Horace M. Kallen: Pluralism and American Jewish Identity

By Toll, William | American Jewish History, March 1997 | Go to article overview

Horace M. Kallen: Pluralism and American Jewish Identity


Toll, William, American Jewish History


In 1915, Horace M. Kallen, the son of an immigrant rabbi and a lecturer in philosophy at the University of Wisconsin, entered the intense public debate over immigration. He published in the prestigious journal, The Nation, an essay titled "Democracy versus the Melting Pot," which sketched a philosophy of public life that became the basis for his reputation in the American intellectual community. Since the mid-1890s, many prominent American social scientists--including Kallen's senior colleagues at Wisconsin, the sociologist, E. A. Ross and the historian, Frederick Jackson Turner--had observed an immigrant working class growing rapidly in dilapidated districts of major cities. These newcomers, they argued, seemed to be unskilled laborers who depended for their livelihood on corporate employers and for leadership on political bosses. In books and magazine articles they argued that Italian and Slavic immigrants constituted a rootless proletariat subverting the nation's legacy of skilled workers and independent citizens. Ross added that spokesmen for Jews were actively subverting all efforts to limit immigration.(1)

For Kallen this xenophobic literature expressed a deep-seated fear of cultural diversity by a social elite losing its authority. Ross, Turner and their colleagues not only misrepresented the people among whom Kallen had been raised, but they ignored America's constitutional ideals. For Kallen immigrants were complex people struggling to succeed in a new locale.(2) Their inherited cultures, which had given them a parochial but nevertheless moral vision, were now challenged by the industrial city, while they and their children absorbed America's democratic practices in the settlement houses and the public schools. Indeed, Kallen noted, "The institutions of the Republic have become the liberating cause and the background for the rise of the cultural consciousness and the social autonomy of the Immigrant [groups]." Jews in particular, he noted, welcomed American citizenship, which allowed them to exchange their unique European alienation as "sojourners" for equal status among America's other newcomers. He concluded that America continually revitalized itself not by forcing everyone to emulate an Anglo-Saxon norm, but by allowing each person to draw on the comforts of his ethnic group, while respecting the tenets of a democratic politics. This evolving relationship between American democracy and ethnic identity he called "cultural pluralism."(3)

Neither academic scholars nor American Jews have appreciated the sophisticated grounding for his defense of pluralism nor how comprehensively he analyzed the dilemmas of constructing a new identity. Perhaps because Kallen lived so long and wrote so much, they have not read broadly enough in his writings to see how he addressed most--though not all--of the criticisms that they came to raise. Academics like the sociologist Orlando Patterson and the literary critic Werner Sollors who have criticized Kallen's analysis of pluralism have not explored the pragmatic revolution in philosophy out of which it grew or the dilemmas of Jewish identity with which he was struggling. Examining only his essay in The Nation, they argue that he undermined individual choice by attributing ethnic loyalty to a genetically determined "ancestral endowment."(4) Likewise, the historian David Hollinger has argued that Kallen not only oversimplified the actual ethnic origins of most Americans but ignored their ability, indeed their right, to choose to identify with a variety of ethnic or cultural groups.(5) For Sollors, Patterson and even Hollinger, Kallen remained locked in a deterministic explanation of ethnic cohesion whose arbitrary demands shackled the personality.

Similarly, Jewish scholars have rarely related his voluminous writings on broad topics like religion, individualism, the cooperative movement or even Israel to his writing on identity and loyalty within the American Jewish community. …

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