With the United States of 2012 more culturally diverse than ever, it is tempting to think that the country’s social pluralism was foreordained. After all, aren’t we a nation of immigrants?
In fact, however, a tolerant pluralism was not the only possibility for America. It emerged as the dominant view of how our society should be organized only after a bitter debate that began with the wave of Eastern European immigration at the end of the 19th century and finally dissipated only in the crucible of World War II. One of the chief theorists of American pluralism—indeed, the man who coined the term “cultural pluralism”—was a German-born American Jew named Horace Meyer Kallen. This coming Saturday will mark the 130th anniversary of his birth. It is a date worth celebrating.
About a century ago, Kallen was at the height of his fame. He had just edited the last book by his late teacher, the Harvard philosopher William James; he was about to publish an extraordinary comparative study of James and the French philosopher Henri Bergson; and he was at the center of a heated debate about America’s future.
The wave of immigration from Eastern and Central Europe at the beginning of the 20th century was being met by aggressive anti-immigrant sentiment from the WASP elite. Theodore Roosevelt, for one, inveighed against “hyphenated Americans.” Others were less subtle. Sociologist Edward A. Ross warned in his 1914 book, The Old World in the New, that “the blood now injected into the veins of our people is ‘subcommon.’”
Kallen, who had emigrated with his family from Germany at the age of four, felt that those sentiments betrayed the ideals of the United States and needed to be refuted. He was an advocate of James’s philosophical pluralism and undertook to apply this concept to social, political, and religious problems.
In his famous essay, “Democracy vs. the Melting Pot,” Kallen argued that the United States was a commonwealth based on an idea, not on blood or territory. The idea was that people are different, and that this difference was good; the equality postulated in the Declaration of Independence didn’t mean sameness but equal rights for individuals fundamentally different from each other.
Kallen’s pluralism, therefore, was descriptive as well as prescriptive. His starting point was the idea that each individual had a unique perspective on the world, which was influenced by one’s geographical situation and cultural, religious, and political environment. The individual could then contribute this perspective to a more comprehensive understanding of the world. Although for Kallen there was no preferred point of view as such, he did recognize the importance of providing a common ground from which the differences could grow and flourish. That common ground was democracy, which protected the individual’s “right to be different,” as Kallen would come to call it in the 1930s, and enabled a pluralist society.
Relatedly, Kallen was cognizant of the dangers posed to pluralism by totalitarianism and intolerance. Following his travels through Fascist Italy and Soviet Russia at the end of the 1920s, he became a vocal critic of totalitarianism, long before other progressives and liberals did so. The same was true for religions: Though Kallen acknowledged their importance for shaping identities, he was appalled by their history of coercion and violence, and especially opposed those which were obstructing scientific development or which acted intolerantly toward other religious groups.
Kallen’s hostility toward religious groups also applied to his own. He exchanged harsh words with Reform Rabbis Samuel Schulman and Abba Hillel Silver for their exclusively religious definition of Judaism; he was equally critical of some Orthodox Jews for their religious intolerance; and he was no less outspoken against zealous anti-Zionists from all Jewish camps.