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American History Series: Intellectual Change In The 1930s

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The ideas which have dominated the post-World War II liberal consensus triumphed in the 1930s during the Great Depression. The American victory in World War II was the capstone on their dominance.

The following excerpt comes from the chapter “The Intellectuals Abandon the Caste Establishment” in E. Digby Baltzell’s book The Protestant Establishment: Aristocracy & Caste in America

Looking Backward soon became the most popular American book since Uncle Tom’s Cabin. By 1890, it was still selling at the rate of ten thousand copies a week and was being translated into many languages. Bellamy’s Boston friends founded a magazine, the Nationalist, to propagate his ideas, and Nationalist clubs spread throughout the nation and abroad. Looking Backward became the bible of Progressives: Thorstein Veblen read it aloud to his wife, and Henry Demarest Lloyd was convinced that “we must now achieve the Social Utopias of Christ, Thomas More, Mazzini, Bellamy and Howells … ”

In many ways, of course, Bellamy popularized in fictional form the basic assumptions and ideals of the New Social Science which Beard, Dewey, Veblen and other serious scholars were developing at the same time. As an indication that these ideas had reached the status of secure orthodoxies, Looking Backward had a great revival in the early thirties and new Bellamy societies sprang up all over the land. Heywood Broun wrote a “Back to Bellamy” column. And, as another index of the Bellamy influence, it is interesting that an admirer and biographer of Bellamy was Arthur E. Morgan, idealistic engineer, leader in the Unitarian Church and the progressive-education movement, president of Antioch College, and chairman of the Tennessee Valley Authority in the New Nationalism phase.

But the importance attributed to Das Kapital and The Golden Bough was even more indicative of the dominant place now held by the social sciences in the intellectual climate of opinion of the thirties. Both books laid great stress on environment, rather than race or heredity, as the independent variable in the formation of personality, the creation of religions and value systems, and in determining the direction of social change. Indeed, the environmental concepts of culture (anthropology), class (sociology) and ideology (sociology) were central to the liberal Weltanschauung of the 1930s. Just as the Freudian theory of ideas had shown that truths were largely rationalizations, rooted in the emotional life of the individual thinker, so the findings of social science now confirmed that truths were merely ideologies projecting or reflecting the cultural conditioning of classes of intellectuals.

These views of truth, of course, were thoroughly grounded in the scientific findings of experimental psychology. Thus the concept of the conditional reflex was discovered before the First War when a brilliant and aristocratic Russian of the old regime, I.P. Pavlov, showed that dogs do not associate by rational thought or according to any inborn instincts, but largely as a result of their conditioning. At the same time, in this country, a rural South Carolinian, John B. Watson, who mistrusted philosophic introspection and the existence of any such thing as an inner conscience, founded Behaviorism which, by the end of the twenties, was not only the most fashionable school of psychology in this country but also became the central theory of human nature upon which the great industry of advertising was being built. It was no wonder that Pavlov was threated with great deference and respect by the Bolshevik revolutionists, and that Watson eventually left John Hopkins to become a vice president of one of the nations most successful advertising agencies. Faith in conditioning became the basis of social control in the new manipulative society, composed of citizen comrades in the U.S.S.R. and citizen consumers in the U.S.A.

The central ideas of the New Social Science, largely developed before the First World War (see Chapter VII), finally came into their own as the dominant view of man and society, in the course of the thirties. The decade witnessed the complete triumph of naturalistic relativism over transcendental absolutism; theology was replaced by anthropology; and the universalism of the inner consciences of men gave way before the particularistic conditioning of the external environment. The popularity of Marxian socialism on the Left was quite understandable because it was, after all, only an extreme example of a naturalistic environmentalism which most educated men in the West adhered to anyway. For they now shared John Dewey’s faith in the plasticity of human nature and the possibility of progress if only the environment could be reformed or transformed through social engineering in order to allow the natural goodness of human nature to express itself fully, unfettered by the harmful conditioning of a competitive bourgeois culture.

As the founder of modern anthropology, E.B. Tylor, and Thorstein Veblen had predicted back in the nineteenth century, the idea of culture, now reinforced by scientific psychologies, was indeed a revolutionary concept. And it is important to see that the New Deal’s efforts to change the economic and cultural environment, largely through legislating greater equality of conditions between classes of men, were a reflection of the whole intellectual climate of opinion at the time. In almost every area of intellectual endeavor – in the theories of crime, in law, in religion, and in the arts – there was general agreement as to the sickness of the bourgeois society and the need for environmental reform. …


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