Darwin and the Workers Movement

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This year sees the commemoration of the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth (and the passing of 150 years since the publication of Origin of Species). The marxist wing of the workers' movement has always saluted Darwin's outstanding contributions to humanity's understanding of itself and nature.

In many ways Darwin was typical of his time, interested in observing nature and happy to conduct experiments on animal and plant life. His empirical work with, among other things, bees, beetles, worms, pigeons and barnacles, was scrupulous and detailed. Darwin's dogged attention to the latter was such that his younger children "began to think that all adults must be similarly employed, leading one to ask of a neighbour ‘Where does he do his barnacles?'" (Darwin, Desmond & Moore).

What distinguished Darwin was his ability to go beyond details, to theorise and look for historical processes when others were content just to categorise phenomena or accept existing explanations. A typical example of this was his response to discovering marine fossils thousands of feet up in the Andes. Armed with the experience of an earthquake and Lyell's Principles of Geology he was able to speculate on the scale of earth movements that had caused the contents of the sea bed to end up in the mountains, without having to resort to Biblical accounts of a Great Flood. "I am a firm believer, that without speculation there is no good & original observations" (as he wrote in a letter to AR Wallace, 22/12/1857)

He was also not afraid to take observations from one field and use them in other areas. Although Marx held most of the writings of Thomas Malthus in contempt, Darwin was able to use his ideas on human population growth in developing his theory of evolution. "In October 1838 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 circumstance favourable variations would tend to be preserved, and unfavourable ones to be destroyed. The result of this would be the formation on new species. Here, then, I had at last got a theory by which to work" (Darwin's ‘Recollections of the Development of my mind and character').

It was 20 years before this theory made its public appearance in Origin of Species, but the essentials are already there. In Origin Darwin explains that he uses "the term Struggle for Existence in a large and metaphorical sense" and "for convenience sake" and that by Natural Selection he means the "preservation of favourable variations and the rejection of injurious variations." The idea of evolution was not new, but, already, in 1838, Darwin was already developing an explanation of how species evolved. He compared the techniques of greyhound breeders and pigeon fanciers (artificial selection) with natural selection and thought it the most "beautiful part of my theory" (Darwin quoted in Desmond & Moore).

The method of historical materialism

Within three weeks of the publication of Origin of Species Engels wrote to Marx: "Darwin, whom I am just reading, is magnificent. Teleology had not been demolished in one respect, but this has now been done. Furthermore, there has never been until now so splendid an attempt to prove historical development in nature, at least with so much success." The ‘demolition of teleology' refers to the clout that Origin delivered to all religious, idealist or metaphysical ideas that try to ‘explain' phenomena by their purpose rather than their cause. This is fundamental to a materialist view of the world. As Engels wrote in Anti-Dürhing (chapter 1), Darwin "dealt the metaphysical conception of nature the heaviest blow by his proof that all organic beings, plants, animals and man himself, are the products of a process of evolution going on through millions of years,"

In draft materials for Dialectics of Nature Engels set out the significance of Origin of Species. "Darwin, in his epoch-making work, set out from the widest existing basis of chance. Precisely the infinite, accidental differences between individuals within a single species, differences which become accentuated until they break through the character of the species, ... compelled him to question the previous basis of all regularity in biology, viz, the concept of species in its previous metaphysical rigidity and unchangeability."

Marx read Origin a year after it was published, and at once wrote to Engels (19/12/1860) "this is the book that contains the basis in natural history for our ideas". He later wrote that the book served "as a natural-scientific basis for the class struggle in history" (letter to Lasalle, 16/1/1862).

Despite their enthusiasm for Darwin, Marx and Engels were not without their criticisms. They were very aware of the influence of Malthus, and also that the insights of Darwin were used in ‘Social Darwinism' to justify the status quo of Victorian society with great wealth for some and prison, the work-house, disease, starvation or emigration for the poor. In his introduction to Dialectics of Nature Engels draws out some of the implications. "Darwin did not know what a bitter satire he wrote on mankind,... when he showed that free competition, the struggle for existence, which the economists celebrate as the highest historical achievement, is the normal state of the animal kingdom." It's only the "conscious organisation of social production" that can take humanity from the struggle for survival to the expansion of the means of production as the basis of life, enjoyment and development; and that ‘conscious organisation' requires a revolution by the producers, the working class.

Engels also saw where the struggles of humanity (and the marxist understanding of them) went beyond Darwin's framework "The conception of history as a series of class struggles is already much richer in content and deeper than merely reducing it to weakly distinguished phases of the struggle for existence"(Dialectics of Nature ‘Notes and Fragments').

However, such criticisms don't undermine Darwin's status in the history of scientific thought. In a speech at Marx's graveside Engels emphasised that "Just as Darwin discovered the law of development or organic nature, so Marx discovered the law of development of human history"

Marxism after Darwin

While Darwin has been in and out of fashion in bourgeois thought (but not with serious scientists) the marxist wing of the workers' movement has never deserted him.

Plekhanov, in a footnote to The Development of the Monist View of History (chapter 5) describes the relationship between the thinking of Darwin and Marx: "Darwin succeeded in solving the problem of how there originate vegetable and animal species in the struggle for existence. Marx succeeded in solving the problem of how there arise different types of social organisation in the struggle of men for their existence. Logically, the investigation of Marx begins precisely where the investigation of Darwin ends [...]The spirit of their research is absolutely the same in both thinkers. That is why one can say that Marxism is Darwinism in its application to social science."

An example of the interrelation between marxism and the contributions of Darwin comes in Kautsky's Ethics and the Materialist Conception of History. Although Kautsky overstates the importance of Darwin, he draws on The Descent of Man when trying to outline the importance of altruistic feelings, of social instincts in the development of morality. In Chapter 5 of Descent, Darwin describes how "primeval man" became social and how "they would have warned each other of danger, and have given mutual aid in attack. All this implies some degree of sympathy, fidelity, and courage". He outlines "When two tribes of primeval man ... came into competition, if one included ... a greater number of courageous, sympathetic, and faithful members, who were always ready to warn each other of danger, to aid and defend each other, this tribe would without doubt succeed best and conquer the other. Let it be borne in mind how all-important, in the never-ceasing wars of savages, fidelity and courage must be. The advantage which disciplined soldiers have over undisciplined hordes follows chiefly from the confidence which each man feels in his comrades. ... Selfish and contentious people will not cohere, and without coherence nothing can be effected." Darwin no doubt exaggerates the degree to which primitive societies were engaged in constant warfare against each other, but the necessity for cooperation as a basis for survival was no less important in activities such as the hunt and in the distribution of the social product. This is the other side of the ‘struggle for existence', where we see the triumph of mutual solidarity and confidence over fractiousness and egoism.

From Darwin to a communist future

Anton Pannekoek was not only a great marxist, but also an astronomer of distinction (a crater on the far side of the moon and an asteroid are named after him). No discussion of ‘Marxism and Darwinism' would be complete without some reference to his 1909 text of that name. For a start, Pannekoek refines our understanding of the relationship between Marxism and Darwinism.

The "struggle for existence, formulated by Darwin and emphasized by Spencer, has a different effect on men than on animals. The principle that struggle leads to the perfection of the weapons used in the strife, leads to different results between men and animals. In the animal, it leads to a continuous development of natural organs; that is the foundation of the theory of descent, the essence of Darwinism. In men, it leads to a continuous development of tools, of the means of production. This, however, is the foundation of Marxism. Here we see that Marxism and Darwinism are not two independent theories, each of which applies to its special domain, without having anything in common with the other. In reality, the same principle underlies both theories. They form one unit. The new course taken by men, the substitution of tools for natural organs, causes this fundamental principle to manifest itself differently in the two domains; that of the animal world to develop according to Darwinian principles, while among mankind the Marxian principle applies."

Pannekoek also expanded on the idea of the social instinct on the basis of Kautsky and Darwin's contributions.

"That group in which the social instinct is better developed will be able to hold its ground, while the group in which social instinct is low will either fall an easy prey to its enemies or will not be in a position to find favourable feeding places. These social instincts become therefore the most important and decisive factors that determine who shall survive in the struggle for existence. It is owing to this that the social instincts have been elevated to the position of predominant factors."

"The sociable animals are in a position to beat those that carry on the struggle individually"

The distinction between the sociable animals and homo sapiens lies, among other things, in consciousness.

"Everything that applies to the social animals applies also to man. Our ape-like ancestors and the primitive men developing from them were all defenceless, weak animals who, as almost all apes do, lived in tribes. Here the same social motives and instincts had to arise which later developed to moral feelings. That our customs and morals are nothing other than social feelings, feelings that we find among animals, is known to all; even Darwin spoke about ‘the habits of animals which would be called moral among men.' The difference is only in the measure of consciousness; as soon as these social feelings become clear to men, they assume the character of moral feelings."

‘Social Darwinism' also comes under attack from Pannekoek as he shows how ‘bourgeois Darwinists' came full circle - the world described by Malthus and Hobbes is unsurprisingly like the world described by Hobbes and Malthus! "Under capitalism, the human world resembles mostly the world of rapacious animals and it is for this very reason that the bourgeois Darwinists looked for men's prototype among animals living isolated. To this they were led by their own experience. Their mistake, however, consisted in considering capitalist conditions as everlasting. The relation existing between our capitalist competitive system and animals living isolated, was thus expressed by Engels in his book, Anti-Dühring as follows:

‘Finally, modern industry and the opening of the world market made the struggle universal and at the same time gave it unheard-of virulence. Advantages in natural or artificial conditions of production now decide the existence or non-existence of individual capitalists as well as of whole industries and countries. He that falls is remorselessly cast aside. It is the Darwinian struggle of the individual for existence transferred from Nature to society with intensified violence. The conditions of existence natural to the animal appear as the final term of human development.'"

But capitalist conditions are not everlasting, and the working class has the capacity to overthrow them and end the division of society into classes with antagonistic interests.

"With the abolition of classes the entire civilised world will become one great productive community. Within this community mutual struggle among members will cease and will be carried on with the outside world. It will no longer be a struggle against our own kind, but a struggle for subsistence, a struggle against nature. But owing to development of technique and science, this can hardly be called a struggle. Nature is subject to man and with very little exertion from his side she supplies him with abundance. Here a new career opens for man: man's rising from the animal world and carrying on his struggle for existence by the use of tools, ceases, and a new chapter of human history begins."  

Car 28/1/9


Congratulations !

Dear friends,

I would like to congratulate you for this article, which is a real challenge : to title it "Darwin and the Workers Movement" and to manage to NOT quote or even name Kropotkin, it is a real performance !

What about the new ICC policy of debate and talking with other wings of the workers movement ? Do we have to believe it is sincere/genuine or what ?


Actually that's a fair point about Kropotkin, although perhaps you could have had more to say about the general approach of the article. Kropotkin's contribution on the role of mutual aid in evolution does need to be taken into consideration and we hope to come back to it.

I welcome the positions on

I welcome the positions on Darwin, both texts underlining the significance of his research and the positions that the workers’ movement develops on and from his work. The poster below should give us some information of Kropotkin’s position, an outline perhaps would be useful. Grigor Mendel should be mentioned in the development of the whole theory and apparently Darwin’s grandfather thought that our genesis was evolutionary but couldn’t explain why it should be.
I support the depth of the texts. Like relativity, the simultaneous development of the theory of evolution, represents advances of science in progressive times and are major advance for society and for the working class – both theories also being deadly blows to the idea of God and organised religion. I liked the “natural history of communism” quote and Darwin’s quote about “the habits of animals which would be called moral among men”.
What particularly interests me from another post (Chris Knight’s book Blood Relations) is the attempt to apply Darwinism to relatively short periods of time – both Richard Dawkins and Chris Knight attempt this with their idea of “memes”. Let’s take the period of around the last one hundred thousand years, the most productive period in history up until then and the most innovative for Homo sapiens. Over this period, as throughout the period of evolution, the theory of natural selection applies, but there’s also another quality at work “Genetic mechanisms... are still in operation, albeit very slowly” (Renfrew 2007). “There are indeed mutations occurring in human DNA that will bring about significant changes, and these are still open to natural selection”. As Darwin had it, “causes now in action”. This is taking place in a period over 100,000 years before now and, at some level probably, in the twinkling of an eye. There’s more though, a faster, more profound acceleration of development over this period than natural selection can account for. It is not linear, nor a “natural” development but the development of a consciousness that comes from a struggle over the last thousand centuries. It’s not “unilinear”, laid out in advance, but part of a development of an advance and progression overall.
I agree with Colin Refrew above, that the concept of “memes” is not useful in this respect: “For that reason (understanding the rapid pace of cultural history and prehistory) I feel that attempts by the British evolutionary theorist Richard Dawkins to introduce into the discussion the term “meme”, in analogy with the term “gene”, is a misguided one. It suggests a perspective where the mechanisms of growth and development of ‘cultural evolution’ (if one calls them that) are fundamentally analogous to those of biological evolution, so long as one is willing to change one or two points of detail and to substitute the notion of meme for that of gene. That creates a simplistic mechanism that is just not appropriate.

Culture and evolution

The relationship between culture and evolution is an interesting question. Clearly, some degree of natural selection continues to take place in homo sapiens - an obvious example is skin colour, since the emergence of pale skins is presumably an adaptation on the basis of natural selection to reduced sunlight experienced as mankind moved out of Africa and into more northern regions (sunlight is vital in the body's generation of certain vitamins, important notably for bone formation and fertility). At the same time, culture itself plays a role in promoting genetic variation: for example, peoples which historically developed a pastoral way of life (and whose diet therefore came to include a substantial intake of milk products) are better adapted genetically to digest milk than peoples where dairy products are not part of the diet (eg in countries like Japan). In other cases cultural development may render genetic adaptation unnecessary - for example, the Inuit and others inhabiting the far north have not become hairy like polar bears because they are able to clothe themselves to keep warm). So clearly the relationship is a complicated one.
On the question of Kropotkin, it is a shame that the AIT member seems to be more interested in criticising the ICC than in contributing something: at the very least such a criticism should push us to read what Kropotkin had to say in "Mutual Aid", with a view to putting it in its historical context and considering what in this work is valid or not today.

excellent !

All your articles about Darwin are excellent and very interesting. Congratulations !

On Kropotkin, I wanted to

On Kropotkin,

I wanted to remind you that Kropotkin's and Marxist's (such as Pannekoek) views are methodologically different. While Kropotkin tries to argue for an essential-innate human nature tending to mutual aid, marxists never saw the question of "human nature" as a distinct category out of historical development-human activity. In that sense mutual aid for marxists was an expression of a practical need. However as far as I could remember, for Kropotkin it was more like a genetic tendency reflecting a natural behaviour.

Anarchism, Marxism and evolution

I think that really it is not so much a question of how anarchists and Marxists in the last century saw evolution as much as how it is seen scientifically today.

It is possible to have a 'genetic tendency [to mutual aid]reflecting a natural behaviour', and it can be observed in many cases in the animal world and is explained by the modern neo-Darwinist synthesis.



I think it is important how you treat this issue. Because I think that, for marxists how you perceive the world is historically determined by your-or dominant class- interests. In that sense if you have an essentialist perception of world then it means that there is a relation between yout perception and the class that develop and spread essentialism.

So what is essentialism then? For instance to say that human being is innately tending to mutual-aid, co-operation etc.?

First I think because it is an underastimation of complex historical causes that forced human to socialize in year long cycles. Reproduction might be another -genetic- factor but this time it will be a cause for rational evaluation not a behaviour. I mean consciousness is also factor which in the long history of humanity, can not even be differentiated from enviromental or genetic factors.

Secondly, if historical development and combination of conscious and genetic tendendies in this historical process is the main determinant of social behaviour - and if the dexisting context of this development is class society then what can an essentialist point of view can offer?

I think it can only offer a religous or nihilistic perspectives - which is not surprising in such a decomposing society. Even scientific explanations are tending to glorify essential subjectivity which can be explored or understand. In social sciences this is even more obvious if you consider the dominance of modernist theories that glorify irrationalism and essentialism etc.

In that sense a kind of darwinist essentialism sounds perfectly normal in the current paradigm.

But for kropotkin, I think this was an expression of his return to kantianism which was also shared by the right wing of Second International.

Mikail, I didn't mention


I didn't mention anything about humans. I said that mutual aid can be observed in the animal kingdom, and that this has a genetic root. Of course this does not mean that this is true of all animals, or even to say that it is a dominant form.

The way to start to look at the issue of evolution though is not by reading what Pannekoek, or Kropotkin, or even Marx had to say on the issue in a time when even the mechanism of inheritance still remained to be discovered, but to look at the scientific research says.


Devrim, As far as I am aware


As far as I am aware what we are discussing right now is related to whether direct empirical knowledge is enough to learn and reflect about the (let's say) nature of things. I think that it is not and I also think that the sourse and nature of -even- "scientific" knowledge is bound to the social relations that it is produced into by way of it conceptual background.

Saying that -for example- human being is selfish by its nature because empirical genetical surveys says so is saying something about the nature of human and its self-understanding. It means to say that human being has a nature in itself which shape its social existance.

What I am trying to say is this is a burgeoisie essentialism. This has strong connections with what historically first burgeoisie critics of religion tried to destroy but obviously could not.

I think human biology or animal behaviour is not the key to the human behaviour but it is human behaviour which is key to the other less complicated social or biological pehenomenon which are less developed.

I agree that to have a deeper understanding of evolution necessitates a deeper understanding of ecisting positive sciences. However we should be aware that every branch od science reflect the existing dominant ideology -one way or another- since scientific conceptual frameworks can not escape the social conditions they born into. In that line of reasoning "pure knowledge" or "pure reasoning" is at best a naivity.

I think the premise for the issue is to hold on to the fact that evolution is a complex pehenomenon and when it comes to human evolution rather than seperating genetics and social-psychological, it is better to analyze the historicity of these complexities.

This is even vital when it comes to academia which after 1980's and 1990's turned into a strong essentialism in every branch. From kuantum pysics to the modernism in social sciences essentialism is like a dominant paradigm. It is important to fight this tendency which increasingly devalue the universality, consciousness and human creative potential. It is important because this tendency in academia is like an intellectual expression of deepening capitalist decomposition. For instance in sociology the dominant paradigm is that you can not understand the "other" and you should not even try to, because every individual has a substance an essentiality that is basically irrational and every attempt to understant is a white western secret attempt to dominate.

In that sense I think it is important to insist that human being has a historical potential to determine its own constatntly changing nature in a collective and conscious way. And it is not unconscious evolutionary genetyic traits that determine human sociability.

And when it comes to Kropotkin, -in order to provoce further discussion I may say that- I think Stirner's egoism is far more scientific and close to the truth then Kropotkin's "from simple to the complex" analysis in mutual aid which is based on ethical assumptions. If it is read with his Ethics the relation might get more clearer.

positive science

We had a discussion about this within the US section of the ICC. It was really interesting. I just want to stress the fact that the methodology of the communist should be based on mostly through an empirical viewpoint but not necessarily in line with the scientific community. The scientific community is a community of men and women who also carry the deadweight of traditions on their brains, like all people do. The issue of darwinism being applied to the human psychology is at best, a complicated thing. There are no controlled experiments about humans so the issue here is then to try to draw a conjecture out of some historical data and think about some story that might be true but also might be false. So you have a bunch of data and then someone formulates a narrative that might have some internal logic but might be completely false:


I think positivism is a deadweight in the communist movement because it carries some nasty metaphysics like the fetish of the scientific community and of secularism. It also made Marx say some interesting remarks like mexicans being lazy compared to the technologically advanced americans, etc. Darwinism in the animal community is completely true and it help break with a viewpoint that considered the world being the creation of a cosmic Maker but I think we need to be cautious with some of the things evolutionary psychologists might say, or in fact any scientist might say.

Comrade, In DD section we


In DD section we did not discuss it at length. But on your point about positivism leading to metaphysical conclusion I am totally in agreement with you. It is strange that how post-modernist theory handle with clasiccal positivist theory. I think it is very crucial to clear the fact that even empiricism and positivism has strong roots in faith. However modernists such as (derrida, foucault, etc.) always tend to criticize previous burgeoisie enlightment thought by saying that it was a wrong rejection of religious. Turn to essentialism is at the roots of nihilistic-religious decomposition ideologies and I believe this is very dangerous. But maybe this is not the best place to discuss this issue under Darwin

What is the point of Marxism and how does it work?

Even-though e.g. bourgeois criticisms of empiricism cannot be relied on and are not a sphere of absolute argument, don't they work in much the same way as Marxism, only with certain blind spots such as appealing too much to and promoting bourgeois ideals? Propaganda aside.

One can dismiss empiricism because it looks dangerous and one can see why it doesn't make sense. The second is something that both the workers movement and philosophy looks to do and to suggest that philosophical arguments are not good at that, I think is misleading. Like scientists, philosophers excel at what they do even if they make errors and even if these errors are reactionary.

OK, I hope that made sense. Thanks.