Eugenics, socialists and the labour movement in Britain, 1865-1940

David Redvaldsen
  • Historical Research, April 2017, Wiley
  • DOI: 10.1111/1468-2281.12185

What is it about?

The article gives a thorough and nuanced account of relations between eugenics and the labour movement from the beginning of these two movements until 1940, after which the relationship changed significantly. Eugenics and socialism originated at about the same time towards the end of the 19th century. Both had millennial ambitions of creating the perfect society through science. For this reason many intellectuals believed in both ideologies. A number of socialists were nevertheless dismayed by the justification for class differences offered by the most prevalent version of eugenics, which David Stack calls 'hard hereditarianism'. These socialists sought to modify eugenics to make it more compatible with their political views. Official supporters of eugenics at all times sought to gain the adherence of socialists. These efforts were relatively successful, but only affected peripheral organizations within the labour movement. The Labour party as a whole was generally uninterested in eugenics and disagreed with sterilization. In the 1930s the Eugenics Society sought to overcome this resistance. This led to even greater attention being paid to the labour movement and working-class people. It thereby gained a measure of grassroot support, but the Parliamentary Labour Party remained opposed to sterilization.

Why is it important?

The topic had not been studied at length before my articles were researched. The present article is the longest and most comprehensive of them all. Because eugenics is associated with the political right today, it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that the labour movement always opposed it. And Francis Galton, the founder of eugenics, was an original thinker who opposed aristocracy, capitalism and laissez-faire. This article is the only secondary source which makes this clear.


Dr David Redvaldsen
University College London

The article offers a cutting-edge assessment of eugenics and socialism in Britain. I hope it will have almost as much impact as Michael Freeden's classic 'Eugenics and Progressive Thought: A Study in Ideological Affinity' from 1979.

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