Global Cooperation of the ‘Old Right’: The Use and Abuse of Gobineaus ‘Race Theory’ in the Americas

Nina Schneider

Dictionaries and encyclopedias refer to it as one of the most influential race theories in the world: Arthur de Gobineau’s Essai sur l'inégalité des races humaines (hereafter Essai) (1853–1855).[1] What has never been systematically researched, however, is how his Essai was received worldwide and how it legitimized racist projects in other parts of the world.

This short piece analyses the dark sides of global cooperation from the perspective of traveling race theory in historical perspective. While numerous scholars, including former fellows of the Centre for Global Cooperation Research, have been studying the networks of the new global far-right (e.g. Abrahamsen et al. 2020), here, I explore the entanglements of the ‘old global right’  – ranging from the mid-nineteenth century to the 1930s. Drawing on the history of ideas, I  analyse traveling race theory as a specific practice and technique of the dark side of cooperation and explore, in particular, how race theory, when being ‘globalized’ (as in the case of Gobineau), is translated, appropriated, and hijacked on a local level (or at the recipient’s end). How have racists cooperated globally by invoking race theory in order to legitimize their own racist projects? I will argue that although race theory may be regarded as a practice of dark global cooperation to legitimize racist thought, this procedure is characterized by complex translation processes that require greater scrutiny. As I will show, Gobineau’s theory was completely turned upside down, and yet it served to ‘prove’ his main point: the alleged inequality of races.

After a very brief introduction to the Essai,I will then sustain my argument with two empirical cases: Gobineau’s reception in the United States and in Brazil. While in both cases his original thesis was totally twisted, these examples show how racist projects are both being globalized (or: partially invoked in similar ways worldwide to legitimize racial inequality and white supremacy) but always translated and adjusted to the national context (or: always different).

First published in Paris between 1853 and 1855, Gobineau’s Essai amalgamated diverse preexisting ideas about race in one major oeuvre (four volumes). As several scholars have noted, the work in itself is full of contradictions (e.g. Seillière 1914). This explains why it offers a kind of raw material from which different parts can be picked. What is less known is that racists in particular have used the Essai as a mine to legitimize their very own racial policies. They adapted parts of the essay to local and political projects and censored or falsified those parts of the text that delegitimized their own racist projects. Gobineau, his work, and especially his reception are more complex than one might expect.[2]


Gobineau and his ideas on race

A brief look at Gobineau’s biography reveals that, altogether, Gobineau had a very troubled childhood (his parents got divorced), a difficult time in Paris where he hardly earned his living as a publicist and novelist alongside paid jobs, and that he spent most of his life travelling.[3] Importantly, he grew up in a restorative environment. Like his father, Gobineau glorified the aristocracy and was appalled at France’s post-French decline after the French Revolution (Kale 2010). This attitude is reflected in his Essai, which consists of two parts. The first part is the theoretical part which contains his main argument: that society was ‘degenerating’ as a consequence of the ‘miscegenation’ of the three main races unequal in value. The ‘interbreeding’ would necessarily lead to the fall of civilizations (Buenzod 1967: 328). He distinguishes three ideal types: the white race, especially the Aryan race as the culture-bearing superior race, the ‘yellow’ in the middle, and the black one being the lowest race in the ranking. According to Gobineau, races themselves are determined and cannot evolve. Overall, the Essai reflects a very pessimistic view: nothing can stop the fall of civilization – neither moral or religion (no saviour) nor ‘good’ politics can prevent it (not even racial segregation or genocide, as in the case of the Nazis), as the only category that drives humankind and writes history is the category of race, which is already in the process of ‘degeneration’. The idea of ‘degeneration’ stands in for his pessimistic reading of the French revolution and the downfall of aristocracy (the ‘higher race’). In the second part of the work – less relevant for our interest in race theory here – he tries to sustain his main argument by evaluating different cultures, ranging from ancient times to his own, and encompassing many regions, including the Americas. As Gobineau opposed the ‘miscegenation’ of races, he, contrary to common assumptions, rejected the conquest of the new world as well as all forms of imperialism and opposed slavery. Although he wrote patronizingly about Jews and Blacks, he also spoke of specific ‘Jewish’ and ‘Black’ talents, which has led some scholars to even debate his racist and anti-judaic stance.[4] Biddiss (1984), however, has refuted such revisionist attempts by arguing that Gobineau’s literary reputation should not be preserved by downplaying the racism embodied in all of his writings.


Gobineau’s despisal of the American population

After closer examination of his Essai, it is therefore unsurprising that Gobineau despised the Americas – a region marked by ‘miscegenation’ and streams of immigrants (Biddiss 1999: 75). About the white US population, Gobineau wrote:

They are a very mixed assortment of the most degenerate races in olden-day Europe. They are the human flotsam of all ages: Irish, crossbreed Germans and French and Italians of even more doubtful stock. […] and even when ethnic combinations resulting from infinite unions between Germans, Irish, Italians, French and Anglo-Saxons join us in the south with racial elements composed of Indian, Negro, Spanish and Portuguese essence, it is quite unimaginable that anything could result from such horrible confusions, but an incoherent juxtaposition of the most decadent kinds of people. (as cited in Wright 1999: 837–838)

Even more dismissively, Gobineau wrote about Brazilians speaking of:a population totally mixed, vitiated in its blood and spirit, fearfully ugly [...]. Not a single Brazilian has pure blood because of the pattern of marriages among whites, Indians and Negroes is so widespread that the nuances of color are infinite, causing a degeneration among the lower as well the upper classes. (as cited in Skidmore 1993: 30–31)

Nonetheless, Gobineau’s Essai found admirers both in the US and Brazil, who hijacked his reflections on degeneration and the inequality of races to legitimize their own racist projects: in the case of the US the defence of slavery and white supremacy and in Brazil the ‘whitening ideology’ which sought to ‘improve’ the Brazilian population by importing white European settlers in the aftermath of the abolition of slavery (1888).


The making and unmaking of Gobineau’s Essai in the US

Although he wrote patronizingly of the US population and rejected slavery, his Essai was translated and glorified in the US by white supremacists – Henry Hotze and Josiah Clark Nott – with the intention to legitimize US slavery. Swiss immigrant and pro-slavery advocate Hotze, hired by Nott to translate Gobineau’s Essai, simply censored the portions that treated the US population with condescension and published his work under a completely different title: The Moral and Intellectual Diversity of Races (1856).[5]

Hotze added a foreword of his own and an afterword by Josiah Clark Nott, also a pro-slavery advocate and slave owner. The first volume of the essay was drastically shortened from 1,600 to merely 400 pages (Wright 1999: 837). The positive attributes that Gobineau ascribed to the black race in the Essai – artistic talent – were redacted. Unlike Gobineau, Hotze and Nott also argued that race and nation are one and the American nation is white (Wright 1999: 846). In his foreword, Hotze argued that the abolition of slavery and civil rights for black Americans would lead to conflict and chaos (Wright 1999: 847). In short, Hotze’s ‘translation’ of Gobineau’s Essai was a completely censored version which turned Gobineaus original views upside down: first, the negative depiction of the US population was omitted, as were the positive features attributed in the original to the black race (artistic capacity); second, the preface and the afterword defend slavery, whereas Gobineau opposed the institution of slavery.


Gobineau’s reception in Brazil

Evidence from Brazil likewise shows how the Essai was totally reinterpreted to legitimize the racist project of ‘whitening’ the population after the formal abolition of slavery by importing white European immigrants.Although Gobineau, who served as a French diplomat to Brazil in 1869, wrote very negatively about Brazilians (‘Everyone is ugly here, unbelievably ugly, like apes’), he was cherished by numerous Brazilian intellectuals at the beginning of the twentieth century, including the racist intellectual and novelist Sílvio Romero and Oliveira Viana, Minister of Education under the dictator Getúlio Vargas (Skidmore 1993: 30–31). In his book from 1920, Viana praised Gobineau‘s objection of racial ‘degeneration’ as well as  his patronizing words about the black and indigenous population and invoked Gobineau to legitimize his plans to aryanize Brazil by importing millions of white Europeans.[6]



While recent studies have focused on the ‘new global right’ as an empirical subject, we find similar instances of dark global cooperation in case of the ‘old global right’. The reception of Gobineau’s Essai in the US and Brazil in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century has shown the complexities of traveling rac(ist) theory as a discreet practice and technique of dark cooperation. Drawing on the history of ideas, this analysis showed that the process of globalizing race (or racist) theory is a complex procedure, as it becomes translated, appropriated, and hijacked on the recipient’s end. Even if ‘traveling rac(ist) theory’ – as I have called it here – may be regarded as a practice of dark global cooperation to legitimize racist thought, this procedure is characterized by complex translation processes, which require greater scrutiny. Although all five individuals addressed here – Gobineau, Hotze and Nott, Romero and Vianna – recurred to Gobineau’s main racial argument (the alleged inequality of races), they turned his work completely on its head (e.g. to legitimize slavery and to praise the white American population, which Gobineau despised) and massively censored it. Racists abroad, in short, used the Essai as a means to legitimize their very own racial policies.


[1] The work has caused two major research debates. First, scholars and intellectuals mainly from France and Germany have analysed to what extent Gobineau’s Essai paved the way for the racist ideology of Nazi Germany, and concluded that although the Essai was invoked by leading Nazis, the text itself contradicts the racist thoughts of their ideology (e. g. Deschner 1967). Second, mainly French literary scholars have discussed to what extent the Essai was in fact racist or rather a piece of remarkable literature (‘art’); here, controversial views coexist.

[2] For example, Biddiss (1984: 348) argues that Gobineau seemed to be ‘difficult for his own contemporaries and for posterity to assess’.

[3] For biographies, see Jean Boissel (1993), Janine Buenzod(1967), and Micheal D. Biddis (1970).

[4] On his inconsistency concerning the black race, see e. g. Zwi Bacharach (1978: 161). For Gobineau, artistic creativity was attributed to the black element of the races, and the Nordic Aryan drew their artistic creativity from the black (or: ‘negative’) component. Importantly, Gobineau considered his own contemporaries as already totally degenerated because, according to his racist ideas, the golden age of ‘pure races’ was 5000 BC (Nale 2014: 111-13).

[5] For details on Hotze, see Burnett (2008) .

[6] The title of his book is As populações meridionais do Brasil, which translates to the Southern population of Brazil (Drayton 2011:44).


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About the Author

Nina Schneider is a research group leader in the research group ‘Legitimation and delegitimation in global cooperation’ at the Käte Hamburger Kolleg in Duisburg. She heads the DFG research project ‘Child Labour Opponents in the Americas in Global Perspective, 1888-1938.’