Darwin and Marx Cover

Darwin, Darwinism and Marxism: Some Issues

Webdesk Article

Charles Darwin was born on 12th February, 1809. The whole of nineteenth century was perhaps the most eventful century in terms of social, political and economic development of humanity. French revolution, in the last decade of the preceding century, was to be followed by the most watershed moment of world history, namely Industrial revolution, which accompanied an unprecedented expansion of productive forces that necessarily included the use of science and technology the sphere of production, entailing an advancement of capitalism. In fact, it would not be erroneous to note that the burgeoning capitalist relations of production paved way for rapid development of science in Europe. The impact of the two subsequent revolutions, the one overwhelmingly democratic in nature and the other industrial-capitalist, have played a significant role in challenging and uprooting the clichéd age-old feudal institutions, which espoused and were governed by a system of authority, status, religious belief etc. Hence, in terms of the absolute magnitude of the impact, the twin revolutions, which began in late 18th century and continued unabated in the first two decades of 19th century in Western Europe and the consequence of which was felt even in the furthest corner of colonial periphery, are unrivaled in the whole of human history. Indeed it is no wonder that such a discernible transformation in the relations of productions might have played a central role in producing new ideas and worldviews that were to shake the feudal world with all its belief systems. Without any doubt the enormous contribution of Charles Darwin was part of that tradition and history that went on to shock the religious moral of Victorian English society.  

What did Darwin Say?

In order to fully appreciate Darwin’s social relevance, let us note, in brief, his scientific arguments. Darwin in his On the Origin of Species (1859) developed two main ideas: a) Evolution explains life’s unity and diversity, b) Natural selection is a cause of adaptive evolution. To Darwin, the history of life is like a tree, where multiple branches from a common trunk to the tips of the youngest twigs that represent the diversity of living organisms.  

1.         Overproduction: Most species produce far more offspring than are needed to maintain the population. Species populations remain more or less constant (“stable”) because a small fraction of offspring live long enough to reproduce.

2.         Competition: Living space and food are limited, so offspring from each generation must compete among themselves in order to live. Only a small fraction can possibly survive long enough to reproduce.

3.         Genetic Variation: Characteristics in individuals in any species are not exactly alike. Thus, for instance, differences for Homo sapiens (humans) can be exact size or shape of body, strength in running, or resistance to disease. These differences are considered to be the variations within a species.

4.         Adaptation: An adaptation is an inherited trait that increases an organisms’ chance of survival and reproduction in a given environment.

5.         Natural Selection: Nature/environment selects for living organisms with better suited inherited traits to survive and reproduce. Offspring inherit these better traits, and as a whole the population improves for that particular environment. Natural Selection does not move in a pre-determined direction. The changing earth determines what will and can survive.

6.         Speciation: Over many generations, favorable adaptations (in a particular environment) gradually accumulated in a species and “bad” ones (in a particular environment) disappear. Eventually, accumulated changes become so great that the result is a new species. Formation of a new species is called “Speciation” and it takes many, many generations.

Why is Darwin important? Darwinism against Feudal Worldview

Darwinism, transcending the limit of a mere scientific theory, had assumed a philosophical and political character instantaneously right after its publication in nineteenth century. It seemed to have served as a tool in the hands of the burgeoning bourgeoisie in their class struggle against the pre-capitalist relations in Europe. Commenting upon the progressive role that the bourgeoisie of Europe had played in nineteenth century, Anton Pannekoek maintained that “What the bourgeoisie wanted was to get rid of the old ruling powers standing in their way. The bourgeoisie themselves wanted to rule, basing their demands upon the fact that they were the most important class, the leaders of industry.” (See https://www.marxists.org/archive/pannekoe/1912/marxism-darwinism.htm#S4) The feudal lords and nobles, on the other hand, always appeared to have relied upon the religious parable of ‘divine rights’, tradition and belief system to ‘justify’ their supremacy and shield political interest. But the development in Natural Science and theory of Natural Selection became a powerful political weapon for the European bourgeoisie to oppose the feudal worldview and tradition. Mention can be made of the case in Germany. Ernst Haeckel, the young Naturalist, became a fervent advocate of Darwinism in Germany and wrote about the incredible reception that Darwinism had met there. Anton Pannekoek noted that “it so happened that when Darwin’s theory made its appearance, the bourgeoisie was preparing to carry on a new attack on absolutism and junkerism” in Germany. It is no wonder that Darwinism had its own admirers and opponents at the same time. The most vocal opposition came from the religious dogmatists. Eberhard Dennert, a member of Protestant Naturalists Organization in Germany, wrote vehemently against the theory of Evolution and noted about the absence of any “exact demonstration of evolutionary doctrine” (See Robert J. Richards, “The German Reception of Darwin’s Theory, 1860-1945”, http://home.uchicago.edu/~rjr6/articles/German%20Darwinism--illustrated--5-5-2011.pdf). Thus, there is little doubt that Darwinism, although Darwin might not have wanted to invite controversy, became a contending theory, with immediate political significance, between two rival classes in their class struggle.

Development of Organic Nature and Development of Human History: Darwin and Marx

From the perspective of proletarian class struggle, Darwin’s theory also had a revolutionary significance, since it helped Marx and Engels to establish and justify the socialist understanding about the nature of history and evolution of different economic systems with contending classes in the light of materialist science. The letter from Engels, after going through Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, to Marx evidently shows his keenness:

“Darwin, by the way, whom I’m reading just now, is absolutely splendid. There was one aspect of teleology that had yet to be demolished, and that has now been done. Never before has so grandiose an attempt been made to demonstrate historical evolution in Nature, and certainly never to such good effect.” (See https://isreview.org/issue/65/marx-and-engelsand-darwin/index.html)  

After Marx had read the book, he became as enthusiastic as his friend as he writes that the book “contains the basis in natural history for our view.” Hence the scientific-political importance of Darwinism lies at the centre for a socialist understanding, which seems to affirm with adequate scientific evidence that any existing economic system is a product of its historical development, which is also referred to as the law of development of human history. Engels’ speech  in 1883 at the funeral of Karl Marx makes the point without any ambiguity:

“Just as Darwin discovered the law of development or organic nature, so Marx discovered the law of development of human history: the simple fact, hitherto concealed by an overgrowth of ideology, that mankind must first of all eat, drink, have shelter and clothing, before it can pursue politics, science, art, religion, etc.; that therefore the production of the immediate material means, and consequently the degree of economic development attained by a given people or during a given epoch, form the foundation upon which the state institutions, the legal conceptions, art, and even the ideas on religion, of the people concerned have been evolved, and in the light of which they must, therefore, be explained, instead of vice versa, as had hitherto been the case.” (See https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1883/death/burial.htm)

The organic connection between Darwinism and socialism (ideas of Karl Marx, to be specific) is so closely intertwined that even some scientists like Rudolf Virchow in Germany, presumably disgusted with Marxist ideas, launched the most vicious attack on Darwinism and noted, in a speech in 1877, that teaching the theory of evolution in school could become dangerous as it is very closely related to the doctrine of socialism (See https://www.csustan.edu/sites/default/files/History/Faculty/Weikart/sd-4.pdf). This is an instance of irony given that a scientist opposing Darwinism, not owing to its merit, but owing to its connection with Marxist philosophy. Thus, the entire scientific community of Europe was drawn on to this debate and hence one can understand the organic linkage between Darwinism and Marxism. In fact, it would not be wrong to argue that both these revolutionary theories supplement each other. Marxist theory of evolution, which deals with the development of human history, applies only after the animal world develops up to the stage of man, as Darwin proposed in his theory.   

Darwinism and Marxism: Some Contending Issues

This criticism of Rudolf Virchow, however, is met with opposition from the scientists, who went on to refute the claim of any real connection between the two theories. Thus, for instance, Haeckel, one of the most famous advocates of Darwinian doctrine, commented that Darwinism and Socialism “endure each other as fire and water” (See https://www.marxists.org/archive/pannekoe/1912/marxism-darwinism.htm). On the other hand, it could be noted that the theory of Darwin, which at one time had served as a weapon in the hands of the progressive bourgeoisie in its struggle against the old feudal reactionary powers, now became a tool to defend bourgeois individualism against the proletarians in the late 19th and early 20th century. Many philosophers of Europe, now alarmed by the intensifying movement of the working class, tried to defend bourgeois individualism by drawing on the theory of Natural Selection. According to this social Darwinism theory the life of humans in society was a struggle for existence, governed by “survival of the fittest”, a phrase proposed by the British philosopher Herbert Spencer. In fact, it could be noted that Spencer had proposed earlier the bourgeois theory of individualism on social growth. It is not surprising that he espoused Darwin to justify his own theory. Spencer introduced the phrase, “survival of the fittest” in his 1864 book, Principles of Biology, where he found his own conservative ideas analogous with Darwinism as he noted that “this survival of the fittest, which I have here sought to express in mechanical terms, is that which Mr. Darwin has called ‘natural selection’, or the preservation of favored races in the struggle for life” (See https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/herbert-spencer-survival-of-the-fittest-180974756/.) It could be noted that the conclusions, reached by Spencer and others alike, serve as a political weapon in the hands of the ruling class on the “invincibility” of capitalism and on the “certain failure” of socialism. This is an odious misapplication of Darwinian thinking in order to defend bourgeois system against the working class. Engels, in one of his letters, written in 1875, to P.L. Lavrov, demolished such claims as he wrote:

“The essential difference between human and animal society is that animals are at most gatherers whilst men are producers. This single but cardinal distinction alone makes it impossible simply to transfer the laws of animal societies to human societies. … Without contesting your further deductions from this, the further conclusions I should draw from my premises would be the following: – At a certain stage, therefore, human production reaches a level where not only essential necessities but also luxuries are produced, even if, for the time being, they are only produced for a minority. Hence the struggle for existence – if we allow this category as valid here for a moment – transforms itself into a struggle for enjoyments, a struggle no longer for the mere means of existence but for the means of developmentsocially produced means of development, and at this stage the categories of the animal kingdom are no longer applicable. But if, as has now come about, production in its capitalist form produces a far greater abundance of the means of existence and development than capitalist society can consume, because capitalist society keeps the great mass of the real producers artificially removed from the means of existence and development; if this society is forced, by the law of its own existence, continually to increase production already too great for it, and, therefore, periodically every ten years, reaches a point where it itself destroys a mass not only of products but of productive forces, what sense is there still left in the talk about the “struggle for existence?” The struggle for existence can then only consist in the producing class taking away the control of production and distribution from the class hitherto entrusted with it but now no longer capable of it; that, however, is the Socialist revolution.” (See https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1875/letters/75_11_12.htm)

According to Engels, human beings are different as they produce their means of subsistence and in the process they are indirectly producing their material life. Engels made this point of difference between human society and animals and pointed out the problem of using any theory of natural world to understand human society since we are social. These political Darwinians, Engels concluded, can be described “in the first place as bad economists and only in the second place as bad natural scientists and philosophers.”

Concluding Remarks

It is certainly true that Darwin continues to occupy an important position in the Marxist understanding since both the theories dealt with evolution, one of organic nature and other on human history. These are two different theories, one dealing with natural world, while other deals with social world. However, it would be extremely problematic to wishfully apply the version of social Darwinism to understand human history since human beings are essentially different from the animals as we engage in production of material life.   

At Webdesk: Arnab Roy     

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