Socialist Studies Socialist Studies

Marx and Darwin


Ever since Engels gave his grave-side speech, the names of Marx and Darwin have been linked together. This is what Engels said:

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 (Engels- Marx graveside speech, March 18th 1883 2009)

Darwin was born 200 years ago on the 12th February 1809. He published ON THE ORIGIN OF SPECIES BY NATURAL SELECTION, OR THE PRESERVATION OF FAVOURED RACES IN THE STRUGGLE FOR LIFE in 1859 the same year that Marx published A CONTRIBUTION TO THE CRITIQUE OF POLITICAL ECONOMY with its famous Preface setting out a “guiding thread” for his studies known popularly as the materialist conception of history.

Darwin presented his paper on evolution to the Linnaean Society in July 1858. During the five-year around-the-world trip of the Royal Navy ship Beagle, Darwin had collected a variety of specimens from South America and across the globe, including the various finches that inhabited the Galapagos Islands and which now bear his name. Darwin's study led him to conclude that species were not, as was generally accepted at the time, fixed and settled, but changed over time to become entirely new species, through the process of natural selection.

Marx quickly saw the importance of Darwin’s ORIGIN OF SPECIES. He made several critical comments about Darwin’s theory in his correspondence with Engels and others.

On the importance of Darwin’s theory against religion Marx was to write:

Darwin’s book is very important and suits me well that it supports the class struggle in history from the point of view of natural science. One, of course, has to put up with the crude English method of discourse. Despite all deficiencies, it not only deals the death-blow to “teleology” in the natural sciences for the first time but it also sets forth the rational meaning in an empirical way (Marx to Ferdinand Lassalle 1861 p 115 MARX-ENGELS CORRESPONDENCE Moscow 1975).

Darwin's view of natural science went against all teleological explanations of creation (the so-called theological argument that the natural world could not be the result of accident but instead could only result from intelligent design). Darwin presented an account of the evolution of species that was not dependent on supernatural forces or on God, in fact, on no miraculous agencies of any kind, but simply on account of the workings and processes of nature alone.

Although mainstream Christianity has tried to reconcile their theology with natural selection Christian and Islamic fundamentalism has long recognized the power of Darwin’s argument against “intelligent design” – neither intelligent nor designed to enlighten and further scientific inquiry - and have accorded him centre place in their demonology.

Henry Morris, a dedicated creationist, for example, declared that evolutionary theory is literally the work of the Devil - given to Nimrod at the Tower of Babel - and that most scientists refuse to accept creationism solely because they are atheists (THE TROUBLED WATERS OF EVOLUTION p167 1974).

And the Islamist writer, M. T. Ahmed, after 50 pages of misrepresenting Marx, tried unsuccessfully to use the example of the human eye as a counter example to Darwin’s theory of evolution claiming that it only could be the result of a creator (REVELATION, RATIONALITY, KNOWLEDGE AND TRUTH, Part V, section: Natural Selection and Survival of the fittest, p. 233 1998).

However on the web site EVOLUTION (www.pbs/.org/wbgh/evolution/Darwin/index), the Zoologist Dr. D-E Nielson gives an evolutionary example on how eyes might have evolved. He says that the simple light-sensitive spot on the skin of some ancestral creature gave it some tiny survival advantage, perhaps allowing it to evade a predator. Random changes then created a depression in the light-sensitive patch, a deepening pit that made "vision" a little sharper. At the same time, the pit's opening gradually narrowed, so light entered through a small aperture, like a pinhole camera.

Nielson went on to explain that every change to the evolution of the eye had to confer a survival advantage, no matter how slight. Eventually, the light-sensitive spot evolved into a retina, the layer of cells and pigment at the back of the human eye. Over time a lens formed at the front of the eye. It could have arisen as a double-layered transparent tissue containing increasing amounts of liquid that gave it the convex curvature of the human eye.

As a consequence of evolutionist explanations of the eye creationist belief systems are irrelevant and more importantly fictional accounts of human biology.

Marx, Malthus and Darwin

Marx was no slavish follower of Darwin’s theory. He took issue with Darwin’s use of Malthus’s ideas on population. In another letter Marx wrote he said:

Darwin, whom I have looked up again, amuses me when he says he is applying the “Malthusian” theory also to plants and animals, as if with Mr. Malthus the whole point were not that he does not apply the theory to plants and animals but only to human beings –and with geometrical progression –as opposed to plants and animals. It is remarkable how Darwin recognises among beasts and plants his English society with its division of labour, competition, opening up of new markets, “inventions” and the Malthusian “struggle for existence”. It is Hobbes’ bellum omnium contra omnes (war of everyone against everyone) and one is reminded of Hegel’s Phanomenologie, where civil society is described as a “spiritual animal kingdom”, while in Darwin the animal kingdom figures as civil society…(Letter to Engels, loc cit p 120).

This is what Darwin wrote about Malthus:

In October 1838, that is, fifteen months after I had begun my systematic inquiry, I happened to read for amusement Malthus on Population, and being well prepared to appreciate the struggle for existence which everywhere goes on from long- continued observation of the habits of animals and plants, it at once struck me that under these circumstances favourable variations would tend to be preserved, and unfavourable ones to be destroyed. The results of this would be the formation of a new species. Here, then I had at last got a theory by which to work ('Autobiography', in The life and letters of Charles Darwin edited by F. Darwin. 1887).

This often quoted passage reflects the significance Darwin affords Malthus in formulating his theory of natural selection. What "struck" Darwin was Malthus's defective observation that men and women appeared to be capable of overproducing too many children if left unchecked. Malthus concluded that unless family size was regulated, famine would become globally epidemic and destroy the human population.

Darwin extended Malthus' logic further than Malthus himself would ever have taken it. Darwin realized that producing more offspring than can survive establishes a competitive environment among siblings, and that the variation among siblings would produce some individuals with a slightly greater chance of survival. Here we have a rare example of a defective theory being used to help another theory make scientific advances.

Despite Darwin’s use of Malthus’s theory of population, Marx had his own reasons for dismissing the theory which he saw as an apology for the interests of the capitalist class.

Malthus’s Essay on the PRINCIPLES OF POPULATION (1798) was written as a reply against the optimistic belief first advanced by William Godwin (ENQUIRY CONCERNING POLITICAL JUSTICE 1793) that men and women could indefinitely improve their condition of existence. Malthus attempted to show that it was a law of nature that population increases geometrically while food production grows only arithmetically so that society has the tendency to outstrip resources to maintain itself in equilibrium. Malthus justified starvation as the means to create a balanced population among the poor and his theory justified capitalists paying workers subsistence wages to prevent a higher birth rate hence greater poverty.

Marx offered two criticisms against Malthus.

First Marx saw in Malthus' principle of population an error constantly made since by academic economists who, along with, theologians and philosophers, mistakenly take historically formed social relations for natural and fixed ones.

Marx wrote:

... Reflection on the forms of human life, hence also scientific analysis of these forms, takes a course directly opposite to their real development. Reflection begins post festum (After the feast), and therefore with the results of the process of development ready at hand... the categories of bourgeois economics consist precisely of forms of this kind (CAPITAL VOLUME 1 Chapter 1 Section 4 The Fetishism of the Commodity and its Secret, page 168-169 Penguin 1990).

Malthus began his study of population "post festum”; that is, after the event. He began with the results of the process and consequences of capitalist development before him; i.e., widespread poverty, hunger, unemployment and so on. He totally disregarded the concrete and historically formed social relations of class exploitation and competition which had produced the poor and the unemployed in the first place. He mistakenly concluded that poverty was the result of unchanging natural laws rather than the consequences of a transitory historical social system where the means of production and distribution were privately owned for the purpose of making profit not in meeting human need.

Second, Marx's answer to Malthus' principle of population was the formation under capitalism of the industrial reserve army of the unemployed or relative surplus population which he elaborated in the course of his analysis of the general law of capital accumulation (see CAPITAL VOLUME 1, Ch. 25, The General Law of Capitalist Accumulation pp 762-870).

What Marx calls “relative over-population” is socially created. It is not, as Malthus claimed, that there are more people than there is food to keep them alive. Instead there are more people than capitalism needs at any given time in the trade cycle and this surplus population is temporarily or permanently locked outside the labour market unable to get wages which they need in order to live.

Marx showed that capitalism creates an industrial reserve army (IRA) of the unemployed which is generated by the contradictory process of capital accumulation. The IRA serves two purposes; it sucks in displaced workers and channels them into other areas of production and by maintaining a pool of unemployed workers, rising and falling over the trade cycle, it has the tendency to prevent wages from increasing. When the IRA rises in an economic depression it has the tendency to force wages down.

Marx wrote:

The industrial reserve army, during the periods of stagnation and average prosperity, weighs down the active army of workers; during the periods of over-production and feverish activity, it puts a curb on such their pretensions. The relative surplus population is therefore the background against which the law of the demand and supply of labour does its work. It confines the field of action of this law to the limits absolutely convenient to capital’s drive to exploit and dominate the workers… CAPITAL VOLUME I, Ch. 5 page 792).

And in a sarcastic aside to Malthus he wrote:

After political economy has thus declared that the constant production of the relative surplus population of workers is a necessity of capitalist accumulation, she very aptly adopts the shape of an old maid and puts in the mouth of her ideal capitalist the following words addressed to the “redundant” workers who have been thrown onto the streets by their own creation of additional capital: “We manufacturers do what we can for you, whilst we are increasing that capital on which you must subsist, and you must do the rest by accommodating your numbers to the means of subsistence (loc cit p.787-788).

A more effective refutation of Malthus fallacious theory of population was what in fact happened to population trends in the industrialized countries in the last decades of the 19th century. As the Socialist Party of Great Britain wrote:

…after 1880, particularly when birth control propaganda was launched on a large scale the birth rate began to drop. Malthus had also overlooked that it was not just a question of the number of people and the food supply but that the productivity of man-made machines should also be taken into account. Beginning with the industrial revolution technical development increased social productivity so that more food was produced for the increasing population (The myth of over-population in QUESTION OF THE DAY, 1976 p. 76)

Darwin and Capital

Darwin is referred to by Marx twice in two sections of CAPITAL VOLUME I.

In a footnote to the chapter on The Division of Labour and Manufacture (Chapter 14 page 461 Penguin Ed) Marx wrote approvingly:

In his epoch-making work on the origin of species, Darwin remarks with reference to the natural organs of plants and animals: “As long as the same part has to perform diversified work, we can perhaps see why it should remain variable, that is, why natural selection should not have preserved or rejected each little deviation of form so carefully as when the part has to serve for some one special purpose. In the same way that a knife which has to cut all sorts of things may be of almost any shape; whilst a tool for some particular purpose must be of some particular shape (Charles Darwin, THE ORIGIN OF THE SPECIES, Ch. 5, “Laws of Variation”).

And in another footnote to the chapter “Machinery and Large-Scale Industry (Chapter 15 page 493 loc cit) Marx wrote:

…A critical history of technology would show how little any of the inventions of the eighteenth century are the work of a single individual. As yet such a book does not exist. Darwin has directed attention to the history of natural technology, i.e. the formation of the organs of plants and animals, which serve as the instruments of production for sustaining their life. Does not the history of the productive organs of man in society, of organs that are the material basis of every particular organization of society, deserve equal attention?...

Marx sent Darwin an autographed second edition copy of the first volume of CAPITAL written in German. Darwin, in the only recorded contact between the two men, sent a short letter in reply. Darwin was not fluent in German and had very little interest in political economy.

All but the first 105 pages in Darwin's copy of Marx's 822-page book remain uncut (as does the table of contents), and Darwin, contrary to his custom when reading books carefully, made no marginal annotations. These pages would have composed the first three chapters of CAPITAL; The Commodity, The Process of Exchange and Money, or the Circulation of Commodities. In fact, there is no evidence that Darwin ever read a word of CAPITAL.

However there is Darwin’s reply to Marx written on October 1st 1873:

Dear Sir, - I thank you for the honour which you have done me by sending me your great work on Capital; and I heartily wish that I were more worthy to receive it, by understanding more of the deep and important study of political economy. Though our studies have been so different, I believe that we both earnestly desire the extension of knowledge; and this, in the long-run, is sure to add to the happiness of mankind (CHARLES DARWIN AND KARL MARX: A COMPARISON E. Aveling 1897 page 11 The Twentieth Century Press)

The myth that there was a strong connection between Marx and Darwin through correspondence between the two men was made by one of the most over-rated academic hacks of the 20th century- the late Professor Isaiah Berlin. In Berlin’s 1939 biography of Marx, KARL MARX: HIS LIFE AND ENVIRONMENT (pp 204-5, Oxford 1936), based on a dubious inference from Darwin's short letter of thanks to Marx, Berlin concluded that Marx had offered to dedicate volume 2 of CAPITAL to Darwin and that Darwin had politely refused.

Berlin’s assertion was apparently given greater weight when a second letter, ostensibly from Darwin to Marx but addressed only to "Dear Sir," turned up among Marx's papers in the International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam. This letter, written on October 13, 1880, does decline a suggested dedication: "I Shd. prefer the Part or Volume not be dedicated to me (though I thank you for the intended honor) as it implies to a certain extent my approval of the general publication, about which I know nothing."

This is how academic myths are created and it would still be doing the rounds today except for the diligent researches of two scholars; Margaret Fay (Did Marx offer to dedicate Capital to Darwin?" JOURNAL OF THE HISTORY OF IDEAS 39, 1978) and Lewis Feuer ("Is the `Darwin-Marx correspondence' authentic?" Annals of Science 32, 1975). A discussion on the Marx-Darwin correspondence can be found in Francis Wheen’s book KARL mARX: A LIFE (2000).

Marx's daughter Eleanor became the companion of Edward Aveling sometime member of the Social Democratic Federation and the Socialist League. The couple was entrusted with Marx's papers for several years, and the 1880 letter, evidently sent by Darwin to Aveling himself, must have strayed into the Marx collection. Aveling was a biologist by training and fellow of University College London and had written the very readable “CHARLES DARWIN AND KARL MARX” in the New Century Review in 1897 subsequently published in pamphlet form by the Twentieth Century Press.

Darwin also found many supporters among the early Social Democrats particularly Karl Kautsky in the early editions of Neue Zeit and the Council Communist and advocate of Direct Action; Anton Pannekoek wrote a pamphlet MARXISM AND DARWINISM published by Charles Kerr in 1912. Articles on Marx and Darwin often appeared in the SOCIALIST STANDARD of the Socialist Party of Great Britain.

Revolutionary politics

There is a contemporary connection between Marx and Darwin with attacks from religious and free market fundamentalists. Religious fundamentalists claim there is a direct causal line from Darwin’s ideas on natural selection to the concentration camps of Hitler’s Germany. Likewise, defenders of capitalism state that there is a direct line from Marx to the gulags of the Soviet Union and the killing fields of Pol Pot’s Cambodia (see, for example, “THE DISASTERS DARWINISM BROUGHT TO HUMANITY by H. Yahya, Canada no date and the numerous writings found on the free market institutes in the US).

Of course, both assertions insinuating that Marx and Darwin are responsible for the barbarism of the Twentieth Century are wrong. There is nothing in their scientific writings that could hold them responsible for the millions of people exterminated by totalitarian regimes throughout the last century. Both wanted “to add to the happiness of mankind”, as Darwin put it. Marx wanted to see the working class free itself from class exploitation through its own political efforts and establish an free, creative association of men and women while Darwin wanted an understanding of the natural world free from obscurantist superstition.

This is not the case with the cruel ignorance of religion and the wars caused by capitalism. Religion and capitalism do have a common history of extermination. Religion has often legitimized war, slavery, genocide and nationalist expansion of capitalist countries as they fight over the continents of the world for trade routes, raw resources and spheres of influence; Hobbes “war of everyone against everyone” accurately describes capitalism both in its imposition of anti-social competition and in national conflicts and unhappiness for the world’s population which Socialism will abolish.

This brings us back to Engels’ graveside speech. In their respective ways both Darwin and Marx were revolutionaries; the former in the natural sciences the latter in the social sciences. To recall, Engels's oration he summed them up like this:

“Just as Darwin discovered the laws of evolution in organic nature so Marx discovered the law of evolution in human history.

Marx’s genius was that:

…he discovered the simple fact, hitherto concealed by an overgrowth of ideology, that mankind must first of all eat and drink, have shelter and clothing, before it can pursue politics, science, religion, art, etc; and that therefore the means of life, and consequently the degree of economic development attained by a given people or during a given epoch, form the foundation on which the forms of government, the legal conceptions, the art and even the religious ideas of the people concerned have been evolved, and in the light of which these things must therefore be explained, instead of vice versa as has hitherto been the case.

In this respect the above passage brings out an important difference in the way that the two men’s discoveries were received. The revolutionary discoveries of Darwin were socially passive. Yes, Darwin had an important impact on the natural sciences and gave rise to a rich research programme that continues to this day. Of course Darwin was ridiculed by the religious fundamentalists but within natural science he is celebrated, appears on stamps and is taught in schools and universities as a “Great man of Science”.

Not so Marx. His ideas were not socially passive. Marx’s study of human history was a study of class struggles and revolution around the ownership of and exclusion from private property ownership of the means of production and distribution. It was a history of class exploitation; of those who have wealth and those who do not. As he was to remark on his own studies in the preface to the first edition of CAPITAL:

…free scientific inquiry does not merely meet the same enemies as in all other domains. The peculiar nature of the material it deals with summons into the fray on the opposing side the most violent, sordid and malignant passions of the human breast, the Furies of private interest” (p. 92).

If Marx’s ideas were simply the result of scientific discovery, as Darwin's were, then the discoverer could surely be left alone, almost revered for his own contribution to science, as Darwin, for all the bigoted attacks on him by religious fundamentalists, has been.

But of course, Marx’s study and critique of political economy, unlike Darwin’s studies into natural history, did upset “the furies of private interest”.

And as a result, Engels tells us:

Marx was the best hated and most calumniated man of his time. Governments, both absolutist and republican, deported him from their territories. Bourgeois, whether conservative or ultra-democratic, vied with one another in heaping slanders upon him.

And Engels goes on to explain why:

…for Marx was, before all else, a revolutionary. His real mission in life was to contribute in one way or another to the overthrow of capitalist society and of the forms of government which it had brought into being, to contribute to the liberation of the present day proletariat.

Although “in the order of social evolution” the working class is the last class to achieve its freedom this self-emancipation from capitalism still waits to be realised.

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