Universal Races Congress of 1911 & L. L. Zamenhof

Decades ago I read the conference proceedings in hard copy, but now they are online, and hopefully complete:

Papers on Inter-Racial Problems, Communicated to the First Universal Races Congress, Held at the University of London, July 26-29, 1911; edited by Gustav Spiller. London: P. S. King & Son; Boston: The World’s Peace Foundation, 1911. xlvi, 485 pp.

Included in these papers is the English text of Zamenhof's contribution, which was originally submitted in Esperanto and in French. Sometime in the 1970s I read the entire proceedings cover to cover, and there were few contributions that impressed me, foremost among them an essay by W.E.B. Du Bois on the racial situation in the USA. But perhaps now I would be more historically perceptive.

I decided to look this up, as earlier today I read the Esperanto version in Zamenhof's Originala Verkaro (1929, pp. 345-353). This time I paid reasonably close attention to Zamenhof's reasoning, which while flawed, is interesting, esp. in juxtaposition with his writings elsewhere on the Jewish question. Oddly, Zamenhof is well aware of existing social conditions (though teeth-grindingly ill-informed about Africa) and is unsparing in demystifying the entirely bogus basis on which racial and ethnic discrimination is based, and yet remains—so it seems—obtuse to certain aspects of the driving forces which maintain them. The climax of Zamenhof's argument—the key to its fundamental structure—can be found in this paragraph:

All that I have said justifies us in formulating this principle: The diversity of peoples and the hatred of each other which they betray will not wholly disappear from the face of the earth until humanity has but one language and one religion. Then in truth will the whole of humanity form one single people. Then there may, indeed, still be the various kinds of discord which are now found within the confines of every country and every people, such as political and economic discords, or those of conflicting parties or classes, and so on, but the most formidable of all discords, the mutual hatred of peoples, will have entirely disappeared.
This follows upon the logic of Zamenhof's argument wherein he purports to explain the governing factors behind interethnic & interracial enmity, discounting most of the usual justifications. It is a curious argument, with a number of suppressed premises. Here is one revealing passage:
Can we say, for instance, that so many millions of poor Russians hate the millions of poor Chinese on economic grounds, when they shed their blood so willingly to defend their Russian oppressors against the attacks of foreigners? Assuredly not, for the Russian soldier knows very well, when he kills a Chinese soldier, that the man would never do him as much harm as the "mailed fist" of his own compatriots. It is not economic causes that give rise to national hatreds.
I do not know how keen a sense of irony Zamenhof possessed. When you read this paragraph with care, and in context, you may find it as amazing as I do, for what Zamenhof doesn't say as for what he does. He never follows up on this scenario, never answers the question: if poor Russian cannon fodder know full well their Russian oppressors are far more harmful to them to Chinese peasants they are willing to slaughter with gusto, and if underlying motivations for this situation are not economic, then what are they? Zamenhof's argument is that only language and religion ultimately keep people apart. (Note also that Zamenhof also interjects the Jewish question, which is the key to everything he wrote, into his exposition.) This is truly an amazing line of argument, because while it doesn't hold up to scrutiny, it constitutes a backhanded slap in the face to the actual sociopolitical conditions that Zamenhof seeks to combat, combining both political awareness and political self-censorship in a single line of reasoning.

Two decades later, Zamenhof's daughter Lidia would pursue a comparable agenda in the USA, promoting both Esperanto and the Baha'i religion (rather than Zamenhof's homaranismo), with the noblest of intentions but with identical social ineffectuality. There is also, I should add, at least an iota of documentation on Lidia's connection with black Bahai's who learned Esperanto in the USA in the 1930s.

It would also be instructive to compare Zamenhof's moral idealism and world view with two other participants in the 1911 Congress: Felix Adler, conference organizer and founder of the Ethical Culture movement, akin to Zamenhof's homaranismo, and Israel Zangwill, originator of the term "melting pot" (which he applied not only to the condition of immigrants in the USA, but ultimately to the whole world), proto-Zionist, and advocate of the Jewish contribution to world civilization in books and numerous essays published in every venue imaginable, including the African-American press, with frequent mentions of Zamenhof and Esperanto.

*     *     *

It is useful to compare this essay to Zamenhof's writings (originally in Russian) on the Jewish question— Hilelismo etc. Zamenhof is quite soberly hard-headed and realistic; he's a debunker and demystifier of then-accepted notions of race, ethnicity, nationality, or what some scholars today call "imagined communities". His remark about powerless poor people killing one another in service to the rich and powerful is an illustration of his realism, and remains, sadly, an entirely contemporary issue. It is curious, though, that he doesn't follow through on the logic of this scenario. He argues that all other social conflicts will remain, but were people to find a common bridge language and bridge religion, at least interethnic hatreds could be eliminated. There are some big "if"s here and dubious "then"s, which reveal the essential limitations of Zamenhof's social perspective. (I would argue the same for Adler and Zangwill.) If I were to recommend explaining how Zamenhof thought while standing on one foot, this is the paragraph I would cite.

Zamenhof references the Jewish question in the course of his argument. He explains his position on this more fully in his Hillelist writings, as he ponders all the variables which hold the imagined community of Jews together. Zamenhof ruthlessly demystifies all the usual explanations. His skepticism is quite remarkable. He supplies arguments about what holds other peoples together—Germans, Poles, Russians, etc. He argues that language and religion are what hold peoples together. He is skeptical about both as applies to the Jews: he gave up his reformed Yiddish project, and as a nonbeliever thought it pointless to continue to be martyred for a religion one no longer believes in. So there's a real dilemma, the proposed solution of which ends up being Esperanto + hilelismo/homaranismo as a vehicle for modernizing the ghettoized Eastern European Jews.

There were theoretical interventions on this question in other circles—particularly in the social democratic movement (Marxist) of central Europe, and later in Russia on the part of Stalin. Noteworthy here is the difficulty of defining the cohesive forces binding the Jewish people as compared to any other nationality of central and Eastern Europe. Politically, these issues were parceled out among assimilationists, Zionists, Bundists, Marxist social-democrats, and Bolsheviks. Ultimately, nothing turned out as anyone anticipated in Zamenhof's lifetime. Theoretically, there were individuals in the anti-Stalinist left who attempted to carry on. For example, Abram Leon, a Jewish Trotskyist, wrote a book on the subject circa 1940, and ended up perishing in Auschwitz. In recent decades, there have appeared retrospective works on these developments, pointing up the theoretical inadequacies of previous formulations.

So it is understandable how difficult it was for Zamenhof to struggle with the theoretical as well as the practical question. This applies also to the Esperanto workers' movement, whose anarchist (sennaciista) and Stalinist intellectuals were, as far as I can tell, no more sophisticated than their krokodilaj counterparts.

I can't get into this in my upcoming half-hour talk, but I have to keep it in mind when thinking of how Zamenhof encountered the USA in 1910. The USA presented a whole different scenario from Europe, and as millions of Eastern European Jews voted with their feet, ending up in the USA, there remains something else to be examined—i.e. Zamenhof's interactions with Jewish immigrants and their spawn in the USA.

*     *     *

The American situation of course could not be captured by the European conception of nationality. This applies also to the situation of black Americans. While the concept of "race" has certainly been the dominant organizing principle—conceptually as well as in practice—there have nonetheless been several theories attempting to explain how race works in the USA and elsewhere. A decade ago when I was researching this and assisting someone in a doctoral dissertation on this subject, I could have rattled off most of these theories. My memory is rusty at this point, though.

I'll just note that the Stalinist conception of nationality was imported into the American Communist Party in 1928, leading to some curious results, first in labeling American's apartheid system as a national question, and secondly, in formulating a policy that had no relationship to actual political practice or prospects. When James W. Ford was placed on the ballot as the Communist Vice Presidential candidate in 1932, probably the first such black candidate from any political party in the USA, the party's platform included the creation of a Negro republic in the Southern states with a predominantly black population. There was even a map indicating the relevant territory on campaign posters. It was an avant-garde position for the time and totally divorced from reality as well as from the actual practice of the Communist Party, which consistently fought for integration.

This was entirely opposite to the contemporaneous nationalist separatism of Marcus Garvey, who wanted to make a deal with the Ku Klux Klan on the basis of shared goals, one of them being emigration to / colonization of Africa. Ultimately, notions like these would resurface decades later.

The punchline, though, is that the American configuration of race and ethnicity and the quasi-caste system in place did not mirror the nationality question in central Europe or the Russian empire.

The Jewish question in Europe did not fit comfortably into the European national paradigm either, practically or theoretically. Theory and policy  don't always run parallel, as not every political position elaborates a complementary theory, though implicitly there are differential world views at work. The socialist Bundists for example militantly opposed Zionism but lobbied for cultural (not political) autonomy in Eastern Europe, a notion that was shot down by the Bolsheviks. The Nazis took care of the rest. There is a substantial amount of scholarship on Bundism still going on: see bundism.net.

The ethnicity question viz. the new European immigrants was fought out in the USA a century ago, both by pro-immigrant and anti-immigrant factions among non-immigrants (i.e. WASPs and others of Northwestern European extraction), and by intellectuals among the new immigrant groups, e.g. Israel Zangwill's "melting pot" vs Horace Kallen's conservative ethnopluralism.

It is also noteworthy that there have been ideological conflicts of this sort throughout the history of Esperanto. The implications of Zamenhof's own position, which after all grew out of the conditions of the Czarist empire, require a fair amount of analysis. It is not immediately apparent either what "internationalism" implies, and it was opposed by sennaciismo (anationalism), which in turn finds its polar opposite in etnismo. And then there's the ridiculous position of Giorgio Silfer (one incarnation of raŭmismo), culminating in the supremely ridiculous Esperanta Civito. (I'm a minister in the Esperanta Respubliko, but the less said about that, the better.) The nation-state still being the pivotal determining variable in language policy puts the kabosh on both sennaciismo and etnismo. As for the rest, the social organization of economics and technology as well as where history has left us determine what is going to happen internationally, and the pretensions of the mainstream Esperanto movement both to universalize the role of Esperanto as medium of international communication and to conserve national/ethnic languages and language rights within the boundaries of the nation-state are, to put it as politely as possible, quixotic. What remains unquestionably practical about Esperanto is its niche as a voluntary international speech community, which is nothing to sneeze at.

*     *     *

The fragments above were written on 4 December 2010. I have digitized the Esperanto version of Zamenhof's contribution:

Gentoj kaj Lingvo Internacia (1911) de L. L. Zamenhof

No comments: