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Dark Origins: Eugenics and the Founding Myth of LSE

When I joined LSE in 2019, I knew relatively little about the institution’s past. Only that it was the 125th anniversary (and somehow, over a year later, it still is).

My introduction from my department painted a favourable picture. LSE was started by socialists; it was an education focussing on solutions to the struggles of the working class. There was even a woman involved! I saw the names about campus: George Bernard Shaw, Beatrice Webb, Sidney Webb. I later discovered that the ‘Beveridge Café’ was not a typo, but a reference to William Beveridge the once Director of the LSE.

It was Lent Term before a course mate told me, “You know, I heard that the founders of LSE supported eugenics”.

I knew that eugenics had been popular across the political spectrum prior in the early 20th Century (before the culmination of eugenic thought in the form of Nazi Death Camps), and so their views were not uncommon of their time. I wondered whether my judgement would be anachronistic. I read more, including the article published by The Beaver last year and a piece on Decolonising LSE’s website. I scoured LSE’s own website and found…nothing.

Well, not nothing exactly. But I wasn’t really looking for an in-detail account of the love story of Beatrice and Sydney.

The website does cover, as did my introduction to LSE, how Beatrice Webb’s ‘The Minority Report’ paved the way for William Beveridge’s ‘Beveridge Report’, which was in turn highly influential in the creation of the welfare state. It discusses the political fractions in the LSE during Beveridge’s Directorship, with mention of the Webb’s “obsession” with the USSR (elsewhere worded as “apologists for Stalinism”) and how Beveridge hired a critic of eugenics for a prominent position (but not that he himself was a member of the Eugenics Society).

LSE’s website paints a picture of a group of people radically dedicated to plight of the poor.

This jars with the quotes I found in my research,  such as Beveridge stating that those with ‘"general defects" should be denied not only the vote, but "civil freedom and fatherhood”’, and the Webb’s idea that “the offspring of the less thrifty, the less intellectual, the less farseeing races or classes – the unskilled casual labourers of our greater cities, the races of Eastern or Southern Europe, the negroes, the Chinese” linking to Britain’s “‘imperial destiny’ of providing benevolent tutelage by a ‘superior race’ to the “weaker,” “non-adult races”” and perhaps most disturbingly George Bernard Shaw’s suggestion that “defectives be dealt with by means of a "lethal chamber"”.

We cannot detach or negate their Eugenicist views and vehemently racist, classicist, and ableist statements by reference to ‘pro-poor’ sentiments, because they are not fundamentally opposed. They are both underpinned by a belief in a natural hierarchy which legitimates their own assumed superiority and paternalistic power.

The founders of LSE believed that individuals such as themselves were best placed to know what was best for the working-class and the British Empire as a whole. This includes decisions of life and death: who deserves to live and who can be allowed to reproduce.  In this context, the commonly invoked founding purpose of LSE, ‘For the Betterment of Society’, takes on a more macabre tone.

LSE needs to come to terms with its past and revaluate its connection with its founders. This means accurate and complete information on the website and in school communications, revaluating the celebration of these figures through their names on buildings, as well as a more comprehensive evaluation of the School’s history and complicity in promoting eugenics and colonialism. These are not new conversations in the University setting, from Rhodes Must Fall (Cape Town and Oxford) to UCL’s Eugenics Inquiry. LSE must commit to being honest about its past, even if the truth is ugly.

Bali Birch-Lee (Education Officer 2020/2021)

 

Author’s Note:

I would like to note my thanks to those at the institution who have already written on these topics, particularly Christina Ivey and Shikha Dilawri.

 

Please sign our petition calling for LSE to Change the Name and Face Our Past! 

You can find the petition here. Details of what the petition is calling for are below:

Change the Name.

  • LSE should rename areas and buildings that are named after Beveridge, the Webbs, and Shaw.
  • LSE should investigate the names given to other buildings to ascertain whether they are similarly problematic.
  • If there are spaces where this is not possible or where it will take significant time, LSE should provide reasoning and place contextual information of the individual (for example, their involvement with eugenics and imperialism) in plain sight.
  • LSE should create a policy regarding the naming of future buildings and areas.

Face our Past

  • LSE should commit to undertaking an inquiry into the history and legacy of eugenics and imperialism at LSE.
  • Information during Welcome, on LSE’s website and on campus should be updated to contain contextual and critical information regarding LSE’s founders and other famous figures.
  • LSE should reconsider the invocation of its ‘founding principles’ LSE as a justification for strategy or work that the School undertakes.