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