Social Darwinism: a reactionary ideology of capitalism

Printer-friendly versionSend by email

‘Social Darwinism' - a reactionary ideology of capitalism

The elements that have allowed the human race to advance towards civilisation have preoccupied philosophers and thinkers down the centuries. This is nothing less than a question of discovering the motor force of history. In 1848, the appearance of the Communist Manifesto offers a revolutionary vision of this question, one that places man and his activity on the social level at the heart of historical progress. This vision was evidently not satisfactory for the bourgeoisie, which was enjoying the triumphant ascent of the capitalist system. On one hand, because the rise of the capitalist class was based on an ideology of individualism; and on the other hand, it was much too early for the bourgeois to conceive, even on the strictly intellectual level, the possibility of going beyond capitalism.

When, eleven years later, Charles Darwin published the result of his work on the evolution of organisms as a result of natural selection it was tempting for the bourgeoisie to explore a theory of the development of human societies based on the mechanism of the selection of the fittest individuals. This tendency that was amalgamated under the term "Social Darwinism" is still active today, even if its hypothesis remains largely undemonstrated, and even if its point of departure, the competitive struggle for existence, was rapidly ruled out by Darwin himself as a way of explaining the evolution of man[1].

Definition of ‘Social Darwinism'

"Social Darwinism is a form of sociology, the postulates of which are:

As Man is part of nature, the laws of human society are, directly or almost directly, those of the law of nature;

That the laws of nature are the survival of the fittest, the struggle for life and the laws of heredity;

That it is necessary for the well-being of society to make sure these laws are properly applied  in society.

Thus understood, social Darwinism can be historically defined as a branch of evolutionism that postulates a minimal or non-existent separation between the laws of nature and social laws: both are subject to the survival of the fittest, and so it  considers that these laws of nature directly provides a morality and a political standpoint.

We can distinguish two different forms of social Darwinism. One is an individualist idea that considers that the basic social organism is the individual and that, on the model of a struggle between individuals of the same species, the fundamental laws of society are the struggles between individuals of the same group, of which the struggle between ethnic (or racial) groups is only an extension. The other form, on the contrary, takes an holistic approach and considers that the basic social organism is society, that the motor force of history is the struggle between races, and that the struggle between individuals of the same group is a secondary law, even prejudicial to the survival of the race (...).

Individualistic social Darwinism developed from the 1850's (thus even before The Origin of  Species) and constituted an important ideology up to the 1880's (...) It is mostly linked to laissez-faire economics, extolling the non-intervention of the state (...) Holistic social Darwinism, often overtly racist, above all developed after 1880. For the most part it advocated state intervention in society and protectionist practice (economic, but also racial protection:  ‘The purity of the race is in danger'")[2].

The most well-known representative of this ideology is a contemporary of Darwin, Herbert Spencer. Engineer, philosopher and sociologist, Spencer saw in The Origin of the Species the key which allowed the understanding of the development of civilisation, departing from the point that human society evolved from the same principle as all living organisms. From this standpoint, the mechanism of natural selection was totally applicable to the social body. Spencer was a bourgeois ideologue well-anchored in his time. Strongly marked by individualism and the optimism of the dominant class in an epoch where capitalism was fully expanding, he was greatly influenced by fashionable theories such as the utilitarianism of Bentham. Plekhanov said of him that he was a "conservative anarchist, a bourgeois philosopher."[3] For Spencer, society produced and formed the brightest elements who would be selected to allow this society to continue to progress. Deviating from Darwin, the concept of Spencer applied to society, became the "selection of the fittest".

Social Darwinism, such as it was called after its explanation by Spencer, posed in principle the superiority of heredity over education, that's to say the preponderance of innate characteristics over acquired characteristics. If the principles of natural selection are effectively at work in society, it's simply a matter of not standing in its way it in order to assure social progress and the eventual disappearance of "anomalies" such as poverty or particular weaknesses.

In its subsequent evolution, Social Darwinism would be taken up as the basis of political positions and justifications dictated by the necessities of capitalist development.

Still today, the theory of Herbert Spencer continues to serve as a pseudo-scientific premise for the reactionary ideology of the winner and the law of the strongest.

Repercussions, consequences and enduring ideologies

From a strictly scientific point of view, the works of Spencer inspired more or less varied studies, such as craniology (the study of the form and size of the skull, the results of which would allegedly reveal a certain order); attempts to measure intelligence or again criminal anthropology with Lambroso's theory of the "born criminal", the echoes of which are still being spread around today in bourgeois political spheres in attempts to detect future criminals as early as possible

The preponderance of the innate equally led Spencer to sketch out the contours of an educative policy whose repercussions are still visible in the British primary school system, which tries to provide the infant with an environment proper to its personal expansion, to its researches and discoveries, rather than an education susceptible to developing new aptitudes. It's also the theoretical basis that supports the concept of "equality of opportunity".

But the most well-known lineage of Social Darwinism above all remains in the idea of eugenics. It was Francis Galton, Darwin's cousin, who put forward the first concepts of eugenics by following the underlying intuition of Spencer that if natural selection must mechanically lead to social progress, everything which prevents it can only hold back the successful rise of humanity. More simply, Galton believed that the measures of social order that the bourgeoisie was led to take, mostly under the pressure of the class struggle, would in time lead to an overall degeneration of civilisation.

Whereas Spencer was an adept of "laissez-faire", of the non-intervention of the state (one of his works, appearing in 1850, was called The right to Ignore the State), Galton advocated active measures in order to facilitate the work of natural selection. For a long time he more or less directly promoted policies of the sterilisation of the mentally ill, the death penalty for criminals, etc. Eugenics is still considered as a scientific stamp of approval central to the ideologies of fascism and Nazism, even Spencer's ideas already contain elements that lead to racist visions and a hierarchy of races. From the 19th century, the work of Spencer has been used to demonstrate the biological roots of the technological and cultural backwardness of the so-called "savage" peoples, scientifically justifying colonialist policies by giving them a moral, civilising characteristic, when in fact these policies were essentially a necessity imposed by the limits of domestic markets.

However, eugenics allowed for a supplementary step by envisaging the suppression of masses of individuals who were judged unfit and thus a threat to the progress of society. Alexis Carrel, in 1935, even advocated and described in great detail the creation of establishments where generalised euthanasia would be practiced.

But it's not just under the scientific or theoretical angle that Social Darwinism should be seen. This line of thought emerged in a historic context that it tried to accompany and justify. The influence of the period is fundamental to understanding how this current developed; similarly it's important to bear in mind that if the responses that it gave are globally false, the questions that it poses still lie at the heart of the understanding that man must have of his own social development.

Theorising the ascent of capitalism

When Darwin published The Origin of Species, Britain was in the thick of the Victorian period, and the European bourgeoisie was in undisputed power, ready to conquer the world. Society teemed with examples of "the self-made man", of men who came from nothing and who, borne by the rise of industrial capitalism, found themselves at the head of prosperous enterprises. At the time, the dominant class was still shot through with radical currents who called into question hereditary privileges which constituted a brake on the new forms of development offered by capitalism. Spencer frequented this milieu of "dissidents" who were strongly anchored in anti-socialism.[4] He saw in the black misery of the British working class the temporary scars of a society in the process of adapting itself; under the effect of the demographic explosion this society would end up re-organising itself, thus constituting a factor of progress. For him, progress was inevitable since man would adapt to the evolution of society, as long as if it were left free to do so.

This euphoria was largely shared by the whole of the bourgeoisie. Especially if one adds the strong feelings of belonging to a nation which had built itself up and which could be strengthened by wars, like France following the defeat by Prussia for example. The development of the class struggle, which accompanied the development of capitalism, pushed the bourgeoisie to develop another conception of social solidarity based on givens that it hoped were undeniable.

All this constituted the compost of a theorisation of capitalist ascendancy and its immediate effects; proletarianisation in sweat, colonisation in blood, competition in filth.

This gets to the fundamental character of Social Darwinism because from a scientific point of view it offers no correct answers to the fundamental questions that it treats.

An ideological stamp of approval without any scientific basis

Science has never, even with the best intentions, been able to demonstrate the hypothesis of Social Darwinism.

Even the name of this current of thought is straightaway incorrect: Darwin is not the father of eugenics, or economic liberalism, or colonial expansionism, or scientific racism.  Neither is Darwin Malthusian. Much more than this, he was among the first put forward the clearest rebuttal of theories of Galton and Spencer.

After exposing his vision of the development and the evolution of organisms in The Origin of Species, twelve years later Darwin published his work on the development of his own species, man. In his book The Descent of Man, in 1871, he contradicted everything that Social Darwinism put forward. For Darwin, man is of course the product of evolution and is thus rightly placed within the process of natural selection. But for man, the struggle for survival doesn't mean the elimination of the weakest: "We civilised men, on the contrary, do everything possible to put a brake on this elimination; we construct asylums for idiots, the disabled and the sick; we have laws on the poor; and our doctors use all their skill to conserve life up to the last moment. Everything leads us to believe that vaccinations preserve thousands of individuals who otherwise, because of their weak constitutions, would succumb to smallpox. Thus the weak members of civilised societies propagate their nature."[5]

Thus, through the principle of evolution, humanity extricated itself from natural selection by placing itself above the competitive struggle for existence, all of which contributed to favouring the process of civilisation, by moral qualities, education, culture, religion... what Darwin called the "social instincts". Through this he called into question the vision of Spencer on the preponderance of the innate over the acquired, of nature over culture. Through civilisation then, on the social level, natural selection no longer operates in the same way as at the level of organisms. On the contrary, it is led to select social behaviours that oppose the laws of natural selection. This is clearly put forward by Patrick Tort in his theory of the "reverse effect of evolution"[6].

Whereas ‘Social Darwinism' only sees in the evolution of human society the result of the selection of the fittest, Darwin on the contrary saw here the growing reproduction of the social instincts such as altruism, solidarity, sympathy etc. The first conception poses capitalism as the most appropriate framework for social progress, whereas the second demonstrates, with some weight, that the economic laws of capitalism based on competition prevent the human species from fully developing its social instincts. It is by eliminating this last historic fetter, by abolishing capitalism, that humanity will be able to construct a society where these social instincts will come fully into their own  and lead human civilisation to its fulfilment.

GD 31/10/9 



[1] This text uses quotes and approaches from several articles and texts that it would be fastidious to mention systematically. This is their order:

* Wikipedia (notably articles given over to social Darwinism, Herbert Spencer and Francis Galton)

* Dictionnaire de Sociologie, Le Robert.Seuil, 1999 (article on "social Darwinism")

* Brian Holmes, Herbert Spencer, "Perspectives" vol. XXIV, no. ¾, 1994

* Patrick Tort, Darwin et le darwinisme, Que Sais-je?, PUF

* Pierre-Henri Gouyon, Jacques Arnould, Jean-Pierre Henry, Les Avatars du gène, la théorie neo-darwinienne de l‘évolution, Belin, 1997

[2] Dictionnaire du Darwinisme et de l'évolution, PUF, pp 1008-09.

[3] In Anarchism and Socialism.

[4] "as much as I hate war, I hate socialism in all its forms", quoted by Duncan, The Life and Letters of Herbert Spencer, 1908.

[5] Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, 1871.

[6] Read our article on Patrick Tort's latest book: L'effet Darwin http://en.internationalism.org/icconline/2009/04/darwin-and-the-descent-of-man

See also :