The Age of Aggression

The Cultivation of Hatred

by Peter Gay
Norton, 685 pp., $30.00

Bourgeois Society in Nineteenth-Century Europe

edited by Jürgen Kocka, edited by Allen Mitchell
Berg Publishers, 468 pp., $74.00

Was the nineteenth-century bourgeois citizen a staid, buttoned-up, law-abiding creature? Not according to Peter Gay. One emotion above all others, he claims, governed the behavior of the middle classes in America, Britain, France, and Germany: aggression. Whether it was politics, trade, competition in industry, snobbery, boasting, self-advertisement, or gossip, the object was to score off one’s adversary and put him down. The thwarted felt frustrated and worked it off in further aggression. Even those who did not express aggression in their actions felt it in their hearts; and it spilled over into their diaries.

To the bourgeois it was axiomatic that the white race was superior to all others. The French felt superior to Germans, the Germans to Russians, and the British to everyone. They asserted their superiority by aggression. What could be more aggressive than the way men emphasized their superiority to women? They multiplied instances of feminine inferiority to justify the violence of their opposition to women obtaining elementary civil rights, let alone the vote. Superior to men as spiritual creatures, yes; but in every other respect women were weak, so they ought to be obedient. Even when a few women found a new occupation—writing novels—they were mocked. Such aggression bred counter-aggression within the feminist movement. In Britain one wing of the suffragette movement took to violence.

The bourgeoisie, Gay continues, were quick to invent alibis. Scientific theories were spun to justify racism. Zola found an alibi for the characters in his novels by arguing they inhabited a world determined by social forces. Another alibi, the cult of manliness, was the bourgeois parallel to the aristocratic cult of Don Juan. Donations and foundations provided Carnegie and Rockefeller with alibis for their robberies. The vengeance demanded upon criminals, the hanging of children for stealing, flogging in the army, in prisons, and in schools, were all examples of aggression masked as justice. Theodore Roosevelt fought tycoons, radicals, pacifists, and jingoists with the very aggression he found poisonous in them. Aggression incubates hatred for those who resist, and Gay asserts in both the title of his book and its argument that the dominant social value in Victorian times was the cultivation of hatred.

Gay cites contemporary philosophers as his witnesses. The sociologist George Simmel analyzed men’s “inborn need to hate and fight,” and the Social Darwinists erected aggression into a cosmic law of nature in which the weakest go to the wall. Yet among the writers and artists Gay mentions who cultivated hatred there is one astonishing omission. He never cites Marx. Marx hated bourgeois hypocrisy but he also hated and despised anyone in the socialist movement who held views that diverged from his own. He sneered at working-class revolutionaries such as the Chartist Harney, and called him “Citizen Hip-hip-hura” or “the impressionable plebian”; he attacked in turn Bauer, Ruge, Proudhon, Willich, Weitling, Herwegh, Kinkel, Vogt, Freiligarth, Bakunin, and Lasalle (for whom Marx’s least anti-Semitic nickname was “weasel-beast”). The violence of Marx’s language left a permanent mark on Communist propaganda…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.