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Inventing Pluralist America

Horace Kallen (R) with Mordecai Kaplan, 1962.

With the United States of 2012 more culturally diverse than ever, it is tempting to think that the country’s social pluralism was foreordained.  After all, aren’t we a nation of immigrants?

Relevant Links
The Melting-Pot  Israel Zangwill, Project Gutenberg. “Why don’t ye have a sinsible religion?”  This popular 1905 play celebrated the cultural intermixing that Kallen would come to argue against.
Democracy vs. the Melting-Pot  Horace Kallen, Nation. “As in any orchestra, every type of instrument has its specific timbre and tonality, so in society each ethnic group is the natural instrument.” (1915)
Islam in Two Americas  Ross Douthat, New York Times. The old debate about pluralism lives on, as one America insists on the rights and freedoms of ethnic and religious groups while the other presses for something more from the recipients.
The "Americanization" of Zionism  Sarah Schmidt, American Jewish Archives. It was Kallen’s cultural pluralist argument that allowed Jewish immigrants the freedom to join Zionist organizations without worrying about being accused of dual loyalties. (1976)

In fact, however, a tolerant pluralism was not the only possibility for America.  It emerged as the dominant view of how our society should be organized only after a bitter debate that began with the wave of Eastern European immigration at the end of the 19th century and finally dissipated only in the crucible of World War II.  One of the chief theorists of American pluralism—indeed, the man who coined the term “cultural pluralism”—was a German-born American Jew named Horace Meyer Kallen.  This coming Saturday will mark the 130th anniversary of his birth.  It is a date worth celebrating.

About a century ago, Kallen was at the height of his fame.  He had just edited the last book by his late teacher, the Harvard philosopher William James; he was about to publish an extraordinary comparative study of James and the French philosopher Henri Bergson; and he was at the center of a heated debate about America’s future.

The wave of immigration from Eastern and Central Europe at the beginning of the 20th century was being met by aggressive anti-immigrant sentiment from the WASP elite.  Theodore Roosevelt, for one, inveighed against “hyphenated Americans.” Others were less subtle.  Sociologist Edward A. Ross warned in his 1914 book, The Old World in the New, that “the blood now injected into the veins of our people is ‘subcommon.’”

Kallen, who had emigrated with his family from Germany at the age of four, felt that those sentiments betrayed the ideals of the United States and needed to be refuted.  He was an advocate of James’s philosophical pluralism and undertook to apply this concept to social, political, and religious problems.

In his famous essay, “Democracy vs. the Melting-Pot,” Kallen argued that the United States was a commonwealth based on an idea, not on blood or territory.  The idea was that people are different, and that this difference was good; the equality postulated in the Declaration of Independence didn’t mean sameness but equal rights for individuals fundamentally different from each other.

Kallen’s pluralism, therefore, was descriptive as well as prescriptive.  His starting point was the idea that each individual had a unique perspective on the world, which was influenced by one’s geographical situation and cultural, religious, and political environment.  The individual could then contribute this perspective to a more comprehensive understanding of the world.  Although for Kallen there was no preferred point of view as such, he did recognize the importance of providing a common ground from which the differences could grow and flourish.  That common ground was democracy, which protected the individual’s “right to be different,” as Kallen would come to call it in the 1930s, and enabled a pluralist society.

Relatedly, Kallen was cognizant of the dangers posed to pluralism by totalitarianism and intolerance.  Following his travels through Fascist Italy and Soviet Russia at the end of the 1920s, he became a vocal critic of totalitarianism, long before other progressives and liberals did so.  The same was true for religions: Though Kallen acknowledged their importance for shaping identities, he was appalled by their history of coercion and violence, and especially opposed those which were obstructing scientific development or which acted intolerantly toward other religious groups.

Kallen’s hostility toward religious groups also applied to his own.  He exchanged harsh words with Reform Rabbis Samuel Schulman and Abba Hillel Silver for their exclusively religious definition of Judaism; he was equally critical of some Orthodox Jews for their religious intolerance; and he was no less outspoken against zealous anti-Zionists from all Jewish camps.

His hostility toward some Jews should not, however, be confused with contempt for Judaism, which remained dear to him.  Indeed, his experiences as a Jew were likely the inspiration for his cultural philosophy.  During his time as an undergraduate at Harvard, his exposure to anti-Jewish resentment brought the realization that, despite his efforts, he would never be accepted as a WASP.  Consequently, he chose affirmation of his Jewish heritage instead.  Kallen, together with Henry Hurwitz and other Jewish students, started the Harvard Menorah Society in 1906, and promoted a comprehensive concept of Jewish culture which they called “Hebraism.”  They were ardent Zionists all, and in the 1910s Kallen played a critical role in converting Louis D. Brandeis into a Zionist.

But Kallen’s concern for Judaism went beyond interest.  It was a search for his own difference, for the “timbre” he could contribute to the “orchestration of mankind,” as he later repeatedly called it.  Although his lifelong engagement with Judaism is only partly known today, it was, to his contemporaries, one of Kallen’s defining characteristics.  His friend, Milton R. Konvitz, noted of Kallen in 1953 that

Jewishness defines his very essence.  Jewishness defines his very humanity.  His Jewishness is all-comprehensive, all-pervasive; it penetrates into his every act, it bites its way into his every feeling; he sees as a Jew, he hears as a Jew, he feels and thinks as a Jew, he thinks and writes and teaches as a Jew.

Kallen’s experiences as a Jew shaped his understanding of and contributions to Judaism; thus Judaism was for him like the United States, a commonwealth of different perspectives.  Jews grow up under a variety of circumstances, hence each Jew brings a unique perspective, and all these differences are the condition for the growth of Judaism.

Difference was, then, crucial for Judaism, as Kallen understood it, hence his concern over the suppression of diversity, particularly after World War II.  In 1959, he participated in a YIVO conference in which he laid out two possibilities for the future of American Jewry: The first, he warned, was “an inter-organizational war with one another, each group denying to the others the designation ‘Jew’ or ‘Judaist,’ each fighting to shut and cut off whatever is different”; the second, to “labor to orchestrate [Jews’] differences, and re-enforce one another by uniting in the common struggle to live on, and grow.” Clearly, Kallen preferred the latter.

Today it seems as if Kallen’s ideas about difference were visionary, and that that vision has now been realized.  But pluralism, Kallen insisted, could never be final, for it was in fact a perpetual process to deliver ever more freedom to the individual.

Until his death in 1974, his friends requested he write an autobiography. He refused–insisting that it was only his ideas that mattered.  This humble, Jewish-American intellectual was right: Kallen the man is almost forgotten, but cultural pluralism lives on.

Kevin Zdiara is a freelance writer, frequent contributor to the German blog "The Axis of Good," and a PhD student in philosophy at the Max Weber Center for Cultural and Social Studies in Erfurt, Germany.

Photograph courtesy of the Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives, Cincinnati, Ohio,

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Jerry Blaz on August 8, 2012 at 4:20 pm (Reply)
The acknowledgement of a pluralistic society is becoming not only an accurate description of most modern societies, but a necessity for a democratic society. Conservative elements either may reject the new elements a recent addition to the population demographics or believe these new elements can be completely absorbed without altering society as a whole. I feel that the more pluralistic a society is, the richer it is in its outlooks and understandings of the human race.

Pluralism is beginning to typify areas of the U.S. that formerly were basically Anglo-Saxon in its roots. Israel has become more and more pluralistic since Jews have had a sovereign state because Jews "ascended" to Israel from all parts and cultures of the world.
AL_Q on August 9, 2012 at 5:51 pm (Reply)
Jerry Blaz, how can you applaud the dispossession of the Anglo-Saxons in America and then celebrate the Jewish character of Israel?
Jack Zaientz on August 12, 2012 at 8:04 pm (Reply)
AL_Q, from my brief read on the matter, the objection you raise to Jerry Blaz is a good one and very much one that leveled at Kallen. That said, I appreciate Jewish Ideas Daily for turning me on to this important thinker. Zdiara is right. Kallen's vision is far from realized and many of the issues that Kallen wrote against, including anti-immigration rhetoric on one side and assimilationist expectations on the other, are still very much part of our national debate. Clear thinking on the matter is rare and appreciated.
RonL on August 23, 2012 at 3:27 am (Reply)
If America is an idea, then those who disagree with it cannot be Americans. Ideas change over time. When do we start excommunicating or denationalising deviationists who have not kept up with the revolution? No supporter of any "propositional nation" would say that Presidents Obama or Washington are not Americans based on their ideas. Therefore, is the absurdity of this notion not clear?
The Constitution was written "to secure the blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our posterity" not "for all those who share the beliefs that the elite ascribe to America at this given moment."

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