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The Curious Beginnings of a Useless Word
The Oxford English Dictionary is a multivolume reference work that is one of Western scholarship’s most remarkable achievements – the standard dictionary of the English language on what are known as “historical principles.” Unlike most dictionaries, the OED also provides information on the first historical appearance and usage of words. The range of the erudition in the OED is often astounding, but for American Renaissance readers, one of its most interesting entries is for the word “racism.”
According to the second edition (1989) of the OED, the earliest known usage of the word “racism” in English occurred in a 1936 book by the American “fascist,” Lawrence Dennis, The Coming American Fascism. The second usage of the term in English that the OED records is in the title of a book originally written in German in 1933 and 1934 but translated into English and first published in 1938 – Racism by Magnus Hirschfeld, translated by Eden and Cedar Paul. Since Hirschfeld died in 1935, before the publication of Dennis’ book the following year, and had already used the word extensively in the text and title of his own book, it seems only fair to recognize him rather than Dennis as the originator of the word “racism.” In the case of the word “racist” as an adjective, the OED ascribes the first known usage to Hirschfeld himself. Who was Magnus Hirschfeld and what did he have to tell us about “racism”?
Magnus Hirschfeld (1868-1935) was a German-Jewish medical scientist whose major work was in the field of what came to be known as “sexology” – the scientific study of sex. Like Havelock Ellis in England and Alfred Kinsey in the United States, Hirschfeld was not only among the first to collect systematic information about sexuality but also was an apostle of sexual “liberation.” His major work was a study of homosexuality, but he also published many other books, monographs, and articles dealing with sex. He wrote a five-volume treatise on “sexology” as well as some 150 other works and helped write and produce five films on the subject.
It is fair to say that his works were intended to send a message – that traditional Christian and bourgeois sexual morality was repressive, irrational, and hypocritical, and that emancipation would be a major step forward. His admiring translators, Eden and Cedar Paul, in their introduction to Racism, write of his “unwearying championship of the cause of persons who, because their sexual hormonic functioning is of an unusual type, are persecuted by their more fortunate fellow-mortals.” Long before the “sexual revolution” of the 1960s, Magnus Hirschfeld was crusading for the “normalization” of homosexuality and other abnormal sexual behavior.
Hirschfeld was the founder of an Institute for Sexual Science in Berlin and helped organize “sexology” on an international scale. In 1922, he was physically attacked and almost killed by anti-Semites in Munich. In May, 1933, the Nazis closed down his “Institute of Sexual Science” and Hirschfeld fled to France, where he lived until his death in 1935.
Racism is largely devoted to a highly polemical “refutation” of some of the main racial ideologies and theories of the 19th and 20th centuries. The writers whom Hirschfeld criticized, aside from his favorite target of the National Socialists themselves, were figures like Arthur de Gobineau, Vacher de La-Pouge, Houston Stewart Chamberlain, and others generally denounced today as “pseudo-scientists.” In fact, that is an inappropriate term. Some of them were not trying to write as scientists at all but rather as political theorists, while others are better described as pre-scientific writers on race who worked with inadequate information, concepts, methodology, and terminology. While Hirschfeld may have been correct in rejecting their more egregious errors, his sneering at them for these mistakes is rather like ridiculing Copernicus and Kepler because they continued to accept some erroneous ideas from medieval astronomy.
Even when Hirschfeld is right in his critique of the early race theorists, it is often because he has chosen easy targets. His “refutation” of “racism” is largely centered on irrelevant common-places that even extreme exponents of racial differences might readily acknowledge – that all human beings are part of the same species and can interbreed, that blood transfusions can take place between races, that “there is no such thing as a pure race,” that the races are identical in the vast majority of physical characteristics, that cephalic index is not a meaningful measurement of intelligence or character, etc. Yet his “scientific” evidence is often merely anecdotal or simply his own opinion asserted as unquestioned truth.
In another section, he recounts the names of those he considers the 70 most outstanding figures in world history and announces that “all such lists, when made without bias, will show that persons of genius and persons of outstanding talent are not set apart from the ruck by any colour of their eyes, by a peculiar shape of the skull or the nose, by any ‘ethnological’ characteristics whatever. What is decisive in human beings is not race but individuality.” It does not seem to occur to Hirschfeld that all but about 8 or 9 of the 70 world-historical figures on his list are white Europeans. There are no Negroes and only two Asians (Confucius and Sun Yat Sen).
It is interesting that for all his contempt for “racism,” Hirschfeld never once mentions IQ studies or the considerable psychometric evidence about race and intelligence that was already available even in the 1930s. Most of Hirschfeld’s polemic is aimed at the proponents of intra-European racial differences (Nordics, Alpines, Mediterraneans, Dinarics, etc.) and not at differences between whites and other major races (though he steadfastly denies such differences as well). Curiously, he never cites the work of Franz Boas and his disciples against “racism,” though that work was available in Europe at the time, nor does he invoke the ideas of the Frankfurt School, though Hirschfeld’s own claim that “racism” is rooted in fear, loss of self-esteem, and other social and psychological pathologies resembles the ideas the Frankfurt School was formulating.
Nor, despite Hirschfeld’s own Jewish background and the Nazi threat to Jews, does he seem preoccupied with anti-Semitism; in one or two passages he criticizes Jews themselves for their own ethnocentrism and faults Zionism for having created a new “race hatred” between Jews and Arabs. Moreover, Hirschfeld is a stout defender of eugenics, though not on racial lines, and he even has a brief chapter exploring a distinction he calls “Gobinism or Galtonism” – that is, attacking the ideas of French “racist” Arthur de Gobineau and defending those of Francis Galton, who coined the word “eugenics” and pioneered its development. Today most critics of “racism” would lump Galton and Gobineau together rather than distinguish between them.
As a serious critique of the view that socially significant natural differences between the races exist, Hirschfeld’s book is a failure, and even as a polemic against some of the more politicized and unverified claims about race made a century or more ago, it is weak. The importance of the book is not so much its content, however, as what it tells us about the word “racism” and how the enemies of white racial consciousness have developed and deployed it for their own purposes.
Hirschfeld describes his own political ideals as “Pan-Humanism,” a version of political, cultural, and racial universalism. The Pauls themselves write, “we think that the readers of Racism will detect a very definite orientation to the Left... [Hirschfeld] was one who fully realized that sexual reform is impossible without a preliminary economic and political revolution.”
In Racism, Hirschfeld offers what is essentially a definition of “Pan-Humanism”: “The individual, however close the ties of neighborhood, companionship, family, a common lot, language, education, and the environment of nation and country, can find only one dependable unity within which to seek a permanent spiritual kinship – that of humanity-at-large, that of the whole human race.” With one exception, he is unsparing in his denunciations of the ethnocentric loyalties of nations, races, and cultures: “Always and everywhere, except in Soviet Russia, xenophobia, xenophobia, xenophobia.” Later, he informs us, “It may be too early to speak, but perhaps the problem of nationalities and races has already been solved on one-sixth of the land-surface of the globe [i.e., Stalin’s Russia].”
“Racism,” therefore, is a term originating on the left, and has been so defined and loaded with meanings the left wants it to have that it cannot now be used by the supporters of white racial consciousness for any constructive purpose. Anyone who uses the term to describe himself or his own views has already allowed himself to be maneuvered onto his opponents’ ground and has already lost the debate. He may try to define the word differently, but he will need to spend most of his time explaining that he does not mean by it what everyone else means. As a term useful for communicating ideas that the serious supporters of white racial consciousness wish to communicate, the term is useless, and it was intended by those who developed it that it be useless for that purpose.
But understanding the origins of the word “racism” in Hirschfeld’s polemic also makes clear the uselessness of the word for any other purpose. No one seems ever to have used the word to describe his own ideas or ideas with which he agrees; its only application has been by the enemies of the ideas it purports to describe, and hence it has no objective meaning apart from its polemical usage. If no one calls his own ideas “racism” and its only application is to a body of ideas considered to be untrue and evil, then it has no use other than as a kind of fancy curse word, the purpose of which is simply to demonize anyone who expresses the ideas it is supposed to describe.
It is clear that Magnus Hirschfeld himself harbored deep ideological, professional, and personal animosities against those to whom he applied the word, and those animosities may have extended to the entire society that throughout his career he associated with sexual repression and which he wanted replaced by a kind of global communism under the label of “Pan-Humanism.” Whatever the flaws or virtues of his polemic against “racism,” his own opposition to racial consciousness was neither entirely rational nor disinterested. It is time that the enemies of racial, national, and cultural consciousness like Hirschfeld and the Frankfurt School cease to be able to claim a monopoly on rationality and sanity and that the obsessions and motivations that seem to shape their own ideologies and political behavior be subjected to the same scrutiny they apply to the societies and peoples whom their thinking could destroy.
American Renaissance, Vol. 10, No. 5, May 1999. The original German title of Hirschfeld’s book was Racismus.
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