Imperialism and social reform english Social-Imperial Thought 1895-1914


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This seems the appropriate moment to lay bare the sophism of a certain school of English sociologists which has entered into the very bones of the nation. 'Nature shows us,' say they, 'that in this world-struggle the strongest only will survive and flourish at the expense of the weaker neighbour.' The English people are steeped in this doctrine, which they believe to be in strict keeping with the latest discoveries of science, especially with the latest theories of the great English thinkers, such as Darwin and his followers, which, above all, they feel to be in keeping with the temperament of the race. It is this doctrine which has really created the Imperialist frame of mind in the nation. . . .


Herbert Spencer, a social-evolutionist before Darwin Origin of Species, had originally based his views entirely on Lamarckian evolution. After 1859, he added Darwin's 'natural selection' to his armory of ideas-and even bestowed upon it the description which it was to bear most frequently, 'the survival of the fittest.' 1 Spencer was a Liberal-a Radical and an individualist. He employed the Darwinian theory to supplement the Malthusian argument of the classical economists, to prove that the individualistic competitive society of Victorian England had been ordained by nature and was the sole guarantor of progress. 2 This application of Darwinism to society which



See Herbert Spencer, The Man Versus the State ( London: Watts, 1892), pp. 67-8. See excerpt from letter of A. R. Wallace to Charles Darwin, July 2, 1866 and Darwin's reply, in Francis Darwin, ed., The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin ( London: J. Murray, 1887), III, pp. 45-7.


Spencer, op. cit., pp. 65-72; F. W. Headley, a prominent zoologist, maintained the view that scientific Darwinism made socialism impossible in his Darwinism and Modern Socialism ( London, 1909); (see especially pp. 300, 308-9, for references to Pearson's socialism).

saw the struggle for existence as the economic competition between individuals within a society soon found a rival in another view of social evolution. Was it not as reasonable to view progress as the result of an evolutionary struggle between groups of men, between tribes or nations or races, the fittest group predominating in the ceaseless warfare which constituted the evolutionary process? Darwin himself had anticipated this view, as had Walter Bagehot, but individualistic England had preferred the Social-Darwinism of economic competition outlined by Herbert Spencer. 3 By the end of the nineteenth century, however, the non-Spencerian view was finding more and more favour as a justification of British imperialism. 4

The controversy between what might be called 'internal' and 'external' Social-Darwinism actually ante-dated the Darwinian hypothesis. Certain mid-Victorian opponents of the 'dismal science' of political economy -- Thomas Carlyle, Charles Kingsley, and Charles Dickens, for example-had opposed the stern individualism of the Radicals which, they felt, resulted in the brutalization of the British working man, but at the same time these critics of internal laissez-faire were unbendingly severe in their attitude toward 'inferior' races outside the national pale. Carlyle's racist tract, 'Essay on the Nigger Question,' 5 in which he defended slavery, written ten years before Darwin's Origin, can be regarded as 'premature' external socialDarwinism, as can his position in the celebrated Eyre case, during the period between 1865 and 1868. On this occasion, Carlyle and Ruskin, Kingsley, and Dickens all insisted that it was not worth considering the injustices perpetrated against Jamaican 'niggers' as long as English working men continued to groan under the oppression of the factory system. On the other hand, the Cobdenite Radicals-including John Stuart Mill, Darwin, Spencer, Huxley and John Bright-good Malthu-



See David G. Ritchie, Darwinism and Politics ( New York, 1889), pp. 7-8, 45, passim; Robert Mackintosh, From Comte to Benjamin Kidd; The Appeal to Biology or Evolution for Human Guidance ( New York, 1899), passim.


See Friedrich Brie, Der Einfluss der Lehren Darwins auf den britischen Imperialismus (Freiburg in Baden, 1927); Pearson is discussed on pp. 14-15; Victor Bérard, British Imperialism and Commercial Supremacy ( London, 1906), p. 279.


Thomas Carlyle, "The Nigger Question", [ 1849] in Critical and Miscellaneous Essays ( London, 1901), pp. 348-383.

sians and internal Social-Darwinists-took for granted the necessity of the factory system and the internal economic struggle but protested the brutal suppression of the Jamaican coloured men by the British Governor Eyre. 6

By the end of the century, with the growing acceptance of evolutionary concepts, the debate was being waged under auspices which Carlyle, a disbeliever in Darwinian evolution, would never have accepted. Yet the arguments of the two sides were much the same. In England, internal SocialDarwinism, drawing sustenance from the doctrines of laissezfaire, was challenged by the new collectivist spirit of the 'eighties. The state had received a new meaning and importance at the hands of the Neo-Hegelian philosophers Green and Bradley. Free Trade, the bastion of Radical cosmopolitanism, was threatened in the 'eighties by the emergence of the rival notion of a protected national economy. In the battle between social-imperialism and Cobdenite liberalism, we will find that external Social-Darwinism provided one of the ideological foundations of social-imperialism while internal Social-Darwinism was a bulwark of Liberalism. The two leading exponents of British external Social-Darwinism were Benjamin Kidd and Karl Pearson, both of whom took up the position of Ruskin and Carlyle and asserted that England's first concern-if she meant to maintain her world position-was with the welfare of her own people at the expense, if need be, of other, 'inferior' peoples.

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