The Humanist Paradox

Ever since I started to study history, I’ve been obsessed with one question. Everywhere the humanist project traveled, it brought with it racism and massacres, from Congo to Wounded Knee to Tasmania. Sven Lindqvist, a Swedish author, puts it beautifully when he says that “the idea of extermination lies no further from the heart of humanism than Buchenwald lies from the Goethehaus in Weimar”.1 Is this a coincidence, or is racism a part of humanism? This is what I pompously called the Humanist Paradox.

Just look at the French revolution. The French national anthem, which was created a few years after the storming of the Bastille as a marching song for the French armies fighting in the east, calls for soldiers to drench the soil in impure blood (“Qu’un sang impur abreuve nos sillons”). The blood in question, at the time, is the blood of Prussian soldiers, logically opposed to the pure blood of the French ones. Some have argued that the blood referred to nobles only, but I don’t buy it.2 The song makes it pretty clear that it’s about enemy soldiers, and the commoners singing it knew full well that their opponents were largely simple folks like them, not aristocrats. You don’t drench a field with the blood of just one enemy commander.

On the one hand, there’s an army calling the blood of Prussians impure. But this army is also supposed to be fighting for the universal values of the French revolution. The Declaration of the Rights of Man of 1789 says that all men are “born free and equal in rights”. The Declaration of Independence of the United States is even clearer, it says that “all men are created equal”. How did the French soldiers reconcile the two? Could Prussian soldiers become their equal after dialysis? This is the Humanist Paradox.

Humanism wants to set people free and let them live their lives as they want to, but racism and nationalism create new categories that you can’t leave. You’re born white or Black, French or German. You might be able to change your passport or tick another box in race censuses, but, in the eyes of most people, you’ll remain what you were born. Is this categorization, which makes humans less free, part of humanism? Or is it just a bug that can be fixed?

Anywhere you look on the journey of humanism, you’ll find racism following in its footsteps. The United States, where many liberal ideas were pioneered, was built upon a foundation of racism and the bodies of millions of Native Americans and Blacks. European brands of universalism were used to justify the killing and exploitation of millions in their colonies. Still today, in all liberal democracies, racism remains an immense problem, depriving millions from any sense of civic equality.

Despite its weight, racism is barely studied by academics. There is just one institute that focuses on racism and it actually only deals with anti-Jewish hatred.3 There is no academic journal studying racism.4 I’ve been looking for a book that tackles the link between humanism and racism for at least fifteen years now, and couldn’t find any. Hence this essay.

Let’s go back to the battlefields of the late 18th and early 19th century, where the French revolutionary - later Napoleonic - armies were fighting German, British or Russian troops. Firearms were already the main weapon for infantry regiments, but they were very basic. You’re probably familiar with the saying “Don’t shoot until you see the white of their eyes!” It’s from this period. Shooting was so impractical and the range so short that you couldn’t shoot a target beyond 30 meters. Reloading was slow, so that an infantryman could only fire a few times per minute.5 This was close combat. It wasn’t rare for a regiment to charge the enemy with bayonets or sabers, killing men by hand.

It might increase your faith in humanity to learn that very few people are able to kill in close combat. Only one in ten to one in five non-professional soldiers shoot to kill.6 For generals, it must have been terrible. Their best killers could, at most, shoot and kill three enemy soldiers per minute. On top of this comes the logistical problem of ammunition. A rule of thumb at the time was that the quantity of lead needed to kill an enemy was equal to its weight (others say that you needed 500 bullets to make one kill, which still adds up to about 15 kilos of lead).7 Now, do a little math. If you increase the quantity of killers in your army from one in ten to one in three or one in two, you need much smaller armies to achieve victory and you relieve your supply lines. And what’s the easiest way to convince normal people to kill? Dehumanization of the enemy. Killing a human is way easier if you’re convinced that he’s actually not really human.

I believe the Marseillaise was and remained so popular because it dehumanizes the enemy. In the song, enemies are monsters of impure blood who just want to slit the throats of the singer’s wives and children. This dehumanization was above all a military innovation and probably played a great role in the successes of the French armies. So great was this role that all the other armies routed by Napoleon quickly recognized it and took the innovation for themselves. In Prussia, the national movement took off only after the French invasion. In 1813, twenty years after the Marseillaise was first sung, Prussians called their decisive victory the Battle of the Races.8

Using racism as a military trick to dehumanize the enemy and improve the ratio of killers in the ranks lasted a good century-and-a-half after it was discovered. Some scientists went to great length to help the military. During the first world war, the French were told that Germans had a biological condition, bromidosis, which made them evacuate their urine through sweat. Newspapers were quick to conclude that Germans peed through their feet.9 The Vietnam war was possibly the last occasion when racism was actively used as a motivation technique by the military command.10 After Vietnam, American generals stopped using it. If you read the full transcript of the Collateral Murder video, which shows American soldiers killing a dozen civilians in Iraq in 2007, you might be surprised not to find a single racial slur.11

There are several reasons for this evolution. First, the military innovated again on the semantical field. They started using neutral words for the act of killing. To kill is to neutralize, to fire is to engage and dead civilians are collateral damage. Another reason why racism isn’t used anymore by the military command is that weapons in use today allow for remote killing, which is much easier than close combat.12 Very few people can dig a bayonet in a man’s chest, but everyone can fire a drone. Finally, the psychological costs of dehumanization through racism are high. After all, once you’ve lived among the ones who’re supposed to be subhuman and realize they’re actually just like you, the cognitive dissonance must be hard to bear. As the value of the life of a soldier rose, military command probably tried to reduce the losses due to psychological trauma.

If racism was a military technique which is not needed anymore, why did it stick around? If its only purpose was on the battlefield, it should have receded after Vietnam, but it hasn’t. It happened that racism was also an excellent way to bind a group together on a very large scale. The idea of a hierarchy of races is at the heart of most nationalist movements. While the concept is taboo since 1945, it was used by pretty much every nation in the 19th century.13 Germans were probably the ones who used the concept most extensively, even though it was theorized by a Frenchman, Arthur de Gobineau. Interestingly, racial theories were very flexible. Japanese scholars, for instance, first accepted to be hierarchically inferior to whites but decided to create their own hierarchy of races as soon as their political ambitions switched from “catching up with the whites” to “defeating them militarily” at the beginning of the 20th century.14

The idea of race is very efficient at mobilizing a population against another, still today. Take the concept of ivoirité in Côte d’Ivoire, for instance. It was created in the early 1990s by the southerner Henri Konan Bédié against a political opponent, the northerner Alassane Ouattara. While ethnically void (Côte d’Ivoire is home to dozens of languages), the concept was quickly used to dehumanize northerners and eventually provoked a civil war.15 In Rwanda at the same time, another racist narrative was built to dehumanize Tutsis, famously called “cockroaches” on national radio, in preparation for the genocide.

Within the European Union, racism is still very popular and widely used. After a lull following the last great massacres of colonized people in the 1960s, racist themes were used successfully by far-right movements. So successfully, in fact, that governments across the board used racism to justify their policies. From the French government’s claims that “Roma people were not to integrate” in 201316 to the dehumanization of Syrians by the British government in 201517, examples of racist language - and actions - abound.

Racism, or ascribing specific biologically-defined moral characteristics to a group of humans, is the first building block of nationalism. You might argue that some strains of nationalism aren’t based on race. The United States, for instance, claims to welcome immigrants from all over the world. However, the “manifest destiny” of the nation was invented to deny the people who inhabited the land, Native Americans, the right to join the nation.

The French case is the other textbook example of a nationalism based on reason and not race. It is as bogus as the American one. Most of the case for this non-racist nationalism is based on a lecture by Ernest Renan, a French academic, where he said that being French is “an everyday plebiscite”.18 He meant that Frenchness came from adhesion to French laws and not from any biological trait. Maybe he meant it. Or maybe he was just trying to build a case for legitimately demanding that the Germans give back the territories of Alsace-Lorraine, which they had conquered ten years previously. At the same time, Germans were arguing that Alsace-Lorraine was rightfully theirs because its inhabitants were racially German. The case that Renan was trying to build does not hold. Renan himself was an ardent defender of the hierarchy of races theory. In a book he wrote a few years before his speech, he argued that “lesser races” should be dominated by “upper races” for their own good. Of course, he argued, the French were in the upper races.19 More importantly than the racist lucubrations of Renan, France was the first state to apply ethnic cleansing on a large scale - when it recovered Alsace-Lorraine from the Germans. In 1918, all inhabitants who could not prove a French ancestry were deported to German territory. Half a million men, women and children were sent away on racial grounds, in an episode of history that very few in France remember.20 So much for non-racist nationalism.

Racism was born as a military technique and stayed alive because it was a very efficient way to rally together a group of people. Now, you might think this argument to be wholly ridiculous because racism always existed, didn’t it?21 Actually, it didn’t. The military advantages that racism provides (because of the dehumanization it provokes) are so great that military commanders would very probably have used it if they knew about it. When looking at past empires and their military prowesses, you’d be hard pressed to find a coherent discourse on races.

On the contrary, Roman emperors, for instance, stemmed from all over the empire. Marcus Aurelius, of Gladiator fame, was Spanish, for instance, and Philip The Arab, who ruled just five years, was from present-day Syria.22 This absence of racist ideas is found in the Ottoman empire, too. The mothers of the sultans were almost never of Turkic extraction. They sometimes came from countries outside of the empire altogether, like Roxelana, born a Ukrainian, who was one of the most powerful Ottoman rulers.

Of course, there were Barbarians outside the empire (in Rome) and infidels within it (in the Ottoman empire), but they were people to conquer, convert and integrate, not sub-humans to root out. Similarly, there is no trace of a racist discourse in the papal bulls justifying the crusades,23 or in Machiavelli’s The Prince, in which he explains how to best run a country.

In favor of an eternal racism, some argue that racism is embedded in Christian thought.24 Indeed, the gospel of John could be called antisemitic (he writes that Jesus called Jews “children of Satan”,25 for instance). Once you have the context, the argument for a racist Jesus crumbles. John wrote his gospel very late, around 90 C.E. By then, the Jewish society of Jesus’s days had been destroyed with the Temple in 70 C.E. It explains why the author did not bother distinguishing between Sadducees, the upper class who actually wanted Jesus dead, and other Jews. By 90 C.E., the concept of Sadducee was no more. What’s more, Rome was waging a serious war against the Jews. The author of John’s gospel had a powerful incentive not to appear too Jewish to its - Roman - audience.

The most powerful argument against eternal racism is that if racism were an innate characteristic of humans, governments would have discovered it and used it before the end of the 18th century. Instead, until the 16th century, they saw humans as subjects to win over.26 There were no cases of ethnic cleansing, for instance. It did not exist because the goal of war was to convert locals to another religion or to obtain a pledge of allegiance from the local ruler.

Racism could not appear before the 16th century because it requires biology. Racism appears when moral traits are given to biologically constructed groups of humans. Without the scientific notion of heredity and a precise definition of human beings, it’s impossible to have racism. Groups of humans were then defined by their religion, their social status or their trade, not by their genetic material. The concept of human being was also very fleeting before the Renaissance. This was a time were cyclopes and headless men were not fairytale characters but actively discussed facts of life. Religious scholars in the 12th century, for instance, very seriously explained that men could turn into angels because, well, they can turn into wolves when they become werewolves, don’t they?27 If the body is thought of as something that can change dramatically within a lifetime, there is no point in classifying people according to their heredity and outward appearance. Without clearly defined humans, it’s hard to see how some of them could be declared less human than others.

Things changed at the very end of the 15th century, in Spain. There, for the first time, even converts to Christianity are refused the status of regular subjects of the Spanish king. To distinguish between pure Spaniards and descendants of Jews and Muslims, who inhabited the land before the Catholic kings conquered it, a law was passed to verify the cleanliness of the blood (limpieza de sangre). If you wanted an official position, or go to university, or into priesthood, you had to provide a certificate of “Spanishness” and show that your four grandparents were Catholics. This division between the pure and the impure parts of the population quickly spread. We find it in Japan in the 17th century, probably imported by Portuguese settlers there, and in the colonies of the New World. There, the law examined up to the sixth generation of ancestors before deciding on the biological group in which a person belonged and which right he possessed. In Saint-Domingue, a zealous traveler counted 128 racial categories, some of them examining the status of the great-great-great-grandparent.28

Racial thought was readily adopted by colonists because it provided a simple justification for their exploitative system. Invoking the Roman law stating that status was inherited from the mother (ancient Rome was fashionable at the end of the 17th century), the companies running the plantations of the New World decreed that children of Black women would be considered Black and remain slaves.29 This makes economical sense. The plantations and mines where white settlers forced slaves and subjugated locals to work were extremely labor-intensive. Without slavery or a slavery-like system of exploitation, the profitability of the enterprise would have crumbled.30 Hence the need for a justification - racism. By stating that some people, because of their race, are better suited for work than others, the racist framework ensured the survival of colonial businesses.

In the 19th century, a fallacious reading of the naturalists led to a new high in the history of racism. Darwin and others rightly pointed out that species evolved because the individuals most adapted to their environment were most likely to pass their hereditary material on to the next generation. Some recycled this theory, replacing individuals with group of humans or “races”. The domination of a group over another was, in this framework, only the natural consequence of a selection mechanism whereby some races were bound to be higher or lower on the racial food chain. In this context, genocide is not something to avoid or regret, but the natural consequence of the laws of racial evolution.31

Of course, none of the racist theories made any scientific sense. However, they persisted. Why do these theories keep popping up under different names after they were disproved? After all, many ideas die once a scientific consensus emerges to refute them. No one would argue today that radium skin care is a good idea, for instance.32 And racism did not benefit from support of a specific industry, as tobacco did.

Despite these rebuttals, race, in the disguise of concepts such as civilization, culture or nationality (which can, of course, convey a different meaning depending on who uses them), continues to pervade academic and public discourse. The success of Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations is a case in point.33 Huntington argues that societies belong to one and only one civilization, and cannot change from one to another. Civilizations perpetually fight one another and only the fittest survive. Civilizations are threatened by foreigners, who denature them. And of course, Huntington puts his own civilization on top. This neo-racist pamphlet would be laughable if it wasn’t one of the most taught books in American universities.34

I believe that the continued success of racism lies in its capacity to explain everything thanks to confirmation bias. Just like individuals are extremely likely to consider any description of personality as applicable to themselves (the Barnum effect), it is extremely easy to accept that a given “culture” exhibits a given trait. Once your audience accepts that culture has a high explanatory power, any demonstration can be made. Is Germany doing good economically? It must be because of the German taste for precision and accuracy. Is Germany doing bad? Probably the German obsession with discipline, which prevents innovation. Try it! It works with all cultures and all statements. And it’s infinitely easier than sociological, historical or political analyses.

Let’s recap. Racism appeared as progress was made in biology and natural sciences. It was used consistently since then, to justify economic and political oppression and to dehumanize enemies. Even after its scientific credential were discredited and its economic and military value eroded, racism stuck around. It is attractive to people who do not want to think too hard, which explains why it is readily accepted. But why is racism used in the first place? What purpose does it serve?

To answer this question, I had to go back to the legitimation of political systems. Under absolutism, power is given by god to a single ruler. Under feudalism, it comes from the vassals, noblemen who were given protection in exchange for loyalty. With humanism, power comes from all individuals. With an imaginary social contract, individuals who make up “the people” (all or a subset of males, more recently all nationals above 18) consent to be ruled by others. Now, what’s the most important concept of government? That’s right, “divide and rule”. This adage has been known since Roman times and is probably even older. In systems where the legitimation of power comes from the nobility, the ruler must divide the nobility.35 In systems where the legitimation comes from the people, the ruler must divide… the people. And to do that, racism is the most efficient tool.

Since its discovery in the 16th and 17th centuries, racism has been used consistently by governments to sow divisions between their supporters and Others. The Others could be the Prussians in revolutionary France, northerners in 1990s Côte d’Ivoire or Muslims in today’s Europe. The need for racism stems from the basic necessity of the divide and rule principle. A Marxist would say that racism is a tool that prevents the unification of the working class, but I think it goes beyond that. Racism is so flexible it can be used to create loyalties at any level, be it in a region, a country or between countries.

The humanist paradox I mentioned at the beginning is, at least in part, solved. Racism is not a natural part of the humanist project, it contradicts its basic tenet of individual freedom. It is, however, a logical political reaction to the system humanism creates.


1. In ‘Exterminate all the Brutes’, chapter 12.

2. The French Wikipedia has a good section on this controversy.

3. The one institute containing the name ‘racism’ in its title is the Stephen Roth Institute in Tel Aviv, but its list of publications only lists papers dealing with antisemitism. There’s also the The Institute for the Study of Academic Racism but it’s more a one-man operation than a research center.

4. There are institutes - comparatively few - and journals that deal with ‘race relations’. It’s not the same thing. Racism does not imply the existence of races but merely that some use the concept, whereas ‘race relations’ accept race as a given and studies it from different angles, which may or may not include racism.

5. A good and detailed piece on battlefield tactics in the early 19th century: Infantry Tactics and Combat during the Napoleonic Wars.

6. This number seems well-documented and constant through the 19th and early 20th century. See Dehumanizing the Enemy: The Intersection of Neuroethics and Military Ethics, page 7.

7. French soldiers used 1777 Charleville muskets with .69 bullets which, according to this online shop, weight 480 grains apiece, or 30 grams.

8. It’s usually translated to Battle of the Nations, but Völkerschlacht can be translated both ways - and given what was put under Volk at the time, using race is appropriate. Read the background to the name of the battle in Wie die Völkerschlacht bei Leipzig 1813 zu ihrem Namen kam page 271.

9. Read En janvier 1916 l’odeur boche envahit les journaux.

10. According to the abovementioned Dehumanizing the Enemy: The Intersection of Neuroethics and Military Ethics.

11. Find the transcript here.

12. You’ll find a very interesting discussion of the psychological costs of the different ways to kill in Du bon dosage du soldat augmenté by Michel Goya.

13. Read La Création des identités nationales : Europe XVIIIe-XXe siècle by Anne-Marie Thiesse.

14. On the origins of Japanese nationalism, read Japan and the Rise of the Idea of Race: The Meiji Era Fusion of Foreign and Domestic Constructions.

15. Read L’Ivoirité. De la conception à la manipulation de l’identité ivoirienne, page 54.

16. Read Pour Valls, «les Roms ont vocation à rentrer en Roumanie ou en Bulgarie» .

17. Read David Cameron criticised over migrant ‘swarm’ language.

18. Find it here: Qu’est-ce qu’une nation?.

19. The text is one of the most violently racist I’ve read in researching this essay. Read at your own risks La réforme intellectuelle et morale page 93.

20. Read Die dunkle Seite der Nationalstaaten.

21. Someone told me that the book Moral Tribes by Joshua Greene showed that racism was innate. First, Greene seems to ignore everything social sciences produced in the last 100 years and considers every social or political outcome as natural. Second, Greene uses evolutionary psychology to make his case. The only problem of evolutionary psychology is that, well, it’s not science (because it does not allow for reproducibility, read Les faux nez biologistes de la psychologie évolutionniste for a comprehensive argument) and can be used to justify anything.

22. Here’s the full list

23. Read for instance the papal bull of Eugen III calling for the second crusade.

24. Notably Christian Delacampagne in Une histoire du racisme : des origines à nos jours.

25. John 8:44. Another argument against the idea of ancient Christian antisemitism is that Jesus himself engaged in dehumanization… of non-Jews, whom he once calls ‘dogs’ in Mark 7:27.

26. There is another powerful argument in favor of eternal racism. Cagots in southern France and northern Spain were a group that was consistently discriminated against. Cagots were not allowed to marry non-Cagots and their children became Cagots. A possible alternative to seeing hatred against Cagots as early racism is to see it as a hatred against a guild - carpenters in this case.

27. This example is from the very interesting Christians and Jews in the Twelfth-Century Werewolf Renaissance. The theological debate over the status of werewolves is fascinating. The theologians that we, in the 21th century, regard as breaking points in theological history, such as Augustine or Aquinas, did not believe in such transformations. They did not convince their contemporaries.

28. In Description topographique, physique, civile, politique et historique de la partie française de l’isle Saint-Domingue by Médéric de Saint-Méry, though I couldn’t find the page number - the book is not OCR’d yet. Quoted in Le métissage dans la littérature des Antilles françaises - Le complexe d’Ariel by Chantal Maignan-Claverie, page 43.

29. Le métissage dans la littérature des Antilles françaises - Le complexe d’Ariel by Chantal Maignan-Claverie, page 142.

30. On the economic necessity of racism in the French Antilles, read Structures familiales et stratégies matrimoniales des libres de couleur en Guadeloupe au XVIIIe siècle.

31. A very good example of this reasoning is given by Tom Lawson in The Last Man, a history of the British genocide in Tasmania.

32. On the superpowers of radium in the early 20th century, this is a fun read: Les ‘pouvoirs miraculeux’ de la radioactivité.

33. I highly encourage you to read through the book The Clash of Civilizations And the remaking of World Order.

34. Huntington is the fourth most-taught author after Plato, Hobbes and Macchiaveli, reports Quartz in These are the books students at the top US colleges are required to read.

35. As Machiavelli points out in chapter 20 of his Prince.