[Yves R. Simon (1903 – 1961), a self-described “sansculotte Thomist”, was a French Catholic philosopher and political theorist, and opponent of fascism. Some of his most notable works include Philosophy of Democratic Government, A General Theory of Authority, and Freedom and Community. More about him can be found on Wikipedia.]
[Originally published in The Review of Politics, Volume 7, Issue 1, January 1945, pp. 74 – 105. Current text taken from The Image of Man: A Review of Politics Reader (1959).]
To understand the extraordinary fortunes of racism, it is necessary first of all to see the paradox in the success of this ideology. Racism has been condemned over and over again by the Church; it has been refuted a thousand times—and without any great difficulty—for never has a theory with scientific pretensions produced such an accumulation of inconsistencies, of manifestly arbitrary affirmations, of fantastic generalizations and of grotesque constructions. In the course of the last few years racism has been guilty of colossal crimes, crimes that must fill with indignation every soul in which there exists the slightest sentiment of justice or of charity. We are today witnessing the defeat of those temporal powers in which it is incarnate. For all that, racism still flourishes, and nothing would be more unwarranted than to say that this plague is in decline.
The Nazis have built up a philosophy in which racism finds a normal place and plays a role of prime importance. This philosophy can be described as a vitalistic and intuitionistic materialism, animated by a great communal passion which plunges its roots into a soil of legends and myths and culminates in an exaltation of individual pride, immeasurably inflated by the exaltation of collective arrogance. Such a philosophy does not need proofs, and laughs at refutations. Pseudo-scientific absurdity erected into a science, gross immorality erected into a system of ethics, find their place in this eruption of unreason. Follies and crimes of every description will find their place in it when those follies and crimes have a chance, because of favorable circumstances, to add impulsive force and cohesion to that great drive in which men enjoy intoxication as a substitute for salvation.
But outside the system of life constructed by the Nazis, racist ideology presents itself as the lucubration of pretentious intellectuals, issuing from cracked heads amidst the fumes of laboratories and the dust of libraries—a thing awkward and artificial, opposed to common sense, and uncongenial to the most natural and common moral feelings. What, in effect, is the essential characteristic of racism? The racist profession of faith is complete the moment one admits that there exists, apart from individual and sociological causes of infamy, a mark of degradation which is properly biological, permanent, transmissible by physical generation, inherent in the chromosomes, independent of all good will and all good conduct, ineffaceable, fatal in the way death is fatal.
By a mark of degradation I mean every stain which renders a man, in the eyes of his fellows, subject to punishments, eventually to capital punishment. A man has a mark of degradation as an individual when he has committed a crime against society; he is branded with a mark of degradation on sociological grounds when he belongs to a society engaged in criminal action and when he himself participates in the criminal action carried out by the group of which he is a member. An individual German soldier and an individual Japanese soldier may be men of good faith; considered as individuals they may be entirely innocent. It is nevertheless legitimate and necessary to strike them down so long as they are belligerents, that is to say, active members of societies engaged in an unjust war. Once taken prisoner they cease to be belligerents, having been snatched from the injustice practiced by their countries and cleansed of the collective infamy which a moment before rendered them worthy of death. We do not demand even that they prove their individual innocence; we want them to be treated the way we want our comrades to be treated if they happen to be made prisoners of war.
This sociological mark of infamy and degradation has, in all times and in all parts of the world, been the occasion for innumerable abuses, for massacres of innocent persons in which ordinary men have shown themselves no less cruel than their ideological leaders. When the common man found justifiable the massacre of entire populations, including newborn infants, the false reason which his perverted conscience avowed was the idea that only death could prevent the members of the guilty society from persisting in those wicked actions to which that society appeared irremediably dedicated. The infamy adduced to justify the extermination of a people was not essentially distinct from the cause which justifies armed resistance to aggression. There was simply a criminal misunderstanding about the application of a general principle.
The idea of a mark of infamy attached to a biological strain, the idea that there exist within the human species certain cursed groups the members of which are culpable because of the blood which they have inherited from their fathers whatever their personal merits or religion or social status may be—this idea has no attraction for the common man: it has an attraction only for a certain school of biologists. Racism in itself has nothing to make it popular.
To account for its popularity many interested persons have not failed to point out the wide diffusion of materialism in contemporary societies. People who have lost the sense of the supernatural vocation of man and the sense of his spiritual dignity, come to accept and finally to find alluring a philosophy which treats man as one treats beasts; that is to say, in terms of biological properties. To throw the blame on materialism is to let one’s self off cheaply when one does not profess a materialistic philosophy. But in the case with which we are concerned, this kind of exculpation is a flagrant hypocrisy which should deceive no one. Men who have nourished from the Renaissance to our own times prejudice against Negroes, who have excused, justified, and practiced the slave trade and slavery, were not all materialists; those who today excuse, justify, and practice the most iniquitous discrimination are not all materialists. They were not materialists who unleashed in France the anti-Semitic tempest of the Dreyfus case. In Germany, in France, and in many other countries, Nazi anti-Semitism found the ground prepared. But who would dare to say that the writers, the journalists, the politicians, who prepared the ground, were all, or even a majority of them, materialists?
It is true that the materialists, the naturalists, the vitalists of the Nazi type, are almost alone in making open profession of the racist philosophy. The other racists, especially if they claim to accept the teaching of the Church, reject this philosophy ostentatiously, and go ahead within the shelter of their denials. It is necessary to know what we are talking about when we speak of the success of racist ideology. The days of racism in uniform are numbered. Its defeat is mostly the business of the military operations which are being prosecuted on five fronts. Except in Germany, avowed racists have never been very numerous. But how can any one contest the enormity of the evil accomplished by discreet, moderate, and camouflaged racists, even by perhaps unconscious racists? In one sense they are responsible for the whole evil, for they are the ones who rendered possible the coming into power of the radical racists and the implementing of their principles. It will require more than military victory to finish off the moderate racists. They are everywhere busy among us, from one end of the world to the other, tenaciously working at their task, silent or loquacious according to circumstances, sometimes indiscernible, and sometimes ignorant of the true meaning of their activities. They represent the future of racism. It is they whom we must now strip of power to do harm.
It is necessary to repeat: racism cannot successfully make its biological arguments prevail except in the framework of a group already given over to a materialistic and vitalistic philosophy. It cannot extend its conquests beyond this limited circle except by appealing to motives completely strange to biology, to motives which have nothing specifically racial about them. But it will destroy itself if it admits that the efficacious motives of its influence are borrowed motives, that its popularity is a borrowed popularity. The right way of combatting it is to bring to light the motives which it studiously avoids declaring.
Let us consider in the first place motives of an economic character.
Commutative justice, or what comes to the same thing, equality in the exchange of goods and services, has this unpleasant feature that it makes life hard for everybody, with very few exceptions. It does not suppress inequality of conditions and fortunes, but it tends to confine it within such limits that a man would have to be lucky to escape the rigors of an industrious life and a frugal economy.
In a society where farmers, workers, and domestic servants are constrained to accept the wages and market prices which employers and consumers are willing to grant them, it is enough to have a little money, a small holding, some investments, to enable one to unload on others the most painful and menial tasks. Commodities are cheap, and daily consumption leaves to the small property-holder a margin of revenue sufficient to permit him to have his house kept and his kitchen cared for by hired servants, to get a locksmith to repair his locks and a gardener to look after his garden. So long as working men and women are content with wages that will barely enable them to eat poorly, dress poorly, and provide some slight protection against sickness and premature death, it is not necessary to be rich in order to have a pleasant life; it is enough to have a little property. In these circumstances the class that is freed from menial tasks will be relatively numerous. What would happen if farmers, servants, and workmen obtained wages that would enable them to lower the death-rate in their class to the level of the rate of mortality in the property-owning classes? There is no question here of providing luxuries, but simply of those advantages necessary to prevent children from dying and adults from dying prematurely. Just to prevent children from dying you need a prodigious amount of money. In the end you would get what you have in countries where wages are high: with the exception of rich families, everybody works—all women are housekeepers, all young mothers are nurse-maids, all the men are locksmiths, carpenters, gardeners, scullions, and laborers. It is not at all astonishing, then, that the propertied class and those who aspire to its status are desperately opposed to a process which means for such a large number of its members the end of an easy life.
Now, in order to assure cheap labor it is not enough that the privileged classes control money, administration, the police, education, and industry; it is also necessary that the public conscience, and above all the collective conscience of the privileged classes themselves, accommodate itself to a conception of society which considers extreme poverty on the part of the working classes a normal and even a good thing. The rich, the men of property, the petty bourgeois, are not as hard-hearted as they have been accused of being. In order to enjoy in peace the advantages of cheap labor they have need of an ideology which represents the working classes as men of a subordinate kind, whose sufferings, maladies, and premature death have only secondary importance. The experience of every society shows that such an ideology can very easily be constructed, maintained, hardened, and finally venerated, without any consideration of race entering into it. But wherever it has the slightest chance of appearing, the idea of racial inferiority will make incomparably easier and more effective the efforts of the public conscience to find obvious justification for the advantages of cheap labor.
In order to understand fully the point of insertion and the manner of operation of the feeling of racial inequality, it is fitting to consider the psychology of cheap labor in societies where the question of race does not arise. Western Europe, towards the end of the nineteenth century furnishes an ideal field of observation. The privileged classes then included not only, as in the Old Regime, a rich aristocracy and middle class; it also comprised (I am thinking, above all, of France) a large lower middle class. Wages were in general very low; agricultural products could be bought very cheaply. The diseases—and also the vices—incident to destitution, made enormous ravages among the working population. The privileged were aware of these things, and many of them felt sincere compassion.
Notwithstanding, the system still continues to function and will not be seriously impaired until the combined forces of labor organizations and political democracy improve the conditions of the worker. Then, and only then, will the collective conscience of the privileged classes be open to the idea of just wages and a just price. Until the day that this process of education by force is accomplished, the ideas of just wages and just price will be ineffective. Yet, these ideas will not be absent entirely. The good bourgeois mother who provides medicines for the sick children of her housekeeper can with difficulty avoid the thought at times that a wage which does not give sober and honest people the means necessary to rear their children is not a just wage. But the housekeeper, granted alms for her sick children and finally an extra allowance for funeral expenses, can hardly hope for a substantial increase of salary. For such an increase to be substantial it would be necessary in many cases that the wages be doubled or tripled, and that would mean, for the middle class family, the end of ease: no more oriental rugs, no more boxes at the theatre, no more private tutors, no more elaborate parties and receptions, and above all no more money to invest regularly. Either the employee will live in misery, or the employer will learn to know the meaning of a hard life. The second part of the alternative is evidently impossible; the first alternative must be in conformity with reason, nature, and justice.
We who have, without any merit on our part, shared in the recent progress of the social conscience, do not find the second alternative impossible. That a great number of people should know the meaning of a hard life so that a greater number of people may escape a miserable life, appears to us altogether natural, and we accept with good will our share of servile work. We wonder, indeed, how it has ever been possible for people who were otherwise just and charitable to enjoy in peace a system of cheap labor which assured them an easy life only by denying to working men the possibility of a normal life. So manifest and cruel a rupture of the balance of exchanges would have troubled consciences had it not been skillfully disguised. In order not to be exceedingly unhappy the conscience of the propertied classes had to fabricate a system of screens or blinds. This is the interesting point: what is the spiritual outlook, the judicious construction, the consistent fiction, that permits society to enjoy without remorse the advantages of a false balance of exchange?
Leon Bloy accused Paul Bourget of having written that the poor suffer less than the rich because they have less refined souls. He gave no reference. We have no time to run through the complete works of Paul Bourget in order to verify the exactitude of the citation, and we have little confidence in a reference from memory made by Leon Bloy. What is the difference? If the quotation is not exact, it ought to be. It sums up with remarkable precision a postulate which operates every time that a society of privileged persons sanctions the quest for cheap labor. According to this postulate, which is the more efficacious as it is the more confused, society naturally divides itself into two categories: there are the people who have refined souls, and the others who have not. If the values exchanged between the one and the other are unequal, this exchange, in spite of appearances, remains equitable, since the less refined, in receiving much less than he gives, receives all that he needs. Is not the exchange of glass trinkets for gold perfectly equitable if he who gives the gold desires nothing but trinkets? Similarly, to exchange the advantages of an easy life for the simple maintenance of a life of bare subsistence will seem to be an honest operation if we suppose that our customer is destined by nature to lead a miserable existence. That existence is good enough for him since nature has not assigned him a better. Is it not a fact that many people who are badly paid, badly fed, and badly clothed appear to be overflowing with gaiety and satisfied with their lot?
Such are the arguments which privileged people in all ages use to justify the employment of cheap labor. As long as the question of race does not raise itself, these arguments form an imperfect screen, and no matter how slightly the force of tradition may be relaxed, the truth has a chance of coming through. Everything becomes much easier and more certain when a difference of race, real or supposed, traces a line of obvious demarcation between the refined and the vulgar, the civilized and the barbarian. There is no doubt that the Prussian Junker feels much more at ease in his relations with the Polish peasant than in his relations with the Prussian peasant. Too often the white employer feels himself altogether at ease with the black workingman. To falsify the accounts with an easy conscience, we should imagine that our fellow does not belong to the human species, that between him and us there is no unity of nature and no common brotherhood. Even under its most discreet forms racism does us the inestimable service of bringing us near to this ideal. This ideal is completely attained and even surpassed by the radical forms of the racist philosophy: the screen has become altogether opaque when one admits, according to the celebrated formula of the Nazis, that there is less distance between men of an inferior race and animals than there is between men of a superior race and men of an inferior. If a Negro has the incontestable right to make use of a beast of burden, a white man has the even more incontestable right to make use of a Negro without furnishing him other compensation than the pittance necessary to retain his services. These shocking propositions derive logically from the principle admitted when one has granted that, independently of all consideration of race, one part of society has the absolute right of escaping from a hard life and that this right is valid even if it involves as an inevitable concomitant a reward for labor that is insufficient for the bare necessities of life.
The quest for cheap labor does not favor the racist ideology except in the propertied and controlling classes. But racism excels in exploiting another economic motive the attractions of which are particularly great because they exercise themselves on all classes and all social categories. To soften the rigors of competition by eliminating those competitors for whom we feel no sympathy and so to reserve the monopoly of the market to the group which we call “ours” by excluding those groups which we consider alien, provides a motive which has without doubt contributed more than any other to make racism popular in our age. Like the motive analyzed earlier, it does not involve any necessary connection with the idea of race; we see it at work in circumstances where the problem of race does not arise.
But the idea of a distinction of races considerably facilitates its functioning by providing an easy way of tracing a line of separation that will be clearly recognizable, between what is ours and what is alien. Lawyers short of cases, doctors short of patients, bankers embarrassed in their operations by the great number of banks, business men who would like to increase their volume of business, professors who covet positions for which there is a surplus of candidates, workers who are experiencing or are threatened with unemployment, civil servants anxious for advancement, politicians in quest of votes, would like it if there were less lawyers, less doctors, less bankers, and so on, on the market. It has long been noted as one of the sorrows of military life that the death of a comrade has the advantage that it creates a chance of advancement. Lawyers, bankers, professors, and the like—all these poor fellows exhausted by the competition which keeps them breathless and prevents them from enjoying life start to dream from time to time, especially in periods of economic depression, of selective epidemics or, what is more practical, of drastic purges which would cleanse the field by relieving them of their most annoying competitors. The important thing is to find a criterion on which one can agree for distinguishing the undesirable who are to be excluded, and the desirable who are to be protected, without submitting oneself to the menace of the operation proposed. A doctor cannot permit himself to declare, without more precision, that it is indispensable to refuse a certain number of doctors the right to exercise the medical profession: he must be able to designate, without any possible ambiguity, a group to which he does not himself belong.
The criterion varies with circumstances: sometimes it is nationality, sometimes it is religion, sometimes social origin, sometimes political affiliation, and sometimes race. Measures of exclusion sometimes take the form of an unofficial boycott, sometimes of a boycott officially organized by private groups, sometimes of legislative action; sometimes they go to the extreme of extermination. It would be superfluous to cite examples which are present memories.
The cleansing of a field or market by the elimination of undesirable races generally needs no further justification than an appeal to the egoism of the majority, or of a powerful minority, if the power is in the hands of a minority. Nevertheless, it is always preferable to fortify oneself with an argument which will move people of moral excellence to whom egoistic considerations might appear indecent. This argument is furnished by the fact that so-called racial groups often have a tendency to invade certain professions to the point of exercising a virtual monopoly, a fact that can easily be exaggerated. Thus, in all countries containing large Jewish populations, it is true that there is a strong proportion of Jews among lawyers, bankers, actors, shopkeepers, theatrical people, journalists, and professors of philosophy. Now, if the Jewish population does not constitute more than .7% of the total population, a majority or a strong minority of Jews in a profession is represented as an imbalance harmful to the general interest. Thus the cleansing of the market which is to the advantage of doctors without clients and lawyers without cases easily passes for a measure of public welfare. This begins by a numerus clausus. We know today how it ends.
If the principle of the closed number is to have the slightest appearance of justification, it is evidently necessary to suppose that the members of the “race” to which it is applied form a group which has internal unity and is at the same time separated from the rest of the community. If these two conditions are realized, the invasion of a profession by a “race” ends by placing in the hands of a group which is unintegrated or poorly integrated, a power which threatens to play the role of a force of disintegration. The whole argument rests on the notion that the members of the race in question are incapable of integration, or as one says ordinarily, of assimilation.
Let us accept the principle, in order to see what happens when we develop its consequences. If the numerus clausus is justified in the case of the Jews, by reason of their pretended unassimilability, logic and honesty demand that there be a numerus clausus for every group which persistently preserves its identity within a community and refuses to allow itself to be assimilated. Thereupon we see the numerus clausus multiplying. Even in nations whose unity is ancient and who present a degree of integration never surpassed, certain professions are invaded by definite groups conscious of their distinction. The mutual aid which is practiced within these groups is never without certain dangers, of which the most evident is the tendency to exclusiveness which inevitably accompanies it. Is it necessary to establish a numerus clausus for each of these groups? Now, in a country like France, it would be necessary to limit the number of Bretons in the navy, the number of Corsicans in the police force, the number of reactionary professors on law faculties, the number of sons of noble families in the colleges of the Jesuits, the number of doctors’ sons in the medical profession, the number of country squires in the diplomatic service, and so on.
In societies of more recent foundation and till recently open to extensive immigration, like the United States, the principle of the closed number would find more obvious, more numerous, and more voluminous applications. One could no doubt apply the principle to Jews in the motion picture industry, in banking, and in small business. But logic would demand that, on the other hand, Germans be limited in breweries. Catholics in municipal administration, Poles in symphony orchestras. Irishmen in fire departments and police forces, and whites in well-paying jobs of all sorts. And what of the Church? Gallicans and other nationalists have long demanded a form of numerus clausus for Italians in the college of cardinals and in the succession to the Holy See. (If they dared, they would reproach Our Lord for not having limited the number of Jews in the Body of the Apostles.)
With the logical application of the principle of the closed number we should see a savage conflict shaping itself: a merciless war between hardened and irreconcilable groups, a maniacal discord which no community could withstand. But it has never been a question of applying this principle logically, honestly, and consistently. I believe, with Pascal, in the sincerity of witnesses who allow themselves to be martyred; I shall believe in the sincerity of the partisans of the numerus clausus when they demand that their principle be applied with a rigor fatal to their own interests. Until we see white workers demanding a limit on the number of white workers in well-paid positions, we shall refuse to believe that the advocates of the numerus clausus are really interested in the common good and in the harmonious distribution of the various parts of the community.
As we have already said, the desire to reduce competition has succeeded in making racism popular in certain proletarian groups; powerful labor organizations in South Africa, in Australia, in the United States, have practiced, in varying degrees, a policy of racial discrimination. It is necessary to insist on the extreme gravity of these facts, and on the particular importance of all action designed to protect the working classes against and to deliver them from the infection of racist ideas. We believe, indeed, that every social class, and more generally every section of society, has the historic mission of promoting a certain moral idea, a certain aspect of public morality. Thus the body of magistrates has the mission of maintaining and increasing the sentiment and the value of relations legally defined, and the respect for legal forms; professional soldiers have the mission of preserving and if need be, arousing the interest of the nation in national defense. If property-holders relaxed their energies in affirming the principle of property, by whom would this principle be maintained? If the ruling class lost its faith in the principle of authority, the sense of authority would soon be compromised in society as a whole. It demands, perhaps, a little more attention and historical knowledge to understand the great role which the working class plays in the preservation and promotion of the idea o£ equal justice for all. It is not by accident that the modern labor movement, even when it refrained from substituting the class struggle for the struggle of nations, has spontaneously organized itself on an international plan. The concerted action of men without property who are constantly menaced—should their solidarity be relaxed —by the imperialism of the better provided classes, the labor movement is the natural ally of all those whom the accident of social relations particularly exposes to the forces of exploitation. A union which refuses to accept Negro workers and demands measures of discrimination against them transforms itself into a society of exploitation and gives the lie to its very fundamental idea; most efficaciously it works for the coming of an era when the whites themselves will no longer have the right to organize and make the principle of equal justice for all work to their own advantage.
Today racism is everywhere at work. No part of our society escapes its ravages. The fight against racism is, therefore, among all groups and in all places an enterprise of extreme urgency. Yet there is an order in this urgency. Most pressing of all is the task of purifying of all racist influence those groups charged with the duty of teaching true ethics. Second place must be given to anti-racist action in the world of organized labor. If racism should establish itself on a large scale and as a permanent feature in the practice of unions, it would have an excellent opportunity of penetrating into the morals of society as a whole and of holding in check, for an indefinite period, the forces of justice and of charity.
The popularizers of Marxism have given currency to the idea that all social and international conflicts can be explained by the play of economic rivalries. This over-simplification of the problem has served only to produce deception and confusion. One would like to believe, for example, that circumstances permitting all workers to get remunerative employment would lead at once to a cessation of conflict between white and Negro labor. The experience of several industrial centers in the United States during the present war has demonstrated that a demand for great masses of labor at exceptionally high wages can very well coincide with an exasperation of the struggle between races. This does not prove that these conflicts have nothing to do with the facts of competition; it simply proves that the factor of economic competition is not the only one at issue, and that the circumstances which decrease the intensity of this factor, and of all other economic factors as well, can favor the play of certain uneconomic factors too.
A large demand for labor on the industrial market often provokes an influx of workers belonging to a race considered inferior. These workers risk the chance of being very unwelcome. Is there a fear that they are going to be definitely established and that they will some day offer strong competition? Possibly there is something to this, but much stronger than the fear of future difficulties is the irritation of the so-called superior race of being jostled by the inferior. We are here touching on a motive which cannot be reduced to economic grounds, even though it may often be associated with economics: the desire for aristocratic distinction.
Nothing is more universally human than the need to feel oneself a member of a community of distinguished people, of an elite. We want the distinction we seek to be easily recognizable, permanent, and transcending our own petty existence; we want it to be attributable to our fathers and transmissible to our children, participated in by our kinsmen and relations. There are many notes of aristocratic distinction: they are not all equally accessible. It is not possible for every one to bear a name rendered illustrious by glorious ancestors and to be received into the society of grand dukes and peers; to possess the money necessary to defray the expenses of conspicuous consumption which displays with brilliance the distance between those blessed by fortune and simple mortals; to excel in intellectual pursuits and take one’s place in the pedantic circle of the age’s luminaries; to participate in the functions of high society; to dress elegantly, eat, talk, and behave according to the best usage, to speak correctly a language, to have one’s children educated in schools notorious for their snobbishness. There is, however, a mark of obvious, permanent, and transmissible aristocratic distinction which is open to all—I mean to all those who have taken the trouble to be born on the right side of the line of demarcation between the races. Not to be a Negro, not to be a Jew, these are aristocratic distinctions which one can possess without having noble ancestors, or fortune, or education, or power, or good manners. The only thing one has to do is to think about it. The superior race is an aristocracy like any other. Racism is the consciousness of this aristocracy.
Reared as I myself have been in a middle-class environment where aristocratic pretensions abounded, and where the feeling of class-differences was extremely marked—to tell the truth, it invaded the whole of life—I have often been struck by the analogies existing between race prejudice as it appears in the United States and the class prejudices of old Europe. The European traveller, especially if he is a Frenchman of liberal stripe, becomes indignant when he observes the segregation occasionally imposed on Negroes in America. In his virtuous indignation he forgets that many analogous measures are currently applied in Europe to the proletariat and the peasantry. In all railway stations of any importance in France there are two waiting rooms, one for travellers of the first and second classes, the other for travellers of the third class. Is the reason for this division that the former should have a degree of comfort proportionate to the price of their tickets? The main reason is that they should be spared the company of the common people who travel third class. In order to avoid this company many of the lower middle class, in spite of their poverty, go to the expense of buying a second class ticket. This is very much like the separation of whites and Negroes in the railways and waiting rooms of the Southern States. In churches attended by whites, even in the Northern States, colored people would be looked at askance if they sat in the front seats. I think of my own native parish in France, and I imagine a working-class family installing itself in the transept at High Mass in the midst of the notables of the town: such a scandal would not occur twice, and I doubt seriously if it has ever occurred. In the Northern town where I live now the public schools are open to all children without distinction of color; this is not to everyone’s taste. I know quite well some fathers who would look with horror on the possibility of their son sitting next to a little Negro boy in school. I have known these people for a long time; I knew them in France fifteen years ago, when the middle-class, conscious of its dignity, revolted against laws destined to facilitate the entry of children “of the people” in the lycees. In many cities of the United States the settlement of Negro families in a certain district causes the value of real estate to drop: this reminds me of the importance which the French bourgeoisie attached to living in a quarter that was “well inhabited,” that is, inhabited by bourgeois families. Interracial marriage is the nightmare of white families. Now, in the upper middle-class in Europe a man who marries a workingman’s daughter is very much looked down upon. In American society where, in spite of the sharpness of the conflicts of labor, the feeling of class differences is incomparably less widespread, less keen, and less pervasive than in the old societies of Europe, racial consciousness is often nothing but the substitute for a non-existent class consciousness.
Provided we are personally indifferent to the desire for aristocratic distinction, we shall be strongly tempted to attribute all the abuses to which this feeling gives rise to pride and stupidity. But this would argue a superficial and sterile psychology. Pride is everywhere present in man, yet in order to increase our chances of limiting its obnoxious results, it is very important to recognize the nature of the legitimate, or at least excusable, tendencies which it perverts by exploiting them. Perhaps we should say that the need of belonging to a distinguished group proceeds from the overpowering sense of our misery, and that the role of pride often consists in relieving us, by fraudulent means, of a burden of suffering which we would bear more willingly if we clearly knew what is involved. But these things take place in the propitious shadow of a conscience which has been obscured by anguish.
Nothing is more insupportable to man than loneliness, and of all forms of loneliness the most painful is that which we feel in the midst of our fellows. There is something enraging about the feeling of loneliness when one is living in the midst of men—especially if one has to endure the hardships of a complicated social life: innumerable laws, regulations, conventions, and usages, submission to bureaucratic formalities, the payment of taxes, and all sorts of sacrifices. To be an individual lost in a mass, in an organism so large that all its parts remain strange to us, to work with numerous people, for oneself and for them, to suffer with, them and at their hands and never to have the joy of saying “we,” that is an intolerable ordeal. It is generally admitted, with reason no doubt, that this ordeal is much more frequent and much more painful in contemporary societies than it was in the societies of the past which were less voluminous, less mobile, less centralized, less regimented, and more differentiated. To escape from loneliness we seek differentiation and distinction, and in this anxious search we take what we can find. The big thing is to be somebody, to belong to a group which does not comprise everybody—such a group would leave me lonely—which would gather round me people who are like me and unlike others, tracing around me a very distinct circle so restricted that I can see and touch its limits. This would allow me to feel that a society lives in me. It is necessary, moreover, that this salutary incorporation present guarantees of permanence, so as to prevent the threat of a fall back into loneliness. All will be for the best if my membership in a differentiated and distinguished group precedes my existence in that of my forefathers and survives it in that of my descendants. However little pride intervenes here, all the abuses of the aristocratic conscience inevitably follow. The myth-making faculty of the group brings to birth in the spirit of everyone arrogant images big with all the desires for exploitation which the human heart can conceive. Thus the distinguished group which saves me from loneliness becomes a chosen group, a race of masters to whom everything is permitted: titled nobility, nation, white race, Aryan race, Nordic race, or even, as in the days of the Russian Revolution, the proletarian class, bearer of the hopes of humanity, incarnation of the genius of history.
If it is true that the search for aristocratic distinction is related to the intolerable sufferings which man undergoes when he feels himself alone and deprived of community life in the midst of his fellows, it is logical to think that the greater the evil of solitude the more imperious, general, and ready to yield to vulgar satisfaction will the desire of aristocratic distinction show itself to be. Indeed, to find a source of comfort in the sentiment of belonging to a community of men whose only merit is that they are neither Negroes nor Jews, one must be singularly in need of community life. It is not by accident that racial passions have undergone an unprecedented development in the age of masses and of mass despair. A man must be without a home, without a village, without a province, without a church, without a country, without faith, and without hope; a man must feel in his heart a deathlike loneliness, in order to have the idea of seeking a refuge in the fictitious community of a sub-species of animals distinguished by highly doubtful biological properties. A man must have the soul of a poor fellow indeed, to feel proud of belonging to an aristocracy open to every scoundrel.
At this precise moment of our inquiry, contemporary racism with its unheard-of scope, its logic, its cynicism, its bestial cruelty, takes on the aspect of a convulsion brutally agitating a society that has been exhausted by a long process of atomization. To reverse the movement which has produced this disintegration so often observed in modern societies, to promote the institutions best fitted to multiply centers of community life—this would undoubtedly be a line of action capable of contributing to the decline of racism and also of protecting our societies against other products of mass despair.
When we consider racism as the consciousness of a cheap aristocracy we can easily understand how this ideology has had particular success in that fraction of modern society in which aristocratic pretensions are over-sensitive, that is to say, in the lower middle class. By the very fact that it finds itself in the immediate vicinity of the working class, the lower middle class experiences—more vividly than any other part of society—the need of affirming its distinction and superiority. The social structure has placed it along an uncertain and fluctuating frontier: to maintain this frontier is for it a vital necessity and at the same time a difficult task. Putting even the best face on it, its titles to distinction are not brilliant. It has no ancestry, or if it should have, the memory of it serves only to provoke resentment by producing a feeling of debasement; it has not much money, perhaps even less than its neighbors of the working class; it has only a minimum of culture and good manners, and the vanity which it feels in these things is open to ridicule; it makes great sacrifices to preserve the external signs of its dignity: lodgings relatively costly, domestics, neat clothes, and the like; the least additional title of distinction would be very welcome, especially if it were clearly defined and permanent.
The great economic changes of the last thirty years have made the situation of the lower middle class more precarious than ever and have intensified its insecurity. At the very moment when the spirit of conquest of the lower classes was affirming itself with growing audacity, important sections of the lower middle class lost their last economic means of distinction and slipped down into the proletariat without other hope than to provide an elite of the masses. Under these conditions the aristocratic sense of the lower middle class was admirably prepared for the seduction of racist propaganda. To these desperate people, who had the feeling of losing everything when they lost their frontier, racism meant that everything was not lost: another frontier, to which only mediocre importance had been attached hitherto, became all at once the great line of division, the only one which really mattered in the eyes of the new society. This was the frontier of races. Irritated at being elbowed by the working man, the lower middle class man, or the ex-lower middle class man, received in compensation the privilege of racial distinction, which did not cost him very much and which no one could take away from him. Passing by the yellow benches reserved for Jews in the public parks, the petty bourgeois blessed the destiny which had spared him the misfortune to be born of an impure race. While despair led more and more members of that impure race to suicide this class enjoyed the consciousness of its racial purity: henceforth it was race that condemned men to despair. The man who the year before had thought of taking poison, could again take heart.
It is necessary here to complete what we said at the beginning of this study about the paradoxical character of the success which racist ideology has had with ordinary people who are indifferent to the metaphysics of the biologists. As we said before, the idea of a mark of deterioration which is neither personal nor sociological, but biological, is strange to the ordinary man; nevertheless there exists a way of making him accept it in a confused fashion, and this way is precisely the exaltation of his aristocratic feeling. It has often been observed that the idea of heredity, before it was cultivated, with or without moderation, by scientists and philosophers, had constantly been cultivated without any moderation by aristocracies. This is easily understandable. Let us remark once more that aristocratic distinction seeks permanence and demands titles which transcend in every way the dimensions of individual existence. Any distinction which could not be transmitted from generation to generation would leave it unsatisfied.
Now there are two possible ways of conceiving the transmission of any excellence from generation to generation. It can be thought of as above all a matter of education, tradition, example, and imitation —a hypothesis that is not very reassuring. In order to maintain the excellence of the lineage it would be necessary to begin anew with each generation the laborious task of raising the young man above the common level; moreover, the result would remain doubtful, for it is not at all certain that my son would allow himself to be influenced by the good example and the virtuous instruction of his father. It is much more comforting to imagine that aristocratic distinction transmits itself through the blood, that a biological fatality forces it to perpetuate itself and assures its permanence in spite of the frequent failure of education. Here as elsewhere the tendency to materialism identifies itself with the tendency to follow the line of least resistance. Every aristocracy is tempted to construct a materialistic and racist conception of its destiny. In order not to succumb to such a temptation it would have to accept all the rigors of a heroic conception of human greatness; it would have to admit that there is no royal road out of the misery of our condition, that all excellence is transitory and cannot be perpetuated except by being perpetually reconquered. The materialistic imagination, in order to sustain what we find excellent in ourselves, invents principles of permanence, independent of what is not human in man, and thus arranges matters less expensively. To feel the seductions of the materialistic imagination it is not necessary to have been indoctrinated by philosophers; it is enough to be a man and to have common sense. For if it is true that common sense “in so far as it is natural, that is to say, in conformity with the essential inclinations of our intelligence, is naturally right, flexible, and intuitive,” it is equally certain that common sense, in so far as it is “exposed to the ordinary dangers which threaten our intellect, has a certain natural propensity to stupidity, to materialism, to incomprehension of the spiritual.” For the ordinary man to be interested in racism, it is enough to make a skillful appeal to the stupidity of common sense.
The proscription of the Jews changed profoundly when it ceased, rather recently, to be a religious matter, and became a racial issue. Nevertheless, in changing its principle, anti-Semitism has continued to benefit by many of the psychological dispositions which contributed to its force in the past. Among these dispositions a place apart belongs to the complex of beliefs and passions which compose the psychology of accursed groups. An accursed group may be a religious group, an ideological group, a racial group, a social group, or a national group. The following are, as far as we can make out, the essential properties of an accursed group: 1) there is involved a rather small and clearly defined minority; 2) rightly or wrongly, there is attributed to this minority an exceptional importance; there is ascribed to it the power of exercising a decisive influence on the destiny of the majority; 3) it is held for certain that this minority is perfectly unified, that all its actions are deliberate and concerted, that it acts like a single man. Much is made of the contrast apparently existing between its perfect unity and the lack of unity in the majority; 4) finally, the accursed group is enveloped in mystery. Its unity is assured by certain elusive persons who are generally anonymous. Because of this mystery, legends multiply about it and from time to time sensational revelations are made. An illustration at once typical and comic, of the psychology of accursed groups, is furnished by the adventure of Leo Taxil. Towards the end of the last century an individual answering to this pseudonym, notorious because of his anticlerical, pornographic and blasphemous publications (La Bible amusante, Les amours secretes de Pie IX, etc.) underwent at Paris a remarkable “conversion,” and undertook, by means of a new series of publications, to open the eyes of Catholics to the activities of the Freemasons (Les assassinats maçonniques, Les soeurs maçonnes, etc.). He had enormous success. A priest has told me that he was called a “liberal” because he had refused to believe, on the word of Leo Taxil, that there was at Gibraltar a lodge where the devil appeared in person and played the piano with his tail. Then one fine day Leo Taxil gathered a large audience in order to reveal the best of his secrets: all his revelations were nothing but an imposture intended to demonstrate how far the stupidity of his readers could go. Note well that this happened in Paris, by general consent the most keen-witted city in the world.
The Christians of the first centuries formed an accursed group. In our day, the most famous accursed groups are the Jesuits, the Freemasons, and the Jews. One might also include the Trotskyites.
Whatever the truth of the accusations of which they are the object, an accursed group renders many services, and it is good, prudent, and comfortable, always to have one at hand.
The accursed group renders intelligible many events which, without its intervention, would confound the mind by the mystery of their contingency. We are here dealing with a particular case of the psychology of chance. Philosophers have often remarked that every chance event consists in the intersection of causal lines independent of one another. If it happens, for example, that a man discovers a treasure while he is digging a ditch, one says that this discovery is the result of chance, because there is no connection between the series of causes which led the unknown ancestor to conceal his treasure on this spot and the series of causes which led the digger to make a ditch in the same place. At the centre of the chance event there is an irreducible plurality; chance is unintelligible because unity alone is intelligible.
Now it is supremely unpleasant to remain without explanation in the face of a fact that imposes itself on our interest. That is why all human thought, philosophic, scientific, and vulgar, feels the constant temptation to deny the reality of chance by supposing the existence, beyond the manifest multiplicity of causes and effects, of principles of unity which render fortuitous coincidences intelligible. If a villager finds a treasure while digging a ditch, the entire village will be induced to believe that the villager was advised of the existence of the treasure and of its location. Philosophers who reject the notion of chance and appeal to “universal necessity,” scientists who reject the same notion and affirm a “rigorous determinism,” are yielding to the same tendency which makes the gossips of the village chatter. Similarly, it is the belief in a principle of unity and finality hidden under the appearances of chance which permits the liberal economist to think that the spontaneous play of economic atoms will infallibly produce the greatest good of the greatest number. And it is the same belief that renders the mind of the gambler impenetrable to the lessons of experience and of the calculus of probabilities: whatever you may tell him, he remains persuaded that he can draw profit from it. He believes in his run of luck. This gambler’s “run” is an odd sort of demon, subject to fits of humor, but a good fellow, all things considered, who operates secretly in the series, apparently orderless, of lucky and unlucky plays, reestablishes order, and gives the lie to the calculus of probabilities in favor of his protege.
Harnessed to the heavy task of making our way across the accidents of history, disconcerted at every instant by the incomprehensible rigors of fortune, what relief shall we not feel if we can imagine that all our misfortunes, or at least the principal ones, arise from a single intelligent cause which is faithful to its evil designs, a kind of inverted providence, a diabolic providence? This cause must be a relatively small minority: otherwise it could not accomplish this marvel of unity and purpose. Furthermore, it must work secretly: otherwise the majority would not permit it to perpetrate so much mischief. The high cost of living, crushing taxes, ruinous competition, difficulties of advancement, political crises, strikes, riots, wars: the simplest method of standing up against the mystery of all these accidents without losing one’s reason is to recognize everywhere, without bothering too much about evidence, the hand of the Jesuits, the concerted action of the Jews, the sinister plans of the Trotskyites, and so on.
To satisfy the mind so simply and cheaply does not trouble those who cannot secure any greater satisfaction in these matters. Since the amelioration of our lot is the chief concern in this business, the notion of the accursed group promises dazzling possibilities. Thanks to this notion, we can hope in a confused way one day to free ourselves from the grim cares of a perpetual conflict against the many difficulties of life. Our difficulties are numerous only in appearance, since they all come from the same cause. There is no reason why they should be perpetual, since it is only necessary to destroy their unique cause in order to put an end to them. Thanks to the accursed group, the exalting vision of a Herculean achievement, or a Napoleonic battle replaces in our minds the unattractive image of an endless strife. All the heads of the Hydra will fall at one fell swoop; the entire coalition will be sent packing in one night and will never re-form again. Order will be established for ever and we shall, at last, be able to start enjoyng life. The psychology of accursed groups thrives on utopian optimism.
Finally, the accursed group serves to confine within reasonable limits the horror of the human condition, and especially to keep that horror at a respectable distance from our own persons. We encounter here one of the deepest problems of the psychology of evil. Very few people dare to hold consistently an optimistic conception of the human will; there would be too much risk of passing for an imbecile if one showed oneself unaware of the immensity of evil and the scarcity of good in human nature. The most optimistic people, those temperamentally and systematically so, have the habit of directing attention to certain great agents of corruption, clearly defined, which they hold responsible for the discrepancy between that good humanity which their philosophy expects to find in reality and that bad humanity which the history of all ages reveals. Thus, according to the optimistic anarchist, the state and property are the true and only causes of dishonesty, murder, and evil passions in general; for the devotee of the philosophy of enlightenment, it is ignorance; for the romantic agrarian, it is city life, with its machinery and its newspapers. These folk pass their time discussing the evils of the machine, of obscurantism, of property, and of the state; thanks to this artifice they avoid passing for nit-wits, while at the same time they preserve for themselves the intimate joys of an optimistic conception of human destiny. In an age like ours, which has suffered so many disillusions, it is more necessary than ever to speak the language of pessimism; parties and schools— especially literary schools—outdo one another in pessimistic phraseology. The conservatives had to distinguish themselves in this competition, for it is generally admitted that progressive and revolutionary ideas are bound up with a naive belief in the imminent triumph of the forces which will make life happy and beautiful.
Nevertheless, in the midst of this debauch of pessimism, in the midst of all these black and gloomy pictures of human misfortune, every one is careful to preserve around himself a privileged circle in which the good is supposed greatly to outweigh the evil. Decent people, respectable and right-thinking people, people like you and me, who have never been accessory to the murder of a banker or played cards with a crook, cultivate with particular care this garden of illusions where they find a refuge against the excessive miseries of the human condition. To maintain their circle they are ready to deny many truths. This is no doubt the reason that people of means often become the best instruments of deception. They are not always as culpable as one may be tempted to think; their weakness and timidity are more to blame than actual perversity. Indeed, it takes great strength of mind and strong nerves to live without protective screens among men and amidst the infernal powers which lurk in our hearts. The respectable man is afraid he will be struck dead if crime and horror should dare show their faces within two feet of him, if he should ever see blood on hands he loves to clasp, to say nothing of his own hands. To suppress the distance between the fact of evil and our conscience would be to expose ourselves to a frightful crisis capable of making us fall into despair and losing our reason, if we are not possessed of a hope stronger than all the world.
It is therefore easy to understand why we neglect no precaution in order to preserve that circle of decent existence in which we want to pass our days. It is a complicated business, not to be managed in our time without great subtlety. In the days when an optimistic philosophy of human nature and of history prevailed in the public mind, in the good old days of enthusiastic rationalism, many people could, in considering their situation in space and time, feel themselves at a sufficient distance from those horrors which respectable people do not like to see too close at hand. Mass executions, refined torments, the proscription of the best citizens, general insecurity, highway robbers, poisoning and dagger blows, secret dungeons and feuds, enslavement, the deportation of peaceful populations, judgments without appeal and taxes without control, all these horrors seemed very remote to the bourgeoisie of the West in the nineteenth century. That class at that time vaguely referred such things to antiquity, also, and more insistently to the Middle Ages, to the Renaissance and the darkness of the Old Regime, to backward places whither civilization had not yet penetrated: Siberia, Turkey, China, Ethiopia, Equatorial Africa, or the Pacific Islands. When it thought of these things, its dominant feeling was one of happiness in belonging to a civilized society with a police force to protect property, a parliament to adjust taxes, and courts to make the rights of the miller of Sans Souci prevail against the might of the king of Prussia.
These good old days ended in the month of August, 1914. Then the Western world began to understand that the civilization of which it had been so proud formed a very precarious guarantee against that which is infernal in the heart of man. Those soldiers who burned towns, massacred populations, killed the wounded and prisoners, tortured the vanquished, were men like us; we had associated with them only lately when they wore civilian clothes much like our own, when they earned a livelihood for their families as we did for our own, were interested in Greek and Latin poetry, in music, and in the beauties of the earth. Thus we had been deceived; we had not known how to recognize the monster under its civilized form. All the Western world was seized with a paroxysm of insecurity. Then came the Russian revolution and the great convulsions of the post-war years, the years of economic depression, the years before this war! It became more and more imperative to retrace the frontiers of our circle of decent existence while taking into account factors alien to space and time. Horror swarmed in our very midst.
Who does not see that such circumstances create conditions exceptionally favorable to the psychology of accursed groups? Since space and time in the final analysis play no part here, it is necessary to drive back into groups clearly recognizable and not very numerous that terrifying evil whose proximity we dread and whose traces we secretly fear to discover in our own souls. We insist on this point: the groups in question must not be numerous; a handful of men would offer an ideal solution. If they were of large dimensions I should fear lest they contained individuals close to me and might finally engulf me too. (In the Germany of Hitler and the France of Petain it takes a minimum of three Jewish grandparents to make one a Jew. If one or two had been sufficient there would be too many Jews among the Nazis, their partisans and imitators, and no one would any longer feel secure against the unforeseeable expansion of the accursed group.) In defining these groups one will make use of ideological, political, social, and racial criteria. When a man finds himself in a situation so distressing as that described above, he cannot afford to be too exacting; he takes what he can find.
Several months after the beginning of the Spanish War, a famous French historian gave a speech entitled “How crime becomes possible.” The speaker suggested a parallel between the massacres of September 1792 and the great massacre of priests recently perpetrated in Spain. Both cases called for an explanation of how it could happen that people should suddenly pass from “extreme civilization” to barbarism. A handful of ringleaders gave the answer. In 1792 these were the members of intellectual societies, of the revolutionary clubs. In 1936 they were, according to secret but incontrovertible information, a corps of sixty Russian Jews dispatched by Moscow in order to organize the terror in Spain.
Thus respectable people preserved their peace of mind in default of any other peace: the bourgeois and artisans of 1793 and the Spaniards of 1936 only played the role of semi-conscious instruments of crime. They belonged principally to “extreme civilization,” in spite of their occasional lapse into barbarism. The crimes of the Spanish War were to he explained in terms of sixty Jews.
In spite of everything that distinguishes it from the old anti-Semitism, antisemitic racism today also appeals to religious feelings, and so preserves a certain continuity with the old anti-Semitism. Let us repeat that racism lives only on borrowing. It takes its borrowed strength where it finds it, but also from the higher region of the moral sentiments and even from that sublime region in which time unites with eternity. The uncompromising purity of the Church in the face of outrages perpetrated by racism against Christian faith and morals, the great charity dispensed by the Church to the victims of racist persecution, are nowadays exploited by legions of hypocrites in order to conceal the responsibilities of the Christian world in regard to the infamies of racism. This is only a particularly odious case of a current practice. Every time that the bad Christian fears lest his own impurity be uncovered, he tries to save face by taking refuge in the purity of the Church. A simple verbal equivocation, and the thing is done. In using the word “Christian” we can indeed intend to describe an ideal type which is realized perfectly only in the saints; one can also describe any member at all of a group defined by a minimal participation in this ideal. If the word Christian is taken in the first sense, one is speaking the truth when he says that the Christian does not lie or steal or commit adultery, that he does disapprove of racism and that his charity is without limit. But if the word is taken in the second sense, if one understands by Christian every individual who has been validly baptized, or baptized in the Catholic Church, or every individual who, having been baptized and made profession of the Catholic faith, frequents his parish church and receives the sacraments, one lies when he says that a Christian does not lie or steal, or the like. The fallacy of identifying the ideal-typical sense of a word with the vaguest and widest sense of the same is extremely crude; but the very crudeness of a fallacy is sometimes a factor in its success.
Honest minds which will not let themselves be perverted by fallacies of this caliber, will not allow the inflexible doctrine and charity of the Church to be employed as instruments of camouflage to protect against deserved denunciation the most secret though not the least efficacious of the sources of the success of racist ideology.
Nobody can deny that Christian circles, orthodox as well as heterodox, have played a role of prime importance in the maintenance, the development, and the renewal at opportune moments of that moderate anti-Semitism which, after having directly committed many iniquities, has perpetrated the crime of rendering possible the triumph of radical anti-Semitism, from the laws of Nuremberg to the extermination camps. It is certainly not as Christians that Christians have participated in the success of doctrines so manifestly contrary to Christian faith and morals and so clearly condemned by the Church. Nevertheless it would require a most suspicious kind of naivete, to suppose that this scandalous participation is a matter of pure coincidence. It would be to ignore the fact that the religious sentiments, like all that is best in man, can undergo formidable perversions. Pharisaism and the aberrations of the mystical aspiration are the best known of these perversions. It is quite possible that a certain perversion of the religious sense has something to do with the success of anti-Semitic racism in Christian circles. The question urges itself all the more vigorously since Christian circles are not clean of all responsibility in the bad treatment of Negroes at various times, our own included, and in various parts of the world. Let us dare to say that contemporary experience in the matter of racial conflicts, whether involving Jews or Negroes, strongly suggests the presence of a perverted religious sentiment in the leaders of racist persecution.
Concerning the Jews, it is necessary here to consider the characteristics of the old anti-Semitism. In the Middle Ages the Church prescribed in regard to the Jews certain measures of discrimination and segregation which it would be equivocal and ridiculous to call anti-Semitic. There was no question of making a certain race or people suffer; it was simply a matter of protecting the Christian faith against dangers to which they were exposed by the proximity and proselytism of a religious group which had become infidel the day it refused to recognize the Messiah who had been announced by the prophets. Whoever left the infidel group and entered the Church through a sincere conversion, by the same token escaped from a discrimination which no longer had any sense, since it never had had any but a religious sense. Around these measures issuing from the love of the Church for souls, the malice of men, the covetousness of princes and peoples, the follies of popular credulity constructed a long history of crimes which properly constitutes mediaeval anti-Semitism and whence modern anti-Semitism nourishes itself with powerful memories.
From the day when Catholic unity was broken, from the day when all varieties of infidelity began to multiply in societies once unified by the Catholic doctrine, the problem of the defense of the faith against the errors of the Jews changed its character. In Germany or France of the nineteenth century, the Jewish professor (who, moreover, generally had renounced his religion) perhaps menaced the faith of his students, but no more and no less than the Aryan and atheistic professor, no more and no less than the Aryan and agnostic, rationalist, pantheist, materialist; perhaps less than the fallen-away Catholic in revolt against the Church and the doubtful Catholic whose errors gained him an audience of believers because they were covered by official submission to the Church. If one adds that modern Judaism, even when it preserves its religious fervor, has generally renounced all proselytism, it is clear that the defense of the true faith against the errors of the Jews has vanished in the more general and differently difficult task of defending the faith against a multitude of errors that have no elective affinities for any racial or ethnic group: against the error of the rationalists, Jew or Aryan; against the error of the positivists, Jew or Aryan; the atheists, Jew or Aryan; the racists, Aryan or Jew (for it is not impossible that there are some Jews among these); against all the monsters of error which have devoured so many souls. Anti-Semitism no longer can, as it could in other times, construct itself around a program of the defense of the faith. To those who are interested in the life of truth in the souls of men, it is not highly important that an enemy of God had only one Aryan grandparent, or two or three or four; or that a fervent believer had three or four Jewish grandparents. If anti-Semitism is to continue to exploit the religious sentiments of Christians to its ends, it will henceforth be forced to address itself, at least mainly, to a perverted form of these sentiments.
We shall understand without difficulty what perversion is in question here if we at all know how to apply the data of the psychology of accursed groups. The hatred and persecution of the hated group have this comforting feature about them, that in driving evil back into the interior of a group to which we know or believe that we ourselves do not belong, we free ourselves from the embarrassment of the insupportable presence of evil in our neighborhood and in our own hearts. Now, among all the crimes committed since the beginning of the world, there is one which infinitely surpasses all the others in malice. We are using the adverb infinitely in the strictest sense, for the crime involved is the crucifixion of the Son of God. Of this crime we are all guilty. The Christian cannot forget this; he can only try to forget it. Insofar as we have not forgotten it, our greatest joys—and precisely our purest and most elevated joys—will be mingled with the profoundest sadness. At every instant of our lives we shall have present in our minds this thought: my sins have made Jesus die on the cross. Behold here an abyss of anguish from which it would be well to remove oneself. The thing is easy to do. It is sufficient to put one’s hands on an accursed group which will discharge us of the greatest of crimes by assuming the entire responsibility for this crime. The hated group is found. Is it not the Jews who crucified Our Lord? But then we, who are not Jews, evidently have nothing to do with that affair. We had no part in that ugly business. Our sins have only a limited importance. We again become capable of joys free from every sadness. Let others hold vigil while Jesus is in agony, that is to say to the end of the world. Rather than live in anguish with Jesus, we have chosen a peace which is not His. A pogrom from time to time, and the illusion will be complete.
These are hard words. Each one of us, however, whatever may be his own unworthiness, has the right of pronouncing them, for in doing so he accuses himself. There is no Christian in the world, anti-Semite or not, who does not feel the constant temptation of breaking company with Christ in His agony. The assistance given by an accursed group simplifies matters, but if this assistance is wanting, we shall nonetheless find some means of forgetting our role as deicides unless we renew, at every moment of our lives, the choice of living in agony with Christ rather than enjoying a peace which is not the peace of Christ.
The reader has seen that in the course of our exposition of the psychology of accursed groups we have constantly taken the expression accursed group in an entirely human and psychological sense, not in the sense in which it is taken when one speaks of a “divine malediction’’ resting on a people. In the case of the Jews the psychology of accursed groups functions towards a people which is considered to be the object of a divine curse; but the same psychology functions likewise in regard to the Jesuits and the Trotskyites, against whom no one has ever invoked a text drawn from Holy Scripture.
The problem of divine maledictions, which belongs entirely to theology, is alien to the object of this study. But we cannot prescind from the manner in which racism in all its manifestations—popular, literary, and scientific—which laughs at theology, makes that idea serve its own ends, in the case of the Negro as well as in the case of the Jew. Father Albert Perbal points out that certain writers suspect that a curse rests on “the Mohammedans, the Hindus, and the Chinese” also. Thus the picture is complete: wherever the white Aryan turns in quest of cheap labor, of economic monopoly, of aristocratic distinction, and the like, his bad conscience salves itself with a justification drawn in appearance from the highest sources of justice:
“I get my sailing orders from the Lord,” says Stephen Vincent Benét’s slave-trader:
He touched the Bible: “And it’s down there, Mister,
Down there in black and white—the sons of Ham—
Bondservants—sweat of their brows.” His voice trailed off
Into texts. “I tell you, Mister,” he said fiercely,
“The pay’s good pay, but it’s the Lord’s work too.”
In any case, it remains to be demonstrated that the members of non-accursed races have the right to designate themselves the executors of the divine vengeance and to pursue its accomplishment under the most profitable conditions for themselves, while they violate the commandments which denounce theft and homicide without distinction of race. The least one can expect of exterminating angels is that they will put no money in their pockets. Now, they do not even take the trouble of concealing their designs, and there is no poetic hyperbole in the frankness of Stephen Vincent Benét’s slave-trader. See for example what we read in an article by M. Hubert Beuve-Méry, the well-known Catholic political scientist, on the Slovakia of Monsignor Tiso, the ally and protege of the Nazis:
The Jews, very ill-treated in the effervescence of the outset, still remain under a threat. They are no longer stripped and robbed by the Hlinka guards, their synagogues are not burned as at Trnava; their shops are not sacked; but they cannot have many illusions. In order to put a stop to the depredations, the official organ of the party, the Slovak, published these lines which will today no longer surprise anyone: “Our program comprises a radical solution of the Jewish question, in the spirit of Christianity. A law will be voted to this effect by the Diet. But it would be useless to have the law integrate into the national patrimony such and such properties if these properties have already been burned or pillaged. Whoever breaks the show-cases or windows of Jews destroys the property of Slovakia” (11 December, 1938). A little later the same journal warned the favorers of the opposition: “We ought to proceed in a purely Christian fashion. … The guards of the concentration camp will unify those whom we have not succeeded in unifying” (February 7, 1939).
M. Hubert Beuve-Méry observes that Msgr. Tiso “represented at the head of the Slovak government a relatively honest and moderate element.’’ What the Slovak wrote, any moderately anti-Semite journal sincerely desirous of making a “Christian” solution of the Jewish problem prevail would have written in similar circumstances and is ready to write as soon as circumstances are equally favorable. Driven by force of arms from positions where it could express itself in a radical form, racism is soon going into strategic retreat towards moderate positions, just as the Nazi chiefs will try to find refuge in moderately totalitarian countries. Tomorrow there will no longer be a racist citadel at Nuremberg or Berlin, but racism will continue to occupy innumerable semi-underground fortresses, better camouflaged than the forts of the Maginot Line, which will have to be taken by assault, one after the other, regardless of the cost.
Some readers will perhaps be tempted to think that this essay sins through over-simplification, and that in our radical anti-racism we fail to recognize all the problems that are aroused by the diversity of races. Let me state simply that I think myself aware of these problems, and that in order to render possible their exact statement and then their solution, the first thing to do is to annihilate the least vestige of the racist spirit. Who would deny, for example, that the effective access of American Negroes in the Southern States to the liberties guaranteed by the Fifteenth Amendment raises grave problems? Who would deny that the establishment of an equitable order in the relations between French citizens and native Mohammedans in Algeria presents extreme difficulties? These problems, however, will not receive the slightest beginnings of solution, these difficulties will not cease to be insurmountable, until the day that the representatives of the so-called superior race cease to see in the Negroes and the Arabs precious reservoirs of cheap labor and a contrast ready-made to enhance their aristocratic dignity.
Moreover, the men of our generation have good reasons for not attaching too much importance to the reproach, humiliating above all others, of over-simplification. We intellectuals have loved our subtlety, our nuances, our politeness, overmuch. At the time when the great catastrophes of the present were preparing and already beginning to unfold, we remained anxious not to be taken for people who think like brutes. Sometimes the adversary himself was forced to render homage to our sense of the delicacy and complexity of problems, to our conscientious way of weighing one thing against the other, to the serenity of our judgments, to our art of remaining friendly with everybody. Then came a day when circumstances permitted the good gentlemen with whom we had conversed so courteously to reveal their true character. Concentration camps filled up, innocent people died by thousands and millions, and among those most immediately responsible for the atrocious situation, traitors, executioners, influential accomplices, we recognized the persons whom our polite dialectic had merely grazed. A more vigorous dialectic, and one less concerned with good manners, would have beaten them down. The blood of innocents cried for vengeance against our timidity. To oppose to the power of crime triumphant nothing but muffled arms suitable only for academic controversies—that has been the disgrace of our youth. The war now drags us out of this shame.
Now, this international civil, war will not be finished when the statesmen have signed treaties. The ideologies which are incarnate in the Nazi state and in those of its satellites will continue to work—more secretly perhaps, but we know that secrecy often favors the success of these ideologies. The cause of racism will not be definitely shaken until the day when our moderate, secret racists, will find, facing them, not smiling analysts and hair-splitting “logicians,” but men with tightened fists, determined to commit themselves thoroughly, determined to run risks, determined to call people and things by their right names; men who refuse to enjoy a life from which justice is absent; men who have for their motto justice or death.