Disability and Eugenics – Has Socialism anything to say?

Disability and Eugenics – Has Socialism anything to say?

Disability provokes such deep feelings and creates such controversy in society that it must surely be a key issue for any socialist movement. Yet communist, leftist and social democratic movements often have very little to say. ‘Work’ seems so central to everything that socialism is about. The awakening of class consciousness through the  perception of the exploitation involved in wage labour is a central idea uniting, at least in theory, the many shades of the Left.

But what about those who cannot move?  Those who, perhaps, have constant problems of incontinence? Individuals who are unable to navigate the communications skill set so automatic for most in mainstream society? In what way are these people thought of in light of the ‘work ethic’ dominating predatory capitalism or of the movements traditionally attached to ‘labour’?

In the run-up to the general elections the Tories seriously considered branding themselves as ‘The Workers’ Party’ with a ladder as a logo, presumably to represent ‘aspiration’.( Independent  26/2/15). Not to be outdone in ‘workerism’ Rachel Reeves, Labour’s shadow works and pensions secretary, stated ‘ We are not the party to represent those who are out of work…Labour are a party of working people, formed for and by working people’. (Independent 17/3/15). Andy Burnham warns that Labour cannot win the next election while voters believe it gives the workshy an “easy ride” and must put its trust in those who “put in the hours, the sweat and the hard graft” to succeed (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-29/5/2025.

So how does a Marxist vision of the future summarised by ‘from each according to his abilities, to each according to their needs’ apply to those unable to work?  I do not have the answer to this. Maybe some of our readers do.  In my article I have selected some pictures of people with disabilities. The first three show these persons as a part of humanity to be treasured, not to be feared or outcast, nor even, necessarily, ‘cured’. The fourth is a poster from the late 1930’s in Germany which emphasises both the ugly deformity and the cost to the taxpayer of a disabled person. I then look at how the powerful eugenics movement, in Britain and America, shaped the social environment in which the attempted ‘elimination of the unfit’ became accepted by public opinion. I demonstrate the duration of this idea, including within the Leftist and Socialist movement, even up to today.

Pictorial representations of Disability

El bufón don Sebastián de Morra

El bufón don Sebastián de Morra by Velázquez (c.1646)

Sebastián de Morra was a dwarf and jester to the court of Philip IV of Spain.  He was crippled from birth and the subject of ridicule and mistreatment by the noblemen at court.   Dwarfs were often given shelter in return for their services as court jesters, a position which exposed them to offensive remarks and practical jokes. Art historian Carl Justi said of their life at court:  “they were loved and treated as dogs”. It was their lot to accept such unkindness and to be thankful that they had a roof over their heads.

Against a dark background, Don Sebastián sits on the ground somewhat clumsily leaning to one side.  His foreshortened legs stick out and he could remind us of an abandoned puppet with his strings released by the puppeteer. His tightly clenched hands rest on his thighs.  He looks intently out at us making us feel slightly guilty that we are staring in at him.  You can’t look at him for any length of time without wanting to turn away as if you know you shouldn’t be staring at him. There is sadness in his dark eyes, which seems to contradict his role as a jester.

The opulence of his red and gold clothing is challenged by his seated position on the bare ground rather than within the finery of a court setting.   Was it in the mind of the artist, or from the instructions of his patron, that the dwarf, Don Sebastián,  should be dressed lavishly so as to portray to the viewers, that the jester was well treated and that he enjoyed the best life could get?

An Old Man and His Grandson c. 1490

An Old Man and His Grandson by Domenico Ghirlandaio c. 1490

In this double portrait in the Musée du Louvre, the artist portrays the two figures with gentleness and clearly shows the affection between them. The boy has placed his small hand on the upper arm of the old man. Their eyes meet on a diagonal: this balances the composition, and also excludes the observer from the intimate scene. The boy is looking upwards along the old man’s outline, which means that he is actually looking directly at the enormous nose projecting towards him. The contrast makes the little boy’s snub nose, and the way his mouth is opened in astonishment, appear all the more childlike.

A soft light falls on their faces through the window, and the old man is lit from the right and the boy from above. As the lit halves of their faces are turned towards each other, and the same bright red is used for the garments and cap, the two figures seem to merge to form one. The picture is entirely composed with their unity in mind.

The Adoration of the Christ Child

The Adoration of the Christ Child, by a Follower of Jan Joest of Kalkar (ca. 1515)

In 1515 the painting “The Adoration of the Christ Child,” was created by a follower of the Dutch painter Jan Joest of Kalkar. A close look at the artwork reveals two characters who appear to have Down syndrome. One is a shepherd looking down at the scene from behind a post at the centre of the painting–and the other an angel standing beside the mother, Mary. These two participants in the nativity are situated in what would seem to be places of honour. Because the painter is unknown, his motive for placing them there can only be guessed at. He may have had a child with Down syndrome or simply known individuals with the condition. At that time, the syndrome was not medically recognised. What seems certain is that he felt they belonged there, in the midst of the Nativity scene.

NaziThis German poster (around 1938) reads: “60,000 Reichsmark is what this person suffering from a hereditary defect costs the People’s community during his lifetime. Fellow citizen, that is your money too.’ As is well known, in Hitler’s regime, the attack on the disabled would be the open door to the attempts to eliminate those with other ‘defects’ and deviances’ offensive to the Master Race, such as being Jewish as well as gypsies and homosexuals. The lack of resistance to the early signs of a coming genocide and the subsequent ‘blindness’ to the existence of the concentration camps was predicated on the successful campaigning and propaganda of the Eugenics Movement over the preceding 50 years. This movement equated disability, racial inferiority and poverty as both interconnected and inherited. The human beings characterised by these traits were a danger to the Nation and would undermine and weaken the Master Race.

The Eugenics Movement and the Holocaust

In 1939 a farm worker in Germany wrote a letter to the Fuhrer requesting to take the life of his new baby, born blind and deformed. Hitler arranged for this ‘mercy killing’ to take place. Three weeks later Hitler issued a decree that the killing of disabled children should start in earnest. What happened at that moment and later in the mass killings of ‘undesirables’, including 6 million Jewish people, was to be the logical conclusion of the eugenics movement which started here, in the UK.

Scientist and cousin of Darwin, Francis Galton first coined the term ‘eugenics’ around 1883.The word’s Greek roots mean ‘noble in heredity’. In 1907 Galton became president of the Eugenics Education Society. However, it was ‘negative eugenics’ i.e. preventing recessive genes from reproduction by restricting the rights of disabled people to ‘breed’, that became the rallying cry of Galton and his followers. These followers became a very influential and vociferous lobby throughout the twentieth century and even up to today. This lobby included US President Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who both promoted sterilisation of the ‘unfit’.

Churchill and others were much influenced by a British physician, Dr A.F. Tredgold, an expert adviser to the Royal Commission who delivered an influential lecture in 1910 called ‘The Feeble-Minded-A Social Danger’. Speaking of ‘idiots’ he said: ‘These are…incapable of being employed…their care and support absorbs a large amount of the time, energy, and money of the normal population… are utterly helpless, repulsive in appearance, and revolting in manners… In my opinion it would be an economical and humane procedure were their existence to be painlessly terminated. It is doubtful if public opinion is yet ripe for this to be done compulsorily, but I am of the opinion that the time has come when euthanasia should be permitted at the request of a parent or guardian.’( Tredgold’ The Feeble-Minded- A Social Danger,Eugenics Review (1909-10), 97-104)

The most significant era of eugenic sterilization was between 1907 and 1963, when over 64,000 individuals were forcibly sterilized under eugenic legislation in the United States. (Lombardo, Paul; “Eugenic Sterilization Laws”Eugenics Archive)

Margaret Sanger, well-known American feminist and activist for contraception and the right to abortion (1879–1966), wrote, ‘The most merciful thing that the large family does to one of its infant members is to kill it.’ (Woman and the New Race 1920).

In 1916 New York urologist William Robinson wrote a widely read eugenics textbook, Eugenics, Marriage and Birth Control (Practical Eugenics) in which he advocated, “The best thing would be to gently chloroform these children [of the unfit] or to give them a dose of potassium cyanide.”

Nazis on trial after World War II cited the influence of American eugenics programmes on their policies.

How eugenics poisoned the welfare state

The origin of Britain’s welfare state began with the Minority Report of the Royal Commission on the Poor Laws, drafted by Sidney and Beatrice Webb during the first decade of the 20th century.  Whilst using compassionate rhetoric, the founders of the Fabian Society were elitist and contemptuous of the poor. Both husband and wife were enthusiastic supporters of the eugenics movement, which held that most of the behavioural traits that led to poverty were inherited. In short, that the poor were genetically inferior to the educated middle class.

The Labour MP Will Crooks described the targets of the eugenics campaign as ‘like human vermin’ who ‘crawl about doing absolutely nothing, except polluting and corrupting everything they touch.’ Crooks was perhaps only outdone in his vehement contempt for what we now call the ‘underclass’ by George Bernard Shaw, who believed that they had ‘no business to be alive’ and speculated at a meeting of the Eugenics Society about the need to use a ‘lethal chamber’ to solve the problem.

In 1913, the eugenicists succeeded in getting the Mental Incapacity Act through parliament. As a result, some 40,000 men and women were incarcerated without trial, having been deemed to fall into various specious categories such as ‘feeble-minded’ or ‘morally defective’. This latter description was used to imprison petty criminals, unmarried mothers or those displaying homosexual inclinations — all, allegedly, clear signs that they possessed the sort of defective genes believed to be conducive to pauperism. They spoke of segregating the ‘mentally handicapped’ but were open enough about their true agenda — the containment and segregation of what they termed the ‘social residuum’.

William Beveridge, later to be described as the midwife of the post-1945 welfare settlement, was also very active in the eugenics movement at this time. Today, Beveridge is generally portrayed as a kindly, avuncular figure but his roots were in a particularly hard-line strand of eugenics. He argued, in 1909, that ‘those men who through general defects are unable to fill such a whole place in industry, are to be recognised as “unemployable”. They must become the acknowledged dependents of the State… but with complete and permanent loss of all citizen rights — including not only the franchise but civil freedom and fatherhood.’

The economist John Maynard Keynes served on the Eugenics Society’s governing council and was its director from 1937 to 1944.  This was no casual hobby. As late as 1946 Keynes was still describing eugenics as ‘the most important and significant branch of sociology’.

It was during the late 1930s that much of the detailed planning for the welfare state was carried out. And a good deal of it was undertaken at meetings of the Eugenics Society. On the evening that the House of Commons met to debate the Beveridge Report, Beveridge himself went off to address an audience of eugenicists at the Mansion House.  Here he promised to the members he would make sure at a later date that family allowances would be graduated with more paid out to middle-class parents as the whole point was to combat the eugenicists’ great bugbear — the differential birth rate between the classes.

And today?

I hope  these references to a little mentioned past on both the ‘right’ and, more horrifically , on the ‘left’ give some clues as to ‘the worm in the rose’, concerning the Labour Party’s  ‘sudden’ attacks on and  disdain for those who are not described as ‘working families’, or who are, shall we say, the ‘social residuum.’

Labour’s sympathy for the Tory cuts to welfare benefits, which would include those for the disabled, and very possibly for those with more than two children, means there is precious little defence against new mass deaths in the looming storms. These deaths might not look exactly like those perpetrated by the Nazi regime. The deaths would arise more ‘naturally’ from mass homelessness,  pensioners and poor dying of cold, deaths and suicides resulting from the DWP’s hounding of job seekers and those on ESA with benefit sanctions. There would be the ‘grinding down’ of bodies and minds forced on to unsuitable workfare schemes under Ian Duncan Smith’s dictum of ‘work makes free.’

The deaths would arise from closing down of fire and ambulance services, from the shrinking of NHS facilities, the running out of vouchers for the food bank… it’s frighteningly easy to think about how deaths have and will come about in austerity Britain, possibly slowly and surely over the next 5-10 years, or possibly in scenarios, for example, of a mass epidemic, in a fast and furious way.

Some of the first victims’ details are to found in a blog called Calum’s List where there are memorial pages for at least 60 disabled or vulnerable people known to have died or committed suicide because of welfare ‘reforms’. The true number of deaths is being covered up in spite of campaigners’ pressure to reveal the figures.

Labour’s shadow justice secretary is launching a campaign to legalise assisted suicide after dad of three Jeffrey Spector took his own life at Dignitas to avoid being a ‘burden. ‘In the context of ‘austerity’ and the value accorded to those able to work one can wonder how long before the ‘choice’ of suicide feels more like the duty of suicide for the disabled and even those who fear disablement. ‘Poverty porn’ and even ‘disability porn’ adorns our TV screens, billboards and newspapers to accustom them and us to equate impairment with ‘faulty goods’. See the example below from 2013:


Esteemed scientist and Liberal Democrat supporter Richard Dawkins recently claimed it would be immoral to carry on with a pregnancy if the mother knew the foetus had Down Syndrome.

‘Down Syndrome…’—back full circle to the honoured figures in the 1515 painting ‘ the Adoration of the Christ Child’. Able people and disabled all are interlinked and interdependent and all ‘needing’ to be loved and included in the paintings I selected.

I do not have an answer or a ‘conclusion’ to this article.  The quelling of liberation movements for Blacks and for women has frequently depended on associating Blacks and women with ‘disabilities’ affecting their ability to have dignified work lives. (Women scientists cry too much according to modern day Nobel Prize Winner, Tim Hunt!). Yet disability seems to be pushed to the margins in the socialist discourse and practice. All this needs further unravelling.

Marxists speak of ‘abilities’ and ‘needs’. In Shakespeare’s ‘King Lear’ the old king, handicapped by his increasing age and frailty,  no longer has the ‘ability’ to work and delegates the work of running the country to his daughters. The wicked daughters slowly strip their ailing father of his carers and security personnel (or ‘servants and ‘horsemen’) and threaten him with homelessness. As Goneril and Regan rail against their father and his ‘inability to change his behaviour’ they ask why you would need even one servant. Lear replies, in anguish and anger…

‘O reason not the need! Our basest beggars
Are in the poorest thing superfluous.
Allow not nature more than nature needs,
Man’s life is as cheap as beast’s. Thou art a lady:
If only to go warm were gorgeous,
Why, nature needs not what thou gorgeous wear’st,
Which scarcely keeps thee warm. But, for true need—’

(Lear to his daughters Goneril and Regan, “King Lear,” Act 2, Scene 4, lines 263-285).


Scapegoat- why we are failing disabled people   K. Quarmby  Portobello Books 2015
How Eugenics Poisoned the Welfare State   Dennis Sewell  The Spectator 5/11/2009
Disabled People against the Cuts     http://dpac.uk.net/
War Against the Weak: Eugenics and Americas Campaign to Create a Master Race. Edwin Black  New York/ London 2003
Dennis Sewell 25 November 2009, The Spectator


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