This essay is reproduced here as it appeared in the print edition of the original Science for the People magazine. These web-formatted archives are preserved complete with typographical errors and available for reference and educational and activist use. Scanned PDFs of the back issues can be browsed by headline at the website for the 2014 SftP conference held at UMass-Amherst. For more information or to support the project, email email@example.com
A New Battle in an Old War
by Richard Lewinton
In the past five years, there has been a wave of ideological attacks by intellectuals on those who are without power and wealth—specifically blacks, the unemployed, the working class in general. This new wave has emanated from the elite universities and has been designed to prove that the “lower” classes are biologically and genetically less intelligent than their oppressors.
The doctrine of biological inferiority is an extraordinarily useful weapon in the constant struggle of those who have wealth and power against those who do not. For the possessing classes themselves it provides an ideal psychological justification for their position. Especially in countries and in eras where egalitarianism is part of the national myth, those who rule and who pass their ruling position to their children need to resolve the contradiction between the obvious fact of their power and the ideology of equality. What better way than to believe that they are the recipients of a special biological grace? For the government apparatus that serves the possessors, the doctrine of genetic inferiority of the poor provides the perfect justification for the failure of the egalitarian myth. If the poor owe their position in society to the inferiority of their genes, then there is no use in spending money on schools, in enforcing legislation against racism in the work place, in devoting public money and effort to altering the situation of blacks, the unemployed, the welfare recipients. After all, these people have an unchangeable situation, unchangeable because it is in their genes. Finally, and most important, the doctrine of genetic inferiority is designed to convince the oppressed themselves that their oppression is internal, that they are victims of their own biological inadequacies, rather than of the structure of social relations. If people can be convinced that their troubles are the result of unchangeable biological forces within themselves, they will cease to struggle and will accept their fate. Nothing could be better calculated to assure the peaceful continuity of things as they are.
The notion of inherited superiority of the rulers over the ruled is not a new one. Indeed, it was one of the two pillars of justification for the inherited aristocracy of pre-industrial times, the other pillar being the grace of God. The superior blood of aristocrats was over and over again offered as the justification for their ruling position. Nor is the role of university intellectuals in providing a pseudo-scientific basis for the doctrine a new one. As Gar Allen’s article (see p. 32) shows, geneticists and psychologists in elite universities have been among the leading proponents of racism and biological determinism since genetics and psychology first became academic disciplines at the beginning of the 20th century Only the rise of Nazism temporarily forced geneticists and psychologists to abandon blatant racism and appear in a more liberal guise. But Nazism has been forgotten and once again the battle to prove the genetic inferiority of oppressed people has broken out.
But why now? Have some new scientific facts come to light about the inheritance of intelligence and ability, facts that have forced scientists, despite their misgivings, to re-examine the role of genes in determining social position? The answer is clearly “no.” The opening gun in the new campaign, the paper by Arthur Jensen in the Harvard Educational Review1, was nothing but a rehash of the old results of psychologists and geneticists. The article by Richard Herrstein in the Atlantic Monthly and his recent book2, are merely Jensen’s hash warmed over. Indeed, because of the confusion and contradictions spread by Jensen, Herrnstein and others like them, we probably know less about the genetics of ability than before. There are no new facts worth speaking about, only the same old pseudoscientific assertions about the genetic inferiority of blacks and the unemployed, with some new statistical manipulations to make them appear objective.
It is not in the development of science that we must search for the source of the new outbreak of a scientific racism. It is rather, in the social and political conditions of the last half-dozen years. When there is a sudden increase in the intensity of ideological attacks on blacks and the working class, we can be sure that these attacks are a response to some threat to those who rule, a threat that must be met by renewed pressure. There are, in fact, new and unprecedented pressures on both the scientific elite, who are the producers of the new academic racism, and on those who use these weapons: state and local governments, apologists for commercial and property interests, and those who control, own, and operate the American industrial enterprise. While different, these pressures are related and are manifestations of a general inability of American institutions to assert their authority and work their will.
University professors, who are the producers of the ideological weapons, have been faced over the last ten years with a serious threat to their authority in their own institutions. Having won the battle with administration and trustees, and having secured, at least in elite institutions, much of the control over the conditions of their work, they have suddenly been faced with a direct threat to their control and authority by students and by community groups outside the universities demanding a share in the decision making and control of educational institutions. The Columbia uprising, the repeated occupation of buildings by black students or dissenting white students, the successful pressures for open enrollment, or, at the very least, for an increase in black student enrollments, the open challenges to classroom authority when teachers engage in their usual obfuscations and half-truths, the demands for courses whose content and approach relates to the world as it really is, all have created panic or near panic among faculty members whose entrenched authority is threatened. And they have reacted. Just a few months ago, a meeting was held in Venice to plan a strategy of counter-attack. The meeting, organized and attended by such notables of reactionary academia as Ernest Van den Haag3 and Sydney Hook4, was for the express purpose of finding ways to reassert the lost authority of the professors over rebellious students and to ”raise academic standards” that have been lowered by the admission of blacks and other “unqualified” people into the universities. The struggle to preserve an old order of authority against a breakdown of consent and of old values has been the major and obvious preoccupation of elite academics for the last half dozen years. They perceive the breakdown of authority in their own institutions as symptomatic of a general challenge to authority in society at large. The unqualified, uninitiated, ignorant hordes are threatening. People no longer know their place. It is against this background that academics in elite institutions, like Shockley at Stanford, Jensen at Berkeley, Herrnstein at Harvard have initiated a campaign to rebuild the grounds of intellectual authority and to keep the vulgar masses out of their universities and out of power. To accomplish this purpose, these academics and their sympathetic colleagues have proclaimed that intellect is what matters in life, that intellect is a real and intrinsic attribute of individuals, and that differences in intellect are inherited and therefore unavoidable. It is on this argument that they rest their claim to their own unchalengeable superiority. The best people have brains. That’s how they got to be the best people. And brains come from your genes so it’s no use fighting it.
This ideology of inherited merit and brains that so suits the threatened academics, is a weapon that has been seized upon by the other institutions of society, especially the government, in their own struggle to protect the status quo. The academics are right when they say that the breakdown of campus authority is a symptom of a general impotence of constituted power. Because of a change in the world historical situation since the end of the last world war, the United States as a world power, and the ruling American elite within American society, are increasingly unable to cope with the challenges of oppressed people by the usual techniques.
The pressures on those who rule are not new. People in the dedeveloped countries of the world have been struggling for a long time against powerful nations who have controlled them politically and economically. The working class, the underemployed, the unemployed have been fighting for economic and political power in America for 150 years. But the situation has changed because the oppressed groups have new powers and new techniques, while those who rule are constrained by new political and economic forces. The total American frustration in Viet Nam is the most clear-cut example and has, in addition, contributed directly to the breakdown of authority at home. The United States was unable to win a colonial war in Southeast Asia because the Chinese revolution has created a style of popular liberation struggle many times more powerful than previous anti-colonial uprisings, and because the existence of a powerful socialist bloc, with its own nuclear arsenal, prevented the United States from using its real power, the atomic bomb. Years of frustrating losses in Viet Nam created a movement of dissent at home, of which only shadowy intimations were seen earlier in the Korean War, and more money has been poured into the military establishment as that establishment has become more and more impotent. This money must be diverted from general welfare, education, health and other public services for which demand is constantly rising. Excuses must be found for the withdrawal of funds from these projects. And an excuse has been found, manufactured by the educational psychologists. “The winds of Jensenism are blowing through the White House with gale force” we are told by Daniel Moynihan. He ought to know, being one of the great academic wind machines himself.
At the same time that money is to be saved from education and welfare, political credit is built up by the Nixon forces within large segments of the population who would not normally and naturally support the wealthy and powerful. This policy is carried out by placing the blame for the economic losses suffered by the working and lower middle classes on the shoulders of other members of the same classes. It is the standard ploy of playing off one group against another. It used to be the “native Americans” against the foreign born. Now it is ”welfare chiselers” against hard-working people, blacks against whites, playing on the white backlash against the new black militancy. Every time black children are introduced into an all white school, a mothers’ group to “save our neighborhood schools” is created, threatening and performing violence on black schoolchildren. Now those concerned mothers are armed with a new weapon by their allies in government—the black children are genetically inferior. This raises, subtly, the spectre of miscegenation and the genetic pollution of ethnic stocks.
Armed uprisings in American ghettos and demands by the poor and unemployed for their economic rights are not new phenomena. Industrial sabotage, workers’ slowdowns, wildcat strikes are old features of American life. Yet these are all particularly frightening to the ruling elites today. First, black militancy has become much more widespread and constant. Rather than an occasional violent uprising in the urban ghettoes, punctuating long periods of calm and apparent submission, recent black militancy has been in the form of continuing pressure, sometimes more violent, sometimes less, but always palpable as pressure on the ruling whites. There is no time for local governments to catch their breath and bring things completely under control. Second, labor militancy has increasingly passed into the hands of black workers, who have taken the place in the labor movement formerly held by immigrants. Thus a struggle against laborers’ demands has become increasingly a struggle against black workers who make up not only a progressively larger share of the industrial work force, but who are seen as the instigators of labor unrest. Third, there are new and surprising groups entering the battle. Teachers and other professionals who could formerly be counted on as the allies of those in power are now unionizing. The most threatening new unrest is among prisoners, more and more of whom are organizing, resisting, challenging the legitimacy of their imprisonment, seeing themselves as political prisoners. Again blacks are among the leaders and major participants in these prison uprisings.
The existence of a powerful Third World block whose economic and population power is ever increasing, makes it impossible for authorities to suppress black rebellion, Chicano resistance, and Indian uprisings in the ruthless way that was possible in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Juries over and over again refuse to convict militants accused of violence against organs of the state. At the same time, the major expansion of competing industrial producers in Germany and Japan has cut strongly into domestic and export markets so that labor unrest is especially threatening. The U.S. balance of trade has been so unfavorable in recent years that the dollar price of gold has quadrupled. The ability to compete with foreign producers has, for the first time, become absolutely critical to the stability of American industry as a whole. This in turn means that labor unrest, interruptions of production, increased labor costs, are no longer simply reducers of profit, but they actually threaten the entire economic structure.
All of these elements are symptoms of a growing impotence of American institutions of power in their fight against the pressures which, in past times, they could resist and conquer. Thus, ideological weapons take on a new and vital importance for the ruling classes. If uprisings at home and abroad cannot be resisted by economic or military force, as they once could so easily, they must be prevented at their root. The wretched of the earth must be convinced that the fault lies within themselves, and that it cannot be remedied. This ideology is the bacteriological weapon in a class war, for if the disease of self-blame and inherent inferiority should successfully infect those who are struggling for their lives, they will lose all will to resist. Like other forms of biological warfare, it is a weapon that is released only when all others are failing. In the end, it, too, will fail.
- Jensen, A. 1969. “How much can we boost IQ and scholastic achievement?” Harvard Educational Review, 39:1-123.
- Herrnstein, R. “IQ,” Atlantic Monthly, Sept.,1971. “IQ and the Meritocracy,” Boston, 1973.
- Van den Haag, a sociologist from N.Y.U., is a leading academic supporter of Nixon, amember of the Committee for Fairness to the President.
- Hook, aphilosopher at N.Y.U., after his conversion from Marxixm became a leading red-baiter and adherent of the C.I.A. sponsored Congress for Cultural Freedom.