Fair Use Blog

Fabians, Progressives, and Eugenics

This is from the fifth chapter, Eugenic Solutions, in Diane Paul’s summary history, Controlling Human Heredity: 1865 to the Present.

Eugenics did enjoy support from some socialists, most notably members of the Fabian Society, who rejected laissez-faire in favor of a planned economy and establishment of a National Minimum–a guaranteed level of health, education, wages, and employment. Founded in 1900, the society was committed to reform from above rather than revolution from below. While the Fabians condemned capitalism, their ideal was a scientifically planned society that would empower experts rather than workers. The Fabians envisioned a nation managed by people much like themselves: middle-class, professionals, such as doctors, scientists, teachers, and social workers. The society also attracted a number of important literary figures, including George Bernard Shaw, who believed that there is now no reasonable excuse for refusing to face the fact that nothing but a eugenic religion can save our civilisation, and H. G. Wells, who argued for the sterilization of failures on the grounds that the way of Nature has always been to slay the hindmost, and there is still no other way, unless we can prevent those who would become the hindmost being born (Wells 1905, 60; Shaw 1905, 74). Plays like Shaw’s Man and Superman (1903) and novels like Wells’s A Modern Utopia (1905) probably did more than any academic studies to popularize the concept of selective breeding.

Fabian socialism and eugenics shared the conviction that laissez-faire was a bankrupt philosophy that should be replaced by planning based on social needs. The geneticist Lancelot Hogben noted: Negative eugenics is simply the adoption of a national minimum of parenthood, and extension of the principle of national minima familiarized in the writings of Sidney and Beatrice Webb. It is thus essentially en rapport with the social theory of the collectivist movement (1931, 210). Sidney Webb himself enthusiastically endorsed the claim: No consistent eugenist can be a Laisser Faire individualist unless he throws up the game in despair. He must interfere, interfere, interfere! (1910–11, 237).

Fabians were often nationalist and imperialist, though few went as far as Wells, who bluntly asserted that there is only one sane and logical thing to be done with a really inferior race, and that is to exterminate it (quoted in Trombley 1988, 32; see also Coren 1993, 65–67). But they vacillated in their attitudes toward the poor, viewing them sometimes with sympathy, sometimes with contempt. The tension between two images of the poor–as exploited and as unfit–was reflected in the Fabian political program, which promoted eugenics simultaneously with measures for improved health, education, and welfare (Kramnick and Sheerman, 1993, 37).

Fabians tried to resolve this tension by strongly distinguishing the prudent working class from its residuum. They were as alarmed as conservatives at the purported fecundity of the lower classes. Thus the Fabian theorist Harold Laski (who worked briefly in Karl Pearson’s laboratory) warned that the unfit were outbreeding the fit and that society must learn to regard the production of a weakling as a crime against itself if it were not to commit race suicide (1910, 25–34; see also Kramnick and Sheerman, 1993, 30–48). Many others agreed. Laski’s alarmist view was echoed by Eden Paul: Unless the socialist is a eugenicist as well, the socialist state will speedily perish from racial degradation (1917, 139), while Wells asserted that we cannot go on giving you health, freedom, enlargement, limitless wealth, if all our gifts to you are to be swamped by an indiscriminate torrent of progeny (1922, xvi).

However, there was often a large disparity between the Fabians’ extreme rhetoric and their milder policy proposals, which rarely extended beyond segregation. Very few (other than Wells) supported coercive sterilization. Thus Havelock Ellis invoked terrifying images: When we are able to control the stream at its source we are able to some extent to prevent the contamination of that stream by filth, and ensure that its muddy floods shall not sweep away the results of our laborious work on the banks. But he repeatedly rejected coercive sterilization (Ellis 1914, 15–16, 30). In Ellis’s view, eugenics would be effective only if developed from a broader sense of social responsibility. Harold Laski had argued that any action with national consequences may be regulated by the state and urged that the unfit be prevented from breeding. But when it came to public policy, he asked only that the state influence the climate of public opinion. In the end, Laski would counter the threat of race suicide with education. In Britain, that was the best eugenicists could do.

Their inability to pass laws may lead us to dismiss the British eugenicists’ importance. But legislation is not the only–or perhaps even the best–measure of success. The eugenicists were extremely effective in popularizing a new Galtonian vocabulary. Whole sections of British society now took for granted that talent and character were inborn and fixed. Edgar Schuster and Ethel Elderton of the Galton Laboratory remarked, At the time of the first publication of Mr. Galton’s Hereditary Genius, in 1869, the belief in the hereditary nature of inborn natural ability was held by very few; but so great has been the influence of that and other works that at the present time it would be almost impossible to find an educated person to dispute it (1907, 1). This assumption had consequences far beyond programs of eugenical selection. It shaped policy in respect to medicine, law, and education.

In the United States, eugenicists did enjoy some legislative triumphs, although even here the greatest impact was probably ideological. As many scholars have noted, eugenics was congruent with the scientific and reformist spirit of the Progressive Era, a period of vast economic and social change between the collapse of Reconstruction and the start of the First World War (Allen 1989; Freeden 1979; Pickens 1968). When the Civil War ended in 1865, the United States was an agricultural country, which imported most of its technology. By the end of the century, its industrial output had tripled, with steel production exceeding the combined output of Britain and Germany (Painter 1987, xvii). The United States was now a major exporter of industrial equipment and consumer goods. Business and industry became highly consolidated, as small-scale competition gave way to a new system of corporate capitalism in which most sectors of the economy were dominated by a few giant firms. At the same time, the population became increasingly urban. In 1880, about a quarter of Americans lived in cities; by 1900, the figure was 40 percent. These cities now filled with immigrants from Europe and poor migrants from the rural South while middle-class residents moved to new streetcar suburbs.

The wealth so visibly created was very unequally distributed. At the turn of the century, the average workweek was about 60 hours, and the conditions in mines, mills, and factories were wretched; industrial discipline was harsh, and the work was exhausting and often dangerous. Widespread unemployment accompanied frequent and sometimes prolonged depressions. Signs of social disorder were everywhere: in strikes and walkouts that often ended in violence, in highly visible urban slums, in municipal corruption, in rising rates of crime, prostitution, alcoholism, and infectious diseases, in overcrowded prisons, and in asylums for the insane and feebleminded. The middle class demanded reforms that would both relieve distress and restore a stable social order. They called for factory inspection, child labor laws, a shortened workday, community clinics, probation and parole, a federal income tax, workmen’s compensation, the direct election of U.S. senators, prohibition. And eugenics.

The Progressive reforms involved a vast expansion in governmental authority. Whether Democrat or Republican, the Progressives shared a faith in the virtues of planning and the benevolence of the state. Their bywords were organization, cooperation, systematic planning, efficiency, and social control. Julia Lathrop, Hull House resident and later chief of the Children’s Bureau, summarized their credo: The success of our future civilization lies in government adding to their responsibility and taking on work which people have not hitherto been willing to entrust to them (quoted in Rothman 1980, 6). That work would be the province of disinterested experts.

To the Progressives, science provided a model of impartial expertise. Moreover, science, being disinterested, could provide unity to a society that seemed to be culturally disintegrating. Above all, science could supply the tools to manage humans and their environment efficiently (Tobey 1971, 12–19). Science could also address the root causes of social problems and not just their symptoms, like the state, it was assumed to be wholly benevolent. The Progressive attitude was expressed by Charles R. Van Hise, president of the University of Wisconsin:

We know enough about agriculture so that the agricultural production of the country could be doubled if the knowledge were applied. We know enough about disease so that if the knowledge were utilized, infectious and contagious diseases would be substantially destroyed in the United States within a score of years; we know enough about eugenics so that if the knowledge were applied, the defective classes would disappear within a generation. (quoted in Haller 1985, 76)

Van Hise was also active in the conservation movement, as were a number of prominent eugenicists such as Theodore Roosevelt, Gifford Pinchot, Madison Grant, and Charles Goethe. Both movements emphasized the need for planning and the welfare of future generations. Progressives, like Fabians (whom they resembled in many respects), vacillated between sympathy and contempt for the poor, supporting measures both to ameliorate their plight and to prevent them from breeding. Like the Fabians also, they tried to resolve the tension by distinguishing workers from what in America were called the defective or dangerous classes (those in Britain called the social residuum).

–Diane B. Paul, Controlling Human Heredity: 1865 to the Present (1995), pp. 75–78.

One Response to “Fabians, Progressives, and Eugenics”

  1. Rad Geek People’s Daily 2007-09-11 – Retro-Progressives Says:

    […] (That’s Progressive academic Charles R. Van Hise, quoted in Paul (1995), p. 78.) […]

Leave a Reply