Margaret Sanger’s “The Pivot of Civilization” Reviewed

Margaret Sanger and the Forced Sterilization of Americans

Inevitably we are driven to the conclusion that the exhaustively economic interpretation of contemporary history is inadequate to meet the present situation. In his suggestive book, “The Acquisitive Society,” R. H. Tawney, arrives at the conclusion that “obsession by economic issues is as local and transitory as it is repulsive and disturbing. To future generations it will appear as pitiable as the obsession of the seventeenth century by religious quarrels appears to-day; indeed, it is less rational, since the object with which it is concerned is less important. And it is a poison which inflames every wound and turns each trivial scratch into a malignant ulcer. Society will not solve the particular problems of industry until that poison is expelled, and it has learned to see industry in its proper perspective. IF IT IS TO DO THAT IT MUST REARRANGE THE SCALE OF VALUES. It must regard economic interests as one element in life, not as the whole of life….”[5]

In neglecting or minimizing the great factor of sex in human society, the Marxian doctrine reveals itself as no stronger than orthodox economics in guiding our way to a sound civilization. It works within the same intellectual limitations. Much as we are indebted to the Marxians for pointing out the injustice of modern industrialism, we should never close our eyes to the obvious limitations of their own “economic interpretation of history.” While we must recognize the great historical value of Marx, it is now evident that his vision of the “class struggle,” of the bitter irreconcilable warfare between the capitalist and working classes was based not upon historical analysis, but upon on unconscious dramatization of a superficial aspect of capitalistic regime.

In emphasizing the conflict between the classes, Marx failed to recognize the deeper unity of the proletariat and the capitalist. Nineteenth century capitalism had in reality engendered and cultivated the very type of working class best suited to its own purpose—an inert, docile, irresponsible and submissive class, progressively incapable of effective and aggressive organization. Like the economists of the Manchester school, Marx failed to recognize the interplay of human instincts in the world of industry. All the virtues were embodied in the beloved proletariat; all the villainies in the capitalists. The greatest asset of the capitalism of that age was, as a matter of fact, the uncontrolled breeding among the laboring classes. The intelligent and self-conscious section of the workers was forced to bear the burden of the unemployed and the poverty-stricken.

Marx was fully aware of the consequences of this condition of things, but shut his eyes tightly to the cause. He pointed out that capitalistic power was dependent upon “the reserve army of labor,” surplus labor, and a wide margin of unemployment. He practically admitted that over-population was the inevitable soil of predatory capitalism. But he disregarded the most obvious consequence of that admission. It was all very dramatic and grandiloquent to tell the workingmen of the world to unite, that they had “nothing but their chains to lose and the world to gain.” Cohesion of any sort, united and voluntary organization, as events have proved, is impossible in populations bereft of intelligence, self-discipline and even the material necessities of life, and cheated by their desires and ignorance into unrestrained and uncontrolled fertility.

In pointing out the limitations and fallacies of the orthodox Marxian opinion, my purpose is not to depreciate the efforts of the Socialists aiming to create a new society, but rather to emphasize what seems to me the greatest and most neglected truth of our day:–Unless sexual science is incorporated as an integral part of world-statesmanship and the pivotal importance of Birth Control is recognized in any program of reconstruction, all efforts to create a new world and a new civilization are foredoomed to failure.

We can hope for no advance until we attain a new conception of sex, not as a merely propagative act, not merely as a biological necessity for the perpetuation of the race, but as a psychic and spiritual avenue of expression. It is the limited, inhibited conception of sex that vitiates so much of the thought and ideation of the Eugenists. Like most of our social idealists, statesmen, politicians and economists, some of the Eugenists suffer intellectually from a restricted and inhibited understanding of the function of sex. This limited understanding, this narrowness of vision, which gives rise to most of the misconceptions and condemnations of the doctrine of Birth Control, is responsible or the failure of politicians and legislators to enact practical statutes or to remove traditional obscenities from the law books. The most encouraging sign at present is the recognition by modern psychology of the central importance of the sexual instinct in human society, and the rapid spread of this new concept among the more enlightened sections of the civilized communities. The new conception of sex has been well stated by one to whom the debt of contemporary civilization is well-nigh immeasurable. “Sexual activity,” Havelock Ellis has written, “is not merely a baldly propagative act, nor, when propagation is put aside, is it merely the relief of distended vessels. It is something more even than the foundation of great social institutions. It is the function by which all the finer activities of the organism, physical and psychic, may be developed and satisfied.”[6]

No less than seventy years ago, a profound but neglected thinker, George Drysdale, emphasized the necessity of a thorough understanding of man’s sexual nature in approaching economic, political and social problems. “Before we can undertake the calm and impartial investigation of any social problem, we must first of all free ourselves from all those sexual prejudices which are so vehement and violent and which so completely distort our vision of the external world. Society as a whole has yet to fight its way through an almost impenetrable forest of sexual taboos.” Drysdale’s words have lost none of their truth even to-day: “There are few things from which humanity has suffered more than the degraded and irreverent feelings of mystery and shame that have been attached to the genital and excretory organs. The former have been regarded, like their corresponding mental passions, as something of a lower and baser nature, tending to degrade and carnalize man by their physical appetites. But we cannot take a debasing view of any part of our humanity without becoming degraded in our whole being.”[7]

Drysdale moreover clearly recognized the social crime of entrusting to sexual barbarians the duty of legislating and enforcing laws detrimental to the welfare of all future generations. “They trust blindly to authority for the rules they blindly lay down,” he wrote, “perfectly unaware of the awful and complicated nature of the subject they are dealing with so confidently and of the horrible evils their unconsidered statements are attended with. They themselves break through the most fundamentally important laws daily in utter unconsciousness of the misery they are causing to their fellows….”

Psychologists to-day courageously emphasize the integral relationship of the expression of the sexual instinct with every phase of human activity. Until we recognize this central fact, we cannot understand the implications and the sinister significance of superficial attempts to apply rosewater remedies to social evils,–by the enactment of restrictive and superficial legislation, by wholesale philanthropies and charities, by publicly burying our heads in the sands of sentimentality. Self-appointed censors, grossly immoral “moralists,” makeshift legislators, all face a heavy responsibility for the miseries, diseases, and social evils they perpetuate or intensify by enforcing the primitive taboos of aboriginal customs, traditions, and outworn laws, which at every step hinder the education of the people in the scientific knowledge of their sexual nature. Puritanic and academic taboo of sex in education and religion is as disastrous to human welfare as prostitution or the venereal scourges. “We are compelled squarely to face the distorting influences of biologically aborted reformers as well as the wastefulness of seducers,” Dr. Edward A. Kempf recently declared. “Man arose from the ape and inherited his passions, which he can only refine but dare not attempt to castrate unless he would destroy the fountains of energy that maintain civilization and make life worth living and the world worth beautifying….We do not have a problem that is to be solved by making repressive laws and executing them. Nothing will be more disastrous. Society must make life worth the living and the refining for the individual by conditioning him to love and to seek the love-object in a manner that reflects a constructive effect upon his fellow-men and by giving him suitable opportunities. The virility of the automatic apparatus is destroyed by excessive gormandizing or hunger, by excessive wealth or poverty, by excessive work or idleness, by sexual abuse or intolerant prudishness. The noblest and most difficult art of all is the raising of human thoroughbreds.”[8]

[1] It may be well to note, in this connection, that the decline inthe birth rate among the more intelligent classes of British labor followed upon the famous Bradlaugh-Besant trial of 1878, the outcome of the attempt of these two courageous Birth Control pioneers to circulate among the workers the work of an American physician, Dr. Knowlton’s “The Fruits of Philosophy,” advocating Birth Control, and the widespread publicity resulting fromt his trial.

[2] Cf. The Creative Impulse in Industry, by Helen Marot. The Instinct of Workmanship, by Thorstein Veblen.

[3] Social Decay and Regeneration. By R. Austin Freeman. London 1921.

[4] Carlton H. Parker: The Casual Laborer and other essays: p. 30.

[5] R. H. Tawney. The Acquisitive Society, p. 184.

[6] Medical Review of Reviews: Vol. XXVI, p. 116.

[7] The Elements of Social Science: London, 1854.

[8] Proceedings of the International Conference of Women Physicians. Vol. IV, pp. 66-67. New York, 1920.


CHAPTER VII: Is Revolution the Remedy?

Marxian Socialism, which seeks to solve the complex problem of human misery by economic and proletarian revolution, has manifested a new vitality. Every shade of Socialistic thought and philosophy acknowledges its indebtedness to the vision of Karl Marx and his conception of the class struggle. Yet the relation of Marxian Socialism to the philosophy of Birth Control, especially in the minds of most Socialists, remains hazy and confused. No thorough understanding of Birth Control, its aims and purposes, is possible until this confusion has been cleared away, and we come to a realization that Birth Control is not merely independent of, but even antagonistic to the Marxian dogma. In recent years many Socialists have embraced the doctrine of Birth Control, and have generously promised us that “under Socialism” voluntary motherhood will be adopted and popularized as part of a general educational system. We might more logically reply that no Socialism will ever be possible until the problem of responsible parenthood has been solved.

Many Socialists to-day remain ignorant of the inherent conflict between the idea of Birth Control and the philosophy of Marx. The earlier Marxians, including Karl Marx himself, expressed the bitterest antagonism to Malthusian and neo-Malthusian theories. A remarkable feature of early Marxian propaganda has been the almost complete unanimity with which the implications of the Malthusian doctrine have been derided, denounced and repudiated. Any defense of the so-called “law of population” was enough to stamp one, in the eyes of the orthodox Marxians, as a “tool of the capitalistic class,” seeking to dampen the ardor of those who expressed the belief that men might create a better world for themselves. Malthus, they claimed, was actuated by selfish class motives. He was not merely a hidebound aristocrat, but a pessimist who was trying to kill all hope of human progress. By Marx, Engels, Bebel, Karl Kautsky, and all the celebrated leaders and interpreters of Marx’s great “Bible of the working class,” down to the martyred Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, Birth Control has been looked upon as a subtle, Machiavellian sophistry created for the purpose of placing the blame for human misery elsewhere than at the door of the capitalist class. Upon this point the orthodox Marxian mind has been universally and sternly uncompromising.

Marxian vituperation of Malthus and his followers is illuminating. It reveals not the weakness of the thinker attacked, but of the aggressor. This is nowhere more evident than in Marx’s “Capital” itself. In that monumental effort, it is impossible to discover any adequate refutation or even calm discussion of the dangers of irresponsible parenthood and reckless breeding, any suspicion that this recklessness and irresponsibility is even remotely related to the miseries of the proletariat. Poor Malthus is there relegated to the humble level of a footnote. “If the reader reminds me of Malthus, whose essay on Population appeared in 1798,” Marx remarks somewhat tartly, “I remind him that this work in its first form is nothing more than a schoolboyish, superficial plagiary of De Foe, Sir James Steuart, Townsend, Franklin, Wallace, etc., and does not contain a single sentence thought out by himself. The great sensation this pamphlet caused was due solely to party interest. The French Revolution had passionate defenders in the United Kingdom…. ‘The Principles of Population’ was quoted with jubilance by the English oligarchy as the great destroyer of all hankerings after human development.”[1]

The only attempt that Marx makes here toward answering the theory of Malthus is to declare that most of the population theory teachers were merely Protestant parsons.–“Parson Wallace, Parson Townsend, Parson Malthus and his pupil the Arch-Parson Thomas Chalmers, to say nothing of the lesser reverend scribblers in this line.” The great pioneer of “scientific” Socialism the proceeds to berate parsons as philosophers and economists, using this method of escape from the very pertinent question of surplus population and surplus proletariat in its relation to labor organization and unemployment. It is true that elsewhere [2] he goes so far as to admit that “even Malthus recognized over-population as a necessity of modern industry, though, after his narrow fashion, he explains it by the absolute over-growth of the laboring population, not by their becoming relatively supernumerary.” A few pages later, however, Marx comes back again to the question of over-population, failing to realize that it is to the capitalists’ advantage that the working classes are unceasingly prolific. “The folly is now patent,” writes the unsuspecting Marx, “of the economic wisdom that preaches to the laborers the accommodation of their numbers to the requirements of capital. The mechanism of capitalist production and accumulation constantly affects this adjustment. The first work of this adaptation is the creation of a relatively surplus population or industrial reserve army. Its last work is the misery of constantly extending strata of the army of labor, and the dead weight of pauperism.” A little later he ventures again in the direction of Malthusianism so far as to admit that “the accumulation of wealth at one pole is…at the same time the accumulation of misery, agony of toil, slavery, ignorance, brutality and mental degradation at the opposite pole.” Nevertheless, there is no indication that Marx permitted himself to see that the proletariat accommodates its numbers to the “requirements of capital” precisely by breeding a large, docile, submissive and easily exploitable population.

Had the purpose of Marx been impartial and scientific, this trifling difference might easily have been overcome and the dangers of reckless breeding insisted upon. But beneath all this wordy pretension and economic jargon, we detect another aim. That is the unconscious dramatization of human society into the “class conflict.” Nothing was overlooked that might sharpen and accentuate this “conflict.” Marx depicted a great melodramatic conflict, in which all the virtues were embodied in the proletariat and all the villainies in the capitalist. In the end, as always in such dramas, virtue was to be rewarded and villainy punished. The working class was the temporary victim of a subtle but thorough conspiracy of tyranny and repression. Capitalists, intellectuals and the BOURGEOISIE were all “in on” this diabolic conspiracy, all thoroughly familiar with the plot, which Marx was so sure he had uncovered. In the last act was to occur that catastrophic revolution, with the final transformation scene of the Socialist millenium. Presented in “scientific” phraseology, with all the authority of economic terms, “Capital” appeared at the psychological moment. The heaven of the traditional theology had been shattered by Darwinian science, and here, dressed up in all the authority of the new science, appeared a new theology, the promise of a new heaven, an earthly paradise, with an impressive scale of rewards for the faithful and ignominious punishments for the capitalists.

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