Eugenics has often been dismissed as an ideology of the right. It was, at best, nothing more than an extension of social Darwinism which naturalised and sought to maintain the existing social arrangement1 of laissez-faire capitalism, and, at worst, the pseudo-scientific justification for racial prejudices which ultimately sanctioned the atrocities perpetrated by the Nazis.
More recently, however, increasing attention has been paid to the fact that many left-wing thinkers, among them Marxists and Fabians, lent their enthusiastic support to eugenic ideas. It can seem difficult to understand how socialism – supposedly stressing the importance of environment and devoted to the idea of the inherent equality of man – could coincide with eugenics. This essay will argue that, while many historians stress the dichotomy between ‘negative’ or ‘mainline’, and ‘positive’ or ‘reform’ eugenics3, left-wing thinkers came to have faith in the ideology of eugenics in much the same way as right-wing or conservative thinkers; because it was consistent with their view that the needs of society were far more important than individual rights and that men were not, in fact, equal and that their differences were endowed by heredity.
One can see how these views could be shared by sections of both the left and the right. Spektorowski and Mizrachi point out that “observers seldom note the potential alliance between the revolutionary, moralist and technocratic currents of socialism, and conservative nationalism”4 Both of these opposing political positions could include the belief in the strong state and government intervention necessary for the advocacy of eugenic social policy which would concern itself with the most intimate aspect of people’s lives – reproduction.
In fact, it was because of these ideas that certain sections of the conservative right, who were also sceptical of science, opposed eugenics as much as the ‘old-style’ non-interventionist Liberals on the left. Eugenics has been seen as a right-wing ideology because it was so often expressed in terms of class-bias, in which it was perceived that a person’s social status was determined by their genes, and therefore the reproduction of the lower classes, who must be genetically inferior, should be checked, and that of the upper classes, who therefore possessed the best genes, encouraged, else the population should degenerate.
According to D. A. Stack, Fabians held degenerationist fears and the Left embraced “an ill-defined general, but progressive, evolutionary framework”5. This was Spencerian in that it was teleological and optimistic6 – the eugenics of the left has been labelled ‘progressive’, but it can be argued that the right-wing was also progressive, in that they sought social change through the effort and cooperation of all the members of a society. 7
In any case, the left too believed in genetic inequality; not always, but sometimes, in terms of class. Marxist geneticist J. B. S. Haldane wrote in the Daily Worker; “The dogma of human equality is no part of Communism … the formula of Communism: ‘from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs’, would be nonsense, if abilities were equal. “8 Haldane in fact believed in the innate intellectual superiority of the upper classes. He only differs from right-wing thinkers in that he did not see this view as a defence of capitalism, which he in fact labelled but instead to label it dysgenic, as it encourages the propagation of the unfit in order to meet its need for a large pool of surplus labour.
It is likely that, compared to their right-wing counterparts, left-wing proponents of eugenics ceded a lot more importance to the influence of environment, as shown in Michael Freeden’s article ‘Eugenics and Progressive Thought: A Study in Ideological Affinity’. 1 It came to be realised that the hereditarian assumptions of mainline genetics were flawed. Daniel Kevles quotes Jacob Landman: “It is not true that celebrated individuals necessarily beget celebrated offspring … [or] that idiotic individuals necessarily beget idiotic children. … It is not true that, because the color of guinea pigs is transmissible in accordance with the Mendelian theory, therefore human traits must be”.
Freeden draws attention to the original definition proposed for the term ‘eugenics’ by the man who coined it, Francis Galton: ‘… he science which deals with all influences that improve the inborn qualities of a race; also with those that develop them to the utmost advantage’. Eventually, after prolonged committee debates, another definition was chosen: ‘the study of agencies under social control that may improve or impair the racial qualities of future generations, either physically or mentally’. Apparently, Galton’s preferred definition gives more scope for the environment to be included in eugenics, which attracted left-wing thinkers.
It cannot be denied that environmental factors were crucial to the viewpoints of certain left-wing eugenists such as C. W. Saleeby who stressed that “we desire not fine germ cells, but fine human beings”. Environment was recognised as a mechanism “acting, as it were, like a sieve, separating the fit from the unfit and selecting those who are best adapted to their surroundings”.
Sidney Webb predicts the now familiar image of the cockroach that is able to survive us all after a nuclear war when he writes that “we cannot afford to leave … ad environment alone … The survival of the fittest in an environment unfavourable to progress may … mean the survival of the lowest parasite. “15 The idea, then, was to manipulate the environment through social reforms in order that an environment is created in which the best genes can be expressed, ready to be selected for reproduction. The key word in Galton’s preferred definition for ‘eugenics’ is ‘inborn’. Among those that rejected mainline eugenics on the grounds of its class-bias, Hermann J.
Muller, a scientist prominently associated with socialist eugenics, nevertheless made the assumption that human traits of intelligence, personality and character had a substantial genetic basis. He argued that, without a proper environment, the best genes were wasted, but even the best environment could not turn a stupid or selfish person into an intelligent or altruistic one. In a society in which the social structure denied equal opportunities for all, it is impossible to distinguish between genetic endowment and environmental influences.
He, and others, looked to the Soviet Union as a place not only where scientific development would be encouraged16, but also where, in a society believed to be offering equal opportunities to all its members, true eugenics could be carried out. In 1935 Muller wrote Out of the Night, a book in which he argued that in just a century or so, it would be possible for the innate genetic quality of the majority of the population to be increased to the level of such men as Lenin, Isaac Newton, Leonardo Da Vinci, Louis Pasteur and Beethoven.
In reviews of the book, according to Diane Paul, nobody questioned the science behind this idea. It seemed to be accepted that traits were substantially determined by heredity, and that the mechanisms involved were well enough understood that they could be consciously manipulated to such an efficient degree that these results could be achieved within two or three generations. 17 Of course, this depended on the above-mentioned society in which social mobility was free and unimpeded by class concerns.
It could be claimed that socialism was a necessary pre-condition for eugenics because as Julian Huxley wrote: “… we must equalize environment upwards … before we can evaluate genetic difference”. 18 That is, when every member of society has equal opportunity to succeed, those with desirable genes will inevitably come to the fore, whereas before they may have remained invisible due to lack of opportunity. People’s ability would be the only factor in the struggle for survival. These lines were printed in the Labour Leader in 1911: “… y the perfection of our social environment under Socialism, the effects of bad inheritance [will] become the sole factor in producing inefficient and anti-social members of the community.
A Socialist Commonwealth which should allot to all such defectives a share of the communal product, without imposing any restrictions on their right to perpetuate their kind, would deserve all the evil that would ensue”19 Clearly, the result of such a system would be an unequal society in which the ‘fitness’ of the individual would be the basis of social organisation. 0 This argument, then, was not only essential to socialist eugenists’ views, but also naturally appealed to conservative eugenists who viewed things in terms of class. The left-wing social reformers among eugenists, then, were not anti-hereditarian, as they are sometimes labelled, but merely aware that the environment could help or hinder the selection of desirable genes. Freeden argues that the ultimate appeal for all eugenists was “the interest and solidarity of the social body … The link between socialism, social reform and eugenics was thus obviously forged on the plane of state intervention”.
The interests of the individual were seen as less important than the welfare of society, or indeed that they were one and the same, for, as Saleeby commented, “each individual [is] … merely the temporary host of the continuous line of germ-cells which constitute the race. “22 Eugenic ideas were thus acceptable and indeed appealing to socialists such as Sydney Webb, who decried individualism: “No consistent eugenist can be a ‘Laisser Faire’ individualist unless he throws up the game in despair.
He must interfere, interfere, interfere! “23 The main areas for interference into the life of the individual for eugenists were marriage and reproduction. Writers such as H. J. Laski equated the ‘production of a weakling’ with a crime against society, thereby expounding the view that marriage should no longer be treated as a private affair. Some eugenist such as George Bernard Shaw went so far as to call for direct public action in the selection of partners, although he acted admittedly as an extreme voice. 24 Freeden points to J. A.
Hobson, a liberal theorist who wrote in favour of ‘the restriction of marriage to the fit’ and the ‘prevention of anti-social propagation’. 25 Two national examples of eugenic social reform policy can tell us more about the appeal of eugenics to the left. France, where the prevalence of Lamarckian over Darwinian ideas of evolution led to an altogether different variety of eugenics than that found in Britain or the USA, which was centred on the health of babies.
One leader of the French social hygiene movement, Just Sicard de Plauzole, believed that “misery … s a powerful factor in degeneration … caused by fatigue and deprivation of the mother during gestation” and that this was transmitted by heredity. 27 This Lamarckian view of biology led to the formulation of a positive eugenics, which was also designed to reverse the declining birth rate, by tackling issues such as poor diet and living conditions and, particularly under Adolphe Pinard, professor of obstetrics and gynaecology at the Paris Medical School, the health of pregnant mothers and newborn babies.
Naturally the idea of ensuring healthy babies is an uncontroversial one, and this kind of environmentalist eugenics is quite an exception to the kind of policies advocated in Britain, which were based on Mendelian ideas of heredity. Even so, in Britain interventionist negative eugenic policies such as sterilisation never made it onto the statute books. This ‘negative’ eugenic policy was, conversely, adopted in social democratic Sweden, and led to 62,888 sterilisations. 28 How could a nation with politics to the left of Britain’s support such a measure?
Spektorowski and Mizrachi demonstrate that Sweden’s Social Democratic Party supported a eugenic socialism which would culminate in the creation of a welfare state of the ‘fittest’. In another article, Spektorowski emphasises the absence of racism or class-bias and the focus on ‘productivity’ in the Swedish approach to eugenics. Swedish policy is, in fact, compared to the eugenics of the Nazis and the two are found to “share similar or seemingly similar approaches towards eugenics and towards the idea of a productive society”, differing only in the Nazi’s racialisation of these ideas. 9 Socialists in Sweden believed that an exclusionist social welfare would generate a ‘higher quality national stock’ which would in turn lead to greater economic efficiency and productivity.
This example demonstrates that ‘mainline’ eugenic ideas were compatible with left-wing thought. Indeed, it was acknowledged by Haldane in 1938 that attitudes towards eugenics were not delineated along the usual left/right divide; “The questions with which I shall deal cut right across the usual political divisions”. 0 Hence we find members of both these political groupings agreeing with each other in either their support or their opposition to eugenics, and social democratic countries such as Sweden or Denmark supporting the ‘negative’ eugenic practice of sterilisation while Britain never did do so. Hence I find the separation ideas into categories of ‘left’ and ‘right’ or ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ not useful when discussing the appeal of eugenics. Freeden argues that it was the allowance for environmentalism in Galton’s first definition that attracted the left to eugenics.
I would argue that this is something that they contributed to the field, but, with the possible exception of France, left-wing thinkers’ original support for the creed sprung from their enthusiasm for state intervention and the chance to create a genetically planned society, which could only develop from their belief that the salvation of mankind was bound up with the improvement of its genes; that a person’s ‘fitness’ was determined by his biology and the manipulation of his environment was useful only to ensure that the best genes were available for selection.