Margaret Renn & Paul Foot

Poor on pioneers

(February 1988)

From Letters, Socialist Worker Review, No.106, February 1988, p.35.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

WE WERE disappointed with Julie Waterson’s article (Jan. SWR) about the history of the fight for abortion rights. Julie describes the “socialist tradition” on this issue as “studded with flaws, inconsistencies and one which often drew reactionary conclusions”.

No one could argue with that, but Julie concentrates so single-mindedly on those flaws and inconsistencies that she overlooks the fighting spirit and the revolutionary significance of the pioneers she describes.

Writing about the Men and Women’s Club in the 1880s, for instance, Julie tells us:

“It had 20 members but many associate members and held open meetings. All were ‘free thinkers’ – middle class and Oxbridge educated. Included among them were Olive Schreiner and Annie Besant.”

What an introduction to these two women! Olive Schreiner came from a poor missionary family in South Africa. She only just went to school, certainly not to university. She was active in the anti-imperialist movement in South Africa, though she was constantly unpopular with Afrikaner leaders because she refused to compromise with racialism. Her books were an inspiration to many thousands of women, including working class women.

Annie Besant never went to Oxbridge either (no women could take degrees at any university until the 1880s). Not only did she go to prison for publishing material about birth control, as Julie reports, she also had her child taken away, because a judge thought her views made her unfit for motherhood. She is often remembered as an organiser and inspirer of the match girls’ strike at Bryant and May in East London in 1889.

Of course no modern revolutionary socialist with the benefit of hindsight can agree with everything these two women wrote or said. But it is odd for any socialist to dismiss them with a peremptory sneer.

Again, Julie writes about Stella Browne:

“She was a eugenicist ... she professed that individuals’ characteristics were genetically determined, while Marxism argues that society and its individuals are materially determined”.

Stella Browne was affected by eugenicist ideas – though she consistently denounced any “racial or class bias” which might arise from them. But surely the main point about Stella is that she campaigned over a very long reactionary period for birth control and abortion as a means towards women’s liberation.

Julie quotes, apparently sympathetically, some men in Glasgow who were “ready to fight the ancient battle of Marx against Malthus”.

Malthus argued that the human condition depended on the numbers of people in the world and that the population should therefore be kept down. Marx denounced this quite rightly, as “a libel on the human race”.

Many Marxists, however, took refuge in this controversy to oppose (or at least to patronise) the movement for birth control and abortion. In fact, the revolutionary argument for both has nothing at all to do with Malthus – it is founded on the case for sexual emancipation.

Julie’s method has been to describe the pioneers for abortion and birth control and then to knock them out one by one as anti-Marxist or “middle class”. This seems to us a negative approach.


Margaret Renn
Paul Foot

London EC1


Last updated on 26.1.2005