An unlikely convergence, 1890–1940

This book focuses on the apparently surprising convergence between anarchism and eugenics. By tracing the reception of eugenic ideas within five different anarchist movements –Argentina, England, France, Portugal and Spain – the book argues that, in fact, there is ample evidence for anarchist interest in, and implementation of, some form of eugenics. The author argues that this intersection between anarchism and eugenics can be understood as an emanation from anarchism’s nineteenth-century legacy, which harnessed science as a means to change the social world and an ideological commitment to voluntarism as a political praxis. Through the articulation of interest in birth control, ‘neo-Malthusianism’, freedom to choose for women and revolutionary objectives, many anarchists across these five countries provided the basis for the creation of ‘anarchist eugenics’ in the early twentieth century.

This chapter presents the central problematic of the book: the apparent paradox of anarchism having provided a forum for the reception of eugenics. It discusses the main issues that such a contention gives rise to, sets out the methodology and theoretical framework to be followed and places anarchism and eugenics within the historiography of both movements from the late nineteenth century onwards.

in Anarchism and eugenics
The constitutive terrain of anarchist eugenics

Chapter 2 sets the intellectual scene, both in anarchism and more generally, by providing a discussion of the characteristics of nineteenth-century ‘classical anarchism’ in terms of its reliance on understandings of nature, progress and science as the foundations upon which hereditarian and biological thought were built in the movement. This allows for an analysis of the reception of thought on doctrines such as Malthusianism, with its pessimistic account of the relations between population and resources, and discourses on human degeneration as a biological phenomenon. The chapter moves on to analyse the uptake of theories of evolutionary variation and inheritance within anarchism and to how these ideas dovetailed or conflicted with anarchism’s core values on the ability of human beings to forge their own environment and future. The chapter suggests that such debates, which were transnational within anarchism, provided the bedrock upon which interest in anarchist circles on processes of biological change, the relations between the environment and heredity, and, ultimately, eugenics were built.

in Anarchism and eugenics

In Chapter 3, the reception of early eugenic ideas within the anarchist movements of England, France, Portugal, Spain and Argentina over the years 1890–1920 is discussed against the backdrop of social and political developments within these different societies and within the eugenics movement itself. It discusses the ways in which early interest in neo-Malthusianism and the environmentally focused theory of Lamarckism configured the early anarchist reception of eugenic thought. The main emphasis in the chapter is placed on the vehicles by which eugenic thought arrived in anarchist movements and on the specific ways in which these ideas were digested in order to justify and articulate ‘anarchist eugenics’. The period covered in Chapter 3 ends with the First World War and its immediate aftermath. This was a fault line period in the reconfiguration of neo-Malthusian thought and its transformation, in the anarchist movement, particularly in France, into explicit support for eugenics. The chapter emphasises the varied and contested reception of eugenic thought within anarchism, in accordance with locality, mechanisms of international knowledge exchange, chronology and type of anarchism, whether syndicalist or individualist.

in Anarchism and eugenics

Chapter 4 continues the inquiry on eugenics into the years 1920–1940, covering the ‘hey-day’ of eugenic thought in the 1920s and 1930s both within anarchism and as part of the international eugenics movement itself. It analyses the political, scientific and religious influences that operated upon anarchism in its uptake of eugenics. In particular, questions such as the gendered nature of eugenic projects and their impact specifically on women’s bodies are assessed, as are discussions on the appropriateness or otherwise of the sterilization of the ‘unfit’, the development of ‘conscious maternity’ and the hygienic improvement of the social and health conditions of the poor. The reaction within anarchism to broader political and scientific debates on the acceptability and practicality of eugenics constitutes a thread that runs through this chapter.

in Anarchism and eugenics