For I dipt into the future, far as human eye could see
Saw a Vision of the world, and all the wonder that would be …
Till the war-drum throbb’d no longer
and the battle-flags were furled
In the Parliament of man, the Federation of the world.
—Alfred, Lord Tennyson, “Locksley Hall” (1842)
The secular humanist movement has seen broad changes over the decades. Consider, for example, cosmocracy. If the word is unfamiliar, world federalism or one-worldism may be better recognized: the advocacy (often, the hopeful expectation) that sovereign national governments will eventually subject themselves to a supranational order. Cosmocracy was a popular enthusiasm among secular humanists (and many other social reformers) after World War II. But its roots are far older. Pop quiz, who wrote this?
I believe at some future day, the nations of the earth will agree on some sort of congress which will take cognizance of international questions of difficulty and whose decisions will be as binding as the decisions of the Supreme Court are upon us.
The words, amazingly enough, are those of Ulysses S. Grant in 1873, when he was president of the United States.
At a national freethought conference held in August 1878 at Watkins (now Watkins Glen), New York, Vermont freethinker Lucian Scott gave an address in which he foresaw “an international system of police of sufficient force to keep the peace of the world, and let the nations and the churches fight out their battle with the force of logic in the halls of legislation and the schools of learning.”
At the turn of the twentieth century, H. G. Wells imagined a future “world state” ensuring peace and human welfare. (Okay, it was a world state comprising only the globe’s English-speaking countries, but still.) When the League of Nations rose from the ashes of World War I, idealists hoped it might develop into a world state. But the Great Powers were loath to share the tools of military coercion, so the world body collapsed after its impotence in the face of fascism became manifest.
As World War II ground on, the dream of world government gained renewed momentum. It came to be called “world federalism,” because it envisioned national governments subordinating themselves to a world body rather as American states were subordinate to their federal government. U.S. presidential aspirant Wendell Willkie published a manifesto titled One World in 1943. It sold two million copies, empowering the movement to spread its wings at war’s end in 1945. In that year, Hungarian writer Emery Reves published The Anatomy of Peace, which called for replacing the just-founded United Nations with a world government capable of exerting force. By 1949, the American world-federalist movement claimed 47,000 members. Its international counterpart, the World Federalist Movement, claimed 156,000 members in twenty-two nations.
Then came the Korean War and the ascendance of Cold War ideology. Though supranationalist thinking lost much of its luster, some thinkers and activists continued to cherish it.
One of them was Free Inquiry founder Paul Kurtz. The one-world ideal was strong with him in 1973, when he led the drafting of Humanist Manifesto II. The successor to the first Humanist Manifesto (1933), Manifesto II abandoned its predecessor’s view of humanism as a new religion, replacing it with an entirely secular vision. It also declared that “war is obsolete” and contained passages such as this:
TWELFTH: We deplore the division of humankind on nationalistic grounds. We have reached a turning point in human history where the best option is to transcend the limits of national sovereignty and to move toward … a system of world law and a world order based upon transnational federal government … .
It might not surprise you to know that Kurtz was a member of the World Federalist Society at the time he founded the Council for Democratic and Secular Humanism* and Free Inquiry in 1980. Though I don’t recall his using the word, Kurtz remained a passionate cosmocrat. In 1988, he wrote:
… we have not yet learned to control warfare between … nation-states, for there does not exist any supernational sovereignty with sufficient moral authority to keep the peace. It is imperative that such a sovereignty be created. As a first step, humankind needs to establish a system of world law and to endow the World Court with enough moral force and teeth so that its jurisdiction is recognized by all the nation-states of the world.**
In a 1992 editorial, he called not only for world government but for a more literal kind of human universalism:
Travel and intercommunication are so widespread that we are becoming, though some may protest, co-citizens of the newly emerging global society—if not directly, then at least symbolically. … The real heroes of this new global society are those who identify with the world community. So-called pure racial, national, or ethnic stocks are diminishing everywhere. New societies of people of mixed blood are being created overnight.***
Rejecting a then-emerging multiculturalism that sought to preserve indefinitely the distinctive characteristics of each social, ethnic, and cultural group, Kurtz looked to intermarriage and interbreeding to, literally, erase the separations between us over time:
… we should encourage the mingling of peoples in every way that we can. Intermarriage and miscegenation can unify the world more solidly than conventional politics.****
Kurtz was far from alone in these convictions. One-worldism was popular among mid-twentieth-century American humanists, much as advocacy for the rights to abortion and euthanasia were—the difference being that abortion gained constitutional protection while the euthanasia movement achieved significant, if partial, reforms regarding death with dignity.
The future would be less kind to cosmocracy.
Paul Kurtz learned that when he spoke out for world government in Free Inquiry or at conferences, there would follow a deluge of complaints from pragmatists and patriots alike. I don’t think Kurtz ever abandoned his cosmocratic views; I think he learned to keep them to himself rather than continue fomenting conflicts that might distract from the work of building secular humanism.
Today, for better or worse, cosmocracy lies almost forgotten. The notion that secular humanists, or at least some secular humanists, once embraced it will strike many as quaint—as quaint as the idea that some secular humanists once wrote books defending the legitimacy of extramarital affairs.***** Is that for the best? I honestly have no idea.
It is clear that many of the crises humanity faces threaten the world community as a whole utterly without regard for national boundaries. I think it is less clear whether—or not—supranational institutions constitute the best way to tackle them. Consider the interlocking issues of overpopulation, environmental pollution, climate change, conflicts over resources, and rising movements of refugees. Global institutions with the power to challenge nation-states do not yet exist, and if we are honest with ourselves, we must admit that they show no signs of forming anytime soon. Meanwhile nation-states sovereign within their borders do exist. For better or worse, they are among the most powerful human institutions. If, say, the climate crisis won’t wait for the rise of a world parliament, perhaps we must act promptly using the tools at hand. You know, nation-states.
There are no easy answers. What seems certain is that our search for solutions will be impoverished if we forget the proposed solutions that stirred so many minds in decades past.
Cosmocracy, world federalism, one-worldism—call it what you will. The concept, once familiar, is almost unknown among today’s humanists. Is that a sign of progress or of opportunity lost? I invite reader comments.
*The organization shortened its name to the Council for Secular Humanism in 1996.
**Paul Kurtz, “The Twenty-First Century and Beyond: The Need for a New Global Ethic.” FI, Spring 1988, p. 4.
***Paul Kurtz, “Beyond Multiculturalism: Toward a Humanist Universalism.” FI, Spring 1992, pp. 4–5.
*****Think I’m kidding? See Russell Vannoy, Sex without Love: A Philosophical Exploration (Prometheus Books, 1980) and Richard Taylor, Having Love Affairs (Prometheus Books, 1990).
Photo: Mikhail / Adobe Stock