Inventing Pluralist America

By Kevin Zdiara
Wednesday, August 8, 2012

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?

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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