Who Was the ‘Father of Racism’?

Thomas Jackson, American Renaissance, July 2007

Joseph Arthur Comte de Gobineau (1816–1882), to use his full name and title, has been called the “father of racism,” usually by people who think he was the intellectual precursor to the Ku Klux Klan and the Nazis. For a host of reasons, this is a silly way to think of him, but he does deserve study–both because of his influence as a thinker and for the inherent interest of what he wrote. As Gobineau recognized, many people had written about race before he did–“The idea of an original, clear-cut and permanent inequality among the different races is one of the oldest and most widely held opinions in the world.”–but he was the first to study race seriously as an important force in world history.

Joseph Arthur Comte de Gobineau

Joseph Arthur Comte de Gobineau

Gobineau was a French diplomat, journalist, novelist, Orientalist, and poet as well as a race theorist. He was a confirmed elitist, and was deeply annoyed that his birthday was Bastille Day, the commemoration of what he thought was one of the most shameful movements in French history.

Although anti-racists today try to pigeonhole Gobineau as a “racist” and nothing more, he was a man of considerable parts. He was, for example, a friend of Alexis de Tocqueville, who invited him to collaborate on a history of moral attitudes. They never completed the project, but some 80 letters remain from their correspondence. In fact, Tocqueville had a large role in Gobineau’s career. In 1849, Tocqueville became foreign minister of France, and invited Gobineau to become his private secretary. Tocqueville did not last long at the ministry, but his friend spent the next 30 years as a diplomat, deepening his understanding of the role of race. He had two postings in Iran, and held near-ambassador ranks in Athens, Rio de Janeiro and Stockholm. He was reported to be a man of great charm and an effective diplomat.

Gobineau published his major work, Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races, in four volumes, from 1853 to 1855. It did not attract much notice, and only began to influence European thinking 20 years later, after Gobineau became friends with Richard Wagner. The two men died within a few months of each other, and the Wagner/Bayreuth movement promoted Gobineau along with Wagner. The Nazis later adopted Gobineau as one of their own–thereby considerably damaging his reputation–but as we will see, it was only with considerable distortion that Gobineau could be claimed as an early National Socialist.

Gobineau begins his famous essay by explaining how he discovered the importance of race. He wanted to know why civilizations die, and found all previous explanations inadequate. Bad governments, he decided, do not kill off civilizations because bad government is everywhere: “Thank heaven they [the people] have the power of soon becoming accustomed to their sufferings.” Decadence and effeminacy are not the cause because some nations “have lived and grown fat on it.” Nor does loss of faith in a society’s gods explain collapse because some civilizations have died during times of religious fanaticism.

These studies led to what is Gobineau’s most quoted insight:

“I was gradually penetrated by the conviction that the racial question overshadows all other problems of history, that it holds the key to them all. . . . Everyone must have had some inkling of this colossal truth, for everyone must have seen how certain agglomerations of men have descended on some country, and utterly transformed its way of life. . . .” The rest of the essay is an extensive elaboration on this insight.

How Races Differ

Gobineau divided all men into three races: black, white, and yellow. Although he put whites at the top, his orderings have a strange resemblance to Philippe Rushton’s well-known findings that blacks and Asians are at the extremes on many traits, with whites somewhere in between.

Blacks, wrote Gobineau, are dull-witted and have strong, crude feelings. They do not care what they eat, since they consider all food good. The “prognathous Negro” (a phrase Gobineau liked–“prognathous” means having a jaw that juts forward) is at the same time capricious in his feelings, and “kills willingly, for the sake of killing.” Blacks are incapable of civilization: “Ages have passed without their doing anything to improve their conditions.”

Gobineau describes the yellow race as “the exact opposite” of the black:

“[H]e commits none of the strange excesses common among Negroes. His desires are feeble, his will-power rather obstinate than violent; his longing for material pleasures, though constant, is kept within bounds. A rare glutton by nature, he shows far more discrimination in his choice of food.”

The Asian has a respect for order but “he does not dream or theorize; he invents little, but can appreciate and take over what is useful to him.” Gobineau says the yellow races are the perfect middle class; one could not have better, more useful masses. However, he writes, “no civilized society could be created by them; they could not supply its nerve force, or set in motion the springs of beauty and action.”

It is whites who build civilizations because of their “love of liberty” and their restless will to create and govern. They have an “extraordinary attachment to life. They know how to use it and so, it would seem, set a greater price on it. . . .” Gobineau believed whites are more sparing of the lives of others. “When they are cruel, they are conscious of their cruelty; it is very doubtful whether such a consciousness exists in the Negro.”

Gobineau believed that whites are uniquely preoccupied with honor, and are the only race that shows true physical beauty. They are also the source of all civilization: “[E]verything great, noble and fruitful in the works of man on this earth . . . belongs to one family alone, the different branches of which have reigned in all the civilized countries of the universe.” Gobineau claimed that even Chinese civilization arose when whites migrated east from India. For him, the category that cannot rise above the primitive stage “includes the vast majority of the pure-blooded yellow and black races.”

As was common in his time, Gobineau saw sharp differences even among national groups of the same race; he believed that the Napoleonic wars showed that the French are physically tougher than Germans and other Europeans. Seventy years later, however, the Nazis were pleased to find that Gobineau often referred to the civilizing people as “Germanic” or “Aryan.”

Although he wrote in terms that today sound harsh, Gobineau was not dismissive of any race, noting that some individual blacks are more intelligent than European peasants or even average townspeople. He even criticized anthropologists for criticizing blacks unfairly. However, in the essay, he cared only about a race’s ability to build a civilization. Individuals could be exceptions to the general rules that applied to races, but it was races, not individuals, who built and destroyed civilizations.

Gobineau could be sarcastic about anyone who doubted race differences:

“So the brain of the Huron Indian contains in an undeveloped form an intellect which is absolutely the same as that of the Englishman or the Frenchman! Why then, in the course of the ages, has he not invented printing or steam power? . . . [How can one explain] why his bards and sorcerers have, in some inexplicable way, neglected to become Homers and Galens.”

At least in his writing, Gobineau seems to have been an orthodox churchman. He wrote about “the hand of God” that directs human affairs, and argued that all races have the capacity to accept Christianity. This changes nothing, however, because when Eskimos, for example, convert to Christianity they are still left “eating whale-blubber.”

Gobineau wrote before Darwin, and he found it hard to reconcile racial differences with the Biblical creation. If men had been on earth for only a few thousand years and all were descended from Adam, how did they separate into such clearly distinct races? He considered the possibility that Adam was the ancestor only of whites, but finally concluded that unless we are to doubt the Biblical account, the origins of races must remain a mystery.

Somewhat paradoxically, he believed that the races existing today were the result of ancient mixtures, some of which had actually been improvements. He thought, for example, that today’s whites, whether European or Middle Eastern, were considerably different from the original white race of “Aryans” or “Germanics.” He even wrote: “Viewed abstractly, the white race has disappeared from the face of the earth.”

Although some past racial mixtures had been beneficial, he looked with horror on further mixture, which, he was convinced, would destroy whites and denature other races. He feared that miscegenation would eventually go so far that all people would resemble each other, and that “their general level will be revoltingly low.”

Sometimes he seemed to despair of human beings, wondering whether social insects like ants or bees are not happier. They live entirely by instinct, but all their instincts are good and useful to them.

Conquest and Decline

Gobineau applied his theory of racial differences to the problem with which he began the book: Why do civilizations rise and fall? Racial differences have ordained forever that only a few groups have the capacity to lift themselves from the primitive tribal stage. These dynamic Aryan groups then conquer and dominate their neighbors. This, however, is their downfall, because empire-building brings the conquering races into contact with people who do not have the same abilities, and mixture leads to degeneracy: “From the very day when the conquest is accomplished and the fusion begins, there appears a noticeable change of quality in the blood of the masters.” Gobineau even had a theory of immigration: Civilizing races build cities that attract inferiors from distant realms who then drag down that civilization.

As he often did, however, Gobineau made room for inconsistencies; some mixing can be good. He wrote that when races are pure, they stick to their original, governing principles until expansion leads to mixing. “Such change,” however, “will sometimes mean real progress, especially in the dawn of a civilization, when the governing principle is usually rigid and absolute, owing to the exclusive predominance of some single race. Later, the tinkering will become incessant. . . .”

Gobineau thought civilization cannot be transmitted to people who cannot create it. This, he explains, is why European culture could come to the New World only in the form of massive migrations of Europeans that left the natives untouched. Gobineau believed that the Indians of Spanish America were better off than those of North America because the Spaniards left them to live as they always had. He sharply criticized Americans for meddling with both blacks and Indians. Enslavement and displacement were cruel, and any attempt to civilize non-whites would only confuse and distress them.

Gobineau thought that some portion of civilization could be transmitted between closely-related groups but that “the civilizations that proceed from two completely foreign races can only touch on the surface. They never coalesce. . . .”

Gobineau is perhaps at his most eloquent when he describes how civilizations decay:

“[W]hile the blood of the civilizing race is gradually drained away by being parceled out among the peoples that are conquered or annexed, the impulse originally given to these peoples still persists. The institutions which the dead master had invented, the laws he had prescribed, the customs he had initiated–all these live after him. No doubt the customs, laws and institutions have quite forgotten the spirit that informed their youth; they survived in dishonoured old age, every day more sapless and rotten. But so long as even their shadows remain, the building stands, the body seems to have a soul, the pale ghost walks.”

“Societies perish because they are degenerate,” he wrote: “[T]he people has no longer the same intrinsic value as it had before, because it has no longer the same blood in its veins, continual adulterations having gradually affected the quality of the blood.” By this time, “the degenerate man, properly so called, is a different being, from the racial point of view, from the heroes of the great ages. . . . He is only a very distant kinsman of those he still calls his ancestors.”

In this context, Gobineau touched on the inevitable decline of the United States. He approved of the original British stock of the founders, but disliked what came later. Like the American Nordicists, he believed that “Irish, cross-bred Germans and French, and Italians of even more doubtful stock . . . will inevitably give birth to further ethnic chaos.” When this mix was combined with blacks, Indians, and whatever other flotsam might drift into America, “it is quite unimaginable that anything could result from such a horrible confusion but an incoherent juxtaposition of the most decadent kinds of people. . . .” Civilization was therefore doomed in the United States even before the Civil War!

Gobineau is remarkable in his utter pessimism. He offered no political program, believing that degeneracy was inevitable. Well before Spengler, he saw civilizations almost as organic creatures, with fixed life and death cycles. No individual, not even an entire nation, could change the destiny of its race. He predicted that all people would sink to the lowest level and be “like the buffalo grazing,” with no idea of their own degeneracy: “Perhaps they will think themselves the wisest and cleverest beings that ever existed.” In what could be considered his epitaph for the species, he wrote: “What is truly sad is not death itself but the certainty of our meeting it as degraded beings.”

Besides its great, central theme of civilizational decay, the essay offers many other related observations. For example, because individuals differ as much in their abilities as races, Gobineau believed European civilization was a veneer. “The lower strata of the French people . . . form an abyss over which civilization is suspended,” he wrote. No other European country was any better, because so many whites were complete strangers to their own culture.

Gobineau thought Asians were different. They might not be an inventive race, but even the lower orders were immersed in and understood their civilization:

“If in China everyone or nearly everyone, has reached a certain level of knowledge, the same is the case among the Hindus. Each man, according to his caste, shares in a spirit that has lasted for ages, and knows exactly what he ought to learn, think and believe. . . . Everyone has similar convictions on the important matters of life.”

Gobineau’s admiration for the caste system and contempt for “the lower strata of the French people” were consistent with his uncompromising elitism. He believed that no society could be stable or harmonious without hierarchy. Socialism was, for him, the most revolting denial of human differences.

The “Father of Racism”?

It is not difficult to see how uncongenial Gobineau would have been to National Socialism. To the extent that it was socialist, he would have despised it. He would also have been baffled by its optimism, its assumption that a political movement could save a nation or race. He would have warned against any form of conquest or expansion as leading inevitably to mixture and decline.

Finally, he would have disagreed on the subject of Jews. He cited them as the best refutation of the view that geography or climate influence achievement, pointing out that Jews have succeeded everywhere they have gone. He saw their dispersal from the land of Israel as a tragedy for them but a gain for others: “I repeat, it was a people capable in all that it undertook, a free people, a strong people, an intelligent people. When, with their arms still in their hands, they lost bravely the position of an independent nation, they furnished the world almost as many learned men as merchants.”

Popular Nazi portrayals of Gobineau were necessarily selective.

What drew Nazis to the essay was no doubt the same things that make the anti-racists so afraid of him. It was not that he laughed at egalitarianism and ranked the races in strict hierarchy. As Gobineau himself noted, people have always done that. As if in confirmation, a professor at the University of Tel Aviv named Benjamin Isaac even published a 560-page book in 2004 called The Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity. Hume and Kant wrote scathingly about blacks well before Gobineau. Practically all the American founders were white supremacists, and men like Josiah Nott and Hinton Rowan Helper wrote detailed accounts of black/white racial differences.

Gobineau differed from these men in his careful attempt to trace how race unfolds in history. He got many things wrong–some comically so by today’s standards–but his clear understanding of inherent racial differences and their importance in all human outcomes makes him not the father of racism but the founder of race realism.

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