Marxism and Darwinism, by Anton Pannekoek (I)

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Introduction (ICC)

Throughout the world, the bicentenary of Darwin's birth (12th February 1809), and the hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the publication (24th November 1859) of his first fundamental work On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, has been declared "Darwin Year" by both scientific institutions and media and publishing houses. We thus find ourselves confronted with a multitude of conferences, books, magazines and TV programmes dealing with Darwin and his theories. While these sometimes allow us to get a better idea of both, they often tend to surround them in a fog where it can be difficult to find one's way.

This is partly because many of the authors, speakers, and journalists who are presented as "experts on Darwin" knew nothing about him a year ago; for them and their employers, the Darwin Year is above a good opportunity to increase their income and their notoriety on the basis of a quick dip into Wikipedia. But there is another reason for the fog surrounding Darwin's ideas: ever since they were first put forward in The Origin of Species, they have been the object of bitter political and ideological contention, in particular because they dealt a severe blow to the religious dogma of the day, but also because they were immediately put to use by various bourgeois ideologues. And these issues are still alive today, in all the various falsifications and interpretations to which Darwin's theory continues to be subjected. To allow our readers to get a clearer idea for themselves, we are republishing in two parts Anton Pannekoek's pamphlet on Marxism and Darwinism, written in 1909 on the occasion of the centenary of Darwin's birth, and which remains largely relevant today. Marxism has always taken an interest in scientific development, partly because it is part and parcel of the development of society's productive forces, but also because it considers that the communist perspective must be based not simply on a moral demand for justice, as was the case for many of the "utopian socialists" in the past, but on a scientific understanding of human society and of the natural world from which it springs. This is why in June 1873, long before the publication of Pannekoek's pamphlet, Marx himself dedicated a copy of his major work Capital to Charles Darwin. Indeed, Marx and Engels had already recognised the methodological similarity between Darwin's approach to the study of living organisms and their own historical materialism, as we can see in these two extracts of their correspondence:

"This Darwin I am now reading, is quite sensational (...) No one has ever made an attempt on such a scale to demonstrate the existence of a historical dynamic in nature, at least never with such success."[1]

" is in this book that the historico-natural foundations of our theory can be found".[2]

Pannekoek's text is written with great simplicity and gives us an excellent summary of the theory of the evolution of species. But Pannekoek was not only a learned man of science (he was a renowned astronomer). He was above all a marxist and a militant of the workers' movement. This is why his pamphlet Marxism and Darwinism aims to criticise any attempt to apply Darwin's theory of natural selection schematically and mechanically to the human species.  Pannekoek clearly highlights the analogies between Darwinism and marxism, and shows how the theory of natural selection was used by the most progressive fractions of the bourgeoisie against the reactionary remnants of feudalism. But he also criticises the bourgeoisie's fraudulent exploitation of Darwinism against marxism, notably in the variants of "Social Darwinist" ideology developed in particular by the British philosopher Herbert Spencer (and revived today by the ideologues of free-market liberalism to justify capitalist competition, the law of the jungle, the war of each against all and the elimination of the weak).

Faced with a return to obscurantist ideas dredged up from the dawn of time and in particular with "creationism" and its avatar "intelligent design", according to which the evolution of living organisms (and the appearance of man himself) corresponds to a pre-ordained "plan" established by a divine "superior intelligence", it is up to marxists to reassert the scientific and materialist nature of Darwin's theory and to emphasise the immense step forward that it represented for natural science.

Obviously, Pannekoek's pamphlet must be placed in the context of the scientific knowledge of his day, and some of the ideas developed in the second part (which we will publish in the next issue of the Review ) have been somewhat outdated by a century of scientific research and discovery (notably in the fields of genetics and palaeontology). But his text nonetheless remains for the most part a valuable contribution to the workers' movement.[3]


Marxism and Darwinism by Anton Pannekoek

I. Darwinism

There can hardly be two scientists who have marked the thought of the latter half of the 19th century as much as Darwin and Marx. Their teachings revolutionised the masses' conception of the world. For decades their names have been on every tongue, and their teachings have become the lynchpin of the intellectual struggles which accompany the social struggles of today. The cause of this lies primarily in the highly scientific content of their work.

The scientific importance of marxism as well as of Darwinism consists in their following out the theory of evolution, the one in the domain of the organic world, of things animate; the other, in the domain of society. This theory of evolution, however, was in no way new; it had its advocates before Darwin and Marx: the philosopher, Hegel, even made it the central point of his philosophy. It is, therefore, necessary to look more closely at the achievements of Darwin and Marx in this field.

The theory that plants and animals have developed from one another is met with first in the nineteenth century. Formerly the question, "Whence come all these thousands and hundreds of thousands of different kinds of plants and animals that we know?", was answered: "At the time of creation God created them all, each after its kind." This primitive theory was compatible with experience and with the best available information about the past. According to available information, all known plants and animals had always been the same. Scientifically, this experience was expressed thus: "All kinds are invariable because the parents transmit their characteristics to their children."

There were, however, some peculiarities among plants and animals which gradually made a different conception necessary. These were nicely arranged into the system first set up by the Swedish scientist Linnaeus. According to this system, animals are divided into phyla, which are divided into classes, classes into orders, orders into families, families into genera, each of which contain a few species. The greater the similarity between living beings, the closer they are in this system, and the smaller is the group to which they belong. All the animals classed as mammals show the same general characteristics in their body structure. The herbivorous animals, and carnivorous animals, and monkeys, each of which belongs to a different order, are further differentiated. The body structures of bears, dogs, and cats, all of which are carnivorous animals, have much more in common with each other than they do with horses or monkeys. This similarity is still more obvious when we examine varieties of the same species: the cat, tiger and lion resemble each other in many respects where they differ from dogs and bears. If we turn from the class of mammals to other classes, such as birds or fishes, we find greater differences between classes than we find within a class. There still persists, however, a general similarity in the formation of the body, the skeleton and the nervous system. These features first disappear when we turn from this main division, which embraces all the vertebrates, and turn to the molluscs (soft bodied animals) or to the polyps.

The entire animal world may thus be arranged into divisions and subdivisions. Had every different kind of animal been created entirely independently of all the others, there would be no reason why such orders should exist. There would be no reason why there should not be mammals having six paws. We would have to assume, then, that at the time of creation, God had taken Linnaeus' system as a plan and created everything according to this plan. Happily we have another way of accounting for it. The likeness in the construction of the body may be due to a real family relationship. According to this conception, the similarity of particular characteristics shows how near or remote the relationship is, just as the resemblance between brothers and sisters is greater than between remote relatives. The animal classes were, therefore, not created individually, but descended one from another. They form one trunk which started with simple foundations and which has continually developed; the last and thinnest twigs are the species existing today. All species of cats descend from a primitive cat, which together with the primitive dog and the primitive bear, is the descendant of some primitive type of carnivorous animal. The primitive carnivorous animal, the primitive hoofed animal and the primitive monkey have descended from some primitive mammal, etc.

This theory of descent was put forward by Lamarck and by Geoffrey St. Hilaire. It did not, however, meet with general approval. These naturalists could not prove the correctness of this theory and, therefore, it remained only a hypothesis, a mere assumption. When Darwin came along, however, his major work on The Origin of Species struck like a thunderbolt; his theory of evolution was immediately accepted as a strongly proved truth. Since then the theory of evolution has become inseparable from Darwin's name. Why so?

Partly this was due to the fact that through experience ever more material had been accumulated which went to support this theory. Animals were found which could not very well be placed into the classification, such as oviparous mammals[4], fishes with lungs, and invertebrate animals. The theory of descent claimed that these are simply the remnants of the transition between the main groups. Excavations revealed fossil remains which looked different from animals living now. These remains have partly proven to be the primitive forms of our animals, and have shown that the primitive animals have gradually developed into existing ones. Then the theory of cells was formed; every plant, every animal, consists of millions of cells and has been developed by incessant division and differentiation of single cells. Having gone so far, the thought that the highest organisms have descended from primitive beings having but a single cell no longer seemed so strange.

All this new experience could not, however, raise the theory to a strongly proved truth. The best proof for the correctness of this theory would have been to have an actual transformation from one animal kind to another take place before our eyes, so that we could observe it. But this is impossible. How then is it at all possible to prove that animal forms are really changing into new forms? This can be done by showing the cause, the propelling force of such development. This Darwin did. Darwin discovered the mechanism of animal development, and in doing so he showed that under certain conditions some animal species will necessarily develop into other species. We will now make clear this mechanism.

Its main foundation is the nature of transmission, the fact that parents transmit their peculiarities to children, but that at the same time the children diverge from their parents in some respects and also differ from each other. It is for this reason that animals of the same kind are not all alike, but differ in all directions from the average type. Without this variation it would be wholly impossible for one animal species to develop into another. All that is necessary for the formation of a new species is that the divergence from the central type should become greater and that it should continue in the same direction until the divergence has become so great that the new animal no longer resembles the one from which it descended. But where is the force that could call forth such ever-growing variation in the same direction?

Lamarck declared that such variation could be attributed to the usage and intense exercise of certain organs; that, owing to the continuous exercise of certain organs, these become ever more perfected. The lion acquired its powerful paws and the hare its speedy legs in the same way that the muscles of men's legs get strong from much running. Similarly, the giraffes got their long necks because in order to reach the tree leaves which they ate, their necks were stretched so that a short-necked animal developed to the long-necked giraffe. To many this explanation was incredible and it could not account for the fact that frogs should have acquired the green colour which serves them as camouflage.

To solve this puzzle, Darwin turned to another field of experience. The animal breeder and the gardener are able artificially to raise new races and varieties. When a gardener wants to raise from a certain plant a variety having large blossoms, all he has to do is to kill before maturity all those plants having small blossoms and preserve those having large ones. If he repeats this for a few years in succession, the blossoms will be ever larger, because each new generation resembles its predecessor, and our gardener, having always picked out the largest of the large for the purpose of propagation, succeeds in raising a plant with very large blossoms. Through such action, done sometimes deliberately and sometimes accidentally, people have raised a great number of races of our domesticated animals which differ from their original form much more than the wild kinds differ from each other.

If we should ask an animal-breeder to raise a long-necked animal from a short-necked one, it would not appear to him an impossibility. All he would have to do would be to choose those having longer necks, have them inter-breed, kill the young ones with shorter necks and again have the long-necked inter-breed. By repeating this process with every new generation the neck would as a result become ever longer and he would get an animal resembling the giraffe.

This result is achieved because there exists a definite will with a definite object, which, to raise a certain variety, chooses certain animals. In nature there is no such will, and all the deviations will tend to be attenuated by interbreeding, so that it is impossible for an animal to keep on departing from the original stock and keep going in the same direction until it becomes an entirely different species. Where then, is that power in nature that chooses the animals just as the breeder does?

Darwin pondered this problem at length before he found its solution in the "struggle for existence." In this theory we have a reflex of the productive system of the time in which Darwin lived, because it was the capitalist competitive struggle which served him as a picture for the struggle for existence prevailing in nature. This solution did not come to him through his own observation, but by his reading of the works of the economist Malthus. Malthus tried to explain that in our bourgeois world there is so much misery and starvation and privation because population increases much more rapidly than the existing means of subsistence. There is not enough food for all; people must therefore struggle with each other for their existence, and many must go down in this struggle. By this theory capitalist competition as well as the existing misery were declared to be an unavoidable natural law. In his autobiography Darwin declares that it was Malthus' book which made him think about the struggle for existence.

"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 result of this would be the formation of new species. Here, then, I had at last got a theory by which to work."

It is a fact that animals' birth rates outpace the available food supply. There is no exception to the rule that all organic beings tend to increase so rapidly that our Earth would soon be overrun by the offspring of a single pair were some of these not destroyed. This is why a struggle for existence must arise. Every animal tries to live, does its best to eat, and seeks to avoid being eaten by others. With its particular peculiarities and weapons it struggles against the entire antagonistic world, against animals, cold, heat, drought, floods, and other natural events that may threaten to destroy it. Above all, it struggles with the animals of its own kind, who live in the same way, have the same peculiarities, use the same weapons and live on the same diet. This struggle is not a direct one; the hare does not struggle directly with the hare, nor the lion with the lion - unless it is a struggle for the female - but it is a struggle for existence, a race, a competitive struggle. Not all of them can reach adulthood; most of them are destroyed, and only those who win the race remain. But which ones win the race? Those which, through their particularities and their physical structure are best able to find food or to escape an enemy; in other words, those which are best adapted to existing conditions will survive. "Because there are ever more individuals born than can remain alive, the struggle as to which shall remain alive must start again and that creature that has some advantage over the others will survive, but as these diverging peculiarities are transmitted to the new generations, nature itself does the choosing, and a new generation will arise having changed peculiarities."

Here we have a different schema whereby to understand the origin of the giraffe. When grass does not grow in some places, the animals must nourish themselves on tree leaves, and all those whose necks are too short to reach these leaves must perish. In nature itself there is selection, and nature selects only those with long necks. Referring to the selection carried out by the animal breeder, Darwin called this process "natural selection."

This process must necessarily produce new species. Because too many are born of a certain species, more than the existing food supply can sustain, they are forever trying to spread over a larger area. In order to procure their food, those living in the woods go to the plain, those living on the ground go into the water or climb into the trees. Under these new conditions, an aptitude or a variation often proves appropriate where before it was not. The body organs change along with the mode of life. They adapt to the new conditions and a new species develops from the old. This continuous movement of existing species branching out into new ones brings into existence thousands of different animals which will then differentiate still further.

Just as the Darwinian theory thus explains the general descent of animals, their transmutation and formation out of primitive beings, it also explains the wonderful degree of adaptation throughout nature. Formerly this wonderful adaptation could only be explained through the wisdom of God's intervention. Now, however, this natural descent is clearly understood. For this adaptation is nothing other than adaptation to the means of life. Every animal and every plant is exactly adapted to existing circumstances, for all those less well adapted are exterminated in the struggle for existence. The green frog, having descended from the brown frog, must preserve its protecting colour, for all those that deviate from this colour are found sooner by their predators and destroyed or find greater difficulty in obtaining their food and perish.

It was thus that Darwin showed us, for the first time, that new species continually formed out of old ones. The theory of descent, which until then was merely a hypothesis inferred from many phenomena that could not be well explained in any other way, gained the certainty of the necessary functioning of definite forces that could be proved. Here lies the main reason that this theory had so quickly dominated scientific discussions and public attention.

II. Marxism

If we turn to marxism we immediately see its great similarity with Darwinism. As with Darwin, the scientific importance of Marx's work consists in this, that he discovered the propelling force, the cause of social development. He did not have to prove that such a development was taking place; every one knew that from the most primitive times new social forms had always displaced older ones, but the causes and aims of this development were unknown.

In his theory Marx started with the information at hand in his own time. The great political revolution that gave Europe its present aspect, the French Revolution, was known to everyone to have been a struggle for supremacy, waged by the bourgeoisie against nobility and royalty. After this struggle new class struggles emerged. The struggle carried on in England by the manufacturing capitalists against the landowners dominated politics; at the same time the working class revolted against the bourgeoisie. What were all these classes? How did they differ from each other? Marx proved that these class distinctions were due to the various functions each one played in the productive process. It is in the productive process that classes have their origin, and it is this process which determines to which class one belongs. Production is nothing other than the social labour process by which men obtain their means of subsistence from nature. It is the production of the material necessities of life that forms society's basic structure and that determines political relations and social struggles.

The methods of production have changed continuously with the progress of time. Whence came these changes? Ways of working and productive relations depend on the tools with which people work, on technical development and upon the means of production in general. Because in the Middle Ages people worked with crude tools, while now they work with gigantic machinery, we had then small trade and feudalism, while now we have capitalism; it is also for this reason that at that time the feudal nobility and the small bourgeoisie were the most important classes, while now it is the bourgeoisie and the proletarians which are the main classes.

It is the development of tools, of these technical aids which men direct, which is the main cause, the propelling force of all social development. It goes without saying that people are always trying to improve these tools to make their labour easier and more productive, and the practice they acquire in using these tools leads them in turn to develop and perfect their thinking. Owing to this development, a technical progress takes place more or less quickly, which at the same time changes the social forms of labour. This leads to new class relations, new social institutions and new classes. At the same time social, i.e. political struggles arise. Those classes predominating under the old process of production try artificially to preserve their institutions, while the rising classes try to promote the new process of production; and by waging class struggle against the ruling classes and by conquering them they pave the way for further unhindered technical development.

Marxist theory thus revealed the driving force and the mechanism of social development. In doing so it has proven that history is not something irregular, and that the various social systems are not the result of chance or haphazard events, but that there is a regular development in a definite direction. It also proved that social development does not cease with our system, since technical development always continues.

Thus, both teachings, the teachings of Darwin and of Marx, the one in the domain of the organic world and the other in the field of human society, raised the theory of evolution to a positive science.

In doing so they made the theory of evolution acceptable to the masses as the basic conception of social and biological development.

III. Marxism and the class struggle

While it is true that for a theory to have a lasting influence on the human mind it must have a high scientific value, this in itself is not enough. It has often happened that a theory was of the utmost importance to science, and yet has evoked no interest whatsoever outside a limited circle of scholars. Such was the case, for instance, with Newton's theory of gravitation. This theory is the foundation of astronomy, and it is owing to this theory that we have our knowledge of heavenly bodies, and can foretell the arrival of certain planets and eclipses. Yet, when Newton's theory of gravitation made its appearance, its only adherents were a few English scientists. The broad masses paid no attention to this theory. It first became known to the masses by a popular book by Voltaire written half a century later.

There is nothing surprising about this. Science has become a specialty for a certain group of educated men, and its progress concerns these men only, just as smelting is the smith's specialty, and an improvement in the smelting of iron concerns him only. Only that which all people can make use of and which is found by everyone to be a vital necessity can gain adherents among the broad masses. When, therefore, we see that a certain scientific theory stirs up zeal and passion in the masses, this can be attributed to the fact that this theory serves them as a weapon in the class struggle. For it is the class struggle that engages almost all the people.

This can be seen most clearly in marxism. Were marxist economic teaching of no importance in the modern class struggle, then none but a few professional economists would spend their time on it. But because marxism serves the proletarians as a weapon in the struggle against capitalism, scientific struggles are focused on this theory. It is owing to this service that Marx's name is honoured by millions who know even very little of his teaching, and is despised by thousands that understand nothing of his theory. It is owing to the great role that marxist theory plays in the class struggle that his theory is diligently studied by the large masses and that it dominates the human mind.

The proletarian class struggle existed before Marx for it is the offspring of capitalist exploitation. It was only natural that the workers, being exploited, should think about and demand another system of society where exploitation would be abolished. But all they could do was to hope and dream about it. They were not sure of its coming to pass. Marx gave a theoretical foundation to the labour movement and socialism. His social theory showed that social systems were in continuous movement, and that capitalism was only a temporary form within this movement. His studies of capitalism showed that owing to the continuous development of perfection of production techniques, capitalism must necessarily develop to socialism. This new system of production can only be established by the proletarians struggling against the capitalists, whose interest it is to maintain the old system of production. Socialism is therefore the fruit and aim of the proletarian class struggle.

Thanks to Marx, the proletarian class struggle took on an entirely different form. Marxism became a weapon in the proletariat's hands; in place of vague hopes he gave a positive aim, and by clearly highlighting the process of social development he gave strength to the proletariat, and at the same time laid the foundation for working out correct tactics. On the basis of marxism, the workers can demonstrate capitalism's transitory nature, and the necessity and certainty of their victory. At the same time marxism has done away with the old utopian views that socialism would be brought about by the intelligence and goodwill of all wise men, who considered socialism as a demand for justice and morality - as if the object were to establish an infallible and perfect society. Justice and morality change with the productive system, and every class has different conceptions of them. Socialism can only be gained by the class whose interest lies in socialism, and the question is not one of bringing about a perfect social system, but of a change in the methods of production leading to a higher step, i.e., to socialised production.

Because the marxist theory of social development is vital to the proletarians in their struggle, they try to make it a part of their inner self; it dominates their thoughts, their feelings, their entire conception of the world. Because marxism is the theory of social development, in the midst of which we stand, marxism itself stands at the central point of the great mental struggles that accompany our economic revolution.

IV. Darwinism and the class struggle

It's well known that marxism owes its importance and position to the role it takes in the proletarian class struggle. With Darwinism, however, things seem different to the superficial observer, for Darwinism deals with a new scientific truth which has to contend with religious prejudices and ignorance. Yet it is not hard to see that in reality Darwinism had to undergo the same experiences as marxism. Darwinism is not a mere abstract theory which was adopted by the scientific world after discussion and objective tests. No, immediately after Darwinism made its appearance, it had its enthusiastic advocates and passionate opponents; Darwin's name, too, was either highly honoured by people who understood something of his theory, or despised by people who knew nothing more of his theory than that "man descended from the monkey," and who were surely unqualified to judge from a scientific standpoint the validity or otherwise of Darwin's theory. Darwinism, too, played a role in the class struggle, and it is owing to this role that it spread so rapidly and had enthusiastic advocates and venomous opponents.

Darwinism served the bourgeoisie as a tool in their struggle against the feudal class, against the nobility, the prerogatives of the church and of feudal lords. This was an entirely different struggle from the struggle now waged by the proletarians. The bourgeoisie was not an exploited class striving to abolish exploitation. Oh no. What the bourgeoisie wanted was to get rid of the old ruling powers standing in their way. The bourgeoisie wanted to rule themselves, basing their demands upon the fact that they were the most important class, the leaders of industry. What argument could the old class, the class that became nothing but useless parasites, bring forth against them? They relied on tradition, on their ancient divine rights. These were their pillars. With the aid of religion the priests held the great mass in subjection and ready to oppose the demands of the bourgeoisie.

It was therefore in their own interests that the bourgeoisie were in duty bound to undermine the "divine" right of rulers. Natural science became a weapon in their opposition to faith and tradition; science and newly discovered natural laws were promoted; it was with these weapons that the bourgeoisie fought. If the new discoveries could prove that the priests' teaching was false, then the "divine" authority of these priests would crumble and the "divine rights" enjoyed by the feudal class would be destroyed. Of course the feudal class was not conquered by this only, as material power can only be overthrown by material power, but intellectual weapons can become material ones. This is why the bourgeoisie relied so much on natural science.

Darwinism came at the right moment: Darwin's theory that man is descended from a lower animal destroyed the entire foundation of Christian dogma. As soon as Darwinism made its appearance, the bourgeoisie thus took it up with great zeal.

This was not the case in Britain. Here we see once again how important the class struggle was in spreading Darwin's theory. In Britain the bourgeoisie had already ruled for several centuries, and in their majority had no interest in attacking or destroying religion. Thus although this theory was widely read in Britain, it did not stir anybody; it merely remained a scientific theory without great practical importance. Darwin himself considered it as such, and he purposely avoided applying it immediately to men for fear that his theory might shock prevailing religious prejudice. It was only after numerous postponements and after others had done it before him, that he decided to take this step. In a letter to Haeckel he deplored the fact that his theory must offend so many prejudices and encounter so much indifference that he did not expect to live long enough to see it overcome these obstacles.

But in Germany things were entirely different, and Haeckel rightly answered Darwin that in Germany the Darwinian theory had met with an enthusiastic reception. When Darwin's theory first appeared, the bourgeoisie was preparing to undertake a new attack on absolutism and Junkerism. The liberal bourgeoisie was headed by the intellectuals. Ernst Haeckel, who was both a great and an audacious scientist, immediately drew the most daring conclusions against religion in his book, Natürliche Schöpfungsgeschichte ("Natural Creation"). So, while Darwinism was enthusiastically received by the progressive bourgeoisie, it was also bitterly opposed by the reactionaries.

The same struggle took place in other European countries. Everywhere the progressive liberal bourgeoisie had to struggle against reactionary powers. These reactionaries either held power, or were trying to gain it with religious support. Under these circumstances, even scientific discussions were carried on with the zeal and passion of a class struggle. The writings that appeared for and against Darwin have therefore the character of social polemics, despite the fact that they bear the names of scientific authors. Many of Haeckel's popular writings, when looked at from a scientific standpoint, are very superficial, while the arguments and protests of his opponents show an unbelievable foolishness whose equal is only to be found in the arguments used against Marx.

The struggle carried on by the liberal bourgeoisie against feudalism was not fought to its finish. This was partly because everywhere socialist proletarians made their appearance, threatening all ruling powers, including the bourgeoisie. The liberal bourgeoisie cooled down, while the reactionary tendencies gained the upper hand. The old zeal for combating religion disappeared entirely, and while it is true that the liberals and reactionaries were still fighting among themselves, in reality they drew together. The interest once shown in science as a weapon in the class struggle had completely disappeared, while the reactionary Christian tendency, which wanted the masses to stick to religion, became ever more powerfully and brutally pronounced.

Esteem for science has also undergone a change, which matches the change in the need for it as a weapon. Previously, the educated bourgeoisie founded a materialistic conception of the universe in science, wherein they saw the solution of the riddle of the universe. Now mysticism has gained the upper hand; all that science has succeeded in explaining is seen as very trivial, while everything that remains unsolved appears as very great indeed, encompassing life's most important questions. A sceptical, critical and doubting frame of mind has replaced the former jubilant spirit celebrating science.

This could also be seen in the stand taken against Darwin. "What does his theory show? It leaves the riddle of the universe unsolved! Whence comes this wonderful nature of transmission, whence comes the ability of animate beings to change so appropriately?" Here lies the mysterious riddle of life that could not be overcome with mechanical principles. What then is left of Darwinism in the light of later criticism?

Of course, the advance of science began to make rapid progress. The solution of one problem always brings new problems to the surface to be solved, which were hidden beneath the theory of transmission. This theory, which Darwin had had to accept as a research hypothesis, continued to be studied, and heated discussion arose over the individual factors of development and the struggle for existence. While some scientists directed their attention to variation, which they considered due to exercise and adaptation to life (following the principle laid down by Lamarck) this idea was explicitly rejected by scientists like Weissman and others. While Darwin only assumed gradual and slow changes, De Vries found sudden and leaping cases of variation resulting in the sudden appearance of new species. All this, while it went to strengthen and develop the theory of descent, in some cases gave the impression that the new discoveries had torn asunder Darwin's theory, and so every new discovery that had this effect was hailed by the reactionaries as showing the bankruptcy of Darwinism. This social conception had its influence on science. Reactionary scientists claimed that a spiritual element is necessary. The supernatural and the mysterious, which Darwinism had thrown out the door, came back in through the window. This was the expression of a growing reactionary tendency within that very class which had at first been the standard bearer of Darwinism.

V. Darwinism versus socialism

Darwinism has been of inestimable service to the bourgeoisie in its struggle against the old powers. It was therefore only natural that the bourgeoisie should use it against its new enemy, the proletariat; not because the proletarians were opposed to Darwinism, but the reverse. As soon as Darwinism made its appearance, the proletarian vanguard, the socialists, hailed Darwin's theory, because in Darwinism they saw a corroboration and completion of their own theory; not as some superficial opponents believe, that they wanted to base socialism upon Darwinism but in the sense that the Darwinian discovery - that even in the apparently stagnant organic world there is a continuous development - is a glorious corroboration and completion of the marxist theory of social development.

Yet it was natural for the bourgeoisie to make use of Darwinism against the proletarians. The bourgeoisie had to contend with two armies, and the reactionary classes know this full well. When the bourgeoisie attacks their authority, they point at the proletarians and caution the bourgeoisie to beware lest all authority crumble. In doing this, the reactionaries mean to frighten the bourgeoisie into abandoning any revolutionary activity. Of course, the bourgeois representatives answer that there is nothing to fear; that their science only refutes the groundless authority of the nobility while it supports them in their struggle against enemies of order.

At a congress of naturalists, the reactionary politician and scientist Virchow assailed Darwin's theory on the ground that it supported socialism. "Be careful of this theory," he said to the Darwinists, "for this theory is very closely related to the theory that caused so much dread in our neighbouring country." This allusion to the Paris Commune, made in the year famous for the hunting down of socialists, must have had a great effect. What shall be said, however, about the science of a professor who attacks Darwinism with the argument that it is not correct because it is dangerous! This reproach, of being in league with the red revolutionists, greatly annoyed Haeckel, the defender of this theory. He could not stand it. Immediately afterwards he tried to demonstrate that it is precisely Darwin's theory that shows the untenable nature of socialist demands, and that Darwinism and socialism "endure each other as fire and water."

Let us follow Haeckel's contentions, whose main lines recur in most authors who base their arguments against socialism on Darwin.

Socialism is a theory which presupposes natural equality between people, and strives to bring about social equality; equal rights, equal duties, equal possessions and equal enjoyments. Darwinism, on the contrary, is the scientific proof of inequality. The theory of descent establishes the fact that animal development goes in the direction of ever greater differentiation or division of labour; the higher or more perfect the animal, the greater the inequality existing. The same holds also good in society. Here, too, we see the great division of labour between vocations, class, etc., and the more society has developed, the greater become the inequalities in strength, ability and talent. The theory of descent is therefore to be recommended as "the best antidote to the socialist demand of complete egalitarianism."

The same holds true, but to a still greater extent, of the Darwinian theory of survival. Socialism wants to abolish competition and the struggle for existence. But Darwinism teaches us that this struggle is unavoidable and is a natural law for the entire organic world. Not only is this struggle natural, but it is also useful and beneficial. This struggle brings an ever greater perfection, and this perfection consists in an ever greater extermination of the unfit. Only the chosen minority, those who are qualified to withstand competition, can survive; the great majority must perish. Many are called, but few are chosen. The struggle for existence results at the same time in a victory for the best, while the bad and unfit must perish. This may be lamentable, just as it is lamentable that all must die, but the fact can neither be denied nor changed.

We wish to remark here how a small change of almost identical words serves as a defence of capitalism. When Darwin spoke of the survival of the fittest, he meant those that are best fitted to conditions. Seeing that in this struggle those that are better organized conquer the others, the conquerors were called first the fittest, and later the "best". This expression was coined by Herbert Spencer. In thus winning in their own domain, the conquerors in the social struggle, the large capitalists, proclaimed themselves the best.

Haeckel retained and still upholds this conception. In 1892 he said:

"Darwinism, or the theory of selection, is thoroughly aristocratic; it is based upon the survival of the best. The division of labour brought about by development causes an ever greater variation in character, an ever greater inequality among individuals, in their activity, education and condition. The more advanced human culture, the greater the difference and gulf between the various classes. Communism and the demands put up by the Socialists in demanding an equality of conditions and activity is synonymous with going back to the primitive stages of barbarism."

The English philosopher Herbert Spencer already had a theory on social growth before Darwin. This was the bourgeois theory of individualism, based upon the struggle for existence. Later he brought this theory into close relation with Darwinism. "In the animal world," he said, "the old, weak and sick are ever rooted out and only the strong and healthy survive. The struggle for existence serves therefore as a purification of the race, protecting it from deterioration. This is the happy effect of this struggle, for if this struggle should cease and each one were sure of procuring its existence without any struggle whatsoever, the race would necessarily deteriorate. The support given to the sick, weak and unfit causes a general race degeneration. If sympathy, finding its expressions in charity, goes beyond its reasonable bounds, it misses its object; instead of diminishing, it increases the suffering for the new generations. The good effect of the struggle for existence can best be seen in wild animals. They are all strong and healthy because they had to undergo thousands of dangers wherein all those that were not qualified had to perish. Among men and domestic animals sickness and weakness are so general because the sick and weak are preserved. Socialism, having as its aim to abolish the struggle for existence in the human world, will necessarily bring about an ever growing mental and physical deterioration."

These are the main contentions of those who use Darwinism as a defence of the bourgeois system. Strong as these arguments might appear at first sight they were not hard for the socialists to overcome. To a large extent, they are the old arguments used against socialism, but wearing the new garb of Darwinian terminology, and they show an utter ignorance of socialism as well as of capitalism.

Those who compare the social organism with the animal body neglect the fact that men do not differ like various cells or organs, but only in the degree of their abilities. In society the division of labour cannot go so far that all abilities perish at the expense of one. What is more, anyone who understands something of socialism knows that the efficient division of labour does not cease with socialism; that a real division of labour will be possible for the first time under socialism. The differences between the workers, their ability, and employment will not disappear; all that will disappear is the difference between workers and exploiters.

While it is certainly true that in the struggle for existence those animals that are strong, healthy and well survive, this does not happen under capitalist competition. Here victory does not depend upon perfection of those engaged in the struggle, but in something that lies outside of their body. While this struggle may hold good with the small bourgeois, where success depends upon personal abilities and qualifications, with the further development of capital success does not depend upon personal abilities, but upon the possession of capital. Whoever has a larger capital at command as will soon conquer the one who has a smaller capital at his disposal, although the latter may be more skilful. It is not the personal qualities, but the possession of money that decides who shall be the victor in the struggle. When the small capitalists perish, they do not perish as men but as capitalists; they are not weeded out from among the living, but from the bourgeoisie. They still exist, but no longer as capitalists. The competition existing in the capitalist system is therefore something different in its demands and its results from the animal struggle for existence.

Those people that perish as people are members of an entirely different class, a class that does not take part in the competitive struggle. The workers do not compete with the capitalists; they only sell their labour power to them. Owing to their being without property, they have not even the opportunity to measure their great qualities and enter a race with the capitalists. Their poverty and misery cannot be attributed to the fact that they fell in the competitive struggle on account of weakness, but because they were paid very little for their labour power. This is why, although their children are born strong and healthy, they perish in droves, while the children born to rich parents, although born sick, remain alive by means of the nourishment and care that is lavished on them. The children of the poor do not die because they are sick or weak, but because of external causes. It is capitalism which creates all these unfavourable conditions by means of exploitation, reduction of wages, unemployment crises, bad housing, and long hours of employment. It is the capitalist system that causes so many of the strong and healthy to succumb.

Thus the socialists prove that unlike the animal world, the competitive struggle between men does not bring forth the best and most qualified, but destroys many strong and healthy ones because of their poverty, while those that are rich, even if weak and sick, survive. Socialists prove that the determining factor is not personal strength, but something outside of man; it is the possession of money that determines who shall survive and who shall perish.


(End of part 1) Anton Pannekoek



[1]. Engels to Marx, 12th December 1859.


[2]. Marx to Engels, 19th December 1860. It is worth pointing out that shortly afterwards, in another letter to Engels dated 18th June 1862, Marx's opinion of Darwin was more critical: "It is remarkable to see how Darwin recognises in the animals and plants his own English society, with its division of labour, its competition, its opening of new markets, its ‘inventions', and its Malthusian ‘struggle for life'. It is the bellum omnium contra omnes [the war of all against all] of Hobbes, which reminds one of Hegel in the Phenomenology, where civil society appears as ‘the fleshly realm of the spirit', whereas with Darwin, it is the animal realm that takes the form of civil society". Engels was later to repeat Marx's criticism in Anti-Dühring (Engels refers to Darwin's "Malthusian blunder") and in Dialectics of Nature. In the next issue of the International Review we will return to what can only be considered as an incorrect interpretation of Darwin's work by Marx and Engels.


[3]. The following translation is based on the 1912 English translation by Nathan Weiser, checked for accuracy against the Dutch original.


[4]. Egg-laying mammals like the platypus (translator's note).