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"Eugenics is the dirty little secret of the British left"

Screen shot 2010-11-25 at 17.28.46
By Paul Goodman

As the Howard Flight fight continues, Fraser Nelson makes the point that eugenics was once a cause of the left, citing a telling Spectator piece by Dennis Sewell. I've found another illuminating article on the matter - from Jonathan Freedland of the Guardian.  I concede that it doesn't come from that paper's website: it's up on Paul Bogdanor's, but it's surely authentic, being as well-written as one would expect.

The article, titled Master Race of the Left, deserves to be read in full.  Freedland begins by describing the fashion in Scandanavia for the best part of 40 years -

"Each day victims of forced sterilisation, now deep in middle-age, have stepped forward to tell how they were ordered to have the chop, to prevent them having children deemed as racially defective as themselves. Branded low class, or mentally slow, they were rounded up behind secure fences, in Institutes for Misled and Morally Neglected Children, where they were eventually led off for treatment.  One man has told how he and his fellow teenage boys planned to run away rather than undergo the dreaded cut in the crotch.  Maria Nordin, now seeking compensation from the Swedish government, remembers sobbing as she was pressed to sign away her rights to have a baby. Told that she would stay locked up forever if she did not cooperate, she relented - spending the rest of her life childless and in regret. In Sweden the self-examination has already begun. A government minister has admitted that what went on is barbaric and a national disgrace, with more than 60,000 Swedish women sterilised from 1935 until as late as 1976."

He goes on to describe the political make-up of the governments under which this happened -

"What has shocked most observers is that all this was committed not by some vile fascistic regime, but by a string of welfare-minded, Social Democratic governments. Indeed, the few voices of opposition came from Swedish conservatives"

- before turning his gaze to nearer home -

"But the reckoning cannot be confined to Scandinavia: Britain has some soul-searching of its own to do. What's more, as in Sweden, the culprits are not long-forgotten fire-breathers of the far right. On the contrary: eugenics is the dirty little secret of the British left. The names of the first champions read like a rollcall of British socialism's best and brightest: Sidney and Beatrice Webb, George Bernard Shaw, Harold Laski, John Maynard Keynes, Marie Stopes, the New Statesman - even, lamentably, the Manchester Guardian. Nearly every one of the left's most cherished, iconic figures espoused views which today's progressives would find repulsive."

According to Freedland -

  • George Bernard Shaw wrote: "The only fundamental and possible socialism is the socialisation of the selective breeding of man."
  • Bertrand Russell suggested that the state issue colour-coded procreation tickets.
  • H. G. Wells hailed eugenics as the first step toward the removal of "detrimental types and characteristics".
  • Keynes endorsed legalised birth control because the working class was too "drunken and ignorant" to be trusted to keep its own numbers down.
  • Marie Stopes and Mary Stocks "were not motivated by a kind of proto-feminism, but rather by the urge to reduce the numbers of the burgeoning lumpenproletariat".
  • Beatrice Webb was sure her genetic material was worth preserving, describing herself as 'the cleverest member of one of the cleverest families in the cleverest class of the cleverest nation of the world".
  • The New Statesman declared in 1931: "The legitimate claims of eugenics are not inherently incompatible with the outlook of the collectivist movement. On the contrary, they would be expected to find their most intransigent opponents amongst those who cling to the individualistic views of parenthood and family economics."

Freedland concludes his piece as follows -

"For years, leftists, historians and everyone else have drawn a veil over Adolf Hitler's naming of his creed National Socialism. It has been dismissed as a perverse PR trick of the Fuhrer's, as if Nazism and socialism represented opposite faiths. The same view has infused the left's understanding of the genocides committed in the name of communism, whether by Stalin or Pol Pot, as if those men were merely betraying the otherwise noble theory whose cause they proclaimed."

"But the early history of British socialism tells a different story. It suggests that socialism - with its unshakeable faith in science, central planning and the cool wisdom of the rational elite - contained the seeds of the atrocities that were to come later. Eventually, in the shadow of Auschwitz, Treblinka and Sobibor, the British left gave up its flirtation with eugenics. They saw where it had led. But, just like the governments of Scandinavia, their past was buried too quickly and forgotten. The names of Russell, Webb and Shaw still retain their lustre despite their association with the foulest idea of the 20th century. They escaped the reckoning. Perhaps now, posthumously, it's time to see them, and much of socialism itself, as they truly were."

I admire Freedland for facing up to the left's demons, at least in this case.  The right, in turn, should face up to some of its own: Winston Churchill, for example, shared at least some of the views quoted above.  However, it's also fair to say that some of the strongest resistance to eugenics came from the right - from G.K.Chesterton, for example.  Post-Flight, the old Nasty Party charge will be re-filed.  Time to remember, then, that the left's often been a Nasty Movement.