The First Universal Races Congress of 1911

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The following article written by Emil Volcheck, BES Secretary has been reprinted from the Fall 2011 AEU Dialogue.

One hundred years ago, the First Universal Races Congress was held at the University of London. The Congress met July 26-29, 1911, and was called to focus attention on the problems of relations between nations and races of the world. The Congress had about 2,100 members, including official representatives from at least 17 governments, including Brazil, China, England, France, Germany, Haiti, Persia, South Africa, and the USA, as well as officials of colonial possessions (including present-day India). Dr. Felix Adler served as the US delegate, officially representing the United States Bureau of Education. While Leader of the New York Society for Ethical Culture, Adler was also a professor of Social Ethics at Columbia University and was recognized for his innovations in education. The Congress grew out of a proposal he advanced in 1906 at the meeting of the International Union of Ethical Societies in Eisenach, Germany.

The Congress was the first event of its kind and was considered a success by participants at the time. In the annual report of the US Bureau of Education for 1911, Adler wrote “The ends of the earth came together for the purpose of considering how the antagonisms and antipathies that breed hate between different races might be lessened and eventually overcome.” Reporting in the journal Science, Prof. A.C. Haddon of Cambridge University called the Congress “a new departure in the history of the world.” Writing in The American Journal of Sociology, Prof. Ulysses Weatherly of Indiana University said “That the present Congress has justified itself is beyond question.” The proceedings of the Congress contain about 60 papers and were published as Papers on Inter-racial Problems Communicated to the First Universal Races Congress. (The Internet Archive has a scanned copy.)

One goal of the Congress was to disseminate scientific research on races. Adler reported that most, but not all, of the anthropologists at the Congress advocated a “monogenetic” theory of races, holding that there is no biological basis for inherent differences between races, and that any observed differences are more likely explained by environmental influences. Another focus of the Congress arose from members reporting on racial oppression. Dr. W.E.B. DuBois presented a paper titled “The Negro Race in the United States of America.” His presentation was praised by Prof. Weatherly as “forceful and perfectly truthful.” Similar papers addressed the conditions of indigenous peoples of Africa and America.

Felix Adler presented a paper titled “The Fundamental Principle of Inter-racial Ethics, and Some Practical Applications of It.” Prof. Haddon said that Adler offered a practical reconciliation of different points of view expressed at the Congress. Adler stated that the fundamental principle is the “organisation of humanity,” which has two parts. The first is to “promote the utmost differentiation of the types of culture, the utmost variety and richness in the expression of the fundamental human faculties” and to “avoid the universal prevalence of a single type.” The second is that “the flaws, as well as the excellent features, of any type of culture may be best detected in the effect it produces on other types.” Both parts generalize principles of Ethical Culture from individuals to nations. The first generalizes the concept of inherent worth: every nation or society has value in its uniqueness. In the annual report, Adler adds “the same essential faculties are present in all… [but] Every group is capable of contributing to the common stock something uniquely its own, something that in the full fruition of civilization can not be spared.” The second part is closely related to the Ethical Maxim, in that a nation should be regarded favorably when it brings out the best in other nations.

Adler offered two practical consequences from the application of inter-racial ethics. First, he called for agricultural and industrial training for developing nations. He cautioned against exploitation, writing “What is now needed is humane treatment of the backwards races for the benefit of those races themselves – that is, in the long run for the benefit of humanity in general.” Second, he called for colonial administrators to be educated on the culture of the people they governed, writing “only those who sincerely appreciate the excellent qualities of foreigners can help them overcome their deficiencies and lead them along the path of further progressive development.”

The Congress resolved to continue as a quadrennial event but – with the start of World War I in 1914 – the 1915 Congress never came to pass. The First Universal Races Congress was also the last. The greatest value of the Congress may have been the face-to-face networking that arose from what Prof. Haddon called its role as a “central coordinating body of a great nexus of effective peace-promoting agencies.” This unique event made a lasting impression on many members. Adler described the effect on himself as “exceptionally deep” and wrote “Merely to find oneself a part of such a body of human beings was a most impressive experience.”

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