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The Life and Crimes of Margaret Sanger II: From Marx to Malthus

Posted by Matthew McCusker on 14 August 2012

"Birth Control is no new thing in human experience, and it has been practised in societies of the most various types and fortunes. But there can be little doubt that at the present time it is a test issue between two widely different interpretations of the word civilization, and of what is good in life and conduct. The way in which men and women range themselves in this controversy is more simply and directly indicative of their general intellectual quality than any other single indication.

"I do not wish to imply by this that the people who oppose are more or less intellectual than the people who advocate Birth Control, but only that they have fundamentally contrasted general ideas, - that, mentally, they are DIFFERENT. Very simple, very complex, very dull and very brilliant persons may be found in either camp, but all those in either camp have certain attitudes in common which they share with one another, and do not share with those in the other camp."

"We are living not in a simple and complete civilization, but in a conflict of at least two civilizations, based on entirely different fundamental ideas, pursuing different methods and with different aims and ends."

These words of H. G. Wells', found in his introduction to Margaret Sanger's 1922 work The Pivot of Civilization, clearly state the profound truth that of all the ideological conflicts of the early twentieth century the struggle for the control of human reproduction was to prove one of the most significant1.

Those who advocated birth control wished then, and still wish today, to remould society according to their own ideological principles through 'the control and guidance of the great natural instinct of sex2'. Control was central to Sanger's philosophy. In The Pivot she stated "I [was] dominated by this conviction of the efficacy of 'control'," and decades later this conviction had not lessened. In 1955 she was to argue "I see no wider meaning of family planning than control and as for restriction…. [it] should be an order as [well as] an ideal for the betterment of the family and the race3."

This struggle for control has already claimed many millions of lives through abortion, euthanasia, genocide, embryo experimentation and artificial methods of reproduction. Margaret Sanger's life, work and relationships exemplify the close interconnection between all the aspects of this struggle between two irreconcilable views of human civilisation.

In The Pivot of Civilization Sanger explains her 'conversion' from Marxism to the ideology of eugenic birth control. She argues that, instead of pursuing violent revolution, those who seek to realise "the glorious vision of a new world, of a proletarian world emancipated, a Utopian world" should pursue eugenic birth control4. Sanger, as we saw in the first part of this series, began as a socialist revolutionary.

In The Pivot she explains how she lost faith in the standard Marxist narrative and began to associate the problems of poverty with 'overpopulation'. "In spite of all my sympathy with the dream of liberated Labor", she writes, "I was driven to ask whether this urging power of sex, this deep instinct, was not at least partially responsible, along with industrial injustice, for the widespread misery of the world5." She travelled throughout Europe meeting with leading revolutionaries, including some of the most extreme anarchists such as Enrico Malatesta.

It was in Britain however, amongst members of the Neo-Malthusian League and writers such as H.G. Wells, that she found a philosophy most congenial to her tastes. "I was encouraged and strengthened in this attitude," she recalls, "by the support of certain leaders who had studied human nature and who had reached the same conclusion: that civilization could not solve the problem of Hunger until it recognized the titanic strength of the sexual instinct6." Indeed she dedicated the The Pivot of Civilisation to Alice Drysdale Vickery, a leading figure in the Neo-Malthusian league. This dedication, taken with Wells' foreword and the appearance of a quote by Havelock Ellis on the title page, supports our conclusion that eugenics, birth control, abortion and disordered forms of sexuality are all closely connected.

We saw in the last post that Sanger was given millions of dollars by wealthy industrialists, and particularly by J.D. Rockefeller III, whose assassination she had called for not many years earlier. This 'conversion' from Marx to Malthus might seem surprising but it is not in fact very remarkable if we look a little deeper. It is a very common phenomena for revolutionaries to pass from one ideology to another even when the latter stands in contradiction to the former on central points.

This occurs because a revolutionary like Sanger is really seeking the formula that will enable mankind, of its own efforts, to create a paradise on earth7. When a revolutionary no longer feels that their current methods will achieve their ends they will simply move on to another ideological position, often excoriating those who were until recently their allies8. This political messianism obviously stands in stark contrast to the doctrines of Christianity, which most ideologues therefore vociferously reject9.

Why then did Sanger adopt this particular ideology? In The Pivot of Civilisation she tells us that she felt that the progress of the working class was being held back by "the burden of their ever-growing families10." "Something more" she realised "than the purely economic interpretation was involved11." This 'something more' was the "driving power of instinct, a power uncontrolled12." Sanger believed that the inability of the working classes to control their sexual desires was the main cause of poverty. It could be argued that her language in the The Pivot manifests a fear or disgust of healthy sexuality13.

We know that Sanger's own promiscuity was notorious. Is it possible that Sanger is projecting her fears about her own lack of self control onto working class women? Her awareness of her own sexual conduct and her consequent 'need' for birth control perhaps drove her to advocate that other women subject themselves, or be subjected, to the same control. It is surely of interest that her lover H.G. Wells presents a similar paradox. He also was a notorious adulterer, with at least one illegitimate child, and yet he argued that the reproduction of others needed to be controlled and that people who lacked 'self-control' were a threat to society.

It has also been suggested by E. Michael Jones that Sanger's zeal in advocating birth control was partially the result of the guilt she felt at having abandoned her daughter to the care of others while she was in England14. Peggy died shortly after Sanger returned to America and Jones argues that it was by convincing herself that she was working for the greater good of future generations of women that she was able to ease the pain suffered by her conscience, which accused her of betraying her own daughter.

In any case, it is certainly true that many more mothers and children were about to suffer as a result of the life and crimes of Margaret Sanger.

To be continued…

See also

1. Margaret Sanger, The Pivot of Civilization, (New York, 1922)
2. Ibid
3. Quoted in Angela Franks, Margaret Sanger's Eugenic Legacy: The Control of Female Fertility, (Jefferson, 2005) p5
4. Sanger, Pivot
5. Ibid
6. Ibid
7. In The Pivot of Civilization Sanger argues that men and women must "light their way to self-salvation", the Catholic Church being "organized to exploit the ignorance and the prejudices of the masses." She saw birth control as a way to "triumph finally in the war for human emancipation."
8. Much of The Pivot of Civilization is dedicated to attacking Marxism, but see Chapter VII in particular.
9. For a classic example see Sanger's attack on the Catholic Church in Chapter IX of The Pivot of Civilization.
10. Sanger, Pivot
11. Ibid
12. Ibid
13. E.g. "blind and irresponsible play of the sexual instinct", "sex as a factor in the perpetuation of poverty",  "the fundamental relation between Sex and Hunger", "the sexual and racial chaos into which the world has drifted", "chance and chaotic breeding", "the trap of compulsory maternity", "the mother remains the passive victim of blind instinct", and so on.
14. E. Michael Jones, Libido Dominandi: Sexual Liberation and Political Control, (2005)

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