How do we “face up” to the left’s eugenic past?
The article is about the enthusiasm of pre-war centre-left intellectuals for eugenics, the movement which aimed, as he puts it, “to increase the overall quality of the national herd, multiplying the thoroughbreds and weeding out the runts”. Until the war it attracted a number of the brightest lights of the liberal and socialist left, including Sidney and Beatrice Webb (who founded the Fabian Society), George Bernard Shaw, Marie Stopes, William Beveridge and John Maynard Keynes, who was director of the Eugenic Society from 1937 to 1944. They believed in it, he says, because the left believed in planning, and believed that mankind could plan its own evolution by stopping the “genetically inferior” poor and disabled from breeding. All this went drastically out of fashion after World War II, when people saw that such ideas fed the Nazi ideology and, ultimately, its programme of mass murder.
Eugenics went into steep decline after 1945. Most recoiled from it once they saw where it led – to the gates of Auschwitz. The infatuation with an idea horribly close to nazism was steadily forgotten. But we need a reckoning with this shaming past. Such a reckoning would focus less on today’s advances in selective embryology, and the ability to screen out genetic diseases, than on the kind of loose talk about the “underclass” that recently enabled the prime minister to speak of “neighbours from hell” and the poor as if the two groups were synonymous.
Progressives face a particular challenge, to cast off a mentality that can too easily regard people as ends rather than means. For in this respect a movement is just like a person: it never entirely escapes its roots.
It is a common trope of the American radical right that organisations like Planned Parenthood in the USA and the Marie Stopes organisation in the UK can be discredited by revealing their early pro-eugenic stances (as in this example from Front Page magazine). As Zoe Williams points out, Stopes’s main legacy is not her ideas but the clinic she founded, which was eagerly used by poor women who did not care about her politics:
The women she provided with contraception didn’t care whether she thought they were scum who should leave the breeding to the master race. They didn’t care whether eugenics was considered the natural endpoint of any interference in nature’s course. They just wanted not to have 18 children. They just wanted the choice.
It is curious that the example Freedland provides is that of Cameron’s mention of “neighbours from hell” when Cameron is not generally associated with the left, being a wealthy, public-school educated member of the Conservative party with aristocratic connections, currently presiding over a programme to cut back on the welfare state and public spending, regardless of how damaging that could be to the economy (the opposite of Keynsian economics, which consists of using public spending to stimulate the economy). To an extent, some of the ideas of the pre-war liberal thinkers like Keynes and Beveridge have become orthodoxy on both the left and right (no party could win an election with an overt promise to abolish either the welfare system or the NHS), but Cameron et al represent a recent Tory tradition of cutting taxes for the rich, not raising them to provide jobs or services or to invest in industry.
Furthermore, a disgust at the manners and culture of the poor has been observed (as noted in Owen Jones’s book Chavs) and the PM’s statement may be an example of that, but there has been no serious talk of compulsory sterilisation or other eugenic methods: the talk, mostly from the right, has been of young women having babies to claim benefits, and the solution offered is simply to stop their benefits. Eugenics never became part of the law in the UK, as it did in the USA where some states passed laws to prevent people with certain conditions from marrying; compulsory sterilisations of those with inheritable disabilities or mental health problems, or those perceived to have them, were enshrined in law and endorsed by the Supreme Court. This was not abandoned immediately after World War II; it went on there and in parts of Europe (such as Sweden) into the 1970s. Sterilisation of disabled children at parents’ request was only outlawed in Australia in 1992.
As for any “reckoning”, I fail to see why the British left of today should account for ideas they do not hold (indeed, which are more likely to be advanced or hinted at by the political right or far right), which were held by men who died years ago who were never in a position to put them into practice, and which died out in this country after World War II. It was observed in an article on child abuse in a Roman Catholic order that such orders never survive the repudiation of their founder, but the left is not a religious movement — it is not all based on the personality of Beveridge, Maynard Keynes or anyone else — and we do not judge ideas on the basis of other ideas promoted by those who promoted them.
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