U.S. Intellectual History Blog

William Graham Sumner, Lester Frank Ward, and Nihilism

Every year in my American Social Thought course, I teach the debate over laissez faire economics between William Graham Sumner and Lester Frank Ward.[1] One of my favorite, admittedly small, aspects of this argument is that both Sumner and Ward accuse their opponents of nihilism. Arguing against attempts to mitigate economic inequality, Sumner warned in 1881:

[T]he thirst for luxurious enjoyment, when brought into connection with the notions of rights, of power, and of equality, and dissociated from the notions of industry and economy, produces the notion that a man is robbed of his rights if he has not everything that he wants, and that he is deprived of equality if he sees anyone have more than he has, and that he is a fool if, having power of the State in his hands, he allows this state of things to last. Then we have socialism, communism, and nihilism; and the fairest conquest of civilization, with all their promise of solid good to man, on the sole conditions of virtue and wisdom, may be scattered to the winds in a war of classes, or trampled underfoot by the mob which can only hate what it cannot enjoy.

Ward, for his part, opined in 1884 that laissez faire was itself nihilistic:

There has . . . been developing of late a more or less marked apprehension with regard ot the possible consequences of this mode of thought. The feeling is distinct in the best minds, and to a large extend in the public mind, that the tendency of modern ideas is nihilistic. It is clear that if they become universally accepted they must work stagnation in society. The laissez faire doctrine is a gospel of inaction, the scientific creed is struck with sterility, the policy of resigning all into the hands of Nature is a surrender.

What can we make of the fact that both these thinkers essentially accuse each other of nihilism?

Sumner and Ward wrote during the first great flowering of the word “nihilism” (and the greatest popularity of its cognate “nihilist”) in American prose, as we can see from the following Google Ngram. And Sumner’s and Ward’s uses of the term reflect two rather different meanings that the word had in that era.

The word “nihilism” was coined, or at least first popularized, in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century by Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi, one of the most prominent German critics of the Enlightenment and of Kantianism.   Jacobi argued that the rationalism of Spinoza, which Jacobi suggested was thinly disguised atheism, and of later Enlightenment figures led inevitably to nihilism and fatalism, i.e. the view that the world had no transcendent meaning and that free will and meaningful human action were essentially impossible.[2]

In this sense – simultaneously philosophical and epithetical — the word seems to have migrated throughout the European cultural sphere and to the English language in the early nineteenth century. But it would be events in Russia that led Americans to write so much about nihilism in the 1870s and 1880s. In Ivan Turgenev’s novel Fathers and Sons (1862), the medical student Bazarov is a self-described nihilist. As his friend Arkady explains early in the novel, “A nihilist is a man who does not bow down before any authority, who does not take any principle on faith, whatever reverence that principle may be enshrined in.” Later, Bazarov himself insists that nihilists do not “undertake anything,” and instead “confine themselves to abuse.”

Shortly after the publication of Fathers and Sons, nihilism became an explicit movement in Russia, at first of cultural rebellion and then of anarchistic political revolution. The first mention of nihilism, in any sense, in the pages of the New York Times, was apparently on July 28, 1871, in a story about the liberalization of the Russian secret police. The Times reported that the “Nihilist conspiracy of NETCHAYEFF” was both the last target of the old, relatively unregulated secret police and the first case to be tried under the new regulations. Despite the Times’s predictions of liberalization of the Russian regime, the 1870s would see a major crackdown on nihilism in Russia, a series of bloody clashes with police, and a number of prominent trials, all of which also gained international attention and led to numerous later Times articles on nihilism.

On September 1, 1878, for example, the Times declared that “the vast association of the nihilists is more comprehensive in its aims, and more thoroughgoing in its principles, than were even the Anabaptists of Leyden” or the English Levelers. Given social and political conditions in that country, the paper found it understandable that nihilism would thrive in Russia. But “the real ground for astonishment is that so many Germans, superior both in culture and brain power to their flat-faced neighbors beyond the Niemen, should have approved themselves pupils, only too apt, in that dark and dismal school which had its origins in Russia.” Most distressingly, the article concluded, “Germans sometimes act where Muscovites are content to dream.”

As other revolutionary strategies seemed to fail in the 1870s, the Russian nihilists grew more committed to the goal of assassinating the Tsar. Proving that all “Muscovites” did not only dream, they assassinated Tsar Alexander II, who had been Russia’s most reform-minded ruler, in early March 1881.

On March 15, 1881, the New York Times published a satirical editorial on the assassination entitled “Thugs and Nihilists.” The Times declared that nihilists worshiped Nothing and that they simply desired to destroy God and society. “[T]he great mistake of the Czar,” joked the paper, “was in not making reforms which would have satisfied the longings of the Nihilists. He should have adopted some measure looking toward the early abolition of God; he should have decreed that marriage and the holding of property should be treated as crimes punishable with death, and he should have granted to the Nihilists the right to kill everybody who differed in any way from them.”

This is the context in which Sumner and Ward each called his opponents nihilists. And, if you read the passages quoted above carefully, you’ll see that they’re using the term in quite different, almost opposite, ways. Sumner’s fear of “socialism, communism, and nihilism” seems to evoke the violent political movement in Russia. His concern is social revolution.

Ward, on the other hand, meant by “nihilism” something much more like the philosophical concerns of Jacobi: modern ideas will lead to the demand for inaction in the face of an all-powerful, deterministic Nature. Ward sees laissez faire as just such a nihilistic philosophy of inaction.

What unites Sumner’s and Ward’s uses is the entirely negative connotations of nihilism in America at the time. As far as I know, there was no organized American movement of self-described nihilists at the time. And both Sumner and Ward could count on nihilism being seen as a bad thing, even if the first was warning of violent revolutionary mass action and the second of fatalistic elite inaction.

Next week, I’ll have some thoughts on the idea of nihilism in more recent American culture.


[1] Sumner’s essay “Sociology” (1881) and Ward’s “Mind as a Social Factor” (1884) can both be found in volume 2 of Hollinger & Capper’s The American Intellectual Tradition, my textbook for this course.

[2] Though Jacobi was identifying what he saw as a problem with modernity, philosophers have since identified examples of nihilism from throughout the history of philosophy. Ancient Sophism and Skepticism, for example, are sometimes said to be species of philosophical nihilism.

4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I haven’t read the whole post properly yet, but there’s a typo in third sentence; should read: “Arguing against attempts to mitigate economic inequality, Sumner… “

  2. Nice post, Ben. Looking forward to your next post. Seems that how Sumner and Ward are understanding nihilism also hinges on their understandings of reason: what is it, what sort of role does it play in inquiry, what is its relation to power? Sumner seems to say that revolutionaries tear asunder the mechanisms that reason has put in place throughout society. He even calls them the “mob,” which here appears as an irrational and unstoppable pre-political force. For Ward’s purposes, nihilism denies reason its power to raise new options and choices for society to consider. John Rawls also cited certain doctrines as nihilistic. In his case, these were positions on morality that effectively denied human reason the ability to decide on issues concerning values and normativity. I could just be reading my own interest back into yours, of course. But I just wanted to raise these topics and hear your thoughts.

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