Of Social Darwinists, Robber Barons and Libraries

Jonah Goldberg has a great column in which he takes apart the myth of the Social Darwinists.

This raises the real problem with the AP’s analysis. It has the history exactly backwards. The topic was not popular in the 19th and early 20th centuries, but it is now. And it’s not suddenly “making its way” into modern politics. Liberals have been irresponsibly flinging the term Social Darwinism rightward for decades. Mario Cuomo, in his famous 1984 Democratic Convention keynote speech—which “electrified,” “galvanized,” and “inspired” Democrats, who went on to lose 49 states in the general election—declared that “President Reagan told us from the very beginning that he believed in a kind of Social Darwinism.” Walter Mondale, the Democratic nominee that year, insisted that Reagan preferred “Social Darwinism” over “social decency.” Even Barack Obama’s April 3 speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors was so much recycling. In 2005, then-senator Obama denounced the conservative idea of an “ownership society,” charging that “in our past there has been another term for it—Social Darwinism—every man or woman for him or herself.”

Meanwhile, the myth that Social Darwinism was a popular term in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was largely created by the liberal historian Richard Hofstadter, whose 1944 book Social Darwinism in American Thought didn’t merely transform our understanding of the Gilded Age, it largely fabricated an alternative history of it.

Go here to read the brilliant rest.  Richard Hofstadter was a professor of American history at Columbia University.  In his youth he was a Communist, breaking with the party in 1939 over the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact.  However, his hatred of capitalism remained, and his  Social Darwinism in American Thought was a mere polemic with an academic wrapper.  Hofstadter did almost no primary research in the documents of the late 19th and 20th century and relied on the research of other historians as support for the conclusions he wished to reach.  Almost throughout his entire academic career Hofstadter was a fairly reliable man of the Left, always ready to slam conservatives as provincial and paranoid.  His 1964 The Paranoid Style in American Politics and other Essays is fairly typical.  Ironically, by the time of his death in 1970 Hofstadter was no longer popular on the Left, due to his criticisms of the New Left, and especially the antics of student radicals on campus.

For myself, I think the Robber Barons, as the great 19th century industrialists in America are pejoratively known, did far more good than evil.  Rough businessmen, and often not above bending the law, they provided goods and services at historically low prices to mass populations, provided employment to tens of millions and established a legacy of philanthropy unmatched by any other small group of men in secular history.

I have a personal debt to Andrew Carnegie.  In Paris, Illinois when I was growing up, I was a constant visitor to the public library, always taking out the maximum number of books allowed, and spending many happy hours reading in the magnificent building in which it was housed.  The library was a Carnegie library.  Carnegie, who believed it was a sin to die rich, engaged in a monumental campaign to build public libraries in the United States and Great Britain.  When he died in 1919, the US had 3500 public libraries and Carnegie provided the money to build half of them.  Carnegie was a huge success at making money which is a rare talent.  He also knew how to spend it worthily, which is an even rarer talent.

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3 Comments

  1. It’s not as simple as that. Social Darwinism existed, indeed it pre-dated Darwin. Its most famous, but by no means sole, crime, was the slaughter of the Irish after 1845: as the Irish saying justly put it, “God sent the blight, but the English made the famine”. The blight struck all of Europe, including countries like Prussia which notoriously lived on potatoes; but only the Irish starved. They starved because the British government, the richest in the world, consciously decided to let them. And they did so because they had become convinced – as the Times said in a memorable leader – that the slaughter of the Irish was the working out of beneficent economic forces in favour of a higher order of society and culture. This was classical textbook economics in action: “do not interfere with the operation of the markets”. The same theories caused the obstinate resistance against every step to ameliorate to some degree the horrendous working conditions in nineteenth-century mines and factories. By the late nineteenth century, Social Darwinism, battered by the long and victorious criticism of this sort of thing, but buoyed by the universal Victorian belief in “progress”, had reached a kind of mannerist/baroque phase in which almost anything could be justified by Darwin and evolution. A good few conscious Social Darwinists, for instance, were pacifists, certain that evolution would condemn “lower” forms of social life and competition in favour of “higher” and more efficient ones. At the same time, especially in Prussia, but also everywhere in the spreading colonial holdings of the white West, it was being used to justify aristocracy, paternalism, and racism. (The colleagues of the great German historian Mommsen were so astonished at finding that he opposed slavery, that they decided he was mentally ill.) Eugenics was something like a bastard child of Social Darwinism – its founder Francis Galton was both utterly racist and imbued with the theories of his cousin Charles Darwin – in that it did not believe in the survival of “upper” or “better” types through natural selection, but intended to help selection along; and it was not just popular, but central to social thinking, in most of the West, until the trials of Nuremberg showed an appalled world what an eugenistic state would really be like. Even so, eugenicism has only gone underground; it is clear that it dominates the medical profession, for instance.

    Where, in all this, does Andrew Carnegie fit? Well, those who read his writings tell me that he was an intolerable humbug. He came out of Scotland one generation after Carlyle, and seems to have been afflicted by some of the same mental pathologies – to do with the drift and degeneration of Scottish Presbyterianism. A humbug may do the right thing for the wrong reason. He certainly was a Social Darwinist of the “left”, “progressive” kind, believing in the success of “superior” forms over “inferior” ones, but his methods show that he had no problem whatever with crushing whatever he regarded as inferior by brute force, corruption, deceit and fraud. After all, if you are the ambassador of a higher form of mankind, you are justified.

    • “They starved because the British government, the richest in the world, consciously decided to let them. And they did so because they had become convinced – as the Times said in a memorable leader – that the slaughter of the Irish was the working out of beneficent economic forces in favour of a higher order of society and culture. This was classical textbook economics in action: “do not interfere with the operation of the markets”.”

      The conditions that produced the potato famine were as a direct result of the British constantly interfering in Irish markets for the benefit of Great Britain. Contrary to popular myth the Brits did undertake widespread famine relief, but much of it was inept. Some British officials did not weep, to say the least, over the death of a quarter of the population of Ireland, but most of the calamity was caused by ineptitude rather than malice or some great scheme.

      • Contrary to popular myth the Brits did undertake widespread famine relief, but much of it was inept. It was inept for a reason, and it completely ceased after 1847, when the mood I described took hold. But even before 1847, the English were intervening according to their vicious textbook obsessions. Even Peel, the least loathsome of the lot, was more concerned about the Irish “not being encouraged in their spendthrift ways” than about their dying, and so put so many idiotic conditions about the relief that it was inefficacious. Trevelyan, the man who led Irish policy in1846, was worse; and after Trevelyan, it was sheer ruination. To pretend that the Irish were not murdered by British adhesion to their damned textbook and their even more damned ethnic cliches is as much as to pretend that Pol Pot had nothing to do with the slaughter of another couple of million victims for the sake of another economic theory (Marxism). By 1848, the British were rejoicing at the idea of Irish extinction, and I am not, repeat not, exaggerating.


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