Mutual Help and Symbiosis: The Trajectories of Two Concepts in Post-Imperial Transitions
My presentation deals with the trajectories of eugenic networks and knowledge in the process of post-imperial transitions. It is divided into two parts. In the first part I argue that eugenic knowledge became an unexpected resource for various actors who wanted to think through the diversity of the Habsburg Empire. I will show that these individuals writing before the year 1914 drew mainly on Kropotkin’s concept of mutual aid, and on the evolutionist discourses about symbiosis. Paradoxically, the biologistic character of these concepts allowed them to argue that the centripetal development within the empire was rooted much deeper – indeed, right in the plastic human nature – than the opposing, centrifugal forces rooted in culture. Moreover, I will point out that these discourses were not limited to a single national context within the empire or associated with a single political ideology. Analyzing the arguments of biologists, medical doctors, and sociologists such as Paul Kammerer, Hugo Iltis, Břetislav Foustka, József Madzar and Andrija Štampar, I will instead show that these arguments circulated within the entire Habsburg Empire, and that the networks of these emerging eugenicists played a vital role in their circulation.
In the second part of my intervention, I will demonstrate the surprising continuity of these tropes well into the interwar period. My focus here will be on Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia of the immediate postwar period and of the 1920s. I will argue that these biological concepts of cooperation were reframed by some eugenicists to respond to new political realities. Developed with the empire in mind, the concepts of mutual aid and symbiosis thus became one of the intellectual tools that helped these actors to make sense of post-imperial transitions. In this form, these concepts went on to circulate well beyond eugenics. Moreover, I claim that while in the interwar period these concepts were most enthusiastically adopted by the social democratic thinkers, they were nevertheless invoked by a wide range of voices to pursue a rather diverse set of political agendas.