Progressivism Unleashed: Reinterpreting Reconstruction

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Seminar Date
October 28, 2009
In this essay I want to show that Milner was not, as Eric Stokes (and many others) have claimed, “singular in his views”1; he was, rather - like Karl Pearson, Beatrice Webb and William Beveridge - one of the defining figures of English progressivism. Milner's enthusiasm for the supremacy of the people he fuzzily called the “undivided British race” was almost universally held amongst English-speaking intellectuals between 1890 and 1910, but it was especially energetically articulated by a group of socialist reformers.2 Milner was, as Semmel observed, unusual amongst these “social-imperialists and imperial-socialists in expressing concern for the native peoples in the Empire.”3 For most of these people, the effort to “breed and maintain an Imperial race,” as Sydney Webb described it, involved the introduction of policies that were much less biological (or demographic) than they were social and technocratic. The prospects of the Anglo-Saxon race followed much less from the kinds of eugenic interventions being formulated by Francis Galton and Karl Pearson (and which would later shape state policy profoundly in Italy and Germany), than a suite of institutional reforms of the poor law, the housing and labour market and the introduction of a centralised state power of surveillance and regulation.4 In practice, Milnerism, despite his often repeated enthusiasm for a racially defined British Empire, was constituted out of a set of fiercely articulated reforms of the state's power to shape the economy. The administrative measures that Milner successfully implemented in South Africa – state-supported scientific agriculture, race-based segregation, fingerprinting as the basis of identification, and the establishment of a network of coercive labour registries – were all typically progressive. What was unusual, and perhaps distinctive, about South Africa in the period before 1905 was that these elaborate schemes of social engineering faced no meaningful opposition.
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