"Social Darwinism, a popular topic in the 19th and early 20th centuries,” reported the Associated Press on April 5, “is making its way into modern American politics.” The news peg for the story was President Obama’s claim that the House Republican budget is nothing but “thinly veiled Social Darwinism.” It is, he added, a “Trojan Horse,” hiding within in it “a radical vision” that is “antithetical to our entire history as a land of opportunity.”
To the surprise of no one, the New York Times hailed the “thunderclap of a speech” in an editorial titled “Calling Radicalism by Its Name.” But Social Darwinism has been thick in the air of late (according to Lexis-Nexis, over 100 articles used the term in the 90 days prior to Obama’s speech). Clinton labor secretary Robert Reich had days before already denounced the GOP budget as not merely Social Darwinism but “radical Social Darwinism.”
This raises the real problem with the AP’s analysis. It has the history exactly backwards. The topic was not popular in the 19th and early 20th centuries, but it is now. And it’s not suddenly “making its way” into modern politics. Liberals have been irresponsibly flinging the term Social Darwinism rightward for decades. Mario Cuomo, in his famous 1984 Democratic Convention keynote speech—which “electrified,” “galvanized,” and “inspired” Democrats, who went on to lose 49 states in the general election—declared that “President Reagan told us from the very beginning that he believed in a kind of Social Darwinism.” Walter Mondale, the Democratic nominee that year, insisted that Reagan preferred “Social Darwinism” over “social decency.” Even Barack Obama’s April 3 speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors was so much recycling. In 2005, then-senator Obama denounced the conservative idea of an “ownership society,” charging that “in our past there has been another term for it—Social Darwinism—every man or woman for him or herself.”
Meanwhile, the myth that Social Darwinism was a popular term in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was largely created by the liberal historian Richard Hofstadter, whose 1944 book Social Darwinism in American Thought didn’t merely transform our understanding of the Gilded Age, it largely fabricated an alternative history of it.
But let us start with Herbert Spencer, the man who is always cast as the villain of the tale and the “founder” of the Social Darwinist “movement.” A writer for one British paper insists Spencer was “a downright evil man . . . whose passion for eugenics and elimination made him the daydreamer of things to come.” Edwin Black, in his history of eugenics, War Against the Weak, writes that Spencer “completely denounced charity and instead extolled the purifying elimination of the ‘unfit.’ The unfit, he argued, were predestined by their nature to an existence of downwardly spiraling degradation.” Hofstadter himself wrote that the (almost wholly progressive) eugenics movement in America “has proved to be the most enduring aspect” of Spencer’s “tooth-and-claw version of natural selection.”
The most creative assault on Spencer must be Richard L. Schoenwald’s psychological autopsy in the 1968 summer issue of the esteemed journal Victorian Studies, in which the historian reveals that Spencer’s twisted and deformed worldview stemmed from his fascination with feces.
Starting with Spencer’s childhood in the 1820s, Schoenwald concluded that “Spencer’s self-esteem had been undermined hopelessly in the oral and anal stages of his development; he could commit himself only to paper, not to a woman.” As a baby, Spencer rejoiced in his ability to “create excrement.” He never forgave his parents’ efforts at toilet training, which revoked the “freedom in which he had gloried.” This “fearful attack from behind” left permanent scars, which is why, for example, Spencer would one day oppose public sanitation regulation, because he “saw in sanitary reform an attack on his magical anal producing powers.”
We’ll just let that speak for itself.
The truth of the matter, as aggrieved libertarians have been saying for years, is that Spencer was a thoroughly benign classical liberal. Yes, he coined the phrase “survival of the fittest” (a term Darwin embraced), but contrary to generations of propaganda, he did not oppose charity (he celebrated it at great length), did not advocate the mastery of superior races over allegedly inferior ones, did not believe corporations should ride roughshod over the poor (he supported labor unions), and was in fact a great foe of imperialism and a champion of women’s suffrage.
Oh, and he never called himself a Social Darwinist. He didn’t call himself a Darwinist at all (he had a different theory of evolution).
But here’s the interesting part: Almost no one else called himself a Social Darwinist either (including Spencer’s alleged co-conspirator William Graham Sumner). Simply put, there was no remotely serious intellectual movement—at least not in America or Britain—called Social Darwinism, and the evil views attributed to so-called Social Darwinists were not held by its alleged founders. Geoffrey Hodgson conducted a survey of all of the leading English-language academic journals from the mid-1800s until 1937 and couldn’t find any evidence that Spencer and Sumner were part of, never mind leaders of, an intellectual movement called “Social Darwinism.” Even more amazing: In the entire body of Anglo-American scholarly publications spanning more than a century, there is only one article that actually advocates—rather than criticizes—something called “Social Darwinism.” And it not only wasn’t written by Spencer, it doesn’t mention him either.
In fairness, Hofstadter didn’t just focus on the intellectuals, he cited the views and actions of the so-called Robber Barons as proof that the conservative mind had adopted Darwinism on a massive scale. He writes:
With its rapid expansion, its exploitative methods, its desperate competition, and its peremptory rejection of failure, post-bellum America was like a vast human caricature of the Darwinian struggle for existence and survival of the fittest. Successful business entrepreneurs apparently have accepted almost by instinct the Darwinian terminology which seemed to portray the conditions of their existence.
Others followed Hofstadter’s lead. Merle Curti in The Growth of American Thought argued that Social Darwinism “admirably suited the needs of the great captains of industry, who were crushing the little fellows when these vainly tried to compete with them.” Henry Steel Commager wrote in The American Mind that “Darwin and Spencer exercised such sovereignty over America as George III had never enjoyed.” And of course Robert Reich has said that Social Darwinism “offered a perfect moral justification for America’s Gilded Age, when robber barons controlled much of American industry, the gap between the rich and poor turned into a chasm, urban slums festered, and politicians were bought off by the wealthy. . . . The modern Conservative Movement has embraced Social Darwinism with no less fervor than it has condemned Darwinism.”
The only problem: None of this is true either. Yes, Andrew Carnegie was a follower of Herbert Spencer and lots of people referenced “natural law” (though rarely as a reference to Darwinian evolution). But for the most part the captains of industry couldn’t care less about this stuff. As Robert Bannister and Irwin Wylie (and more recently Princeton intellectual historian Thomas Leonard) have painstakingly documented, the captains of industry in the 19th century were not particularly influenced by, or even aware of, Darwin and Spencer. This shouldn’t surprise anybody. “Gilded Age businessmen were not sufficiently bookish, or sufficiently well educated, to keep up with the changing world of ideas,” writes Wylie. “As late as 1900, 84 percent of the businessmen listed in Who’s Who in America had not been educated beyond high school.”
Overwhelmingly, businessmen of the period were influenced by Christianity first, classical economics second, self-help inspirational nostrums a distant third, and egghead notions about biology almost not at all. Cornelius Vanderbilt read one book in his entire life. It was Pilgrim’s Progress. And he didn’t get to it until he was past the age of 70. “If I had learned education,” Vanderbilt famously quipped, “I would not have had time to learn anything else.”
Also, it’s worth noting that the so-called red-in-tooth-and-claw Gilded Age was a time of massive, historic economic growth. It was when America overtook Britain as the economic powerhouse of the globe. That’s one reason the left has always hated it. When Europe was boldly embracing socialism, America was proving that capitalism was better at generating wealth and lifting people out of poverty. Moreover, as anybody who’s been in a library, hospital, university, or concert hall bearing the name of Carnegie, Mellon, Rockefeller, et al, can attest, the “Robber Barons” didn’t remotely believe in letting the little guy fend for himself or that wealth was a reflection of either moral superiority or evolutionary “fitness.” Even the one real Spencerist in the bunch, Andrew Carnegie, believed that “the amassing of wealth is one of the worst species of idolatry—no idol more debasing than the worship of money.” He believed that the man who “dies rich dies disgraced” and himself died one of the most famously generous philanthropists in the world.
One reason the term “Social Darwinism” caught on with progressives was that it served to divert attention from the sins of “reform Darwinism”—i.e., the progressive passion for eugenics. The progressives advocated aggressive statist intervention to improve the genetic stock of the country, while the alleged Social Darwinists championed laissez-faire and private charity and—gasp—reproductive freedom. Moreover, the term Social Darwinism, which in Europe was used to justify nationalist and racist theories of the Hitlerian variety, was the perfect label for playing guilt-by-association in America. Ever since Hofstadter’s book, liberals have used the term to accuse conservatives of desperately wanting to return to a past that never was.
On April 4, Mitt Romney had his turn in front of the newspapermen. “The president came here yesterday and railed against arguments no one is making—and criticized policies no one is proposing. It’s one of his favorite strategies—setting up straw men to distract from his record.”
One suspects that even Romney had no idea how right he was.
Jonah Goldberg’s latest book, The Tyranny of Clichés: How Liberals Cheat in the War of Ideas, goes on sale May 1.