"The True Liberalism of Zionism": Horace Kallen, Jewish Nationalism, and the Limits of American Pluralism

By Pianko, Noam | American Jewish History, December 2008 | Go to article overview

"The True Liberalism of Zionism": Horace Kallen, Jewish Nationalism, and the Limits of American Pluralism


Pianko, Noam, American Jewish History


The concept of "cultural pluralism," popularized by Horace Kallen in the late 1910s and 1920s, endures as an important model in debates about what it means to be an American. As the antithesis to the "melting pot" paradigm, cultural pluralism promotes a theory of group identity that recognizes unchanging ethnocultural allegiances passed on from generation to generation. Sources ranging from high school diversity curricula to scholarly literature on multiculturalism engage the concept of cultural pluralism and discuss its oft-quoted manifesto, Kallen's 1915 article, "Democracy Versus the Melting-Pot: A Study of American Nationality," which he published in the weekly public affairs journal, The Nation. (1)

Two well-known quotations from the last page of this essay stand out as key illustrations of Kallen's vision of Americanization and the relationship between group identity and citizenship. First, Kallen describes America as an "orchestration of mankind" in which each instrument contributes its own sound to the harmonious "symphony of civilization." Second, he claims that although "men may change their clothes ... they cannot change their grandfathers." (2) Based largely on these enshrined references, Kallen's cultural pluralism garners significant attention as a polemical foil in scholarly and popular disagreements about the value and nature of diversity.

Kallen's assertion about the grandfather's role in shaping an individual's identity leads scholars to link cultural pluralism with racial categories of identity. In the words of Werner Sollors, an historian of American pluralism, Kallen introduced a concept of group identity that was "given to considering descent-based identifications eternal and static." (3) To Sollors and other likeminded critics, Kallen's cultural pluralism stands for the preservation of outmoded, primitive allegiances that are perceived as antithetical to cosmopolitan ideals. Kallen's work aligned pluralism with a stream of racial thinking that preserves inequalities between groups and maintains artificially constructed boundaries between individuals. These scholars contend that Kallen's theory of pluralism stands in opposition to liberal principles such as individual autonomy, universal equality, and social integration.

Paradoxically, Kallen's cultural pluralism has been negatively assessed for precisely the opposite fault as well. The cultural pluralist's ambiguous descriptions of America as a "harmonious symphony" failed to recognize the existence of enduring rigid markers excluding various groups from his symphony. For instance, John Higham, a leading historian of immigration and ethnicity, claims that Kallen's failure to address the color line in his discussion of American pluralism demonstrated a "white ethnocentrism" in his approach to difference. (4) This leaves Kallen's cultural pluralism with a conflicting legacy. Kallen's dedication to group preservation is too steeped in racial categories for those interested in deconstructing collective boundaries and too unaware of racial categories for those committed to acknowledging their enduring primacy in American pluralism.

Both of these understandings of Kallen's legacy represent a serious misconstrual of his work and his significance as a theorist of American group identity. As this article will demonstrate, contextualizing Kallen within the competing political and intellectual forces he faced as a Jew, a Zionist, and an American intellectual reveals a far more nuanced struggle to welcome liberal theories and their promise of integration without the attendant rejection of robust collective boundaries based on family ties, national preservation in the diaspora, and attachment to a distant homeland.

To support this conclusion, this article rehabilitates two sources largely erased from Kallen's intellectual biography and the genealogy of cultural pluralism more generally. Kallen's concept of cultural pluralism developed in conversation with British internationalism and the cultural Zionism of Asher Ginzberg, a Russian Jewish thinker who wrote under the pen name of Ahad Ha-am ("one of the people"). …

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