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Reconstituted Socialist Party of Great Britain - Marx Studies - Darwin, Marx and Engels

In his review of THE ORIGIN OF SPECIES, Robert McCrum claimed that:

For Marx and Engels, Darwinism was the equivalent of the class war” (100 Best Nonfiction books of All Time, OBSERVER, March 25th 2017)

Is this true?

After reading the first edition of Darwin’s THE ORIGIN OF SPECIES, Engels wrote to Marx in December 1859:

Darwin, by the way, whom I'm reading just now, is absolutely splendid. There was one aspect of teleology that has yet to be demolished, and that has how been done. Never before has so grandiose an attempt been made to demonstrate historical evolution in Nature, and certainly never to such good effect. One does, of course, have to put up with the crude English method.”

By religious teleology, Engels meant s an argument for the existence of God or, more generally, for an intelligent creator based on the perceived evidence of deliberate design in the natural world and, by extension, to human society.

Marx read THE ORIGIN OF SPECIES the following year. And, on 19 December, 1860 he wrote back to Engels with the following comments:

In my times of trial [illness] during the last four weeks -I have read all sorts of things. Among others, Darwin's book on Natural Selection. Although it is developed in a crude English way, this is the book that contains the natural-history foundation of our view point.”

A month later, on 16 January 1861 Marx wrote to Lassalle along similar lines:

Darwin's work is most important and suits my purpose in that it provides a basis in natural science for the historical class struggle. One does, of course, have to put up with the clumsy English style of argument. Despite all its shortcomings, it is here that, for the first time, 'teleology' in natural science is not only dealt a mortal blow but its rational meaning is empirically explained.”

The power of a divine creator ordering Nature and human society can be captured in the following hymn by C. F. Alexander, written in the same year as the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO:

All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful,
The Lord God made them all.
Each little flower that opens,
Each little bird that sings,
He made their glowing colours,
He made their tiny wings.
The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
God made them, high or lowly,
And order’d their estate.

One important point should be noted in the Marx-Engels correspondence. Whereas Engels saw Darwin’s book as a refutation of religious teleology in the explanation of natural and social phenomena, Marx extended the discussion to include his theory of history, more popularly known as the materialist conception of history. Marx had already given a broad outline of his theory in the preface to A CONTRIBUTION TO A CRITIQUE OF POLITICAL ECONOMY, published in the same year as Darwin’s book. In one passage Marx wrote:

In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or – this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms – with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure.

Later, in a letter to P.L. Lavrov, Engels bought into the discussion the two English writers, the philosopher, Thomas Hobbes and the political economist, Thomas Malthus

The whole Darwinian theory of the struggle for existence is simply the transference from society to animate nature of Hobbes’ theory of the war of every man against every man and the bourgeois economic theory of competition, along with the Malthusian theory of population. This feat having been accomplished – (as indicated under (1) I dispute its unqualified justification, especially where the Malthusian theory is concerned) – the same theories are next transferred back again from organic nature to history and their validity as eternal laws of human society declared to have been proved. The childishness of this procedure is obvious, it is not worth wasting words over. But if I wanted to go into it further I should do it in such a way that I exposed them in the first place as bad economists and only in the second place as bad natural scientists and philosophers.

In his first reading of Darwin, Engels only considered the anti-teleological aspect of THE ORIGIN OF SPECIES. Marx also agreed with Engels that Darwin’s theory undermined the theological underpinning of natural and social existence. However, Engels later gave a deeper and more materialist understanding of Darwin’s theory with reference to Hobbes and Malthus. So Darwinism was not a superficial equivalent of the class war. Unlike Hobbes and Malthus, Marx and Engels did not simply transfer human society to ‘animate nature’ and then transfer them back again from nature to human society. Marx and Engels gave a far more critical and nuanced appraisal of Darwin’s Origins than is acknowledged by writers like Roger McCrum..

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