Social Process

Chapter 24: Class and Race

Charles Horton Cooley

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CLASS-CONFLICT thinkers have conceived the social situation somewhat as follows: There are practically two classes, the privileged and the unprivileged. They are separate and irreconcilable and the rift between them is growing wider. So soon as they clearly grasp this situation the unprivileged, who are far more numerous and of equal natural ability, will overcome the privileged and bring about a revolution. This will obliterate the class line and permit the organization of a classless and purely democratic society.

It is more in accord with the facts, I think, to hold that these divisions, in American democracy at least, are subject to that principle of modern life which keeps the person from being absorbed in the group, insures his being a member of the organic whole as well as of a faction, and makes social classes more and more like parties rather than distinct organisms. Moreover, as parties, they probably have a permanent function, and are not likely to be obliterated.

The fact that we all live in a common stream of suggestion and discussion makes a total separation of classes impossible. Capitalists and hand-workers read, in great

(269) part, the same newspaper dispatches and public speeches. There is a common general atmosphere which no man interested in his fellows can escape. Wars, calamities, adventures, athletic contests, heroic deeds, pathetic incidents, inventions, discoveries, and the like appeal to every-body and make a common element into which class feeling enters very little. There are, of course, class publications which often emphasize to the utmost the class view of every occurrence; but few intelligent men are content with these alone. We all love the broad current and seek it in the press. It seems that this is more the case now than formerly; that men are less and less content with the committed organs of any sort of opinion, but demand a large and free view.

If the question of the moment happens to be a class question, the modern way of treating it is by open discussion, in which each side strives to understand the other's point of view, if only to refute it. This inestimable good has democracy brought us, among others, that we dare not, cannot, ignore the other side; we must meet it in open discussion. This, again, is a growing condition. All who can remember twenty-five or thirty years back must be impressed with the tendency of everything to come into the open. Formerly the domination of the rich was a covert thing, very little being said about it because it was unobserved, or accepted as part of the natural order. And the like was true of a hundred other questionable or vicious conditions-political corruption, sexual vice, and the like. At present the interest and intelligence directed toward class questions is too great to permit of underhand or secretive methods. Wrongs are brought to light sooner or later and react against those who practise them. It would be hard to say whether labor has been most

( 270) hurt by venality and intimidation on the part of some of its leaders, or capital by its corruption of politics and exploitation of the people. Public opinion regards both with deep resentment, and is determined to know the truth regarding them.

And when two parties are brought to discuss an issue before the public as arbiter, they are in great degree reconciled or united by the process. That is, they are brought to recognize and appeal to common principles of justice which the public accepts as binding on all. The airing of fundamental economic questions in our day is educative to all concerned. The tendency of it is to draw our ideas and practices out of the dimness of a class environment and show them in the white light of the public square, where every passer-by is a critic; so that we ourselves are led to take a universal view of them.

This would be true even if there were no authoritative expression of public opinion in government, but it is all the more true because there is such an expression. It is an excellent thing, as regards solidarity, that every faction must stand well with the public under peril of hostile regulation. This means, if only we can make the public mind penetrating and intelligent, that it will not pay to do the things that cannot bear the light.

Those who doubt our ability to control the capitalist class perhaps give too little weight to the moral elements in the situation. The privileged classes of the past have been strong because they were, or seemed to be, essential to social order and the maintenance of the higher traditions. If their function in this regard is diminishing, as there is reason to think, then the moral position of any class attempting to continue the old inequalities as against practicable reforms, will be extremely weak. No merely

( 271) selfish interest, under modern conditions, can long make head against the general current of moral judgment.

It is true that class loyalty may, to some extent, enlist a spirit of group devotion and militant ardor; but it does not, for the majority offer the conditions needed to awake enthusiasm, and I do not see how it ever can. Social classes, make what you will of them, have not separate cultures, traditions, or currents of daily thought, and are not likely to have. The class spirit has not been successful in subordinating the spirit of nationality, even in time of peace; while in time of war, or in the case of nationalities struggling with oppression, like the Belgians, the Poles, or the Bohemians, class becomes quite a secondary matter.[1]

The growing economic solidarity of classes tends in the same direction. We hear it said with equal confidence that the interests of capital and labor are opposed, and that they are the same. The solution, of course, is that both statements are true. The two have a common interest in the prosperity and stability of industry, and are mutually dependent upon each other's efficiency and fair dealing. At the same time there is a real conflict of pecuniary interest as to the division of the product. In general the solidarity and interdependence increase as industries become more extensive and intricate, and require more intelligent and harmonious co-operation. It is also increased by the diffusion of investment, thrifty wage-earners becoming, to a large and increasing degree, small capitalists as well. The outcome is an organic

( 272) whole which does not exclude opposition, but tends to limit it to what is functional, and to bring it under the control of rule.

Under such conditions the relation between economic classes—capital and labor, let us say, for simplicity-is that of two Parties to a bargain so advantageous for both that neither can afford to throw it up, but whose precise terms are matter for controversy. Each side may have a motive for disputing, for feeling out the other's position, even for temporarily refusing to trade, but not for going to extremes. Neither can afford to push the other to desperation. Capital could starve out labor, and labor could wreck the whole system, but in either case it would be suicidal to do so.

The orderly development of industrial life calls for an organization of process analogous to that of political democracy; that is, one providing regular methods for investigation, discussion, conflict, decision, and tentative advance on the chosen course. Disputes between capital and labor are normal, and it should be part of our system to arrange for their development and solution with the least possible misunderstanding, hostility, and economic waste. Small differences may be aired and adjusted before a permanent committee made up from both parties, while more serious differences, involving principles, after being formulated by each side, may be precisely and thoroughly investigated by a public agency in which both sides have confidence, in order that the situation may be clearly seen and agreement reached, if possible. And where struggle proves inevitable it should take place under public control and in accordance with rules expressing the paramount ideal of a common service. I understand something of this kind to be the programme of

( 273) competent students of the labor problem; and there is the same need of regular process on all lines of growth.

There is every reason, in the United States at least, to anticipate not a class war but a continuance of the comparatively mild reconnoissances and skirmishes that have long marked industrial conflicts-whether they are carried into politics or remain purely industrial. The function of these light engagements is to determine approximately the strength of the parties in view of the whole economic, social, and moral situation, and so to establish a modus vivendi. Violent or reactionary methods, or any others not adapted to the general situation, will fail.

We may expect gradual but continuous progress in the direction of ideals of social justice. Such ideals, as they are diffused, tried out, and adapted, tend to become standards to which controversies are referred. They are neither purely humanitarian nor purely economic, but represent a working compromise between the two.

The total-cleavage theory of economic classes is taken most seriously in Europe, owing to the fact that European classes are largely castes, an inheritance from an older order, which actually do embrace almost the whole being of the member; and also to repressive methods and the comparative absence of democracy. It would be hard, I imagine, to find an American writer of equal weight who would assent to the assertion of the German economic historian, Karl Bucher, that "all modern industrial development tends in the direction of producing a permanent laboring class . . . which in future will doubtless be as firmly attached to the factory as were the servile laborers of the mediaeval manor to the glebe."[2] I think

( 274) that the division into two classes is on the whole diminishing, and that while the society of the future will not be classless, its classes will be mainly functional groups, increasingly open to all through a democratic and selective system of education. Class consciousness, however, is desirable, within limits, as a means to the diminution of privilege, which still exists in great power and can scarcely be overcome except as it is understood.

The question of race differs from that of nationality or of social class in that it supposes a division among men springing not merely from differences in history, environment, and culture, but rooted in their biological nature.

Of such a hereditary division we have almost no definite knowledge, except as regards the somewhat superficial traits of color and physiognomy. It is even possible to doubt whether there is any important innate psychical difference among the several branches of mankind. It is certain that different spirits are to be found in different races, that there is a deep and ancient unlikeness in the whole inner life of the Japanese, for example, and of the English. But the same is true of peoples like the English and German, who are not of distinct races. In other words, a group soul, a special ethos or mores, is the sure result of historical causes acting for centuries in a social system; so that different souls will exist whether the race is different or not. And as race differences, when present, are always accompanied by historical differences, it is not possible to make out just how much is due to them alone.

Many of us, to be sure, feel that the judgment of common sense, however incapable of demonstration, shows us unlikenesses of temperament and capacity, between

( 275) Negroes and whites, for example, that cannot altogether be accounted for by influences acting after birth. Admitting that color is unimportant, the divergence in cranial and facial type may reasonably be supposed to mean something, however unfair may be their interpretation by white people.

It would be strange, reasoning from general principles, if races which have been bred apart for thousands of years and, in some cases, have become so different physically, should remain just alike as to innate mental traits. Surely it is not in accordance with what we know of heredity to suppose that millenniums of growth and adaptation in different environments have no effect upon this most plastic part of the organism. Or why should races be presumed equal in mental and moral capacity when family stocks in the same race are so evidently unequal in these respects?

The next easiest thing to accepting the apparent as true is to declare it wholly false; and so in regard to races; if you have come to see that many of the differences supposed to be racial are due to environment, you will save yourself trouble by believing that all of them are of this nature. But I cannot- think that a patient consideration of the facts justifies this conclusion.

However, judgments of race capacity are very open to bias, and have proved so untrustworthy in the past that it is not surprising that some students regard them as altogether illusory. Fortunately, it is seldom necessary, in dealing with practical questions, to depend upon such judgements.

In practice we never have to deal with race as a separate factor, but always in intimate combination with

( 276) social and historical conditions. The essential thing, for most purposes, is to understand the working of the combination as a whole. Accordingly, a race problem, as understood in practical politics and sociology, does not mean one based upon a strictly biological distinction, but one in which biological and social factors, working together, produce lasting differences sufficient to keep the groups apart. In Europe most of the cases where there is an acute race situation-as between Germans and Poles in northern Prussia, between Russians and Finns, Germans and Czechs, or English and Irish-are cases where the strictly biological difference is probably not very great; the question is mainly one of antagonistic traditions. In our own Negro problem natural differences in color and physiognomy certainly play a large part, if only by defining the race line and instigating psychological attitudes. What we have to deal with, in any case, is the total situation.

It follows from the importance of environment that differences which make a race problem in Europe do not necessarily do so when the peoples in question migrate to America and undergo in common the assimilating influences of a democratic civilization. Germans and Czechs, for example, do not form hostile groups here as they do in Bohemia. America has demonstrated the impermanence of many Old World divisions, while others seem to be as persistent here as anywhere. The only conclusive test is that of experience.

In so far as races remain separate in different nationality ties, with no large or permanent intermigration, it is not apparent that their relations offer any race problem distinct from those that attend the contact of nations.

( 277) Thus, as regards international questions, the Americans and Japanese are simply two nations, like the Americans and the French. There is no reason why their trade and diplomacy should be affected by the difference in physiognomy, and if they should go to war the issue will depend upon the energy, organization, and intelligence of the two peoples, precisely as in the case of closely kindred nations like the English and German. What may be the basis of the assumption of certain writers that the mere existence of two races, even with the Pacific between them, means war, it is not easy to understand. It would seem that the motives impelling to peace or war would be about the same as between nations of the same race; always excepting the possibility that through more intimate contact by migration racial feeling might be excited and might extend to the respective nations. I do not mean to suggest that this last is a very great or an unavoidable danger, but evidently it is one way, possibly the only way, in which international relations might take on a racial character.

Another prospect, often brought forward with confidence, is that if interracial migration is forbidden, the nation or nations representing the more prolific race will go to war in order to secure an outlet for their surplus population. But if they do this they will do it not as races but as nations; and would do it quite as readily, perhaps, if there were no difference in race. The nation, not the race, is the organized militant unit, eager to plant colonies and extend its power and prestige. The mere shedding of surplus racial population is not an object of ambition, and so not in itself likely to be a motive to war. In other words, it is not apparent why Japan and China, being peopled by a distinct race, are any more

( 278) likely to attack Canada, in case the latter forbids immigration, than if they were peopled by Germans or Scandinavians.

Another matter whose importance in this connection is perhaps exaggerated is that of economy of subsistence. We are told regarding the Japanese that "he can underlive, and therefore he can outlive, any Occidental," but I question whether the unique solidarity of his social system, intimate, ardent, adaptable, is not a more formidable element of power than his supposed ability to live on a cup of rice a day. If the latter is real and advantageous it is merely a factor in national efficiency, like others, with no peculiar and inevitable tendency to bring on conflict.

It would seem, then, that in order to have a true race problem the races must mingle in considerable numbers in the same political system. And in that case the ruling factor is not the precise amount of strictly racial difference, as distinct from social, but the actual attitude of the groups toward each other. If this is such as to keep them separate and perhaps hostile, it matters little, as regards the social situation, whether it is based on sound ethnology or not. In the United States the immigration of Europeans, even though they be of stocks considerably different from the older inhabitants, as Italians, Slavs and Jews, seems not to create a true race problem, experience indicating that assimilation will take place within a generation or two. On the other hand, the presence of the Negro in large numbers creates a race problem, because assimilation is generally held undesirable, and does not, in fact, take place. Whether the immigration of Orientals in large numbers to our Pacific coast would create an

( 279) enduring race question is, perhaps, undetermined, but experience indicates that it would.

Permanent race groups in the same social system constitute race caste. It seems to me that this is beyond comparison the most urgent race question with which we have to deal; not only as regards its present aspects, but because it is likely to have a rapid growth. Many countries, including our own, already suffer from it, and the freedom of movement given by modern conditions, together with the persistence of race sentiment, tend to make it almost universal. That is, if the Chinese, for example, can compete successfully with other races in certain industrial functions, there is no reason, apart from legal restriction, why they should not form colonies in every country where those functions are in demand.

It is doubtful how far it may be possible to reconcile race caste with the democracy and solidarity which are coming to be the ideals of modern nations. In the Southern United States the caste feeling is not diminishing, and while we hope that it is taking on forms more favorable to the co-operation of the races on a plane of fair play and mutual respect, the issue is somewhat in doubt. Certainly the present condition is not in harmony with democratic ideals, and its defenders can hardly claim more for it than that it makes the best of a difficult situation. Much the same appears to be true of the contact of races in other parts of the world, in South Africa, Australia, India, and even in Eastern Europe.

As a matter of theory a society made up of race groups co-operating in equality and good-will is not clearly impossible. But at the best it would be more like an international federation than like a nation with a single soul. We can imagine a harmonious Austria-Hungary,

( 280) but should not wish our own country to resemble it And, as a matter of fact, it has always been the case, so far as I know, that where there were race castes under the same government one of them has domineered over the rest. It is a situation by all means to be avoided if possible.

There are, then, quite apart from any comparison of races as to superiority, excellent grounds of national policy for preventing their mingling in large numbers in the same state. So far as we can judge by experience, the race antagonism weakens that common spirit , that moral unity, that willing subordination of the part to the whole, that are requisite to a healthy national fife. I see no reason why America and Australia should not avoid the rise of an unnecessary caste problem by restricting Oriental immigration, or why the Oriental nations should not, on the same ground, discourage Occidental colonies. Such measures would not imply anything derogatory to the other race, and, this being understood, should give no offense.


  1. I hardly need say, regarding the class revolution In Russia, that that country was lacking in those conditions of intelligence, communication, and economic development which my argument assumes to exist.
  2. See his Industrial Evolution, translation, p. 382.

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