Posts Tagged ‘Vico’

Edward Colston’s Statue Needs to Be in a Museum to Educate People About Slavery

May 31, 2021

Last week, the BBC local news for the Bristol area, Points West, reported that the statue of Edward Colston had been put on display in the M Shed, one of the city’s many museums. The statue was famously pulled down last summer by Black Lives Matter protesters and thrown in the docks. It’s being put on display, along with an old tyre that was also hauled out of the docks with it and a plaque. The M Shed is asking the Bristolian public what their views about its display are.

I think it needs to go on display along with an explanatory plaque. I don’t think the statue will be particularly missed from its plinth on the city centre. It’s naturally been controversial for decades, and there have been campaign to have it pulled down since the 1990s. But it needs to be retained and displayed because of the uncomfortable facts about the slave trade and those who dealt in it.

If Colston was only a slaver out for his own profit, then there would or should be no objection to the tearing down of his statue. But he was more complex than that. He gave most of his money away to charity, so that there have been schools founded on his bequests. I remember my old secondary school celebrating Colston Day each year, in which a few selected pupils got to attend a special service and receive a free bun. This was very definitely not a racist school. We had regular sermons against racism and the colour bar in school assemblies and the regular church services at Christmas and the beginning of term. Mike told me of one incident where the headmaster gave one boy a roasting for calling one of the Black lads a ‘N***er’. The school building was already crumbling, and the headmaster was so loud telling the lad off that bits actually flaked off.

One of the problems with slavery, and indeed much history, its that the morals of the past are very different from our own. This was first noted by the 18th century Italian historian and philosopher, Vico, and then by Nietzsche and his ‘transvaluation of values’. It’s extremely difficult for us to understand how otherwise good and decent people could perpetrate the most terrible atrocities, like slavery. But they did, and this needs to be recognised and understood. If nothing else, it helps to explain why it took William Wilberforce and the abolitionists so long to have it banned, and why decent people respected and defended Colston and his statue. History needs to be understood on its own terms, even when its controversial. Especially when its controversial.

We falsify it and create new dangers if we try to present it simply so as to fit modern morals.

Moral Relativism in Totalitarian Dictatorships

May 30, 2013

Sir Isaiah Berlin, Vico and the Origins of the Rejection of Absolute Moral Values

One of the defining features of contemporary Postmodernism is its rejection of an absolute, transcendent morality. All societies are seen as equally valid in their worldviews, and attempts to evaluate them according to a particular system of morality are attacked as both philosophically incorrect and immoral. Indeed, the belief in an objective morality is viewed as one of the components of western imperialism and the horrific totalitarianisms of the 20th century. The attitude is not new, and certainly not pointless. The view that each period of history possessed its own unique morality goes back to the 17th -18th century philosopher, Giambattista Vico. In his book, Scienza Nuova (New Science), published in 1725, Vico argued that human history was divided into distinct cultural periods, so these periods could only be properly understood on their own terms. Vico’s view was championed after the War by the great British philosopher, Sir Isaiah Berlin. Berlin was horrified at the absolute moral authority claimed and demanded by the Fascist and Communist regimes. He was a leading figure during the Cold War of the 1950s to trace, explain and attack their ideological roots. He was particularly instrumental in making contact with an supporting some of the leading Soviet dissidents. Berlin attempted to counter their claims to absolute moral authority by denying the existence of absolute, unviersal moral values. He attempted to avoid the opposite pitfall of moral nihilism by stating that there were, however, certain values that acted as if they possessed a universal validity. One of these, for example, is the obvious injunction against killing innocents.

Franz Boas and Anthropological Opposition to Nazism and Racism

The view that every culture possesses its own unique worldview, and should be appreciated and assessed according to its values, rather than those of the West, was also pioneered by Franz Boas. Boas was a German anthropologist who migrated to America before the Second World War. He worked extensively among the Native American peoples, including the Inuit. Boas was Jewish, and had been driven out of his homeland by the Nazis. He formulated his rejection of a dominant, universal morality as a way of attacking the racist morality promoted by and supporting the Nazi regime. At the same time, he also sought to protect indigenous peoples against the assaults on their culture by Western civilisation under the view that such peoples were also morally and culturally inferior.

Moral Relativism in Hegel and Nietzschean Nihilism

In fact, the modern rejection of eternal, univeral moral values predates Berlin. It emerged in the 19th century in Hegelian philosophy and Nietzsche’s atheist existentialism. The attitude that there were no universal moral values, and that morality was relative, became increasingly strong after the First World War. Many Western intellectuals felt that the horrific carnage had discredited Western culture and the moral systems that had justified such mass slaughter. It was because of this background of cultural and moral relativism that Einsteins’s Theory of Relativity, which in fact has nothing to say about morality, was seized on by some philosophers as scientific justification for the absence of universal moral values.

Hegel viewed history as created through a process of dialectical change, as nations and cultures rose, fell and were superseded by higher cultures. As nations, states and cultures changed, so did ideas, and so there could be no universal ethical system. Furthermore, some events were beneficial even though they could not be justified by conventional morality. For example, those sympathetic to the Anglo-Saxons would argue that the Norman Conquest was immoral. Nevertheless, the Conquest also brought cultural and political advances and improvements. The dialectal process thus validated the Norman Conquest, even though the Conquest itself, by the standards of conventional morality, could be seen as morally wrong.

Apart from Hegel, Neitzsche also argued that without God, there were no objective moral standards. The individual was therefore free to create his own morals through heroic acts of will.

Hegel’s philosophy, although authoritarian, was developed to justify the new ascendant position of the Prussian monarchy after the Napoleonic Wars. The new Germany of the Hohenzollerns was, in his view, the culmination of the dialectal process. Nietzsche himself was a defender of aristocratic values, who despised the nationalism of the Wihelmine monarchy and the new mass politics. Despite their personal politics, elements of Hegelian philosophy became incorporated into Fascism and Communism, while Italian Fascism also contained the same atheist existentialism. Mussolini had been a radical Socialist before the foundation of the Fascist party and its alliance with and absorbtion of aggressively anti-socialist movements and parties. Even then, the party still contained radical socialist and particularly anarcho-syndicalist elements. These took their inspiration from the French Syndalist writer, Georges Sorel. Sorel considered that in the absence of universal moral values, what mattered was emotion and struggle. It was only in revolutionary conflict that the individual became truly free. This irrationalism thus served to justify the Fascist use of force and governments by elites, who rejected conventional morality.

Marx, Lenin and Moral Relativism

Marx followed Hegel in rejecting the existence of universal moral values. According to his doctrine of dialectal materialism, cultures and moral values were merely the ideological superstructure created by the economic basis of society. As the economic systems changed, so did a society’s culture and moral code. Moreover, each culture’s system of morality was appropriate for its period of economic and historical development. R.N. Carew Hunt in his examination of Communist ideology, The Theory and Practive of Communism, notes that the Communist Manifesto is the most powerful indictment of capitalism. It does not, however, condemn it as a morally wrong or unjust. When it does describe capitalism as exploitive, it is simply as a system of social relations, rather than a moral judgement. He quotes Marx’s own statement of Communist morality in his Ant-Duhring:

‘We therefore reject every attempt to impose on us any moral dogma whatsoever as an eternal, ultimate, and for ever immutable moral law on the pretext that the moral world too has its permanent principles which transcend history and the differences between nations. We maintain on the contrary that all former moral theories are the product, in the last analysis, of the economic stage which society had reached at that particular epoch. And as society has hitherto moved in class antagonisms, morality was always a class morality; it has either justified the domination and the interests of the ruling class, or, as soon as the oppressed class has become powerful enough, it has represented the revolt against this domination and the future interests of the oppressed. That in this process there has on teh whole been progress in morality, as in all other branches of human knowledge, cannot be doubted. But we have not yet passed beyond class morality. A really human morality which transcends class antagonisms and their legacies in thought becomes possible only at a stage of society whicdh has not only overcome class contradictions but has even forgotten them in practical life.’

Lenin’s own view of Marxist morality was expressed in his Address to the 3rd Congress of the Russian Young Communist League of 2nd October 1920:

‘Is there such a thing as Communist ethics? Is there such a thing as Communist morality? Of course there is. It is often made to appear that we have no ethics of our own; and very often the bourgeoisie accuse us Communists of repudiating all ethics. This is a method of throwing dust in the eyes of the workers and peasants.

In what sense doe we repudiate ethics and morality?

In the sense that it is preached by the bourgeoisie, who derived ethics from God’s commandments … Or instead of deriving ethics from the commandments of God, they derived them from idealist or semi-idealist phrases, which always amounted to something very similar to God’s commandments. We repudiate all morality derived from non-human and non-class concepts. We say that it is a deception, a fraud in the interests of the landlords and capitalists. We say that our morality is entirely subordinated to the interests of the class struggle of the proletariat. Our morality is derived from the interests of the class struggle of the proletariat…The class struggle is still continuing…We subordinate our communist morality to this task. We say: morality is what serves to destroy the old exploiting society and to unite all the toilers around the proletariat, which is creating a new communist society .. We do not believe in an eternal morality’.

Communist Morality Justified Brutality, against Judeo-Christian Values in British Ethical Socialism

The result was a highly utilitarian moral attitude which justified deceit, assassination and mass murder on the grounds that this assisted the Revolution and the Soviet system as the worker’s state. As the quotes from Lenin makes blatantly clearly, Communist morality was completely opposed to Western religious values. This amoral attitude to politics and human life and worth was condemned by members of the democratic left, such as Harold Laski, and Christian Socialists such as Kingsley Martin. In the June 1946 issue of New Statesman, Martin declared that Soviet morality was completely opposed to the Greco-Roman-Christiain tradition that stressed the innate value of the individual moral conscience. Christian socialism was a strong element in the British Labour party. Reviewing a history of the British working class’ reading over a decade ago, The Spectator stated that it wasn’t surprising that Communism didn’t get very far in Wales, considering that most of the members of the Welsh Labour party in the 1920 were churchgoing Christians who listed their favourite book as the Bible. As a result, the Russian Communists sneered at the Labour part for its ethical socialism. This was held to provide an insufficient basis for socialism, unlike Marx’s ‘scientific socialism’. If anything, the opposite was true.

Moral Relativism Does Not Prevent, But Can Even Support Totalitarianism

Now this does not mean that there is anything inherently totalitarian about moral relativism. Indeed, it is now used to justify opposition and resistance to Western imperialism and exploitation. It does not, however, provide a secure basis for the protection of those economic or ethnic groups seen as most vulnerable to such treatment.If there are no universal moral values, then it can also be argued that totalitarian regimes and movements also cannot be condemned for their brutal treatment of the poor, political opponents, and the subjugation or extermination of different races or cultures. Indeed, Marx and Engels looked forward to the disappearance of backward ethnic groups, like the Celts in Britain and France, and Basques in Spain as Capitalism advanced. When the various slavonic peoples in the German and Austro-Hungarian Empire revolted in the home of gaining independence in 1848, they condemned them as a threat to their own working-class movement and looked forward to a racial war against them. Their statement there presages the mass deportations and persecution of various ethnic minorities, including Cossacks, Ukrainians, Jews and some of the Caucasian Muslim peoples by the Stalinist state. And as it has been shown, moral relativism formed part of Italian Fascist and Russian Communist ideology.

Ability of Objective Morality to Defend Different Culture’s Right to Existence and Dignity

In fact you don’t need moral relativism to defend the rights of different peoples to dignity and the value of their culture. The very existence of human rights, including the rights of different ethnic groups to existence and the possession of their own culture, is based on the idea of an objective morality. All that is needed is to accept that each culture also has its own intrinsic moral value. One can and should be able to argue that certain aspects of another culture are objectively wrong, such as those institutions that may also brutalise and exploit women and outsiders to that culture. One can also recognise that these aspects do not necessarily invalidate the whole of that culture, or justify the brutalisation or extermination of its people.


R.N. Carew Hunt, The Theory and Practice of Communism (Harmondsworth: Pelican 1950)

David Fernbach (ed.), Karl Marx: The Revolutions of 1848 (Harmondsworth: Penguin/ New Left Review 1973)

The Seizure of Power – this study of the rise of Italian Fascism and Mussolini’s coup.

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.