Nuova of 1725 that mathematics was not a system of laws that governed reality, but merely a set of rules that allowed one to analyse and predict the behaviour of objects in space. 32 However, the applicability of mathematics to the study of nature was limited, as while mathematics was the product of the human mind, nature was not, and so the conclusions offered by natural science were necessarily less sure. The only sure knowledge could be of what humanity had made itself. Thus Vico advocated history as offering a surer knowledge than that of the natural sciences. 33 While contemporary philosophers believed that there was a timeless criteria for assessing art and culture, Vico claimed that each stage of human civilisation produced its own art, based on its own particular aesthetic ideas. The artistic expressions of these cultures were neither better nor worse than those which preceeded or followed them, but had to be judged on their own criteria.  34 Unlike Boas, Vico was not a cultural relativist. He did not advocate a historical relativism, but was trying to create a science that was true, because it rested on the principles by which culture and language, and hence knowledge itself, were historically produced. 35 In his own time, Vico was an obscure writer in his own time, and discussion of his ideas has, with the exception of Jules Michelet and Benedetto Croce, largely began in the 1960s. Contemporary philosophers and historians are interested in Vico because he provided a precedent for the view that the knowledge of humanity was different from that of nature, historical relativism and that it is possible to know with certainty what it is to be human regardless of the findings of modern science because of people’s common humanity. 36

Herder’s View of the Plurality of societies in Human Cultural History also Similar to Boas and Vico 

This belief that human cultures were unique and should be judged on their own terms was shared by Herder, who became general superintendent in of the Lutheran clergy in the German state of Saxe-Weimar in 1776. In his Ideen zur Philosophie der Geschichte der Menschheit – ‘Ideas for the Philosophy of the History of Humanity’, published between 1784 and 1791, he articulated a similar view of the uniqueness of individual human cultures. Contemporary French philosophes such as Diderot, Helvetius, Holbach and Voltaire believed that there was only a single, universal civilisation, of which one culture, then another, constituted its greatest expression in a particular epoch, and judged all cultures, previous and contemporary, by a single set of criteria which were held to have universal validity. Herder, on the other hand, considered that all civilisations had their own schwerpunkt – their own centres of gravity – and it was only through an appreciation of each culture’s individual centre of gravity that their character and value could be understood. Societies produced their arts, customs, religion, ethical codes, and indeed their entire national life through an integrated communal life developed through immemorial tradition. 37 There was not one, single human civilisation, but a plurality of civilisations, and the need to belong to a particular community through common language, history, feeling, habit and tradition was a human need as basic as eating or drinking. 38 For Herder there was nothing more barbarous than the destruction of another’s cultural heritage, and condemned the Romans for destroying the cultures of the peoples they conquered, and, despite his position as a Lutheran clergyman, the Church for forcibly baptising the Balts and British missionaries for spreading Christianity in India and elsewhere in Asia, where it was an alien element, whose imposition, and the social systems and forms of education also introduced by the British would destroy and distort their natural cultural development. 39 An early pioneer of folklore, he was interested in mythology as the expression of the way in which a particular people viewed nature. A people could only be not through politics or conquest, but through their language and shared symbols, the inward consciousness and outward culture that united a people. He was therefore strongly interested in folklore, including myths, fairy tales and folk songs. 40 He considered the mechanical model of human society, influenced by the natural sciences, produced by the French philosophes dangerous simplistic. In Herder’s view, these considered society as the product of mechanical, causal factors or the arbitrary desires of individual monarchs, legislators and military generals. However, the forces that affected and informed cultures and their history differed from society to society and age to age and so were impossible to reduce to simple formulas. 41People could only be creative and prosper in their native countries. While the unconscious, spontaneous influence of one culture on another was acceptable, conscious imitation of other cultures and countries led only to artificiality, and lower standards in life and art. 42 Herder was not a nationalist, and saw all the cultures of humanity as flourishing peacefully together. 43 Nevertheless, he inspired cultural nationalism in the subject nations of the Austro-Hungarian, Turkish and Russian empires, and political nationalism in Austria and Germany although he deeply detested it. 44 Some historians have found the origins of the Nazi idea of the German people’s unique mystical identity in Herder’s conception of the unique history and characteristics of each nation and ethnic group. 45 Herder’s vision of humanity and society was far more pluralistic. As a Lutheran pastor, he believed that God acted in history, as humanity was also part of nature, which was God’s creation. Humanity thus, to Herder, in their ‘wildest extravagances and passions must obey laws, not less beautiful and excellent than those, by which all the celestial bodies move.’ God implanted into humanity the quest for its own fulfilment, and humanity’s purpose was the achievement of their full humanity. Although the main theme of his book was the origins of European society in ancient Greece and the beginning of the modern age in the Renaissance, he viewed the progress of human culture as the product of different peoples and their values. 46 He was certainly not an advocated of the domination and destruction of one nation or culture by another.

Conclusion: Scientific Racism Attacked and Partly Refuted through Non-Mechanistic, Pluralist Views of Humanity Articulated by Boas, Vico and Herder

Now Rousseau, Kant and Turgot clearly weren’t Fascists. Rousseau and Kant were ardent opponents of despotism, with Rousseau in particular a key figure in the development of modern liberal political theory. Nevertheless, the revolutionary, activist style of politics created by the French Revolution and its attempt to apply Rousseau’s theory of the general will to an entire nation of millions, rather than the individual Swiss cantons on whose direct democracy Rousseau based his theories, were developed in an authoritarian direction during the 19th and early 20th centuries, culminating in the emergence of European Fascism. These movements drew upon Darwinism, as well as Lamarckianism and Vitalism, to support their intolerant views of race and nation. These evolutionary views, however, were interpreted according to the pre-existing view of the world, developed from the authoritarian interpretations political activism after the French Revolution, stressing struggle and the existence of an authentic nation or political class threatened by a terrible, oppressive and subversive outgroup.

The scientific racism and eugenics theories partly developed from the application of evolutionary theory to humanity was challenged and eventually refuted partly through a pluralistic view of humanity, which was developed in opposition to the Enlightenment view that there were universal rules that could be applied to humanity as whole, through which the qualities of nations and peoples could be objectively judged and valued. Now there are indeed severe problems with the cultural relativism propounded by Boas, and to a much lesser extent by Vico and Herder. There are objective moral values, which, it can be argued, transcend race and culture, so that tyranny and brutality is the same no matter which culture or ethnic group perpetrates it. Unfortunately, cultural relativism can also lead to the justification of attitudes, customs and regimes amongst particular ethnic groups which would be strongly condemned as oppressive and immoral in western society. Herder’s concept of Volk as the source of culture and civilisation was also developed by nationalistic cultural theorists to produce the vehemently racist idea of German ethnicist stressed by the Nazis, despite Herder’s own strongly anti-racist views. Nevertheless, the deeply immoral eugenics policies and the scientific racism that supported much of it was refuted not just on scientific grounds, but through counter-Enlightenment views that stress human cultural complexity and pluralism, rather than a simply mechanical reduction of the human sciences modelled on those of the natural world.  


1. R. Eastwell, Fascism: A History (London, Pimlico 2003), pp. 8-9.

2. R. Thurlow, Fascism in Britain: A History, 1918-1985 (Oxford, Basil Blackwell 1987), pp. 16-7.

3. Thurlow, Fascism in Britain, p. 17.

4. See O. Mosley, Mosley – Right or Wrong? (London, Lion Books 1963), pp. 117-124.

5. Thurlow, Fascism in Britain, p. 17.

6. Thurlow, Fascism in Britain, pp. 17-8.

7. Thurlow, Fascism in Britain, pp. 17-19.

8. R. Noll, The Jung Cult: Origins of a Charismatic Movement (London, Fontana Press 1996), pp.47-8.

9. Noll, The Jung Cult, p. 50.

10. N. Goodrick-Clarke, The Occult Roots of Nazism: Secret Aryan Cults and their Influence on Nazi Ideology (London, I.B. Tauris 1992), p. 194.

11. H. Trevor-Roper, ed., Hitler’s Table-Talk: Hitler’s Conversations recorded by Martin Bormann (Oxford, OUP 1988), p. 38.

12. ‘Race’, in J. Taylor and W. Shaw, A Dictionary of the Third Reich (London, Grafton Books 1987), p. 283.

13. Cited in P. Vansittart, Voices 1870-1914 (New York, Franklin Watts 1985), p. 81.

14. Vansittart, Voices, p. XV.  

15. J.C. Fest, The Face of the Third Reich (London, Penguin Books 1970), n. 4, p. 500.

16. J. Noakes and G. Pridham, ‘Introduction’, in J. Noakes and G. Pridham, eds., Nazism 1919-1945 – 1: The Rise to Power 1919-1934 (Exeter, Exeter Studies in History 1983), p. 3.

17. I. Berlin, ed. H. Hardy, Against the Current: Essay in the History of Ideas (Oxford, OUP 1981), pp. 163-4.

18. Eatwell, Fascism, p. 5.

19. N. Sullivan, Fascism, (London, J.M. Dent and Sons 1983), p. 13.  

20. Sullivan, Fascism, p. 43.

21. Sullivan, Fascism, p. 49.

22. Sullivan, Fascism, p. 48.

23. Sullivan, Fascism, p. 64.  

24. Sullivan, Fascism, p. 65.

25. Sullivan, Fascism, p. 66.

26. Sullivan, Fascism, p. 71.

27. Sullivan, Fascism, p. 68.

28. Eatwell, Fascism, p. 5.

29. C. Bennett, In Search of the Sacred: Anthropology and the Study of Religions (London, Cassell 1996), pp. 70-2.

30. F. Boas, The Mind of Primitive Man (New York, the Free Press 1963), p. 71, cited in Bennett, In Search of the Sacred, p. 71.

31. Bennett, In Search of the Sacred, p. 70.

32. Berlin, Against the Current, p. 94.

33. Berlin, Against the Current, pp. 94-5.

34. Berlin, Against the Current, p. 103.  

35. R. Smith, The Fontana History of the Human Sciences (London, Fontana Press 1997), p. 342.

36. Smith, Human Sciences, p. 345.

37. Berlin, Against the Current, p. 11.

38. Berlin, Against the Current, p. 12.

39. Berlin, Against the Current, p. 11.

40. Smith, Human Sciences, p. 348.

41. Berlin, Against the Current, p. 12.

42. Berlin, Against the Current, p. 13.

43. Berlin, Against the Current, p. 11.

44. Berlin, Against the Current, p. 12.

45. Smith, Human Sciences, p. 350.  

46. Smith, Human Sciences, p. 351.