Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 17, 2015

Swedish socialism and eugenics

Filed under: Sweden — louisproyect @ 8:07 pm

Gunnar and Alva Myrdal

(This is the fourth in a series of articles on “the Swedish model”. Part one is here. It is an introduction that relates Swedish socialism to Bismarck’s reforms. Part two is here. It is about the persecution of the Samis. Part three is here. It deals with Sweden and the “scramble for Africa”.)

In 1997 the world was shocked to learn that between 1935 and 1976 Social Democratic governments forced 63,000 women into being sterilized. As part of a eugenics program meant to weed out the genetically or racially ”inferior,” the women were told that they would lose benefits and be separated from their living children if they refused. Typically the women were poor, learning disabled or people with non-Nordic or mixed ethnic backgrounds.

The Roma were prime targets of this persecution. In January 2011, Swedish government official Erik Ullenhag admitted, “Throughout history the Roma have been victims of unacceptable abuse, such as forced sterilisation and being deprived of the right to educate their children.” Long after forced sterilization came to an end, the Roma were still being singled out in a Nordic version of racial profiling as CounterPuncher Ritt Goldstein reported on secret files maintained by the cops on Romas, a so-called “gypsy registry”. One entry reported a woman as being as “black as night”.

For the longest time, Sweden social democracy has had a thing about the underclass. Beneath the velvet glove of social benefits, there is the mailed fist of laws intended to rid society of those elements that could not be molded into proper members of “the people’s home”—the term coined by the social democrats to describe their ideal.

Even before eugenics became government policy, you could see a strain of hostility toward the poor in the Stockholm School of economics—their version of Keynesian theory—where Gunnar Myrdal and Dag Hammarskjold were trained.

Johan Gustaf Knut Wicksell, a leading light of the business school of the University of Stockholm that had a profound impact on social democratic policy, was a diehard Malthusian and as such a firm believer in birth control not so much from the standpoint of women’s liberation but as a way to keep Sweden from being “overpopulated”, particularly by the riffraff who are alcoholics or prostitutes as he was fond of pointing out in his lectures.

As leading lights of the Swedish social democracy, Gunnar and Alva Myrdal played a major role in developing the policies that would lead to the monstrous punishment of the weak and the poor. Their theories were hardly the stuff of the Third Reich. You will not find anything about defending Nordic purity, etc. Instead it would be described as “pronatalism”, a belief that the government had a duty to promote family growth in a society that was experiencing falling birthrates despite Wicksell’s neo-Malthusianism. For the Myrdals, poverty was not a breeder of large families, which is often thought to be the case. Instead Sweden faced a problem of demographic decline since the Victorian era, one that the Myrdals interpreted as the outcome of inadequate means. So the answer was to shore up the nuclear family through public housing, income supplements, subsidized medical care—all the things we associate with the modern welfare state. They were also strong supporters of birth control but much more from the standpoint of women’s liberation than neo-Malthusianism.

In “The Swedish Experiment in Family Politics: The Myrdals and the Interwar Population Crisis”, Allan Carlson describes a set of policies that were not only carried out but became the “Swedish model” for Bernie Sanders and countless other American leftists who when the word socialism was mentioned thought of Sweden rather than Cuba. Their recommendations on health care would most certainly endear them to readers of the Nation Magazine:

Turning to health care, the Myrdals praised Sweden’s medical system for already embodying certain principles of social responsibility. From a population policy perspective, cost-free child health care was the most urgently needed reform. The costs of maintaining children’s health, the Myrdals asserted, must be freed from every competing aspect of a family budget. Furthermore, public health service doctors should concentrate primarily on children, particularly preschool children, “which is completely natural, since preventive health care essentially is child care:’ In light of these needs, the complete reform of the medical profession became urgent. There was “little likelihood” that the private efforts of individual doctors would produce any significant change. Abuses and problems among doctors would be solved only through a “great social political program” that brought them all under state regulation.”

If you keep in mind that such a program was intended to “breed” a superior sort of human being that could take his or her place as a productive member in the “people’s home”, you can understand why they would as well look askance at the sort of human beings rolling off the assembly line that were designated as rejects.

Carlson described the Mr. Hyde to their Dr. Jekyll:

Under the rubric of “quality-oriented” policy, the Myrdals described forced sterilization as a necessary option. While affirming, from a “race-biological viewpoint,” the equality of genetic material among all Swedish population groups, they added that a genetically inferior (mindervardighet) substrata existed within the population: the insane, the mentally ill, the genetically defective, and persons of bad or criminal character. With the German nazi program again as foil, the Myrdals stressed that their category of targeted individuals was drawn from all population and social groups. The reproduction of this inferior stock was undesirable, since offspring ran a strong risk of hereditary damage to health and intelligence. Because the government would be called upon to support genetically damaged children, the Myrdals concluded that the state had the right in limited cases to force sterilization on individuals. The guiding assumption should be to resort to the process only in recognized serious cases of illness and defect and only among those incapable of “rational decisions.” Where individuals were capable of reason, voluntary sterilization should be actively urged. Failing this, free contraceptives and eugenic abortion should be made available.

For the most thorough discussion of Swedish social democracy and eugenics, I recommend the article “Eugenics and the Welfare State in Sweden: The Politics of Social Margins and the Idea of a Productive Society” (Journal of Contemporary History July 2004) by Alberto Spektorowski and Elisabet Mizrachi who ironically were faculty members of Tel Aviv University, a pillar of the state that has carried out its own form of cleansing. In another article Spektorowski recommends that Israel become part of a regional framework based on the European Union in order to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I hope that this folly does not prejudice you against his scholarship on Sweden that is first-rate.

The Myrdals came of age when eugenics was all the rage in Europe. Francis Galton coined the term in 1883 as a way of applying social Darwinism to family planning. It became a staple of the Fabian Socialists who were gung-ho for weeding out undesirables. For George Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells and the Webbs, it was key to social betterment through gradual reform.

Oddly enough, Russian Marxists also embraced it, including Leon Trotsky who referred to it in “If America Should Go Communist”:

While the romantic numskulls of Nazi Germany are dreaming of restoring the old race of Europe’s Dark Forest to its original purity, or rather its original filth, you Americans, after taking a firm grip on your economic machinery and your culture, will apply genuine scientific methods to the problem of eugenics. Within a century, out of your melting pot of races there will come a new breed of men – the first worthy of the name of Man.

Indeed, the Swedes and the Russians would have disavowed the use of eugenics on a racial basis. Unlike the Nazis, they would limit it strictly to those who were mentally deficient, mentally ill, or had epilepsy. Alfred Petren, the head inspector of Sweden’s mental institutions and a member of parliament, submitted the first sterilization bill in 1927. He argued that it was necessary to avoid costly life-long institutionalization. Well, that makes sense when you think of how that would have drained precious resources for raising those better qualified from a social Darwinist perspective.

Not every leftist went along with this proposal. Carl Lindhagen, a member of parliament, stated:

When one thus has tread the path of correcting a social evil by means of force, violating the inviolability of life . . . many will say: this is only the first step. Why should we stop here? … Why only deprive these individuals useless to society and to themselves of their ability to procreate? Is it not more charitable to take their life as well?

As the years sped by, Lindhagen’s warnings would become prophetic. By 1941, it was no longer a question of congenital failings. It now became social failings as well. Spektorowski and Mizrachi write:

In 1941, the reforms advocated to expand the sterilization bill were more far- reaching than eugenic argumentation would allow, and originated in part in the frustration of legislators over the limited extent to which sterilization was performed under the existing legislation. The primary reason for expanding the law was to regulate the sterilization of those considered fit to give their consent to the operation. The new law would regulate the voluntary steriliza- tion of persons of ‘legal capacity’. The proposed law added a social indicator to the existing reasons for sterilization, implicating persons who ‘due to an asocial way of life are . . . obviously unfit to have custody of children’. Asociality in this instance meant vagabondry, alcoholism, etc.

The central claim from the social point of view was that children, due to one or both parents’ ‘inferiority’, would grow up in an unfavourable environment and not receive the care and upbringing necessary to develop into capable members of society. In those cases it would be better if children were not born. This was considered a humanitarian approach.

Finally, although it does not relate to the question of eugenics, a brief word should be added about the Myrdals’ most famous book, “The American Dilemma”, that dealt with racism. At the time it was considered a breakthrough since it regarded the “pathologies” of the slum as a product of a race-divided society.

Not long after the book was published in 1944, Herbert Aptheker charged it with failing to put the blame on capitalism in a short book titled “The Negro People in America: A Critique of Gunnar Myrdal’s “An American Dilemma”. This was followed by other critiques by African-Americans as Thomas Sugrue pointed out in a Nation Magazine article:

Oliver Cromwell Cox, the West Indian-born sociologist whose brilliant but mostly neglected book Caste, Class, and Race was published just a few years after An American Dilemma, took Myrdal to task for downplaying the connection between race and economic exploitation. Cox singled out Myrdal’s “mystical” belief that changing individual attitudes would end the “exploitation” at the heart of racial inequality. “In the end,” wrote Cox, “the social system is exculpated.” Myrdal’s critics grew more numerous in the 1960s. In their 1968 manifesto Black Power, Stokely Carmichael and Charles Hamilton offered their own challenge to individualistic understandings of race relations and coined the term “institutional racism” to account for the ways that racial inequality was not solely or even primarily a matter of beliefs or attitudes. They pinpointed “conditions of poverty and discrimination” rooted in unequal relationships of power and privilege, like the healthcare system that failed urban blacks and that “destroyed and maimed” lives every bit as effectively as the actions of the most brutal individual racists.

As I will point out in a subsequent article, Myrdal’s failings had to do with the very nature of Swedish “socialism”—its abandonment of Marxism in favor of a liberalism that would be the envy of the world until capitalist crisis rendered it just as obsolete as Soviet era “socialism”.

But in my next post, I will describe how Swedish neutrality during WWII coincided with a lucrative trade relationship with Nazi German.


  1. The “part two” link is actually to part 1. So is the “part two” link from “Swedish imperialism” page.

    Comment by godoggo — July 18, 2015 @ 4:20 pm

  2. What is the title of part two?

    Comment by godoggo — July 18, 2015 @ 5:41 pm

  3. Thanks for the head’s up. Part two is about the persecution of the Samis.

    Comment by louisproyect — July 18, 2015 @ 7:02 pm

  4. There is a school of thought that says the Nazis made eugenics look bad. I take the opposite view, it was by embracing things like Eugenics that made the Nazis look bad.

    Comment by Simon Provertier — July 19, 2015 @ 6:29 pm

  5. Eugenics is one facet of the broader late nineteenth/early twentieth-century idea that a new human species could come about through applied science. It isn’t entirely surprising that Trotsky would buy into a form of eugenics, which may have struck him as a way to create what in some quarters used to be called Socialist Man. We don’t seem to hear much about this today

    I wonder whether any or many contemporary Marxists, putting the question more broadly, still believe or ever believed that the human species can be qualitatively transformed in the biological sense by revolution–and, if so, how they see this coming about in practice. Indeed, did Trotsky himself, or the Communist Party, actually believe in this in any simple way?

    I am fairly certain, within the limits of my ability to judge such matters, that I myself don’t believe that the revolutionary dialectic, if that’s the right word, can lead to a sudden, dramatic, and adaptive qualitative shift in the biological character of people. Like many people faced with the reality of our multiple environmental crises, I am also skeptical about the power of genetic engineering and/or eugenics to replace or accelerate the evolutionary process, even though I continue to believe in historical, scientific, and technological progress.

    I don’t know of anyone who has really gone into this subject recently. I suppose, while I think I can see that the human genome continues to evolve, that I tend to think it is relatively fixed on the timescale of feasible political and economic change, and that the main task of the left is to free the suppressed potential in the current human race while avoiding ecological disaster, rather than to see humanity entirely transformed–perhaps through some form of what we today would have to consider inhumanity.

    Comment by Pete Glosser — July 21, 2015 @ 1:15 am

  6. I think, theoretically speaking, science could treat humans like horses or dogs and breed them for specific characteristics. And I think there are scientists who are working on this very problem. Those scientists should be stopped by any means necessary!

    But this brings up a load of issues,

    You cannot divorce eugenics from an evaluation that says some people are just not fit for this world and must, therefore, be eradicated, either gradually (‘liberal’ socialist method) or swiftly (far right method).

    You also cannot divorce this from class prejudice and snobbery. Eugenics is an idea of the aristocracy and the middle classes, who view those below with a mix of suspicion, revulsion and the sort of concern one reserves for a pet. This snobbery usually means the ‘ideal’ is some reflection of the middle and upper class ego. I.e. in ones self we see the humanity perfected!

    You cannot divorce eugenics from class structures, so the lower class exist simply to serve the upper classes. The lower classes must be bred in one way, the upper classes another.

    Eugenics assumes a very simple society, and views humans as a means to an end and not the end itself. So the goal of eugenics is task orientated. The well bred horse will run faster, the well bred human will think better. This application of simplistic task orientated breeding is bound to come into huge conflict with human social organisation, which is complex.

    Lastly, the human is different from the horse, in that human nature is different to horse nature, so the horse can be more easily trained and controlled to carry out taks for humans, whereas the human tends not so easily to be led to the water!

    And we haven’t even got onto the fact that as society changes humanity itself changes. I mean, can you imagine these people being part of a jumble tribe:

    Comment by Simon Provertier — July 21, 2015 @ 8:37 am

  7. I don’t see why eugenics necessarily presumes an aristocracy or an SS-like notion of an elite. For example, if we wanted people to survive intense global warming, I can see being tempted to engineer or breed extreme climate tolerance into a generation of children. Of course, the parents hope the children will benefit, but that is not necessarily the same thing as creating a super-class. Many parents wish their children to be better–or at least safer–than they are. Some pseudo-Greek or (God help us) “Aryan” notion of an ideal or an aristocracy really isn’t necessary, even though the European imagination seems to run in that groove even today.

    The problem remains that we do not really understand the complexity of “natural” genetic change well enough to plan it at the species level. We develop a false notion of guiding evolution by some plan that simply doesn’t allow for that complexity and thus risks creating people and perhaps a whole society that are not in fact adaptive. Old-fashioned ideas of human perfection simply don’t allow for the unintended and potentially disastrous consequences of reckless experimentation in breeding or genetic engineering

    The incomparable richness of “natural” evolutionary reality stands in stark contrast to the monocultures devised by human intention, and it is necessary to preserve the great pool of variability that exists in nature in order to have a truly robust biosphere containing truly robust species. This, rather than an inhererent danger of fascism, IMHO, is perhaps he great problem with eugenics as it has existed historically, as well as with other naive early modern schemes for improving on human nature.

    Comment by Pete glosser — July 21, 2015 @ 6:51 pm

  8. I don’t think eugenics is inherently fascist, but I certainly think eugenics came from snobbery, a rigid class structure and social theories that talked of the superior and the inferior. And I certainly think it was believing in things like eugenics that gave the Nazis a bad name and not the other way round.

    “For example, if we wanted people to survive intense global warming, I can see being tempted to engineer or breed extreme climate tolerance into a generation of children”

    This is an interesting solution to the problem of global warming! Of course we wouldn’t only have to engineer (breed?!) humanity, but other species and plant life to be able to tolerate global warming as humans rely on those things. And of course, the planet is a thing in itself. So while the humans are ok the planet may be sacrificed!

    “The problem remains that we do not really understand the complexity of “natural” genetic change well enough to plan it at the species level.”

    Exactly, this is the point and those who advocate eugenics know it too! This is why eugenics is an idea born of a privileged class who sees itself as superior and everyone else as a burden to be managed. Eugenic supporters know they are not solving species problems but creating people for specific tasks. What supporters of eugenics have in mind is horse breeding not solving problems like global warming! I mean the fabians of the early 20th century were not thinking about global problems but about the inadequacies of the lower orders. The reason socialism became infected with this disgusting idea is that socialists were more often than not also from the middle classes and saw in the proletariat a great unwashed unfit for their Utopian world view. If your Utopian society can’t be realised then realise new people!

    The only time I have heard a theory of changing humans at a species level (other than in literature songs about alienation) is in regard to adding robotic components to the human body so they can survive space flight etc. So humans would have certain implants. That is a science that is on its way but expect it to be seriously abused along the road.

    Comment by Simon Provertier — July 22, 2015 @ 8:49 am

  9. As a native swede this portrait of the Myrdals is correct but it paints a rather one-sided picture. They were indeed a “grey” couple that combined these malthusian “economism” theories [ayn rand spencerism-shit fest] with actually developing a framework for govermental social care and institutions. The swedish “folkhemmet” also advocated that you should be set on a productive course and a part of a society which was the aim of the “wellfare” programs that the myrdals was highly influental in instituting. This in contrast to the Hayek neoliberalism that de facto informs and indeed rules european and swedish life today that effecitive eradicates it (society). Both veins in sweidhs social democracy has indeed existed, and it has also followed course by handing over the reins over political ecomic power to the finansial privatized sector and the usual deregulations that followed.

    Comment by Syntagma squared — July 22, 2015 @ 11:49 am

  10. Of course Swedish “socialism” was and is social-democratic capitalism. Only the ignorant would argue otherwise. But it’s a mistake to paint the entirety of Swedish social democracy as “liberals” who made their peace with capitalism. That doesn’t accurately describe Rudolf Meidner, Gustav Möller, or even Olaf Palme.

    Comment by jschulman — July 22, 2015 @ 5:35 pm

  11. Lysenkoism is the obvious effort under Stalinism to create a biology that would allow the creation of a more evolved species through the inheritance of acquired characteristics–which has equally obvious implications for the ability of revolution to create a biologically new species. Trotsky’s reference to eugenics, cited by Louis above strikes me as a different and less scientifically improbable (as well as much more limited) approximation to a related, though more modest goal. The coincidence of these two different facts is enough, IMHO,to justify at least a modest investigation of this topic under the heading of Marxism.

    Obviously, the idea of breeding or engineering for, e.g., a new trait that would confer resistance to some new disease, or to extremes of temperature, or other foreseeable future ills, would not, on its intrinsic merits, have to be motivated by “elitism.” It could just as well be motivated by a non-elitist concern for the common future of humanity–for the future of “our” children. If the result of such a genetic intervention were meant to be a heritable trait, then the intervention, strictly speaking, would be a form of eugenics.

    This is not to say, obviously, that there can be no good reasons for opposing such initiatives, only that one need not necessarily be an “elitist” or a fascist to imagine them–except, perhaps, in the eyes of some tenured postmodernist professor of literature or other devotee of anti-scientific irrationalism.

    Comment by Pete Glosser — July 22, 2015 @ 6:15 pm

  12. “devotee of anti-scientific irrationalism”

    There are of course many ways to tackle global warming and other climate issues. I would say applying ‘eugenics’ to solve the problem is as scientifically irrational as it gets!

    But of course eugenics in the real world doesn’t and never has operated like this. I guess there were apologists of the Nazis who called those decrying their experiments as irrational and anti scientific. It sprung from an apologist movement that saw in capitalists the fittest and saw in workers the unfit. It justified exploitation and incidentally has always been embraced the ‘science’ of racial differences and racial superiority.

    You can pretend eugenics can be divorced from this if you like.

    Science is not some mindless entity moving through time but the product of human thought, and its direction and purpose is dependent on it.

    If any society sees eugenics as a panacea to global problems I will remain suspicious.

    Comment by Simon Provertier — July 23, 2015 @ 10:55 am

  13. […] of the Samis. Part three is here. It deals with Sweden and the “scramble for Africa”. Part four took up the Myrdal enthusiasm for […]

    Pingback by When the Swedish Social Democrats partnered with Nazi Germany in the name of neutrality | Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — August 5, 2015 @ 8:36 pm

  14. @Jschulman
    Your strawman comment has no bearing on my point and you fail to bring your own. I am not “painting” or reducing anything in the way that your crude an inastute summation suggests…

    Without even understanding the slide towards our current situation we are all far worse off. This devolution of democracy (and social democracy) is of course not something that only happened in Sweden. SAP was indeed transformed as were their european “Sister Parties” that was hit by the political rollback – a political will within the party elite that shifted more and more (and that is the point) to debase the values of the left.. The point is within the context of the Myrdahls – which is indeed the backdrop – this political couple serve to sharpen our analysis of the current situation by showing what was already in place, and the theories and ideologies that was the driving force, and to see that “Malthusian” (which is by no means an anachronism) but also humanitarian ideals coexisted and therefore was transfered by the political heritage of the Myrdahls.. State capitalism and Keynesian ideas ( that marked the political essence of SAP) was bit by bit dismantled by the party it self. The economical power was removed from the polical discourse and the politcial visions was to be tied up [which was the point] by very powerful interests setting their agenda above democracy. .. All leftist parties in Europe has gone through this and that is not a “misstaken” analysis.

    As for your ignorant comment “again without proper context” about of Olof Palme et al… that is just namedropping without even trying to scetch and inkling of coherence. Please Provide an actual viewpoint and context next time you will want to drift these names? Or I have a better Idea, don’t.

    Comment by Syntagma squared — August 23, 2015 @ 12:31 am

  15. […] of the Samis. Part three is here. It deals with Sweden and the “scramble for Africa”. Part four took up the Myrdal enthusiasm for eugenics. Part five deals with Sweden’s economic […]

    Pingback by Getting to the bottom of Swedish social democracy | Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — August 27, 2015 @ 6:05 pm

  16. […] of the Samis. Part three is here. It deals with Sweden and the “scramble for Africa”. Part four took up the Myrdal enthusiasm for eugenics. Part five deals with Sweden’s economic partnership […]

    Pingback by Who rules Sweden? | Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — September 3, 2015 @ 9:00 pm

  17. […] of the Samis. Part three is here. It deals with Sweden and the “scramble for Africa”. Part four took up the Myrdal enthusiasm for eugenics. Part five deals with Sweden’s economic partnership […]

    Pingback by The economic theory and policies of Swedish social democracy | Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — September 25, 2015 @ 7:24 pm

  18. […] of the Samis. Part three is here. It deals with Sweden and the “scramble for Africa”. Part four took up the Myrdal enthusiasm for eugenics. Part five deals with Sweden’s economic partnership […]

    Pingback by How Swedish Social Democracy became neoliberal | Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — November 10, 2015 @ 9:48 pm

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