Psychology / Psychiatry and the Left
Part 1: Progressivism & Eugenics

Essay by
Sarah Emily Jordan
August 2010

An Academic / Progressive founding

APA’s founding [in 1892] was part of a large number of changes occurring in the United States then, including:

  • The emergence of academic disciplines such as psychology, economics, political science, biochemistry, and physiology These new disciplines quickly developed advanced degrees that provided credentials to validate the disciplines’ members as experts.
  • The progressive movement in politics, which called for a more efficient, less corrupt, social order.
The synergy of these two developments — specialized expertise and rationalized government—helped create the need for trained personnel to fill the new professional niches created by the demands for a more efficient society.

I thought it would be hard to find the connection between psychology and Progressivism. But, no: the above quote comes from the American Psychological Association's (APA) website. You get the sense that there is almost a sense of pride in the connection. Certainly they are not hiding anything.

This piece is not an attempt to tear down the fields of psychology and psychiatry. I like and respect too many people in both fields to try to take them all down with a broad brush stroke. It is rather a telling of the truth. We must have the truth and the whole truth in all its glory and shame in order to effectively understand where we are at and than to move in a forward direction.

I have long known that in general the mental health field professions have leaned towards the Left, particularly in academia. I fortunately had professors who were not preachy about their beliefs, and were open to and respected our own theoretical orientations and beliefs. They taught me to have an attitude of unconditional positive regard for my clients, and treated me as such. It is imperative in the profession to treat others and their points of view with dignity and I have striven to do so. At the same time there needs to be an acknowledgment that leftist ideals have permeated the paradigms of psychology.

I had never really thought about a direct connection between Progressivism and its leftist cousins, and psychology/psychiatry until I was introduced to the 45 communist goals first brought to light in 1963. I was taken aback by two of those goals: #38, "Transfer some of the powers of arrest from the police to social agencies. Treat all behavioral problems as psychiatric disorders which no one but psychiatrists can understand [or treat]." #39, "Dominate the psychiatric profession and use mental health laws as a means of gaining coercive control over those who oppose Communist goals." Well, thought I, what gives? Why is psychiatry something Communists were even interested in? I began to research psychology, psychiatry and the Left. One of the things that I found is that there is a heck of a lot more research that can and should be done. I present what I've found so far, with the desire to make the truth known.

Early History

I first wanted to see if the subject had already been researched and written about. Very quickly I found an article titled "Psychology and the Progressive Movement" by John Chynoweth Burnham in American Quarterly, Vol. 12, No. 4 (Winter 1960) pp. 457-465. My history professors would probably frown on me referencing an article from fifty years ago, but I found it to be very pertinent and honest. Burnham writes frankly about Progressivism and psychology's involvement in it. He succinctly describes Progressive ideology, "The essence of the movement was the 'firm belief that to a considerable degree man could make and remake his own world.' Although the progressives did not all believe that man is inherently good, they agreed at least that the human being is malleable." Bingo, Burnham! This is the mentality that Progressives subscribe to: man can alter mankind. Of course it takes the geniuses controlling the masses in order to shape us correctly (according to Progressives). Burnham also writes, "Direction was to come from the Man of Good Will who had transcended his own interest; he governed by right of his own moral superiority." There we have it, the good-will-doers had the intention to govern those considered beneath them.

Psychology in the 1890s and early 1900s was a fairly new concept. Direction for this new science was still being determined. And as the APA points out in its own history, the chosen direction coincided and was linked to the Progressive movement.

There is a wealth of information and it will be impossible to cover every aspect thoroughly here. These essays are just highlights, a place to start. One area requiring more investigation is some specific individuals involved in psychology and psychiatry and their various theoretical orientations. One of the rather intriguing figures is John Watson. He is perhaps the most well-known behaviorist. Burnham quotes him from 1913, "Psychology as the behaviorist views it is a purely objective experimental branch of natural science. Its theoretical goal is the prediction and control of behavior." Ah yes, control — what a lovely leftist bent that has to it. This is not to say that Watson considered himself a Progressive, that will require more research, but I think it is safe to say that this view of psychology would have been attractive to Progressives. I personally think Watson had some valuable tools for helping to overcome behavioral problems. But — what is to be considered a behavioral problem, and who is to be controlled?

The Feebleminded

There is one subject that Progressives and psychology absolutely came together on: eugenics. I recently read Edwin Black's War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America's Campaign to Create a Master Race. I did not agree with all of his conclusions but he gives an excellent account of the history of eugenics. It is one of the ways in which Progressives have historically tried to control and perfect what they viewed as a malleable population. It is an attempt to breed a superior race. It has quite a history in the United States. And they relied on psychology to help determine who were the fittest and also who needed to be reduced. In the United States forced sterilization was legalized and employed in a number of states. Burnham summarizes: "The eugenics movement, advocating the sterilization of the insane, defective and criminal persons in order to improve the race represented the Progressive attempt to deal with that part of man which was more malleable." Those who did not improve the race were classified in groups, perhaps the most prominent is what eugenicists termed "feebleminded".

Edwin Black, in his chapter "Legitimizing Raceology", introduces us to one of the leading eugenicists of the early 1900s: psychologist Henry Goddard. First off I want to note that Goddard eventually abandoned eugenics (p. 85). It's important to tell the whole truth including this turn-around, though by that time his renunciation was not well noted by the eugenicists who were using his paradigm to further their ends. His early work was damaging.

The following paragraph is a summary of Black's information presented in pages 76-85. Goddard was a powerful ally in the eugenics movement. In order to justify the sterilization of the feebleminded there had to be a way to determine who fit that criteria. In 1905 the first "intelligence test" was introduced in France by Binet. Goddard was hired in 1906 to direct research in Vineland, New Jersey's Training School for the Feebleminded. He began to assess the patients for their intelligence and eventually came up with his own modified version of the test. As a side note we can thank Goddard for the term "moron." Understand that eugenics had a very obvious racial tone to it. What were the results of Goddard's "testing"? Here are a couple of examples 40% of immigrants tested as feebleminded and 60% of Jewish immigrants in particular classified as "morons". Tests applied to Blacks as reported in the "Archive of Psychology" reported that Blacks scored 3/4ths as well as their white counterparts, with pure Blacks testing the lowest, about 60% lower than whites. This is all of course offensive in the extreme and to believe such drummed up numbers would be (pardon the use of the word) moronic. But, the intent of eugenics was to create a perfect race; and for most of its subscribers that did not include anyone who did not fit the Anglo-Saxon mold. Yes, psychology was used to not just justify racism but a movement to purge the United States of those who were different, the mentally ill, the immigrants, and non-whites. The Progressive mode of operation, calling anybody they don't like "stupid", has been a very long tradition indeed, and unfortunately some psychologists played a role.

Further study of eugenics yields all sorts of information, including its ties to the most infamous and horrific attempts at race purification and genocide. Historically it is necessary we gain and maintain an understanding that the Nazis learned much of their eugenic ideas from American eugenicists. It is also important to note that they also used psychology as a justification.

The early histories of psychology and Progressivism, are intertwined.

In the next segment, Part 2, I will be discussing diagnosis, drugs, and the New Left.

"Live long and prosper."


© 2010 Sarah Emily Jordan

Psychology / Psychiatry and the Left
  1. Progressivism & Eugenics
  2. Drugs, Experts, & the Medical Model
  3. A Personal Perspective

Sarah Emily Jordan is a practicing neurotherapist at
Treasure Valley Neurotherapy

This three-part essay first appeared at her blog
The Conservative Independent Rant

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